I'm going to open GTAR #50 with a controversial statement: I love MCs. So many people who have grown up raving have got nothing but bad things to say about mic men. Most of the criticism has a fair amount of truth in it; MCs don’t know when to shut up, they talk total bollocks, they’ve got huge egos, and any time they make a standalone tune it’s inevitably shit.
But in spite of this (or in some cases because of this), MCs have gone beyond being an intrinsic part of rave culture to becoming an intrinsic part of British culture. What started out as DJs filling space over tracks has morphed and evolved into an artform all of its own, a lyrical tangle of street slang, chest beating, surrealism, rat-a-tat gibberish, politics, mad jokes, and demands to rave. Chatting over rave music has become so intertwined in British culture that it's spread to the furthest reaches of the country; during a recent trip to Glasgow I was told by the producer Inkke that he grew up listening to ‘diss tracks’ – mental speed happy hardcore tunes that bams (Glaswegian nutters, basically) would MC insults over the top of. Even up in the highlands the kids are grabbing mics - the aesthetic has travelled a long way since the days of Double Trouble on Top of the Pops. You want a playlist of Glaswegian diss tracks? Of course you do:
So why, when so many people hate MCs, are they still here, still shouting mad shit and endlessly recycling lines? I think the main reason is that a good MC takes the energy of the crowd and gives it voice. They’re a conduit for everyone’s good time, amplifying it to the point of complete euphoria. A good MC can have thousands in their hands, because the crowd all know that a good MC is exactly the same as them – a massive fan of the music, a fan so vocal that they can’t stop shouting about it.
Interestingly, MCs jump from one scene to the next far more than DJs - the skillset for hyping a crowd is much the same whether you're living at at 80bpm or 180 bpm. This means that MCs are often the missing link between the various strands of British dance music - you might see one guy switch from dropping murky rap in the 80s to appearing on Top of the Pops with a garage crew in the 00s (more on that in a bit...). Follow the MCs and you get the whole spectrum of music unfolding, much of it amazing, much of it terrible, all of it part and parcel of life on our strange little island.
So I thought I’d spend the 50th GTAR column raising a toast to 40 odd years of Great British MCs, the men (and very occasionally women) daft and sublime enough to believe that their voice can make a good thing better. To this end I’ve sent the call out to all and sundry; what are the high (and low) points of UK rave culture, the moments that illustrate an art that’s as British as pissing rain and three day benders.
First off, shout out to the Long Live Beautifully Crafted Jungle facebook group – the knowledge I get from the crew of jungle fanatics that make up is membership is always appreciated, and the group was an invaluable resource in putting together this piece – this is communal knowledge! First off, from that group, my old South London mucker Fred Shaw bought up this clip of Daddy Freddy appearing on Record Breakers, and it seems like a perfect jumping off point. Freddy was going for the record of the most syllables ever spat – something he eventually nailed four times, raising the record from 346 to 598 syllables a minute. When I watch this clip, Daddy Freddy baffling grinning TV staples Roy Castle and Cheryl Baker by spitting pure ring-a-ding-ding Bashment flames, I like to imagine a junior Wiley or D Double E sitting at home soaking it all up - in fact since writing this piece, Joe Muggs has got in touch with this anecdote the grime & dubstep MC Flowdan told about seeing Daddy Freddy on TV -
"When he was doing his thing in, I dunno, early ’90s, he lived in my dad’s building in Brixton. I didn’t know who he was, and my dad was like “I live near someone famous”, so I was like, “So?”. He went “I’m going to get you a record signed by him”. “So?” So he got me this record signed by him: “Never heard of him, Dad”. So I had it, then one day I saw him on Record Breakers [kids TV show based on The Guinness Book of Records – Daddy Freddy appeared as the world’s fastest rapper]! So I thought shit, I know this guy, and I was telling everyone, look, look, I know this man, he lives near my dad in Brixton, look, I’ve got his record! Then 20 years later, I’m working with the man, it’s weird. Obviously when I tell him who my dad is, he can’t get over it, so he loves doing shows with me and I love doing them with him. The energy is good."
