“No words.” The phrase reached for again and again as multiple generations of junglists worldwide wrestle with the sudden, unexpected passing of the all-time MVP of drum ‘n’ bass MCs: Skibadee.
How do you pay tribute to the one who had all the words? All the chat? All the frenetic agility of jungle and its evergreen stamp on British underground culture? All the pantomime call-and-response humour of the genre’s ’90s heyday? All the punch and bravado of globe-conquering 21st-century drum ‘n’ bass? All the headline swagger of today’s multi-MC d’n’b festival acts?
Guardian, Mirror, Daily Mail… That Skibadee’s name was on every UK media outlet’s website within hours of the tragic news breaking gave drum ‘n’ bass an unexpected vision of itself: this culture truly is a household thing. And as the memories and mourning surged and swelled, from Goldie to grime OGs to under-16 SASASAS fans, another realisation was sharp: Skibadee, for many, is the defining figure of drum ‘n’ bass. Pride and pain together. And a confusing sense of something irreplaceable lost.
That is, if you can ever lose a physical feeling. Because Skibadee is more than a symbol. Many junglists’ current dislocation has its roots in a remarkably physical engagement. How many countless hours spent with friends winding backwards and forward through tape packs to find “that Skiba bit”? How many journeys spent ceaselessly humming snatches of trademark bars? Autotrader, Schwarzenegger, Street Fighter, UpScottyBeamMeUp, January-February… How many times, full-throated, lungs burning, shouting “the roof is on fire” back at the towering figure onstage? How many stomach-churning minutes realising he is late – pre-internet, pre Twitter updates – waiting for the word to pass around the dance like wildfire that Skiba is in the building? How many nights shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers in the deep scrum of the rave, rhythmically chanting together in a chorus of precise, wild, mystical energy? If this music is for life, it is because it is life. Breathing, singing, chanting, memorising, dancing, hoping. Skibadee the supplier – the great man had it right.
If the late Stevie Hyper D was the heart and soul of jungle drum ‘n’ bass MCing, Skibadee would come to represent its essence. A pure, nitroglycerine hit of polyrhythmic vocal artillery underpinned by effortless, frictionless groove. That voice was the Michael Jordan jump-shot. The Roger Federer backhand. Gliding weightlessly, all purring craft, delivering non-stop sucker-punches with unique flair.
And it hit hard. Inspired by the majestic Hyper D, Skiba would fashion double-time MCing into a magnetic sonic force: the signature power of the golden tape pack rave era of 1996-2001. This warp-speed, secret language – experienced only by those who attended raves, swapped tapes or lived and breathed shows on pirate radio – made Skiba the marquee MC in underground UK music, as the jungle era morphed slowly towards darker, harder, more rolling styles of 170 BPM. It is this period for which Skiba will be forever revered. Pre-photo dumps and YouTube, the sheer power of catching Skiba, Shabba and Det in full flow at United Dance at Bagleys would not be equalled until grime (its own OGs very much inspired by the rock-star aura of jungle’s late-90s dons) hit the heights.
As unassuming and humble offstage as he was charismatic on it – he would famously laugh off any comparison to Hyper D – Skibadee remained at the top of the game almost from the moment he reached it. If it’s impossible to be instantly legendary, Skiba wasn’t far off. Shortly after attending that very first Roast rave at Astoria (around 1993, according to Skiba in a rare long-form interview with Beat Culture producer Jamie Ross-Hulme in 2011) and seeing Navigator, Hyper D and the Ragga Twins pioneer a new, thrillingly UK style of MCing, a chance set on Crystal FM paved the way for a shot on the notoriously competitive Kool. Waiting up at the legendary London pirate station for up to eight hours hoping to bag a set, Skiba caught the attention of Ashatack, who promptly installed Skiba as resident at his own event in the West End, Spirit of the Jungle. It was there that Skiba met his formative partner Wildchild, finally landing a regular gig on the coveted Kool in 1995. It was the 3:AM-5:AM slot at first – and it was all he needed. Telepathy soon came calling and, from 1996 onwards, we all began living in Skiba’s world.
As famous for his partnerships as for his solo prowess, his ‘SAS’ tag-team with Shabba is burned most fiercely into our consciousness, yet his double acts with Shockin B, the much-loved label-attracting 2xFreestyle combo with Det in the late ‘90s, his UNCZ rollouts with Fun in the late ‘00s and the epic SASASAS machine that ushered in a genuinely new era of MC-led events in 2017, all reinforced his power rather than diluting it. Signed to Relentless/Virgin in 2002, the rumoured album projects never quite came at that stage – even if Skiba’s trademark intro to Shy FX’s chart-bothering ‘Don’t Wanna Know’ was beaming into our living rooms via MTV. Yet here Skiba was, 20 years on, releasing albums with SASASAS and completing work for the forthcoming Gardna album only days ago.
Lithe and chameleon-esque on the mic and equally so when it came to knuckling down to business, he moved with the times, even as d’n’b wrestled with its own identity post-jungle. As he told this writer in 2017, as the SASASAS juggernaut caught Mixmag’s attention: “There was definitely an era of too much noise – and too many wobbles!”, referring to the late-00s where high-energy d’n’b lost its way a little and garnered a reputation for disposable beats. “But now my daughter is going to jump-up events aimed at 13- and 14-year-olds, and we’re clocking up 250,000 views for one live show.” Skiba literally grew and developed the culture for successive generations.
Part of his longevity and SASASAS’s success is located in one d’n’b’s most important aspects: fun. No MC has better exemplified the good-time party atmosphere that has kept d’n’b honest and curiously innocent compared to many of its peers. Part Scooby Doo silliness (no raver has ever bellowed “jungle power” back at Skiba without grinning), part champagne-clinking fantasy (the machismo of ‘Twist Em Out’ and its “big-time celebrity” chorus was always tongue-in-cheek), Skiba’s magic has been to balance a frighteningly imposing stage presence with never taking himself too seriously. When Dizzee and D Double appeared on Kool with Skiba, Fun and Harry Shotta in 2007 for that never-to-be-repeated jungle blowout, where Dizzee’s hard knuckle grime-fuelled flows were dark and menacing Skiba was happy to play the d’n’b joker, “moving like a fairy, drinking bloody Mary”. His humour and one-love ethic forged in the fires of Hyper D’s familial jungle sermons, Skiba was, like his inspiration, the very definition of the music in human form. Dark and light and powerful and welcoming in the same moment.
MC-led drum ‘n’ bass has never been more popular, profitable, respected or multi-faceted, from DRS headlining Jazz Café shows, to Azza & Grima following in the original SAS’s footsteps and torching dances for legions of new young fans. MCs can make serious, melancholic records at 170 BPM, or can spit comedy bars live and make a whole room laugh. And they’re just getting started.
For everything he did for the culture, and will continue to do, now and forever, we salute the greatest of all.
Ewen Cook is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter