London rapper Raggo Zulu Rebel has been writing, performing, and helping his community for 20 years. He’s shared the stage with artists such as Ty (R.IP), Lee Scratch Perry, Guru from Gangstar, Akala, and Macka B to name a few. We spoke to RZR to find out how it all began and what the future holds for him.
You’ve got over 20 years of experience in the game. How did it all start for you?
At home in the ’90s, I was listening to music and trying to entertain my family. Being bored was almost a crime growing up so keeping myself positively engaged probably meant less housework, chores, and demands. Mum would see me with idol hands and find a job for them.
Early 90’s I used to write stories and remix advert soundtracks and make the lyrics my own. Adding banter, wit or sarcasm always went down well at dinner parties. Couple albums came out around ’96 which really set me off in motion. They stimulated my thinking and made me seriously wanna rap.
All my antics around the house were probably starting to get on my mum’s nerves. So she enrolled me in the local youth theatre. Plus I didn’t grow up or attend school in the area (East London) where I lived. I went to school in Kent so I didn’t have many friends at the time.
Youth Theatre gave me a lot of basic performance skills and transferable life skills. It gave me confidence, projection, to learn lines, staying in character, improvisation, appearing as a member of the cast, it helped my story writing and character development and gave me a great start as a performer.
My first live gig ever was around age 9. I was given the task of writing and performing my own stand-up comedy which went terribly wrong but was a great learning curve. I went on to study drama GSCE at school and got the highest grade in my borough for that year or so I was told.
Tell us about the music that you’ve released so far?
I started a collective of artists’ in the early 2000s from some of the people I knew from youth theatre and local friends. We started recording tracks on basic home studio equipment in members’ parent’s basements, youth centers, and college studios. From some of these early tracks, we made our first mixtape HELLO. Burnt it at home and distributed it locally in 2003.
This was before mixtapes were en vogue, it was more about pirate radio but the mixtape worked as a vehicle for a promo. By about 2005 the scene changed a little and we had access to proper studios. I recorded my first EP The Struggle followed by Black Planet LP. Using the format I’d learned with the early work I promoted and distributed myself, locally and at shows and open mics.
By 2007 I started working with Morfius and recorded my first album Jah Messenger. Since then I’ve released 5/6 albums Bible & The Gun dropped in 2009. Return Of Jah Messenger 2012, Holy War WW1 in 2014, B.I.B.L.E.2 2017, and GOD MC in 2019.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something. I also released more than 20 mixtapes since 2003 and a host of EP/LPs as well as collaborative projects.
You have worked with a lot of artists, even recording music in Jamaica. What has been the most memorable collab and why?
I would say Rhymes & Mantra’s an LP I released a couple of years back with my business partner and fellow musician Marianna Zappi. Also, Folk Songs by my Band You&Me. Which is me and my bandmate Asabi Hawah it’s like roots acoustic soul.
I had a mixtape with Big Cakes called Represent mixed by DJ Tommy Bones. The master was lost before release and it never saw the light of day.
There are few live projects too like Sinclair. I re-recorded my music but with a live band called The Nation Band. We took it to the road performing a few festivals and in Amsterdam as part of the Jah Messenger World Tour. Variety keeps it interesting I guess.
Recording in Jamaica was fun, the studio was walking distance from Dunns River Falls. I got to meet Lil Hero and Pzed and also crossed paths with Perfect Giddimarni and Zamunda while I was out there.
When I was in Italy I visited a music school and taught one of my songs in English to a group of Italian students which was a great opportunity to share also.
But the best experience was probably recording songs with my children.
Over the years you’ve shared the stage with many artists from all over the world. What has been the most stand out show and why?
I would say my first gig rapping as myself back in my youth theatre days. I was in a play Ask Da Mayor in 1999/2000. It was directed by Jonzi D and DJ Xcalibur. We were given 16 bars in a cypher to say anything we feel. They always say the first cut is the sweetest.
I think maybe my first international gig in 2005. I took my collective Exodus 1st Movement to Sicily where we head-lined the Sol Music festival alongside London dance group Boy Blue Ent. I’ve never seen so many people, I don’t even think I was prepared.
Brixton JAMM is always a good night out, I did a lot of gigs with Peoples Army there. I think it was English Frank it’s bigger than hip hop that was the last one at the Jamm. The line up was nuts, the crowd was rowdy.
In fact, talking of rowdy crowds in Ireland Galway and Birmingham are up there too. I’m getting floods of nostalgia just thinking about it.
Tell us about your label RZN Records?
Me and Marianna formed the label about 5 years back to support ourselves and help others. Initially, I respected her artistry and commitment and 2 heads are better than one. Then it was about being independent musicians and creating something outside of the elite.
Even in the underground scene, it can be quite cliquish. So, we just formed a platform that represented our interests and could serve as a lighthouse for other like-minded creatives.
You also run workshops as well, tell us about those?
