Wednesday, September 28

‘Maybe we’ll become a genre’: Wu-Lu, the punky lo-fi hip-hop star moving fast to transcend labels | Music

Yyou can hear the screaming from across the street. Through the window of a Brixton skate shop, two drummers are pounding away at a kit on a makeshift stage. Miles Romans-Hopcraft, AKA Wu-Lu, is hunched in front, cradling a microphone. The veins on his neck of him are pulsing as he bellows, while a handful of people surround him with their legs shaking, ready to jump.

When we meet in early July, Romans-Hopcraft has spent the week skating through London clutching a fistful of bright pink stickers bearing the slogan, “Where’s Wu-Lu?” Slapping them on to lamp-posts and blank walls, Romans-Hopcraft has been hinting at the release of his debut album by him, loggerheadwith a series of pop-up shows at his favorite spots in the city.

“The screaming hits a little endorphin button,” he says when we meet during a skating break at his south London studio. “Before I do shows with the band, we huddle up and I just scream in their faces to get us hyped up because, when we’re on stage, we’re giving everything we got. It’s for us as much as it is for the audience – we’re letting everything out that’s pent up, and we even have an empty mic there for people to get up and express themselves, too.” I have paused. “No one’s done it yet though.”

Romans-Hopcraft was indoctrinated into the thrill of live music from an early age: alongside his twin brother, Ben, he guested in his trumpeter father’s reggae-fusion band Soothsayers as a preteen. By 15, he was making his own beats on a drum machine and sampling from the records that his mother de el, a contemporary dancer, would bring home from her job de ella at the charity Youth Music. Over the next decade, Romans-Hopcraft would teach himself production skills, resulting in a dubstep project under the name TJ Mileage and an atmospheric hip-hop collaboration with producer Hector Plimmer as Monster Playground. Finally he landed on the solo moniker Wu-Lu, adapted from the Amharic word for water (“wuha”).

As Wu-Lu, Romans-Hopcraft has defied genres. He produced breezy lo-fi beats on his self-released 2015 debut Ginga, before foregrounding a grittier, guitar-led sound on 2018’s Habeshaand finding his breakthrough with the blazing, punk-fueled anti-gentrification anthem South in 2021. Released with an energetic video that featured Romans-Hopcraft and his band joining Black Lives Matter protests in Brixton, the song became a paean to the rapidly changing area where the 32-year-old has spent his life. “I used to live in south London / There’s not much of it left,” he sings in a guttural baritone before that rasping scream erupts, expressing anguish and release in equal measure.

“Brixton is a place that I never really realized meant so much to me until it started changing,” he says. “You take it for granted but now it feels like the community is being turned from sugar cane into white sugar – all the nutrients and joy are being refined out of it into something that is unhealthy.”

As a teenager, Romans-Hopcraft found his community in a local skatepark. “I would hang out with a lot of older guys and they took me under their wing,” he says. “They had an ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude but they would always look out for the youngsters. It was like a family and they taught me it was important to pursue what gave you joy, no matter what other people think.”

He took on that attitude of his skatepark elders after enrolling at Brixton music and media school Raw material. Romans-Hopcraft eventually became a tutor, teaching production while he used his studios to write his own tracks. “They gave me time and space to develop my craft, which is so hard to come by now with arts funding cut everywhere,” he says. “It really taught me the importance of giving back to the younger generations. If we don’t fight for them, everything we have will be uprooted.”

After leaving Raw Material, he went on to work at Alford House youth club, in nearby Kennington, encouraging musical youngsters to develop creative independence. “If you really want to do something, you can do it yourself – you don’t need to wait for a label to sign you,” he says. “I’m living proof of that.”

It’s an ethos that he applied to the creation of Loggerhead when Covid first struck in 2020. Hanging out one day in a friend’s empty pub, he decided the cavernous space would be perfect to record in. A few days later, he had hired a mixing desk and invited his band down to jam. “We played through the night until 7am and came up with the riff for the single Broken Homes,” he says. “The next day I decided: we’re making an album. I’m gonna spend all my money and see what happens.”

The noise complaints soon arrived, and the group were kicked out. Still, Romans-Hopcraft scoured his south London contacts and found another space one of them had set up farther afield – in Norway. A few flights, one month and 40 demos later, he had the bones of Loggerhead. Whittled down to just 12 tracks, the finished album is a powerhouse of unvarnished self-expression, veering from the soft melancholy of Calo Paste to the indignant anger of Times, featuring rapper Lex Amor and singers Greentea Peng and Léa Sen.

“This is a record about being alone in your head,” Romans-Hopcraft says. “It has a punk ethos but I don’t know what genre to call it. It’s just a diary of how I’ve been feeling; maybe the name Wu-Lu will become a genre in itself.”

The genre-splicing nature of Romans-Hopcraft’s sound enticed record labels, and he eventually signed with Warp. “I did it at this point in my career because I can take us all along with me now – my band and even my 14-year-old brother,” he laughs. “Just as my dad got me and Ben on stage when we were kids, I got him up and crowdsurfing at Glastonbury [where Wu-Lu performed on the William’s Green stage]. That’s what it’s all about.”

Indeed, that Glastonbury show was a family affair. It featured brother Ben – later Childhood frontman and one half of the duo Insecure Men – on bass and their mother in the crowd. “That was actually the first time my mum has seen me play as Wu-Lu,” he says, smiling. “She was so proud backstage, telling everyone: ‘That’s my boy.’ She always told us kids that we can achieve whatever we commit to, and that’s why I just go with my heart. It’s gotten me this far – let’s see where we get to next.”

Loggerhead is out now. Wu-Lu plays Village Underground, London, on September 8.

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