— Numan —

On music, tape packs, creative communities, ambition, drive, FANTOME® WORLD, bubble tea, NFTs and the rise and rise of gUmbo.

(All photos submitted by Numan)

It’s fair to say that Numan — sometime producer, full-time hustler — has undergone a life-changing six weeks. Based in Whalley Range in Manchester, he’s been in-and-around experimental dance music for the best part of a decade, racking up a series of eye-catching releases in his early years, although admittedly never fully realising his potential. He’s dabbled in apparel too and more recently, a range of Bubble Tea flavours inspired by his South Asian roots. But for all his ambition and creative endeavour, there was always something awry with each of his pursuits — until now. An emergent name in the NFT crypto boom, Numan has finally made it all click. As we catch up early on Friday night, he’s tearing off slices of pizza from an enormous takeaway box and his mind is buzzing with ideas. 

“I’m actually taking a few days off from it at the moment”, he says matter of factly when I ask about his involvement with crypto art. “I’ve been creating so much recently, so I wanted to take some time out to recharge … but there’s still loads going on.” Cooped up with his family throughout the pandemic, Numan’s made his bedroom his sanctuary — his creative nerve centre. “I’ve actually found myself with more time to focus on everything being stuck inside”, he continues. “I’ve been creating, finishing projects, just getting shit done basically. I’m actually coping okay with lockdown, I don’t mind it, although I don’t think it’s hit me properly yet. Luckily with my day job, I’ve been going into the office for most of the pandemic until literally the last month, so that’s probably helped. It’s laid back, chilled out … as long as you’re getting your work done, nobody’s ever really on your case.”

Numan has always lived in the same area of South Manchester and he credits his home city for helping shape the young producer that first broke through in the early 2010s. But, as he explains, music never once felt like a natural path for him to take as a youngster. “I come from a family where music wasn’t particularly a big part of life. Music was never really blaring around the house or anything like that and I didn’t have much access to it growing up. I wasn’t interested in football either … I don’t really think I was interested in much really. It all started for me when I got my first computer when I was about 14, 15 to be honest.”

“I remember starting to discover music when I got to high school and getting really into grime”, he continues. “Everyone shared the Sidewinder tapes, the Meridian Crew sets on Deja Vu … a lot of it was just uploaded on Bear Files, so I’d download them from there and I used Limewire a lot as well. I had an iPod Nano and I used to just load it up with all these 60-70 minute sets because everyone was listening to it back then. I remember the first CD I bought was ’21 Seconds’ by So Solid Crew from HMV. I got home, put it in the CD drive to play on my PC and realised it had the video on it as well. I just loved it all and I knew from then that I needed to get involved in grime somehow. When I got my computer, I remember actually being sent a copy of Fruity Loops on MSN Messenger by … I think it was Maniac, you know the grime producer? He randomly told me I needed to download it, sent me a link and that was it. That was when it changed for me because I realised I didn’t need to leave my house to be involved in it. I could make beats how I wanted, when I wanted and there were no limitations.”

“When I got my computer, I remember actually being sent a copy of Fruity Loops on MSN Messenger by … I think it was Maniac, you know the grime producer?”

“I was big on forums back then too. Grime Forum was popping off, there was dubstep forum … I was just on them all the time trying to connect with people and do my research. I quickly realised there was more to the sound than just 140 BPM stuff. You had people like Zomby, Burial … you know, before I discovered them, I’d be listening to dubstep and get to 54 seconds in a track and just be waiting for a drop. I started looking into labels like Hyperdub, Planet Mu … I remember Darkstar doing something completely different back then as well. They had that track ‘Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer’, that was a game changer for me. I loved how Burial wanted to stay anonymous too, that fascinated me. I realised there was a lot more behind the success of artists like that. Eventually I started sending some of my tunes out to people on the forums and I still remember the first time I logged onto someone’s UStream and hearing one of my tracks playing. I thought my laptop was broken or something, it didn’t seem real … I was like ‘what’s happened here?’. ‘How’s this guy playing my track?’. From that day forward, I started to take my music a lot more seriously. I started sending stuff out to DJs, started posting my stuff online and it really started to take off for me. I was only about 16, but it was a good feeling. The only thing I was limiting myself with was shows. I was never interested in playing shows.”

“I quickly realised there was more to the sound than just 140 BPM stuff. You had people like Zomby, Burial … you know, before I discovered them, I’d be listening to dubstep and get to 54 seconds in a track and just be waiting for a drop.”

