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Roots: The Art of the MC

The history of MCing in UK Bass music, as told through the stories of influential figureheads: Ras Kayleb (Channel One), Dynamite MC, Flowdan and Crazy D.

“I don’t usually like MCs…”

Sigh.

We’ve all heard this phrase. Drum and bass, dubstep, garage, grime. No matter the scene, that infamous phase will be heard.

Now, I am not here to bash people who prefer to hear their favourite DJs without any master of ceremony. Each to their own. Nonetheless, do we really value the importance of MCs in the UK? The history. The culture. The roots.

The intersection of the MC and the UK’s sociopolitical history cannot be ignored. The very foundations of scenes like jungle, drum and bass & grime are layed on the house MCs built. Quite simply, there is no UK Bass music culture without MCs. An MC is just as important as the DJ, producer, promoter, punter.

Therefore, when I hear, ‘I don’t usually like MCs…’, it hurts. In hip hop and dancehall, it’s blasphemous to spout such a phrase. It goes against the very existence of the genres. The same can be said of UK Bass music. The same MUST be said for UK Bass music.

I cannot explain the importance of MCs. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried. But I am not an MC. I have never MC’d (excluding in front of a mirror, the less said the better). To understand the deep rooted history and significance of the MC in UK Bass music, we must hear from the artists themselves.

Now, UK Bass music spans across several scenes and genres. As Giles Peterson said in our previous Roots series, UK Bass music is a melting pot of cultures. To truly understand the importance of MCs, I’ve enlisted four MCs that cover the wide varied spectrum of our scene: Kayleb (Channel One), Crazy D, Dynamite MC & Flowdan. From roots to ragga, jungle to garage, grime to dubstep, all four of our esteemed guests have the lived experience, both professionally and personally, required to be the correct narrators of this exploration into the culture of MCs in the UK.

This article is not an oral chronological narrative of the MCing in the UK; rather, the stories from our four MCs will serve to investigate the recurring themes of marginalisation, sound systems and opportunity that occur within MC culture.

THE HEART OF IDENTITY AND CULTURE POLITICS

History lesson: June 22nd 1948, the HMT Empire Windrush brought a legion of Caribbean migrants to the United Kingdom. One notable migrant was Alwyn Roberts, the Calypso legend from Trinidad (also known as Lord Kitchener), who sang “London Is The Place For Me” upon arrival at The Tilbury Docks, Essex, in 1948.

Why is this important you ask? Toasting, rapping, spitting, mc’ing, communicating… music and expression has been at the heart of Caribbean culture, as exhibited when Lord Kitchener entered the British shores with the following song:

“London is the place for me
London this lovely city
You can go to France or America,
India, Asia or Australia
But you must come back to London city

Pathe News caught the “King of Calypso” on camera while documenting “The Great British Black Invasion”. The musical history of multi-racial Britain often omits the 50s, jumping straight to the rhythmic assimilation of Caribbean culture in the 60s. Known as “Kitch”, Aldwyn Roberts was a celebrated figure amongst Caribbean migrants in the 50s – his music would go on to detail life as a West Indian in the UK. An example is the famous 1950 England-West Indies test match, West Indies first win over England, celebrated on his track Cricket, Lovely Cricket. Kitch in the late 50s became a businessman, opening a club in Manchester while holding down a residency in London. He also became a national musical figurehead as part of the BBC televised broadcast of Claudia Jones’ first West Indian Carnival.

Alwyn Roberts displayed the true characteristics of MC culture – narrating feelings and emotion through words and music. Fast forward 40 years to the mid 80s and the UK, specifically London, featured several “sounds” doing the exact same thing, albeit to a different tempo, to different emotions.

The art of MCing is all about identity. All about the community. Becoming a wordsmith for lived experiences. From the early influence of reggae music and jamaican upbringing to the jungle, hardcore, grime and grime scenes via the development of urban Britain, MCing has always been about empowering the people, the working class, the oppressed, the marginalised.

CHANNEL ONE - RAS

“I was born in Hackney in the 60s. I wasn’t a well-behaved child, wasn’t bad, but wasn’t well behaved. I was sent to Jamaica for five years. That’s another place where I got the rooting within the music, on the run with Kilimanjaro sound. I learnt that aspect of the sound system in Jamaica.
So coming back to England and joining up with a few friends I knew, we created a little sound together, trying to bring that element I learned in Jamaica to the U.K. because the U.K. scene was slightly different and I wanted to kind of keep that Jamaican. Within what we’re doing, even now channel one, there’s still a Jamaican element within it..

