Search The Line of Best Fit
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Wu Lu Sep 2021 Guy Gooch1

On the Rise: Wu-Lu

17 November 2021, 15:00
Original Photography by Guy Gooch

Freshly signed to Warp Records, South London vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer Miles Romans-Hopcraft is bringing social conscience and local colour to his new project Wu-Lu.

Wu-Lu is trying not to forget. Rummaging through the rubble of his adolescence, in his music he brings back flashes of silver: the memory of places long since closed in his native Brixton, gutted and dormant from hiking rent prices, tripping over themselves in a scramble to double, triple, quadruple – to outprice and erase; the smell of plastic and sweat that clung to his face from the mask he was wearing when he was robbed for the first time on Halloween as a kid; bloody knees from skateparks, white-knuckled determination and cans of spray paint on railway lines. The weight of all these memories makes him want to scream.

On a warm September morning, I hear him before I can see him. A car pulls up, swelling with the basslines of jungle music. There’s no mistaking who's inside; despite getting “trolleyed” the night before watching Jeshi’s show at the 100 Club - after arming himself with water and vitamin C from the cash and carry - the light isn’t quite so sharp and as he starts the engine, with every turn, he begins to spill his stories.

To Miles Romans-Hopcraft, this city in his shrine, and music is his method. His Lex Amor-featuring track “South” dropped at the dawn of 2021 and is both an ode to and an exorcism of his ends. Long before the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, Romans-Hopcraft and his brothers and sisters had taken to South London streets, marching for not only their lives, but their memories. Over guitars that jut out like shards of splintered glass, he holds your gaze in sludgy, slack-jawed verses before throwing you under the 35 with a wild, unfettered screamo blow-out like he’s ready to sink his teeth into the nearest jugular. Every instrument in his band, every musical decision, serves an emotion. “That’s my flag in the ground,” he attests.

We arrive at a tangle of unassuming former council houses; tucked around a corner is a neglected basketball court. “This is where I come when I’m feeling funny, basically,” says Romans-Hopcraft. “If I’m feeling pissed off, or I need to go and think, or whatever, I just come here at night with my earphones in to shoot some hoops. It’s a recent favourite spot. No one really comes here.” It’s hard to find places in Brixton, now, that don’t feel forcedm, he explains: “There isn’t that homegrown energy of it taking a village to raise a child anymore. It’s more on the outskirts of it now, rather than the nucleus of it.”

He can tell many ghost stories of business which choked on the smog of gentrification long ago. The first that comes to mind was Kaff Bar on Atlantic Road. “A friend of mine ran it,” he recalls. “That road never got much love, and he spent loads of time trying to build it up with the community, working with businesses to try and make that road pop off. It was known for its good time. But when it started to gain a good reputation, the landlord tripled the rent – literally made it three times as much. It wasn’t even about, ‘You’re doing well, you can make it work’, it was literally, ‘Get out’. There’s no real fighting chance to compete with everything else around, you know? It’s just sad stories like that. Even places like Pop Brixton, who have a whole vibe of wanting to do something positive for the community, it’s just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He shrugs, “I’m just talking about it, but I don’t think there’s much I can actually do about it. I’m just fucking vexed, basically.”

Now, when it comes to fostering a sense of community, he says, “You’ve got to dig and find it.” For Romans-Hopcraft, it lay among the ramps of skateparks and in spray cans, painting his graffiti tag onto the city with his friends. “Those communities, man, they’re a big thing for me,” he tells me. “Everything’s about an anarchistic mentality.”

One of his recent tracks, “Times”, is an articulation of those inner-city worlds. Harking back to self-made skate tapes of the mid-90s over shredded guitars that breakdown into a cathartic free fall, it’s about nosebleeds, the rage of missing a trick as you smash your board onto the concrete, and that first rush of exhilaration when you drop in. “‘Times’ is about having to stand up with the olders, learning to puff your chest out and be like, ‘I can take it’,” he says. Earning your stripes, he explains, is a relevant experience in those communities. “But it’s a welcome pressure, the kind you want as a young person. I would go there and be like, ‘Give us a toke on that spliff’, or, ‘Give us some of that beer’, like, ‘I’m rolling with these lot, staying up all night, not gonna go home’. There are people who get really… not lost in it, but it affects them. It can put you in a headspace of not growing up, like Neverland.”

