Gone To A Rave #23: The Ragga Twins
Let’s get this straight: The Ragga Twins are FOUNDATION. They’re seminal, and I’m not talking seminal in the manner of every press release you ever read about any act that’s been around for more than 5 years, I’m talking seminal in that they were doing shit first, and doing shit best. Before Ragga Twins there were UK Hip Hop outfits – Derek B, all those cats on Simon Harris Beat of Life label, Blapps posse, and so on. There were UK acts proving that we could hold our own in RnB, from Loose Ends to Soul II Soul to Sade – but all of these groups (OK, maybe Soul II Soul marginally less so, but still,) were competing on American terms – they was UK artists recreating African American forms, with a hint of UK flavour. Admittedly they did it superbly, but Ragga Twins – Ragga Twins were something else. They were UK like no one before – this wasn’t anything we’d already heard from Stateside; they were MCs toasting bashment style over chattering hyper speed breaks. They found there voice over 12"s that could have only been created by that particularly British fusion of hip hop, Es and speed. It was the anarchy of Bomb Squad’s Public Enemy production, stripped of any fat, cut down to a lean smack, and pumped full of bass. There’s a rawness to those early Shut Up & Dance Ragga Twins records that set the pace and template for so much of English rave to follow – hyped up chat, mad samples drawn from anywhere and everywhere, and a oppositional social conscience that positioned raving as a means of resistance.
Look, hold on, let’s stop the chat – here’s Ragga Twins killing Spliffhead on Dance Energy. I draw your attention to the crowd cheering around 50 seconds in when they start destroying the mic –
Ragga Twins – Flinty Badman and Deman Rocker were Hackney boys. As part of the Unity Soundsystem – a reggae sound – they were jumping on the mic at a time when reggae was shifting from the rocksteady and disco influenced sound of the 70s, to the harder digidub of the 80s. According to their own biography, they started with Unity in 1982 – King Jammy’s seismic electronic reggae production Sleng Teng came out 2 years later irrevocably leading the charge from reggae to dancehall, and it’s hard not to see this as a big influence. By the mid 80s they were putting it down on wax as Demon Rockers. One of my favourite cuts from this period is their vocal on the well-worn Stalag riddim, with their anti-Thatcher banger Iron Lady– check how brazenly political the lyrics were – “the Labour party/ are trying to help we/ while the Tory / A kick we out the country .. dem a give black people/ the worse property”. A different time innit?
Whilst the Ragga Twins might claim that they were the kings of the UK reggae scene at this point, I’m not so sure – the competition was fierce, with Fashion records releasing regular heat from the likes of Super Cat, Tippa Irie and General Levy – looking back the 80s was such a prime time for UK soundsystem culture that it’s hard to pick any one act who definitively ran the show. However, Ragga Twins had an advantage – for whatever reason, they recognised the potency of the rave scene far, far before their peers. In 1990 they hooked up with Smiley & PJ – aka Shut Up & Dance. The first fruits of the collaboration was the Illegal Gunshot 12”, backed with the Spliffhead cut you saw at the open of the article. Illegal Gunshot was the lick, an uncompromising collision of inner city styles that distilled the cramped sonic landscape of London – ragga chat coming at you from one direction, rave synths from another, nails hard hip hop breaks from a third. It was a breaking ruinous sound, pulling itself apart from within, pulsing with the energy of fucking LIVING IT
This started a run of classic 12s. It’s bizarre (and a great indication of why you shouldn’t trust the internet) that Wikipedia’s entry on the Ragga Twins lists their long association with Aquasky from 2000 onwards, but doesn’t mention SU&D. Madness. It’s like talking about the Rolling Stones and not mentioning Brian Jones. Ragga Twins and Shut Up & Dance taught a generation what it was possible to do with this new music. You want goods? Here’s goods – check out the level of sampling, bashment bleeps and sheer ruffneck fucking bassline on the Prince sampling genius of Hooligan 69 – it’s a truly beautiful experience:
That same collision can be heard on Lamborghini – nagging synths, Bolywood flutes, Soft Cell samples, breaks clattering all over the shop and the Ragga Twins shouting out ‘acid people’ – it’s less a composition, more the sound of urban breakdown turned into a dance of joy, this is all the sounds modern chaos can throw at you, stuck together and turned into a positive force.
From ’92 – ‘95 there was a pause, a period where there doesn’t seem to have been much Ragga Twins product – and I feel like they may have been victims of their own foresight – having aligned themselves to the rave breaks of Shut Up & Dance, they were left stranded when SU&D ran out of steam – and crucially they never embraced jungle in it’s heyday. As such, they didn’t produce the definitive ragga jungle track they had in them, with Levy, Demolition Man, DBO General and UK Apache taking that crown. However, they had the last laugh – when the breaks scene of the earlier noughties started looking back to its hardcore predecessors for inspiration, producers realised the Ragga Twins were still around and started accessing the tones of Britain's best rave MCs once more. I'm pushed for time so here we go – I'm writing this whole article because I'm playing with the Ragga Twins tomorrow night at Bang Face and I AM HYPED!! It turns out they've found a load of dubplates they put together in the mid 90s, they;ve given them to Luke Vibert, and the whole set will be based around Vibert playing the dubs and Ragga Twins chatting – who wouldn't feel vibed for this? If you want to come and see UK standing up, come tomorrow. If you can find me their I may even buy you a pint. Here's the link.