Diligent and talented but quietly introverted, Numan’s PC became almost an extension of his body as a teenager. It was his vehicle for making connections outside of Manchester, but more importantly, bringing his creativity for life. For Numan, music was, and has remained, a digital-first experience. “My schedule was crazy really”, he says, tracing his mind back to his final year of high school. “I’d go to school, come back, eat and then I’d literally be on the computer until two, maybe three in the morning doing the same thing every single day … just making beats in Fruity Loops. That was all I did. I went off to college but honestly, I didn’t give a shit about it.”

What did he study, I ask? “Basically, I can’t even remember what I originally studied”, he says with a shrug. “I went to do my A-levels and failed them all in my first year and ended up going to South Trafford College to do a BTEC course in Aviation. I had no interest in any of it, I think it was just something to do. I ended up getting a few free holidays out of it too, because my parents didn’t earn a certain amount or whatever. At that point, I was thinking about university but also, because my music was starting to take off, I applied to Red Bull Music Academy in Japan. Sadly, it was the year of the nuclear disaster (in Fukushima, 2011) so I couldn’t go.”

When Numan says his music was taking off, he meant it, too. Labels like Planet Mu had their ears pricked by his vivid, full-blooded sound design, which had taken root in the instrumental grime and dubstep spheres of the time and was already starting to bloom. He was also invited to record a 15-minute mix for Mary Anne-Hobbs’ 6Music show as a 17 year old while he was working the summer holidays in an RBS call-centre, too. And through a phone call from PRS — they informed him he was the youngest receiver of PRS royalties on their books at the time in 2009 — he found himself appearing on BBC Breakfast. “Ah, it was mad”, he recalls. “The BBC came over to my house to talk to me about how people were making money from music in the digital age. Up to that point, my parents didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on. They knew I spent a lot of time on my computer and thought I should be focusing on my school work instead. Once the BBC came round with their cameras though, shit started to get more serious and I think they realised I wasn’t just pissing around on the computer. I was actually trying to make something of myself.”

Under the tutelage of Swamp81’s Chunky — “his mum lived round the corner from me and he’d always be helping me out, telling me how to do things” — Numan’s fledgling career quickly started to flesh out. He released his debut EP, ‘Secrets’, on Subdepth Records in 2009 — the title-track was backed heavily by both Mary Anne-Hobbs and Toddla T across the BBC networks — before putting out a series of records with stateside grime bod, Starkey, and later, Planet Mu, who released ‘Race Against Time’ in 2010 when Numan was just 18 years old. “Ah, that was a big one”, he says with a smile, getting up from his chair to grab another slice of pizza. “Myself, Mike and Tom from Mu were talking quite a lot back then. They were noticing that some of my tracks were taking off, so they asked if I’d like to write an EP for them. I sent some demos over, we built an EP together and they put it out. Things really took off again from that point. I even ended up making a few tracks for Riz Ahmed off the back of that.”

“Agh”, Numan says, scratching his head. “Do you remember those UStream sessions that Wiley used to do? He’d been asking me for a few beats or whatever at the time and said we should get in the studio. Obviously that never happened but one night I remember logging onto iTunes and noticed he’d dropped a new album. He was putting out tune after tune at that point thinking about it. I had a listen through and was like, ‘hold on a minute, that’s my fucking beat’! I think it was called ‘Chill Out Zone’ or something like that. I wasn’t mad about it, I loved it. I mean, I’d make a track for Wiley, he’d recorded a vocal and it was out on iTunes. It felt fucking cool, man.”

For all his youthful enthusiasm however, Numan’s found his passion for music waning over the next few years. He stopped listening to full tracks he was making — “I could only listen to instrumental music for so long every day” — and found his ideas plateauing. Aside from a few remixes, releases started to dry up, too. It was time for a change. “I remember thinking, ‘right, I’ve got a Twitter following, I’ve got Instagram, what can I do next? What else do I like doing?”, he says. “I’ve always been big on clothing, like, I’m very fucking picky about stuff I wear myself. If there’s a zip on a hoodie and I don’t like it, that’s it you know … I’m really particular. So I decided I’d start making clothes.”