CRAZY D

I’m from a Jamaican background, so music was always in my house. We always had big jamo speakers. My parents are from the sound culture so when listening to music, you had to listen to it in a good quality environment. My mum was into soul music, my dad as well but he mostly loved reggae. Once you get to secondary school you’re loving your reggae and ragga – as it was then, not bashment. Interest turned to hip-hoppy breaks in school.
That time, nobody was MCing. It was all rapping and kind of American. We used to rap in an American style. We didn’t have anything to follow until people like Rebel MC, which is obviously Congo Natty now. He did a thing with Tenor Fly, he brought reggae into his English rapping with breaks and then into ragga chat. Rebel MC was probably the first one English-wise – he mixed reggae with hip hop, basslines with breaks but slowed down obviously, to Hip-Hop Speed. Then hardcore came in. I got into hardcore, they were sampling breaks, playing them fast, putting their own basslines, influences from our era getting put into the music; it became more relatable. That’s always the key innit? Being able to relate to what you’re hearing.

“Rave was built on multiculturalism.”

DYNAMITE MC

DYNAMITE MC

There was a programme called Dance Energy. It was very important for me. Normski was the host. That’s why I love Normski forever, I think he was very important to the culture.
It was like The Word but not so broad. I remember seeing Tenor Fly… Two Bad Mice, Hijack – they were like a UK Wu Tang, like eight of them went with Black Kung Fu outfits and Balaclavas. I was like, yeah, I want to be like those guys. When you start off, you look at people that you want to emulate. You start to define your own style. Dance Energy was really, really important. It was the only thing on TV that you could see stuff like that.

FLOWDAN

I got into emceeing just from listening to the radio in my secondary school days. Between 12 -14, influenced by drum and bass, listening to Kool FM, Rush FM, Pressure FM. Just taping my favourite MCs: MC Det, Navigator, Ragga Twins, Stevie Hyper D, Shabba, Skibadee. I used their blueprint to construct my own lyrics. I might have missed a few, but they definitely embodied the reggae style of delivery, even though it is very UK, very London. It was still embodied in the reggae-ness, that I have in my DNA, just a Caribbean person of Caribbean heritage, African heritage, so forth, so everything I heard before was in an American accent or really strong Caribbean accent. I didn’t really relate and really see how or feel that that could be me until I heard the drum and bass guys.
Roll Deep, we all grew up together in the same area between Bow and Poplar, E3, E14. Drum and bass, jungle, pirate radio was a part of the thing already. Mandem was on radio, Rinse particularly, doing drum and bass – that would have been like 95, 96.
I remember Target in particular, decided we were not going to drum and bass raves no more. We’ll go garage raving because that’s where the girls are. “Some of them are sick and I might start playing some,” this is Target saying that. I remember Wiley and a couple others saying, “Yeah, I might jump on that wave as well.” I remember me saying, “No, no thanks, it’s not hard enough.”
They started to collect the records, jumped back on Rinse again and they had a crew called Ladies Hit Squad. They’re doing the thing. At the same time, Pay As U Go started to form as well, which was like, again, people from the area, from the same station.
Wiley was always producing on the side. He evolved to make garage beats and then one day he just made a song called Know We that set the sound, set this kind of more rugged, emcee based sound. It was a Pay As U Go tune – it had God’s Gift on the hook, Maxwell D, Wiley, Major Ace (RIP) and Plague. That song started blowing up. Within a couple of weeks, Wiley was like, “I’m going to make another one, you coming…you should be here bruv you got bars, we know you’ve got balls. It’s not going to be a Ladies Hit Squad thing. Trust me.” We went to the studio and that song that we made was called Terrible, for me it wasn’t as popular as Know We but was a good follow up.
Wiley’s like, “Right, we need a name for the crew.”. I was confused – “ What crew? We just made one song bruv”. He’s like, “Nah we need a name because they are saying it’s Pay As U Go and we can’t really do that. We need to differentiate ourselves”. I sat down for about another 20 seconds, said “Roll Deep,” and he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going with that”. I remember trying to be smart with it and saying, “Not crew though, you’ve got So Solid Crew, Heartless Crew, Pay As U Go Crew…..entourage!”
Entourage didn’t really stick. It was too much to say, so Roll Deep crew is kind of what we are or became.
I don’t think England would have seemed as interesting as it does now if grime didn’t come. Our voice, our tones and our voices , all of them things come from our music. You don’t have to use US terminologies about Cadillac and say dollars. You can say all of your own slang in your music and it will be sick. That’s where drill is at. Raw, street London. Cool. But what was the first street London? Grime. Not saying there wasn’t street culture in London before grime, but from what I understand, it was a version of something else like UK hip hop, UK dancehall, the street culture that kind of put the UK on the map to me is grime.
Flowdan © Khali Ackford

I don’t think England would have seemed as interesting as it does now if grime didn’t come.

