“People don’t really care. They just see us as criminals”: Ambush on injustice, police brutality and his bar-setting mixtape

'Ask My Brother' finds the Camden rapper putting out one of the most honest and raw road rap mixtapes in recent history...

18.06.20 Words by: Robert Kazandjian

One way to propel yourself from the underground to new heights in Black British music is to invite certified North London legends Chip and Skepta onto the remix of your exuberant club banger, hold your own, and arguably spin them on the track. Camden’s Ambush did exactly that in the summer of 2018 with the remix of ‘Jumpy’, introducing his distinct flow and undeniable authority on the mic to a global audience.

Ambush has been on the scene for more than a minute, cutting his teeth on grime dubs in his big brother’s bedroom studio and impromptu clashes at the local youth club as early as 2005, before carving a lane in road rap as the best medium for expressing himself and sharing his truths.

The rapper’s first full-length offering since 2012 debut project ‘About My Business’, is ‘Ask My Brother’, a masterclass in anthemic road rap, supercharged with street energy and punctuated by Ambush’s honest, raw storytelling. A lesser rapper would be swallowed by the sheer force of the production, but Ambush is a microphone champion. On the surface, this is jump-in-the-car, windows-all-the-way-down, bass-all-the-way-up music.

There are nods to a grime upbringing, with rapid-fire features from D-Double E and RA on ‘Started’. Two stand-out verses from Giggs and a C-Biz appearance pay homage to the generals of road rap. The tape rounds off with ‘Tommy Shelby (OutDrill)’, a fierce display of lyricism which offers listeners a window into Ambush’s uncompromising determination, and showcases his ability to ride UK drill beats as comfortably as anyone.

Beyond the braggadocios and boasts, there is a pain and urgency to ‘Ask My Brother’. The struggle it depicts of young Black men trying to succeed in the cities, but getting “caught up in this street shit,” and having their lives blighted by the futility of violence and incarceration, speaks loudly to the structural racism which produces these outcomes.

The timing of ‘Ask My Brother’s release is especially poignant. Black communities worldwide are engaged in a constant struggle for justice, but with the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota, this struggle has once again captured the wider consciousness. Ambush knows first hand the extent of police brutality right here in the UK: his cousin died while in custody in 2017. That is the cutting edge of the structural racism Black communities are fighting. Offering listeners such an impressive, relevant body of work against this backdrop feels particularly significant.

There’s currently huge momentum here behind the Black Lives Matter movement, but your family has personal experience of the violence police aim at Black communities. You lost a cousin, Nuno Cardoso, while in police custody. What are your thoughts on what’s happening at the moment, and do you think this momentum can continue until we see some serious change?

Obviously, when [Nuno’s death] was all fresh, we were proper outraged. I was marching in 2018 with multiple other families that have been affected by deaths in police custody. What I realised then was that it’s actually systemic. A lot of people don’t know, like 1600, 1700 people have died in police custody since 1990 and not one police officer has been convicted. So it’s like a systemic thing what they got going on. I was adamant that someone was gonna get charged and put away for my cousin, man. They got off as well. They were found not guilty, no wrongdoing innit. Even though they dragged him out of his dorm and killed him. So really the optimism I had about the system changing or getting justice went out the window with that.

It’s good what’s going on right now, everyone’s raising awareness and a lot more people are aware of racism that goes on day-to-day, and the police brutality we suffer but I’m not sure how much change you can actually effect. I just hope it opens everybody’s eyes and people dive into history to see how we got here as a nation and as a people. For anything to actually really, really change, every case there’s ever been would have to be revisited, reopened, retried. No-one’s ever been found guilty. You see how George Floyd died, so many people have died in similar ways, even worse ways. And police are found not guilty of it because it’s systemic. They know what they’re doing, they can’t be found guilty otherwise it would fuck up the whole the whole thing. So I’m not sure how much change it’s gonna bring about, but hopefully it starts to change the mentality of people and it opens them up to learning about history and how we got here in the first place.

They make it impossible for Black people to get justice.

One hundred percent, my mum broke it down for me. George died, so everyone’s angry, everyone’s upset. There won’t be no trial, no hearing, nothing until a year or two from now. They drag these things out for time, so by the time you get to court, all your anger has basically left your body, the fight has left your body. Then they make you go through mad processes and then they find the police not guilty.

Have you seen the madness about Digga D and Dutchavelli being threatened with recall to prison for supporting BLM?

That’s what I’m saying. Even my brother, he came home. I spoke to his probation before he came home. I told them that he’s gonna be cool, he’s gonna be on the straight and narrow. I’ve got a label and I signed him to it. So all he’s gonna be doing is making music. He’s a very talented guy, very talented, all round musically, and the focus is going to be completely on the music and his career. But his bail conditions when he came out, his license conditions were that he can’t be in any music videos, or say anything gang related. He’s spent most of his adult life in prison. The joke is he didn’t go jail for any sort of gang thing, or to do with music. Any opportunity for him to have a blossoming career, they’re trying to ex it out, completely. And it’s so evident, the positives from letting us do music.

