Few rappers sit on a stone-cold classic for 20 years. But that’s what Blak Twang did and he has no regrets about doing so.
[Editors Note: This interview was conducted in 2015. The article ran in the 10th edition of Bonafide Magazine. Some links and references are dated, but have been left as they were in the original, with occasional comments from the editor.]
The recently renewed strength of the UK rap scene is undeniable. There’s a dedicated UK hip-hop festival, British DJs are appearing in Ikea adverts and breakthrough home-grown rappers are once again dominating mainstream festival line-ups. But not only on our own shores has the UK sound been making an impact. We’re getting increasing popularity and respect overseas; We’re collaborating, cross-fertilising and influencing one another. With news that Kanye West and Skepta have been hitting the studio together, even grime seems like it might make its mark upon the US mainstream [ed. whatever happened to this?]. Let’s all go and get t-shirts, light a beacon and skip home laughing.
What I’m trying to say is that there’s a fresh smell in the air. It smells of creativity and a willingness to rewrite the rulebook. It seems like the apathy of the late noughties has come to a welcome end. Just like any return to form or forward movement, the UK rap resurgence has led many to look backward into the murky chambers of Brit-hop history, wanting to know more about who schooled the new school. It is this atmosphere that has led to the release of South London stalwart Blak Twang’s ‘lost’ debut album Dettwork SouthEast, two decades after it was actually recorded.
We sat down for a chat over a bag of cashew nuts to discuss 20 years in the game and Blak Twang’s views on the scene as it stands today. “At the time I’d released a few singles on the streets that were buzzing like crazy around the UK. I’d been in Vibe magazine, Source and XXL had covered me, I think I even got a MOBO award (ed. He actually won ‘Best Hip Hop Act’ at the very first MOBO awards in 1996). Even before my album had come out, I was the guy that was on everyone’s lips.”
In a lot of ways the story of Dettwork SouthEast is a cliché 1990s record industry fable, where the heavily hyped young rapper gets taken right to the edge of his debut release, only to be screwed over at the last minute. But as Twang tells me, the longer story involved a more conscious decision on his part.
“It was a situation where we had a verbal agreement. There was a Japanese label called Avex, a major independent label actually because they had a lot of clout. They said they’d license this album and put it out, and were going to give me X, Y and Z amount of money to record the album, to promote it and push it. So we got in the studio, recorded a load of tracks, recorded the video for Dettwork SouthEast, done all the artwork, pressed the single, pressed the vinyl… and then they decided that the budget was going to be slashed by a third. So we were like, ‘Why the fuck are we doing a deal with you lot then?’ The whole purpose of us coming onto this label was because we felt we needed the real push that it deserved. If you’re not going to give that to us then I’m not signing that deal. I refused to put the record out.”
This is not the story of an overindulged musician who got caught up in his own hype and refused to compromise when reality bit. Twang explains the decision as one based on artistry and creative control rather than monetary influences.
“Your first album is usually your life’s work leading you to that point. It’s an introduction to the world, a statement saying this is who I am. Obviously the power of hindsight tells me I should have put it out because it would have opened more doors [he laughs], but no one has the power of foresight. Back then I thought we could do it independently.”
Dettwork never got an independent release. After the deal fell through, Tony Rotton jumped straight back into the studio, having come to an agreement with Warner/Chappell. These sessions would lead to his second album (but debut release) 19 Long Time (Live from the Big Smoke), while Dettwork SouthEast sat on the shelf, hyped by many but heard by few.
“Even for years after all the albums I’ve put out, people were still asking for it. So for it to come out later, it was a good look for me. I’m a believer in everything happening for a reason. I didn’t know then, but it shaped my career.”
Like most of the home-grown UK rappers of the 80s and 90s, Twang had grown up on a diet of reggae and roots music. “Yelloman, Eek-A-Mouse, Saxon Sound System and all them. They shaped my thoughts. Still 20 years on as an established artist you’ll hear me make references to some of their lyrics that I was just listening to on the cassette tape as a kid. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of Madonna in there too [laughs].”
Blak Twang, often hailed as the ‘original hip-hop cockney geezer’ was actually beaten to the punch 10 years previous by the likes of Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, who blended the Jamaican fast chatting style with their cockney dialects and figures of speech. A lot is owed to these pioneers. But then the 90s hit and the US Golden Era altered the UK scene dramatically.
“Stuff that came out early 90s raised the bar so high lyrically that rappers now ain’t catching it. All those Stateside guys had set such a high standard that we had to step it up, we were influenced by them. But it’s what you did with that influence which is more significant. It was pointless to be inspired by them and then learn to rap exactly like them. To us that was an easy way out.”
