“There was a stage when I was struggling to sleep.” Rapper, actor and entrepreneur Bugzy Malone is sat at the head of a table. He’s addressing a few chosen journalists and influencers at the launch of his new eau de parfum, Fortitude, over breakfast at the Four Seasons private residences in Mayfair.
“I started looking into essential oils to calm the mind and help me sleep… As I started to get my education in that area I felt like there’s room for a fragrance that has a combination of some of these essential oils in them, that encourages a calm mind, a calm body and a calm psyche – and also smells good.”
We were welcomed into the luxurious space an hour or so earlier, descending an ornate staircase into an area where a Schimmel grand piano was being played by an attractive man wearing Versace. The man of the moment had not yet arrived but there were a considerable number of team members and staff, all wearing black, offering up glasses of bubbly and nodding to a table heaving with fancy food. As I nibbled half a salmon and cream cheese bagel, I watched one of the women in the PR team position herself with a phone to capture Bugzy Malone’s arrival down the stairs.
He was holding a glass which served as a good prop, allowing him to gently flex his athletic arms in the black Alexander McQueen shirt he was wearing – a detail which I’m sure he was at least vaguely aware of.
A stickler for detail, Malone is the creative director of the new fragrance. “He created the bottle, the packaging, every single detail we have, from the shield, to the message around the bottle,” one of the PR teams tells us, and just watching him move and operate during the time spent around him during the launch, interview and shoot, it’s clear he has a hand in every level of the creative processes around his products and his image.
Once he made his entrance, we were ushered into an intimate room to be told about the fragrance and to ask questions. I wonder how useful those essential oils were for his sleep problems.
“Game changing,” he says. “I’m a terrible sleeper since I was a kid, maybe it’s because I’ve got ADHD so I can’t sleep well, I think too much. I don’t know what it is, but I just found things that calmed the mind which made a big difference and then you start getting extra sleep and you just transform as a character.”
Transforming as a character is something that Bugzy Malone has done several times in his life to date. The rapper who put “Manny on the map” has come a long way from Crumpsall, Manchester where he grew up. Throughout his decade-long career in music he has branded himself as not just Bugzy Malone, but also an “Evil Genius” and “King of the North,” not to mention the characters he has played in Guy Richie’s films The Gentlemen (2019), and Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, which came out this year.
It’s hard to separate the person from the various characters he presents, which have drawn comparisons with archetypes from Hollywood movies. There’s even an academic paper published in the Popular Music History journal from 2016 which “aims to decipher Bugzy’s rise to fame underscoring his musical persona’s similarity to Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.”
In the film, Bateman’s character is played by Christian Bale, although Malone probably sees himself more like Bale’s character in Batman – his track, ‘Bruce Wayne’ has amassed more than 13 million views. It came out six years ago to coincide with his Batman range of tracksuits at JD Sports. Fortitude may be his first fragrance under House of Vision but it’s certainly not his first rodeo in the arena of product branding alongside his image.
After breakfast I have an hour alone with Malone, whose real name is Aaron Davies (like the villain from Spiderman). It quickly becomes clear that he spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of his alter-ego.
“The villain’s thought is that life’s been bad to me, so I’m going to be bad to life and I’m going to make sure that everybody pays." A hero goes through hardship and he says, ‘Life’s been bad to me, but I’m going to make sure nobody else has to go through what I went through.’ I’m going to do my best to help and contribute. So effectively that’s what I reckon I’ve got going on.”
When asked if he has come through a villain era, he tells me: “I’m a hero with villain tendencies. Sometimes you’ve got to adopt the style of the enemy in order to win,” he explains, “I’ve spent a lot of time around villains and just kind of refused to be underneath the situation. So I adopted some of their styles and techniques, but, you know, inside I remained a good person, kept my eye on the ball.”
Now 32, it seems like Bugzy Malone would be best characterised as an antihero, someone who came from a difficult background surrounded by criminal activity at a young age, who did a stint in prison as a teenager and then used his powers to carve out a lane for himself as the dominant rapper from the UK’s second largest city. From there he has had numerous career highlights, though his life has included many storylines that make it sound like an actual action film.
In 2021, he was found not guilty of attacking two men after a jury unanimously accepted that he was acting in self-defence, when he broke both of their jaws after receiving a phone call from his partner at the time to say that they were attempting to break into his home. This came just a year after he survived a near-fatal motorbike accident that also made headlines. Frankly, it’s no wonder that he’s had some trouble sleeping.
Malone’s music often draws on his gripping life experiences and in 2015 he released M.E.N, a track referencing reports in the Manchester Evening News that he assaulted someone outside a nightclub. As well as refuting the claims in the paper, he also shines a light on where some of the villain tendencies might be traced back to in his lyrics: “Hope I don’t bump into my stepdad / ’Cos they say mental abuse is worse than physical abuse and I wanna get him back.”
He goes on to rap: “It’s intimate because I never contacted a counsellor to get rid of this pain / I walk with it and now I’m going insane / Losing control of my own brain / Watching documentaries on serial killers and feeling that I can relate.”
