Tag Archives: Sparki

Old To The New Q&A – MC Mell’O’ (Part Two)

In the first part of this extensive interview with UK Hip-Hop pioneer MC Mell’O’, the London rapper talked about coming up in the early-80s through the famous Covent Garden b-boy scene and his initial forays into the music game. In this next instalment, Mell’O’ speaks in a little more detail about his debut 1990 album “Thoughts Released (Revelation 1)” and also his subsequent deal with Jazzie B of Soul II Soul fame’s Funki Dred imprint which should have led to the release of his second album.

At the time the first album was released Hip-Hop was still very political and artists were including a lot of social commentary in their music. How did being a young black teenager growing-up in Britain at the time impact the rhymes contained on “Thoughts Released”?

“When we were recording that stuff in the 80s and the beginning of the 90s we were disenfranchised. We were young and wanting to be optimistic in our youth but not seeing a place for ourselves in the future of Britain unless we made that place for ourselves. We were consistently told by the media, the politicians, the images on TV, that our place was at the bottom of society. We weren’t supposed to be thinking about being lawyers, doctors or something like that. Racism was blatantly around us in day to day society and it was still acceptable to a lot of people. So while we were recording that music we were also going through an awakening that a lot of people in our generation went through at the time thanks to Hip-Hop. So at the age of 17 I was reading Eldridge Cleaver’s biography and Huey P. Newton’s biography.  I was reading a lot of books and at the same time a whole generation of black teenagers were going through the same awakening and finding out about the strength that is inherent in us as a people and as human beings. Hip-Hop gave us strength and the ability to access or imagination and creativity. We were seeing injustice around us and through our music we wanted to help awaken others and give people a message of strength and unity and empowerment. Hip-Hop was about bringing people together and allowing us to learn from each other at a time when society was full of divide and conquer, exploitation, consumerism and the destruction of communities in Thatcher’s Britain. So with our music we went into ourselves and we were really honest about how we were feeling.”

One track that always really stood out to me on “Thoughts Released” was “Total Eclipse Of The Art” because at the time it wasn’t commonplace to hear British artists necessarily talking about the politics of the music business…

“It was the reality. That was one of the truest songs on the album. Every single word of it. I was addressing the industry who were literally trying to totally eclipse our art. They planned and schemed to keep the scene apart. They tried to turn artist against artist. It was a divide and conquer thing. Covent Garden helped keep the scene together. Certain clubs helped keep the scene together. The industry really wanted to keep the scene apart from everything else because they really didn’t understand the music that was coming out of our scene at the time and they definitely didn’t know how to control it. Labels tried to keep us away from the Stateside acts when those artists came over because they didn’t want us building relationships with artists that were outside of their control. I was making a claim with that track to something that was ours. DJ Pogo looped up the track and I dropped the first verse right there. I went home to write the rest, came back and laid it down. Then we went to the studio to record it properly. The finished studio version that you hear on the album was done in one take. That track was an anthem for everyone at the time who loved Hip-Hop and wanted to see it being respected and not pushed aside and eclipsed by the industry.”

The only single to be released off the album was 1990’s “Open Up Your Mind” which to me sat alongside what was being recorded by the likes of Soul II Soul etc in terms of really capturing that unique British Hip-Hop street soul sound of the time…

“Wow! That’s the biggest props I’ve ever been given about that track. Now, let me tell you how that got put together. I always had a real problem being produced by someone and having no control over it. But Dave Lee who ran the label put us in touch with the Blacksmith brothers because they said they wanted a single on the album that had some sort of commercial viability. The Blacksmith guys were making big noise at the time doing swingbeat and R&B production for UK artists like Caron Wheeler and Junior Giscombe and they were also doing a lot of remixes for US acts on their UK single releases. So I went to their house in Brixton, sat down with them and we went through all these different tracks trying to find something that had that commercial appeal but that I was also happy with. I just kept thinking to myself ‘This is swingbeat, man! I don’t want to make a swingbeat record!’ They were trying out different melodies, I wrote a verse which we tried over other tracks, and then they made a swingbeat type version which I wrote the other verses of the record to. That  first swingbeat version is on one of the two “Open Up Your Mind” 12″ singles that got released but I wasn’t really happy with it when we first recorded it. I wasn’t really complaining about it so to speak, but I wasn’t totally happy with it either. Now, Blacksmith were also known for doing what they called a Brixton Bass Mix of their tunes and also an Upso Mix, so I went to them and said I wanted a remix done. I was trying to tell them my credibility was on the line (laughs). So they told me to leave it with them. Next thing, they called me to come to their yard and they played me the remix they’d done. The first time I heard that version that appeared on the album I was so happy! It was exactly the sound I was looking for.”

