Successful rapper A.M. Sniper is an island boy at heart. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man whose musical talent was developed on the streets of Ayia Napa
I’m thinking of the traffic, mostly, the infamous Sunday-evening summer traffic from Ayia Napa to Nicosia, inching ever closer as the minutes tick by and A.M. Sniper still hasn’t turned up to our interview. There’s a café called Ravioli’s opposite Grecian Park, Sniper (né Anthony Melas) had said on the phone – but Ravioli’s isn’t a café, it’s a sleek Italian restaurant serving lobster-tail pasta at €40 (for two, admittedly). I look around, starting to feel out of sorts. What exactly do I know about grime music, anyway? On a TV screen behind me, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are gearing up for the Wimbledon final under grey London skies, a far cry from the gentle mid-afternoon sunlight washing the scene around me.
Traffic, Wimbledon, the precise status of Ravioli’s… All is forgotten two seconds after Sniper sits down, flanked by a personal assistant, muttering vaguely about “bike issues” to excuse the delay, and fixes me with his narrow, unblinking green eyes. Bushy beard, backwards baseball cap, grey Adidas T-shirt, two rings on his fingers and an unmistakable aura – whether it’s power or confidence, or just engagement – emanating from his wiry frame. The eyes are shrewd, challenging without being hostile. The danger in trying to wrest answers from a celebrity – even a mini-celebrity – is always that they might be bored or distracted, but Sniper is totally focused. He’s facing the TV but doesn’t glance once at the screen in 90 minutes, not even when some perfect forehand or audacious lob gets the Wimbledon crowd in an uproar.
Is he a celebrity, even a mini-celebrity? “I toured with Christina Aguilera around Europe. I opened for Eminem at Wembley,” he reports. He’s sold five million records, whether on his own or in various collaborations. “When I go [walking] in Ayia Napa, I need security. People want to take pictures”. Those trying to mob him aren’t locals (though everyone knows the Melas family in Ayia Napa) but British tourists, Sniper being a leading light of grime – a jangly, propulsive type of hip-hop – that’s become “the new, let’s say, punk rock music of England”. As a performer, he’s had success in the UK Urban charts and even hit the Pop charts (peaking at No. 3) with last year’s less-edgy single ‘Bus Pass’. He does sell-out shows every week at the Kandi Beach Party, and played to 3,000 people just a couple of days before our interview. Meanwhile, as a promoter, he’s a big part of the reason why Chris Brown – R&B star, controversial former boyfriend of Rihanna, banned from performing in the UK for well-publicised reasons – will be playing in Napa, with Sniper himself as the opening act, on July 28.
There’s another fact that adds to his mystique: he does almost no interviews (which perhaps explains why he’s so invested in this one). Why does he shun the media? Wouldn’t it be good for his career to talk to the press? The eyes gaze at me levelly.
“Why is it good for my career?”
Well, you know, exposure and so forth. Surely the media are part of the system?
“Not anymore,” he shrugs. “Maybe 20 years ago.” What’s the circulation of the Mail? he asks pointedly: “How many people will read this interview?”. I give a number, and he nods thoughtfully. “If we filmed this,” he points out, “and I put it on my YouTube channel…” I know what he means: his videos get hundreds of thousands of views, mostly from the same devoted fan-base who buy online tickets to the shows and chat with Sniper on Snapchat and Facebook.
The eyes soften, as if worried that I might feel disrespected. “I’m not being – wrong here,” he says, conciliatory, “but I grew up with the media game. You have to remember I was signed to Sony from the age of 15. By the age of 17, I was a multi-platinum-selling artist”. Sniper was part of So Solid Crew, one of the biggest hip-hop groups of the early 00s. “So I’ve experienced the media more than probably any human being has ever done – I mean, in terms of Cypriots. In terms of someone who has relations to Cyprus, the only people who’ve experienced media more than me are probably George Michael and Peter Andre. No-one else.”
The waitress arrives to take our order. He orders a carpaccio and a Sprite with a slice of lemon, no ice. Is that his breakfast? More of a mid-morning snack, he smiles: “I had breakfast around 3 o’clock”. Ironically, given the ‘AM’ in his name, Sniper isn’t really a morning person: shows and nightlife keep him up till the wee hours. He’s been doing this job – or variations on it – since he was eight years old (he’s now 28) and moved to Cyprus from South London. His dad, George Melas, previously played for Ipswich Town in the top flight of English football, and used his footballer’s earnings to invest “in a small fishing village called Ayia Napa”. Anthony’s uncles had already moved here, opening the legendary Black & White nightclub (playing R&B, then as now) in 1985. Is that where he started DJing at 13? I ask, trying to recall my pre-interview research.
Eight years old? What kind of DJing can an eight-year-old do?
“Very good, if you’re me!” he replies. He laughs then repeats it, as if charmed by the thought: “Very good, if you’re me.”
Clearly, he doesn’t lack self-confidence. He never did, even as an eight-year-old – and seems to have been an unusually strong-minded boy. The family started Radio Napa around the same time (they also own the Waterpark and the new Circus Square development, among other ventures) and Anthony had his own show by the age of nine, playing music and adding a little patriotic message to “explain to tourists that Cyprus is under invasion”. It must’ve been quite funny, a squeaky nine-year-old voice punctuating the music with a short reminder of the Cyprus problem. Magazines dubbed him our “youngest ambassador”, and he also composed a Cypriot version of ‘Wind of Change’ by the Scorpions – his first visit to a recording studio, a milieu that instantly fascinated him: “At that moment, I knew that’s what I wanted to do”.