Has he since engaged in any conventional therapy to deal with his demons? “No, I tried to,” he says, telling me about a life coach who he went to for a brief period. “I sat there for a couple of weeks and I just thought, ‘You know what, no one’s going to understand my issues better than me because there’s just certain parts of the jungle that we can’t understand if we’re not from that part of the jungle.’
“What I could feel is I’ve got my burdens and responsibilities and I’m holding them,” he says, wrapping his arms around his body as if they were guarding his chest. “They’re quite heavy and I’m talking to her and she’s like, ‘Go on, pass it to me.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s no good me passing over the weight that I have to carry on my shoulders over to you, because it’s unrealistic. I might as well get strong enough to carry more weight.’ That was my attitude.”
Branching out of the music industry into film and business has exposed Malone to other perspectives far from where he grew up. “In recent times on my journey [I’ve met] rich kids born into families where the parents have money. Those kids have as many challenges as anyone… We all go through something.”
Trauma and the human condition are things that he has clearly given a lot of thought to. He tells me that he draws inspiration from “history, philosophers, leaders, generals, kings and emperors.” He also mentions Marcus Aurelius, specifically his book Meditations. “That was a good one,” he says. “That’s a lot about stoicism.”
Stoicism is undoubtedly the philosophy that underpins his approach to life and he articulates in detail how self-reliance has been his mode of survival. “No one’s perfect. Our parents aren’t perfect. The people we go to school with aren’t perfect, our families aren’t perfect, nothing’s perfect. So from quite early on, we get a set of challenges and we either act a victim towards those challenges and we’re like, ‘Oh, it’s hard for me…’ – or you develop resilience, fortitude, strength.”
He’s visibly engaged on this subject and pauses to reflect before offering up more of his thoughts on the question of mentality and mindset. “I studied psychology just to get an idea of the way that the brain works and to do something positive with my time. If you’ve been through dysfunctional things, which all of us have, it takes time to figure those things out. So you might as well do positive things in the meantime and things that can add to the journey of healing essentially.”
Success and money have given Malone the opportunity to engage with professionals and their services, and while the life coach may not have worked out for him, he cites his personal trainer and herbal nutritionist as people who have helped guide him to things that he has found beneficial on his road to healing.
“These are all things that I can afford to outsource because I’ve worked hard and invested in myself,” he points out. “Where I come from… none of us could be bothered working hard. We didn’t see the point in it. But the point in working hard is that you get financial freedom and [then] it’s up to you. You can be flash and sit on a boat and drink champagne or you can invest in yourself and try and improve yourself as a person.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to overcoming life’s burdens or challenges and talking therapy isn’t for everyone. This year I’ve spent a lot of time interviewing elite high-profile athletes around the world for a show I host for Al Jazeera English about mentality, purpose and how particular individuals use their platforms built in the world of sport to do good.
I suppose I share Malone’s appetite for self-education and through these interviews and reading books such as Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score I’ve learned a lot about how important nurturing a relationship between the body and mind can be for regulating stress and healing trauma. This is something that Malone has been practising alongside his musical career from the beginning.
At the age of 17,having just left prison, Malone took up boxing under coach Brian Hughes MBE, who passed away last year. Hughes was known as ‘The Godfather of Manchester boxing’. A teenage Malone might have had a future in the sport but he struggled to continue down that path after Hughes’s retirement. In a previous interview Malone has said that “[Brian Hughes] seemed to believe in me more than I believed in myself. I think stylistically I was good, but I’m not sure I had the right determination and the emotional strength that’s needed.”
I ask him how training and boxing specifically fits into his life today. “I read somewhere the other day that you must master one thing to know 10,000 things,” he says. “So boxing for me is just like a fundamental… I’m just always trying to get better because once you understand the structure of learning one thing, then you can learn a thousand things.”
For Malone, boxing provided a foundation from which he could build discipline, structure and agility that could be applied to the world of business that he now inhabits. “I’ve already done the hard work in a physical sport like boxing – how to throw a left hand punch or a right hand punch, or move out of the way of a punch, or block a punch, or deal with the fear of sparring someone better than you. It’s all transferable skills that you can then bring to business.”
His latest business venture is the Fortitude fragrance which is released under his House of Vision brand, for which he uses the tagline: “Dreams are cloudy, but vision is clear.” I ask him just how clear his visions are and he tells me that he drew a picture of the Manchester home that he now owns, eight years before it became a reality. “On the page there was the price of what the house was going to be; where I was going to be up to financially; the fact that I’ll have love in my life, I’ll be happy.”
He zooms out to explain the bigger vision – and now we’re getting really deep: “I think that we are all the architects of our own future,” he says intently. “They say that we’re made in God’s image. God’s a creator, so then we’re all creators, but I can’t create you and your future. I can only create mine.”
Does he believe in God?
In what way?
“I designed trainers and the trainers that I designed, there’s a word for it – biomorphic – and it means when something’s designed around an already existing living creature, or a living organism. I’ve designed some trainers around some animals because I thought nature’s pretty beautiful. And then what I understood looking at the design is that nothing’s new. It’s already been designed.”