FLOWDAN

UK RAVE CULTURE: BORN OUT OF THE SOUND SYSTEM

Club. Raves. Shoobs. Whatever you want to call it. Everything always links back to the dance. It’s where new communities form. Stars and scenes made. I’m somewhat tempted to say we, as music lovers, can’t live without it. Nonetheless, the last 12 months will prove otherwise.

The connection between rave culture and MCing is like jam and butter. Cereal and milk. You can’t have one without the other. Rewind, forward, jack em, boo… all terminology coined from the dancefloor.

The emergence of Jamaica’s sound systems changed club culture in the UK. It combined all the facets of the dance we love today: big bass, expressive dancing and rhythmic master of ceremonies.
The earliest sound systems were set up during the 1950s as Jamaicans & Caribbean migrants descended to the UK in the 50s/60s, so did house and basement parties, known as blues parties (or shebeens). Fast forward 60 years, sound systems continue to play an integral role in British music culture…

RAS - CHANNEL ONE

In Jamaica I used to hang around the Kilimanjaro sound system. They used to get Josey Wells, Brigadier Jerry. The main MC for Kilimanjaro was Jim Kelly. I used to speak to him a lot, and he used to say to me “The art of being a toaster is learning to engage with the people. It’s like you’re speaking to a friend like the audience is your friend, so you’re speaking to them. Just speak to them normally, tell them about the day. Ask them how they are, crack a little joke and keep the night flowing.

FLOWDAN

Champions in action. Sting. Fresh – these are all Jamaican stage shows. Fresh is where I saw Papa san versus Lieutenant Stitchie – they’re two greats of reggae: MCing and culture. People set them two aside because they had crazy fast, drum and bass like, delivery on reggae.

DYNAMITE

Jungle Fever was one of the biggest brands. Roast Sunday sessions had Moose, MC Det, Navigator – they definitely were MC pillars in the jungle community. I always liked Navigator’s style because he came from that sound system background, singing a little bit.
You had more black people coming to drum and bass and jungle events, big time. It definitely shifted when speed garage and certain genres came. If you were playing at the Malcolm X Centre, which was largely a reggae venue, 70-80% of the audience would be Black. The White kids there were the kids that were into urban music anyway. Rave was built on multiculturalism.

RAS - CHANNEL ONE

Roots music is about love. It’s not about clashing with anyone and beating anyone. We’ve done a couple of clashes, like when we did the Red Bull. In the dancehall scene, there is clashing. You could tell a man about himself. You tell him about his mum. You tell him about his sister. As a Rasta, you still want to set a principle, right? You’re not going to sell out your principles just for a show, but you still want to reflect your principle even within a clash. So I’m not going to tell someone about their mum. I’m not going to tell someone to go and suck out their mum. You use righteousness to kill them.
I remember the time when we were clashing with Boy Better Know, they had Chipmunk on there. You know, the thing is, we know all of those youths. So they start to make a lyric, “You rasta eat pork, you came around my mum’s house and I saw you eating bacon”, trying to literally run us down. My way of coming back to them was, “Well, just remember this, I used to put on your nappies and clean your arse when you were a baby so shut up.” You see, that got a good forward. You don’t have to swear or anything. Have some respect. Sometimes you want to keep to a principal.

FLOWDAN

A bonfire night, Sidewinder in Milton Keynes. I can’t remember the year specifically. It was me, Dizzee, Wiley, Jamakabi, Danny Weed and Karnage on the decks. So that was going well. The set started off hype. There were at least two-three thousand people in the venue. We had cut a dubplate remix of Wiley’s Eskimo. So Wiley’s got a tune called Eskimo, a big tune, but we had a remix by Skepta – he wasn’t the Skepta that we come to know now, obviously. He was just some producer from North London that Wiley heard about – he got hold of the tune and cut it to dubplate. We’ve come to Sidewinder now. Now when we’ve played it, the place has just gone mad.
Crazy. We’re like cool, we wheel up the tune. Wiley said don’t play that back because they’re going too mad, play something else. We played something else, might’ve been Creeper or another classic. I remember I started to MC and when I got to a specific part, I heard “Boom! Boom!”
It made me stop and check myself. Then I heard Wiley say “Gunshot, gunshot. All right. Yep, yep, yep. That’s what we’re here for. Play the tune again, because when we hear a gunshot, we do it again, that’s right. Yeah, play the tune again Marvin (Karnage).”
I know Wiley is not even in his right frame of mind as well. He’s calling Karnage by his real name, he’s like “Marvin right play that again yeah”.
“Boom!”
Gunshot again.
The promoter within about two minutes of that came onto the stage, whispered in my ear, said, “You guys have got to stop! You’ve been on for about ten minutes. If this keeps going on, my rave is going to get locked off so end the booking now, please. Money’s waiting for you. Job well done, please.”
It came out on a tape pack and we were listening for the gunshots, but they edited the volume of the crowd at specific times. So there’s no evidence that guns were in there, but a gun did bust in Sidewinder. Never forget it.

