As his new single “OK Dude” is pending release, one of the South’s longest-running independent hip hop artists sits down with editor Bruin White over Zoom to talk about his early days as an emcee, relocating to Southampton, and the coronavirus pandemic.
I first met Zuby - birth name Nzube Udezue - in 2013 while outside a McDonald’s in my hometown of Basingstoke, Hampshire. Zuby, then unbeknownst to myself, approached my group of friends and asked “do you guys like hip hop?”. There and then, I purchased two Zuby albums: The Unknown Celebrity (2008), and Commercial Underground 2 (2011).
Zuby’s fame has since surpassed being the mixtape man on the street. Back then, he had 6,000 likes on Facebook and pulled CDs from his rucksack. Now, he has sold over 25,000 albums independently; runs a regular podcast called Real Talk With Zuby; and has amassed a following of 222,900 on Twitter.
The English-born, Saudi-raised artist sat down with me over Zoom in adherence to social distancing precautions. He follows the link I sent over email, and we initiate the call. While Zuby sports a modest grey zip-up hoodie, the wall behind him features multiple framed Zuby album covers, shelves with assorted Team Zuby merch and - of course - a purple pillow sits discreetly on the emcee’s settee. As the Oxford-educated rapper gets comfortable in his seat, he opens up about his early days as an independent artist.
Zuby starts with the story of how he ever took up the mic to begin with.
“I fell in love with hip hop when I was maybe about 13 years old”, Zuby recalls. “I was in boarding school in the UK, I was still living in Saudi Arabia at the time, and I just got into hip hop as a fan listening to a whole bunch of different artists - old school, new school, everything. But I’d never actually tried rapping myself, you know, beyond rapping other people’s lyrics and stuff like that here and there, as people do.
“I’d never actually tried rapping or writing myself until I got into university. So, when I was in my first year at Oxford studying computer science... I was actually travelling. In between terms, I went back to Nigeria and I actually got stuck in an airport in Paris. I was by myself and I had a 24-hour layover, I didn’t have much to do. I just had my MP3 player, I had a pen and some paper so I just started jotting down some lyrics. Just listening to beats, you know, just having some fun with it, trying to keep myself occupied and being creative and I found that the writing lyrics stuff came fairly natural to me. For something I hadn’t done before, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it may be. So during that whole period I was in Nigeria I just kept on writing and I started playing stuff to my family and some of my friends and stuff, just acapellas I’ve recorded on my phone or whatever and people were like ‘okay, that’s cool’ you know, ‘keep going, keep going, you could do something with that’. And then, yeah, I got back to Oxford and started recording - I recorded a whole bunch of songs. Eventually, I put my first album together called Commercial Underground.
"I ended up selling over 3,000 copies."
“Initially at that time, I didn’t really know what route to take with it. I was thinking ‘do I send this to labels’, or ‘do I put together a demo’ or whatever and eventually I was like ‘you know what, why don’t I just press up a small number of these CDs and if people like my music then I can promote it to them and they can buy it’. So I did that. I just made 50 CDs to start out with, and I sold all of those 50 CDs in less than two weeks - this is primarily to my friends and family and people around my uni, anyone who had shown interest in my music essentially wanted to support my first release. And um, long story short, I ended up selling over 3,000 copies of that CD and that was really what set off the lightbulb moment of… I mean, after I’d sold a few hundred, and I was actually earning money directly from something that I’d created, earning money directly from my music, that’s what made me realise that this could be more than just a hobby. I can actually do something with this if people are willing to pay me - to buy a ticket for my gigs or to buy a t-shirt or to buy my music, then I can do more with this than, you know, just messing around with it.
“So I graduated from Oxford - I did finish my degree. I graduated, took a year out, did my music full time for one year and released my second album - The Unknown Celebrity - and then I travelled the UK all over, going to different towns, cities. I’ve been to pretty much every town and city in the UK that most people can name and loads they probably can’t name, and yeah that’s really how I built my audience and built my initial fan base. So that’s sort-of the ‘short form’ of the story there.”
On the Commercial Underground 2 CD, there are a couple of tracks that can’t be found on digital copy. Track 9 - A Woman Like You - sampled Shalamar’s This Is For The Lover In You (1980), and track 4 - Billie Jean 2012 - well, it’s clear which song that track sampled. When asked about their absence from the digital copies of the album, Zuby explains “It’s actually because of the samples in them.
“Because of the promotional nature in which I was promoting and selling my CDs I thought ‘okay, I’ll put those on the CD version’, but I don’t think I want an uncleared Billie Jean sample floating around on iTunes”, Zuby jokes. “That could probably come back and bite me at some point in the future if someone wanted to come after me.”
While those physical copies may be a grail to some of the older Zuby fans, the rapper’s also cultivated a new, younger audience on the South coast. Now based in Southampton, Zuby appeared on the remix of Tyrone & Warbz’ 2019 hit SO. On moving to Southampton, Zuby tells:
“When my parents came back to the UK [from Saudi Arabia], they actually moved down to the South coast. So after I finished Oxford and graduated, the South coast kind of became our family home base after leaving Saudi. So I graduated from Oxford like I said, and I did live down in Bournemouth for a year after that but then I moved to London. I had a full-time corporate job, I used to work in London and a few other cities for a three-year period…
"I moved to Southampton from Bournemouth because there’s just more going on here."
