It was warm and sunny and the sky over Manchester looked as if it had been blue for months. In the clear light of afternoon, the city centre crawled with street vendors and hurried civilians shuffling to and from offices and shops. Summer was arriving, and so although it was lunchtime, the restaurant was empty. Bugzy Malone, flanked by his manager Kuba, sat in a corner, stretching his thick limbs over wooden tables, scraping rice off his plate, making small talk, smelling the spice of jerk and pepper roti roll in from the kitchen below.
This was to be the start of a busy period for the MC who supporters had crowned "King of the North". His EP – of the same name – would be with the public soon, most likely becoming his third successive top 10 record and confirming to the rest of the world what Malone, deep within, seemed to already know: that he, born Aaron Davis, still only 26, is one of the most successful independent British MCs of his time.
But it is difficult, nearly impossible, for any artist of any genre to survive on record sales alone. If Malone were to make a mark on history, like the great boxers and fighters he so admires, he would have to go out and leave an impression on the people. And so, in the days and weeks that will follow the release of the EP, after his body had been tuned from hours of sparring, Bugzy would hit the road for festival season, where he'd been booked on stages from the Lake District to London.
"As much as people thinks shows are fun – which they are," he said, softly, still eating, "it's very much 'work'. There's a task at hand. Right now I'm following my career, but there will come a time where I travel the world and experience everything, with the freedom to wake up when I want, to go and do what I want to do."
So he stayed focused, wary of how a wandering mind would detract from the career he had spent a decade building and the earnings that promised the luxury of travel for travel's sake in his future. "That's all it's about, that's all money is," he continued. "Money is a token, money buys freedom, it don't necessarily buy happiness and I've still got things I'm overcoming in my own mind, but money will buy you the freedom to not have to work as many hours. Money will buy you the freedom to spend more time with your family."
Bugzy has finances now, and the love of a proud city too. He still feels like an outsider at times; the kid who moved around Manchester so much, that he was never quite sure where he belonged. As an adult, he's something of a lone wolf in a grime scene otherwise dominated by Londoners; the first Manchester MC gone national, waving the flag for the entire city. So they, the supporters, adored him almost unconditionally – a situation that he enjoyed, even revelled in.
In return for their loyalty and support Bugzy offered total honesty on record, unafraid to write about the emotional scars that had affected him so deeply that there are some tracks, like Pain, that he still finds difficult to revisit today. It was music to soundtrack struggle. Those listeners who cared less about his emotional wounds were also catered for, and he made the kind of adrenaline-fuelled, bass-heavy anthems they could enjoy in sweaty club raves and festival fields in the summer. He shied neither from the dazzling highs or the devastating lows that had mapped his life so far.
To many in Manchester, Bugzy was a modern folk-hero, highly spoken of but rarely seen in the flesh. Late last year, at an in-store signing in the Arndale Shopping Centre, not far from the restaurant, a queue of screaming supporters stretched hundreds of metres down the road, each fan desperate for a photo or handshake. But, despite the fame and celebrity, he couldn't help feel at times that he had been slightly misread, that the ten years he had spent MCing and sharpening his craft had been somewhat under-appreciated. So he and his team had gathered today, on this sunlit afternoon, and decided they would start filming a behind-the-scenes-vlog, lifting the veil on the long hours that had made rap fame look relatively easy.
"There's nothing good about jail. Having your freedom taken off you… It's nothing to be proud of. But then, you can't pay for that that feeling of getting your freedom back"
The vlog was an idea that would have perhaps never crossed Bugzy's mind when he was younger, getting by on a thief's wage and taking great care to avoid attention whenever possible. They are memories from a low point in life, his adolescent years, when he began to have dreams, or at least serious thoughts, about life as a career criminal. The "bad boy" phase, he said, started in school. In Year 9 he was expelled, and by 16 he sat in jail in Stoke Heath while his classmates were taking their GCSEs. It was a period of reflection where he spent long hours caged in solitary confinement; feeling deserted at the bottom of the pile, as if the world had forgotten about him, shut off from his mother and his friends and the rest of Manchester, sinking into memories so deep they almost felt real.
"There's nothing good about jail," he said, staring out into the empty restaurant. "Having your freedom taken off you… It's nothing to be proud of and it's not any fun no matter how you passed the time." He paused, gulping down a mouthful of juice. "But then, that feeling of getting freedom back, you can't pay for that feeling. That's a feeling… a feeling a lot of people will never get to experience."
Lunch was finished. It was 3PM. Bugzy wanted to film the first scenes of the vlog in his boxing gym, tucked discreetly above a grocery shop in Moston, a suburb northeast of Manchester city centre. The Fury family had sometimes boxed there before they hit the big time, Kuba said, and Bugzy had shot a music video there too. Bugzy still sparred and trained in the gym as often as he could, pulling up at such infrequent hours that the owner eventually gave him his own key.
