Badgirl$ are trying to explain how they arrived at their sound, an indie-trap fusion that’s earned them a major label deal—and all off the back of Soundcloud demos that about 1,000 people listened to. You could say it all starts with a pet monkey. When 24-year-old singer Cooks was 14, he left the red-bricked terrace houses of Manchester suburb Gorton to visit his father in Sudan. Cooks’ dad bought him the monkey as a welcome present. Sadly, the pet died and Cooks experienced a major trauma. Back in Manchester, where he lived with his mother and six siblings, Cooks’ anger issues then got him expelled from school.
And so when he started at a new school, Cooks—who protects his bleach-dipped twists with a baby blue headband on this windy January afternoon—began a sort of music-taste double life. “From my older brothers I got introduced to rap,” he tells me, referencing Doggystyle, NERD and 213. He’s just met me at Manchester alternative shopping arcade Afflecks Palace with bandmates Bubz and Billi, as we get ready for a bracing walk around the city. “And then I started hanging around with indie kids, listening to Bombay Bicycle Club, Vampire Weekend and The xx.”
At the same time, Bubz went through a similar musical re-education in Heywood, a quiet Rochdale town north of Manchester that the orange-haired 21-year-old describes as “a racist little village where people voted for UKIP.” Under the guidance of his older brother, Bubz listened to Xzibit, Jay Z, and Kanye West, while his dad played him Oasis. Badgirl$' third member, 21-year-old Turkish-born Billi, tells a similar story: “I loved Joy Division, The Cure and Placebo, but also trap,” he says. “A lot of kids who’d grown up on rock discovered trap music and were like, ‘wow, how can we enjoy this and also enjoy that music so much? Let’s mix it up’.”
And so Badgirl$ grew from those seeds, which Billi more broadly describes as the “collective consciousness” of Generation Z’s magpie approach to music-making. The band started to come together when, at a party in February 2018, Billi realised he’d already stumbled across a song Bubz had made and posted on Soundcloud. It combined Britpop and trap in a way that Billi had been experimenting with, as part of a then-small trillwave community, since he was 14. Fusing these different influences catapulted the likes of Lil Peep and Lil Xan to global success, and set the blueprint for a new type of pop. But as the softly spoken Billi points out, “no one was doing it with a British indie influence.”
He’s right. Not only was that sound just starting to gain traction, but its potential in Manchester had barely been explored. Britpop and indie had become emblematic of the city’s nostalgia, in a way that felt tired to a new generation of musicians. Indeed, artists like Bipolar Sunshine, IAMDDB and Children of Zeus, as well as nights celebrating black music—Murkage and BPM, for example—had long redrawn the limits of the city’s guitar-band and rave club legacies. In that space, Badgirl$ have kicked out onto the scene with the blurry-eyed aesthetic of the US' trap and emo rappers, but in their own style. And in the few months they've been together, pushing against the current tide by actually wanting a record deal, they almost lost it all in a downward spiral of constant drug-taking.
Since their inception, Badgirl$ have done things their own way. The trio’s first official single, short, sharp “Only 1,” is emblematic of their semi-freestyle approach to songwriting, recorded when they lived with a group of ‘creatives,’ then known as Badgirls$. When everyone else fell away, the trio took on the collective’s name as their own. “Billi and one of the guys were producing the track together and I was fully asleep,” Bubz recalls of those early sessions recording “Only 1” (the Tom Gullam and Ethan Barrett PKA Crush-directed video for which we're premiering here). “I woke up, put my vocal down straight away and then at the end I thought, ‘there’s something missing,' so I just screamed and that completed the song.” The debut, whose title is etched onto Billi’s cheek as a small face tattoo, also holds an additional significance: “Writing it made us realize we’re actually fucking good,” Bubz says.
Their demos soon got the attention of industry insiders and they were recently described on this site by Beats 1’s Matt Wilkinson as an act who make him “wanna leave London and move north.” Indeed, the band are Mancunian because, as Bubz says, they sing in Manc accents, but also because their rainy city influences run deep. “We’re tied to the Manchester post-punk scene,” says Billi and it’s clear from the abrasive, repetitive guitar-driven sound and melancholy tropes of songs like “New Boots” and “Juice,” from their forthcoming EP, that they’ve taken the best of Manchester’s past and re-worked it for today’s audience.
We leave the Northern Quarter and head to Hulme’s Epping Walk Bridge, made famous by an iconic photograph of Joy Division, another of the band’s influences. Leaning over the railing, the relaxed trio spark up cigarettes and continue the story of how their band came into existence. “The week after we met I moved to London and lived in one room with Billi,” Bubz remembers. He started to falter, feeling stifled by the capital, and by chance called Cooks who happened to be in London on a modelling job (his fulltime work now). So they cut themselves off from their families while making the angst-filled songs that would become their forthcoming EP. In Billi’s Bethnal Green flat, one room served as their bedroom and the other, a studio. Catchy hooks that threaten to lodge themselves in your head for days underpin rich stories. Made on Ableton and a child-size plastic guitar recorded using a Macbook mic, the demos eventually got them a deal with Black Butter.
Indeed, Badgirl$, who run through their story succinctly, sprinkling its enthusiastic retelling with X-rated anecdotes, are keen to point out the anomaly of their success story. “No one gets signed these days,” says Billi. Cooks, who protects himself against the wind with a long navy trench coat he bought when the group went to Istanbul after getting signed, believes the desperation of their situation—they were evicted for making too much noise—played a part in their lucky break: “We were homeless with no money, so we put that into the universe, like, ‘it just needs to happen’.”
“The whole independent thing could have worked but we wanted to get signed,” Bubz, the most talkative of the band, says. “If we’d have had to grind for another two years, we literally would have died.” While it’s easy to dismiss such a statement as overly dramatic, the band did nearly break up. They’d been taking ketamine and ecstasy practically every day while recording the EP, and soon began to suffer the ill mental health aftereffects of battering their bodies with Class As for two solid months. “I started thinking that I was possessed and shit, that I’d sold my soul to the devil,” Billi, who’s perhaps most pensive of the three, says. On top of that, because that he’d quit uni three months into his course to focus on the band, Billi’s student visa had run out and he had to return to Turkey. Their record deal allowed Badgirl$ to reunite in England.
When we walk back to Manchester city centre, Badgirl$ take me to the Northern Quarter’s Ziferblat, a large open-plan work and lounge space where Bubz and Cooks would come after all-night raves, gorging on pretzels and cheese toasties, into the next day. Now sober and focused, the trio refer to themselves as “good Muslim boys” who want their drug use to serve as a cautionary tale: “We thought that shit was cool, and we did all that and then we saw what it does to you,” Billi says.
The band’s primary-color aesthetic and abundant onstage energy (Bubz chipped his front tooth at one of their first shows) makes it easy to see why Badgirl$ describe themselves as “walking memes”. But when it comes to their ambitions, they’re deadly serious. “We love the idea of the British Invasion and translating that to the 21st-century context,” Billi says, while Bubz puts it another way: “Being cool in a small city like Manchester, being cool in London, that’s not cool to us. What we’re trying to do is fucking global.” With the pitfalls of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle seemingly already behind them, and music fusing British and American sounds in an effortless way, they might just find those dreams of being the next big British band within reach. With a shy smile Cooks says: “We want to be as big as The Beatles.”
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.