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From fit checks to FoundationFM, Gully Guy Leo was always destined for more

From fit checks to FoundationFM, Gully Guy Leo was always destined for more

by Eric Brain
13 min

Gully Guy Leo isn’t “that streetwear kid” anymore. Having elevated himself from the Supreme-stunting Warwick-based whizz-kid into one of the many faces for Skepta’s MAINS and a bonafide DJ, Leo Mandella now enters his next era: one centred around his new Foundation FM breakfast radio show.

But how did the boy from Warwick get here? Sure, 700,000 Instagram followers and surrounding himself with a network of like minded creatives has helped, but if it wasn’t for Mandella’s tenacious drive and unwavering determination, it might have been a totally different story. 

Of course, this hard work didn’t come without its hurdles. Speaking exclusively to Culted – with a pizza in hand at a nearby pizzeria close to FoundationFM’s studio space – Gully Guy Leo told us that while he “did start off by posting on Instagram, I did always know that I wanted to have my own show or do some form of presenting. But when you do something – for me, that was influencing and taking outfit pictures – it’s very hard to elevate into something such as radio, without people thinking, ‘Oh, you only got there because you have a following’.”

Leo would unequivocally prove anyone that ever doubted him wrong. But “it’s harder to get given a chance to get taken seriously on radio or being a DJ when you’re an influencer,” he explains. Regardless, he made one thing clear: “I would never, ever have thought that we’d finally be sitting here having a conversation about my own show.”

And so here we are, having a conversation about how Gully Guy Leo – the influencer – has become more than that. Here’s what he had to say about his life so far, the importance of radio and kicking off his own FoundationFM show, and of course, what the future may hold.

Would you really call yourself an influencer? By the very basic definition of that term, I mean.

I know people try to steer clear of that word when they are influencers. I think it has a bit of a grey area around its own reputation… I think, now, I’m more of a personality than someone who takes photos [of my outfit]. I realised that I don’t just want to do that forever, I really have potential to do radio. So I wouldn’t call myself that, an influencer, I’d call myself more of a personality. 

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Was there a moment when that shift in realisation occurred?

It was a couple of years ago. Between the ages of 16 and 18, Instagram and influencing was my bag. But as I got older, my career had to mature as I matured. If you’re 27, posting pictures of yourself in a jumper that matches your shoes… You can do more. I realised that, and I realised that there’s no better time to do this than now. 

Radio and broadcasting in general is a long game. You don’t just start and come in at the top of your game. I always think of people like Nick Grimshaw and Maya Jama – they started 10 years ago and they’re still developing now, their careers are going up and up and up. 

But as I mature, my career, work, what I am putting out into the world also needs to mature. 

How does it feel when you look back at your trajectory? 

I’m always in my head appreciating what has come, and I’m really thankful for all the opportunities that I’ve had in the past. But I am also really excited to go forward and carry on with Instagram, but also elevate myself.

I don’t always like to stay in the past or look at the past. I’ve done some amazing things, but I’m always like, “Right, what can I do next?” 

Radio is a young person’s game, but rarely does it really speak to a young audience.
What is it like entering this industry?

I know what you mean. With radio – let’s think about BBC Radio 1Xtra, Capital, KISS – they are very stereotypical shows and stations. You can go onto it and you know what you’re going to hear: the latest music, they’ll talk about the weather and what’s going on in the world, you expect that. 

The reason why I am so excited to be on a community radio show like Foundation FM (because there’s loads like NTS and Rinse FM), [is because] they’re so fresh. I can go onto my show and have full creative control; I can play what I want, I can play edits, I can play remixes, there is no censoring. The only other show that I can see similar to Foundation is Beats 1.

I think that the radio stereotype is shifting. The presenters are getting younger. Let’s take Tiffany Calver, for example, who made 1Xtra a whole new thing. I tuned in and it made me feel like I was listening to… well, not a pirate radio, but it had a similar vibe, a similar kind of “anything goes” feel. That’s what I’m trying to do with my show, as well as what other young presenters are trying to make radio now. 

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I like this idea of it being uncensored. Why is that so important to your creative process?

Obviously I don’t like to just come on and say swear words and play rude songs, because it still is a breakfast show! But what I mean is, not necessarily the censoring of language but censoring your creativity. I feel like, with these bigger shows, presenters are censored with what they can do. They’re given their job, given their salary, and kind of get told what to do. There’s censoring in the sense that they don’t always have creative reign. That’s why I’m really happy to be on Foundation because I can do what I want. 

Will you, and your peers, re-introduce radio to a new generation of listeners?

Yeah, definitely. I hope so.

Since I’ve been posting about it I’ve been getting loads of DMs from people saying they love the show. Someone actually messaged me to say they’d never heard a radio show like this. In a good way… I think! 

I’m sure that, when people found out about me going into radio, some people had in their minds: “Oh, it’s just going to be like Radio 1.” Because that’s what people know. Everyone has this stereotype of what [radio] is because you’re listening in your car, it’s background music, it’s programmed [into what we know]. But I want to change what people think. 

I’ve had DJ Fat Tony on and we spoke about drag DJ names. You’d never hear that on a “normal” show.

So for you, what is the magic of radio?

