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