Hailing from West London’s Mozart Estate—aka the Wild Wild West—is Big Zuu, one of grime’s biggest success stories. Introduced to the mic just before he hit his teens, the 25-year-old artist born Zuhair Hassan remembers his humble beginnings at The Rugby Club, a local youth centre, where he recorded his very first demo. It was there that Zuu was able to build his approach to songwriting and shape the way he articulates himself through his bars, which can range from straight-up flexing (“Variation”) to the inspirational (“Great To Be”).
Making his name in the scene as a grime MC, whose gruff-voiced, rapid-paced flow impressed critics during the genre’s resurgence in the mid-2010s, Zuu is considered by some to still be an “underdog”, yet his accolades tell us something completely different. From Jme and P Money to his cousin AJ Tracey, Zuu has worked with some of the best in the scene, and with a handful of EPs and mixtapes under his belt, he has worked his way up to become one of grime’s leading torch-bearers.
But it’s not only music that Zuu is gifted at. A known food lover, the former youth worker has been making a name for himself in the TV world for the past year as a chef, with his own cooking show, Big Zuu’s Big Eats, on Sky channel Dave, which sees him and his two friends—Tubsey and Hyder—visit some famous faces to cook and laugh the day away with. Said show recently resulted in two major wins for Zuu: a book (Big Zuu’s Big Eats: Delicious Home Cooking With West African & Middle Eastern Vibes, which is inspired by the star’s Sierra Leonean and Lebanonian roots) and a BAFTA TV nomination. Now, if that wasn’t enough, Zuu, Tubsey and Hyder also just signed on to host a weekly Sunday show on Kiss FM. It’s safe to say that Big Zuu has become something of a media powerhouse, but he makes it clear that music is still his first love.
With his debut album, Navigate, on the way—as well as a new season of the cooking show—we caught up with Mr B.I.G Z DOUBLE U to discuss how he navigates his multi-dimensional career.
“Nothing beats the feeling of finishing a song in the studio and then going to perform it live.”
COMPLEX: Firstly, congrats on your recent BAFTA nomination for Big Zuu’s Big Eats. What was going through your mind when you first heard the news?
Big Zuu: It was super early in the morning, and I woke up in a mare. My manager called me and, luckily, I answered, because I would’ve aired it normally [laughs]. He goes to me, “Bro! You are BAFTA-nominated!” My instant thoughts were, “No way!” I had a lot of emotions because I didn’t expect that news at all. It felt like a big blessing to have that news.
How does a show like Big Zuu’s Big Eats even come about?
A production company named BOOM hit me up, and they said to me, “We like the content you do. We want to talk about making a TV show with you.” I didn’t understand the process, so I went along with it. We completed the pilot and went back to back on various stuff, it ended up getting commissioned by Dave, and we made it into something great. And big up Dave because, without them… They were the first to invest in me to be a TV personality. I didn’t have any backing from any other channels like BBC or ITV, but Dave took a chance on me and ever since then, history was made.
What inspired you to release your cookbook, Big Zuu’s Big Eats: Delicious Home Cooking With West African & Middle Eastern Vibes?
The same way the TV situation came through, the book mandem came through for me as well. They hit me up and said, “Let’s do this”, and we got it done. Everything turned out well, but it feels very weird to know that I have a book out there. I’m super grateful though, and I always show the appreciation that I have a lot of support behind me. With regards to the food that’s featured, it’s inspired by my heritage.
You’ve spoken before about working behind the grill at Nando’s for six months, which was your first and only job dealing with food. But you’re an actual foodie now, so where did the passion for this come to the surface?
I’m Sierra Leonean, so I was raised by the culture, plus growing up in West London, there’s so much variety in cultures and we know London is a very diverse place. We have cuisines here from places like the West Indies, Africa, Europe, Asia, and loads more. I always could adapt to different tastes as a young g. I never realised people outside the UK, or even London, could experience the range of food we have here and, honestly, I feel lucky to grow up where I grew up. It inspired me to love food so much.
From music artist to TV personality, what has that transition been like for you?
