This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Some people have responded to the coronavirus crisis by torching 5G masts because a man with 400 YouTube subs and some interesting ideas about Bill Gates told them to. Others, more sensibly, have decided to drive around at 5 mph in a van – with the words "Free Isolation Essentials: Toilet Roll, Sanitiser, Bottled Water, Grinders, Bud" boldly emblazoned on the side – blasting Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry", doling out free weed and other important items.
This isn't the first time Manchester-based music producer and activist OUTLAW has pulled a stunt like this. He's become something of a mythical figure in the city, putting perceived wrongs to right in his own peculiar ways. Last summer, to the delight of everyone bar the Greater Manchester Police, he unfurled a banner saying "FREE BUD" in the Piccadilly Gardens area of the city centre and handed out small bags of weed to anyone passing by.
Last December, wearing his black balaclava, he was put in the back of a police van after handing out cash in Christmas cards to the homeless community. Since then, he's shifted his philanthropic efforts towards tackling COVID-19. I spoke to him on the phone to find out how that's going.
VICE: Why are you doing this?
OUTLAW: We had a "4/20 Smoke Tour" planned, and we were going to give out some weed, but then the virus came about. So we got some other stickers printed, put them up on the van and ordered a load of stuff. Since we started it's been cannabis-based, giving out weed and that. Then we moved onto more helping people in need and the homeless. I'm quite passionate about it – I don't like seeing people in need when realistically there's plenty of everything to go around.
Why was weed in the "essential" package?
I just put it on my Instagram, asking, "Does anyone need anything?" and got fucking loads of requests suggesting vulnerable people. So we had all their postcodes in a map and we went around seeing all them. On the way, people spot me and know that we give out weed – so I had some bud there if anyone wanted any.
Was it difficult to source all the toilet roll?
We tried going around the supermarkets, but nobody would give us any. I tried for about three hours online – people were charging mad prices or deliveries weren't coming for weeks. But I found a warehouse in Ireland and managed to sort it all.
I've been out today for three hours; we were out for about five hours all around town the other day. There's another list of requests that my manager has, so we'll be out Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But we're waiting on an order because we've already given out 300 packs of toilet roll.
What reactions have you had?
We've been to about 100 locations, but everyone we go to, because we've got the music and that, loads of people stand at their doors, laughing out of their window. We try to cheer them up.
This must be expensive.
It depends what it is. If you're talking about giving out weed, it's not actually [expensive]; the papers put out "OUTLAW gives out £1,000 worth of weed", but not if I grow it myself, you know what I mean? It costs what the seeds cost. Handing out the money, yeah, but it was Christmas. It depends what you want to do with your money. No one is funding this apart from me. Even with the bud, I only had ten ounces before this was started. All the grows I've got were ready for my Smoke tour in July – cropped, dried, everything ready for July. But this has come out of the blue, so we've just got to do what we do.
Have the police bothered you?
Yeah, yeah – [laughs] loads of times. I don't know how much I can say without my solicitor… but, yeah, it's like a cat and mouse type of thing. We're not doing anything that's harming anyone, though, and that's key – that's the main thing that they focus on.
How do you think the government is handling the pandemic?
They're obviously not doing everything they can. I feel sorry for Boris Johnson if he's got [coronavirus] properly and everything is true about that. Hopefully he'll recover, but with an understanding of what other people need when they are in times of need.