Weigh Anchor: Mura Masa interviewed
Prodigal beatmaker and Anchor Point Records maestro Mura Masa talks to The Skinny about coming from the underground to make a pop album
It’s felt like a long wait, but two years after his Someday Somewhere EP and Mura Masa is finally releasing his eponymous debut album. In between we’ve had plenty of singles (many destined for the album), co-writing credits with Stormzy and Låpsley and teased announcements that the album would be out “soon” – only to be followed by silence.
“All the times when I said, ‘Yeah it’s coming soon,’ I genuinely thought that,” confesses Alex Crossan, the chilled-out 21-year-old behind the Mura Masa persona, “but it just took me a bit longer than expected I guess. I really wanted to get it right the first time.” And getting it right meant putting the hours in. “I really put the pressure on myself,” he admits. “I played all the instruments on the album, produced it all myself, so it’s been a really solo endeavour.”
Taking his name from Muramasa Sengo, a 16th century Japanese swordsmith (an obscure reference to match his bookish cool), Crossan is part of a new generation of artists who transcend the limits of geography and access, whose bedroom productions are discovered via music sharing platforms like SoundCloud. “I’m from Guernsey, and that’s quite a far removed place,” he explains. “I was relying on the internet very early on to provide me with a window – or a lens – through which to see underground culture and club culture that I wasn’t experiencing in real life. The internet is the genesis of my music tastes and the way I make music.”
Prior to Mura Masa, Crossan had shot to digital prominence thanks to the single Lotus Eater, an electronic track taking the hallmarks of the emerging trap scene (808 snares, big bass and meaty drops) and blending them with eastern flute samples. With the track picked up by key UK radio personalities, it wasn’t long before he uploaded the rest of his 2014 beat tape Soundtrack to a Death to SoundCloud (eventually releasing it via Jakarta Records).
The mixtape was stylistically experimental, predominantly electronic but flavoured with hip-hop and eclectic sampling. His follow-up EP, 2015's Someday Somewhere, honed this experimentation down to key elements: steel drums, hip-hop percussion and choice collaborators (Bonzai, NAO, Jay Prince).
Jumping ahead to 2017, his debut LP, distributed by Polydor, is certainly worth the wait. But for all his previous eclecticism – and penchant for electronics – he’s put out a focused pop record, rich in hooks and traditional song structures. From one perspective it’s a striking gear change, from another it’s a savvy graduation avoiding any compromise of his distinctive sound. “I think that came out of an interest in pop music, and what makes a song part of pop culture – or what makes it enjoyable to a wider audience,” justifies Crossan. “I’ve always loved pop music, but I took the time to explore it in this album a bit more than I have in the past.
“I guess it’s just about taste, really, and what I’ve been listening to and enjoying. Over the last couple of years I’ve been getting into very classic music – like I’ve gotten really into The Beatles and Iggy Pop. I’ve also been listening to a lot more Prince since he died.”
And you can hear it: there are a lot more funk-inspired basslines than in his previous work, with one track – Nothing Else, featuring Brit soul singer Jamie Lidell – sounding like an undiscovered Prince gem. But he’s far from shedding his underground roots. “The electronic stuff won’t ever go away – I’m about to do an Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1, and it’s basically a really tangential journey into loads of weird experimental club music. So it’s definitely there as an influence, and you can kind of hear it in some of the album tracks, but the focus was more on traditional songwriting and skewing pop sensibility.”
The pop credentials are there – not just in the infectious arrangements, but in the record’s family of collaborators, such as chart dynamo Charli XCX, Britpop gorilla Damon Albarn and visionary artist Héloïse Letissier (better known as Christine & The Queens), alongside hip-hop buddies A$AP Rocky and Desiigner. “Every person on the album is somebody who I’m a big fan of,” Crossan explains. “Mainly it comes about like that – just people who I’ve reached out to and they’ve been down to be a part of this weird collaborative album.”
One partnership in particular was a pivotal moment in Crossan’s career, as well as being the reason the steel-drum-heavy Lovesick, fka Lovesick Fuck, from Someday Somewhere became the hip-hop banger Love$ick. “I’d say collaborating with A$AP Rocky was a really important thing, because he was the first big A-list celebrity with a bit of clout to really take the time to come to the studio with me and make some music.”
On top of everything else, Crossan also runs his own label imprint, Anchor Point Records. Irish/American singer Bonzai – a key Anchor Point artist and good friend to Crossan – reappears on Mura Masa, having featured on both Soundtrack to a Death and Someday Somewhere. Maintaining that communal, familial environment has been key to the label’s ethos. “I needed a way to independently release music and have my own creative space, without wanting to have the overbearing presence of an external record label – that’s where the idea of Anchor Point came from.”
If the label’s raison d’être is to provide a platform for him and his friends to release music, then this has been facilitated by the regionless connectivity of the internet. And Anchor Point is just one of many emerging independent labels and imprints (some, like Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs project, aren’t even strictly labels) whose roots are wholly social and whose existence is contingent on the web; Crossan knows he’s in good company.
“There’s PC Music – SOPHIE, Danny L Harle, A.G. Cook – and there’s [Atlanta-based] Awful Records – they have Abra and Father and people like that. Then there’s a lot of weird imprint labels in London that release dance music...” he recounts. “If you look for long enough you can find so much cool shit that only exists in the digital world, which I think is amazing.”
It seems counterintuitive for Mura Masa the artist to be a champion of underground communities and alternative music, while Mura Masa the album is such a pop record – and one distributed, ultimately, via a label boasting clients as big as Lana Del Rey, Kendrick Lamar and Take That. But Crossan is conscious of this apparent contradiction and is keen to contextualise.
“PC Music actually did a major label deal, I think – and obviously my record label, Anchor Point, is an imprint label on Polydor, which is a major label. It depends on whether the major labels are willing to accept movements like that and cultivate them and help them out. At the end of the day, movements like that are grassroots-based and they’re based on friendships. Another one is 1-800-Dinosaur, James Blake’s label. Those guys are all just really good friends in real life, it’s not really something that can die at any point.”
An upshot to such groundswell movements is their effect on representation in the industry. “The situation is improving,” Crossan suggests. “There’s a new movement happening from social media and it’s moving from the bottom upwards, where there are communities that are getting together – afropunk is a really good example – and they’re trying to champion people from lots of different cultures that lack representation.”
It’s not all rosy, of course. “I do think there’s an ongoing problem where the people that are at the very top of the music industry are maybe feeding off of that underground bottom energy and not necessarily giving too much credit to those cultures.”
But, he adds, the internet is definitely helping. “Take Awful Records for example. Someone like Father, he can be putting out music through that and speaking about his culture in that way, but at the exact same time he can tweet about how he’s feeling about issues like that, and lots of people see him. Whereas if a major label are releasing music in that way, they don’t have that same fan interaction – so I think that’s a really powerful medium for drawing attention to those sorts of issues, and it creates a dialogue as well, which is super important.”
It’s particularly relevant to artists like Crossan, who have participated in the boom – and subsequent commercialisation – of trap music, a genre with its roots in southern American hip-hop and black culture. But he’s sensitive to the minefield of cultural appropriation. “There has to be, because of where that culture comes from,” he warns. “I think where it becomes dark and inappropriate is when you don’t credit the original cultures where those things come from, and you’re ignorant of those kinds of things. As long as you’re knowledgeable and respectful and you add something, and you’re not just taking and copying and culture-vulturing, I think it can be healthy and a celebration.”