Because I was already doing things on radio, covering shows on 1Xtra, and creating social media content, it was kinda like I gradually transitioned. I was a brother that was doing music and I was falling into my music career, so I went into radio. I was doing my radio shows, but I still went studio, and then a TV production company wanted to invest in me. I know I’ve been doing my thing, but I’m an artist first and foremost. I have a true love for music and it’s always gonna be my number one. Nothing beats the feeling of finishing a song in the studio and then going to perform it live. The entertainment side has been growing, especially during lockdown, but music will always be an important part of my life.
“Grime ain’t dead! Everything has its time.”
On the subject of radio, you recently signed on to host a show on Kiss FM with Tubsey and Hyder. Congrats again! You had a slot on BBC Radio 1Xtra previously, so you clearly like being on-air.
I had a show for a long time as an artist; I covered a show for 1Xtra. But Kiss FM came along and said they wanted to work with me, while 1Xtra wasn’t offering me an actual show. Kiss, like the TV production company, they saw something in me and invested in me. I’ve been at Kiss FM for two weeks now and I’ve already interviewed Ludacris, which was sick. Kiss have an amazing team; they have great diversity and sick people to be around. But with me, I’m doing my thing in various places so I can grow as much in that field and learn. The bigger I get, the bigger presenter I can be.
You entered the entertainment world through being a grime MC, and being one of the best of your generation. What do you think about the current state of the genre?
Grime is where it’s always been. The scene will forever have new artists, or artists who remain loyal to the sound and stay killing it. The grime scene is in a place where it’s not bigger than other sounds, but people need to understand it’s part of the UK sound. It’s UK culture, yet people look down on it because it’s not as popping as the others. Grime ain’t dead! Everything has its time.
Do you think there needs to be more of a bridge between the older and younger generations of grime?
I feel like it’s just a purist type of thing. The old gen think they’re proper music purists because they created the sound and made it what it is today, but you can’t forever gatekeeper the sound. It’s like old-school hip-hop dissing the Migos sound: you might not understand it, but that’s what the culture is showing and representing right now. Sometimes, MCs want to explore different sounds outside of the genre, because they’re an artist first and people have bills to pay. But everything has its time, and things need to change for it to grow.
What are your thoughts on the Black British music scene as a whole right now?
The scene today is very unapologetic, and I rate that. This generation has so many artists to look up to, from Dave and Stormzy to Nafe Smallz, M Huncho and even Jme. Everyone’s doing their thing and they have their own vibe—people like slowthai, Pa Salieu and Ms Banks, and artist like Darkoo can inspire so many as she is unapologetically herself. I’m excited about the next generation. They have a lot going on for themselves. Obviously, drill is the most prominent sound in the UK today, but it’s a global thing now; from America to Italy, France to Australia, it has a big international reach. But I have a feeling that UK rap, road rap, is coming back. Dave is coming, Fredo and AJ Tracey dropped, plus Young Adz released the Daily Duppy with no Auto-Tune, so we’re going back to basics again.
Who is Big Zuu’s biggest inspiration, and why?
It’s J. Cole. His music is full of meaning, and the most recent album he dropped with the Lil Baby feature—eurgh, just eurgh… He still has the same people around him and I can relate to him on that level. He gets some hate, and some people say he’s overrated, but I don’t think they’ve properly deeped his work. I can relate to that, too, because someone won’t like my song but they’ve never taken me in properly. He’s just the best because not everyone can be The Weeknd or the hottest guy in the game; he stays true to himself and that’s so key.
Your debut album, Navigate, is out on September 24. Exciting times. Why did you go with that title, and what can the fans look forward to with this project?
I called the album Navigate because I’ve been navigating in my sound. I’m experimenting with a range of sounds, and everyone knows I’ve done my thing in grime, so it’s time to show my other side and have a variety of sounds. Basically, you won’t be able to put it under one genre; people are gonna be surprised but interested. But back to the name of the album, it’s about not knowing where I’m going or where I’m heading—I just hope I’m heading in the right direction.
You recently tweeted about your journey, from growing up in a council estate to accomplishing what you have so far. Looking back, taking everything into account, what would advice would you give your younger self?
Enjoy, enjoy and enjoy! Appreciate the times you don’t have things, because when you have everything, you might still feel empty. When I was younger, I would rush to the age of 25 so I could do my thing, but now that I’m that age, I wish I could be young again. I’ve been working in this industry for years now and it’s only the beginning of my journey. I’ve done a lot of work, but I still have a lot of work to do.