Gone To A Rave #44: Ragga Twins, From Unity Sound To Rave Icons


I first wrote about Ragga Twins for Gone To A Rave almost exactly a year ago. You can read that here, or just read this summary: the Ragga Twins are a cornerstone of dance music, from Britian to the world. They introduced dancehall to rave in the most explicit way, and changed the shape of dance music in the process. Original Nuttah, Incredible, Ms Dynamite, Riko Dan, Wiley, Skepta, The Bug, Kode 9 and a billion more owe a whole lot to Flinty and Deman. They are also two absolute gents, veterans with a work rate that would shame  hordes of fresh faced producers, and a courtesy that is entirely refreshing. I caught them in their studio – working as usual – and got an overview of 30 years spent running the dance… 

Can you tell me first how you ended up becoming part of Unity Sound?

Deman: I was on a sound in 1982 called Jah Marcus and we were doing a week long outdoor festival in a park called Bruce Castle down in Tottenham. We were there all day doing our stuff, and I must have impressed someone; one of the MCs from Unity called Jack Reuben came over in the middle of the week after we’d been there for three days and asked if we wanted to join Unity. We thought he was having a laugh, but he was being serious. He told us to come down to Broadwater Farm on a Thursday when they were going to be having an early session to check out the scene and then we’d take things from there. Obviously we said yeah and went down, but I didn’t chat on the mic I just met all the crew. Then the next day they told me to come down to Four Aces where I got a little chat at 11 and 12 o’clock and that’s how it all started.

So were they based at Broadwater Farm then?

Well, it was a Tottenham sound and it was owned by Ribs, who used to play for Fatman. You could say that the sound originated in Tottenham but by time the mid-80s came around Ribs had moved to Hackney and most of the other people that were in the sound were actually from Hackney so it eventually became a Hackney sound.

Okay. So that particular period of time was when you did Iron Lady, right?

D: Yes.

It’s a strongly worded criticism of Thatcher that might surprise peopel who only know you from the Ragga Twins; was that just a reflection of the times that you were in?

D: Back then yeah, because most of the lyrics were conscious and they were a reality at the time, and they were about the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher and things that were going on in and around London. I just decided to write a lyric about it. After we’d written it at actually felt quite powerful, so we went to the studio and put it on wax.

I’m going to jump in time a little bit now, but did it seem strange for you seeing the riots in Hackney in 2011? Famously there were the riots in Broadwater in ’85, was there ever a sense of déjà vu for you?

D: I never really got involved in the Broadwater riots at that time; on the same nights as the riots my father had a stroke so it didn’t really play to my attention because I was more interested in my fathers health. So I don’t really have a connection with the Broadwater riots and I don’t really have a connection with the London riots either really…

I meant more just in general really, as you were in the same part of London and maybe it felt like things hadn’t changed.

D: In that respect, yeah I guess so. I mean, things had changed, but certain things happened and people feel that it’s unjust and some people only know that way of protest to get a point across. They were both politically policed and hate filled, do you know what I mean? Something happens and the people react in the wrong way and then people demonstrate, and back then that was how people did it. The younger generation now are taking the same sort of route, which I don’t condone but…

It’s hard to condemn it as well.

D: Yes.

So, how did you do the switch from Unity to Shut Up and Dance? That must have been such a crucial turning point for you both.

Flinty: Yeah, it was. What happened was that we’d been working on Unity for a good ten years and it came to 1990 and it just felt like we weren’t really getting enough studio work. A lot of Reggae artists were making a lot of Reggae songs and we just weren’t getting into the studio enough to make songs, and that’s what we wanted to work towards – rather than just being MCs on a sound system. At the time we were working guys as well; at the time Deman was working in an electrical wholesalers and Smiley from Shut Up and Dance had come in one day. They’d made a tune called Lamborghini and for that they’d sampled Deman’s voice off of our Unity cassette, they came to ask permission if they could put it out.

Is Lamborghini the track with the Sweet Dreams sample in it?