But although it was the only track on “Thoughts Released” not to be produced by Sparki it didn’t sound out of place at all…

“But if it the original version we made had been put on the album it would’ve stood out a mile (laughs). But that remix really fitted in well alongside what Sparki was doing with some really funky, soulful production. It really makes me happy when I hear people say that track stands alongside what was going on at the time in the UK with acts like Soul II Soul and Omar. That single could’ve done a lot more but the label didn’t want to give us the money to shoot a video. The other mistake they made is that they didn’t press up enough copies of the and it sold out during its first week of release. If the label had been ready the single would’ve sold more copies in that first week and we might have charted with it. But it took the label another two weeks to get another batch of the single pressed up so it lost some momentum in terms of the initial sales.”

The lyric on there “Frustration will get the best of ability…” has always stayed with me over the years like some of those classic gems from emcees such as KRS-One and Chuck D…

“That record was so special to me and it meant a lot in terms of what I was saying in the lyrics, so it’s always really heartwarming when I hear people tell me that record is still special to them as well after all these years. It also shows me that the sense of purpose I felt at the time when I was recording the album carried through because what I was feeling when I wrote those rhymes has been felt by the people who were hearing it wherever it was they may have been in the UK and beyond. Some people ask me today how I wrote rhymes like that about culture and society at such a young age, but I was just being honest about how I felt. I wasn’t worrying about how the music was going to be received because I knew there were people out there who felt the same way I did. I have more trouble today being totally honest in my lyrics because you’re constantly worrying about being judged and criticised. But back then I didn’t worry about any of that.”

You signed with Jazzie B’s Funki Dred label in 1992 to record and release your second album. Did you approach the project any differently to the first album?

“That first album has a timelessness about it. The second album was perhaps even more powerful because we still had that youthful fearlessness about us but we also had a little more maturity. There were tracks on there that were more political than what was heard on the first album. I’m thinking now of tracks like “Apostle Of Vindication” and “Pain & Misery” which sampled Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy”.”

At the time Jazzie had a lot of industry clout because of what he’d achieved worldwide with Soul II Soul and there were a lot of high expectations for your second album. When that deal went bad and the album was shelved that must have been an extremely turbulent time for you both personally and as an artist?

“I went from the highest high to the lowest of feelings during that time. I remember taking my second album to the studio to play it for Jazzie B for the first time and Fab 5 Freddy was there. By the third track Freddy was dancing around all over the place telling me I had the best sh*t in the world. At the time, I had no idea what was about to happen with the label. I’d met all my requirements, I’d handed everything in on time. I’m raring to go. The public were hungry for what was coming next. Then next thing we know, MCA pulled out of the deal that they had with Motown / Funki Dred but they let Jazzie B keep what he already had so he could work it himself. But there was a recession on and maybe man didn’t want to spend what he was supposed to spend. At the time as well I think Jazzie B was feeling a little down because most of the Soul II Soul crew that had made that group great in its original form had left. So anyway, the third Soul II Soul album comes out and doesn’t do too well and this is happening at the same time everyone is going mad about my album in Jazzie’s own studio. He wasn’t willing to spend the money he needed to spend to push the album, but he also wasn’t willing to let the project go so that I could put it out through someone else. I really couldn’t understand at the time why Jazzie couldn’t have let me put the album out through another label and made a little money back from it. I really didn’t know what was going through his mind. But that situation did get deep and if you listen back to the track “What Can I Do” that came out on the “First Chronicles Of D.E.T.T.” EP in 1994 you can hear just how deep it did get. At the time it felt terrible just being left on the shelf like that. But saying that, if that album had come out when it was supposed to, my life today could be very different, and I can’t say whether it would be different in a good way or a bad way.”