It was empty when the team arrived, quiet. The gym looked as if it had not changed much since its rumoured opening 70 years ago: there was a large room with heavy punch bags and behind that, in the back, a small sparring ring. Bugzy looked over the peeling walls, the painting of the Virgin Mary hung above a door frame, the trophies coated in dust and cobwebs, and for the first time that afternoon, he seemed at home. A friend of his hit record on a small DSLR camera and began to film. Bugzy became involved in boxing he said, when he left jail, the pads and gloves and the neatly roped ring taking his mind elsewhere and away from the roads and the temptations of easy money.
"Boxing was my first kind of job. I was living out in the hills somewhere, running ten miles, not speaking to anyone. I moved over to a place where my Dad was staying in Marple, in Stockport – a bit countryside looking. I remember running past a lot of sheep. I lived there for six months to a year, and that was when the most intense training took place. I had removed myself from my environment and the distractions. There was nothing. I didn't know anybody, I didn't go out on a weekend."
Soon Bugzy was in the gym's ring, throwing swift left and right jabs while dancing across the blue felt canvas, staring into the lens as if the camera were his next opponent. And maybe that is how he had always seen things, that the music industry was somehow just another boxing arena, a game of champions and challengers, with money, reputation freedom and legacy all at stake.
At 20, when he had very little in the way of money and his music was still local, Bugzy discovered the Law of Attraction and began to visualise his future. "I used to do little things like think of getting a lift to my Mum's house. I wasn't driving at the time and I'd walk to the shop with that in my mind in the most positive mood I could be and then I'd bump into someone and they'd be like 'what you doing man, you want to jump in? I can give you a lift.' I'd think 'Wow this thing actually works man, this thing actually happens.'"
"At the time, I was living in a little flat over the road from Eaton Park – where they do Parklife festival – and it was nothing special at all this little flat. Then one day I drew the house I could see myself moving into, and I don't think I drew it to visualise and say 'this is the house,' I just drew it. There would be times when Parklife was on and I couldn't get tickets, and the one year I could get tickets I remember being inspired and thinking 'wow I'd love to perform here on day.'" He moved from the ring to the punching bags.
"Later I went on to move into the kind of house that I'd drawn. I forgot about the picture. Then about three or four months after moving in, I must have just gone through my sketchbook and looked, and found that the house was very similar: there was an alleyway up the side of it, with the car, the window structures, even down to the little things. I drew a –" he paused, as if visualising it all again for the first time, – "I don't know why, but I drew a rope swing with a tyre on it, a tyre swing, and then when the summertime came, the kids just over the road made a rope swing on the tree and that's what made me think… there were subtle differences but this was the house I drew."
Bugzy eventually performed at Parklife in the summer of 2015, when he was 24, skipping across the stage, watching on as hundreds of supporters flailed their arms in the sky and wailed his songs back to him, just as he had imagined all those years ago, when living hard in his flat just across the road. A rap career realised into reality.
"I always hoped it was coming, I'd been expecting it, I was waiting for that knock on the door," he said, "But when legal money did kind of come in I remember it being like a foreign object; it went from counting cash to looking at a number on a screen, which was a bit of an anti-climax. It wasn't that same buzz of making money, every night counting the extra £150, counting the extra £200. It was so foreign to me."
After Bugzy, Kuba and Dellessa had finished at the gym, they spent some time talking out in the waning afternoon warmth. Bugzy wanted to head to his old estate, a few miles away, before dusk would fall over the city. The three friends huddled at the curb like pre-teens around their first cigarette, largely unseen by the stream of passing traffic and school children. But every so often Bugzy would catch the attention of a passerby, perhaps a motorist watching from a car window or a woman pushing her child in a pram, and recognition would dawn. Bugzy would smile and wave, or break conversation to take a picture.
Wherever he went in Manchester, the reaction seemed to be the same. People doubled back, buzzed their horns and squinted their eyes, staring as if their sight had somehow deceived them, that it might all be a mirage, that the man who some had labelled the King of The North could be just standing on a curb in Moston, or quietly eating lunch in the city centre. "Life is good," he said, "I always feel blessed and feel lucky to be in the position that I'm in." Then another driver honked his horn, and he turned to wave.
"My mum always wanted me to have a career," he said smiling. "Now she says that I've gone and got myself the best one in the world."
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Bugzy Malone's 'King of the North' EP is out on Friday 14 July. This article has been updated on Tuesday 11 July; the identity of Bugzy's manager has been corrected.
(All photography by Olivier Richomme)