Friday, 30 January 2015

The Don Maclean of the Rapping Scene

I invented rap in 1979. I was a slightly dishevelled underachiever at Shipston-on-Stour Comprehensive school, and I invented rap having found myself embroiled in beef with Gordon Everett who had slandered me in a poem read out before the entire class during the English lesson. Gordon's poem suggested that I farted quite a lot and might consequently be considered a somewhat pungent child, and it cleverly made these suggestions whilst eschewing the sort of language which would have prevented it being read out loud and therefore validated by Mrs. Jones, our English teacher. The poem was pretty funny. I recall the hysterical laughter of my class mates as Gordon painted a picture of my supposedly persistent trumping in awkward situations, and despite the humiliation, I myself laughed because it was funny.

To be fair, Gordon's poem may have been composed in retaliation to some earlier character assassination fired from my own cannon, figuratively speaking, but if so then I don't remember what it could have been. Perhaps the memory of some previous victory was eclipsed in that moment when an entire class of kids were driven to clutch their sides and roll around on the floor by the hilarity of the suggested scale of my energetic flatus.

If Gordon wanted a war, I decided, then I was down for whatever, if not by those precise terms. I wrote Gordon Everett and His Hand, which followed the same basic rhyme scheme as Captain Beaky by Keith Michell but carried a cruder, more confrontational message:

The biggest benders in this land,
Are Gordon Everett and his hand,
That's his hand, his balls and dick,
A-doing things that make you sick.
His hand it then goes up and down,
And Gordon makes the people frown.

I had just turned fourteen and had been given a tape recorder for my birthday, a mono portable with a built-in condenser microphone by which I made hissy recordings of my fluting, pre-pubescent voice. My first act with this fantastic new bit of technology had been to invent the mixtape - as they have become posthumously identified by fedora wearing tosspots. I borrowed Paul Moorman's extremely well played copy of K-Tel's Loony Tunes album and compiled two volumes of what I named Songs for the Hard of Thinking in order to have a whole ton of novelty records in one convenient and hilarious place - My Boomerang Won't Come Back, Susan Christie's I Love Onions, Transfusion by Nervus Norvus and others supplemented by the Goodies, Toast by Streetband, and some Sex Pistols - whom I considered to be pretty much cut from the same cloth because they said rude words; and naturally I drew my own cover for Songs for the Hard of Thinking. I wasn't really into music as such at that age, but I loved novelty records, and inevitably it occurred to me that I could make my own.

Soon after inventing the mixtape, I invented rapping and then sampling. I pressed play and record and flowed with the maniac lyrical of Gordon Everett and His Hand directly onto the tape, punctuating my verses with the trumpet break from the original Captain Beaky 7" by my boy Keith Michell - just pausing, then unpausing and dropping that wax right into the cut. That shit was dope.

I took the tape to school, and although that shit was perhaps a little too dope for the classroom, I made sure everyone got to hear it. I recall Gordon's face, a mixture of amusement and horror as he listened to me drop science, implicating him in acts of enthusiastic masturbation - something I myself would certainly never have done - and possibly also homosexuality, bestiality and cross-dressing. I don't remember the lyrics in their entirety and I don't have the tape to hand, but I don't recall pulling any punches. I'm pretty sure that was where 2Pac got the idea for Hit 'Em Up.

With hindsight, I find it all a bit regrettable, not so much because of the juvenile homophobia - which, in case it isn't fucking obvious, might be blamed on it being 1979 and my being fourteen years of age - but because I liked Gordon; and even though I haven't seen him since the early eighties, I still theoretically like Gordon and have no bad memories of him as a kid. Anyway, I suppose what matters is that from conflict was born innovation and enterprise, in this case my inventing both rap music and sampling - or at least scratching given how I was cutting Keith Michell's beats on a wheel of steel. Many sources will credit my developments to that guy out of the Fatback Band, or to the Sugarhill Gang, or Kool DJ Herc and his Bronx pals, but they're all lying.

