Chunky‘s voice has been the sound of the UK underground for more than a decade. As an MC, he’s a magnetic presence with an immaculate pen game. His catchy turns of phrase made him a standout fixture at Swamp 81, Hessle Audio, HOYA:HOYA and Hit & Run parties, forming a symbiotic partnership with affiliates such as Loefah, Zed Bias, Dub Phizix, Biome, Chimpo, Pearson Sound and Jonny Dub. As rapper and producer, he’s a multi-headed hydra chomping into hip hop and grime with the same ease as drum ‘n’ bass and leftfield techno.
Fast forward to 2023, and off the back of inking a deal with Alexander Nut‘s Eglo Records label, Chunky is transcending the rave to get into his own groove. The Zimbabwe-born, Manchester-bred artist waxes poetic about his roots on his highly anticipated debut album ‘Somebody’s Child’. He weaves a myriad of experiences with introspective lexicon, quick wit, and love for his family and friends set to a backdrop of deconstructed grime, rap and Afro-diasporic sounds that range from dancehall to dubstep.
“I know that people like me, and my music is a representation of me, so the same thing should happen. But it’s been an affirming experience for people to hear the music and go ‘Yo, this sounds like you. And it’s good.’ It’s kinda like cementing ‘You’re good bro. Nice one bruv’,” he says.
Chunky’s humbleness and charm permeate through Zoom. When we speak, it’s his birthday, and he has enough reason to celebrate. Off the back of dropping ‘Somebody’s Child’, he’s received widespread acclaim. Behind him, the first rays of spring sunshine spiral across the blue sky.
“Manchester is definitely home base, every time I need to reach out it’s like plugging into the mains,” Chunky beams as he whips from the back garden to his front door to introduce me to some neighbourhood dogs. His day one mate Rolla, who features on the album’s breakout belter ‘Meh’, and other folks pass by to toast his birthday.
Finally settling in on his staircase, behind an infectious smile Chunky takes me on a trip down memory lane to reflect on the 0161 bass music scene that shaped him, the past, present and future of MC culture, and what led to the deeply personal nuances laced within his debut LP.
“My family’s a big part of my life. So when my mum went back to Zimbabwe, I asked her to do some recordings with my aunties. All my grandmother’s daughters sang together in a church group because my grandad was a pastor innit,” Chunky reveals. “So when I found out they would be back together in the same room, this was an opportunity to get them to sing again. I asked them for the one tune that ended up on the album ‘A Long Life To My Enemies’, and they sent me back like eight other tunes they used to sing together. So I mixed some of those in too.”
Elsewhere on ‘Somebody’s Child’, Chunky incorporates two interviews he conducted with his baby cousin, at ages 7 and 13, riffing on his trepidations for the future and desire to accumulate more LEGO. There’s also skits with his good friends laughing about their first time smoking weed or aspirations to sell it.
Growing up, Chunky was raised on a diet of reggae, UK street soul, Zimbabwean, South African, Malawian and Tanzanian music, and a whole lot of country from the likes of Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. “My parents love music. They were always singing, music’s just always been around. Loads and loads of good records like Sade, Tom Tom Club and really good song-writing like Jonny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue’ or his version of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ is fucking amazing, heavy-hitting stuff. Then there’s the other guy, man…” Chunky bursts into Western twang singing 1970’s country singer- songwriter Don Williams ‘You’re My Best Friend’.
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When it came to creating his own music Chunky put pen to paper at 11-years-old. “I was always writing. It was grime culture so I was putting down lyrics constantly because I knew at some point I was going to get those bars out on a set. The highest accolade you could aim for at that point was a reload. So it was like ‘Yo, I’m writing this lyric that’s gonna get that reaction’,” Chunky explains. “I was making up lyrics while walking down the street. Then I learnt that’s called ‘freestylin’’. Then I learnt that’s called ‘rap’. Obviously off the back of that, other people started making tunes. So I started MCing and getting into bass music.”
Once Chunky grabbed the mic, he was propelled on a steady trajectory. His first time spitting lyrics worth a reload took place at age 15. From there, not only was he MCing, he was running free parties, hosting pirate radio, rubbing shoulders with the pioneers of drum ’n’ bass, dubstep and grime.
“There’s grime and then there’s dubstep happening. I’m growing up in grime and I’m watching dubstep happen which is OUR thing,” Chunky says passionately. “Up until that point, we’ve been told continually by elders: ‘You weren’t there when jungle happened! You weren’t there when garage happened! You weren’t there when hardcore happened!’ But now this was OUR thing.”
“I’m watching legendary dubstep MCs like SGT Pokes, who’s now a really good friend, from the back of the room and shit! I’m going ‘One day that’s gonna be me.’”
