Interview by Rick Thorne. Photo by Brian Bartholomew
From Murder Dog Vol 9 #2 (2002)
Is hip-hop big in the U.K.?
Yeah of course it is. It's like any scene, there's like two separate sides to it, same way if you go to New York. The average 13 to 18-year-old will know certain artists in hip-hop, like the big artists. But then you'll get a separate group of like 10,000, whatever, the hardcore who know more of the underground artists whether that's independent or whatever.
Has the scene been developing over a number of years?
Yeah, I think the thing about London is that after New York and like New Jersey, you've got this blowin' up on the east coast, London's had a hip-hop scene for time. If you look at the other scenes like Germany and places like that, their scene really grew from ya know, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, even though they did have breakers who were into it in the early '80s. But London has had a hip-hop scene from an early stage.
What British hip-hop artists are popular over here?
People like Rodney P, people like MC Skeme, people like Fallacy, people like Roots Manuva, people like Lewis Parker. Jehst, Super T.
Are most of these artists doing their stuff independent?
Yeah, I'd say so. Mark B & Blade are signed to Wordlab which goes through Virgin. Roots Manuva's on Ninjatune, which is an independent label. You could say the majority of people puttin' stuff out in this country are doin' it for themselves one way or another.
Has the scene here expanded?
It's definitely expanded, just in terms of little things like Radio One. That's like the national station, probably one of the biggest radio stations in the world I'd say, 'coz it goes out to the whole of Europe. But before, the people who'd be doin' their playlisting, they wouldn't even consider any type of hip-hop. Everyone knew them as like a station that used to dis hip-hop basically, especially back in the '80s, they used to dis it hard. And now they wanna know. So their playlist will now contain y'know, your Jay-Z, your Dre, your Roots Manuva. Even people like Maestro they've played, underground British rappers. Deejays have played it in their sets like 2 o'clock in the afternoon, that's goin' out to like 60 million people.
Can you name a few landmark records in U.K. hip-hop?
The first one I'd say would be Nutriment 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' 'coz that was the first recognised British hip-hop tune. That's 1983. Before that like George Michael had 'Wham Rap' but that shit don't count. Because that was the first I'd say that was a landmark tune. That was a guy called Nutriment who was English and a guy called Sir Drew from Mighty Ethnicz from Ladbroke Grove, who was originally from L.A. I'd also say Hijack 'Style Wars'. That was the first record that really grabbed the attention of people outside this country. So that record was huge, it was big in Germany and places like that, who like the sort of fast stuff, 'yes we love British hip-hop', started all that shit. At that time I was gettin' pure Red Alert tapes and Red Alert used to cut that up, put that in the mix and that was unheard of in 1988. That was definitely a landmark tune. Hijack hooked-up with Ice-T and the Rhyme Syndicate, they had a deal with them, put an album out through Warner, through Ice-T's label and then it all went sour. But they definitely represented for the U.K. and they had their own image.
Are they making garage music now?
Yeah but they're makin' money dy'get me? They did all that back then and probably got paid a grand. I'd say London Posse 'Money Mad'. That was the first tune that really incorporated the whole ragga side of it, the reggae side of it, into hip-hop. At the same time you had people like Asher D & Daddy Freddy who were doin' it as well, but they were kinda older and were more like just reggae emcees, people who chat over hip-hop. But Bionic and Rodney P were hip-hop kids who can chat. 'Money Mad', that shit was definitely ahead of its time. I'm gonna say Roots Manuva 'Witness', simply because it's a unique tune, incredible production, and people have bought that and felt that all over the world. It's one of those rare tunes where ya man who's into hardcore hip-hop can listen to it, ya man who's into fuckin' gangsta shit can listen to it, the man who's into indie music and pop music could like it. Plus it's raw, it's not diluted and it's English, he's not tryna hide his accent or anything like that, it is what it is. I wanna say a Lewis Parker tune like when he was samplin' all that easy listening shit, like '94, '95. He was doin' that before a lot of cats. Demon Boyz 'Northside', 'Detwork Southeast' maybe. This is the thing, say like Derek B, he did some groundbreakin' shit.
