Lethal Bizzle meets classical violinist Alina Ibragimova
In a unique cultural experiment, Time Out challenged MC Lethal Bizzle and classical violinist Alina Ibragimova to swap places and genres and compare notes on the secrets of their success
Culture clash: Lethal and Alina compare notes
The MCLethal Bizzle is a name even London’s most Hush Puppy-casual consumers of music should know. A pioneer of the grime scene, his band, More Fire Crew, was signed to a major label, before they were dropped and split up. Yet he speedily returned to prominence as a solo artist, and guested with Babyshambles (and Kate Moss) at Glastonbury before putting on his own riotous show at this year’s Reading Festival. Not bad for a 24-year-old.Classical music hasn’t ever crossed his cultural radar, but being challenged to meet Alina Ibragimova has encouraged him to break down some musical prejudices. ‘I’ll be honest, I wasn’t interested,’ he says. ‘I just thought: Classical? Nah. I’m a happy, jump-up, joyful, having fun, hard-hitting party boy and I just wanna hear BAM! Initially, I thought classical music is just really chilled out. It’s almost as if I’m not allowed to listen to it’.
A key difference that first throws itself up is that the decision to become a professional classical musician needs to be made by the musician – or their parents – at an early age. By contrast Bizzle (aka Maxwell Ansah) felt free to explore other options till his late teens – unlike Ibragimova, music wasn’t his first choice. Initially, it was football, until dodgy knees put paid to his Wimbledon apprenticeship. Engineering seemed the next sensible option, with Bizzle signed on to a BTEC National Diploma and preparing for a future at university. But at school he had started rapping for playground entertainment, mimicking the rhymes of favourite MCs, then writing his own verses. Soon, he and his friends were being asked to MC at friends’ parties and underground raves, ultimately freestyling on pirate radio.
‘We were broadcasting to local communities,’ he says. ‘And I started getting a reputation on the street; people seemed to like this Lethal B guy. I was thinking: “Wow! People are appreciating me writing these shitty lyrics in my bedroom”.’
Nevertheless, Lethal didn’t expect too much to come of it, even when local producer Platinum 45 asked Bizzle, then aged 18, and his More Fire Crew compatriots to rap on a track. That tune, called ‘Oi’, became one of the first breakout tracks from the scene ultimately dubbed grime. The next thing Bizzle knew, he and his friends were being asked to guest on national radio and TV.
‘It was a conscious decision for me to become a musician full-time. It was really a big decision as well because, to be honest, my parents weren’t really with it; they weren’t really supporting me to drop my studies. But at the same time, I’m in college doing my national diploma, I’m in More Fire Crew and “Oi” has blown up, and I’ve gotta miss college to go on ‘Top Of The Pops’.”
Parental disapproval seems as much part-and-parcel of the rock/hip hop musician’s world as parental drive is of the classical musician’s. ‘Although we laugh about it now,’ Bizzle reveals, he and his dad didn’t speak to each other for the best part of a year. ‘But he was just worried; at that age, you’ re 18, you’re still young, you’re still your mum and dad’s little boy. When “Oi” came out, they saw what I was doing was really productive . That’s when he said, “You’ve got my support”. ’
One crossover point for our experiment is when Alina comes to the set for Bizzle’s new video, being put together to accompany his ‘Police On My Back’ single. It’s one of the strongest examples of the cultural divide: while acting on video is not an automatic part of her brief, it’s one of a raft of commitments expected of Lethal. Today filming mostly involves him repeating the same four lines of the song to a camera on an Heath Robinson-style gurney. Following this, he is beaten up by two actors playing riot police.
He tells us that his rehearsal routine normally depends on what part of his work cycle he’s engaged in, whether it’s writing, recording, touring or promotion. Right now, preparing to embark on a co-headline jaunt with punk band Gallows, Bizzle is honing his stagecraft.
‘I shouldn’t tell no one this, but I’m always jumping up and down in my front room rehearsing what I’ m gonna do on stage. I’ve got my iPod on loud and I’ll be mimicking certain songs and thinking of how I can make the live show better. People going by must think I’m mad, because my house ain’t got no curtains, so people must see me in the living room, just jumping up and down.’
Yet though there’s no jumping up and down in Alina’s quartet rehearsal that Lethal attends at the Royal College of Music, for him walking into the impressive nineteenth century building still proves a moment of revelation. ‘Just listening to that session Alina did in rehearsal changed my whole perception of everything, man. Just the way she was playing it, it was like, they’re painting pictures with their violins! You can see scenes and scenarios. You can picture what’s supposed to be happening when a certain string is being d played; it’ll come back in and it’s like, “Oh shit, something’s really going on now.” It’s like you’re building your own movie in your mind.’
For both, playing live is key. Bizzle confesses – surprisingly – that unlike Alina he’s not immune to the pre-show jitters. No problem if he’s supporting another artist – ‘because if it all goes tits-up, people ain’ t really paid to see me anyway’ – but when he’s the headliner ‘I’m really bricking it. I think: “Oh shit, everyone’ s come to see me, I really need to be the best”.’ There’s one remedy. Bizzle and his band might indulge in a pre-show drinking game innocently called ‘Catch The Apple’.
Like Alina, Bizzle has few interests outside music aside from his PlayStation or scouring YouTube for freaky videos. Though his discipline may not be so singularly directed, there’s no denying that he puts admirable effort into his game. However, he’s quick to point out that he’s not the only person in his scene to put in the hours. Perhaps surprisingly, given the bad rap so many urban artists get, the main prejudice which gets Bizzle’s gizzle is the name most often used to describe his music – grime.
