Systems Overload: Britcore and the UK underground
In a hailstorm of sped-up breakbeats, wild stabs and rabid cuts, Britcore blasted out of the UK underground in the late 1980s to present a fearless, DIY flip on the burgeoning hip hop tradition. Something so energetic was fated to burn bright and burn quickly, and its place in UK music culture has been largely overlooked outside of a fiercely devoted fanbase. But in the specific cultural stew of its time and place, a small crop of producers, MCs and DJs soaked up the horizon-expanding revelations of US rap and, through accident, ingenuity and fearlessness, stepped up with a genuinely unique proposition.
The ‘80s saw hip hop culture expand rapidly, and all aspects of it caught on in the UK, from graffiti and breakdancing to turntablism and tracksuits. As a musical genre, UK hip hop has always fought against comparisons with the monolithic scenes in the States. Over the decades, invention and individuality has marked out the best Britain has had to offer – the likes of Roots Manuva and the late, great Ty – but more recently grime and drill have dominated as the street-level styles of choice for MCs wanting to express themselves. Britcore may have begun as a direct response to American hip hop, but it quickly became its own thing, defined by originators and expanded by imitators, scattering surprise pockets of influence in its wake.
The first seeds
It’s hard to talk about the first consolidated wave of UK hip hop records without mentioning Music Of Life, the label founded by Simon Harris which released some of the most significant early rap singles and albums in 1987 from the likes of Derek B and MC Duke. Hip hop was already well entrenched across the UK – early electro adopters like Dizzi Heights, Newtrament and Broken Glass represented the underground, while the landmark ‘Buffalo Gals’ by Malcolm McLaren beamed all aspects of the culture right into the mainstream. A lot of the key developments were happening at jams like Spats and elsewhere around the so-called Covent Garden scene in London, a notorious proving ground for the first DJs to take on beat juggling and scratching. DJ Fingers, DJ Pogo and Cosmic Jam were amongst the most prominent deck technicians in those formative years, while in West London a vibrant scene sprang up around Ladbroke Grove. Dave Pearce, Mike Allen and Tim Westwood’s radio shows were airing hip hop to nationwide audiences. Up in Manchester, Ruthless Rap Assassins were being produced by Greg Wilson to considerable success, but across the UK the emphasis was still very much on American hip hop in terms of style and sound. The landmark UK Fresh ’86 event at Wembley Arena saw the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Mantronix performing to an 8,000-strong crowd, but there was only one UK crew on the line-up, The Family Quest.
However, the cultural context in Britain for the kids tuning in to this emergent, primarily black youth movement was vastly different from that in the US. As the sons and daughters of the Windrush generation, they were growing up in Caribbean households and communities, where soundsystem culture had already been imported and embedded into inner city life. A steady soundtrack comprised of ska, rocksteady and the output of major soundsystem crews complemented the synth pop, boogie, soul and funk being played on the radio. The influence of this uniquely British context was evident in the signing of Asher D & Daddy Freddy’s ‘Raggamuffin Hip Hop’, on Music Of Life in 1987. It was a record that firmly stepped away from straight-up mimicry of US rap music, presenting something that could only have come from the melting pot of cultural codes that made up Black Britain.
DJ Devastate and Demon Boyz
“Growing up in the ‘70s, my earliest recollection of music was the things I heard my parents playing,” says Gary Bramble, better known as DJ Devastate. “My parents are from Montserrat, so they came over during the Windrush period. My dad was a collector of records, and he was into Sir Coxsone Dodd and Studio One. As time went on myself and my brother Brian B got into dub music. It just resonated with us. Lots of echoed-out vocals, heavy drums and heavy bass, and we gravitated towards it.”
Devastate’s older brother started a soundsystem called Twilight Soul Sound around 1985, and, typically for the era, they mixed up soul, boogie, funk, disco, and reggae. Devastate benefitted from his exposure to older peers and quickly took up DJing himself. DJ Fingers lived just a few streets away, and Devastate would go with him to Spats on a Saturday afternoon and watch one of the UK’s pioneering hip hop DJs working the decks. After the session finished they’d head to Groove Records in Soho, and Fingers would show him how to search for breaks, a cornerstone of hip hop DJ culture.
