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.
The reissue of “Thoughts Released (Revelation 1)” is out now on Original Dope.
MC Mell’O’ – “What Can I Do” (Natural Response / 1994)