Charli XCX, A$AP Rocky and Damon Albarn all feature
“BRRRPPWOUUUURR”. Backstage in his dressing room at Manchester’s Parklife Festival, Mura Masa is distracted by what sounds suspiciously like a braying horse chained up in the toilet. It transpires the whinnying is actually Sampha warming up his vocals next door, but Shergar is probably the only “feature” absent from the 21-year-old producer’s star-studded debut. In the past few years, Alex Crossan has gone from teenage Guernsey-based bedroom beat-maker to shooting the breeze with Kendrick Lamar. You’ve probably already heard the teaser tracks ‘Love $ick’ with A$AP Rocky and the Charli XCX-assisted ‘1 Night’, but the self-titled record also corrals together the likes of Christine and The Queens and Desiigner. His biggest bucket list-tick was having Damon Albarn appear on the album-closer ‘Blu’, after the Blur polymath originally reached out to see if he wanted to be part of the Gorillaz‘s ‘Humanz‘ album. “I’m buzzing,” he tells NME as he prepares his pop land-grab. “But I’m a bit of a bedroom-dweller so I’m going to have to come out of my shell a little bit.”
During your riotous Coachella set, you brought out eight different guests including A$AP Rocky, Charli XCX, and Desiigner…
“That was surreal. Especially when Rocky came out because it was like Michael Jackson had walked out or something. People were climbing over each other just to get closer to him. It was quite messianic. He’s like a god.”
Has anything topped it?
“Meeting Damon Albarn was mad because ‘Demon Days’ was the first album I bought, so getting to meet up and actually work with him was crazy.”
How does the relationship with Damon work? Is he like a mentor?
“It felt like that. I can’t speak for him and if he was trying to do that, especially because we’re from different generations. Originally we were talking about the Gorillaz record [‘Humanz’] and I was going to do some work on that, so I was asking questions like ‘What was it about? What should I be going for? What sounds should I use?’, and he put his hand on my leg and went, ‘we will see each other again – don’t worry’. That was very comforting and really special. I think I was being mentored by him in a way, whatever his intentions.”
Any shows planned with him?
“I don’t know. He’s a really busy guy obviously. Aside from all the music stuff he’s got going on, he’s got a family, so I can’t expect to pull him out for shows, but we will always ask and the worst that can happen is he can’t do any of it.”
How did you choose who to work with?
“I’m very proud that I haven’t collaborated with any of these big-name people just for the sake of it, it’s always about me being a fan of their music first and foremost. Obviously there’s people like Bonzai, Nao and Tom Tripp who I’m very good friends with and can phone up any time and say ‘Do you want to hang out and make some music?’. But then there’s people like Charli XCX and Desiigner who are dotted around the globe and don’t necessarily have time for the studio. The first time I met Desiigner was when we performed the song live at Coachella. I was in the studio with Damon and Christine. Rocky was one where I thought this guy is a serious A-list celebrity, but as soon as I met him, he was a super-lovely dude. There were times when he was freestyling on the mic and I was meant to be recording and I’d say ‘Rocky, I’m so sorry, I didn’t get that’, and he’d say ‘It’s all good baby, let’s do it again’. I’ve hung out with him in Los Angeles and another time he invited me to the studio just to hang out. That felt like the next level of acceptance. I just thought: ‘How did a kid from Guernsey get here?’.
You’ve described your debut as “capturing the confusion and chaos of being 20 and living in London for the first time.” Was that concept there from the start?
“It changed into that. Originally they were all going to be love songs and I wanted to be very conceptual and narrative, and I got so bogged down with that. About a year and half into it, I had a revelation moment where I’d seen the photo of me falling over that’s on the front of the album. It made me think, ‘Fuck it, what’s the point of having a core concept or narrative? What if there’s no thread so it’s almost like a collage?’. Then I moved to London and that started feeding into the sonic side of the album.”
Were there any mooted collaborations that didn’t happen?
“There’s lots of stuff like that. Because of the nature of the project, there’s lots of feelers going out to see who can do it and who can’t. But I’m not a fan of that many people who are currently making music so the list was quite short. I don’t mean that in a snooty way. Lorde was one that we really tried for but she’s busy making what’s probably going to be the best pop album of the decade, so hopefully that will happen in the future.
I met with Kendrick Lamar at one point and played him some music. Obviously he was embroiled in the masterpiece that is ‘DAMN.’ Childish Gambino is another one that we talked about for a long time and very nearly happened, but then he was in Star Wars and wrote Atlanta, so he didn’t have time. So there were a few times I was disappointed as I would have loved to have worked with those – but they had good reasons.”
What was Kendrick like?
“Intimidating, but in a really inspiring way. First of all, it was lovely of him to give me the time of day because he doesn’t fuck with anybody who isn’t top dog. I was working in the studio across from him and he came across to say ‘hey’. I played him some music and he said [he imitates Kendrick’s US accent] ‘Okay yeah, lemme get the whole folder.’ And then he bounced. It was only for about 15 minutes or so, but it was just super-sweet of him to come and see me. But it was the most intimidated I’ve ever been, because he’s the greatest.”
You’ve claimed that listening to Gorillaz taught you the importance of pop being a reflection of multicultural life and offer a melting pop cultures and that you tried to emulate this on your album. Do you worry about putting a foot wrong and ending up accused of cultural appropriation?
“Without wanting to misstep, a lot of people writing those thinkpieces accusing people of cultural appropriation don’t belong to those cultures. I argued about London slang with my girlfriend for a long time. I had a problem with saying the word ‘ting’, like ‘it’s a long ting’ or whatever, because I felt like it doesn’t belong to me, its not my culture. She said: ‘Yeah, but it’s London culture and a celebration of the multicultural nature of the city’. That really changed my opinion on it – that kind of patois is cooler now than it’s ever been and people who actually speak it are more respected for it. But it’s a difficult balancing act – as long as you’re always respectful and you’ve done your homework and you know what it is you’re emulating or channelling, I think it’s okay.”
With so many features, are you the next Calvin Harris?
“(Laughs) I guess from the outside looking in, it does look like that, yes. But nobody says DJ Khaled is the next Calvin Harris and that’s the exact same thing, even to a more removed degree where he doesn’t produce the music, he’s like the curator. I think that’s a very futuristic concept. And I really do enjoy curating different voices; it means the face of the project can constantly be changing. Am I the next Calvin Harris? No. I think he has his own thing going on. I don’t know what I’m going to do next as well – like he went from being a little Scottish weedy kid making funk music to dating Taylor Swift and making number one records. And now he’s kind of pulling it back – it’s gone back into funk world. I’m a huge fan of him. He’s one of the best producers of the 21st century. Hopefully I’ll have a similar narrative to his where I try different things and grow like he did.”
Maybe you’ll even end up dating Taylor Swift…
“Maybe! I’m not sure how into that she’d be.”
‘Mura Masa’ is out July 14