That footage is from 1989, and that year signalled a funny breach opening up. It feels like the scene split into those who tried to follow an American model and actually tell stories with words, and those who caught the wave and started hyping up crowds in tents in fields by shouting any old madness. Looking back, the people who chose the latter sound like they were having loads more fun – for every great UK rap track (and let’s doff a hat to rebel MC, Silver Bullet and Ragga Twins) there were loads of cuts by outfits looking to crack America, and in doing so, totally denying any of the E euphoria sweeping the nation. This led to a few strange releases, and thanks to Hyperdub man Marcus Scott for bringing up this particularly weird bit of nonce-fear from Brit Hop outfit Hijack – my only regret is that this didn’t make it onto the notorious Brass Eye Paedo special – for real though, the beat is banger. Anyway, remember Hijack MC Kimanchi Sly - we'll be seeing him again in a bit.
Christ knows what Hijack- who are clearly very concerned about men with soft soled shoes buying sweets for kids – would have made of this clip musical uberlord Joe Muggs has sent me. Whilst Hijack were getting all doomy, the rest of the country was getting right on one - and here's a slice of life from Fantazia. 3 minutes in you witness the moment when Ratpack’s Everson Allen sing/shouts happy birthday to a 3 year old over the break of Awesome 3’s Don’t Go. Ratpack were always the kings of nursery rhyme hardcore so it seems kinda fitting that this girl would get serenaded by a battered sounding Everson – even if it's all a bit 'someone call social services'. The girl in question would be about 26 now, I’d love to know where she’s at…
As it happens, Fantazia has form on MC insanity. Check out these pictures (shouts to Marcus Taylor from beautifully crafted jungle for finding em) of Robbie Dee who decided to man the mic whilst swinging high above the crowd from something that looks like a sex harness. I heard a story that he freaked out whilst trapped in it and could be heard begging to be put back down, but I suspect that’s just typical salacious rave gossip. I think the pleasure I take in looking at these pictures is the knowledge that Robbie was almost certainly completely spangled when he got in that swing.
Finally, from the rave era, Kieran Delaney (who is lucky enough to share an office with us at Ransom Note) has won all the prizes for digging up this recording of Top Buzz MC Mad P telling every single person from London to ‘fuck off’ out of the rave. In 1991, Top Buzz had just been voted the third worst DJ/MC combo in London, and Mad P obviously decided to beef the entire capital. What I love about this recording is the MC before Mad P telling ravers to stop fucking about on the central tent pole;
“Ehh.. Here, hold on a minute, get down off there mate, I beg ya, all of you chaps get down off there, cos if you fuck yourself all of us get in trouble.”
It’s the use of ‘chaps’ that kills me – this really British expression being used in a situation that’s clearly total bedlam. Listening to it genuinely makes me love this country- if I had my way, this recording would somehow feature in the citizenship test. The set that Top Buzz then drop is fire, with Mad P keeping it tight and sparse after his original outburst. He’s from the school of hardcore MCs I love; happy to bring chaos and energy, but mostly there because they really, really love the music.
And talking of tight and sparse, it’s time to jump forward a few years to the jungle era where we get many, many junglists favourite MC; GQ. When I put the shout out for people’s favourite MC I had numerous shouts for GQ . He’s made his name by seemingly being one of the few MCs to be commanding on the mic, and yet still able to shut up and let the tunes speak. It’s the rarest of talents, and has seen him lace some of the greatest sets in jungle. Of all the sets offered, shouts to James Carney for bringing up this AWOL recording with Darren Jay, Randall, Kenny Ken, Mickey Finn and Dr S Gachet on the decks, whilst GQ teams up with Fearless on the mic. It’s as perfect a jungle mix as I’ve ever heard. Pretty much every track is a dubplate or VIP mix, the crowd are going insane throughout (the horns literally never let up) and GQ and Fearless are titans, utterly immense as they’re riding the waves of the crowds and busting lyrics on lyrics on the beat, doubling the impact of the drops and taking the levels to a setting beyond hype. This is jungle at a pinnacle I’m not sure it ever attained again.