F: Yeah that’s the one. So anyway, he asked and obviously we said it was fine, but then we asked if there was anything they could do for us in return as we wanted to get into a different type of music. He just said to go round to his for chat. So we went round there and lo and behold I knew the guys. Deman didn’t really know them, but I actually already knew Smiley.

How did you know him?

F: I knew him from the times that I was coming through and I built a youth sound called Sir Cruise when I was in school with a few of my mates and his sound at the time was called Somena, and that was his youth sound. We used to have a basement at my uncles house where the sound stayed and every weekend we’d go down there and tell people that there was a party going on and have a rave. Then we’d bring in other youth sounds and young guys from around Hackney and they’d come down and play with us.

When you say building, were you fully building the cabs and the boxes?

F: Yeah, we fully built the sound. Not the amps and that as we got those elsewhere, but the boxes and the amp case and all that. We got a little bit of stuff from my friends but we built most of it. So yeah, when we got down to Shut Up and Dance I knew Smiley, but we both knew PJ as we went to primary school together.

What school was that?

F: St. Thomas Primary School in Stoke Newington. So we were comfortable when we got there as we all knew each other. But before then we didn’t know that they were doing music or anything like that. So we had a chat and they said that they could do it with us as nobody was using Ragga sounds in those days, in ‘89/’90. So they were the first guys to use Ragga sounds and then our Ragga vocals as well.

Were you aware of the Hardcore or the House scenes, or was it pretty strange to you?

F: Yeah we were aware of it as it was all part of the same warehouse scene when Ecstasy came about- Deman was writing lyrics about Ecstasy and all that. So we’d heard about the scene, but we’d never actually been to one of the warehouse things or in the motorway convoys. We never got into that part of it. When we got into Shut Up and Dance we got straight into it and it was PA’s in proper clubs, the warehouse and convoy thing had started to die down.

So when you started doing stuff, it was successful pretty quickly wasn’t it?

F: Yeah, because it was fresh. With us guys coming from the Reggae sound system, it was something new for the people and they couldn’t believe that people that chat Reggae were doing that kind of music. You could almost say it was a novelty, but really it was proper music.

Deman: A lot of the guys from Unity had already started to drift over to Acid House anyway, so people were talking about the hardcore Reggae mans that were drifting over to the Acid House and people were spreading the word.

Was there anyone in the Reggae scene that questioned what you were doing?

D: When the album came out there were a few people, as there always will be, but mostly no. But we never really got that much hate because the album was good and it was getting publicised. It got to number 26 in the national album chart.

That must have been pretty surprising.

D: Oh yeah, it definitely was. It was amazing though as we wanted to be artists, not guys that just chat on a sound system every weekend. There was definitely something bigger out there and we went out there to chase it. We weren’t looking for hit records or anything; we just wanted to make music. From the moment that me and my brother went over to Shut Up and Dance, a lot of changes happened in the UK music industry.

Well, in that first rush of it changing over to Hardcore there were a lot of UK Ragga MCs and none of them really seemed to jump on Hardcore, except for you guys. It was only really when Jungle came along that they moved over. What I’m interested in though is that you guys were perfectly positioned to be massive in Jungle, it seems to me like you didn’t go with the sound as much as you did with the Hardcore. Is that right? What went on there?

Flinty: At that time, Jungle wasn’t a vocal thing. We don’t produce music, we just do vocals. Shut Up and Dance did all the music and they never really went over to Jungle. They got hit hard when the Peter Bouncer song got sued…

Did that have a real impact on their career then?

F: Yeah, when they had to pull Raving I’m Raving it really affected their career. It affected us as well, as that’s when we’d just started to MC over Jungle and producers didn’t want to make vocal tunes. That’s the reason why we never really made any hit Jungle tunes. When General Levy made Incredible, it got boycotted. They didn’t want vocalists over their genre.

Levy had brought that on himself to a degree.