Anyway, the point is that I was messing around with tape recorders at an early age. The machine upon which I'd recorded my damning indictment of Gordon's alleged love of wanking conked out after about a year and had to be replaced. Specifically the pinch roller wore down meaning that tapes were eaten as often as they were played, but the tape head still worked so I yanked it out of the casing, reattached it on a length of wire, and drew sections of magnetic tape across it by hand in order to create sound. Laurie Anderson did the same thing, mounting her tape head upon a violin body with which she would play lengths of tape suspended in a violin bow in place of the traditional strings. Emboldened by the success of my experiment I also made clunky cassette sized tape loops, and larger ones played on a 1960s reel-to-reel tape player donated by a friend of my mother. By the time I first came to hear a Throbbing Gristle record, I was already acclimatised to the notion of raw noise as music, of blocks of sound jammed together as part of a larger composition.

Around the same time I had joined the Pre-War Busconductors, roughly speaking a punk group with three of my friends from school. We improvised and recorded songs through a combination of ham-fisted instrumentation, cardboard box percussion, noises and shouting. Thematically we explored areas not dissimilar from those investigated in Gordon Everett and His Hand - songs about people we knew and whom we suspected of engaging in amusing sexual practices. At least a few of the songs featured rapping mainly because Graham had worked out how to play the bassline from Good Times. Unfortunately, although we were all familiar with Rapper's Delight, our rapping was very much the rapping of clueless white people who don't really understand rapping - the singy-songy bollocks heard on twee, light-hearted news features about rural schools who record their own charity rap single.

Mr. Thompson is always in class,
Unless he's shouting 'keep off the grass!'

Still, pitiful though our efforts were, we all liked the general idea of the form, and before I left home much of my final summer in Shipston was spent cruising around the tiny market town in Anders Longthorne's car blasting his tapes of Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and various Street Sounds label compilations whilst pretending to be American. We had outgrown the Pre-War Busconductors - just about - but I was still recording my own music as Do Easy - a name taken from a William Burroughs novel on the grounds that I'd seen some bigger boys do it and I wanted to be like them. By now I had a double cassette deck with a fancy microphone input and was able to layer sounds to create complex if slightly hissy pieces of experimental music. I made covers for my tapes and sold them mail order through the posthumously eulogised network of DIY tape folks. I didn't sell enough to make a living out of it, but enough for the operation to at least pay for itself.

Years passed and I drifted in and out of making my own music, just as I drifted in and out of bands formed with other people. By the mid-nineties I had reached a sort of crisis point. I was done with bands and with being helping hand to someone else's vision of a band. The Dovers had sort of fizzled out for no particularly good reason that I can recall. I hadn't really liked the single compact disc I'd helped record as a member of Konstruktivists, and whilst I'd enjoyed playing with UNIT - or Academy 23 as they had been when I joined - the task of remembering how to play someone else's increasingly baroque chord changes and time signatures was becoming more chore than fun, and Andy - our main man - had proposed a number of Doctor Who themed tracks, one of which was to be called Travels in the TARDIS. Deciding I would rather repeatedly slam my penis in a fridge door than be involved with such tomfoolery, I brought my guitar home and elected to concentrate on War Drum.

War Drum was the name for whatever it was I was doing during the nineties, rhythmic but mostly instrumental music produced by unorthodox means, sometimes harsh and noisy, but not industrial because I still had some measure of self-respect. War Drum was thematically fixated on Mesoamerican culture because that was my absorbing passion and it seemed like an area I could explore through the medium and at least come up with something a bit more interesting than David Tibet's milkman grunting Aleister Crowley's favourite limericks through a digital reverb with the decay set to fifteen minutes.

I was trying to make the music which I wanted to hear simply because no-one else was. I felt I had learned a great deal from the process of putting out my earlier tapes, and this time I was going to do it right. So I borrowed as much equipment as I could, and took my time playing and recording, refusing to regard anything as finished until I was absolutely confident of it being the best that could be achieved within the limitations of what technology was at my disposal. Over and over I revised that which could have been better until it was better, and if I couldn't get it working it was scrapped. I spent time on the design of the covers, and the printing of those covers, and had copies of my tapes professionally duplicated onto high quality TDK chrome cassettes at Gold Dust Studios in Bromley - which was a good and somewhat hilly hour away by Royal Mail bicycle. A great deal of work went into producing those cassettes as a quality product, as something aspiring to represent the tape cassette as a vital, democratic, and accessible medium.

