UK Rap: An Open Mouth Policy
22nd September 1990
For almost a decade British rap has emulated the Stateside sounds of Public Enemy, NWA, Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions and others. Now, with the advent of Manchester's MC Tunes and London's J0001, British rap has finally discovered its own identity and come out fighting. SAM KING grills the new rap figureheads. STEVE DOUBLE catches them gladhanding.
BE HONEST. Do you remember Derek B? Can you really recall the rap behind 'Good Groove', his first Top 20 hit and the record that spawned the original rumours of a credible British rap scene?
You can't? You're not alone.
The truth is that 1988's bad young brother is now a soiled old rapper who's been reduced to milking the comeback trail for everything it's worth, another failure in the cap of the fledgling British rap industry.
And while his adverts proclaim Guess who's back, Jack? it's really more a case of, Guess who's crap at rap?
Despite the worldwide success of rap in the '80s, from Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash to Public Enemy and NWA, it's taken nearly a decade for British rap to even begin to shed its morgue-like image. Even now, it's only started to lose its slavish dedication to the ideas, methods and delivery of the American original, and the roll call of celebrated disasters is long and the success rate negligible.
Overlord X, Thrashpack, Silver Bullet, Wee Papa Girl Rappers, Einstein, DJ Daddy, She Rockers, the entire Ragga hip hop and hip House scenes; all have propped up the illusion of British rap before following Derek B into oblivion.
Meanwhile, the genre's rare successes, from Krew's 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' (cited by many as the first truly British rap record) to groups like Rapologists and Nutriment, have been critically ignored.
"The truth is that I met Derek B the other day," says West London's latest rap star J0001, "and he said to me, Look Jase, you know the score, I've got lots of money. And I went, That's true, end of story. He doesn't give a toss about his music either, all he knows is that he's got all your money. And what's he doing now? Looking for another job is what."
ALONG WITH Manchester's MC Tunes, J0001 represents the real birth of British rap. In both cases it's been a tortuous, protracted delivery, a decade long gestation period that's seen the pair work their way independently up the ladder from illegal backstreet jams and blues to widespread acclaim and, in Tunes' case, a Top Five placing for his debut solo single, The Only Rhyme That Bites'.
Both insist that it's their backgrounds, the years they've spent immersed in rap and learning their craft that separate them from the numerous six-month-old rap superstars like Silver Bullet, whose single successes are followed by immediate decline.
"A lot of people think that you make a rhyme in your bedroom, go out and make a demo, release it and you're a rapper," JC observes critically. "But it doesn't go like that. You spend years learning your craft in any form of live jam, whatever it is, a club, a private party, a blues, a soul blues, whatever. At home is where you learn what to do, out there is where you learn how to do it. The first kids who were signed up were nothing to do with rap, they were just a bunch of kids who tried to get away with it. Failed. That was around '83 and since then we've seen a lot of shit rise and call itself rapping".
Tunes is equally emphatic: "You can't just pick up a mic and start going, Blah, blah, blah and expect to get credibility. You've got to come through the ranks and I've been doing it since I was 13 years old. That's seven years of rapping. And it's not about selling, it's about getting it out there. 'The Only Rhyme That Bites' wasn't a pop tune, it was a dancefloor track, we made it for the kind of clubs we go to, for the kind of people we are so that we could impress them, because that's what it's about. And it took the f**king charts by storm. It was original and it showed that you can do it, it took me six years, but I did it and that's the payback."
Looking at Tunes, JC and the latter's DJ partner Dzire at their first meeting at photographer Steve Double's studio, it's hard to spot any inherent similarities. Tunes' tracksuit, hamster-like demeanor and musical taste all point to his roots in the recent Mancunian dance scene, as does his attitude that, "it ain't about acid, or House, or rap or hip hop, it's about dance and if you can't dance to it, it ain't worth a f**k in my book, it ain't even worth thinking about."
