To begin, it’s crucial to understand the history of MCs, their origin and their standing within the context of soundsystem culture. We can trace the lineage of MCing back to Jamaica, where soundsystems originated. Initially the artform was referred to as toasting, with those who held the mic at dances known as deejays. In a manner that would be considered primitive in comparison with today’s MCs, the deejays would interact with the crowd and use simple, catchy rhymes along with call and response, to accompany and embellish the music being played. In those early days, around the late ’60s and early ’70s, deejays were mostly confined to the dance hall. Later on, some of the better known deejays began to transfer their talent to vinyl and the first “deejay” records appeared. Deejays became an intrinsic part of soundsystem culture, and the discipline evolved into a variety of avenues; from the hosts who would command the stage with sheer presence and confidence, hyping the crowd with their big booming voice alone, while others became fully fledged recording artists.
Navigator, originally known as Specky Ranks in his youth with the iconic Unity Sound, witnessed the evolution of MCs from those formative years, all the way up to his own entry into the world of lyrical performance. “Essentially I come from soundsystem [culture], which was inspired by Jamaican DJs on the microphone. That’s what I listened to as a kid growing up — after listening to ska, rock steady and blue beat, which was my dad’s music,” he says. “Then the whole Studio One thing came in and then reggae, and then the dub music, and then the early rub-a-dub dancehall and then digital dancehall.”
Navi joined Unity Sound, one of the most respected soundsystems in London, in his late teens and, alongside the Ragga Twins, began to earn himself a sterling reputation. Schooled in the often harsh, unforgiving environment of soundsystem culture, he channelled all the music that he’d absorbed in his youth into his own style and earned his stripes through grafting and honing his craft.
Stateside, soundsystem culture also spawned the birth of hip hop in New York, where Jamaican-born Kool Herc set up his own sound ‘Herculords’, which laid the foundations for hip hop way back in the early ’70s.
Reggae and hip hop are the main strands of DNA that form the nucleus of contemporary MCing in the UK. Mixmag spoke to some of the nation’s most influential MCs and every single of them mentioned hip hop, reggae or dancehall as early sources of inspiration. From MC Conrad, whose earliest influences came from his father’s record collection of ska, rocksteady, bluebeat and reggae to PSG, whose brother was a scratch DJ, to Eksman, who took inspiration from the legendary nineties soundtapes that were brought over to London from Jamaica: Bass Odyssey, Stone Love, Killamanjaro, King Addies and many more. These external influences were pivotal in the development of Britain’s rave MC culture. Initially, young Brits emulated what they were hearing: UK soundsystems with their own deejays, and music selectors playing on one hand and rappers teaming up with scratch DJs on the other.
In Harlesden, West London, garage stalwart CKP was brought up on a diet of UK soundsystems, “Saxon, Coxsone, Volcano, Java, Unity soundsystem,” he explains. “The MCs that I gravitated to were the ones that got the crowd hype and ones that had lyrics — Tippa Irie, Papa Levi, Rusty, Daddy Sandy, Demon Rockers, Flinty Badman, Navigator… guys who were on a soundman ting.”
These names, and several others up and down the country, built the foundations of modern day MCing, and several of these pioneers were right there at the birth of jungle.
Jungle sparked the emergence of Britain’s first wave of MCs that adhere to the archetype we are all now familiar with. Throughout the early days of acid house and rave there were people who hosted and, in the tradition of toasting, used simple rhymes (“Sweet like the sugar, hot like the pepper”) and/or used call and response (“Who says rewind?!”). Likewise, you could hear acts like The Ragga Twins working with Shut Up And Dance and numerous other MCs, chatting and rapping on dance tracks. In the world of hip hop, several keys acts emerged in the mid to late eighties who helped establish the UK’s take on America’s MC culture; among them London Posse, MC Duke and Derek B (RIP). However, it was the birth of jungle that was the main catalyst behind the evolution of the art of homegrown British MCing and created bona fide personalities in the process. “Before garage I wanted to be a jungle MC,” says Mighty Moe of Heartless Crew. “I was really impressed by the big voices: MC Det, Stevie Hyper D… Shockin was a great MC, he was very versatile.”