Sadly not everyone took the same view. I received the occasional enthusiastic fanzine review, and shelled out for advertising in the pages of The Sound Projector, but cassettes were apparently over, and no-one cared. I could barely pay people to listen to my music. Scat Feed Fever fanzine - which seemed to loom relatively large in weirdy music circles of the time - had denounced cassettes as the unworthy fruit of those who were merely mucking about on the grounds that the true artist would blow sailors for five dollars a pop if that's what it took to press a compact disc. The editor of Scat Feed Fever - just one of many Gira-felating industrial music autograph hunters busily turning himself into Phil Collins - seemed to typify the process of an underground becoming its own orthodoxy, which was depressing.

This didn't really make much difference to my recording habits because while an audience numbered in double figures would have been nice, the music was its own reward. By the end of the century, the composition of that music had changed considerably in reflection of my own evolving tastes. I'd more or less given up on listening to rock music, bands of four blokes with guitars or grunting industrial wankers programming their way back to 1988. From where I stood, the music I had known was half-lifing into a jangly sludge of undifferentiated corporate toss. Meanwhile all I heard at work was hip-hop, rap and R&B, and that's what the people whom I liked at work generally listened to. With Oasis and the Kaiser Chiefs as the alternative, it was probably inevitable that my ear should drift in that direction.

Whilst I'd never been what you might call a hip-hop head, not by any definition, I had kept tabs on the form at least up until the advent of LL Cool J, whose career had struck me as largely pointless. I didn't mind putting my hands in the air, but it took more than was on offer to induce me to wave them in the manner of someone who just didn't care, and I was fucked if I was going to listen to some bloke reading out his bank statements over a tinny drum machine just because the record had turned up in the same section as Whodini and Public Enemy. By the time I'd taken my fingers out of my ears, rap had become huge and confusing, and it was difficult to know quite where to start so I didn't bother; but gradually and inevitably I did bother, because for the most part it was sounding pretty good on the radio at work. I picked up a couple of CDs - having finally caved in and allowed my friend Eddy to furnish me with his old compact disc player - and I liked what I heard. The music had thankfully evolved beyond whatever that tinkling sound had been on those LL Cool J records, and no-one seemed to give a shit about what all the ladies in the house were saying; and as music built from sources which themselves weren't always conventionally musical, it suddenly began to make a lot of sense. Having served the first quarter of a twenty plus year sentence in Royal Mail, I could at least appreciate the mood of the shirtier rap numbers, so I bought more and more of it, immersing myself in the form until it became obvious why it had taken me so long to get it.

Rap, I realised, is more or less its own self-contained world. It draws references from all over, but there's no point in expecting a rap record to provide a variation on that which is done by other musical forms. It is something which can only be truly appreciated on its own terms, not some pool into which toes may be dipped between Killing Joke albums. Rap is, amongst other things, about being shat upon from a great height whilst maintaining a sense of humour, or at least venting screw-faced wrath in entertaining terms. My job was my life, and it was often hellish, and MC Ren rapping about shooting as many white people as possible before the cops took him down made more sense than it probably should have done given that I myself am white. The anger was universal, and it it made Motorhead sound like flies buzzing around in a jar. This, I would suggest, is because rap speaks mostly to the individual, usually specifically to three or four mates of the bloke holding the microphone. It tends to take a personal rather than a general view, and is as such the opposite of Sting telling us all to behave. The bottom line is that if you don't get rap, then it probably wasn't speaking to you in the first place; and yet for some reason it was speaking to me.

Inevitably its influence began to emerge in my own music, although initially as a shift of emphasis rather than any radical revision of what I was already doing; at least until I went back to rapping. I had to try it, just as I'd kicked off twenty years before with Gordon Everett and His Hand - my own version of the novelty records which constituted everything in my collection not featuring Ringo Starr. My first efforts weren't much better than charity raps about Mr. Thompson telling us to stay off the grass, but they were fun to write and record, and failure only inspired me to try harder. On the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Pre-War Busconductors I commemorated the occasion with a CD single released in a limited edition of two copies, one for myself, one for Pete, the only other former Pre-War Busconductor with whom I was still in touch. I built the track from samples of our tapes and the sort of unlistenable crap that usually emerges when white people decide that it's funny to pretend to be a gangsta. In my defence, it wasn't actually much worse than most of Kid Rock's oeuvre, but that's hardly a recommendation.