People need to be aware of how deep this goes.

These are the struggles we’ve been facing, for years and years and years. It’s not stopped. Now because of what’s happening and the buzz around the situation people might take it in and give a retweet, give it a read. But people don’t really care. They just see us as criminals.

Thinking about your brother, what were your early experiences of making music?

Yeah, my brother, he had a studio setup in the yard since he was like fourteen. I used to make dubs in my brother’s studio. I was initially inspired by that.

Was that grime that you were making?

That was grime them times. We had a youth club where we used to go. Everyone used to link up there, we’d go do sets. It was proper good.

Is that youth club still open?

Nah, that closed a long time ago. That’s what I’m saying, there’s nothing for these kids to do bruv. All they can do is sit at home, watch fucking YouTube and turn into little crazy motherfuckers out here.

After your early experiences with grime, you moved to a road rap sound. Did that let you express yourself in the way you wanted to?

Yeah, exactly, I grew up on that style of rap as well. From Giggs, to Blade Brown, Kano, and even the Americans; 50 Cent, Styles P, Max B, Jay-Z. Big inspirations for the way man raps.

Camden is a big point of reference for your music. If you don’t know London, or you didn’t really live a bit of life on the roads, then you think Camden is all nice bohemian pubs and clubs. What was coming up in Camden like, and how did it shape you as an artist?

People don’t know because they don’t live round here, but there’s a lot that goes on. I come up in Queen’s Crescent. If you just Google the history of Queen’s Crescent, you’ll see a notorious estate. I grew up right in the middle of all of it man.

Unless you’re really quite deep into Black British music, you don’t really associate Camden with producing rappers. Was there any hostility from the scene when you first started releasing music, being from Camden?

N-Dubz came from Camden. They were like pop stars. With their early music though, they was dropping proper tunes. They set a bar. They’re proper good musicians, they made proper, timeless good songs. That was kinda like the bar in Camden. Obviously man was on the streets. I put my whole street twist on the situation, my whole story of what goes on, musically on big beats. Not everybody could ride them but I respect the art, man. I respect the music.

‘Jumpy’, and especially the remix with Chip and Skepta, opened you up to a much wider audience. How do you how did that all come about?

To be honest, Chip was fucking with man from early. He used to snap man when he was listening to my songs and shit. When we thought about doing a remix, we thought Chip would be on it, so we messaged him. It was like he already had it written – sent me the verse two days later. We were thinking, ‘How we gonna top this shit? We need someone fucking special, fam, to make this official’. I must have been performing at a festival called Strawberries & Creem. Skepta was there. He watched me perform ‘Jumpy’. He was going nuts backstage. I come off the stage and he was like ‘Rah, you’re too sick.’ I just said to him on a whim, ‘What you saying, remix?’ He was like ‘Yeah, go on!’ I said, ‘Fucking hell boy!’ That’s how it happened, organic.

Could you tell it was going to be a big moment when you dropped that?

One hundred percent, the tune was already going off. Even Skepta said, ‘You didn’t need to put me on it.’ But that was a big look man. No-one had done anything that big, so it was a big moment for the ends. It definitely went global. I’m not sure that if I expected it to go that big, but I knew that it was definitely gonna bang.

When you hear ‘Jumpy’ in the dance it’s mad!

Come on that’s the anthem rudeboy, that’s the anthem!

Have you caught any of the NS10Vs10 clashes on No Signal radio? They had North against East, and I was thinking why hasn’t North drawn for any Ambush tunes. Do you see Camden as part of North London? Is it North-West?

It’s a weird one because it’s North West, but it’s also central and it’s also North. But the postcode is NW1, NW3 and NW5. Who won the clash?

East won with the last track. I’m from Edmonton. I wanted North to win so I was a bit sad.

North’s a bit moody, I put myself in North West still! (Laughs)

Fair play! So ‘Jumpy’ was a massive moment, but then things got derailed and you found yourself in jail. How did that effect you?

That was like prime time in my career, off the back of ‘Jumpy’ and ‘Man Can’t’, and all that. I did ‘Bring Em Out’ with Suspect and then we both ended up in jail. I was a bit rattled. I didn’t expect to stay in jail for as long as I did. I just had to humble myself and ride that time, ‘cos it’s not easy. Then man come out with a focus to just get it cracking, man. That’s all I’ve been trying to do, stay off the road and stay on the music. It’s mad because jail was more like a natural habitat to me than the music industry. Then going and I’m basically famous now, I’m a high profile prisoner, all the guvs know who I am. It made me realise I need to focus and not get distracted.

Did that time inside make you more determined with your music?