After the Funki Dred deal you recorded a couple of releases for the Stereo MC’s Natural Response label in 1994 but then went under the radar for the second half of the decade. Did you make a conscious decision to step away from the music after your experiences?

“From the mid-90s more mature things started happening in my life like having children and travelling to other countries, things that changed my life and really put me more in touch with the essence of who I am.  From 1993 to 1995 I was constantly touring with a live band called Izit all over Europe which was brilliant. The period of 1994 when I was recording for the Natural Response label was a fight everyday. It was a fight to get them to do a video for “I Hear Voices”. It was a fight to get them to agree to pay for studio time. Everything was a fight. But the personal things that were happening to me then held much more importance to me in my life than the music business did at the time.”

The third and final part of this interview is coming soon.

Ryan Proctor

The reissue of “Thoughts Released (Revelation 1)” is out now on Original Dope.

MC Mell’O’ – “What Can I Do” (Natural Response / 1994)

Old To The New Q&A – MC Mell’O’ (Part One)

A true pioneer of the British rap scene, South London’s MC Mell’O’ got his Hip-Hop education coming up through the ranks of the capital’s early-80s Covent Garden era, first getting noticed as a b-boy before making his name as a talented emcee via memorable live performances and early vinyl releases with the likes of DJ Pogo and Monie Love.

Mell’O”s debut album, 1990’s “Thoughts Released (Revelation 1)”, was welcomed with open arms upon its release by homegrown rap fans. The project’s combination of funky-yet-uncompromising production and Mell’O”s insightful and intelligent verses added further credibility to a UK scene still finding its way in the shadow of our Stateside counterparts.

With “Thoughts Released” recently being reissued by the Original Dope imprint, I sat down with Mell’O’ late one April evening in a South London fast-food spot for an access all areas interview covering his history in the game.

In this first instalment, Mell’O’ talks about the importance of the Covent Garden scene, joining the Zulu Nation and his early single releases.

What are your memories of London’s early-80s Covent Garden scene?

“I remember the first Saturday that I ever went to Covent Garden. I can remember being really excited for the whole journey. I was only about fourteen and there I am riding the tube train. I’d never gone to Covent Garden by myself before. So I’m looking at all the stops and I’m full of excitement and anticipation as I see my stop getting closer and closer. I get out at Charing Cross, walk along The Strand and head up into Covent where you hit the cobblestones and then it opens up and straight away I see some of the UK’s best poppers, Dolby D was there, Micron, all the guys I’d seen in Freez’s “I.O.U.” video are right there in front of me and I’m excited because I can already pop. I’m young, I’m enthusiastic. I’m from Battersea and youths from my area at the time were known for being a little brash (laughs). So I fitted in nicely and I was mostly welcomed by the people there.”

Was it a daunting experience entering what was already an established scene?

“I mean, I didn’t go to Covent green because before that I was in a poppin’ crew with Basil Liverpool and Bionic who would go on to be part of London Posse. So when we all started going to Covent Garden we were young but we were already fully on it with the poppin’ and the elite of the Garden scene could see that so we were welcomed. We started off as the 52 Flash Kru, which was a Wandsworth Road / Battersea-based crew, then that grew into SAS, which was the South London All Stars, also known as the Strawberry All Stars because New York was known as the Big Apple so that was our spin on that. Cutmaster Swift was one of our best breakers! It was a massive crew. We were busking in Covent Garden, going to all-dayers up and down the country battling other crews like Nottingham’s Rock City, Manchester’s Broken Glass and we all had mad love for each other, Bristol’s Wild Bunch, Goldie, everyone from up and down the country.”

Given that the Hip-Hop scene was so new in the UK at that point, were you aware during those Covent Garden days that you were helping to build something that would continue to grow larger?

