It was a bright June afternoon last year when the grime maestro Lethal Bizzle took the stage at Download, annual gathering of metal-heads at Donington Park. Sandwiched on the bill between Aussie rockers Rose Tattoo and zombie-obsessed thrashers Municipal Waste, Bizzle was the only rapper at the festival.
"Just before I went on, one of the engineers came up to me," Bizzle recalls. "He said: 'Listen up. This is a really hardcore crowd. Keep your head up'. I looked around the corner from the side of the stage, and saw loads of security guys in the pit, and another crowd of them stationed on either side. I asked the engineer, 'why the extra security?' and he said there were rumours of a ruck."
He wasn't wrong. When Bizzle faced the crowd, it was to a hail of bottles, food cartons and toilet rolls. It took him several minutes to just make himself heard over the booing. Slowly, through a combination of stubbornness and showmanship, he began to win the crowd round, and the boos gradually turned to cheers. But, just as he finished his set, a banana-skin landed at his feet. Written on it were the words 'Bizzle, you black c***'.
"I learnt a lot from that show," he reflects. "I realise it was a bit too traditional for me and what I do, and that people can be very protective of the music they love. But I also think my shoulders have got bigger. Things were getting thrown at me, but I was not walking off the stage. I thought to myself. 'I'm from east London, a few bottles is nothing next to what I've seen'. But the banana skin? That was disappointing. I didn't say much at the time as I didn't want to make a big deal of it, but that hurt me more than anything else. Fair enough if you're not into the music but to bring my skin colour into it, that is not cool."
Lethal Bizzle (real name, Maxwell Ansah) has form when it comes to defending his music, his race and his way of life. Three years ago, when the Tory leader, David Cameron, launched a scathing attack on grime and UK hip-hop, and what he saw as its celebration of knives, guns and street crime, he was sufficiently outraged to launch a counter-attack. Cameron later squared up to the rapper in an article in the Daily Mail, claiming he was talking "rubbish". Since then Bizzle has been grime's most vocal defender.
"It's probably a good thing that the future Prime Minister knows who I am, isn't it?" he says wryly. "I'm not really a political guy but I have opinions. When he made those criticisms he wasn't talking to me directly, but he was talking about what I represent, and I was offended. He was talking about all these murders going on in the community and how it was the fault of music. Violence has been around before me, before all of us. Politicians can talk as much as they like but if they haven't stood in our shoes, then they can't know the reality of what's going on."
The reality of Bizzle's life can be found on his three albums. His first, 2005's Against All Oddz, painted an unflinching – and controversial – picture of childhood and adolescence spent on a Walthamstow council estate. "Should of Known" told of an incident where he was held at gunpoint in his house by armed robbers. His Mobo-winning single "Pow (Forward)", with its talk of "cockin' back my steel" and "you got a gun, troll, shoot it," was read by many as a call to arms, and was banned by several mainstream radio stations.
Bizzle's latest album, Go Hard, finds him revelling in his privileged new existence – he now lives in leafy Tunbridge Wells and keeps a pied à terre in central London. In fact, it's hard to square the smart, down-to-earth, man sitting before me with the Bentley-driving, money-crazed, babe-magnet on Go Hard, though Bizzle is quick to defend its focus on material pleasures.
"My music is about my life and I try to keep it as real as possible," he says. "I've never been the bragging bling artist, but I've been in the game for a long time now and I've been smart with my money. I'm living a different life. It's just a journey, man. If you listen to my three albums one after the other you can see the progression."
Bizzle's transition from council- estate kid to well-heeled rapper hasn't always been easy, and this goes some way in explaining his pride at what he has achieved. "When you start off with nothing and then, when you are suddenly doing well for yourself, it can be a problem for other people. All those haters, the people trying to hold me back, the armed robber coming to my house – this album is, to my mind, a celebration that I've come through all of that, and I'm still making music."
At 27 Bizzle is already a veteran of the grime scene, having risen through the ranks alongside Dizzee Rascal and Wiley. "Seven years ago there was no vision of making albums and being on telly," he says. "It was about getting on pirate radio or going to a local warehouse club and freestyling on the microphone. There was an event called Sidewinder, which was the Wembley Arena of the scene. You got a gig there and you'd go to college the next day and all the girls would want you."
His early group More Fire Crew had a Top 10 hit with "Oi", but a poorly selling debut album led to them being dropped by their label.
It was a cruel knock for a rapper just starting to make his name, and left him determined to go it alone. Since then it has been a steady rise for Bizzle. He has outlasted many of his contemporaries, and shown remarkable savvy when it comes to capturing new audiences.
The fiasco at Download aside, Bizzle has, largely, been welcomed by the indie-rock fraternity, and positively embraced by hard-rocking bands looking to bring some urban grit to their sound. Bizzle has toured with The Enemy, appeared on stage with Pete Doherty's Babyshambles and recorded "Staring at the Rude Bois", the single with the Hertfordshire hardcore band Gallows which, somewhat improbably, landed in the Top 20.
The key to grime's success, says Bizzle, is being open to new sounds and styles. "Look at Tinchy [Stryder] and Dizzee [Rascal]," he says. "They've opened up and tried new sounds, and now they're reaping the rewards. When you do things like that it puts you in a different place. There is a new scene being created right now on the back of grime. You can hear dance, pop, hip-hop, soul, punk in it, whatever. It's raw energy and passion. Even people like Kanye West and Justin Timberlake are using our sounds. We're all thinking now, 'all these American's are nicking our stuff'. But there's no one who can do it better than us. My generation set the blueprint and now the whole scene is ready to fly."
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