"If I feel I have accomplished something that was set out before me, then I will be vocal about it." How grime-punk duo Bob Vylan became one of the UK's unlikely success stories (and why they're refusing to be humble about it)

Bob Vylan
(Image credit: Ki Price)

As a teenager, Bobby Vylan would hunker down with his PlayStation 2, fiddling with beats on Music 2000 or ripping through high scores on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. He was baptised by gaming soundtracks, which bombarded him with souped-up songs from Blink-182, Green Day and System Of A Down. Creative inspiration, however, hit closer to home when UK garage crew Musical Mob flexed their DIY grime flair with their 16-bar loop hit Pulse X, released in 2002 and made on the PlayStation. Suddenly, Bobby realised that art could come from anywhere. “I had a PlayStation, so if they could make that, then I could make that too,” he says. “It made me realise I had something creative inside me wanting to get out.”

Today, that kid is one half of Bob Vylan, the East London duo whose scathing lyrics and sledgehammer mix of grime, hip hop and rock, and explosive live shows, have positioned them as the UK’s most incendiary band. We meet the singer and guitarist in a high-ceilinged tea-room in Shoreditch, East London on a cold January afternoon. He’s casually dressed in a heather-grey jumper and trousers, long dreads spilling past his shoulders, and sipping a decaf oat milk drink (he’s a staunch vegan).

Bobby’s bandmate and near-namesake, drummer Bobbie Vylan, is absent today, but the pair have presented an otherwise united front ever since they formed the band in 2017. Over the past seven years, they’ve released a string of singles, EPs and albums that have seen them roughing up the music scene while taking swings at politicians, the super-wealthy, hypocrites and racists in the process. They crashed into the UK Top 20 with their 2022 album Bob Vylan Presents The Price Of Life and bagged several awards along the way, including the inaugural Best Alternative Music Act category at the 2022 MOBO Awards. "We’re aware of the framing of being the first band of colour to do a lot of things,” says Bobby. “I have no problem being the first, so long as we’re not the last."

There was a lack of representation in the alt rock scene when Bobby was growing up, but that wasn’t enough to hold him back. He first picked up a guitar aged 12, with no clear motive other than to be a musician, but it wasn’t until he went to university that he met another Black guitarist. Becoming part of an alt rock band, he saw the connection between the music he was making then and the other genres of music he loved, such as grime.

“Grime music is punk music,” he says of his early influences. “It has a DIY attitude at the heart of it. It’s a youth-created counterculture. It was dismissed by the mainstream at first. It’s all the same thing.” Bob Vylan meshed those influences together, but not everybody wanted to hear what they had to say, or how they were saying it. “Nothing was easy,” Bobby says, adding that the mainstream music industry “just didn’t get it” and dismissed the idea that there was an appetite for a Black rock band.

“If they believe they’re not going to listen to rock music by two Black guys talking about a Black experience, why are there so many white kids at rap concerts?” says Bobby. “If the music is good, and if it resonates with people, they’ll get into it.”

Instead, they decided to do things their way. They record and produce their music themselves, and all but one of the two EPs and two albums they’ve released so far have come out on their own label, Ghost Theatre (the exception is 2020’s full-length debut, We Live Here, released on independent Manchester label Venn Records). The pair are putting their upcoming third album, Humble As The Sun, out themselves too. That DIY ethos is central to who Bob Vylan are.

“We could just sign, and we go through that machine and cross our fingers and hope to be the next big thing,” says Bobby. “But, actually, what’s more important for us is a fair and ethical way of releasing music. We don’t want to be like, ‘Give me my 20 pounds and fuck off!’ We want to interact and get to know our audience.”

He cites early 80s anarcho punks Crass as an influence, and not just for their self-sufficiency. “Crass independently released music on their own record label and other artists’ music on their record label,” he says.

“They’ve been vocal on everything from feminism and female rights to animal rights, police brutality and government corruption. They’ve created a cult fan base that will likely live on forever and are incredibly active activists that try to make a change further than their music. That’s a band that influenced me on how to be more than just music.”

The full-throttle Humble As The Sun cranks up their grime- punk fusion. As always, Bobby pulls no punches, satirising toxic masculinity and what it means to be “a proper manly man” on He’s A Man, and launching a scathing attack on the cost of living crisis and the inequality that drives it on Hunger Games. Their willingness to hold up a mirror to the failings of the UK and their refusal to shy away from confrontation has seen Bob Vylan saddled with the tag of a ‘political band.’ It’s not something Bobby disagrees with. “You could argue that my existence within this country as a Black man is politicised from the offset,” he says.

Just as he holds up Crass as an influence on his band’s DIY approach and worldview, Bobby was equally inspired by New York rapper Nas’s landmark 1994 debut album, Illmatic. “It was released in the early 90s but I found it much later,” he says. “His ability as a storyteller and to describe his environment as a participator but also as an observer is something that has inspired me as a lyricist and a musician.”

That storytelling is present on Humble As The Sun. The explosive Dream Big finds him singing about growing up fast, and he recalls “sipping syrup” and hiding from “the Feds” on I’m Still Here. They’re vivid personal snapshots and life experiences that many will identify with or, hopefully, learn to understand. “There’s been a recurring theme throughout my life – that school-to prison pipeline that people talk about,” he says. “I lived various ways, making money, and I managed to go to university and get my undergrad and my Masters in Music at Goldsmiths [University in South London]. I have plans to go to university and get my PhD.”

Just as Bobby wrote his own fate, so he hopes the band and their message can encourage fellow artists to have self-belief in their calling. “The album offers a sense of self-empowerment, which a lot of artists are told not to have,” he says. “They’re told to be humble and to make themselves meek and appreciative of what we’re given. You do a disservice to the people from our communities who are coming up if you don’t speak up about what you went through and how you’ve got to this position, and you’re not proud and puffing out your chest about it.”

For all its lyrical takedowns, Humble As The Sun provides a shot of optimism in the face of social and political adversity. “I don’t want people to think I’ve lost my mind,” Bobby laughs, “but the sun does not dim its light for anybody and I refuse to dim mine.” Bob Vylan’s own light shows no signs of dimming, with bigger gigs, higher festival slots, more recognition and, hopefully, less pushback on the horizon. But Bobby says they’re not particularly interested in that kind of success. Instead, Bob Vylan want to cultivate change, and in the spirit of their new album, they’re ready to be loud about their wins and what they want next.

“I’m doing a service the same way that anybody else is doing the service in this world,” he says. “And if I feel that I have accomplished something that was set out before me - that I was told was impossible - then I will be vocal about it.”

Humble As The Sun is out April 5. Originally printed in Metal Hammer #385