CRAZY D

I wrote little lyrics here and there, nothing long, just little four bars. My uncle got us into Upfront FM, South London station. They gave us a slot of 12-2 every Saturday. We became really popular doing that, me and my uncle G Money and Crazy D 12-2 every Saturday, we converted a lot of people into garage.
We were there at the time just to have a good time, whereas there were people just there to make money. They had their vision of what they’re going to do. I couldn’t get into the right circles because it turned into a pally-pally thing. If you’re not pals, I wasn’t the type to walk in there and go “Hi!, you know, hi! How are you?” Nah, couldn’t do it. So that was that. And we just kept doing our thing on the radio and everyone loved us but we weren’t getting anywhere.
So in the end, me and my uncle actually fell out. Then who came along? Hatcha. The last maybe two years of doing Upfront FM radio, Hatcha was on after or before us, sorry. We used to chat. He rang me when he’d heard I was not going to be doing the show anymore. He was like “I’d love you to come do a show with me.” I was ready to quit. I already had kids and was missing out on weekends with them.
Hatcha started playing all the tunes that I like, basically, all the 2-steppy and jungle hardcore influenced riddims. That was the inspiration again. He then took me to FWD>>, which was in room 2 in fabric. That was the first one I went to. It blew me away. No MCs though, so I wasn’t impressed with that. I was really impressed with the music, it blows you away once you hear it.
There were producers, that are DJs, who are making tunes just for this place. I’ve never seen that before. That’s like dubplate culture now. What? dubs? What? Sound system? Yeah, that’s me again. Eventually, I think they [FWD>>] heard me on the radio with Hatcha because we got onto Rinse and we were doing a few bits and bobs there. They contacted Hatcha – he was like, ‘I’m bringing you tonight. I’ve told them they’re going to plug a mic and they said they don’t really want no MCs, but, you know, we’re going to do our thing init.’ Then we went and did it. I tell you, they didn’t want me to come off. So that was that. The rest was history.

“I’m not going to tell someone to go and suck out their mum. You use righteousness to kill them.”

RAS KAYLEB

THE MC: THE GATEWAY OF OPPORTUNITY

Front and centre of magazine shoots, TV interviews. The loudest in the room. The focal point of the party. With more attention comes more opportunity. Your network grows. Your demand increases. Whether it’s being the plug or connect, there’s no doubt that MCing opens more doors than other roles within music.

Have you ever thought, what does an MC do when not performing at raves, or shelling on pirate radio? What sort of practice goes into the craft? How does one even get the opportunity?
Lived experiences. Diversity of thinking. This is what MCing is. The trials and tribulations of an MC is at the core of the artist. How can you entertain a crowd without having any stories to tell? How can you make the connections without putting yourself out there?

Throughout the life of an MC, their craft opens certain doors to education that the schooling system cannot.

Not many people engineered their opportunities better than Ras Kayleb.

RAS - CHANNEL ONE

My mum kicked me out when I was 16, so I got my own flat. Every two weeks I held the blues in my flat. My living room was the dance and one of the other bedrooms was the bar. So like every other Saturday. I ran that for about 3 years. That was for like 16, 17 up to about 20 year olds.
I started doing sessions in Shoreditch, but not reggae sessions. This new music named hardcore came out. I was going to college at the time. All I used to do is rent a little warehouse in Shoreditch every Friday, put the sound in there and just leave these guys to get on with it. At the end of the night, I’ll just reap the money because I wasn’t interested in hardcore music. It was like the new wave of rave music coming out in the mid-80s. So, you know what? If there’s money to be made from it, I’ll just put the sound in a warehouse and we run it. When ecstasy and all that was going mad and everybody was on this mad drug back in the day – acid!
it’s around that time when everyone was out in warehouses and they said “Ooh Kayleb, you’ve got a sound, can you put your sound in there and we will pay you”. MCing was nothing then. It was about playing music, putting the sound in places and reaping money.