“I moved to Southampton from Bournemouth because there’s just more going on here. It’s a bigger city, it’s got better transport links… There’s just more happening both in music and in business and everything like that so I figured, you know, Southampton will be a good place for me to come to. I didn’t want to move back to London. I think London’s alright, but I have no desire to live in London again, so yeah. Southampton is just a city that I like.”
Two days ago, on April 18th, Zuby announced on Twitter that there would be “new music coming next month”. On this, Zuby explains:
“I wish I could say it was a whole new album, but not just yet. That will come, I’m not done with albums yet, but I got a new single called OK Dude which is coming out on the 8th of May.
“I’m sure you saw that whole situation with me getting kicked off of Twitter for saying ‘OK Dude’, so firstly I turned it into a t-shirt and I was like okay, I need to turn this into a song. The song isn’t directly about that, but it’s inspired by it. I probably shouldn’t be saying this because we’ve got these lockdown orders but I’m planning to shoot a music video for it as well, so we’ll see.”
As a public speaker, life coach and positivity advocate, Zuby’s attitude towards the pandemic’s lockdown seems more relaxed and encouraging than most. But what about for those just finding their feet in the independent industry, for whom times may seem more uncertain?
“Well, I honestly don’t really know,” Zuby says, “it’s a much wider question in terms of how this will affect everything and everyone and I think a big factor is ‘it depends’, you know. It really depends on how long this thing goes on for, right? Is this just a small blip, in the grand scheme of things, and we’ll have a couple months which were quiet for everybody and everything slowed down and eventually, after that, we’re able to go back to somewhat normal by summer? In that case then yeah, things have been postponed - all the live events , festivals, gigs, everything like that. Of course there’s an impact there just like there’s an impact on most economies and what most people do. If it’s something that became much more extended and went on for a much longer period then there are a lot more concerns there, certainly within music but also just generally outside of it you know. Like, my concern would just be, well, how’s that gonna affect the world and people and the economy in general?
“But, with every situation, you know, there are always two ways to look at anything. And I’m someone who’s a natural optimist and I think I’ve also, sort-of through my own ups and downs and everything I’ve done and learned in life is there are always two ways you can look at any situation. You can focus on the negative or you can focus on the positive. Because within every problem or challenge, there is also an opportunity.”
Zuby teaches “There’s always negative stuff there. If it’s not happening in your own life, you can pick up a newspaper, watch the TV, you can see terrible, awful things that are going on everywhere. You can pick up a history book and you can see all the terrible things that have happened all throughout history, and you can focus on it, you can dwell on it, and you can be really really negative. Or, you can choose to focus on the positive more. It doesn’t mean you choose to ignore everything negative, right? But you focus on the positive and you think ‘okay, hmm’. Let me take this lockdown situation - it’s a great example. How many people across the world, you know, how many millions or billions of people have been saying ‘I want to do this but I don’t have time’, ‘I want to do that but I don’t have time’, ‘oh, I wanna read that book’, ‘oh I’d like to start this’, ‘oh I wish I could have a bit more time to write some songs or write that book or start a podcast or start a youtube channel’--whatever it is. Right? You don’t have that excuse now. Unless maybe you’ve got like 10 children and you need to manage your children or whatever, but for most people now is not the time you can say ‘oh, I don’t have…’, like, we’ve all got time. Let’s be real. We all always have time but especially now. We’ve got time.
"If you’re a musician, it’s a great time to be writing."
“So people who are more creative, more entrepreneurial can say ‘oh, you know what actually? This is a time I might not get again ‘cause normally I’ve got to be doing this or doing that or travelling, but you know what, right now? I’ve just got this time, so why don’t I do something useful with it’ and you know, if you’re a musician, it’s a great time to be writing.
“My new song that’s coming next month, I wrote that during the lockdown. I was like ‘hey, cool, I haven’t had a lot of time to make new music. Cool, let me get a new single out - I haven’t released music for a year’. So I’ve got that new single and I’m sure I’ll be writing more songs here. I’m gonna write a proposal for another book, I’ve created an entire social media course over the past couple of weeks, there’s tonnes of stuff to be doing. So yeah, it sucks that I can’t go out and do live gigs or do live speaking events or just hang out with people and interact with people in real life - I do miss that, but at the same time it’s like ‘well, while I’ve got this period, why don’t I do all this other stuff’, you know. I can do interviews, I can do podcasts, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I can still be doing.
"So, I think people need to stop focusing on all the negative and, instead of thinking of all the stuff you can’t do, think of the stuff that you can do right now.”
Part 2 of the interview will be resumed on Thursday, April 23rd 2020, at 3pm BST where Zuby will discuss his own shortcomings, Twitter, and gives advice to new artists looking to make it in the independent rap game.