While he was starting to engage with hip hop at home, it was a life-changing trip to New York in 1985 that sealed the deal for Devastate. Spending six weeks living in Brooklyn with his cousin, they took soundsystem tapes from London crews like Saxon and Champion Sound with them, but came back with records from the likes of Doug E. Fresh and Cutmaster D.C. He witnessed block parties in full flow and heard hip hop pumping out of boom boxes and car stereos in the streets where the sound was originating.
Photo by Normski Photography
“That trip gave me an understanding of hip hop culture, hip hop style and hip hop music,” said Devastate, “and by then I was a DJ so I was very conscious of wanting to play hip hop in blues dances. As a soundsystem then we would mix hip hop instrumentals with some soul tracks, which gave us an edge because where we lived, in Tottenham, there weren’t a lot of soundsystems that could mix to the standard that myself, Brian and DJ Fingers could, so I suppose we were quite advanced, and I had this new-found hip hop DNA in me which helped too.”
Being older and more experienced in the sonic technology of soundsystems, Brian B taught the rest of the crew how to analyse different aspects of music production in the tracks they were playing. It was a natural progression to move on to experimenting with their own beats, dabbling with the Roland TR-505 drum machine, the Yamaha DX7 synthesiser and Devastate’s fast-developing cutting and beat-juggling skills. The one thing they were lacking was MCs, and as the younger member of the crew it was down to Devastate to seek out some talent. At one of Dave Pearce’s hip hop jams at Camden Palace, he caught Demon D and Mike J performing as Demon Boyz. As it happened, Mike J was also from Tottenham, and Devastate collared them after their performance and invited them to his flat to hear him DJ.
“I said, ‘I’m better than your DJ,’” recalls Devastate. “I was very confident. When they came round, I jumped on the decks and started cutting up breaks and doing all these flashy scratch patterns, and they couldn’t believe it. They was like, ‘OK yeah, we should get rid of our other DJ! You’re in the group!’”
Off the back of their appearance at Camden Palace in late ‘86, Demon Boyz had been offered a spot on an upcoming, now seminal, UK hip hop compilation on Music Of Life called Hard As Hell! Devastate, Demon D and Mike J went straight into a period of intensive practice, jamming in Devastate’s bedroom, preparing them for when they would first hit the studio.
DJ Supreme and Hijack
While Demon Boyz were making their first moves in North London, down South in Brixton there was another crew taking shape that would help define the Britcore sound. Much like Devastate, Fahro Aman, aka DJ Supreme, grew up in a Jamaican household surrounded by reggae, dub, rocksteady and eventually lovers rock, as well as taking in American and British music on the radio.
“When hip hop came around with Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gals’ record, I was a soundboy, going to Champion Sound, Saxon and Small Axe,” Supreme tells me over the phone from his current home in Zurich. “I grew up into disco, pop music, Bowie, all kinds of stuff, and at some point I made a mental choice that I was looking for something outside of soundsystems. When I saw the video to ‘Buffalo Gals’ on Top Of The Pops, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As I was watching it, I knew instantaneously, ‘this is what I want to do.’ So, just like that overnight, I was no longer a soundboy. I was a hip hop head.”
While previously something of a hermit, Supreme started to connect with older kids on his estate who had been buying Sugar Hill records and early electro in the years preceding ‘Buffalo Gals’, and found himself naturally drawn to the DJing aspect of hip hop culture. When he discovered US pioneer Kool Herc was Jamaican and drew the links between hip hop block parties and sound clashes in Jamaica, it all fell into place. From initially trying to mix using two stereo stack systems for turntables, he begged his mum for a dedicated deck.
“Growing up in a single parent household, from time to time money was short, but my mum spent 40 pounds on a secondhand turntable,” Supreme recalls. “It was one of those turntables where you stack the seven inches on top and it drops them down, one by one. It had a turntable on the right and bass, treble and volume on the left, and up and down faders, so it was practically like having a mixer and a turntable in one. It was a belt drive, but I was able to master it that I could actually do really good cutting, somehow.
“Later on, when I brought my first record home to show my mum it was like, ‘Okay, this comes from the 40 pound that you spent on that first turntable.’ That could have been shoes on my brother’s feet or new outfits for school, but she made the sacrifice and it paid off in the end.”
Meanwhile, he’d been shown cutting, juggling and scratching up close by his schoolmate and soon-to-be-Covent Garden scene lynchpin Cosmic Jam around 1984. However, Supreme said his introverted nature didn’t gel well with Cosmic Jam’s upfront “street guy” demeanour, so he took his own, more insular path into learning the craft of DJing. By the time he was in college he was seeing future London Posse MCs Bionic and Mellow breaking and popping in Covent Garden, and he was appreciating the graffiti work of The Chrome Angelz and others, all the while developing his skills as a DJ, but it wasn’t until around 1987 he decided it was time to form a crew.