I ask if he lives close by? “Literally seconds,” he answers. He needs a phone charger, so it’s an excuse to scope out his place. He lives around the corner from where he and his twin brother, Ben, frontman of Childhood, were born. After clambering over a bike and trainers scattered in the stairwell and introducing his housemates, we arrive at his room: an unmade bed, shelves sagging with manga and records (he shows me his rare pressing of a Slipknot record: “This… now this cost me a lot of money, but a lot of my pride and joys are my old jungle records”.)

On his desk are a pair of speakers and a vase filled with purple flowers, and propped up on his bedroom wall is his guitar. “That’s my ‘Babylon Machine’,” Romans-Hopcraft points out, named after the Rastafarian term for the oppressive aspects of white culture. He shows me the kapa his brother gave him. “He was like, ‘Yo, you’re gonna need this.’ So then I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna call it ‘Babylon Machine’ because I’m gonna use this to essentially talk about, you know, bullshit and all the stuff that pisses me off.”

Romans-Hopcraft has a box underneath his desk with his original Gameboy inside. During lockdown, he’d sit and repair them, retreating into childhood memories of Super Mario World and Wario Land (he plays Toad on Mario Kart: “Toad’s the fastest, innit?’”) He tells me that yesterday, he read something about Capricorns: “We wanna be left alone, but we don’t like to be lonely.” By nature, he is a collaborative person, yet fiercely protective of his own ideas. When he does team up with someone, it’s based on finding a kindred spirit and fostering connection – not strategy or convenience. “Even my sound guy, we connected over the fact that he came into my studio, and I’ve got this thing called a Pandora’s Box with all the old 90s arcade games on it, and when he came in, he was like, ‘Is that a Pandora’s box? Have you got Street Fighter II? You know they still do tournaments?’ And I said, ‘We’re gonna get on so well…’ I just felt comfortable, and after that, I never felt the need to explain or filter my jokes or myself. Whoever I work with, I have to be able to communicate on a level of ease.”

I ask if he feels that he’s finally found his people. “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “But for a long time, I thought I hadn’t.” It all started at 20, when he found a friend who shared an affinity for A Tribe Called Quest’s defining record The Low End Theory and the experimental beatmaker Flying Lotus who spearheaded the LA music scene. “No one was on that around me.” They’d met at Raw Materials in Brixton, a creative arts community centre where Romans-Hopcraft is now a youth worker. “I started chatting to him and went ‘round to his house. He started playing me his beats, and I was like, ‘Rah! You’re into what I’m into! And you’re in Mitcham and I’m Streatham!’ I was like, ‘Come on bruv, that is wicked!’ From then on, I found my tribe – well, I found a tribe member, and built from that.”

It was through forcing himself to be present and visible in the spaces he wanted to be a part of that he would meet Errol Anderson, co-founder of the South London collective Touching Bass alongside Alex Rita. What began as as a communion of friends, creative expression and a love of music that makes you move, would expand into an entire community: “It was just a platform for us to be ourselves, essentially, whatever that meant. And I guess from that, other people got involved and itwas almost a springboard for people to be confident with their own thinking, and to develop that elsewhere or inside that space.”

Touching Bass has since become a record label and notorious club night, where invites are distributed last-minute via SMS. “People used to come and not expect nothing because it was a vibe – we purposely clocked that, and when it started to get a little bit weighty, we just got people to put their number on the mailing list to get a text for when the next one is. We just wanted to keep it all offline. Once it becomes commercialised, it loses its essence,” explains Romans-Hopcraft. It was the anchor of his twenties, and he continues to be a foundational figure within it. “That stuff is priceless,” he says. “That whole time was beautiful because no one really caught onto what was happening. It was just happening.”

I notice a canvas tucked in the corner of this room. “That’s my tag,” he tells me, “that’s what I used to paint, back in the day, but someone else had one similar, so we got into beef. That’s the only canvas I’d done when I was really into it. I thought I could sell it online,” he laughs, “I must have been, what, sixteen, seventeen?” I wonder if there’s any traces left of his work. There might be, he says, but we’d have to go onto a train track near Loughborough Junction – and as interesting as it might be, considering the effort and life-threatening risk which could be quite a drag, we opt instead, for the ‘Hall of Fame’.