FANTOME® WORLD was officially established in the summer of 2019, although Numan had been experimenting with garments for a few years prior, trying to master the art of design and manufacture. “The idea with FANTOME® was to push South Asian culture, as someone who could relate to it”, he explains. “You see a lot of people putting out clothing that they don’t relate to. You see people using Chinese text just for the sake of it looking cool, without understanding what any of it means or represents. Like, what’s going on with that? So with FANTOME®, I wanted to create clothes that I wanted to wear, that came from an authentic place. I looked into how to make the perfect t-shirt, the perfect fabrics … I spent a lot of time on it. The only thing is, it’s really hard to make money by selling a t-shirt. There’s a lot of shit you have to do, a lot of running around, that people don’t see.”

“You see people using Chinese text just for the sake of it looking cool, without understanding what any of it means or represents. Like, what’s going on with that?”

Although the profit margins were fine, FANTOME® proved that Numan’s eye for design — and passion to create — extended way beyond music. As with the night shifts he’d pull to learn how to use Fruity Loops as a 16 year-old, he was learning the art of making clothes on the job; researching, grafting, putting the hours in. While he might not have functioned with any set timescale – “I’d just make new stuff and designs whenever really” — he’d quietly established a successful brand all of his own making. And, as with his music, all from his bedroom. His next brainwave? A1* Tea.

“Around where I live … Whalley Range, Fallowfield, Chorlton, Moss Side, Hulme … there’s no Bubble Tea shops nearby at all”, Numan says, adjusting his seat. “With what I’d learned from doing FANTOME®, I realised I could make shit look good, that’s what I like doing. The whole concept behind it was to start something up from home during lockdown, something local that meant people could get their bubble tea without having to go into Chinatown all the time. But I wanted to sample South Asian drinks with it too. So for example, certain teas that you’d find in South Asia, I’ve started infusing with bubble tea … and it’s working! I do it on Saturday afternoons when I can and it’s actually quite a nice break from the computer. The plan for it now is to try and get a unit, but I’ve not been able to afford until recently. Now, things have obviously changed for me.”

From music to clothes to bubble tea, Numan has always been inspired by his compulsions. He thinks, he studies, he plans and he executes. But never has he experienced anything like the last few months. “It was totally by accident, bro”, he says when I ask about his entry point into the lucrative world of NFTs or Non-fungible tokens — units of data or digital currency stored on a blockchain. “A few months ago, I didn’t even know what a crypto wallet was, I didn’t know what anything fucking was to be honest. What happened was that I worked on the music for a piece coming out with Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio, and the artist who did the visuals was a guy called Mario Klingemann. The track’s 30 minutes long, so he had a lot to do but he was really happy with it. I sent him a direct message to say I was happy he liked the music and asked if it’d be possible to buy one of his prints. He told me he didn’t sell anything physical because he was selling crypto art instead. At that point, I was like ‘yeah, yeah, good luck mate’ kind of thing and ignored it. I didn’t even think about chasing it up. A few hours later that night, I saw a load of stuff about NFTs on Instagram and then logged into Twitter randomly to see if there was much about it on there, and found loads of people talking about it. I had no intention of making my own NFTs or anything like that, I just stumbled into it.”

“A few months ago, I didn’t even know what a crypto wallet was, I didn’t know what anything fucking was to be honest.”

Functioning around the concept of ownership — buyers who purchase crypto art will own the original piece, despite anybody being able to share ‘digital print’ equivalents — NFTs have become one of the most talked about phenomena of the year so far, luring in everyone from Elon Musk to Aphex Twin. In and amongst the celebrity names however, a burgeoning community of crypto artists have built rabid fanbases of their own, turning their digital art pieces into sought after collectibles worth thousands, and sometimes even millions, of pounds. Of this community, Numan has become one of the UK’s standout names, finally earning the slice of luck that had always evaded him to this point. 

“I saw that there was a community building”, says Numan. “People were replying and engaging with tweets about NFTs and I could see they were excited by it. I just thought I should try and get involved, but at this point … I mean literally a few months ago … I’d never used Blender before. The first few pieces I put out there I made in Photoshop. It was just stuff I liked making … gradients, colours, patterns … it wasn’t trendy or whatever. The problem was I didn’t have a clue about the economy of it all, I just knew I needed to get it listed on sites like Rarible and Foundation, which are basically platforms that act like galleries and let you list your art. Some are harder to get on than others … some make you submit an application form and record a video, it’s serious shit. What I did was start listing my items and then getting involved in the communities, tweeting other artists, joining forums, joining Discord servers … just getting stuck in really. After a while, somebody ended up buying one of my pieces and since then, I’ve just not stopped creating.”