“I started hearing about all these other crews,” Supreme explains. “I started hearing people like Derek B, MC Einstein, MC Duke, Cookie Crew and London Posse, and they were all making records. I didn’t see the record aspect of it. I just saw them as crews. Cosmic [Jam] was with DJ Pogo and DJ Bizniss. They had their crew. My thinking was soundsystems, the grassroots way of Kool Herc, Jam Master Jay, Chuck Chillout and [Afrika] Bambaattaa. Get your turntables out, go and do parties, house parties, parks, that kind of thing. Not making music and record labels. I wasn’t thinking industry stuff.”
Supreme’s vision was three DJs rocking six turntables, pushing the limits of what the medium could be. His introverted nature made it hard to track down people who shared his vision, but through the local elders who had initially loaned him records and imparted knowledge, he put the word out and DJs started coming to his place to battle, unbeknownst to them as an audition for his turntablist crew. Eventually two school friends brought Kamanchi Sly to Supreme’s attention, although at the time he went by the name MC Ron.
“I said, ‘You’re MC Ron? You’re not a DJ then, are you?’ He goes, ‘Nah, I can DJ. He could DJ but it was very basic. He was definitely more of an MC. Then he spat some rhymes, but I wasn’t paying attention. I just put it nice to him and said, ‘Yeah, I really want one hundred percent DJs.’ And when he saw what I could do, he knew I was serious. Then he said, ‘I know a guy I can bring round,’ and that’s how he was able to maintain the connection with me, otherwise that would have been the first and the last time I would have seen MC Ron.”
Sly returned a few weeks later with a friend who introduced himself as DJ Undercover. Supreme had heard the name before through mixtapes aired on Tim Westwood’s radio show. When Undercover took to the decks, Supreme was instantly impressed and they proceeded to trade cuts and mixes back and forth for hours, forming the first element of Supreme’s vision for a DJ-oriented crew. Sly however argued they needed a mic man to explain what they were doing, and Supreme relented, creating a formation that began as Turntable Trixters, but would go on to become one of the foremost early UK hip hop groups, Hijack.
The three honed their trade and built up a reputation by dragging their records to house parties and shebeens, until a fateful showdown during a Westwood-hosted rap battle in White City. Sly won against the odds, throwing the £50 prize money into the crowd and instantly putting the up and coming crew on the map. The next day Derek B lined up a meeting for them at Music Of Life.
Photo by Normski Photography
UK hip hop breaking out
1987 was a breakout year for UK hip hop. As well as Demon Boyz and Hijack finding their feet, there were other key acts in London helping shape out a veritable scene. Pioneering female crews The Cookie Crew and She Rockers stood shoulder to shoulder with London Posse and Manchester’s Ruthless Rap Assassins. Within 12 months the floodgates were opened and the likes of Overlord X, The Sindecut, Monie Love and Kiss AMC were building names for themselves as hip hop culture continued to gather momentum and touch on mainstream acceptance, not least with The Cookie Crew’s link-up with The Beatmasters for chart-friendly hip house cut ‘Rok Da House’.
Outside the major urban centres, the culture was also finding a footing for kids enthralled by the revolutionary sounds they were picking up on the radio and in magazines. As a prefab town supplanted into the Buckinghamshire countryside in the 1960s, Milton Keynes is not widely recognised for its cultural contributions to the UK, but a closer look at the murmurings in the musical underground yield some surprises. Amongst them are The Criminal Minds, a crew of hungry hip hop heads who came to define the ragged punk energy of Britcore by simply making the music they were able to with the means at their disposal.
“The Criminal Minds was originally a graffiti crew prior to being musicalised,” says Ian Allen, aka Spatts. He’d connected with MC Iceski, scratch DJ Halo and graff writer Chase One at Milton Keynes college, finding common ground in their love of hip hop culture. “We got together and started messing around with stuff. Around ‘89 we took our first record on DAT tape to Eddie Richards, who had a studio in Bletchley. He’d already released some hip hop stuff from The Sindecut. We thought, ‘we’re from the same town, Eddie Richards has released hip hop, he’s bound to want to release this,’ but he hated it. We left the studio crushed, basically. But from that moment we decided, ‘Right, we’re going to do this ourselves.’”