The magic is waking up bi-monthly on Fridays and knowing that I am going here to curate this three-hour-long fun show. There are twists and turns – the CDJ just stopped working half way through earlier today! 

I always make a little plan on the night before the show. My producer encourages me not to over-plan it, because the magic is that anything goes, especially on my show. When I have guests on the show it can go in a different direction – when Tony came on he completely took over, he was so loud and bubbly, so lovely, and I wasn’t ready for that but it’s always exciting. There’s always something new coming, and I’m really glad that I’m on a station where that can happen; where I won’t be told to chill out or not talk about something. 

Where does your respect for radio come from?

Radio is one of the most important things on the planet. What people forget is, we – sat around this table – are in a bubble, sat on our phones 24/7. We see Instagram posts, TikTok, the news. Some adults, like my granny, don’t have a smartphone. She has a Nokia brick. She’s watching what’s on the TV or listening to the radio.

What’s so magical about it all is that radio has a place for everyone. For me, I’m listening to the radio when I’m in the car on my way to a party and I want music, but my granny will listen to it to understand what’s going on with politics. Half the time she’s like “f*ck this,” turning it off because it’s all music that she hates. 

But that’s the special thing and that’s why I respect it, because radio is so universal and anyone can tune into it and benefit from listening. 

Your show has been described as being “brand new” and
“stepping back from stereotypes” to “bring an intimate and relaxed vibe.”
How is that achieved? 

Like I was saying, I respect that radio is universal. But my show is for people my age and older. I don’t want people to tune in thinking they’re going to get the latest political updates. I want them to tune in on a Friday morning, when they’re at work or they have weekend plans coming, and to have a good time, listen to music that they might have forgotten about – I’m playing music from the ‘90s, before I was born, but that’s my vibe.

When you tune into a show, [especially] on FM in the car, I always know what’s going to be played. It’s the Top 10 Singles. But for me, I’ll play Future and then go into Diana Ross. There’s so much diversity on the show that it becomes an escape for the listeners. Somewhere they can zone out and back in.

Gully Guy Leo DJing
Jack Chipper / CULTED ©

Where does your eclectic music taste come from?

When I was younger, living at home in Warwick, every morning I’d wake up and go downstairs and my dad would be playing Bob Marley or Whitney Houston. Because this was from such a young age this has been printed in my mind – I just know that, when I DJ or if I’m on a night out, if I hear that kind of music or a Funky House edit of something like “Upside Down” or “Smooth Operator,” it just goes off. People have forgotten about that music, and to bring it into a club and modernise it is so magical, the way it turns people up. 

It’s funny, isn’t it, how our generation oddly resonates with music made before our time. 

That music is the coolest. My mum says “They don’t make it like that anymore!” But they actually don’t. 

Of course, amazing music is still being released by amazing artists every single day, but when you put on a song from Whitney Houston of Diana Ross, or anyone, it brings out a different side to you that music nowadays really doesn’t. 

So what does all this, and the radio show, stand for?

People think that getting into radio and broadcasting is really, really difficult, unless you already have a foot in the door – your dad works for the production company or something like that. I want to show that I am just from Warwick. I was shuffling in my back garden 10 years ago. 

I just want to show that it is a long game, it does take a lot of patience and you’re not going to get your dream show straight away, and that you do have to grind for it. 

What are you excited to do with the show?

I’m really excited to bring all of my friends on! I really can’t wait for that. The conversations me and my friends have at the pub would be great on a show. So good. They’re so funny, I am crying with laughter, this needs to be broadcasted! 

I also want to showcase new talent. People have asked who I am going to bring on, expecting it to be mad celebrities that I’ve met, but I don’t want my Foundation show to be a celeb-fest. I want to showcase my friends from Warwick who are sick DJs, I want to bring on friends who aren’t necessarily “massive.” I will mix it with some famous friends, but I also want to show off new talent. That is what Foundation is; it’s community radio and it’s important to help others, especially when you’ve got a platform. 

DJ Decks
Jack Chipper / CULTED ©

Knowing you… We are here to celebrate the show, I can imagine you’re already planning ahead.

My main priority for the last two years has been to start getting my foot in the radio door. I know, I keep saying it: it’s a long game, it really is. So off the back of radio, I want to do more – as this is an online no-visual show – in front of a camera. 

I always look at Maya Jama. She really did it! She used to do Radar, now she is arguably one of the biggest presenters to come out of the UK and she’s going worldwide. She’s a really good person to look at, her path and her career choices were so well-executed. It’s hard to compare to her because she’s different gravy, but me now… I will be doing more broadcasting stuff. 

I will carry on with Instagram, that’s my heart and I will never let go of that, but I will definitely be pushing broadcasting. Hopefully in five years I will be on TV as well as radio. 

So, what’s your 10 year plan?

Be In Your Face!

On tomorrows show, Leo’s best mate Olivia Neil will come on to catch up and chat about their Belfast weekender coming up, as well as going head-to-head with Leo on Irish vs British delicacies.

For his guest mix, Leo will be calling up Sophia Violet from the DJ group GIRLS DONT SYNC, which is taking the industry by storm, taking his listeners on a hour-long journey through all the best speed garage, house, and edits you could ever wish for.

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