An England Story

Posted on by Kate Hutchinson

This was such an interesting article to write, based on the Soul Jazz/Heatwave compilation 'An England Story' on the history of MCing in the UK. Apologies to Roots Manuva, Estelle and YT, who did not make in.

Read the full piece after the jump.

We’re dancing in the intense main room of Herbal to the eruption of elephantine sub dubstep basslines, adrift in the rhythms, when suddenly we hear “Bring it back selectah, REWIND!” boom over the speakers. Enchanted smiles slip upside down as the man behind the mic spits meaningless trash and ruins the thrilling, bass drilling tunes. ‘Bloody MCs…’ someone behind us groans. If only Roots Manuva was employed in clubs…

It’s a familiar scenario at bass-driven clubs. Here they are primarily hosts, but often MCs’ verbal dysentery overpowers the music rather than punctuating it, leaving many with the feeling that they’re a waste of time. ‘If an MC started blubbering rubbish, I would get some duct tape out!’ and ‘Why play the music if you are going to have someone chat crap over it?’ are just some of the comments on the 1Xtra message boards, while one scenester on says, ‘Lots of shit MCs around…some just don’t know when to stop.’ Moreover, drum ’n’ bass impresario Fabio famously runs an MC-free night, Swerve, at The End, because he wants ‘the music to be the main focus.’

So trust Soul Jazz to hammer home the message that MCs are in fact, well decent. Their latest compilation, ‘An England Story’, documents MC culture in the UK from 1983, taking listeners from pioneering Jamaican reggae MCs like Papa Levi and Tippa Irie to younger garage and grime blood Stush and Riko. It was plucked from a mix strung together two years ago by label and club Heatwave, whose compiler Gabriel says: ‘Their role is to entertain and introduce the songs, forming a social interaction between the audience and DJ.’ He made the mix to cement how unique UK MCs are, who, as legend Tippa Irie, who broke the fast chat style, insists, add ‘vibes, spirit, soul, truth, enjoyment and most of all, a good message’ to music, and aren’t influenced by American hip hop. But clearly there’s a huge difference between inexperienced MC/hosts at club nights, and well-seasoned storytellers like Irie.

This is a video my boyfriend alerted me to of grime kings Wiley and Kano MC battling it out in some dodgy looking basement. It's on the Lord of the Mics DVD if you're interested.

It’s another matter with grime and jungle too. As Radio One’s Mary Anne Hobbs explains, ‘Here the MCs are king.’ It’s their lyrics that fans hang on to, but many disagree with their negativity. Such styles directly contradict the humourous social commentary MCing that Jamaican immigrants brought with them to the UK in the early eighties. Warrior Queen, who features on the compilation, is one of them. ‘Everyone does their ting their way but I don’t think lyrics should tell the audience ‘I’m blingin’, I have this and you don’t, and you’re not as wicked as I am’.’ However, grime MC Riko, of the Roll Deep crew, explains, ‘It’s a valid point but from the new grime MCs’ point of view, nine times out of 10 the worse things you say the better. If you’re talking about bad stuff then people are gonna listen more.’


MCing’s history is documented on disc, but what’s the future? Gabriel sees it becoming even more popular in the UK as dubstep, grime, dancehall and bashment continue to cross over. He also believes Jamaican MC characteristics will feature more prominently in grime, dubstep and bashment, with acts like Toddla T and the Ruffneck Discotek night in Bristol pushing the sound. Grime-wise Riko says, ‘People think we just chat a load of violent stuff, but now it’s better because now we’re making songs with melodious MCing.’ He mentions his new project Cemetery Warriors, a half dubstep and half hard grime collective, for which he’ll be spitting in a heavier ragga style.

Even the new breed of bass-loving Shoreditchites are starting to use MCs. Batty Bass’s Hannah Holland says: ‘MCs get it wrong when it becomes all about them standing up and swinging their cock about instead of added another dimension to the music. I work with MC Chickaboo as she has a real personality and together we add something new to the scene.’

Irie is positive too (‘So long as we keep it clean and deal with good topics’) but ends with a final warning to MCs of the noughties: ‘When we [founding MCs] chat you can hear every word loud and clear. I would like to see Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Kano clash with Tippa Irie, Papa Levi and Macka B and see who would win.’ Now that’s a three on three that we’d like to see!

‘An England Story: The Culture of the MC in the UK 1984-2008’ is out now on Soul Jazz Records.

A version of this article appeared in Time Out magazine