F: But speaking to Levy now, he was misinterpreted by the guy that did the interview. He got misinterpreted completely as Levy has the utmost respect for everyone.  I don’t think he said that he 'ran jungle'. But obviously it was in the Jungle scene and people read it and thought that that was what he said. But anyway, when you’re a vocal artist you need to be making tunes and nobody wanted to do that, simple as. But we’re massive on the scene as Jungle artists anyway and we make Jungle tracks now, but at the time it wasn’t happening.

It’s one of the great UK losses that you didn’t get a track with Shy FX or someone like that at the time.

F: Yeah. But then after all that the Garage guys took the formula and they made a load of hit songs using the formula that we wanted to use. We were telling these producers that we need to make songs. A lot of the guys that went over to Garage, they actually stated in the Jungle scene where they were shunned and couldn’t make a break, so then they went over to Garage and the rest is history.

I’d never considered that really, but it makes total sense, that the Garage scene had big chart hits because they were making songs and not just instrumentals.

F: Definitely, yeah. And that’s the thing with Jungle, because in a rave there aren’t really vocalists as you have a lot of MCs. It’s a catch twenty two really, as if you play a load of vocals you don’t need an MC. But with UKG, they had a mixture of vocal and instrumental tunes, which meant the MC could still do his thing. In jungle they were big on vocal samples, and they weren’t just a couple of words, they were a couple of bars, and there wasn’t any space for an MC to go on there and chat full lyrics. I think that’s what gave the UKG producers a foothold more than Jungle; they were making songs that people could relate too.  They were giving it a face as well as. If you asked 100 people what Andy C looked like, they wouldn’t be able to tell you because he’s a producer.

Hah, to be fair, I’ve seen him play a hundred times and I’d still find it hard to pick him out of a crowd.

But then if you’re an MC chatting away on stage and making videos then you’ve got a face. Jungle was faceless. They were good artists and good producers but nobody was making any videos and nobody was promoting the MCs. Now, a lot of our stuff is different to Jungle because of the situation that Drum & Bass and Jungle are in, they’re still very instrumental orientated genres.

So to me, it seems that you come back into it through the Breaks scene. I remember those Aquasky tunes that you did in the Noughties and I guess there’s more of a link there with Hardcore thing.

F: Yeah, and with that we were able to express our talents on tracks and make full vocal songs.

D: Even at the height of Jungle we switched codes and made a Jazz album though with a group called Us3.

I know that band, but never knew you’d done an album with them.

D: Yeah, it came out in ’94. The Shut Up And Dance thing went Pete Tong, so we weren’t doing anything with them. Our manager managed to get us this thing with Us 3, we did a few tracks, took it around and it got signed by EMI, then we managed to finish it off. It was a cracking album and it’s got some wicked tracks on there. It’s called Rinsin' Lyrics. Everywhere we went and performed it, people loved it, but I think the major messed up as it took so long to come out that people just forgot about it after a while.

Looking back at the Shut Up And Dance period, what are your favourite tracks from back then?

D: All of them. I’m not going to lie, I love it all. When we were PAing it all over Europe and the UK, we got such a good response from all of the tracks that we’d done. The people will obviously always have their favourites and that’ll be Spliffhead and Hooligan 69. 18 Inch Speaker gets spoken about a lot too. I can’t rally pick a favourite though, I love them all.

I saw you at Bangface last Christmas and there were loads of kids in there going mental for you. Did you ever have think when you were recording those Shut Up & Dance tracks that kids would still be raving to them 25 years later?

D: It's mad, we didn’t even really think we’d still be here to be honest! The thing is, a lot of the parents tell their kids about Ragga Twins, even though they grew up in the Drum & Bass era. I met a guy at our 25th anniversary rave and he said that he was there with his son who he’s been telling about Ragga Twins since he was a little boy, and there was this Dad raving with his son who was now old enough to go out and experience it. They were amazing. Parents tell their kids about Ragga Twins whilst they’re growing up, like when my kids were growing up I’d tell them about some of the people that I listened too back in the day, like Admiral Bailey, Bob Marley, Josey Wells. Then the next generations come in with their parents to listen to this music. I even get people telling me that their grandparents told them about us and they finally got to see us and thought that we were amazing. Our name has been handed down from generation to generation.