The song was called 2 Deadly 4 Fame.

Of course it was.

The thrust of 2 Deadly 4 Fame was that the Pre-War Busconductors had been such a potentially revolutionary force that the authorities had found themselves obliged to ensure that we remained just a bunch of potty-mouthed school kids whom no fucker had heard of making a racket in Graham's bedroom whenever his mum and dad went to Stratford. I played the track to Nadim from work, seeing as how we spent most mornings comparing notes and he had become, by default, my rap sensei. He listened in silence, and then regarded me with genial pity, somehow finding it in himself to concede some points for my at least having a go.

'Your beat is nice,' he observed generously, and in that moment I heard the lyrics through his ears as borne of Peter Glaze wearing a backwards baseball cap on Crackerjack whilst complaining about Bernie Clifton's comedy ostrich to Don Maclean in rhyming couplets. I threw myself into the task of becoming less shite, writing and rewriting over and over until the smell was at least not quite so bad as it had been. This music was rooted in honesty, so I was fucked if I was going to let myself turn into Tim chuffing Westwood keeping it hot to death for the yoo-kay. I had a ready-made angle in that it was difficult to miss the parallels between your rap basics and the punky DIY tape aesthetic which had informed my earlier efforts; so I emphasised this with samples from old Sex Pistols or Adam & the Ants records. I had recorded 2 Deadly 4 Fame as Loc Dogg B in a general spirit of piss-poor satire, which I abbreviated to the more pragmatic LDB, roughly a variant of my initials suggesting decibels.

I bought a CD burner and began to work just that little bit harder, bouncing between four-track portastudio master tape and a CDR, playing samples by hand on my tinny Casio SK1 keyboard or a borrowed Alesis Quadraverb, cueing and dropping in tapes with the sort of split second timing I hadn't realised was possible. The music began to take shape, and my vocal began to improve to the point of becoming something I could listen to without wincing.

'You've gotta let me jump on one of your tracks, Lawrence,' Nadim told me after the latest tape I'd sent his way. I was keen. By this point I had thrown my efforts entirely behind rap, reasoning that if people preferred Current 93 and Lustmord to my previous, more abstract and atmospheric work, then that was their tough shit and they got what they deserved. The weakest aspect of my new music was my own voice. Lyrically I felt that I was okay, or not too much worse than the average, but my delivery lacked force. It wasn't convincing. If I could just get more able tonsils to talk shit over my beats...

I'd given a tape of one of my instrumentals to Bert, another guy from work who already had a successful day job producing R&B flavoured garage at his own studio. One of his tunes had received heavy rotation on Kiss FM back before the station turned into the audio equivalent of Nuts magazine. He had an incredible voice and would wander around the office singing about his own penis with the lungs of Alexander O'Neal or one of those guys. My head is small but my seed is large, he crooned in surreal fashion, then why is my top lip so big? suffixed with the bewildering locative Brixton, yeah!!! running up and down the scale with the kind of flourishes which made the aforementioned O'Neal sound like Mark E. Smith. Bert seemed impressed with my tape, having apparently assumed my musical endeavours would probably be a bit of a tuneless racket. He said he would work something out and already had a few ideas. I said I was quite keen on the big, big seed in Brixton theme and he seemed to lose interest. With hindsight, I suspect he didn't like the idea of being a performing seal on my track.

Eventually I settled on the idea of pulling together an album length CDR, simply as something on which to focus. I recorded and re-recorded the tracks over and over until they sounded right, and I even managed to get in some guest vocals from Andy Martin and members of the Ceramic Hobs with whom I shared common ground in the DIY tape thing, and who at least understood what I was trying to do. Eventually I finished a thirteen track album called May Contain Sexual Swearwords but found myself unable to burn a definitive CD master copy for numerous tedious technical reasons which inevitably arise when reliant upon faulty or borrowed equipment because, despite working a back-breaking forty hour week, I still couldn't afford decent gear; or I could have done had I been prepared to live on bread and jam for a few months so as to prove my worth to the editor of Scat Feed Fever, but I'd been down that particular aisle of Morrisons in my twenties and had no desire to return. Additionally, my day job was so physically and psychologically demanding as to require a certain degree of post-toil luxury in order to keep me from spazzing out and doing a Hungerford - real milk rather than a big weekly can of powdered, that sort of thing.