By the age of 12, having practised on the equipment at Black & White, he was doing proper DJ sets and hanging out with people twice his age. “I was wild when I was young,” he recalls. “I’d get up to all sorts of stuff”. He also discovered girls – and that was the biggest drive of all, he admits with a chuckle.
Has he learned how to handle that side of things better, at 28?
He looks at me, eyes twinkling merrily. “Well, I’m not a virgin, so I know my way around!” he replies, and bursts out laughing. “I think I’m responsible for a lot of returning female tourism to Cyprus. I should get an award,” he riffs. “’Cos I’m on the front line, fighting to bring the girls back!” He laughs again, pleased with the way this is going, then turns to Louis – his friend and PA – and holds up his hand for a high-five: “Yeah!”.
There’s a lot of A.M. Sniper in those last few paragraphs. The laddish side, of course, the macho swagger many would associate (rightly or wrongly) with hip-hop culture – but also the patriotism, the love of Cyprus, above all the fact that he’s always been a doer, always fiercely independent, even as a child.
First, the swagger: “There’s no-one like A.M. Sniper in the whole Mediterranean,” he declares at one point. “And there will never be. There will never be another Bob Marley”. Hip-hop is a narcissistic culture: more than in any other musical genre, rappers tend to sing about themselves (the Rolling Stones have been making music for five decades without the words ‘Mick Jagger’ ever appearing in their lyrics). It’s also – a related point – a music of the streets, linked to forging an identity in a tough, unforgiving environment. Being ‘edgy’ is part of a rapper’s persona. “To do the business that we do,” explains Sniper, “we have to be a bit – it’s part of our culture to be a bit arrogant and cocky. Because it’s our music, it’s full of attitude, and without the attitude the music is just going to be flat. It’s like eating food without the seasoning”.
So Solid Crew crossed the line, at least in the eyes of the tabloids; several members were accused of gun crime, and the group’s founder Megaman was charged with murder (he was later acquitted). It was totally unfair, says Sniper, because the Crew were made out to be friends – and all tarred with the same brush – when in fact they were independent rappers coming together on the same project: he didn’t even know half those people. (This may be what soured him on the media, at least the British media.) In fact, and despite the swagger, “I’m a very responsible individual,” he insists, between bites of carpaccio. “I can make a song and influence people to go and do some very crazy shit – but I’ll never do it. And I know I have that power, [but] with power you’ve got responsibility… Just because I make hip-hop music, it doesn’t mean I want to see everyone walk around Cyprus with a champagne bottle in their hand and a spliff in the other hand, and just get high. If you listen to my music, that’s not what I reflect”.
Instead he tends to gripe about Kids Today, like a man twice his age: “Everything that defines a Cypriot – honour, loyalty, trust, hospitality – it’s all dissolving,” he asserts glumly, adding that Cypriot youngsters (and Cypriots more generally) seem to have lost their identity. “It’s like people don’t take pride in themselves. They can’t believe that a Cypriot can go in the Olympics and win. They can’t believe that one of the best rappers in the world can be from Cyprus”.
How Cypriot does he actually feel?
“Very. I’m very Cypriot. I’m actually more Cypriot than people understand”. Yes, he speaks English, makes hip-hop and hangs out with folks like Memphis Bleek, one of Jay-Z’s right-hand rappers – but he also has friends who’ll “call me and say ‘Yo, I’m gonna put the souvla on, come over, let’s play some tavli’”, and he recently freaked out Memphis Bleek by taking him to a fish restaurant and eating the fish-heads, cheeks, brains and all, like a proper Cypriot. (Bleek was even shocked that the prawns came with the heads still on; apparently, they clean them in America.) “I’m an island man! I admit that, and I say it. I’m not a city boy, I’m not a modernised – y’know, everything chic and all that. I’m an island boy.”
Meaning what? Hard to say, exactly, but note that Bob Marley was also an island boy – and, though the comparison can’t be stretched too far, there are similarities. Marley was devout, and so is Sniper. “Of course,” he replies when I ask if he believes in God, and adds that he doesn’t really ‘get’ atheism: “I mean, I’m sitting right now and I’m looking at so much life in front of me. I’m looking at those trees moving, and something’s causing that, y’know? I’m feeling this beautiful breeze, and I’m feeling good, something’s causing that. I know that’s not some atheist blowing down my face, d’you know what I mean?”.
Most importantly, however, an island man is something of an island himself. Marley went his own way, and so does Sniper; indeed, his whole career has been built on going his own way – doing it himself, bypassing the media and music industry and the rest of those meddlers. He promotes his own shows, sells his own tickets; he now has an album – a “mixtape” called ‘Sniper Skills’ – and of course you can download it on his website, snipermusic.com.
One could call A.M. Sniper a product of a new age – an age when music flows directly from the artist to the fans, lubricated by social media – but in fact I suspect he’d have been just as successful in the old system. Some people have an aura about them, and he’s one of those people; he probably had the same air of power when he was just a kid named Anthony Melas, or a teenage boy obsessed with girls and getting high – though he’s grateful for those wild teenage years, because now “I’m not starving for anything… I know myself. Because I’ve lived with myself”. That’s the point, at the end of the day: to be who you are. “When you’re yourself you learn about things, and become more of a genuine character to yourself,” reckons Sniper. “Whether you’re good or bad, that’s irrelevant. Just be yourself”. Then we shake hands, and I plunge into the Sunday-evening traffic to Nicosia.