Still for sheer technical skill, you’ve got to talk about Stevie Hyper D, and you’ve got to talk about Shabba and Skibba. I’ve dedicated a whole GTAR to the legend of Hyper D before, but I can’t get through this homage to the art of MCing without mentioning the much missed legend at least once. Here he is on set with Skibadee and Shabba D in ‘97, while Shy FX runs the beats. Shy’s mixing is a bit wonky, but this is a master class in MCing – all three mic men firing at full speed, sing jaying, firing out catchphrases, double timing on the beat and sounding like they’re having an amazing time.
Elsewhere on the 'great set' front, I got sent through so many different killers, it's been hard to listen to them all, so I'll just tip a nod to Jordan Slate for recommended this set featuring Spyda, Trigga & Bassman over Kenny Ken in '96, and it's an MCs dream - the mics are about 3 times louder than the music.
Before we move on from DnB, honoury mention goes out to a clip sourced by the endlessly knowledgable Olly Rant. He's dug up a clip of MC Bassman showing immense chill in the line of fire - literally. Listen to Bassman busting the mic at some rave in ’98 whilst someone in the crowd decides to let off a gun in the arena (you can hear the gunshot around a minute in). Bassman doesn’t even drop a word. Ice cold. Thanks also to solid junglist soldier Chris Wall for pointing out that Bassman has got a website detailing his lyrics- and it is pure gold. He’s forgotten the unbreakable rule – what sounds good on the mic often sounds kinda mental when written down. Treat yourself, seriously – Bassman Lyrics.
As it happens, it turns out that 'guns buss at a Bassman rave' was something of a regular - cheers to regular GTAR reader Drank Williams for dropping this piece of knowledge -
"you really need to add this one thing here (I missed your thread or I would have linked you). In a long litany of "Bassman & Company getting interrupted by gunfire" this stands out as my favourite of the lot, you can barely make out the shots being fired before they wind down "Its Jazzy" to deliver a stern (but understandably polite) warning that if people keep firing their guns like that they will put away the mics and stop MCing..."
I guess that gunshots were a harbinger of things to come. As garage switched to grime, and E camaraderie receded into folk memory, MCing became more and more concerned with clashing and chest beating, and less about hyping up the crowd with bastardised nursery rhymes. One side effect of this was that the skill levels were raised much, much higher. The clash between Heartless Crew and Pay As U Go that took place in Destiny’s, Watford in 2001 has passed into garage legend (and was sampled on the recent Skepta album). It’s mostly remembered for the simmering violence that underpinned it – however it’s also a heavy listen, rage and talent spilling into one another, the MCs battling to move the crowd, joining in on each others bars, and still dropping that unique mix of yard slang with British expressions (there’s Wiley calling himself “the stone cold fellow”). You can still see that link that goes right back through jungle and hardcore to the toasters of Fashion records lighting up the charts in the 80s
Obviously it wasn't all murking in greater London rave sheds. The flip side of the darker side of garage was the champagne, Ayia Napa bling tracks that dominated the charts in the late 90s and early 00s. Here's a video of Pied Piper bringing MC culture to Top of the Pops, with MC's DT, Melody, Sharkey P and Unknown busting the cheery rhymes. But does Unknown MC look a touch familiar? Yep he was formerly Kamanchi Sly of Hijack, the group we encountered rapping about noncecases earlier in this piece. Thanks again to Chris Wall for pointing out this surprising link- here's what he had to say about it: "To be fair my mate asked him about it and he was basically like - I don't care what anyone thinks - that record allowed me to buy my mum a house."
**** STOP PRESS***
In big news, since this piece has gone out there, Paul McGee has got in touch with a mate to deliver a truly cracking anecdote about Unknown MC:
"One tidbit Ian's story missed was that Ronnie ghosted Andy Cole's rhymes on his cover of Outstanding in 1999, a couple of years before doing Do You Really Like It with Pied Piper (who's his younger brother, IRC). Being an LFC fan, it was distressing to see him debasing himself like that, but I seem to recall him telling me that the money was very good indeed, plus he's a Yanited fan anyway."