Unable to mix May Contain Sexual Swearwords, I kept on recording, honing my craft, then going back and reworking the aforementioned May Contain Sexual Swearwords as soon as it began to sound a bit rudimentary. I continued writing, working on my rhyme schemes, getting metaphors to perform double or even triple duty, how to build secondary internal rhythms into each line, and so on. The more I wrote, the more I began to appreciate just what you can do with rap. It isn't just about making stuff rhyme, because any wanker can do that. The skill of rap is in saying whatever the hell you want to say, regardless of the limitations of the most obvious available terms, bullying the language into doing exactly what you want it to do. Whatever you want to say, there is always a way to say it even when every other word has to rhyme with bicycle.

Anyway, as I waited for equipment repairs, the tracks kept coming. I put tapes together for the sake of keeping tabs on my own progress, and Nadim seemed to think I was getting somewhere. He particularly seemed to enjoy a number called Fuck the Boss.

You fucked up good. Top marks. Well done.
When you started this job we all thought you might be the one
guy we could rely on to not be a cunt,
But now you're hated by almost everyone.
Almost? Yeah okay, Joe still thinks your cool,
But the poor fucker never really was the sharpest tool
in the box. You cock! You pain in the neck!
No-one fucking likes you and you look like Shrek.

'I've got to get on one of your tracks,' Nadim told me with renewed enthusiasm.

Either I'd been asking him to drop by and record some vocals after work for most of the previous six months, or I'd only imagined myself doing so and had in reality said nothing.

'Okay,' I told him. 'Have you got any tapes?'

He had sent plenty of cassettes and CDRs my way, but mostly mixes of the Dogg Pound, Xzibit, C-Bo and others; nothing of himself. I'd begun to doubt that he had amassed much actual time on the microphone, and the claims that would suggest otherwise had been made so long ago as to make it difficult for me to recall the details.

'Come over this afternoon. We'll sort something out, yeah?'


He lived in one of the Bredinghurst flats, a peculiar architectural jumble resembling a Cubist ocean liner just off Overhill Road, the road in which Bon Scott, the singer of AC/DC, was found dead back in February, 1980. Bredinghurst was on the top of a hill and could be seen from all over East Dulwich and beyond. The story ran that the architect had committed suicide, and the flats certainly looked as though they had been conceived by someone busily in the process of losing their shit. I chained my Royal Mail bicycle to the fence at the back, overlooking Dunstans Road, and entered the labyrinth. After ten minutes of walkways leading to nowhere, I found the place by following my ears. I banged on the door for about five minutes until the music dropped a few decibels and Nadim emerged.

'Come in, man. I was listening to some music.'

'Yes. I can tell.'

I went in. He had one of those CD turntables, the first I'd ever seen. It seemed weird and futuristic and had been set up at the centre of the main room. Deafening bass rumbled through the red tiled floor, rattling large glass windows overlooking the road of much sorrow and pilgrimage for AC/DC fans all across the world - deafening bass like a truck passing and with something electronic pinging away. It sounded familiar.

'What's this?' I had to shout, mime and point.

Nadim had already slipped his headphones back on and was cueing up the next track. I had kind of expected come in, my brother followed by cups of tea and maybe even a few biccies, but that scenario was looking increasingly unlikely.

He picked up a CD case and waved it in illustration - the Goodfellas album by the 504 Boyz. I had it at home and now I realised why I hadn't played it much, because it was supposed to sound like this, not the bass-free twanging with which I was loosely familiar. I knew Goodfellas as mainly a pinging noise over which Master P suggests his listeners might like to Wobble Wobble.

A secondary, clearly unrelated noise intruded. I looked around and saw the rubberised tip of a walking cane banging against the window. We were on the fourth or maybe fifth floor, and the windows of these flats each surmounted a thin balcony with walls dividing each section from that of its neighbour. Some person living next door was out there, leaning over and reaching around to bang their walking stick against the window.