He started rolling with The Steppahs who took him on his first trip to London to host Ministry of Sound. “It’s all building up but I’m not even thinking nothing too deep about it,” he recalls. “I’m growing up side-by-side with heavy hitters watching how they do it. I’m on the road with The Steppahs and they’re taking me everywhere. Stanza (True Tiger) believes in me, Rich Reason (Hit & Run) believes in me. I’m meeting people, I’m putting myself everywhere I can. I’m just waiting by the DJ booth, like, ‘Yo, do you need an MC?’. I keep going. Even earlier, at 16/17-years-old I’ve been put in charge of the second room at [Nathan Brown’s event] Platoon. I’m meeting Exodus, who puts on SUBDUB in Leeds and is part of Outlook, and I’m hosting his set. This is EARLY. I’m just squeezing myself in to as many places as I can.”
Chunky’s hustle and flow was at maximum alongside a hunger and willingness to learn and experiment. He locked down annual sets at Outlook Festival after doubling up on his first-year as chaperone, ensuring punters from Leeds to Croatia all got on the bus. True Tiger took him out on an Enter Shakari tour. He was also working with live brass band Riot Jazz. “Now I’m working with eight guys who are all classically trained composers. One plays the sousaphone! So I started to learn stuff just being around these guys.”
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Fellow MC, DJ and producer Chimpo saw Chunky’s grind and suggested he focus on writing more lyrics if he wasn’t going to make beats. Instead, Chunky levelled up his sonic palette and added production to his arsenal. “Everyone else was using drum machines, and I wanted my stuff to be a bit different,” he says, then pauses, before admitting: “Actually, to be honest, I didn’t know everyone was using drum machines, so I was trying to make these sounds they were making, and that’s how I ended up with that palette. I was using 808s, cowbells, bending toms, bending congas, resampling. Then after a while I was like, ‘shit, I want to have my own version of a guitar and my own version of a piano.’ So I started making those kinds of sounds. A lot of those are out of cowbells, like proper distorted, fucked up kinda shit.”
He had his eyes locked on production but Loefah approached him with the proposition to be the MC and the voice of Swamp 81. “At that point I was like ‘Oh shit’ because I knew that Swamp was a serious thing and it had some serious eyes on it. I know this is going to be a significant moment to become one of the guys who is part of this culture.”
Chunky accepted, and cemented his status as the sound of the UK underground while continuing to gain knowledge. “I said to Zed Bias like ‘Yo, let me be your tea boy while you’re doing studio sessions’. He was like ‘Go on then’. So I’m in there watching and learning from all these artists coming through. Anytime someone says they’re thirsty I just go turn the kettle on. Until one day Zed’s like ‘I heard you’ve got some tunes.’”
Zed liked what he heard and put Chunky’s music onto Loefah. “I played Loefah some beats and he goes ‘I wanna sign some of them,’” Chunky says, but he was lacking self-belief. “I’m like ‘Nah it’s a gimmick. You’re just saying that ‘cause I’m your MC.’ For me it was like he’s Loefah! There’s Zed Bias, Boddika, fucking Addison Groove, Tessela, GoldFFinch, Trevino, Skream, Pinch, Kryptic Minds, all these artists, and you want me?! You wanna put out my tunes?! Nah, you’re having a laugh.”
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But Loefah was persistent and in 2012 Chunky’s debut, ‘The Chunky EP’, dropped on Swamp 81, showcasing agile production style with a range of influences sequenced into tough dancefloor cuts. At the same time, Chunky was also the go-to MC for Hessle Audio, host of Swamp 81‘s show on Rinse FM, and started rapping his hardest with Manchester’s LEVELZ crew. “When I was doing the LEVELZ stuff that was when I really started rapping. ‘Vibesman’ was the first vocal tune I put out on my own production, and then it was a slow progression from that.”
His production and purpose evolved as well. Up until that point, Chunky’s approach was making tunes, putting them out on SoundCloud and watching them hit the raves. “Before the intention was ‘OK let’s make a groove that’s gonna go through the soundsystem’,” he says. “Now it was about making beats with the intention of putting lyrics on them.”
He began experimenting with more textures in his production, and expressing himself on more melodic on emotional levels, thinking less about reload worthy bars. “I started to notice that my sound palette could sit side by side with a guitar and it works. There’s tunes that I’ve produced for other artists that are out there that other people won’t know I produced, because that shit’s got a harp on it and they didn’t realise that a harp would marry so much with the sound. I started really diversifying my sound.”
As Chunky’s sound was changing, pockets of the scene he was immersed within also shifted away from dubstep and UK bass towards house and techno, and MCs became less prominent at club nights in that world. But Chunky thinks the reasons go deeper than a musical shift.
