In 1981, a 19-year-old Peter King was sitting at a house in Overcliff Road in Lewisham, the home of the mother of Dennis Rowe, the founder of the legendary UK sound system Saxon Studio International. Dennis was describing his own appearance, being ‘neat and sweet’ and so on. The rhyming words twigged budding toaster Peter’s imagination, and he went home and wrote a rhyme about it. Soon after, he went to a soundclash at the hall of Dick Shepherd’s school in Brixton.
“The place was so ram up,” he remembers. “I mean you had to literally climb over people to get in the front entrance. When it got to Saxon’s turn, I came on and did the ‘me neat me sweet’ chat. The place just tore down – the crowd noise was louder than the music – it was so loud that I started to laugh into the mic.”
That rhyme was reggae’s first ‘fast chat’, the precursor of today’s drum and bass MCing. It’s a challenge to trace the beginnings of the kind of MCing that accompanies drum and bass, grime and garage; whether you want to take it back to the scats of jazzist Slim Gaillard in the 1930s or even to the griots of West Africa. What’s clear is that the connection is Jamaican – New York got hip hop through Kingstonian Kool DJ Herc in the 1970s, and London got jungle through a slew of reggae influences in the late 1980s.
‘Fast chat’ was a style which was at that time unique to the UK – it was on the back of Peter King’s style that Papa Levi, another toaster on Saxon, got the inspiration for his Mi God Mi King single, released in 1984, making him the first UK artist to get to number one in the Jamaican charts. This spawned imitators over in the Caribbean, as well as more copycats in the UK. Peter King, now 47 and working as a painter and carpenter in south London, remembers: “After that dance Smiley Culture and Asher Senator [both from Saxon] came up to me and said: ‘you’re the baddest DJ!’ [confusingly a DJ is a term for an MC].
Later that year, Smiley Culture came to me and said that he had his own fast chat. This one was longer than mine! I thought ‘Shit I’d better up my game!'” As it happened Peter King joined forces with the two toasters, releasing a few records on the pair’s Fashion Record label [including the smooth ‘Step On The Gas’, where King rhymes about being chased through London by the police while in a car with Smiley and Senator].
As mentioned, the style also spread to Jamaica, with Jamaica / UK fast chat clash tunes like JA to UK MC Clash, with Johnny Ringo and Asher Senator released in 1985. However it was in the UK where rhymers like Smiley Culture, Papa Levi and Tippa Irie that really reaped the rewards from the ‘fast chat’ boom – Smiley Culture released the hilarious and half-friendly Cockney Translation, a language guide for West Indians in London, [which has gone on to be considered a cultural landmark] before being signed to Polydor, while Tippa Irie released his super-fast All The Time The Lyric A Rhyme in 1984 on Greensleeves’ imprint UK Bubblers.
If you want to hear a 1984 version of a Highly Blessed MC Convention, check out Saxon’s 1984 Coughing Up Fire! album, which, unlike the reggae dubplate-fests of other Saxon tapes, features strictly MCing – highlights include Tippa Irie’s seamless switches from yardie patois to ‘cor blimey’ Cockney, and Papa Levi’s furious attacks on Margaret Thatcher.
Tippa Irie’s legendary voice is congested and his eyes are watering from a heavy cold when I catch up with him in his studio in Croydon, but he is still keen to give his version of events:
“I know that today’s MCs are inspired by us. People like DJ Luck and MC Neat have said to me that they were inspired by the Saxon crew. Basically we were the hottest thing at the time they were growing up – they couldn’t help be inspired by us. I respect what they do, and I’m sure they respect what we’ve done.
“In terms of how it started, when the Saxon lads came along we sped up the game. Peter King didn’t totally create the sped-up chat – we all had our individual styles – when Peter came along our style was still quicker than people like U Roy, Big Youth and all those guys from Jamaica. We changed the face of reggae MCs.
“When drum and bass came along they used to sample all our tapes – especially the Coughing Up Fire! tape. I even did a few jungle tunes when the craze hit, one called Hyper Hyper [by Bass Boyz in 1994]. I also did some jungle raves, with MCs like Demolition Man and Top Cat.”
MCs like Shabba D are well known for the direct influence these sound systems have had on their style, while other drum and bass MCs are old enough to have had a direct role in both cultures. DnB’s most venerated MC, GQ, remembers toasting on a sound system called Squadron as a shy 15-year-old:
“I used to sneak out and go to a club called The Four Aces in Dalston to see a sound called Chicken that was my dad’s friend’s. It didn’t start until about 2am and I remember my brother found me there, smoking my little hash spliff in the corner, and gave me a slap, saying ‘what you doing out here so late?’!”
A drum and bass MC with a serious reggae pedigree is Flinty Badman from the Ragga Twins, who would regularly clash with Saxon while on Tottenham’s Unity sound system in the 1980s:
“I’d say only 50 per cent of heads know that drum and bass MCing comes from sounds like Saxon. They pioneered the fast chat, along with people like Asher Senator. I haven’t actually changed my style since the reggae days, although maybe the pace of the rhymes has increased. Who’s the inspiration for today’s MCs? Well, to be honest I feel that we would be high in that category.”
Like today, not everyone liked ‘fast chat’. Ricky Ranking, a legendary toaster on King Tubby sound system and more recently collaborator with Roots Manuva, dismissed the style to me as “tongue rolling”, from people who “didn’t have lyrics”.
Whatever you think of today’s fast MCs, nothing can beat the fun of the open battles fought between toasters in the 1980s, like this slack burial lyric from the volatile Papa Levi, aimed at his nemesis MC Champion from Jamdown Rockers: “Champion a half horse half man / him don’t grind girl him press pure stallion / what the hell is he doing at the microphone stand / when a 2.45 he a fe ride a Kempton.”
This strand of reggae music remains, along with Lovers’ Rock, one of its truly UK forms, that has as a result produced another bona-fide British institution: jungle.