During the 90s, the radio was still the home of hip hop, with the likes of Tim Westwood, Max and Dave and 271 curating massively popular shows that gave Brits a taste of the States.
“I used to listen to Westwood on a Friday night proper religiously on Capital Radio. I even remember phoning in once for a rap competition and I won…just spitting bars down the phone. Back when the scene was really a scene.”
In 2015 [ed. What’s changed?] it’s easy to see Westwood as an anachronism. But behind the lanky clownishness and lack of graceful ageing is someone who has done an enormous amount for rap and hip-hop in Britain, not only in promoting UK artists, but also more generally in exposing artists from all over the world to UK ears.
“Rappers would come out to England and connect with the scene. They would go on Westwood’s show or go on 279’s show and they’d come to our events. That’s where we used to make links with them as well, so it was a really good look for us. You’d see Biggie standing outside Red Records in Brixton and no one was really fussed about it. I stood with Jay Z in Subterania (now Neighbourhood) in Ladbroke Grove watching Big L or OC. The scene felt really organic.”
Tony paints a picture of the scene in the 90s as a cohesive movement. Gigs were gathering spots where connections would be made, collaborations organised and creativity displayed.
“Back in 1999 Eminem performed his first UK show at Subterania. Skinnyman got up on stage at the end where there was an open mic and he was freestyling and killing it [ed. you need to check this video below]. He took Eminem apart! Back then you would go to an event and everyone would be there. You might not have been the same crew, but you knew each other.”
“The scene now is so splintered. There’s a lot of snobbery.”
I latched on to this point because from where I’m sitting, rap in the UK is pretty darn healthy at the moment, with copious amount of cross-pollination going on, so I asked Twang to explain further…
“We had Generation X and then Generation Y. This is generation Follow. The scene is virtual. I’m not stressed over it as such, that’s just how I see it. But you know what? I might just be old.”
Whether this is true or not, there is one striking difference between the contemporary scene in the States and the crop of new school UK rappers, something that Blak Twang sees as coming from a disconnect with our own history.
“Why is it they try to erase the history? No one wants to document what’s been done in the past. People are talking about UK hip hop as if it’s a new thing. It’s not. It’s been around as long as America has been doing it. The difference is that the young 18 year old rappers that are coming out of America right now know Big Daddy Kane, they know Public Enemy, they know Rakim and so on. But then you ask an 18 year-old over here ‘Who’s Hijack?’ or ‘Who’s MC D?’… They’ve got no clue.”
Perhaps it’s because UK hip hop is less experienced and in certain ways, emotionally younger than its US brother. While so many of the UK pioneers remained relatively low-key, Golden Era US hip hop exploded as the young white moneyed demographic bought into it wholeheartedly, something that is only beginning to happen for home-grown artists in the UK now.
At the same time, the mid 90s UK music scene was exploding with all kinds of upstart underground music, jungle to garage to trip hop to house. All of which drew on hip hop in some form, be it in method, mentality or style. Maybe there was just far too much going on for just one approach to dominate, for one set to be remembered completely.
“I think not enough DJs and people who know about what we’ve achieved over here were really enthused about it, so they never really speak about it. It’s almost like being told ‘Alright your times done now, move on.’ Whereas everyone remembers Spandau Ballet…”
Listening to Dettwork SouthEast is like opening up a time capsule and realising that things were not all that different back then. The album still feels fresh, clean and forward thinking; a pretty impressive claim for a piece of work recorded 20 years ago. “Things ain’t really changed that much but at the same time all the references I’m making are from way back and make the older ones go ‘Ah yeah, I remember that Lunn Polly advert’. I love that it does that.”
“Not too many people in the UK scene I came up on have had such a long career, and I think that came from me making a conscious decision to say I’m not gonna be one of the pack.”
So through all this, how does Tony Rotton feel about being thought of as a godfather of the British rap game?
“Yeah everyone says that, but I’m like never! No way would I consider myself a godfather or pioneer. They call me a pioneer, which is cool and I was glad to take the blueprint laid out for me by others and build on it in a new way. But honestly, people like Derek B and Rodney P and Demon Boys, Outlaw Posse, Hijack… so many acts deserve that title more than me.”
This is not a story of faded glory, rather, it’s one of faded memory. Blak Twang is still one of the UK’s premier wordsmiths and music makers and I doubt he would ever think about quitting. His new project Blakzilla Rottonostra drops in April and it’s expected to be every bit as progressive and forward thinking as the man himself.
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“Keep it hardcore, keep it underground, keep supporting the homegrown.”