Despite the initial setbacks, they pressed their first record, and although it was slow to sell initially, over time it would become a cult classic now highly sought after in the Britcore scene. With its frenetic breaks, dramatic film theme samples and raging lyrics, it captured the unique energy that defined this British twist on hip hop. However, their outlook was distinctly different to that of crews like Demon Boyz and Hijack. They were a multicultural crew, but their background was far removed from the inner city Black communities much UK hip hop sprung from.
“There was two different types of people who were getting into hip hop in the early days in this country,” says Spatts. “You’ve got your people in the metropolitan areas, like London, Birmingham and Bristol, who were coming from a much more urban background, that were experiencing it firsthand, in a way that wasn’t too dissimilar to the way they were doing the same thing in New York. But then there was the other type of people getting into it from the suburbs, from like places like Milton Keynes, and we were isolated from everything else. So our experience was listening to Mike Allen’s show on Capital Radio on a Friday night, and on the Saturday, jumping on the train to London to get the tunes we’d heard.”
The next steps
When it came to recording their music, Demon Boyz and Hijack approached the studio from very different angles. With Brian B overseeing them, Demon Boyz went in with a focused idea of what they wanted to achieve, inspired by the heavyweight sound of Marley Marl and the Cold Chillin’ stable. They considered the sonic impact of their music paramount, and focused on lean arrangements to allow space in the mix for the bass to be prominent – a clear echo of their dub soundsystem heritage. For Hijack, the emphasis was on energy, with breakneck flurries of cuts and samples from Supreme and Undercover vying for attention in the mix with Sly’s flow.
Breaking through in 1988, Demon Boyz turned heads with their first 12”s, Northside and Vibes, while Hijack announced their official arrival with Style Wars and Hold No Hostage / Doomsday Of Rap. What was noticeable about this new wave of UK hip hop was the tempo, which was steadily increasing. Supreme admits when he first started to work on beats for Hijack, he struggled to reach the quality and sound of the US acts he looked up to, and soon realised he needed to forge his own style.
“It was more or less a conscious decision I made,” he says. “’How do I put my stamp on this thing? I don’t have the Black American experience.’ One day I went in my stepdad’s record collection and pulled out KC & The Sunshine Band and sampled it. And for some reason, I just liked the fact that when I pressed it on the higher octaves of the keyboard and it would play really fast, it sounded much better to me than when playing it slow, as a US producer would probably play it. I was feeling it playing at 120, 122 BPM. I said to myself, ‘I like this vibe. People might not say it sounds like hip hop, but I don’t actually care. I’m trying to make hip hop. But maybe this is just my slant on it.”
Hijack’s first single ‘Style Wars’ actually rolled slower than the ideas Supreme was cooking up at home, but the intensity in the music was seen by Devastate as a gauntlet to stir up some friendly rivalry between the label-mates, pushing the music towards a more unique, fast-paced paradigm.
“People might put ‘Vibes’ in the Britcore category because of the BPMs and Mike’s fast rapping,” Devastate muses. “After that tune came out I personally noticed a lot of tunes that tried to take that route. People started trying to get those rolling, kinda hectic drums, and then there was MCs trying to rap fast like Michael doing the tongue roll thing. I don’t think anybody had heard an English MC rap before that record. He maybe had a bit of an American twang, but he sounded English and then he went into the Jamaican thing. Everything we had learnt or been influenced by was put into that track because to be honest with you, we were battling. When I heard the cuts and production on ‘Style Wars’ I weren’t happy. I thought, ‘These guys are blowing me away man.’ Before Hijack came along, Demon Boyz were the top boys of [Music Of Life], and they took a bit of the shine! It was healthy man. It was a battle mentality. The cuts on ‘Vibes’, I’m scratching out ‘hoo ha’ from Public Enemy but every single chorus is a different scratch pattern, and that was sent for DJ Supreme and DJ Undercover.”
While he had been co-erced into working at a slower tempo for ‘Style Wars’, Supreme was able to develop his concept of faster hip hop for the follow-up, ‘Hold No Hostage’, having got hold of upgraded studio equipment off the back of an advance from Music Of Life. When his uptempo sketches were ready, he invited Kamanchi Sly and Undercover round to see what they thought about a new potential direction for Hijack.
“I said, ‘Listen to this. I don’t know if you can call it hip hop, but I think this is really good stuff,’” Supreme recalls. “I was expecting it to get shot down. So I played it to Undercover and Sly, and all I remember is there was silence. And then Undercover said, ‘Yeah, I like this. Let’s run with this.’ It sounded different. The only thing comparable was probably Public Enemy speed-wise, but our energy and the way it was strung together was different. So we put the whole thing in the four-track and went into the studio, but the problem we had now was mixing down so many noisy elements and trying to get clarity. To me, sonically, I don’t think any of our tracks sounded really, really good. We had good stereo field, but when it came to bass, I think it was missing. I was always comparing it to everything else, especially Demon Boyz records. Their records sounded meaty. I didn’t understand that Demon Boyz weren’t packing out their tracks with 15 samples all coming in at different times. Our production was so different and new that we didn’t really know how to deal with it. If I compare it to any other genre that came later it was the junglist stuff, the early Prodigy tracks, but their mixes sounded really good. I wish I had those engineers when we were doing our tracks back in the day.”
Photo by Normski Photography
It wouldn’t be until later that the genre tag would be coined, reportedly by German journalist Ralf Kotthoff, but in the wake of the success of Demon Boyz and Hijack came a wave of acts exploring the Britcore approach to hip hop. UK hip hop stalwart Blade was releasing records from 1989 and Silver Bullet’s debut single ‘Bring Forth The Guillotine’ wore its inspiration on its sleeve, while the Kold Sweat label launched in 1990 and brought forth a huge new wave of British hip hop acts including Katch 22. MC Mell’o had a distinct Britcore flavour to his debut single ‘Comin’ Correct’ before heading in a smoother, more conscious direction. East London crew Gunshot also emerged around 1990, quickly becoming one of the leading lights of this distinctive UK slant on the hip hop tradition.
“Myself, Alkaline, White Child Rix and Q-Roc started off as friends at school,” says Gunshot’s Tony Franklin, aka MC Mercury. “The Gunshot thing came into existence because we all had a mutual love of hip hop, and we were into Demon Boyz and Hijack which were pretty crucial to the emerging British hip hop scene, so we wanted to emulate them to a certain extent. We just wanted to make songs so that we could go on the road.
“We saw so many US hip hop acts whose performances would let you down, so we made sure we gave a good account of ourselves onstage. We toured all over the UK, and we did most of Europe. Germany is a very important country for Britcore. They took it to their hearts perhaps even more so than the UK. Britcore does have some negative connotations because it’s seen as rough round the edges, so it didn’t necessarily satisfy everyone’s ears, but in Germany they absolutely loved it.”
Gunshot and Hijack toured together, each committed to outdoing the other in terms of stage show and spectacle. Along with the acerbic lyrics, which tended towards apocalyptic imagery and talk of “World War Three” alongside more grounded social commentary, there was a common paramilitary aesthetic with these groups which could be seen on their covers as well as in their performances. Rather than tap into the kind of gangster grittiness being espoused by the likes of NWA stateside, this was a theatrical, gas-masked shock tactic rather than a grim portrayal of the group’s realities.
“We did a tour together with Gunshot and we were competing, track for track, every night,” says Supreme. “From supporting Public Enemy, we learned very quickly that performance was everything if you want to leave a lasting memory. We took our image and created a show around that, even down to people getting ‘shot’ on stage. Kidnappings on stage! Theatrics. We wore shirts with bullet holes in with blood coming out, resurrecting the MC from the dead. Ice-T, who supported us from very early on, helped us get the whole image going and create a story on stage. When we’d come to a town the second time round, people were coming dressed in black polo necks with balaclavas on, with gas masks on and everything. The whole front row would be kitted out in paramilitary!”
Around the Ladbroke Grove / North West London scene, crews like The Powerlords, Two Times Def and Construction joined forces as the Power Pack collective. Construction actually featured legendary sublow and grime pioneer Jon E Cash amongst their ranks. Having cut his teeth as a graffiti artist at the age of 13 (he contributed to a fabled, sprawling wall at Trellick Towers), he and his friends moved into hip hop and dropped a run of 12”s on Sure Delight between 1990 and 1991.
“When we was going into the studio Hijack was coming out,” recalls Cash. ”This is the same era when Hijack was making the album Horns of Jericho. A lot of our influences was Ultramagnetics., That was our kinda style, space age deep. Everyone had their different territory, everyone had different styles. You could tell if they were from West London by the way they dressed. We had a DJ called Bunny Bread, and everyone remembers him, because he used to throw bread out at the end of the show.”
Supplied by MC Mercury
While they often worked at the faster tempos Britcore had set out, Construction weren’t confined to one style on their brief run of releases. In the end though, Cash cites disillusionment with the UK hip hop industry as the reason they called time on the project, when he then ventured into garage before making his own indelible mark on UK music culture.
“UK hip hop was good but there was no DJs pushing the music,” Cash explains. “We had Tim Westwood, but I used to get pissed at him because he wasn’t supporting no UK rap. He might play like five minutes of UK rap on his show. He’d play one tune here or there. That was it. So we put 12 inches out, but I was like, ‘How can you have a whole scene built upon one DJ?’ I was always vexed about that.”
Another seminal group from the second wave of Britcore acts was Hardnoise, who dropped just two singles on Music Of Life between 1990 and 1991 before splintering into different factions including Son Of Noise. Their ‘Untitled’ track remains a totem of the Britcore style, riding rampant Apache breaks and schizoid cuts that held as much potency as an instrumental as the full vocal mix. The fact these uptempo releases, much like the early Hijack and Demon Boyz 12”s, carried instrumentals made them compatible with other scenes beyond hip hop as electronic music and DJ culture expanded exponentially through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Most significantly in the UK, the actively bubbling melting pot of sounds and styles around the acid house scene was, by 1990, expanding to encompass the more breakbeat-rooted sound of hardcore.
Ice T with Hijack
Photo by DJ Supreme
The rave connection
As the mish mash of Chicago acid tracks, Detroit techno, Belgian new beat and plenty more pinged off each other in the loosely-defined parameters of the nascent UK rave scene, it wasn’t uncommon for Britcore tracks to find their way into DJ sets thanks to their similar tempos. Many of the DJs would have grown up through the ‘80s on a steady diet of Street Sounds Electro compilations and hip hop radio shows, so the appeal of a strong, danceable breakbeat track seems obvious in that context.
For the most part, the key protagonists in Britcore were somewhat purist in their outlook, aware of the rave scene’s growth but firmly focused on their own hip hop endeavours.
“I had mates in the rave scene,” says Devastate. “I knew that, for example, some of them were sampling breaks, but there’s a hip hop purist that came out of me back then. I couldn’t get my head around the fact these guys were sampling actual hip hop beats producers had programmed. I was like, ‘That ain’t it man. You guys need to be sampling actual breaks! Not a loop Marley Marl or whoever has done!’ So maybe there’s a part of me that didn’t take it seriously… When I started to really appreciate and understand, and even go to the raves myself, was when it turned into jungle, because musically it was more relatable. These guys were doing things with breakbeats that I could never even dream of doing. I was blown away with the level of creativity in what they did with that Amen break.”
It would be possible to over-stress the idea that Britcore’s producers were essentially setting a blueprint for hardcore by speeding up funk breaks, some years before the likes of Lennie De Ice’s ‘We Are I.E.’ and other such foundational breakbeat and jungle tracks. Hip hop and acid house were relatively independent scenes with different crowds and musical aims. But they weren’t islands, and there were some vital points at which they crossed over in the open-ended years before genres became more strictly defined. It’s no coincidence that The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett was previously in a hip hop outfit named Cut 2 Kill before he found success with rave productions – the very first sample heard on Experience is a sample of Kamanchi Sly shouting out Hijack’s debut album The Horns Of Jericho on ‘The Badman Is Robbin’.
MC Duke and his DJ Leader 1 were quick to pick up on the hardcore and jungle revolution, releasing a string of 12″s under various aliases as the ’90s took hold, from Konspiracy and Double H Productions to e.kude and I.C.3. Their tracks appeared on labels as seminal as Shut Up & Dance and Boogie Times, right at the flash point of the hardcore scene.
Veteran jungle producer Paradox, aka Dev Pandya, was amongst the cluster of breakthrough breakbeat producers at the turn of the ‘90s who found sonic bounty in Britcore on their ravenous search for sample sources.
“The Britcore of 1989 and the early ‘90s was hugely influential on UK hardcore and jungle because of their breakbeats,” Paradox explains. “As bedroom producers we were all looking for tough breakbeats to lift from vinyls of UK artists such as Hardnoise, Blade, MC Duke, Demon Boyz and Hijack.
“The pitched-up hip hop instrumentals were goldmines to everyone making jungle. A prime example is Geneside II’s 1991 ragga vocal anthem ‘Narra Mine’ which sampled Hardnoise’s layered Vibrettes and Meters loops in ‘Mice in the Presence of the Lion’. These breaks were available from funk and soul compilations, but the grit of the Britcore era was unmistakable and fuelled many jungle labels’ appetite.”
Hip house was already an established crossover in the late ‘80s, although this tended towards a more literal mixture of MCs rapping over punchy drum machine grooves. Amongst the early adopters of hip-hop-style, sample-rooted production with rave-oriented musical structures were Jazzy Jason and Dazzle D, who first emerged in ’88 as The Dynamic Guv’nors with raps, scratches and cuts over gnarly acid beats. Their rough and ready style continued to blur the lines between hip hop and acid house when they formed The Blapps Posse in 1990 with Aston Harvey. One of their biggest tracks, ‘Don’t Hold Back’ came in MC and instrumental versions but was most certainly geared towards sweaty dancefloors rather than hip hop jams. Blapps member Aston Harvey, who would later form Freestylers, remembers odd album cuts from the likes of Big Daddy Kane and Lakim Shabazz pointing to uptempo ‘club’ hip hop in the US early on, as well as the likes of Cookie Crew, She Rockers and Hijack in the UK getting spun at raves, before the crossover became more literal.
“I grew up on a diet of hip hop and b-boy electro,” says Harvey, “and then around ‘85, ’86, the house sound of Chicago was coming through. Acid house, dub reggae, it was just a fusion of all these styles of music that led us as Blapps Posse to go the direction we did.
“Although we weren’t seen as a hip hop act, ‘Do What You Want’ was totally rooted in hip hop, with four MCs, the way we looped up the beats and sampled. Back in the day nothing was pigeon holed, and I think our music was being played more by the early rave DJs because with raving you could play lots of different tempos. You’d play a hip hop tune and then you’d play a Belgian beat or acid house tune, it didn’t really matter, so that’s the direction we were going. We weren’t seen by the purist UK hip hop heads as a hip hop act, but we went into a much bigger market which was the early rave scene, and those DJs embraced our music on a wider scale.”
In 1991, ‘Don’t Hold Back’ was picked up and given a new mix to herald the first release on Tribal Bass, a new label from Michael West, aka Rebel MC. West had started out with Double Trouble in the ‘80s, getting into the charts with the crossover rap track ‘Street Tuff’ before making a pointed turn towards his Jamaican roots and a more conscious style of hip hop with the Black Meaning Good album in 1991. With his fusion of radical lyrics, dub basslines, dancehall toasters, club music tropes and breakbeats, West laid one of the crucial cornerstones for the emerging hardcore and jungle sound before going on to adopt the junglist moniker Congo Natty, converting to Rastafarianism and changing his name to Mikail Tafari.
While shortlived, The Blapps Posse very much echoed this transition from hip hop to hardcore in their own ragged way, but Tribal Bass also had more literal links to the Britcore scene too. Demon Boyz had gone on to successfully record and release the landmark UK hip hop LP Recognition in 1989, with production credited to Brian B’s crew Twilight Firm, but shortly after the release Devastate parted ways with Demon D and Mike J. The MCs continued Demon Boyz for a second album produced by DJ Pogo and released on Tribal Bass. Original Guidance: The Second Chapter came out in 1992, and while it lacked the cohesion and focus of Recognition, it did feature some interesting moments of crossover with the emergent jungle scene. Rebel MC came on board to produce the track ‘Junglist’, which made no secret of its musical intentions while the genre was just barely taking shape. The ‘Armshouse Dubstramental Mix’ of the track is jungle through and through, but it’s also worth noting this new context for Mike J and Demon D found them drawing on their Jamaican roots in the vocal delivery more than ever as they essentially detailed the definition of “the jungle ragga sound”. The other single from the LP, ‘Dett’, was an equally potent crossover that found Rebel MC exercising his breakbeat visions in the context of the final Demon Boyz record.
The Criminal Minds were also in tune with the progressions taking place within the rave scene. Having released their first two hip hop records Guilty As Charged and Tales From The Wasteland in 1992, they turned their hand to hardcore productions – most significantly the huge ‘Baptized By Dub’ which was the first release on key hardcore-jungle label White House Records.
“Picci from World Beat Records in Wolverton suggested we try our hand at making something he and his mates could DJ,” says Spatts. “I was quite intrigued by the whole idea. It meant making tunes without the rest of the boys, so there was no MCs, but we still retained Halo doing all the scratching. We’d ended up with uptempo breakbeat with hip hop samples and scratches, because that’s the only way we could have done it. We were doing everything we would normally do when working on hip hop, but ditched the vocal, changed the tempo and that that was our style.”
Spatts and Halo dropped some surefooted, now highly sought after breakbeat, hardcore and jungle tracks in the ensuing years, and The Criminal Minds inevitably dissolved as the MCs became sidelined by the new direction the music had taken. Spatts went on to work with Zed Bias on the garage-oriented E.S. Dubs project, and had a brush with the big time with his Environmental Science group. He also revived his love of UK hip hop and Britcore later on with a series of events that reached out to some of the leaders of the scene in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“I put on a night on about five or six years ago called Hip Hop Owes Me Money,” says Spatts. “I had most of them up – MC Duke, Son Of Noise – playing in one form or another. Some of them said, ‘Really? You want me to come and play? I’m kind of retired.’ And some of them came up and blew everyone’s mind at how fucking much they still had it.”
Not so much a case of direct influence, Britcore’s relationship with hardcore and jungle is more of a happenstance crossover where styles were fluid and experimentation was rife. Such correlations were inevitable when bedroom DJs and producers were dabbling with sampling and riding high on youthful energy and vibrant new subcultures, and the scenes were certainly not mutually exclusive. There are those in the jungle scene who still credit groups like Demon Boyz and Hijack with providing early inspiration.
“I know a few of the jungle producers that had records out at that time,” says Devastate, “and a lot of them will say, ‘What you guys were doing was the birth of this music here.’ People like Terry Turner [aka Knowledge & Wisdom] and Potential Bad Boy from Ibiza Records. And Carl McIntosh from Loose Ends, he said that as well.”
UK hip hop tried to legitimise itself after a fashion, slowing down to a more traditional US-friendly tempo and becoming a little smoother in execution. This shift in direction was partly what ended Hijack so abruptly after their debut album The Horns Of Jericho – Supreme states it was a creative compromise he wasn’t prepared to make. But some artists made a success of this direction – Blade, Blak Twang, Roots Manuva and Ty amongst them. But in a way, the raucous, punk energy of Britcore has more in common with grime – a raw vehicle for expression where the participants are more concerned with getting their ideas down quickly and catching the moment than striving for some benchmark style or sound. The difference, as Jon E Cash points out, is that technology put control in the hands of the people making the music and pulled apart the industry hierarchy.
“With the technology, grime was all independent,” he says. “You could finish the music off in your house and it could get played in the club straight away. With hip hop you had to go into a professional studio to finish your song off, even if you had a sampler at home. And then you were always trying to get approval of one man, whereas with grime you got approval from the public. That was the difference.”
Britcore certainly made its mark in northern continental Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland, where the style was adopted and adapted regionally. And in the 30 years that has passed, some of Britcore’s originators have been returning to their music, remastering, reissuing and reviving their seminal albums to a hungry, devoted crowd that have held the music close all this time. Supreme talks with pride about the expanded, triple-vinyl editions of The Horns Of Jericho he put out in 2015 with the help of Naked Ape Records in Germany.
There are many other stories and perspectives embedded in this uniquely energetic subculture of late 20th Century British music – not least the lyrics and the times they reflected. But musically, it has a valuable place in the evolution of sampler-powered sounds. It’s perhaps understandable Britcore has escaped more retrospective praise given its fiercely independent nature. Despite the best efforts and aspirations of its leading protagonists, very few acts made it onto a major label. Like some of the purest expressions of youth and experimentation, it was too wild for the mass market. And that’s precisely what makes it so special.
“The thing about hip hop is it gave people access to make music who perhaps otherwise wouldn’t,” says Mercury. “I’m not saying all the produce is gonna be good, but in some instances I’m not sure that’s actually the point. Maybe before there was a bit of people looking down their noses at Britcore, but I think actually you might be missing the point. It was a new subgenre in a genre which was new to the UK anyway, and we made it a bit punky, a bit rough around the edges and it even got given its own label, so looking back on it now, it’s something we should be quite proud of.”
Photo by DJ Supreme