His partnership with cult production group 808 State, which dates back to his schooldays with Darren Partington and his part in The Hit Squad (a loose production team that featured Tunes, 808 State members Graham Massey and Martin Price and a guy called Gerald Simpson), appears to amplify the divide between the two rappers, accentuating Tunes' have to dance philosophy. His latest single, 'Tunes Splits The Atom', borrows from The Stone Roses' 'I Am The Resurrection' and emphasises his hometown roots.
"'Tunes Splits The Atom' is like a breakthrough for me," he says "because it's never been done before. It's got such a '60s groove to it and such a modern fast rap to it and such a funky bassline. And if I've got to pay for it, I'll pay, and if I've got to give them a percentage, I'll give it to them and say, Thank you for letting me use your bassline because it's a killer."
In contrast JC, who's the cousin of Killing Joke mainbrain Jaz Coleman, hails from the hardcore side of the rap divide. He learnt his trade by going out with reggae sound systems, touring estates, finding empty rooms, jacking into the power and rapping all night. To him rap is all about battling other rappers live on the night, rapping raw from the top of your head and being, "faster, more complex, more subtle and witty at the right time and more in with that music than any other rapper there is...
"Basically, it's about the live jams, going onstage and lacing a famous rapper. I don't give a shit about the records. It's about battling live on the mic and all this peace and love shit coming from Manchester can suck my cock. People who don't like me onstage give me the eye. But I grew up with that. I'm a white Paki who grew up in a black area and I've had to learn hard the same as a lot of other rappers of my type."
His collaboration with Dzire is as effective as Tunes' and 808 State's, producing music that is both true to the rap's hardcore bent and innovative, music that's been acclaimed by a variety of hip sources from George Clinton to Prince.
Yet a closer look reveals that in addition to being the tough new faces for British rapping, Tunes and JC share a startling number of similarities. Both come from hard inner city areas, Tunes from Moss Side ("it ain't a black area or a white area, it's a multi-racial area with black, white, Chinese, Haitian, everyone and it's where I'm from"), JC and Dzire from West London where they had to be sharp to survive. Tunes spent his youth stealing, lying and being aggressive, while JC trod a very thin line between the rival gangs that staked out his area, playing the entertainer to avoid being beaten up.
"Everyone has something about them you can laugh at," he says, "you just have to turn it around and that makes you the fastest, slickest tongued bastard you've ever met. Physically frail but mentally massive, that's the way you run the game if you ain't got no posse. There are a lot that are allied to me, but I'm never running with one or the other, it's a delicate tightrope of dope we live on."
Tunes' story is similar: "I was violent, an aggressive guy y'know. Violence is golden if you can use it properly, if you use it as a defence. I've had me ass kicked and I've kicked ass, but I took it like a man. I stood there and had me ass kicked and went, Right, you kicked my ass what else are you going to do? Do you want to go another five rounds or what? So yes I was a thief and if once a thief always a thief, then that's what I am, but don't knock it because you were never there to help and the way I see it, if you were never there to help me, don't open your mouth."
DESPITE TUNES' popstar aspirations (he's reported to have given his mother a birthday card saying, "From your son, a popstar" and has already appeared on Top Of The Pops with his dancers and crew) and JC's hardcore dedication ("we're looking for underground success and if we get offered Top Of The Pops, we're not going to do it, that's basically it"), the pair's music is strikingly similar. Their new British rap prides itself on its quality, emphasising the complexity of the pair's rhymes, reinforcing the impression that as 'white' rappers in a predominantly black field, they've had to be doubly inventive and proficient to gain the respect they both enjoy.
Both Tunes and JC push themselves as fast as they can go and they're widely acclaimed for independently developing the 'speed rapping' technique that was recently co-opted by Silver Bullet on his 'Bring Forth The Guillotine' single. In addition, both appear to be inspired by the work of P-Funk master George Clinton, whose recent UK tour featured an appearance from both DJ and Dzire.
Their raps also share a similar content. Neither attempts to ape the American rap tradition of gunfights and brutality, although both maintain a realistic, tough line. Instead they rap about distinctly British subjects. Tunes' forthcoming album, The North At Its Height', goes from his early days as a mugger on 'This Ain't No Fantasy' to his personal experience of the drug world on 'Own Worst Enemy'. While 'Favourite Breaks', JC's first single, deals with his rap battling experiences. Other raps deal with drugs, "psychological shit" and street violence.
