Linguistics
Sophie Harbinson
Sophie Harbinson

Here comes the mic man: It's time we valued the art of the drum'n'bass MC

Dave Jenkins

Traditionally, the d'n'b MC has been a divisive figure – loved by some, by others reviled. But with a new wave of artistry sweeping the scene, let's salute those masters of the ceremony.

Drum’n’bass MC culture has never looked healthier. From the big-room energy of SaSaSaS to the soulful tones of DRS to the enduring presence of grandmasters such as GQ, 2018 offers a spread of styles more varied and diverse than any year in recent memory.

Maybe you enjoy a lyrical lashing from duelling barsmiths such as Bassman, Eksman or the currently unstoppable Azza & Grima. Perhaps you prefer to be navigated by the knowing subtlety of less-is-more hosts like SP or Visionobi. Or you may be happiest being serenaded by singing MCs like Fats, Stamina or this year’s runaway success story Degs. Maybe you don’t like MCs at all? Bad luck mate. Whichever direction you look in d’n'b and all its many sub-subgenres, MCs are active, the culture is fertile and the best ones are pushing their craft to exciting places.

Watch Inja and Fokus jump on a Kyrist DJ set in The Roller Freestyle.

“I think it’s always been a necessary time for MCs in a performance sense, but in terms of releasing records, performing collaborations, singing songs – it’s very exciting,” says Dynamite MC, a distinctive voice in the genre since he broke through with Roni Size and Reprazent. “I also think it was inevitable, with grime being so successful. People have been reminded of the presence of the MC, and have perhaps re-evaluated their role within drum’n’bass. Maybe they even respected it more than they did in the past.”

The relationship between drum’n’bass and its MCs is unique and complex – it has been since verified forefathers like Moose, GQ, Five-0, and Stevie Hyper D wrote the blueprint over 25 years ago. D’n’b isn’t like grime or rap, where the MC is the focal point. Nor is it like house, techno or trance, where the MC is non-existent. It’s a singular alchemy that, when balanced with the right precision, can heighten your dancefloor experience like no other form of DJ-based music can.

How the d’n’b MC was born

“There are so many different styles and ways to MC it’s impossible to give you a snappy summary of a drum’n’bass MC,” considers SP:MC. Real name Stewart, SP has become one of the most distinctive voices in d’n’b since he was championed by GQ in the early 2000s. “But ultimately, for me, it’s about communicating and celebrating the music. These have to be the most important things for me personally. Nothing else matters.”

Hospital Records’ Inja – who plays The Roller boat at Red Bull Music Odyssey this weekend – describes the DJ as the master chef and the MC as the waiter delivering the food, double-checking on how the plate looks, adding a little garnish or seasoning so the “dish is at its most gorgeous looking and the audience’s tastebuds are tingling with desire.” He continues: “They’re the conductor. They’re right next to the crowd, they’re right next to the DJ, they bring it all together and are the embodiment of the original code of two turntables and a microphone.”

Inja

Press

The MC is the conductor. They’re right next to the crowd, they’re right next to the DJ, they bring it all together

Inja

“We came from the original hip-hop combination,” adds Dynamite. “Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Eric B & Rakim. Historically drum’n’bass has had that same formula with a lot of duos. Brockie and Det, myself and Roni Size, GQ and Micky Finn, Conrad and Bukem. It’s like a double act.”

Such long-standing collaborations – or more recent examples such as Dub Phizix and Strategy, Calibre and DRS, or Friction and Linguistics – provide the best example of why MCs exist in drum’n’bass. There’s a musical tightness and sense of mutual understanding. Both share an appreciation for each other’s art and know when to let each other shine.

“You can definitely tell when a DJ and an MC connect,” says Linguistics. “You see them buzzing off each other and the crowd buzz off them. You can’t fake that type of hype and those combos never die. Friction and SP were legendary like that and a massive inspiration for me.” A prominent figure of the new-generation MCs, Linguistics is now Friction’s main MC and has been for seven years.

“I know his sets and his style like the back of my hand but even now, every now and again, I still turn around and go ‘fucking hell, that’s Friction!’ He always switches up and makes things interesting and I’m enjoying it as much as everyone on the dancefloor. That energy is infectious. And it’s not even longstanding partnerships. There are some MCs, guys like GQ or SP, who have made such strong connections with a lot of DJs the energy and hype you’re seeing and feeling is about friendship and a deep musical connection. You can’t beat that.”

I don’t usually like MCs, but…

This pact captures the MC’s unique role in drum’n’bass and explains why they will always have a strong voice in the genre. Yet unfortunately it doesn’t reflect everyone’s experiences of MCs in a d’n’b dance. MCs are the classic Marmite conundrum – for some they’re the making of the night, for others they risk ruining it. DRS astutely coined it with the title of his debut album in 2012, I Don’t Usually Like MCs But… 

So why can MCs be so divisive? “Years ago I saw MC culture grow into a very negative and ugly thing,” he explains. “Jungle became so popular that all the kids in the ends aspired to be jungle MCs. You know the cliché – 20 MCs around the mic, all bada bada bada bada. Every hype kid would be there, they’d want their time on the mic and they’d want to call out Salford or Moss Side or whatever. Shootings. Clubs closing. No nights. It switched a lot of people off MCs and we’re still dealing with that stigma 20 years later. Every day I deal with that shit.”