When did you get into hip-hop and deejaying?
Probably about '85, around the time I was going to secondary school.
In those days it was definitely more of an underground thing, like I
was a graf writer. So for me it'd be all about linking up with writers
and hittin' trains. This is in London sort of between like '85 and '89.
It's kinda weird lookin' back on it 'coz in one way it was bigger than
ever because like everyone was a breaker, everyone was like a rapper.
So in some ways the scene was huge 'coz it was like the first time it
had come over so hip-hop was like a new thing, a fresh thing from New
York, dy'know what I mean? Everyone was into it. Looking at the jams
and the things that were going on I'd say it was more of a younger thing
than it is now. And it was more unified. If you went to a jam down Covent
Garden or whatever, the people there would have the same interests as
you. So they'd listen to Westwood, be a writer, they'd buy their records
in Groove. But now fuckin' anyone could be into it and I wouldn't have
anything in common with 'em. It's like from one extreme to another. Things
get labelled so in the same way now you got certain people in British
hip-hop who just like lyrical rappers but then you got people who like
more of the street rappers.
You made your name through making mix-tapes. What inspired you to start doing that?
Basically just from what I was hearing from New York. From a young age I'd always be into my tapes, before I even bought records, that's how I heard hip-hop. I had a cousin over in New York who used to send over tapes, used to send over a lot of the old-school radio shows like Marley Marl and Mr. Magic, people like that. Then when I was gettin' older I got like my firsy crappy set-up. I was listening to Kid Capri tapes and I'd always want to get like the latest tunes and just mix 'em up, put 'em on tape and just let ‘em float at school. Because I was always a vinyl addict I'd always have the latest shit, so I'd make a tape for myself just for the week at school. Then someone at school would be like 'yeah, what's that, yeah I'll give you £2 (roughly $3) for that'. It's like 'alright then, safe'. Then someone else gave me £2, I'm like hold on a sec, I could do covers for this. At the same time, this is like the early '90s, I was lookin' at what was goin' on in the States, Kid Capri, Doo-Wop was comin' out with tapes, Ron G was just comin' out with tapes, people like that. And I was thinkin' 'hmm, these tapes are bad', the freshest shit on it, and no one's really up on it over here. The only shops that sell 'em is like Four Star General and that's like you go in there, give 'em £10 (roughly $15) and they dub it off for you, dy'know what I mean? So I hooked up with my mate who had a computer, did a cover and then I just sell 'em.
Would you say you were the first person in London who was puttin' out their own mix-tapes?
Well-packaged proper mix-tapes I was definitely the first. Obviously anyone can do a tape and sell it 'coz people did do tapes dy'know what I mean? But having tracklistings, having proper covers. A lot of stores in England that sell tapes, I was the first person that went to them. I called up every shop in the country, got my shit in every spot, then started goin' out to Europe, go over to France, to Paris every three months, fuckin' bags full of tapes. And then Westwood heard one of my tapes and then called me up and he's like 'yeah I want you to do some mixes on Capital Radio', so it's like cool, wicked. So that's the whole reason why I do tapes. Because I couldn't get a look-in. I wanted to deejay in clubs, I was too young to deejay in clubs anyway, but like no one wants to employ you unless you got experience so how you gonna get experience, dy'know what I'm sayin'? So I just did these tapes.
How did you manage to earn a living being an underground hip-hop deejay in the U.K. over the years?
I can only speak from my point of view, and for me yeah life's hard so you got struggles when you're startin' out. Like when I started makin' a livin' out of hip-hop in this country I was young, moved out of home like 17, 18, had to pay the rent. And I was doin' that off hip-hop. Lookin' back on it there's certain things, like business things I could've done to make myself more money. Yeah it was a struggle but I think for a deejay, if you know what you're doin' and if you're talented it's a lot easier to make money because you can always spin at clubs, you can sell mix-tapes, you can do shit like that. But if you're an emcee there's only a certain amount of tunes you might be able to sell dy'know what I mean? Like your average U.K. hip-hop release only really does 1000, 1500. So to make a living off that it's quite hard.