‘I hate the categories and the genre bullshit man; it pisses me off,’ he says. ‘Like what the fuck is grime? There’s a show on the TV called “Life Of Grime” and it’s about cleaning bugs and fucking dirt off fucking walls and shit. And you wanna call our music that?!’
The British grime/garage/hip hop/whatever scene is probably London’s only real ghetto in many ways; it’s something frequently discussed and dissected from outside, but almost impossible to break out of. ‘For now it’s me and Dizzee Rascal who are really pioneering it,’ he agrees.
‘There are loads of people in the underground who are trying to really take it to the level that we’re at, but the radio and TV and media need to have bought into it. That’s the biggest frustration. Like, no disrespect to indie bands or anything, but a band has got 99 per cent chance of getting on a playlist for a radio station or getting on a TV show or whatever. Someone like myself or Dizzee, they won’t have both of us on the same show. Come on, man! I’m not the token rapper.’
However, if anything proves that it’s possible for talent to transcend cultural barriers, it’s Bizzle’s unlikely conversion to chamber music fan. A flute concert performed by Gareth McLearnon at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital has added to his enthusiasm – not least because he sees the flautist use breathing techniques which he knows could benefit his own stamina when singing. ‘I take everything back that I said,’ Bizzle grins when quizzed on his earlier antipathy. ‘I would go to a big orchestral concert now, of my own accord, just to see what it’s really about.’
Highly strung: Alina practises...
The violinistInitially, Alina Ibragimova was appalled when it was suggested that she compare lifestyles with Lethal Bizzle. At a superficial glance, he seemed to embody none of the qualities she admired about being a musician. For us at Time Out this seemed proof of what an exciting learning curve the experiment could turn out to be. It also demonstrated her titanium-tough determination.‘I told myself at 12 I’d never get nerves again,’ says the 22-year-old. You suspect she hasn’t. Beneath that deceptive fragile china-doll charm there’s a reserve, perhaps the deliberate suppression of spontaneity you’d expect from someone who denies that she gets nervous. Unlike most classical performers she has no superstitions, no rituals beyond the practical. ‘A little nap for ten minutes,’ she shrugs. ‘I eat bananas.’ She has no fixed regime for practising. ‘The most I did at one time was 14 hours, but it doesn’t happen often.’From her first public performance at the age of six (with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra), it’s been a straightforward route, never deflected by the personality cult of role models, apart from the universally revered Soviet-era violin virtuoso David Oistrakh. ‘I don’t really have big heroes; I like a little bit of everyone.’ (Though renowned violinists Kremer, Tetzlaff and Zehetmair seem to have more bits than most). Alina’s listening includes Tom Waits, ‘a bit of Björk’, Mika, the Mozart Requiem and Glenn Gould. Hip hop? ‘I haven’t listened to it at home,’ she says cautiously, an iron curtain of diplomatic evasiveness descending.
She meets Lethal twice: first on a grey day at the Royal College of Music and then at his video-shoot a few days later. The two get on well, and despite her diminutive stature in contrast to his, throughout she demonstrates that she is equally formidable. She’s particularly stunned when – before seeing her play – he asks if she moves her fingers when playing the violin. ‘I can turn on the TV to see hip hop but it’s more difficult for him to approach classical,’ she says, ‘because his knowledge mainly comes from film soundtracks.’
Focused from the start, in many ways Alina sums up the upbringing of a gifted child musician. ‘The whole family was musical,’ she explains patiently. ‘My mother was a violinist – I heard the violin even before I was born.’ Sometimes the pushiness of classically inclined parents sours the relationship: for instance Maria Callas, singing leading operatic roles in her teens, blamed her mother for a lost childhood. But there were no pressures for the infant Alina since the household knew nothing except music. Her father came to England as principal bass of the London Symphony Orchestra, her mother became professor of violin at The Yehudi Menuhin School. ‘I always knew what I was going to do,’ she says.
Her steely serenity is positively ruffled when she talks of violinist Gordan Nikolitch, her RCM teacher. ‘He told me to listen to all kinds of things, to read all kinds of things. We talked about … just life. It was unlike anything I’d had before. At the moment I’m trying to see a bit of everything.’
Not much time for everything when you’ve been a star from adolescence. The Times squawked ecstatically: ‘We were putty in her hands’ when she was 15. By her twenty-second birthday, on September 28, the Polevskoy-born violinist has been one of the eagle-eyed Radio 3’s talent-spotted ‘New Generation’ artists, has played – and directed – at the Verbier and Salzburg festivals and also stood in at short notice for superstar Maxim Vengerov’s late-night Prom, which was last month.
Does her life expand at all after spending time with Lethal? ‘It was really interesting learning about the history of the different directions of rap, the different political and musical views.’ But did she like it? ‘I’d like to hear more styles, to hear where it comes from. I still need to know how to listen to it.’ Compared with classical? ‘It’s like classical,’ she says carefully, ‘in that you must make an effort. You can’t just sit there and expect to be impressed.’ The final verdict is as judiciously phrased as one of her Bach partitas. ‘I don’t feel I know enough yet to say I don’t like it.’
So currently hip hop’s not on Alina’s hobby list. If indeed she has any hobbies at all: the jetset classical musico’s vices of cards and food while killing time in airport lounges or foreign hotels haven’t yet kicked in. So how does she relax? ‘I see friends. The cinema occasionally.’ Such as? ‘Lighter things. Tarkovsky.’
Alina’s ‘Hartmann – complete works for violin’ is out on Hyperion. She directs the Britten Sinfonia on Wednesday October 24 at 7.30pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall (0871 663 2500).
Lethal Bizzle’s ‘POMB’ single is out on Oct 1.
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