Jimmy Ryan was the creative force behind Ruff Kut – a label that, had life panned out just slightly different, could have gone on to be as revered as Production House or Formation. Ruff Kut ran for a period of intense activity through 1992 to 1993, then suddenly folded, leaving a string of sought after 12”s in its wake; a run of classic early hardcore and jungle tracks shot through with classic soul samples and hyped up bursts of darkness. The majority of these records came from one source; Jimmy Ryan, aka The Good, 2 Bad & The Hugly.
I was curious to hear what happened to a label that seemed to be doing everything right, and a producer who had such a prolific run, so was pleasantly surprised when I realised Jimmy was easy enough to track down on Facebook, and, better still, up for talking about his time running Ruff Kut. It turns out that his is a story highs and lows, with some typical music industry bullshit contrasting with a genuine love of UK breakbeat culture that’s never left him, and is informing his current, welcome, return to jungle…
How do you want to start the story?
OK, so I used to work in a youth centre in Stevenage called Bowes Lyon Centre. From the age of 11 up to 16 or 17 I was there literally every day. I’d gone to the director of the place and asked him if there was anything I could do, and he said, ‘yeah we’ve got a music project going’. The project was to produce an album using all the youth that go to the centre. This first album was called Ruff Kut.
Had you any musical experience before this?
I DJ’d at Bowes from the time I was 11, I used to breakdance as well. The music thing was in me, it was my way to get out from the real world. Once they offered me to do the album, I know a couple of people who had studios, so I took all the people we were working with to a studio and said right we’re into hip hop, house, dance music, this is what we wanna make. And we just did it. I think we booked the studio for 2 to 3 weeks and produced an album. One of the guys we knew who was a graffiti artist, he did the logo, and we sold the album to friends and parents and raised the money back. For a youth project it was like, wow! We’ve made the money back.
What were you trying to sound like?
It was everything we used to play at Bowes. There was a group of us who were really into hip hop from an early age. We were all DJs and MCs, we were into stuff like Public Enemy, Rob Base and EZ Rock, all the electro albums. Bowes was a youth club – if you imagine a youth club that every Friday had 500 kids from all over Herts and Beds. It was quite a melting pot of people. For example, we’d have crews from Luton, St Albans, Letchworth, Stevenage, North London, they’d all go to this club. If you ever watched Grange Hill, it was like that, but the music was current. One minute we’d be listening to Soft Cell then we’d be listening to Rockit by Herbie Hancock, then The Smurf, then Apache would come on and someone would start breakdancing.
I imagine it got fairly wild in there…
The thing about Bowes was that we all got on. As long as you were inside, it was calm. Everybody would be dancing and mingling. There might be a scuffle outside, but Bowes was the place where outside stuff didn’t come in. Just to give you an inkling of the heritage of the place, Rob Playford from Moving Shadow, and 2 Bad Mice used to go.
That first album is going for sale for crazy money online- I think there’s a copy on Discogs for around £150. Is it any good?
I would say it was well ahead of its time. It had UK hip hop on there, it had UK soul, and hardcore UK rap – if you imagine around ’89-’90 there weren’t really people producing that stuff, you had Simon Harris’s label Music For Life, and a couple of others, but nothing like what you have now.
And you produced a track on there as well?
I produced about 6 or 7 tracks on the album and engineered it all, I was just a guy who was into music, and another guy showed me what buttons I needed to press, and how to connect up my Technics so I could add some scratches – the engineer taught me everything. As a project it did a lot of people a lot of good.
So how did this evolve into the Ruff Kut label?
Will, with what I gained knowledge wise, I went to Princes Trust to start a recording studio, I’d got a bug for the recording side of things. The youth leader at Bowes said, look I know you’re interested in starting up a studio, I’ll let you do it here until you get yourself going. I couldn’t believe it! I got the grant from Princes Trust, then I got approached by two… I’ll call them partners now. They said they were looking to invest in something, and they knew I had a recording studio, so they suggested we start a label. I had everything ready, I had the artwork ready, I had the studio, so we sat down together and sorted it out.