In the car again. The traffic is sticky; it’s mid-afternoon and Brixton is coughing with the first flush of rush-hour fumes. Unless Romans-Hopcraft is in the mood to pull off a nine-point turn on one wheel, we’re stuck for a while. I mention an idea he had for a tattoo that I read in another interview: Goku, the protagonist of the Japanese anime series Dragonball Z, perched on a flying nimbus. “I’m getting it, it’s coming,” he tells me. “I’ve already spoken to the brudda, and he was like, ‘When you’re ready, bro, just come down and get it’… I mean, to be fair, I’m here today…”

It doesn’t take much persuasion. He’s on the phone and now, we’re on our way straight there to Rye Lanez Tattoos in Peckham. “I’m gonna get Goku on my leg!” he beams. “It symbolises my mission, basically. Getting on the cloud, getting on it – go.” After recently having had his first tattoo of an executioner, Romans-Hopcraft has a taste for the ink; his reckless, no-fucks-given mindset could mean an entire sleeve is just a matter of time. Romans-Hopcraft is naturally drawn to anime, with memories from his childhood of Akira, Violence Jack and Fist of the North Star flashing before his eyes in the small hours of Saturday nights at his auntie’s house on the Sc-Fi Channel. “Those were the ones, man,” he says. “I remember my mum saying to me that they used to show anime in clubs in the 90s as visuals and that.”

"I call myself Wu-Lu [because] it reminded me of the Amharic word for ‘water’, so I’m not confined to any shape."

Romans-Hopcraft himself is no stranger to the ones and twos. He’d been DJing since he was thirteen after becoming a disciple of the 2001 documentary Scratch, where he was first acquainted with the producers and DJs who were waxing poetic on beats and vinyl from South Bronx all the way through to San Francisco. We inch forwards in the traffic and Brixton Mass, the old church converted into a three-storey night club, pulls into view. We get onto the topic of dubstep, which originated in the estates of London, and he points out, “It started right there, bruv… well, it didn’t start in there - it started in Croydon - but that right there, is a big part of it. There was no light - just a dark room and music. That’s the OG spot for that, loud, loud, loud but bassy, proper thumping. So sick.”

Often, the wires of Wu-Lu and the ‘South London jazz scene’ become tangled. His friends and collaborators run within and parallel to it, and so he has been carried away by the same current. “I made such a big point of being de-associated with that,” he says, “I think it’s just a label to categorise things, and I guess humans are always gonna do that because they need something to hold onto, but I firmly tried to distance myself from that term, so I could live on my own. You know, I’m into classical music and orchestral stuff. That’s why I call myself Wu-Lu,” he explains. “It reminded me of the Amharic word for ‘water’, so I’m not confined to any shape.”

If any category applies to Wu-Lu, then ‘punk’ makes for a more comfortable fit. “If anything, I like the energy behind the word,” Romans-Hopcraft tells me. “I guess the mentality is more what I’m into than stating that I’m a punk artist. So many things are punk, man. Like Tirzah – she’s punk. She don’t give a fuck, and I don’t give a fuck. And that’s what I’m trying to hold onto. Like in the graffiti and skating communities, if you wanna hop over the fence and go and do that thing – yeah, it’s risky, but you can get away with it. You can get away with anything.”

As we speak, Romans-Hopcraft is in the midst of creating his debut album, which he'll release via his new label - the legendary Warp, home of Aphex Twin, Flying Lotus and Kelela. He struggles to articulate, at first, exactly what it is because everything he writes about is so intrinsic to who he is. “I think I’m just going through an exfoliation of my thoughts and experiences,” he says. “Things I’ve never really spoken about. It’s one giant life puzzle, and this album is about building the first section of it, and all the left-over pieces will set the tone for the future. It’s more of a coming of age thing, with me talking peripherally about my life as person of colour growing up in London, looking back on my younger self. All of my music is just drawn from nostalgia – I mean, you’ve seen my room. It’s like going onto your old iPod and remembering where you were in life when you first heard a particular song. It’s about intangible stuff that brings you back to that space. I’m trying not to forget. I guess it’s about hoarding memories, innit.”

Youth, and the hard-won scars that come with it, has, in many ways, been his muse and motivator. As someone who has worked with kids in everything from youth centres to pupil referral units and community studios, Romans-Hopcraft feels that the essence of his work is about paying it forward. “There was always some older in a space like that who would talk to me on my level, or gave me life advice,” he remembers. “I took more of a liking to that. All of that is worth its weight in gold. Working with young people, you can kind of see a little image of yourself reflected back at you.” He recalls a quote he heard in a documentary. “There was a guy going around close to my age, and he was like: ‘When we were growing up, we thought we were invincible, but now, the kids today are trying to prove it.’”