What sort of radio work did you get off the back of the mix-tapes and deejaying?
About that time I was basically just hustling tapes. Like I'd have 'em in stores up and down the country but every day I'd go out, if I was brass I'd walk from where I was livin' at that time, West Kensington Estate, up to the West End and just hustle my tapes. Like say if I'm in a shop now and I hear some German voices I'd be like right up to 'em like 'yeah yeah what you sayin', you need some tapes', and basically force them to buy my shit, and that's how I made my money. After that from doin' the tapes, I did a radio show on a station called Grove FM, this was in '94 which had one of those temporary three-month licenses. I did that with my man DJ Kuku. I was doin' Westwood at that time as well, after that I was doin' a station in Harlesden called Freedom FM, again another three-month license thing. This is all around '94, '95. '95 I started some guest mixes for Choice FM, did some for Kiss, did some for loads of pirates.
You toured North America two times with Roots Manuva. Were you exposed to any of the gangsta stuff out there?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. For me, people gotta understand yeah, is a
lot of the gangsta shit out there doesn't get played here dy'know what
I mean? So it's hard for us to understand it and for us to get into
it because you don't really hear it on the radio a great deal, you
hear a certain side of it. But when I went out there, when I went out
to like Houston, to Atlanta, to New Orleans, that shit's in your face
dy'know what I sayin'? So like comin' from a country which is always
cold and grey and then goin' out to somewhere where the vibe's relaxed,
obviously there's a lot of shit goin' on there, from like the hustling
tip, the gang tip, the drug tip. But just to see it in its environment
and see how people live and see how people dress and what they drink,
what type of drugs they take, it's all relevant to the music. So
then when I was out there I was gettin' into it, dy'know what I'm sayin'?
So it helps to make sense of the music if you understand its environment?
Yeah, I mean over here people normally like a lot of New York hip-hop really. That's because New York and London are quite similar.
Does London look like New York?
No it don't look like New York 'coz the buildings are a lot smaller and the streets are a lot smaller but yeah there's certain places, like parts of Ladbroke Grove you could say look like Brooklyn. It's a similar size.
Are you still doing mix-tapes?
Yeah, still doin' 'em. Got loads of tapes comin' out this year. Just finished a breaks tape called 'Bastard Breaks Pt. 2', that's comin' out. And then gonna put out just my series of MK tapes which focuses on new talent over here. So I get a lot of up-and-coming emcees spittin' verses and a lot of the hot tunes, both U.K. and U.S., and showin' skills.
Are you doing them the same way you've always done them?
Now it's like the next level so it's like distributors y'know what I mean? So Landspeed and Fat Beats fuck with it in the States, Tape Kingz fuck with it. I sell 'em myself over here, I have a distributor for Germany, I deal with Groove Attack, I deal with this company called Oxygen. And then in Japan, their market's kinda fucked now, but I sell to like Manhattan Records and they distribute it from there.
If the work dried up could you ever do a regular job?
Basically not. Like a lot of people say 'oh, you've been into hip-hop
a long time and you've been makin' a living off it and it's a struggle
and it's hard', yeah it is but it's the only thing I know how to do.
So the alternatives for me really, I'm not gonna say if I weren't doin'
this I'd be fuckin' sellin' crack on the corner. But before I was doin'
this my life was goin' down a bad path. Basically I got sent away for
about four months, in Feltham (young offenders institution), and when
I came out I was like 16 and I thought 'right, I'm either gonna go back
to hangin' out and fuckin' just gettin' in trouble with the police, fuckin'
shit like that, or school and fuck school 'coz school's shit, they're
not teaching me anything'. So yeah, the only thing I know is really deejaying
and I know I can do that better than most people. I've always had a lot
of confidence in myself as well.
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