Who were these two people? It seems very mysterious…
Hahaha One of the guys was Mark Straker, he died a couple of years ago – he went off to Hollywood to write screenplays – he wrote one called New Town Boys about the drum n bass scene before it became drum n bass – and another guy called John, but I just cannot remember his last name. He worked in insurance. They had people who wanted to invest in business, and I happened to come along at the right time with a plan they believed in. So that was it, the label had a studio and some funds and we were raring to go.
The label started out releasing hardcore rather than hip hop though- how did that change come about?
I suppose the way I looked at the whole thing was, I’m a black guy, and at the time we didn’t have our own identity in the music scene. You had hip hop but it was American and you had house but that was American. Nothing was associated with us, but at Bowes it was all ours. When it came to making our first tracks, the influences we had were New Romantic, people like Soft Cell which was futuristic music anyway, then the other side was we were into the breaks and the funk side of stuff, reggae was an influence, and some of us were into house. When you mix all that together, you got the form that we had.
So for you it was largely about creating a Black British identity?
Yeah, we took all the bits we loved and mashed it together. And then that was ours. The weirdest thing for me was before I’d created what I’d call my first rave track, a guy took me down to a rave club called Milwaukee’s. I walked in and was like, wait a minute, this is me! Hahaha… I’d gone, ‘everything I love about music is here, its getting played right now!’ And that was it. I knew that it was my music, what I wanna do. Literally coming home from Milwaukee’s, I went straight into the studio and produced my first rave track. I think that was You Know How to Love Me – although it gets a bit foggy in my memory…
And that was as The Good 2 Bad and Hugly, who else was in that?
It was supposed to be like Soul II Soul at the time, people would drop in and out – I was the main person, some people would drop in – for example, when we did PA’s there’d be 5 of us working keyboards and samples, scratching and DJing, and MCing, then we had about 15 dancers. It was all people who used to dance at Bowes, it was just a natural thing, we’d say, oh we’re going to do a rave next week, whose coming?
I found an old interview with you that said you had someone dressed as Freddie Kruger as part of the show…
Oh yeah, it was part of the act really..
Whose idea was that?
We just used to do crazy things at the time I think that when we came up with the name The Good 2Bad and the Hugly, it was a joke like, you weren’t just ugly, you were HUGLY. And it stuck, so we were thinking how we could make hugly fit; who’s the hugly one in the group? So we decided to get a Freddy Kruger mask because he’s hugly… and we just bought it into the sets- we’d use Freddy Kruger samples right at the beginning of the show, turn all the lights down and get it really eerie, and take it out there a bit. And the MC would be standing there with a Freddy Kruger mask on.. it was a really crazy time.
What raves were you playing at?
We did Lazerdrome, we did Eclipse, Roller Express, we were going on what we knew as the circuit at the time. When we did Lazerdrome, Baby D was on the week before, it was that kind of time.
You put out a tune in ’92 called Jungle, which is one of the earliest tunes to use the name – I’m interested where you picked the term up from.
The only thing I can think of was at the time, Gappa (from Gappa G and Hyper Hyper) used to play out absolutely everywhere. I can’t remember 100%, but I’m sure somebody who was MCing said ‘this is jungle’ over one of their earlier tunes. In my head, I was going, the next tune I put out is gonna be called jungle, cos that’s what everybody’s calling the music, without it being ‘said’. It wasn’t a real tactical thing for me, I just thought I’m gonna do it.
When I listen to that track, it’s less what you’d think of as jungle now…
Yeah, we were at the cusp of the split between it being hardcore and effectively splitting into jungle. That track was at a time when people were going, is this gonna go this way, or is it gonna stick with the hardcore influence? We were stuck in the middle of it – it was all our influences. One of the things about Ruff Kut was that it was supposed to be set up as something where we’d all be together – even if you look at the logo of it. It was all about people being together and enjoying themselves, and there’s no exclusion, black, white whatever – and in the music anything goes.
And you ended up doing something on White House that was jungle
I went to infant school with this guy Lee who started working at White House when it was Mo’s Music distribution. He was working at Mo’s, and funnily enough, when we first started Ruff Kut we went round all the record labels and distribution companies and people were looking at us like were crazy, they thought we were kids and the music was just waaaay out there. Then I saw Lee, and he was working at Mo’s, he said, ‘turn up at the office with some of the tracks, be your normal self and see what they say’. And that’s what we did – we turned up with a cassette of three or four tracks, and the A&R said, ‘whatever you put out, we’re gonna want’. And that was the distribution deal signed. If you’d try to do this on purpose it just wouldn’t have happened.