Now, after a few, cluttered hours, Romans-Hopcraft is lying on his stomach as the tattoo artist is inking Goku onto his lower leg. I sit on the floor and slide my Dictaphone next to him on the table. Considering he’s somewhat hungover as the needle carves out shapes in his skin, he’s only slightly absent-minded as we talk, prone to protracted silences as he forgets a question. I ask if it’s painful. “Yeah. I’m just firming it,” he says. “There have been worse pains. I’ve broken so many bones in my body, man, but it’s calm.” Wrist, finger, arm, leg, toe, he lists them off – most of them from when he got hit by a car, but the rest: “That’s all from too much skating or just being a dumb kid, basically.”

Does he ever wish, sometimes, that he’d chosen an easier life? A life without sleepless nights from the precarity of scraping together a living? A life a little less exhausting from trying to strike the balance between work and play as they merge into one? “Bare times! Bare times!” he laughs. “But I’ve gone way too far. It’s like I chose the picture, I showed it to the tattoo artist, and I’ve started the tattoo. I’ve got to complete it. My dad always said to me when I was younger: ‘Being a musician is hard, man. It’s really, really hard – so find a plan B.’ He gave us this big lecture, but then my brother turned to me and said, ‘But we’ve obviously got to do music, innit?’”

Romans-Hopcraft’s parents chose to walk the same path. His father, Robin Hopcraft, is a trumpeter, and has played in myriad bands in his life from Afro-jazz fusion to reggae. His most recent musical incarnation is with Soothsayers, who have toured all over Europe after having been met with wide acclaim. In his career, he has played several times with both of his sons. “He’s done bare stuff with me. He did the arrangements for some of my old beats from way back, like “Afro Let Down”. He’s even playing on the album,” Romans-Hopcraft shares. “I played in his band many times over the years, playing bass with the Soothsayers. He used to do the horn section for my brother’s band, Childhood, too.”

His mother is a contemporary dancer, lecturer and alumnus of the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. “She still dances when she can,” he tells me, “but it’s more of a headspace thing these days. It’s like me with music. If I don’t do it, I will go mental. I know it.” He always believed, as a kid, that having two creative parents was the norm. “I literally thought that’s what everyone had around them. I was asking other kids what instruments their dad plays, or what company their mum tours with. Both my parents are living proof of being creative and surviving in that, to never give up on what you want to do. If someone says no, if someone says you can’t do it, give them the finger and fucking show them that you can.”

Romans-Hopcraft is already thinking about his next tattoo. We talk about Tetsuo, the antagonist of Akira, but then he says, “You know what I’m actually gonna get? ‘Miss Tiny’, my grandma’s nickname, on my neck.” He wanted to dedicate his cover of The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” at End of The Road Festival to her after she’d passed away. He remembers being sat in the car with his brother trying to find the right song, and they remembered that back in school, when their uncle passed away, they would sing that song in the school choir. And it was autumn. All the leaves were brown. And as they found themselves driving along the same road where they’d heard the news, they realised that was the perfect fit. Even now, after his sold-out headline show at Peckham Audio, he still dedicates his show “to Lydia, to tonight, and this whole fucking good time.”

There’s no doubt in his mind about what counts as a “fucking good time”. His performances at End of The Road - both his secret set and main slot later that night - were among the most talked about highlights that entire weekend. “I always try to conserve all my energy for as long as possible until 20 minutes before the gig,” he tells me, “and then I’m storming around backstage, I grab the band by their faces and scream as loud as I can – like immersive fear, to get them into character. By the time I got on stage, I wad fucking ready.” It was the first time he and his twin brother had played together on one of his sets. “I stood on the barrier and leaped into the crowd, and then my drummer was like, ‘Rah! Miles set pace!’ He cocked back, took a good few paces back and leapt forward. He looked like a fucking dolphin. I was kinda jealous, so at my brother’s show with Warmduscher, I launched myself off there and landed on a fucking bouncer. I smashed up my leg. It was crazy, but I enjoyed it – just not giving a fuck, man. I wasn’t even in my own head. I just found myself on the barrier.”

Success, to Romans-Hopcraft, is to simply live out every intention. His tattoo is wrapped in clingfilm now, and as we go back to the car, he says, “I already feel successful, but the goalposts always move. I mean, I definitely want to achieve more and get better, always, but at the same time, if I die tomorrow, I’m happy, man. If someone told me back when I was a kid that I’d go to the studio, I’d be on stage playing my music, travelling to all your favourite spots from Tony Hawk’s, then I’m living out my dreams now.”

"Broken Homes" is out now. Wu-Lu headlines Village Underground on 14 June 2022
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