Numan’s real NFT eureka moment came in the form of gUmbo — his fun, woozy-looking animated character with fully customisable, interchangeable features. Inspired by Sesame Street characters he used to love as a child and Mr Oizo’s Flat Eric puppet character — lifted from the iconic music video to 1999 classic, ‘Flat Beat’ — gUmbo almost didn’t take off, but for a fault with Instagram one Friday night in February. “Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp all went down for about an hour”, he recalls, “and in that hour, somebody bought a copy of one of the first gUmbos, which had actually been listed for a few days beforehand. I retweeted the buyer and boom, it just fucking exploded. People started to buy the other copies because I’d actually listed 25 editions. Within three or four minutes, they’d all gone, so I listed some more and bang, they went. At this point, I was thinking, ‘shit, I could potentially change my life here’ and I’ve just never looked back. It’s completely changed everything for me.”

(gUmbo)

“It’s funny because I’m now getting messages from people involved in music from years ago”, Numan continues. “I keep getting asked about NFTs and how they can get involved. It’s mad how everything turns around bro, honestly.” Are there any parallels between writing a beat and creating a piece of digital art, I ask? “I treat it exactly the same”, he says, leaning forward. “It’s very much a blank canvas. I might have an idea about what I want to create but it ends up being the complete opposite, that’s how it’s always been. It’s the same with the t-shirts, the same with bubble tea, the same with music.”

“As for gUmbo”, he continues, “I just wanted to create a blank canvas character. I wanted to keep this guy looking the same … gormless like one of the Sesame Street characters almost … but I also wanted to be able to change textures and create certain editions. It’s mad because I made those early gUmbos on a shitty MacBook that kept crashing every 10 minutes and I didn’t even know how to use Blender properly, I was just learning as I went. I spent about 12 hours a night after work just teaching myself how to use the software. If you really want to learn how to do something, you’ll do it, you know? It’s easy to find excuses not to do something, but if you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way.”

“If you really want to learn how to do something, you’ll do it, you know? It’s easy to find excuses not to do something, but if you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way.”

Since the initial gUmbo explosion, Numan has minted myriad versions, each seemingly more desirable and sough after than the last, with some of his designs landing front and centre of Rarible’s homepage — not bad going considering he’s only been making crypto art since the end of February. Rather than merely bank all his earnings, he’s also been quick to give back to the community that have single-handedly helped change his life, regularly engaging with other up-and-coming artists, buying select pieces and donating listing fees to those looking to sell their first pieces. “It’s right to give back”, Numan says firmly. “Every few days, I make sure I’m on Twitter reaching out to people, offering to help pay fees or whatever. Out of respect as a person, you need to give back, you need to invest in these communities. Even at night when I’m just browsing on Rarible, I might like something and just buy it without thinking about it or tweeting about it. Knowing how that feels, to wake up and see someone has bought a piece of your art … like, it’s nice to be able to do that for other people. I remember the first time it happened to me, I went for a piss, came back and I was $400 up. It’s a crazy feeling, bro.”

“Knowing how that feels, to wake up and see someone has bought a piece of your art … like, it’s nice to be able to do that for other people. I remember the first time it happened to me, I went for a piss, came back and I was $400 up.”

Despite the buzz surrounding gUmbo and NFTs, Numan is hyper aware that the bubble may burst at any moment. But for now, the possibilities are endless. “What’s about to happen is fucking insane … insane!”, he says, grinning. “I’m already working on what I think will be the first ever NFT x streetwear collaboration with a brand from New York, I’m working on a gUmbo filter that’ll mean people can have gUmbo brought to life, standing behind them and whatever. I’m probably gonna end up doing merch just because I can. If people are spending $3000 on a piece of digital art, it’d be nice to send something physical out. Just think about when gUmbo’s fully-animated as well, especially in terms of music. I’ve had calls with some artists already about maybe building gUmbo into music videos and stuff like that, it’s incredible. There’s no limits bro, honestly.”

In the form of gUmbo, it feels like Numan’s finally landed on the success story his year’s of hard work have long merited. Utilising all his skills — from the dedication required to teach himself the ins-and-outs of Fruity Loops as a 16 year old, to understanding the importance of online communities and building entire brands from his bedroom — the world of crypto art has become Numan’s happy place. It’s a space for him to create on his own terms and earn a living from it, which in essence, is all he’s ever wanted. “It’s all made me realise how fucking hungry I am recently”, he says with a cursory smile just before we sign off. “I’ve learned that if I want something, I’ll get shit done and make it happen. Always.”

You can stay up to date with Numan’s work via Foundation here:

https://foundation.app/numan

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