Oh my gosh! For anyone who has expunged the traumatic memory of (former Man U striker) Andy Cole's short lived career as an MC from their minds, you can remind yourself of it over here. It's not getting posted in my column fam. Let's roll Pied Piper instead;
Returning to Wiley, and the Godfather has been involved in countless timeless moments – from his legendary sets with Slimzee (one of which you’ll get a rare chance to catch at Born & Bred this coming weekend), to his endless clashes. His shadow has loomed big over the last 15 years, as both a producer and an MC. No matter the props Skepta gets (deservedly so), in many ways I think Wiley is the ultimate UK MC. He combines surreal humour (see: pies), meaningless phrases that still sound dope (“bodododo dadadada” anyone?), bizarre rhymes (no one says ‘diaper’ as much as Wiley), with a flow that can double up or drop to half speed, deliver deep meaning or force a crowd to move with hyper kinetic syllables. He’s got catch phrases and one liners, he’s won clashes and – as he proved on Step 19 – can still flow better on jungle than half the jungle MCs out there. With so much out there, let’s pick the one that shows Wiley alongside Dizzee in dance hyping mode – Slimzee on the decks providing pure future beats.
Thing is, when people think about grime they have a tendency to think it was the moment all the humour got siphoned out of the UK scene and replaced with rage. This just isn’t true – even if the current generation of Home Counties based grime fans genuinely want it to be. Grime always had room for more than just clashing – shall we remember Red Hot Ents with the all time chicken shop great Junior Spesh?
How this is still beneath a million plays is beyond me – but it does segue neatly into the next stage of UK MC development. I’m pretty sure that Gracious Nappa Man K was involved with Red Hot Ents, and of course you, my readers, will remember Gracious K as the man behind the for-a-while ubiquitous Migraine Skank. Here it is in a playlist of other MC led UK Funky bangers:
Migraine Skank is a proper rave tune in that the first, best version was made by Gracious jumping on a couple of beats that were then blowing up in the rave – including the Hard House Banton banger Sirens. In doing so he created an underground smash that would never see official release. When the official version of Migraine Skank came out it was over a new beat, a weaker imitation of the original that lost its loose mayhem. This was a story repeated through UK Funky – a rift opened up between producers and MCs, and almost all of the greatest UK Funky MC tracks are unofficial, producers deciding that they were too important to let any MC claw glory on their beats. No one was going to have a General Levy moment, with an MC claiming they ran Funky, but then, no one got to release tunes that were fire, and the scene suffered as a result. Tracks like Tribal Skank, Blackberry Hype, Don’t Piss Me Off and R U Gonna Bang still get dropped now – despite never having been available anywhere other than file sharing sites.
Still, one did make it out, K.I.G’s Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes, a shameless slice of nursery rave that, for me, drew things right back to the days of Ratpack singing “Im raving Im raving.” Nearly 20 years on and we’d come full circle. The MCs will never die, more power to em. And I didn't even have time to get onto Afrobeats....
* bonus feature! Three more videos that I couldn't crow bar into the narrative but are too good to miss -
1) MC Det spitting bars while he pumps iron. I don't really need to say anymore. (Suggested: Martin Sage)
2) Tempa T performing Next Hype to a business conference for EE phones, then breaking down the lyrics to his audience of uncomfortable suits. One of the strangest vignettes of modern Britain I've ever seen (Suggested: Chris Wall - again - man knows too much)
3) Jammer reciting Jerusalem. Because it's everything I write about all in one. (Suggested: Olly Rant, again, knowledge for days)
Shouts to everybody who helped out with GTAR #50, you all know lush stuff. Pat yourself on the back & see you at #100.
A whole load of the people I've written about in this piece are playing at Born & Bred over the weekend, including GQ, Det, Wiley & Slimzee, and a million other examples of Britain's best MCs. Hope to see you there - tickets and details are over here.