Hip-hop under fire

Accused by David Cameron of glorifying gun culture, Lethal Bizzle tells Matilda Egere-Cooper his side of the story
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Within a week, Lethal Bizzle has gone from being one of underground hip-hop's best-kept secrets to becoming an unlikely target of the Conservative leader. If he hadn't read it with his own eyes, the 23-year-old grime rapper wouldn't believe it either. He's not political, although it's almost expected of Ms Dynamite, or any other MC who flags up their social frustrations in song, to come to the rescue and represent the urban consensus in these matters. Maybe they were busy the day David Cameron criticised Radio 1's music policy for Saturday nights - known for Tim Westwood's contentious hip-hop show - and implied that the music contributed to the country's increasing problem of knife and gun crime.

Whatever the case, Bizzle came to his friend's defence with a level-headed call to reach a solution. He received a positive reply from Cameron's correspondence secretary, who reasoned with the rapper: "David believes there is a lot of good music out there, and some musicians have been very positive role models and have highlighted important issues." But what seemed an amicable end to a minor squabble changed days later, after Cameron launched a personal attack on the rapper in The Mail on Sunday, claiming Bizzle was talking "rubbish".

"I thought, Oh my God. Is that what he did? Two-faced. After you already said, 'Yeah, cool, I understand.'" Bizzle shakes his head and frowns. He seems surprised by how the controversy has blown up. His PR was even drafted in to represent him on Newsnight. "[Cameron's comments] really peed me off. You've got big people like Cameron who can make a difference, and you've got me trying to help people... trying to get them out of the hood and pursue a career, give them a little future, something for them to look forward to doing and getting their lives in order. You've got people like Cameron who can really press the button and he's... doing nothing."

Maxwell Ansah, known to legions of grime fanatics as Lethal Bizzle or Lethal B, is regarded as the people's champ on the underground, noted for his charitable work and his impressive rise through the ranks: from part of a garage crew to owning a record label. A bright entrepreneur with a friendly personality, the east-Londoner has an admirable story: through his label, he's made it a mission to sign and develop young artists from his area and he is getting ready to launch Fire Camp, a collective of these MCs. Unfortunately for him, he's found fame in a scene that's periodically come under fire since the mainstream first got a whiff of its potential for controversy.

It was only three years ago that Kim Howells MP accused So Solid Crew, the UK's most successful garage collective, of being "idiot macho rappers" who were "glorifying gun culture and violence". It didn't help matters for the crew when various members were charged with everything from assault to gun possession, eventually leading to the gradual demise of the outfit and the garage scene. Later reincarnated as the boisterous grime scene, the new movement has, so far, been championed for its ingenuity, and artists such as Dizzee Rascal, Kano and Sway have managed to avoid the negative headlines.

Now that knife and gun crime is rising at an alarming rate, the Government is, once again, reviving the tireless debate of blaming society's ills on black music, says Bizzle, who doesn't believe the music is making that type of impact. "I think violence has been glorified from before the day I was born," he says. "It's been glorified through cartoons, through the TV, through the movies and what's really happening in the world. I can't rule out music, but I feel what we talk about are things that are happening today. Whether we talk about it or not, it's happening out there."

Bizzle's own musical offerings are littered with references to street life, his plans for musical domination ("22 Grand Job") and his distaste for hatred ("Fuck You"). But they are wrapped up so tightly in mind-blowing beat sequences that anything remotely offensive is often lost in the moment of mayhem. Still, his most legendary hit "Pow (Forward Riddim)", which hit the top 10, was arguably an explicit call to take up arms, leading it to become banned by a number of mainstream radio stations.

In Cameron's diatribe against the rapper, he pulled a lyric from the track, ("I will b cocking back my steel strait/ bullets bullets, run run/ fire fire, bun bun/ if u don't like killa killa?") which featured nine other rappers, and incorrectly attributed the offending line to Bizzle (it was delivered by an MC called Neeko). But even if Bizzle didn't utter the lyric in question, surely the fact that it exists in his track adds some weight to Cameron's argument about the music? Bizzle doesn't think so. "I can't answer for everybody who's on the track," he says. "Everybody has the freedom of speech. Obviously, it was my track, so I'll take some responsibility. But I feel at the end of the day..." - he sucks his teeth - "... how can I put this? I feel music is music. If you're going to do something, you're going to do something. You're not going to do something because you heard a song, and that song makes you want to go and shoot someone. No. I don't feel a track can influence someone so much."

Like many of his peers who've been relegated to the underground scene, given the reluctance of major labels to sign them, Bizzle believes there might be a bigger conspiracy at hand. "Like 'Pow', they highlighted it as something dangerous," he explains, with a hint of annoyance. "But I'm doing indie gigs, I'm doing indie rock tours, and every gig there's been riots and it gets swept under the carpet. If it's black people, it's a riot. I don't want to say the Government is racist or anything, but I think our colour has a big part to play in the clamping down of what we're doing because we're a minority in this country. There is not one black, powerful person in this country who's really defending or anyone powerful up there who's supporting what we're doing. It's all about solving the problem. There's no point in pointing fingers. We need to solve the problem."

In light of this fervent statement, I suggest the 23-year-old should become a politician. "They should bring me and a few others into the Houses of Parliament and let us cater for the youth of today," he agrees, visibly warming to the idea. "I know what the kids want. They just want things to do." What would be his title? "I'd be the youth MP, or the street MP. Give me a house like John Prescott, give me a half-a-million a year salary, and I will do that. I'm doing a lot more for the streets now than a lot of these guys out here - Tony Blair, John Prescott, this Cameroon, Cameron, whatever his name is. All these guys that have got power ain't doing nothing. They're just making money."

Bizzle has lived the street life, but doesn't advocate it. In 2002, his group, More Fire Crew, were signed at the peak of the reign of garage music. Despite a top 10 hit with "Oi", their album, More Fire Crew CV, did poorly, and they were dropped, leaving the rapper with limited options. "I was trapped in a box where I felt I couldn't get out and I was turning to wrong things," he says. "I know how these people feel on the street when you feel there's no way out and the system's not helping you. You feel there's only one way forward."

He decided to take the independent music route. He released his album, Against All Odds, in August in a joint venture with Richard Branson's V2 label and his own Lethal Bizzle Records. The album went on to sell in excess of 35,000, and the rapper continues to build his profile with nationwide gigs and festival slots. It's for this reason, he says, that he feels he's a worthy role model for young people because he can relate to where they're coming from and put them on a positive path.

Bizzle hopes the Government will be more willing to join forces with artists such as himself to help disenfranchised youths and reduce antisocial behaviour. "We need to find ways to get through to the youths by using people like myself," he says. "Instead of doing what they're doing on the streets, they can do music instead. For myself, my way was the music. This is an avenue."

He claims to bear no hard feelings towards Cameron, and would be happy to sit with him to clear the air. "I just want to hear his point," he shrugs. "But [politicians] keep talking about guns. Where are the guns and knives coming from?" He looks at me incredulously. "We're not bringing them into the country. I just want to hear what he feels is the main cause of what is happening today. If he's just blaming music, then he's a doughnut. It's more than just music. It's society today."

Hear Lethal Bizzle's music at www.myspace.com/lethalbizzlemusic