I used to assist running workshops in local schools like Sarah Bonnel with my rap partner at the time Stallion Solo (Remand Cru) and TY (R.I.P) before I’d even left school. I didn’t take it that seriously. Initially, I was just sharing what I knew and collecting a little change for it.
After going to youth theatre and midi music school I realised two things. Those who can teach, and spaces like this are creative hubs essential for young creatives. I went on to teach in youth centres, in the community and Feltham YOI.
Life got in the way for ten years. I had kids etc but then I started working with a local enterprise called You Press. I took part in a few workshops using our creative voices to represent stigmatized communities. Addressing social issues such as homelessness, ex-offenders, etc even ended up in Bosnia working with survivors from the 1995 genocide.
It re-sparked my interest in community work on a professional level. Since then we partner with various organisations to share some of the skills we’ve acquired over the years.
It could be under tens writing their first poem, rap, song, and public speaking. Artist development with teens to mid-20s, fatherhood workshop group counseling with young dads, or over fifties creative writing.
It’s just about engaging the community where they are and showing them how to build from there in any capacity.
I see you’ve got your Come Dine 100 with Raggo Zulu Rebel! We’ve seen Jamie Oliver….Will we be seeing you cooking up some store cupboard food to help us get through these tough times??
As an artist in the social media information age, you have to find alternate ways to connect with your audience. Aside from music without being cliche and cheesy basically selling and branding lifestyle.
I had already done the Ganja Music mixtape series back 2009 and it was successful. So I figured find something else that I care about. Food’s important to me as we are what we eat so I’m always mindful of my consumption and try to promote this ideology.
Part of my creed as a Rasta is food, clothes, and shelter. I.E homes for the homeless, care for the baby and elderly, clothes for the naked and food for the hungry. So comedine100 came in line with that I guess.
During quarantine, we ran Sunday dinner sessions every Sunday at 5 pm. We had a Big Cake off/The Great British bake-off. We had contestants, April Showers and her son, Jaide Green, and my wife Ashanti (AWJT) bake a cake and pie to promote my single Pies and Jaide’s single Cake. You can check that out on the Raggo Zulu Nation youtube.
Tell us about your radio show, how and when can we tune in?
The Raggo show UK is on K2K radio (Kilburn 2 Kensal local community radio NW London). It’s on every last Wednesday of the month 8-10 pm. I play whatever I feel like to help get you through the last hump day of the month. The show is quite raggo like its host so expect the unexpected.
Raggo Show world wide is broadcast via Wild 1 Radio. It was the original raggo show which got me into radio, is on the weekends Saturday and Sunday. I’m not sure what time it’s not live as it pre-recorded.
I also pop up once in a blue moon on Imperial Voice Radio in Bath which is an honour as it the official radio for the RasTafari community in the UK. It’s broadcast from Haile Selassie’s house while in exile in the UK during WW2 which was donated to the community on his return to Ethiopia.
My show isn’t regular due to so many other commitments but I’m glad to be involved.
What music are you promoting at the moment?
My latest project is called Ital Stew produced by Mashy Music international. It’s is kinda the follow up to Rice N Peas. People don’t always wanna hear about social commentary and the negative things occurring in society. Plus words are spells and what we think and speak we manifest so its basically more dinner table carols (let the hungry be fed!!!).
It also promotes the concept of Ital Livity living in tune with nature and off the land. As far as your circumstances will permit in a gentle non-preachy way (hopefully) I’ll leave that to the listener.
I’ve got a mini-movie called L.O.A.F (Love Over all Follishness) coming soon. A documentary Born In Babylon about being first and second-generation migrants or children in Britain. Our impact in society and its impact on us. Both with soundtracks will be landing soon.
September Blood & Fire EP produced by Morfius (More For Us Media). I’ve sat on this one for a minute waiting for the right moment and that time is nigh. Back to my Jah Messenger element social commentary on a bed of tough reggae, roots, hip hop fusion production like previous tracks of mine. If you like Babylon this one for you. It’s released on September 1, 2020 on all online stores.
Tell us your social media addresses
What’s next for Raggo Zulu Rebel?
Semi-retirement. Music has been at the forefront of my mind for so long it hasn’t really given too much room for much else. Often I’ve felt guilty as a creative whenever I don’t create. Or I’m not taking any opportunity that is given to use my talent. But I’ve said most things I need to say.
Once people with views similar to mine were few and far between. But now there are lots of new young artists with new and different perspectives. People who are talking about the things I wanna hear and need to be said. So I kinda feel my work here is done, make way for a new day.
So I guess it’s personal development, self-discovery, and family time. My Mrs and kids hardly ever see me because if I’m not at a show I’m making music in the back room. Probably when I finish all that, there will be some more music knowing me, who knows.
Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview. Is there anything that you would like to add?
God no, I think I said enough already. PLS Google me follow up on socials (SUBSCRIBE!!!!). Thank you Jai Boo for having me and being patient.
Peace, love, and hairgrease…
Interview by Jai Boo