Yeah, for sure but it was a blow, like what did I do to deserve this? Because honestly, I was in jail for something stupid, literally self-defence.

They kept denying you bail, didn’t they?

They kept denying me bail bruv, it was madness.

Do you think that’s because you’re a young Black man with a platform now?

That’s exactly what that was. Like of all people who should get bail, I should get fucking bail. Man was booked out for the whole summer, Wireless, some of the biggest festivals in the country. Why are they telling me that I should stay in prison for having a punch-up in a club where I was performing? I was threatened. My friend got attacked. All we did was defend ourselves. That situation is easy to explain to any judge, but the police and the prosecution probably had a hard-on for man because of who I am now. I didn’t understand at the time but then my brief explained it to me: ‘You’re high profile now, they want to have your name.’ It’s just a game to these people, man. They want to have you under their belt. It’s fucked.

Since you’ve come home the work rate has been a lot, and ‘Ask My Brother’ is the high point of it. On ‘Free Rowdy’ you shout out your baby mum and daughter. I’ve got a baby on the way and I’m not gonna lie, I’m a bit stressed about it! How was fatherhood impacted your outlook on life?

I can’t lie, you know they say when you have children, you change. I didn’t realise that initially, but I’ve clocked, it makes you more sensitive. You feel pain. Like before I was a bit cold hearted. Now you watch you watch movies and that differently, you watch it from a parent’s perspective. Whereas before you might laugh at something, now you see the parent’s perspective.

Has that impacted the way you write music?

Yeah, but at the same time I try to be as unfiltered as possible when I’m making music, because it’s like therapy for me. I have to be as honest as possible and then anything that might offend them, they can accept as the truth. I don’t like to fabricate or exaggerate.

It’s interesting you mention therapy. There’s a bar from ‘Kill It’: “I got PTSD, how the fuck they gon’ heal that?” Does writing help deal with those feelings?

I think it does. It’s what keeps me sane really. Just hearing it back, getting it off my chest. That’s what therapy’s about, not keeping it inside and I feel like when it goes out and people resonate with it, it makes you feel better about the situation.

You’re currently an independent artist, right?

I’m the CEO and director of Buzzworl Ent. I’m on this Roc-A-Fella, Jay-Z ting.

What’s the vision long term?

I’m trying to take it to the top, man, and be a mogul. I’m trying to have several businesses popping but mainly the label. I’ve already got a roster of artists and I’m just tryna make the company as big as possible. Hopefully we can compete with the majors one day, that’s the dream.

Who’s on your roster that we should be looking out for?

Yeah, look out for SP Montiz, Frank Etwa and Presi Pros, that’s my brother. They’re all signed to Buzzworl. Mubz Got Beatz, that’s my producer.

What benefits does independence give you when you’re making music? What would be different if you were signed to a label?

When you’re on a label it’s really tactical man, just like ‘get to the money, get to the money’ so they release songs that you don’t wanna release because of the sound or how it feels or ‘cos it’s the same as the last one, shit like that. And they won’t let you release a song until you recoup the money. I’m really more about the art of it, just letting it flow naturally. So the way my tape is, I really just needed to give the streets a body of work so they can understand who I am and how I can actually rap. I’m pretty sure with a label situation, they would’ve had me on getting bare different types of singles and features so we can sell as much as possible. I don’t think music’s about that, initially. Especially on the come-up. Obviously I’ve got a buzz and people try to capitalise off the buzz. With these labels, they’ll capitalise off your buzz, but buzzes come and go. If you continually drop proper music, real music, I feel like you can have a long-lasting career. Also, I don’t like putting my art in other people’s hands. I’ve been through way too much to let a next man control my art.

You could end up with Ed Sheeran singing a hook.

(Laughs) Nah, Ed Sheeran is proper stuff, but I hear what you’re saying.

A lot of these labels are run by middle-aged white guys too.

They don’t even know. This is our thing. We created this. My mum, she’s so surprised at how we’ve taken it from the bedroom to the world stage. Literally nobody used to listen to us. We used to do this in the youth clubs, and, fucking… by ourselves in our bedrooms. These labels didn’t fuck with us. So what do they know about handling our sound and our music and our culture?

What can we expect from you in the future? The tape is massive, but how will the album you eventually release be different?

This is a bit more street. Yeah, obviously moving on I’m gonna get a bit more musical. We’ll try a couple different sounds. I’m very versatile as an artist. That’s why I just had to solidify that I could rap with this one, and then you might even hear me do some vocals soon bruv! But one hundred percent, keeping it authentic to myself and my sound and the Buzzworl sound.

Following the publication of this article we were made aware of accusations of sexual assault by Ambush from Ray BLK. We have decided to keep the feature live out of respect to the racial issues discussed in the piece, but want to express solidarity with Ray and other victims of sexual assault.