Another import from Jamaica’s sound system culture are dubplates – another vehicle for financial opportunity…

FLOWDAN

Dubplates are metal plates covered in wax and then you print your specific exclusive song onto that wax. It’s a lot more expensive than records – the point is they’re exclusive. You’re the only person with this record because you sourced the content from the actual maker, or you might even be the maker of the content. That is where a DJ will hold their power because we all collect records. But have you got this one?
It was always a business but because of the culture in England the people that are coming to you for dubplates are the ones who really understand dubplate culture in reggae and dancehall. Not every grime or garage DJ really is privy to that. They caught up quite quickly because you can’t be getting into situations and you ain’t got your exclusive one. So they kind of understood that perspective. It was always a business, but it wasn’t often enough. You couldn’t say “Yeah, I can forecast X amount of money this month from dubplates.

Flowdan is right. Music is business. One of the biggest components of the music business is radio. The gateway to new audiences. Potentially the catalyst into stardom. A life-changing opportunity…

CRAZY D

I was at DMZ….Blackdown came up to me and said “I want to introduce you to someone that’s going to change your life”. He went over to this other guy, who happened to be Chris Blackley, and he said to me, “I’d like to get you on Kiss FM, basically your own show, and you have a different guest every week”.
He was like, “We only want you. We just want dubstep music… we’ll do a pilot first and then we’ll see from there because it’s not been agreed upstairs.” I couldn’t leave Hatcha. He had been offered Radio One already and turned that down because they didn’t want me. I’ve got to do the same. I have to bring him, even if you work it where we have a guest but Hatcha does the first 10 minutes or whatever, but he’s going to be involved.
He said, “Cool, we’ll do half and half”. It went down a treat. Everyone upstairs loved us because their views went up something like 300 percent. That didn’t really mean anything to me. Just as long as people are into it, we’re into it. That was the whole crux of it.

“He then took me to FWD>>, which was in room 2 in fabric. That was the first one I went to. It blew me away.”

CRAZY D

MCs are wordsmiths. Poets. Storytellers. Their expressive nature with words is a source of influence. Such skills can easily be translated into other art forms…

DYNAMITE

The Bird and the Elephant is a children’s book on philosophy. It is all written in rhyme form of poetry because that’s how I’ve been writing for the last 20 years. It was an idea that was inspired by just a photo that I saw of a bird on an elephant’s back. If they started speaking to each other, I wonder what they would talk about. I imagined that the bird would be young and arrogant because he can fly. The elephant is slow and heavy.
This turned into a philosophical conversation of why are we here? Where do we come from? Why do bad things happen to good people? Love, philosophy, destiny, 10 chapters, really short, concise, friendship. It’s just something I wanted to do. I like to write. I’ve written a script, I’ve written a couple of books. The Elephant was the only one I put out. The others are still sitting on my laptop. I tried to get it published. I sent it out to 30, 40 plus publishers. Unfortunately, nobody went with it. I thought it would be fine, make my own dubplate, make my own pirate radio station, make my own rave, you know, self publish, make my own book. It’s out there in ebook form or in physical format. I was in a rave and this guy came up to me, said “I just want to let you know that I bought your book for my son and he was getting bullied a lot in school and the chapter about friendship, it really helped him to identify who his friends are. It’s really helped him.” That really touched me more than telling me that you saw me in Manchester, that’s beautiful. I’m so glad that something I did has helped.

MCs AND THE GLOBAL CONQUEST

June 1948 – the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex carrying hundreds of people from the Caribbean. 73 years later and the cultural legacy of the Windrush generation lives on. As generations pass, the Caribbean’s musical heritage remains omnipresent in the UK. Ras Kayleb, Dynamite MC, Crazy D and Flowdan’s stories all share a common theme: influenced by soundsystem culture, used their art form to depict their lived experiences, used music as a gateway for bigger and better things. All 4 were influenced by the generation before them. All 4 are influencers for generations coming after.

It’s difficult to predict where MCs and Bass music culture will be in 20 years. We are currently seeing the effects of the late 80s/early 90s West African immigrants arrival to the UK. In the streets of London, Birmingham and Manchester, you’re as likely to hear afrobeat as you are dancehall or grime.

As the world evolves, so does music. We are witnessing an amalgamation of scenes and genres worldwide. Globalisation and the digital age has meant we’re able to draw inspiration from all corners of the world. No longer is the identity of music defined by your birthplace or postcode. Some of the best sound systems can be found in Kenya & Japan. Mainland Europe is emerging as a hotspot for drill MCs, in particular France, Holland & Germany. Drum & Bass continues to be one of the most revered scenes in Australia.

MCs are achieving global acclaim, becoming the new rockstars. Let’s toast to that.

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