He goes on to list some examples: “When we are designing aeroplanes, God already designed birds and seagulls and eagles. So just in that observation, I understood that we think we are creators. We created the television and the couch and the car. [But] you’ve got to look at what God designed. You’ve got to look at the universe, you’ve got to look at the elements – just water as an element. It’s just unbelievable. It’s just, like, mind blowing – not to get too deep.” It’s a bit late to say that now but he continues.
“The human anatomy, the way that it fixes itself. You cut your leg, how it heals itself on automatic – it’s to be taken seriously. And so for people to look at that and just be like, ‘Yeah, but there’s no God…’ to me, it just feels slightly ignorant and closed minded.” They say the devil’s in the details, but hearing Malone speak about God’s creation has me thinking once again about the fine line between light and dark, and how we choose to approach things in life.
He explains his vision of paradise to me: “I think it’s here on Earth. I think it’s when you have got to a place where you’ve healed and you’re functional and you’ve got control over your mind and your thoughts and your emotions, I think your experience of the world is a much smoother one.”
It’s always refreshing to interview someone who has thought about what they want to say and I admit to him that, as much as I do appreciate the Alexander McQueen shirt, the Gucci shoes and the Rolex watch, the substance of our conversation is much more interesting to me than the carefully honed aesthetic.
He looks at me and leans back slightly.
“I’m in the business of entertainment, right?”
“So I better keep you entertained or I become irrelevant and go extinct. And that’s the nature of standing there and being like, ‘Check the watch…’ It’s entertainment because now I’ve got your attention. If you like it or not, you’re now aware that person’s in the entertainment space with something to say.”
His next words illuminate why the characters he adopts are of such great importance to what he does.
“People want to be themselves, and I say to people that you can’t just be yourself. You all have to work when you turn up to work. You’ve got to be a professional, right? If you are sad at home and you’ve got some issues, you can’t come into work banging on about your issues, you must be a professional. So you’re almost not being yourself.”
I know that in this interview I am definitely speaking to the professional Bugzy Malone, but this is a surprisingly candid response. It gives more depth to the bravado he walks with and shows, yet again, that he has given this a lot of thought. “I pride myself on being able to grab people’s attention and once I’ve got people’s attention, be able to drop them a positive message.”
That night there’s a launch party. I opt out but I peek through Instagram, and the slick content gives a snapshot of all of the shiny entertainment that we had been speaking about that day. Beautiful people, expensive clothes, a huge chain with the crest that he designed around his neck, and, of course, an unmissable glittering watch.
The photoshoot for this feature happens two days later, which I do attend. Malone has not yet arrived and there is an issue with the venue but a few calls are made and soon the team are setting up in the beautiful penthouse suite at the Londoner Hotel in Leicester Square. The London panorama is spectacular. I gaze out of the window across the rooftop of the Odeon Cinema, which I have walked past countless times over the years. However, I never noticed that there is a Batman statue standing on the top of the cinema, looking down at the tourists milling through one of the busiest areas of the capital. The reference to our Bruce Wayne isn’t lost on me.
He arrives once everything is set up and the shoot is a huge success. Even Malone is smiling at how well the images turn out. The press team have brought bottles of the perfume to the shoot which I play around with while I’m waiting behind the scenes. When the team wraps, I ask a few follow-ups;
I want to probe a little further on what Malone said about his vision of love, and whether he has that in his life now.
He’s relaxed on a sofa and answers with the same quiet intensity as he did in the main interview. “When you’ve got a family that’s experienced a lot of trauma, what I’ve learned is sometimes they’re not sure their experience of love isn’t necessarily what love is. So they’re not necessarily sure how to love.”
He tilts his head slightly as he speaks. “Therefore, your experience of love can be quite warped and then in building new relationships and new friendships I understood that love’s almost like a flower, that just grows – it just takes time, so as long as your heart’s open, and my heart’s open…” Here he trails off.
We’ve spoken so much about trauma I ask him if there is anything else that he would like to add on the subject. He inhales and sighs before replying. “I was born in quite a chaotic household, like a chaotic family situation. From there, what young men tend to do is find other young men in the same situation, which normally forms a gang and that becomes your family and that’s double chaotic.”
He’s looking me in the eye as he speaks. “Because that’s 15, 16-year-old guys, trying to be men. Around those periods there was a lot of trauma. But it comes down to strength of mind – and I’m obviously strong enough to survive. Otherwise I’d be a villain and that’s what villains are. Villains are too weak to survive. So they’re taking it out on everybody else. They can’t be still and with themselves, and in the silence they’ve got to lash out.”
“Like the Joker?”
“There you go,” he replies with a satisfied nod. I point out the Batman statue on the top of the Odeon and he smiles again, taking his phone out to snap a photo.
I head downstairs and into the lift. A woman enters on the way down and turns to me to compliment my perfume, asking what it is. I can’t help but laugh before telling her as I step out back into the busy streets of London. A car is waiting to take Bugzy Malone away.
Fortitude by House of Vision is on sale now