What happened to Ruff Kut – it seemed to be doing so well, putting out loads of tracks, then suddenly it just stopped.
Well this is where the story doesn’t have that happy ending you’d like. If you can imagine all I did was be in the studio every day and go to raves – that was my whole life – in terms of business I just wasn’t clued up at all, in my head I thought, well if I make a couple of pounds from it, I’m good. So, the problem with Ruff Kut was that we put out a track called Espania. We’d signed a publishing deal with DMC. They passed the track on to the Pet Shop Boys who happened to be covering on Radio 1 – again, nothing planned. They liked it and gave it a play on Monday, everybody loved it, so they gave it a play on Tuesday, everybody was really loving it, so they made it record of the week. Two, three weeks later it was still record of the week.
But what that did was it changed everybody’s perception of what we were doing, Everybody instantly thought we’d had a hit – but all that had gone on was that it’d been played on Radio One. Everyone assumed we’d had some big campaign and put loads of money into it, and that was far from the truth.
Firstly the person who’d said I could have the studio, all of a sudden said, ‘I heard you on Radio One yesterday, you are making loads of money, I want some money’. I said, ‘err that’s not the case’ – ‘it must be, I don’t hear of any pop groups on Radio One that don’t make loads of money’. All the other people working with us, dancers were getting paid expenses, but all of a sudden were like, ‘oh you’ve made it, we want serious money’, but we didn’t have the money.
Didn’t you just sell more copies of the record?
Well don’t get me wrong, it helped sales, but we weren’t a major record label with an ad campaign and pluggers, we were just kids, just some guys in Stevenage who happened to have a track on Radio One. We were a rave group! We sold more of the track, but it wasn’t til about 5 or 6 years later that I realised how much we had sold, and that’s where the story gets a bit sadder.
So when you say you only found out how much the record made years later, was someone skimming money off?
Huhhhh… I don’t want to get into that really. But let’s just say I wasn’t business smart, and I ended up only finding out because I got a very large tax bill as part of the company. When I saw how much the tax was I could equate how much we’d made. I realised, wait a minute, I’ve been proper stitched up here. But that’s how it goes. Ruff Kut went on for about 6 months or a year after I’d gone, but the output just dropped, I think only two tracks came out after I’d gone. For me that was the end of it.
Did you not feel like you wanted to keep making music yourself?
I carried on with the Chuck E name and put out tracks through White House, but it didn’t feel the same. I had some kids and family commitments, so music became something far distant in the background. Looking back it was one of the best times of my life, best experience.
But about 10 years ago now people just kept coming up to me, saying ‘oh you’re that guy from Ruff Kut, what you doing!?’ And I’d say, ‘oh not much’, and they’d say ‘come on, you should be doing something!’ So I did a remix of a track, I think it was Fantasy. I’d been listening to Bailey a lot, and he’d said if people can send some tracks in via mp3, he’d play them. So I thought, weeeeell I’ll give it a go. I hadn’t made anything for ten years, but I sent him something. I got a reply saying, love the track it just needs a bit of re-EQing, so I re-EQed it and within 20 minutes it was getting played on 1Xtra. I was like wow, OK, this is how you do it now! That gave me the feeling that OK, you need to get back into this and sort yourself out. My family didn’t know any of that side of me. We’d be sitting watching a documentary on jungle and they’d all be looking at it going, ‘wow look at that’, and I’d be going, ‘yeah I was there, I used to play with that guy, he’s got loads of my dubs’ – but only in my head…! I didn’t say anything, cos it was a long time gone. And all of a sudden it was like, wait a minute, my dad’s on 1Xtra. So I ended up letting them know the full story and they encouraged me to get back into it. So I started making little strides and things are going OK now….
Jimmy is now back on Soundcloud - follow him here. He's also got a radio show which plays all sorts of killers - running from electro through to hip hop and house. The latest show is sick - listen below: