“Make sure you’re at the next block party, J! I’m gonna send you the details.”
Ambush is excited when he talks about his block, the Camden streets that raised him alongside his God-fearing, Angolan-born mother. As we’re quick to find out on his newest mixtape, Ask My Brother, Ambush has been through some “silly events” in his time, many of which could’ve ended up in no-way-out situations, but he believes it’s the prayers of his mum that have kept him above ground.
Since the release of his 2018 underground smash, “Jumpy”, alongside the remix with Chip and Skepta, Ambush has been a rapper to watch, ambushing the scene in ways that most of us want our rappers to: underground, unsigned, and unbothered about the charts. The remix was a real North London affair, one which happened organically—through an early co-sign from Chip and later meeting Skepta at a festival. Though he had cut his teeth on grime as far back as 2005, and released his debut project (About My Business) in 2012, 2018 belonged to A.M.B. “Jumpy”, with its hood-celebrating energy, became an all-year-round, nationwide anthem, and rightfully took the top spot on our Best Songs Of 2018 list.
“That one changed my life,” Ambush tells me over the phone, during quarantine. But things took an unexpected turn as 2019 ‘artists to watch’ lists began to roll out (with him in most) and people started taking him seriously as an artist: Ambush got arrested at the airport, on the way to a show overseas, for an alleged assault. “It came at the worst time,” he admits, but he used his six months on remand as a time for true self-reflection, amping himself up to come out and pick up where he left off. And, since his return, he has done just that, working with everyone from Ms Banks to Pa Salieu and now blessing us with his long-awaited project, Ask My Brother. The 15-tracker features Giggs (in his Landlord-era pocket), C-Biz, R.A., D Double E and others, all on the backdrop of drill, trap, grime, and even some cruddy R&B. It’s everything that’s great about current UK black music, all while sharing his dark past and hopes for the future.
We got to know more about Ambush, his dreams of turning his independent label into the next Roc Nation, having grime in his blood, George Floyd, and his cousin Nuno Cardoso who died in police custody. Dive in below.
“My cousin Nuno’s killers have already been cleared of any wrongdoing so I’m at the opposite end of justice. The whole system has to reform for there to be justice.”
COMPLEX: Right now, black people all over the world are feeling the pain from the police murder of George Floyd, with Black Lives Matter taking a firm stand. What are your thoughts on the police brutality that continues to happen to black people in not only America, but around the world?
Ambush: I feel like an overdue light’s being shed on the situation and being brought to the forefront of the media. I’m not too optimistic about the outcome because I’ve seen and felt and participated in outrage before, and that energy’s always faded out. I also feel like there might be a hidden agenda as to why it’s being so widely publicised; I think somebody’s trying to incite hate behind the scenes. Everyone just needs to be careful of what they’re doing.
You recently tweeted about your cousin, Nuno Cardoso, who died in police custody in 2017, so what’s currently going on probably hits home harder for you than most. How important is finding justice for you and the fam?
My cousin Nuno’s killers have already been cleared of any wrongdoing, so I’m at the opposite end of justice. The whole system has to reform for there to be justice. For that to happen, every death in custody would have to be revisited and see a retrial, and I think we’re far from that.
When people say we need to focus on “black on black” crime before worrying about police brutality, because even some of our own friends think this, what do you say to that?
I think black people’s mentality has been tampered with since birth; stripped of our last names, language, religion, God, culture, generational wealth and history. So we’re at a disadvantage. We self-hate because we’re taught we’re worthless and so is everyone else, that’s why racism exists. We need to realise that and come together as a people and monetise our worth and then do the right things to affect change... I just hope this awareness makes every black person take a look into themselves, their history, and see where we’ve come from so they can understand we’re all responsible for each other.
So, to the music now: I have to start with “Jumpy” and the remix with Chip and Skepta. To me, that track is the epitome of London, and still one of the best UK rap songs of the last five years. The production, the flows, the subject matter—everything was spot on. How did that whole track and remix come to fruition?
When I came out of jail, I started putting out tunes and I was catching a buzz and getting a few shows. I was listening to how people were reacting to my tunes and it was all super positive, so by the time I got to making “Jumpy”, I found the right beat and I slowed down my flow a bit and then, yeah, it kinda blew up. I gave it to them [laughs].
Like you said, you released tracks and a whole mixtape in About My Business before it, but “Jumpy” definitely made me and a few other industry folk pay closer attention. Did you notice that as well, more interest from music industry figures?
Yeah, definitely. I hadn’t had a million views before, but “Jumpy” went off straight away. From the second I dropped it, everyone was like: “This is the one! This is the one.”
Skepta and Chip are from Tottenham and you’re from Camden, so the remix was a real North London affair. They’ve both been in the game for a long time, so what was it like working with essentially two UK legends on your track?
It was mad because, obviously, I didn’t have any contacts with anyone or any of them, really, but Chip was supporting me on the socials and he liked the song. So when it went off, I thought: “I’m gonna need to do a remix because now we’ve got a bit of traction, we need to make this as big as we can.” I shouted Chip and he was bang on it; he sent his verse a day later because he knew it was that vibe. And then I was performing it live at one festival called Strawberries & Creem and Skepta must’ve been there. I think he was backstage, and he heard it go off! I came off the stage and he’s chatting to me and we just longshotted it like, “Remix! What you saying?” And he was like, “Yeah, cuz!” Literally, he sent me his verse a couple weeks later. Bruv, the day he sent me the verse I was in my bed, and I said: “Oh my god! I’m gone!” [Laughs] You know when you just know?
[Laughs] Different sauce.
Trust me! I wrote my extra part as soon as I heard Skepta’s verse and it’s mad, because I remember I was in the trap not long before making the track and now I’ve got a tune with these man.
Literally! I can’t lie: after that dropped, I had a show every day, every other day. Man was just everywhere! Even in Camden, people put tags of my name and “It’s a jumpy place” all on the walls. I put the whole ends on with that song.
Let’s talk about your ends, Camden. To the average person, they might just think Camden market, Jazz Cafe, £5 Chinese food boxes. But I know just around the corner, it’s a whole different story. What was it like for you growing up in that part of town?
For me, it was proper hood. My brother and his lot, they were members or whatever and they were hard on the grime ting; all that type of attitude. It was gritty! There was a lot of robbery, burglary, stabbings and things that went on that people don’t know. It was literally jumpy.
On a music level, did you ever feel like you had to prove yourself? Like, ‘I’m repping Camden’ a bit harder?
Most definitely. Because, coming up, Camden wasn’t really known. We had Dappy and that’s what most people knew. To be honest, it’s respectable, but in the rap thing we didn’t really have anyone holding it up so I made it my mission to make people know that man’s from Camden and man is the hardest. Other ends aren’t coming like how man is coming. Our ting’s different! [Laughs]
At the top of 2019, as things were about to take off, you got arrested at an airport on your way to a booking for an alleged assault and was later remanded. What was going through your head that day, and when you hit the cell?
What have I got myself into!? The incident wasn’t even that serious what I went jail for, so I didn’t expect to be in jail the whole time, for six months. I really didn’t expect it. I kind of went there optimistically. Obviously, I’m not new to prison, so it wasn’t the biggest deal to me. I thought I’d get bail on the first go round but when I didn’t get bail, I was like: “Oh my life! They’re tryna go in on man.” It came at the worst time, bruv! The most important time of my life! But it’s nothing: man’s here again, giving it to them.
How has serving jail time affected the way you look at life?
Jail made me realise that it’s not for me [laughs]. There’s a quote I say in one of my bars, “I was like a bird in a cage, but my feathers were too bright...” I can’t be a bird in a cage when my feathers are this bright. I need to fly! And that’s my whole thing. I can do jail, but I’ve got so much more to give.
Yeah, no one’s trying to be in the penhouse [laughs].
It’s not even about the pen, it’s about the mentality of the street and getting into trouble and caring if you do go jail. That’s what it’s really about. Anyone can go jail and nobody wants to go jail, but at a point in my life I was living, I was prepared to go jail.
It’s a new day now, though.
Trust me, bro, I’ve got a whole different outlook on life now. I just want to make it happen now. I’m on some Jay-Z, 50 Cent global takeover ting. I wanna do this for me and everyone around me. I’m trying to be as big as I can be and give the world what I’ve got to offer. God didn’t make me like this for no reason.
“Grime is in the blood...”
Your slightly patois-touched flow is one of the most distinct in UK rap right now. Did you grow up listening to dancehall, and more generally, who are some of your musical inspirations?
Mavado was definitely influential, but I’d say the flow’s more from grime. My generation’s not the grime generation, but my older brother, he was in the generation of grime and he had a studio in my mum’s house when we were like 14, 15. Everyone in the ends used to come round and we would run sets in the house. So we were spitting from young! I was getting on sets and listening to my brother.
So grime’s in the blood.
Yeah, grime is in the blood for real.
Why didn’t you carry on making grime then?
Man was in the streets and it didn’t really represent what we were dealing with, you get it? So when road rap started coming through—like Giggs, Joe Black, K Koke and them man—it was more relatable to the life we were living. That’s where the rest of it originated from. But my music still has a lot of grime influence in it, as well as American hip-hop. But then we had bashment vs. UK funky raves, shit like that...
—I miss those days.
[Laughs] The best days. I’m literally just a music man. I love music, I’m influenced by a lot of different sounds, and I think that comes across in my music. In my flow anyway.
You’re still an independent artist, and seemingly proud of the fact, but have any major labels approached you since your big breakout?
I’ve got my own label, Buzzworl Entertainment, and I’ve got a whole roster of artists as well: my whole family. And that’s how man’s coming to the worl’! But yeah, I’ve been approached by every major. I’ve turned down mad deals just for the vision, though, you get it? Man’s studied all these successful guys, like Master P, 50 Cent, Jay-Z and all those guys, how they did their thing and how they never really settled for the change, the cheque. They made it happen their own way and they were in control of the deals they got. That’s the type of feel I’m on because the way I see it, it’s like: bro, the sauce ain’t running out. We’ve just gotta keep pushing and the life-changing deals will eventually come.
Your latest mixtape, Ask My Brother, what inspired the title and what’s the theme of the project?
A.M.B—my first mixtape was called A.M.B as well, About My Business—it’s just about how life has been since I was 18. The title, Ask My Brother, it’s no cap: ask my brother how life is! I’m really just trying to express myself through my music. Since ‘019, ‘018, all this time man’s been building. As much as it’s been jumpy, it’s been real. There’s a lot of real shit that goes on in my life that I don’t tell people, but I put it all in the music... I don’t really know what people expect, though. I’m not sure of the balance of my fans; like a lot of people know me from “Jumpy”, so they might expect bare of that kind of thing, but a lot of people know me from before and how I was giving it to them, just raw. I wanna give them my own Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and, after that, you’ll see Bushman: The Musical.
Do you care if it charts?
Not particularly. Obviously, where I’m independent, man would love for it to chart so I can say that we’ve charted independently, but as long as the fans get the music and they appreciate it, I’m happy with that. I would love for it to chart and do big things so I can make big dough [laughs], but as long as my fans are satisfied, I’m all good.