The music stopped dead.

I could hear just the tip of the cane bouncing off the glass and some tinnitus from the music. 'Maybe he wants you to turn it down a little,' I suggested helpfully.

'That fucker!' Nadim slid back the window frame and leaned out but the walking cane had already been withdrawn. He cursed and shut the window. 'One time I pulled it out of his hand and threw it.' He gestured in illustration and I imagined a walking sticking spinning into the sky, high above the grass towards Overhill Road.

'He probably thinks the music is a little bit loud.'

'Every time I play, that old cunt always starts up.' Nadim sucked at his teeth and shook his head. He hit a button on the deck and the 504 Boyz came back, still inviting us to Wobble Wobble.

I thought of my own upstairs neighbour who would stamp or drop heavy furniture in protest to the volume of a television set turned down so low that I could only follow half of the dialogue.  Nadim was a funny guy, but I was glad I wasn't his neighbour.

After about an hour I left. There had been neither tea nor biccies, just myself stood watching Nadim cue up tunes on his CD turntable until it was obvious that I've got to get on one of your tracks had been meant as a sort of figurative suggestion, a measure of approval rather than preface to anything which was going to happen in the real world.

I soldiered on, eventually accruing the material for a double CD - my second album, I suppose - and my best work, I thought. Equipment came back from being repaired and I was at last able to capture the definitive mixes and burn copies of both albums. I wasn't sure how to go about promoting any of this, but I'd paid for eighteen minutes on Godspunk, a compilation CD released by Pumf Records; and on the 21st of June, 2003 I jumped on stage with the Ceramic Hobs and performed a three minute rap at a Mad Pride event held at the Garage in Islington. I did okay. I'd rehearsed my lines over and over for weeks, and I remembered most of them, and I drew a polite round of applause as Jim MacDougall called out very swanky just in case anyone had stopped thinking about him for a minute and because he'd seen it all before.

Then nothing happened.

I had vaguely intended to build up a decent back catalogue before attempting to promote any of it, and LDB now sort of had a decent back catalogue, but nevertheless nothing happened. No-one was interested in the Pumf Records compilation, or the two that came after, and I eventually ended up leaving a huge box of my contributor copies outside Oxfam. I'd had a single enquiry as a result of my paying to put tracks on those discs, and that had been from one of the other bands. More depressing still, I didn't even particularly like the compilations. They sounded disjointed, as I suppose is inevitable given that the selection process was based on who felt like paying to be included; and the sound of my own tracks had been compressed into something I wasn't sure I really appreciated.

Equipment continued to fail, and a number of the discs I had burned degraded, becoming unplayable after about a year, a problem which I've never had with cassettes but have often found with CDRs; and I simply became fed up of paying for the repair of equipment which should have been better made in the first place, of catering to a seemingly unanimous lack of interest whilst Andy of my previous band referred to me as a gangsta rapper in the manner of an indulgent elderly uncle. I was nearly forty, and suddenly none of the effort I had put in over the years seemed to matter, or to have amounted to anything in the real world. Even had I managed to fool someone into buying my LDB tapes or compact discs or whatever, it's not like I was ever going to take to the stage with this stuff, or do anything to push it any further. That one night at the Garage had been fun, but not the sort of thing I cared to repeat.

My rap ambitions had never really been any more substantial than those of Nadim, and in 2005, faced with the prospect of having to get my borrowed portastudio - already an obsolete piece of equipment - repaired yet again, I stopped caring. I'd given up on band membership, and now I was dropping music entirely. I'd sold a few tapes over the years, but no-one had ever really cared, and I'd spent most of the time banging my head against a wall. People don't really want anything they haven't heard before, whether it be rock or rap or yet another dolt who once met David Tibet in a betting shop releasing another droning album with Crowley on the cover. People want product, something they recognise, something with a logo serving to guarantee certain expectations. Novelising, writing and publishing aren't even significantly better, but I find myself able to take more satisfaction from the finished work.

So I suppose LDB - or whatever the hell that was - has left the building. It was fun while it lasted.

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