Jungle had a huge impact due to its uniquely British sound. It was the first time the UK had a electronic genre truly of its own, with MCs spitting bars that merged local vernacular and patois spliced with street slang and hints of US hip hop — a hybrid of influences, just like the music itself, that reflected the inner city environment it sprang from. “That’s why jungle and garage were so impactful – it was very British and people felt like it was their own thing,” says Mighty Moe. “It was an original thing that came out of the cultural mashup over here.”
Jungle was a natural bridge between the influence of Jamaica’s trailblazing diaspora, both in the UK and the US, and European innovation. Once those reggae basslines and samples made their way into the music it began to really resonate with the Black community in the UK, encouraging many of those who’d initially shunned rave culture, to get fully involved. Jungle emulated Jamaica’s soundsystem template, with MCs who developed unique styles and cultivated their own fanbase; and one of the most diverse and influential was the late Stevie Hyper D.
Hyper D’s ability to ride the riddims with a broad range of styles – from double time to singing – combined with his ceaseless energy, confidence and charisma, put him up there as one of the greats. A forthcoming documentary celebrates Stevie’s life and achievements, demonstrating how intrinsic MCs are to British rave culture and documenting the timeline of soundsystems evolving into early rave. Stevie Hyper D: The Hidden Influence is produced by Jamie Ross-Hulme and written by Stevie’s nephew, Darrell Austin, who also appears in the film. “We titled it Stevie Hyper D: The Hidden Influence because he was hidden from the limelight,” says Jamie. “It was a subculture where you didn’t you didn’t see the people on TV, you only ever saw them in the rave. My drive is to highlight that period of time, and then highlight this really unique person at that specific moment. He was the last of our generation that was pre-internet.”
“When I did my first film with Navigator I realised that our culture wasn’t really being documented as it should, and being such a big fan of hip hop, I saw the same lineage going back to Jamaican culture through to Tinie Tempah and now the likes of Stormzy and all of those people,” Jamie explains. “The aesthetic of a British mic man, it’s all linked back to the same thing, which is rave culture and soundsystem culture.”
Stevie’s legacy lies within countless MCs working today, many of whom appear in the film: from So Solid Crew’s Mega Man and Lisa Maffia, through to Evil B, Bushkin and Mighty Moe, Eksman and more.
“Hearing Hyper D for the first time on Kool was the thing that made me actually reach for the mic,” says DMZ core member SGT Pokes, recounting the story of hearing Nicky Blackmarket and Stevie Hyper D’s debut show on Kool FM, way back in 1995.
Lady MC, the first woman to MC on Kool FM, also cites Hyper D as key inspiration, as well as MCs such as Deemas J, Moose and Chickaboo. “I was into lyric writing since I was 11, but in particular being an MC started from being a raver, and being obsessed with the music,” says Lady MC, who now goes by the name Indigo Reign. “I love the music, the culture, and being about to [hype up] a crowd and support the DJ.” Jungle wasn’t always the most welcoming scene to women — “I faced a lot [of obstacles]; some quite traumatic and abusive,” says Lady MC — but she became a prominent name in the scene from the mid-’90s, alongside DYER MC and Lady ST, and later MC Tali, following in the footsteps of Chickaboo who started her trailblazing career in 1992.
Their ensuing influence can be seen in the contemporary scene and the rise of the likes of Miss Melody, Y-Zer and Starz & Deeza, who formed their MC partnership after Starz joined Deeza on a radio show Lady MC was also featuring on. “I’ve always loved MCing and rap and when I discovered d‘n’b as a teenager, I fell in love with the high energy bars the MCs would drop,” says Starz. “I was influenced and inspired by Shabba D, Skibadee, Funsta and Navigator,” adds Deeza, whose first love was West Coast rap, before “drum ‘n’ bass influence made me an MC.”