“I think when people are progressing with anything they go: what can we afford to lose to be able to fit through this gap and keep moving? I think it’s difficult for this already-stretched environment to salute some of the people who might get considered last. There’s only a few people who are going ‘Yo this can’t happen without an MC!’” he reflects. “I think it’s all systematic. It’s difficult for the MCs to get their dues when there’s a scramble going on anyways. You’ve got the house and techno guys who get paid like £5k – £25k a show; they get flown in on helicopters. But there is a ceiling with bass music. There isn’t a lot of melanated figures that have access to those kinds of wages, do you know what I mean?
“When we’re talking about the shift in MC culture and seeing less of us, it wasn’t about the sound changing,” he says. “When I started going to mainland Europe with Hessle Audio, Russians don’t understand it the patter or chat that I give. We did stuff in Geneva, Belgium, but the further out you go and the more global it gets, something gets lost. MC culture is very important and it goes with it, but that isn’t everywhere in the world.” Scenes that have placed MCs at the forefront – e.g grime and drill – have proven very popular, birthing stars who headline arenas and mainstream festivals.
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Commenting on the future of MC culture within nightclubs, Chunky adds: “There’s always places where you can find MCs and there’s always spaces where it’s not an MC-based culture. I think the people who have the conversations about [the role of the MC being extinct] just aren’t paying attention. It could be that these MC spaces aren’t so visible at the moment.”
“What do I think the role of the MC is? It’s to be the glue between the music and the crowd and also to set the tone because that’s the only place where words are said. So if the MC says ‘Chill out, yo, peace and love’, people walk away from the rave with that. If the MC goes “Fuck everybody, tonight we’re getting fucked up’ that’s the type of evening you’re gonna have!”
Chunky’s not only ignited the music scene, but he’s stormed catwalks for Sports Banger and landed on the pages of Vogue Italia. “Jonny Banger is part of the bigger Swamp crew, he’d be at the Swamp raves, at Outlook, and on the mic with me. So it’s just a family thing,” he says.
“Vogue Italia is like the OG one, so being in there wearing a T-shirt and shorts that were made by my friend, that was crazy! More than that, being on those pages and part of the message that Jonny was trying to send – which was ‘Don’t get blagged by the smoke and mirrors’ in the fashion industry – made it even crazier knowing the value behind it. And I was honoured that my mate was like ‘Yes bro, this one. You!”
Going back to the present, Chunky names dream artists to produce for and collaborate with, which range from Abra to D Double E, Flowdan, Rocks FOE and Björk. “I could fuck something up for Björk,” he giggles.
Although a rave icon of the UK scene, his music isn’t restricted to the dancefloor. “Some of the music that I’ve done my MCing accomplishments with does not sound like the music that I’ve made on this album, and ‘Somebody’s Child’ is my proudest accomplishment for sure,” says Chunky, lighting up. “The album was a mammoth task. But it’s fucking future as fuck. The music is banging. Like don’t get me wrong, I’ll make some high-energy music for soundsystems and the club again if that’s what’s coming out, but at the time that’s not what I was saying.”
Pulling anecdotes from the creation of ‘Somebody’s Child’, Chunky reveals: “‘Long & Strong’ was the most fun one to make. I was in the shower and I just started singing it. I got out and came downstairs and knocked together this beat. Then I did some mad recording things where I set up two microphones, one in the kitchen and one on the stairs and I was screaming in the corridor!” he laughs.
The plan for now is to let the music do the talking and discover who listens. One person whose opinion Chunky held in the highest regard when it came to his music was his late grandmother. “All the people in my family are high achievers, we’re killers. But when my grandma watched a video of me perform on stage with Riot Jazz, she was buzzing. She was like: ‘They said my children would never be anything, my grandchildren would never be anything, but look.’” Her influence permeates the album. “It’s only the other day that it hit me. Right before I went on stage in Manchester to perform the album live for the first time I had a massive wobbler. It only just hit me that the whole project is all about my grandma. And that shit hit me man, it hit me hard. I didn’t even realise ‘cause obviously my grandma’s not with us anymore. It wasn’t specifically my mum or her sisters, I was like ‘Shit, this is about her.’”
The sun’s going down but Friday night is only just beginning. As we hang up the call, I ask what the future holds, knowing there must be a vaults of beats and bars waiting to be released. ‘Somebody’s Child’ is Chunky’s current proudest accomplishment, but with a spark in his eyes he closes. “What does the next album sound like? Even better.”
‘Somebody’s Child’ is out now via Eglo Recrds, buy it here
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance journalist, follow her on Twitter
Written by: Tim Hopkins