"'Own Worst Enemy' is not anti-drugs," declares Tunes. "It's just a day in the life of a heroin addict to commemorate my uncle's death, because he died through drug related things. People think smackheads are dirty, that drug addicts are this and that, but they're not, they're just ill people and you can either help or shut the fuck up. I say it the way it is, people can get hurt by drugs, people can die, people's families are torn to pieces. But what can you do?
"That's what the track is about and I hope it made you shiver, I hope you listened to it and thought, Fucking hell this is cold. I wrote it so that people know that smackheads aren't junkies, they're not dirty lowlife scum, they're just people with a problem and rather than letting them buy it off the street when it's cut with dirt and shit they should do something.
"It ain't the heroin that kills people, it's the fuckeries that are in it, the Vim, the browning sugar and the brick dust. 16-year-old kid found fucking dead in Medlock Court, round the corner from my fucking house with a needle still in his fucking arm with brick dust still in it. People would rather pretend it doesn't exist than do anything and I can't deal with that.
"And drug dealers, they're not necessarily bad people, what the fuck else have they got to do? How the fuck do you stop a boy that's got nothing and a family to feed going out and earning seven grand in an hour? You can't. All you can do is offer him something better and no motherfucker in this country has ever done anything about that. The whole thing about drugs pisses me off because it's long and drawn out and it could be ended tomorrow if all the people on their high chairs got their shit together."
JC too is adamant that something has to be done: "I don't know about the others, but I go into the basic psychology and I am one of those people who believes that drugs, legalised sensibly, clinically regulated, taxed and controlled would be cleaner, less fatal and made to look more socially passé than they are now. Like make drugs look like you don't want to take them, because you've got to admit that the Just Say No campaign has done fuck all.
"Money drives the drug market, it's common sense, so you destroy the money side of it and you'll destroy the market and all those deaths that are associated with it, the killing and violence vanish and you have all that revenue from the people who are dumb enough to take hard drugs to treat them properly and educate others."
BOTH ARE speaking from bitter personal experience, with the same intensity that the likes of BDP and Public Enemy bring to their work. Tunes' uncle died in a police cell and his dad died in "a haze of drugs", while drugs were a reality in the area JC grew up in. "There's more than a million marijuana smokers out there" he raps on 'A Star Is Burned'.
Despite the reality both Tunes and JC bring to their work, cynics could suggest that their impending success (both are due to take the States by storm later this year) is due to the pair being white and thus somehow more palatable to the mainstream audience than black British rappers like Derek B. It's an accusation both are quick to refute.
JC: "I don't fit into white society too good, I don't fit into black society, I'm just myself when I rap and I'm bloody good at it. Some people ask me why I'm aggressive. Well I'm sorry, but maybe I've got a particular attitude. Over nine years I've never seen a journalist or an A&R man at a real hip hop club. You have to dress a certain way, you have to look very, very bad and I do mean bad as in evil and heavy duty and I haven't got the bottle to invite certain journalists to these clubs because they might get beaten f**kless. I survive because I know the score, I know the run ins. "I ran with a black sound system for four years so I know it just about. It's a rough situation, white people have to be careful how they tread. I know how to go because I'm known, I'm JC from Rap Attack. I wouldn't go around printing too much of that because that's real stuff, that's real life."
Tunes: "All that black white stuff is so much rubbish. I shouldn't have to justify myself for the sake of the public, I don't have an excuse for being a white rapper, I'm just a rapper that happens to be white. You don't have to be black to be a rapper, you don't have to be white to be a popstar, you don't have to be white to be a Judge, you don't have to be white to be a policeman and when people start breaking down those barriers is when a lot of this bullshit is going to stop. I've not got time for it. I'm happy as I am, if someone wants to call me a name, call it, put a megaphone next to my ear and shout it as loud as you like, but when you're finished I'm going to clear my ear out and go, You finished now? You feel that you've got it out of your system? Good, because I'm going to go out and make another record now. More people should be like that in real life."
The British rap revolution has come of age at last.