One of pop's most in-demand up-and-comers, who's worked with everyone from Charli XCX to Damon Albarn, Mura Masa is here with a manifesto of his own.
Before introducing Mura Masa to the world, Alex Crossan would thrash it out in punk and metal bands from the age of 14. It's not the kind of musical background you would expect from a producer who fuses trappy electronic beats with infectious pop hooks and counts Charli XCX, A$AP Rocky and Christine and the Queens among his collaborators. "I just liked the energy," Alex enthuses, expanding on his love for punk music. "The energy is just so open and free and sort of expressive. I'd say it shares that with hip-hop in a lot of ways," the now 21-year-old considers.
Inspired by his dad, a bassist in an 80s rock band, joining forces with other local musicians was the easiest way into music. "I was listening to a lot of hardcore at the same time as a lot of rap records and, other than that, it was the closest thing to me," he says. Growing up in Guernsey, live music wasn't one of the island's main selling points. "There wasn't really an electronic scene or a DJ scene at all so being in bands was the easiest way for me to get into music, learn how to play different instruments and how to play live."
Having grown up on an isolated island, Alex didn't get to experience music in the same way a lot of aspiring musicians his age might have. "Obviously it's very isolated and closed off, so there wasn't any vibrant music scene in the same way there is in London… there weren't really any bands coming over to Guernsey to play," he laughs. "But I do remember going to see Jools Holland play with his brass band, and watching Chali 2na from Jurassic 5 gigging in a local pub."
The lack of live music in his hometown was soon made up for, though, thanks to his mum's taste in more traditional songwriters. "She got me into Joni Mitchell, and I'd listen to a lot of The Beatles growing up," Alex remembers. "Other than that, bands like Gorillaz as well… it was quite a mixed bag." But it was electronic music - discovered through the lens of the internet - that ignited his passion for producing. "It's the energy, and I just liked that far off idea of clubbing and the electronic scene," he says.
Artists like Lunice, the LuckyMe Records crew and Hudson Mohawke "formed my first exposure to electronic music that I found really interesting," he recalls. "From there, I discovered people like James Blake, SBTRKT and Cashmere Cat. It was quite a UK-centric way of discovering electronic music." After finding his influences, Alex began pirating music software and downloading music samples "from everywhere to try and teach myself how to produce music on my own and make an original sound".
Having crafted his own early productions - all pitch-shifted vocals, light yet danceable beats and emotive, infectious lyrics - Alex began uploading them to SoundCloud under the name Mura Masa, gathering hundreds and then thousands of likes and plays - all while studying for his A-Levels. "I got my management sorted, and my SoundCloud following started to pick up quickly. I guess when I started playing live shows, the record deals started coming in and it all felt a bit more real and tangible," he remembers of juggling education with a potential career in music.
"It started to feel less like internet popularity and more like a real world crossover," Alex considers, adding that his bubbling popularity didn't feel entirely real, having started studying at university soon after. "I felt like it was this private thing, like I had built up this little following and didn't really know who I was or where I was…" As his online popularity grew faster than he could have imagined, Alex left university "to take it a bit more seriously. I was focused on the music more than I was on my studies anyway," he remembers. "That kind of took over and distracted me a lot. In the long term, it did me good, though."
It turned out to be a clever decision because Alex is just about to release his debut album, which is essentially a genre-crossing reflection of everything pop music should be in 2017: diverse, interesting and surprising. After two-and-a-half-years worth of writing and recording - almost entirely on his laptop and a lot of it in his bedroom - Alex is happy to draw a line under it. A year in, though, he started feeling the pressure. "I really wanted to get it done," he recalls, "but I'm glad I waited because some of the people I've been able to collaborate with now would not have happened a year ago," Alex says. "I'm really glad I waited it out and made sure it was right."
Fusing the trap-heavy hip-hop of ‘All Around The World', ‘1 Night's infectious pop hooks and the Prince-esque funk of ‘Helpline', ‘Mura Masa' mixes multiple worlds. Rather than defining himself by a genre, Alex sets out his main goal: "My only real aim is to make good music that is interesting, translates well and is envelope-pushing in some way. I don't try too hard to stick to one sound…" he continues, "and that probably shows." Alex certainly isn't wrong.
"I guess it's just a snapshot of what's going on in music culture in the UK at the moment and a kind of manifesto for all types of pop music," he replies, when asked about what the record represents to him. "The cultures that are being cultivated and happening in London right now. I'm just excited for people to hear it finally and hope they enjoy the direction that it's gone in." Enlisting a massive roll call of collaborators, as well as working with artists signed to his Anchor Point Records imprint, Alex's debut showcases the talents of some of the UK's fastest-rising talents alongside international megastars.
Recording ‘Love$ick' with Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky at London's iconic Abbey Road studios, for example, was particularly surreal. "It was a really special experience and kind of mad! He's in London a lot and treats it as his second home, so he was really comfortable". Working with Christine and the Queens, too, on the heartfelt ‘Second 2 None', was an obvious highlight for Alex. "She recorded the whole song in two takes, straight off the bat - no warm-up. She's just phenomenal - one of the sweetest people I have ever met." But arguably the most unexpected guest appearance on the record comes from Brooklyn rapper Desiigner.
"I like that's it's an unexpected collab, and he brings a different flavour to the album," Alex says, adding that he wanted the album to be as diverse as possible "in terms of the people on it and their backgrounds and what they have to say…" Collaborating with Desiigner was a back and forth process, via email and phone calls, crafting ‘All Around The World' into "a traditional song structure, which he doesn't really tend to do," Alex continues. "So, I'm really happy I managed to get that out of him in a cool way. It's a very 21st-century collaboration."
Then there's ‘1 Night', a playlist-friendly pop banger featuring the always-brilliant Charli XCX. "She was in LA at the time when we wrote that, and we spoke on the phone. The first time I met her was at the video shoot; she was super lovely, and I'm just very lucky to be able to collaborate with people like her," Alex gushes. Meanwhile promoting newer, possibly unheard talents, he welcomes Tom Tripp, Bonzai and A. K. Paul. "I just like having that juxtaposition: names that people won't necessarily have heard but their music is just as good. I think it's important to cultivate new artists as well as collaborating with the bigger names. With all of them, though, it's because I think their music is amazing and they're super talented. It's almost nothing to do with how big they are…"
But Alex's most memorable experience was working with his lifelong hero: Damon Albarn. "That was crazy," he enthuses, still sounding shocked. "I'm not a very excitable person… I tend to stay very low key about stuff, but he originally got in touch about me working on the new Gorillaz album, and that was the craziest phone call I've ever received," he laughs. "We went back and forth on some Gorillaz stuff, and I don't think he used anything that I sent him, but I also sent him a couple of ideas for my own album."
Alex's pluckiness paid off in the form of album closer ‘Blue', which sees him duet with Damon to close out the record. "I think it's just super important that he's on there because he is a bastion of UK music. It's really special to have him close out the album, and I love how it's a duet as well. For me to sing on the same record as him and have him sing words that I wrote and melodies that I wrote, it's a crazy thing to have happened to me. It doesn't get much better than that, really."
Taken from the August issue of Dork. Order a copy below. Mura Masa's self-titled album is out now.