“Yes! We were definitely aware. We knew it without a doubt. Hip-Hop gave us a purpose. You have to remember we were kids who’d grown up in the 1970s and early 80s in inner-city Britain under Margaret Thatcher. We were used to being told that things like the arts weren’t for us black kids. The arts weren’t for poor white working-class kids. The arts were for the arty-farty wealthy folk. So this whole Hip-Hop ting lands from the States and everyone we’re looking at who’s playing a part in it looks like us. We knew that what we were doing here in the UK had an important role to play when Afrika Bambaataa came to Covent Garden and established the UK chapter of the Zulu Nation and told us about our greatness. Now, the Zulu Nation was originally mainly a black thing, but when Bam came to Covent and saw a rainbow nation united under Hip-Hop it changed his whole view and the Zulu Nation then became the Universal Zulu Nation. Covent Garden was a whole new experience for Bambaataa. Coming out of the Bronx and the Black Spades, Bam knew the importance of unity and being there for each other and he could see what Hip-Hop meant to us. The guys that came to the UK with Bam at the time would tell us stories about how back in the day it wasn’t uncommon to see Bam walking through the Bronx with a sawn-off shotgun! All I could say was ‘Thank God for dj-ing!”

How much of an impact did that visit from Bambaataa have on the Covent Garden scene?

“Bam coming to Covent Garden with the Zulu Nation cemented what we were doing there. It gave us rules and boundaries within the Zulu ethos of peace, unity, love and having fun. There was a sense of responsibility amongst the Zulu kings and queens. It united us with other Zulus across the world and gave us an even greater sense of purpose. We knew the power of this music and culture because we knew how it made us feel. We believed in this Hip-Hop culture with all our hearts. Of course the press and media at the time were labelling it as a fad, but that was because they didn’t understand it and, more to the point, they realised that they had no control over it. Hip-Hop was all-consuming to us. We knew graffiti writers who died on train tracks for their art. We knew people that would come to London, go to a jam, get robbed, but still come back again and again. We knew that this culture was something great and we knew it would be something that would be with us our whole lives.”

At what point did you make the transition from dancer to emcee?

“I’d always been an emcee really because coming from Battersea at that time the whole sound system thing was a major part of who you were. But I never touched the mic properly there, it was always just on the corner. Me and Monie Love were always in the flats rhyming with the No Parking MCs who were Cutmaster Swift’s rappers. Now, Jerry Dammers from The Specials used to have these Artists Against Apartheid gigs in Covent Garden and the surrounding area. It was like warehouse parties playing funk, rare groove, Hip-Hop and sometimes a bit of reggae and roots. That’s the first place that I went to and held the mic properly in a public place with people around. That was the night that MC Mell’O’ was truly born. That was the night I realised I’m built for this sh*t. When I heard my voice coming back at me through the speakers, it was in the music so nice that I melted into listening to my own voice and the beats. From then that was it, there was no looking back.”

Your first appearance on wax was in 1987 as part of the Jus Badd crew with DJ Pogo etc on the “Free Style” single – how did that come about? 

“When I started to be known as an emcee I was also still known as a popper in a crew called Truly Unique. We wore zoot suits, the whole thing. So I was still doing all these shows as a dancer but I was always emcee-ing. I knew of DJ Pogo, but it was actually DJ Biznizz who said he thought I’d be good teaming-up with Pogo. Biznizz told me that Pogo already had a rapper called Sparki, but he felt that if we all got together then good things would come out of it. So I started going around Pogo’s house and this was a man who was putting in seven hours a day practicing on his turntables! Sparki was there rapping, but when he heard me, he was like ‘I don’t need to be rapping no more, I can just focus on the beats.’ Then I told them about a girl I knew who I’d grown up with called Simone and I told them I was going to bring her down. That was Monie Love. She spat for Pogo and straight away she was in the crew. Everyday we were at Pogo’s just working on music, practising, sharpening our skills. We did a show in 1986 in Lewisham, I remember MC Merlin was performing and some other local acts. An individual named Ricky Rennals of Tuff Groove Records and Young, Gifted & Broke fame saw us and told us he believed in what we were doing and that he wanted to sign us. So that led to our first record which was the Jus Badd single. We kept performing off the back of that and then Monie got signed to Cooltempo and she went and did her thing. On the subject of Monie, let me just say this; at the time, Monie wasn’t the best girl rapper in the UK, she was one of the best UK rappers full-stop! None of her records really represented what she could do. Me and Monie used to be like Bonnie and bloodclaat Clyde, going to jams, house parties, wherever, just ripping it down. Now at the same time as our manager got Monie signed to Cooltempo he got me an in with Republic Records. Although it was only me who signed the deal with Republic I brought in Pogo and Sparki as my people and we told the label that we were ready to work but we had to get some equipment. So they subbed us an advance and we got the Akai 950 and a Roland 909 drum machine as Sparki already had an 808.”