DRS

Press

Jungle became so popular that all the kids in the ends aspired to be jungle MCs. You know the cliché – 20 MCs around the mic, all bada bada bada bada

DRS

“Speaking frankly a lot of people don’t like MCs because of the nonstop ‘bada bada bada’ thing,” agrees DRS’s longstanding friend, Manchester native and Broke N English compadre Strategy. Like all the best MCs, Strategy has redefined the craft to suit to his somewhat rock ‘n’ roll style. It’s not uncommon for him to break into a round of ‘Whose rhyme is it anyway?’ where he’ll freestyle on a topic given to him from the crowd. Or turn around and tell you to hug your dancefloor neighbour. “I’m being honest… a lot of people hate that stuff. But the more they see and hear things that are more thoughtful, or something that really enhances the show then they can see things differently.”

How d’n’b MCs are embracing artistry

Which is where we’re at now. MCs are doing things differently across a much wider range of drum’n’bass styles. While the jump-up style has always welcomed lyrical mic men – to the point MCs such as Eksman, Bassman, Funsta, Evil B, Shotta, Skibadee, Shabba Azza and Grima can command their own shows and events where they are the focal point – we’re also seeing MCs make much more impact across the spectrum. On the neuro/heavy tech side there are MCs such as Coppa and Kryptomedic providing lyrical and hosting enhancement while Hospital’s recent signing of both Degs and Inja shows are broader development on the more melodic and mainstream side of drum’n’bass.

“It’s interesting,” considers Degs. “When I migrated away from jump up I realised the MC isn’t appreciated quite as much in other styles. But this made me work on developing my style. When I started doing more conscious lyrics and singing, that’s when people started to pay a lot more attention.”

Degs broke through with a series of online freestyles and is now developing a body of studio work, something longstanding MC Ben Verse – who was Pendulum's main host for many years – has been a strong advocate of studio manoeuvres for years.

“More MCs need to get on tunes!” he states. “In grime, people hear about the MCs through the tunes and we need to develop more of that ethic. Get your voice on a tune. I’ve been doing that since I worked with Noisia and Calyx & Teebee. It puts you in history. You’re leaving your legacy in stone. Producers love working with MCs. They just don’t do it often enough.”

Beyond the studio, many of the MCs in this discussion agree that the best are investing more energy and thought into their lyrics, full stop. Dynamite suggests social media videos have helped to bring light to the craft and made MCs up their game, while Harry Shotta – who’s taken MC culture to the Guinness Book Of World Records – reckons it’s a natural progression as a new generation takes on the mantle.

“I think what’s changed now is that MCs are giving the crowd much better lyrical content and something they can relate to. We’re talking about relevant things and not just hyping up ourselves or the DJ or what’s going on in the party. A lot of us are trying to talk about proper things – politics, the news, stuff that matters,” he explains. “I think it’s also a sign of the times. There’s a lot of younger role models who have broken through and showed aspiring MCs that they can make a name for themselves. They can break the mould and rip up the rules. I love the old school, that’s foundation man, but it can’t just be foundation because they’ll have to hang up their boots. The scene will die without new generations coming in. The whole scene is fresh right now and we’re playing by different rules.”

“Fuck the rules!” laughs habitual rule-breaker Strategy. “If you follow the already established rules then you’ll be that MC who’s on the bottom of the flyer who takes £100 while the DJ takes £3000. We don’t have to do things like they’ve always been done.”

But here's something that needs addressing...

Yes, MC culture is more exciting and healthier in drum’n’bass than it’s ever been. Yes, the versatility and level of professionalism has rocketed among the most serious and talented MCs. But for the art form to continue to develop, many MCs believe one major change needs to take place.

“It’s sad that we’re celebrating the role of the vocals and MC in the club yet so many are having the piss taken out of them with their fee,” explains DRS. “The straw that broke the camel’s back for me and made question DJs and agents and promoters was this… I did a world tour with a well-known DJ for six months. We stayed in the same hotels, we ate the same food, did all the same things all tour long. But when I come home, I ain’t got a penny. He’s still got half his fee. I’m away from my family for six months and I got no money to show it. This breaks up families, relationships – you lose your house. I’m still sat in a council flat now. I won’t be for long because I’m working with a DJ who respects me and has my back. But for every other MC out there who hasn’t got that privilege, you need to start asking questions.”

With two albums and over 140 records released, DRS’s profile, clout and influence in MC culture is unparalleled – and that’s before we even consider the work he’s done and the talent he’s supported beyond drum’n’bass with his Estate Recordings label. For him to be highlighting this issue, it’s clearly endemic. “After my first album, my fee went up £50 at the most – my last agent told me I hit a glass roof,” he continues. “They said no matter what I do people won’t pay any more for an MC. That’s not what you want to hear from your agent.”

DRS believes there needs to be more unity among artists to ensure a fairer, more equal wage for all. As he puts it, as long as some MCs are happy to undercut the rest, MCs won’t be able to make a living off their art, will have to work a daytime job and not have time to nurture and hone their craft.

“I’m not saying there should be an MCs union, but we do need to work together on this one,” Linguistics agrees in conclusion. “It’s very easy to get palmed off and if there are people undercutting to get the most amount of shows it’s counteractive to the culture as a whole. For me, personally, if there’s a show I can’t do I will pass it on to an MC and tell them what I’m being paid. I’ll tell them how it is and won’t lie, which I think some MCs are guilty of. We shouldn’t be undercutting each other, we should be working together. That’s how you progress the art form and that’s what we need to see in the future…”

Catch Dynamite MC, SP:MC, Inja, DRS and Degs at Hospitality In The Park on September 22. Buy tickets

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