From Illegal London Blues Parties To Legendary Clubs Like The Wag and The Hacienda – The Journey Of A UK Rapper!
I remember the day well when I really caught the Hip-Hop bug. It was summer 1982 and I had not long started Woolwich Polytechnic Secondary School. These were the times when we would walk around our council estate with kitchen lino rolled up under our arms and a giant ghetto blaster looking for other breakdance and bodypopping crews to battle.
I was in an English lesson that hot summer day, supposedly reading Shakespeare, however, I was too busy writing my own poetry for kicks. Sitting next to me was my good friend Merlin, who is the nephew of the late Reggae star Smiley Culture. Merlin later became renowned in his own right as a Rapper for chart bands Bomb The Bass, The Beatmasters, UK Garage act Blackout and was signed to Sire Records (Warner Bros). He suggested I rap my poetry, which I told him sounded crazy because there were no famous white Rappers at that time.
This soon went from me battling other kids in the playground, to joining as the Rapper of a South-East London DJ Sound System performing at dark, smoky and sweaty Blues parties and Clubs every weekend for seven years and recording demos in a 4-track studio on Woolwich Common Estate, where I grew up. By 1988, I started sending my demos to record labels and a year later was signed to a management contract with Jackie Khan of the Tony Hall Group, a company who managed Soul stars such as Loose Ends, The Real Thing, Lyndon David Hall and members of Dance chart toppers KLF. I suddenly felt part of the bigger Urban music scene as I rubbed shoulders with my idols whose records I had been playing in a Sound System for the past seven years and had made out with my girlfriends of the day to their songs.
A year later and the real bug for stardom hit me. I had just signed my first record deal with Music Producer Peter Hinds (keyboardist for Jazz-Funk band Incognito, Light Of The World and Producer of Soul band Sahara) and had been entered into the 1990 UK Rap Championships, a competition held by New York label Sleeping Bag Records who were famous for launching the careers of EPMD, Mantronix and Joyce Sims. To my surprise, I reached the Semi-Finals! To my shock, me and my DJ Orsom G had to drive north to the town of Manchester to represent London in that heat, in a manor out of our zone where they took a dislike to Londoners. Additionally, I had to perform at a venue that had a 2,500 capacity and I had been used to performing to crowds of 100-200.
Like Rocky Balboa, we trained at our game, rehearsing our performance every night and at the weekends in Pineapple Studios in London’s Covent Garden. I felt confident, as we had our own record we were performing and had rehearsed to a tee. However, on the day, I realised we were going into the town they’d nicknamed ‘Gunchester’ and were about to perform in front of a northern mob. The long drive was treacherous, as we neared the edges of cliffs driving on roads covered with snow on that winter morning. When we got there, all of the competitors were kept backstage and the Manchester Hip-Hop crew were in force. When they found out we were Londoners, they started flicking elastic bands in our direction. My DJ jumped up to have a go, so I grabbed him and said “Listen, it ain’t worth it. There’s twenty of them and two of us, and even if we get out of here in one piece, we’re in their area and miles from home. The best thing we can do it go on stage and show them we’re the best” and he reluctantly agreed
I remember my DJ going over to his turntables and scratching in the intro to our new single and as I walked on the stage, I could see these burning bright lights and the silhouettes of thousands of people. I thought, “Come on Born 2 B, it’s do or die. Give it your all and own the stage”.We were noted by the Judges as having the most professional stage performance of the night, however, politics stopped us winning outright as there was no way they would let a London act come to Manchester and beat the local competition; there would have been a riot! So the winner of that Semi-Final heat was a local Rapper whose name I cannot remember. I remember well the name of the club, as it turned out to be the world-renowned Hacienda, Rave Capital of The World in 1990! I later found out there were over 60 guns in the club with local villains and drug dealers holding each one. It would have been more than a riot, it would have been a bloodbath and that’s not the legacy I wanted to begin my career with. Still, we made it back to London in one piece with some new Manchester fans to boot!
What it did do was got me to up my game and recognise how close I was to establish myself on the UK Hip-Hop scene. Over the next three years, I had started working with Us3 Producers’ Geoff Wilkinson and Mel Simpson and signed to Ninja Tune Records, had my videos regularly shown on MTV and The Box, received regular play on BBC Radio 1 and Kiss FM London and performed shows and concerts in the UK (including the legendary London ‘Wag Club), Germany and Turkey. My records had spread worldwide and I recorded for Chrysalis/EMI Records and had further releases on Instinct (USA), Century Vista (USA) and Sony (Germany). I later went on to work with Blak Twang and Victor Redwood-Sawyer (producer of Beverly Knight, Blak Twang and Hil St Soul) and Byron Byrd, founder of 70’s US Funk Band Sun (“Sun Is Here”, “Flick My Bic”). I grew up with the temptations of crime, drugs and gangsters all around me, however, it was Hip-Hop that guided me away from that lifestyle. It was that buzz of performing my own songs to larger crowds that I love, of hearing the audience singing your lyrics back to you in recognition, that makes me so grateful I chose the path to be a Rapper.
And it’s knowing that you are one of a small percentage of the population to not only have seen but to have lived behind the curtain that makes this whole crazy thing worthwhile.
But perhaps even more importantly than all of that, it’s YOU, the listener, that makes all of it matter.
I look forward to many more sometimes-hard, sometimes-ugly, always-worthwhile experiences along this musical journey. Here’s hoping that you are part of that journey.
If you’d like to hear the most recent milestone of that journey, click here to listen to my most recent album, ‘Original Olde English’.
Thank you for being a listener and for making it all matter.
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