Was it around this time that DETT Inc was formed?

“It was exactly around that time that DETT Inc came together, which was my idea. Determination Endeavour Total Triumph Incorporated. We looked at the Juice Crew, Flavor Unit, all those crews, and we had Trouble, Reinforced Gus, MC Bee, Monie Love, Cutmaster Swift, No Parking MCs, myself, London Posse, DJ Pogo, DJ Biznizz and Sparki. We had all this talent but I felt we really needed to put a stamp on it and firm up what we were about. It gave us mileage. I remember when Cutmaster Swift won his DMC event in 1989, held up his belt and started shouting ‘DETT! DETT!’. That was the day we’d rushed the doors. It was at the Royal Albert Hall and they wouldn’t let us in so the door had to get smashed (laughs). I remember us all running in down the corridor and Queen Latifah was coming the other way like ‘Yo! Yo! Mell’O’ what’s going on?’ It was so funny. We had bouncers chasing us trying to stop us, people were trying to stop the bouncers. We hit the auditorium, spread out and represented.”

Your first release on Republic was 1989’s “Comin’ Correct” EP which had a very different sound to the more sophisticated approach to your 1990 debut album “Thoughts Released”…

“”Comin’ Correct” was produced by Tony Thorpe who was a UK dance music producer and he went on to work with The KLF. I love Tony Thorpe but in all honesty we felt like he was trying to make some sort of crappy pop song. We didn’t really like it. It felt disjointed. It wasn’t Sparki’s production. Sparki got to do some programming but it didn’t really represent us musically. So I tried to win through lyrically although a lot of the public still liked it. But for me, that EP was all about “Bizzie Rhymin'”. That was the track that really represented me and as long as that was on there then I was happy. But the move to get Tony Thorpe in was the label trying to put something together to see what would happen. Eventually we came out with a finished product. I also just want to say that the EP was recorded a year before we started working on the album material. When we started working on the album stuff we were doing everything in-house. We were finding loops to use and I was writing to those loops. Sparki was finding drum breaks to match with those samples. So by the time we got to the studio we had a rough idea that just needed to be polished up. So that was one of the reasons why the album had a more mature sound to the EP and more depth musically.”

One of the bonus cuts on the recent “Thoughts Released” reissue is “Slipt On Some Doo Doo” from the “Comin’ Correct” sessions – whose idea was it to include the Tim Westwood impressions on there?

“Do you know who that is? It’s DJ Dexter from The Brotherhood. Dexter was a properly trained actor. He could do ’nuff tings. Once right, this is wicked, he phoned Westwood’s home phone and got the voicemail so he left this message in his Westwood voice saying ‘Peace Tim! This is just me Tim, phoning to make sure I’m not at home. Peace Tim! I’m outta here!’ Westwood didn’t know who it was for years (laughs). If you listen to “Slipt On Some Doo-Doo” right to the end when Dexter says ‘With the power of armageddon’ you can hear all of us laughing. It was hilarious. We were all sat in the other room and Dexter was sat on a stool in the dark in the vocal booth at Brixton’s Cold Storage studios and we were sat there hearing him doing this wondering what he was going to say next and it just kept getting better and better. When he ended it we all just exploded and that bled out through the soundproof glass and was picked up by the mic. That was just a joke track though and there was no disrespect intended.”

Part Two of this interview is coming soon.

Ryan Proctor

The reissue of “Thoughts Released (Revelation 1)” is out now on Original Dope.

Album Review – MC Mell’O’

MC Mell’O’

“Thoughts Released (Revelation 1)”

(Original Dope)

After re-issuing memorable back-in-the-day homegrown albums from the likes of Blade and MC Duke, the latest Brit rap classic to be dusted off by the Original Dope crew is MC Mell’O”s accomplished 1990 long-player “Thoughts Released (Revelation 1)”.