When’s the knighthood coming? When’s the OBE?

D: I don’t know! Truth be told, we don’t get enough love for that. We just get on with it, but the industry don’ give us that much love, as far as I’m concerned. The people show us a lot of love, but the industry doesn’t. But we get a lot of love from the Junglists you know, and we’re just happy with that. Since we did that track with Skrillex we’ve been getting more love from the Americans too and we’re happy with that. I don’t really care for awards that much though. They’ve been giving people awards for years and a lot of them hadn’t really done anything to deserve an award. We must have put out over a thousand tracks and this year alone we’ve made about thirty tracks. There have been weeks where we were making five tracks in a week. We’re hard working and there are a lot of people that aren’t really that hard working.

What are you going to be doing in the studio this evening then?

F: We’re already halfway through one track, we’ve got two more to do, and we’re watching Spurs on the iPad.

Haha. So just to give people a taster, what kind of thing can they expect you to be jumping on now? What’s taking your fancy at the moment?

F: Right now, EDM and Trap. We’ve developed quite a big following in that and that is purely down to the fact that Drum & Bass artists don’t want these vocals over their tracks, but they do. I mean, I can understand because it is a proper instrumental genre, so it doesn’t bother me too much.

But then, if you’re able to keep on moving it means you don’t ever get stuck.

F: Nah, exactly. But we still do our rave thing on the weekends though. When it comes to putting tunes out, we’re in the studio doing whatever producers want to link us up with. So long as I’m making tracks to put out there for people to buy, listen too and enjoy my life’s nice. If a Drum & Bass producer comes along and says they’ve got a track they want us to voice, then no problem!

D: I think the issue as well, is that a lot of these DJ’s don’t even play their own tunes. So if we do a tune with a DJ, he probably won’t even end up playing it! It’s weird, because they still play vocal tunes in raves. There are just so many MCs in the Drum & Bass game that you don’t really get much real singing going on and singers don’t get voiced. Back in the day it was just MC’s over everything and their names were in Black Echoes and we weren’t, until we released Iron Lady, Ugly Girl and so forth. But it wasn’t enough and I was just getting fed up of it being Thursday, Friday Saturday, Sunday and just MCing for hours and not even getting properly compensated for it. It was then that we decided to change. As a matter of fact, we were at Shinola in 1989 on New Years Eve and I turned to my brother halfway through our set and I said, ‘Flint, I can’t do this anymore as it’s not doing anything for me. I need to be making records.’ We were in our early 20’s and we probably had about £40 between us. Then in 1990 it all changed and we’ve been making loads of records. It’s just a pleasure to be able to go into the studio and make tunes. Just chatting every week is great, but it doesn’t leave you a legacy. We’ve got a legacy and people can listen to our tunes all day. I’m happy with that and I’m glad we made the switch. Don’t get me wrong, some raves and clashes that we did back in the day were amazing and beautiful, but we had to move on to become recording artists as it wasn’t going to happen in that scene.

I think we made the move at the right time, as when we made the switch the Stone Love movement came in and that really killed the sound systems as we knew it at that time.

Because of the way they were playing? They were doing all the juggling weren’t they?

Yeah, and they didn’t really have their own sound. They were just playing off the set in the clubs. They probably had their own sounds over in Jamaica, but over here they didn’t. Clubs weren’t letting people to bring their boxes in anymore. By 1991, our way of playing with sound systems and playing part one of a track and then the DJ whacked his lyrics over it, were finished.

That’s interesting. 

That’s exactly what killed the sound system culture as we knew it.

So you were blessed really, getting out at the right time.

Definitely. We didn’t even know where we were going but it was for sure our time to go. It’s a good job we went to work the day we did, otherwise Smiley might not have found us! 

The Ragga Twins play on Love Rave NYE with about hundred other rave legends. It's taking place at the Coronet this New Years Eve (duh)  – more info and tickets over here