A product of London’s early-80s Covent Garden scene, Battersea-bred Mell’O”s debut album stands as another vital piece of UK rap history, with all of those involved ensuring the sound and feel of the record was another step forward for a British scene that even in 1990 was still finding its own voice amidst the overwhelming amount of musical influences coming from the States.

With the likes of London Posse and Demon Boyz drawing on reggae for creative inspiration, Hijack carving out their own militant niche, and the aforementioned Duke presenting himself as UK rap aristocracy, Mell’O’ took his musical cue from the funky old-school soul grooves found in the record collections of both his own parents and those of collaborators Sparki and DJ Pogo.

Fine-tuning the raw, youthful exuberance heard on 1989’s “Comin’ Correct” EP (included here) into a more focused, polished sound, “Thoughts Released” found Mell’O’ effectively balancing energetic b-boy bravado with an insightful maturity beyond his young age, going so far as to split the release into two distinct halves – “Side For The Physically Stable” and “Side For The Mentally Stable”.

If Mell’O’ felt any pressure throughout the recording of “Thoughts Revealed” due to the impressive reputation his crew DETT Inc. had built-up during the late-80s, it only helped, rather than hindered, his ability to bring his sonic visions to life.

Kicking off with the bass-heavy confidence of the self-explanatory “Our Time”, Mell’O’ proudly shouts out his allegiance to the DETT collective, perfectly encapsulating the crew’s full moniker Determination Endeavour Total Triumph via his forthright flow and boasts of microphone supremacy. The aggressive “A Total Eclipse Of The Art” (built around the same infectious James Brown guitar lick utilised later on Das EFX’ “They Want EFX”) is proof that even in its relatively early days the UK rap scene was still plagued by the same politics and crabs-in-a-barrel short-sightedness that many feel has prevented homegrown rap from reaching its full potential in more recent times – “Ease with the fighting, munching and biting,” rhymes a passionate Mell’O’,  “Time for uniting, make the whole scene exciting.”

“Voodoo Khan” is an upbeat dancefloor-friendly banger with a killer b-line showcasing the turntable talents of living legend DJ Pogo, whilst the brilliantly titled “All Terrain M.C.s” is a chunky, organ-driven back-and-forth between Mell’O’ and the album’s main producer Sparki, with the pair exchanging good-natured battle-ready rhymes that prompt visions of the two friends smiling widely at each other in the recording studio, revelling in the warm glow of their mutual appreciation and love of Hip-Hop.

Yet as enjoyable as the first half of “Thoughts Released” was and still is, it’s the album’s second side that really ups the ante, with Mell’O’ swapping boastful wordplay for social commentary and  and a quest for spiritual nourishment.

The sublime Blacksmith-produced “Open Up Your Mind” remains one of the greatest 12″ singles to be released in the 90s from anywhere on Planet Rock, meshing rare groove influences with a sophisticated UK street soul sound and motivational rhymes (“Your slumber holds your mind in a grip, Now let rip while your spirit’s dancing…”).

The “Black Caesar” soundtrack sampling “Subtraction” finds Mell’O’ encouraging his peers to reach personal goals and remain on a righteous path, whilst the head-nodding “Acknowledge Yourself” mixes street swagger with history lessons as the South London lyricist urges Black youth to learn more about their culture and heritage in response to the racism that was still rampant at the time on British streets.

The more commercially-viable “From The Heart” goes some way to embracing the New Jack Swing sound of the time popularised by the likes of Heavy D and Redhead Kingpin, with its positive message of personal upliftment given a soulful, organic feel thanks to a flawless live saxophone solo and infamous UK engineer No Sleep Nigel turning in a vibes performance that jazz legend Roy Ayers would’ve been proud of.

Over twenty years since it originally dropped, “Thoughts Released” has definitely stood the test of time. With the all-too-familiar story of industry politics and label woes preventing Mell’O’ from fully capitalising off the momentum of this great collection of beats and rhymes, it’s hard to listen to the album now without wondering what could’ve been for one of the UK’s most charismatic emcees.

But that said, if you’re only going to release one album in your lifetime, it may as well be one as memorable and satisfying as this.

Ryan Proctor