Why didn't UK funky break the mainstream?
Kwame Safo talks to some prominent figures of UK Funky about why the sound didn't crack the mainstream market
UK Funky is not dead, but it does appear, from many inside and out, to have been anti-climatic. Despite taking off in the clubs in the mid-00s, the sound failed to sustain its popularity and ignite into mainstream consciousness. In 2016 Drake heavily sampled a classic the genre (Crazy Cousinz ft. Kayla 'Do You Mind') in his hit 'One Dance', which topped the charts in 15 countries, including his first UK Number One, indicating that the UK funky sound has bags of hit-making potential. So what held it back first time round, and could it rise again to reach previously uncharted heights?
In order to learn more about what the most the promising UK underground club scene since UK Garage was really up against and see what lessons can be learned in building Black music scenes in future, Kwame Safo spoke to three prominent UK funky figures: Katie Pearl, Roska and MC Versatile.
You were making grime before you started making what became known as funky, with your track with Perempay & Dee 'In The Air'. Was you experimenting with any other similar sounds around that time?
Just grime and then house, which was the natural progression, because we like to experiment and try new things.
You've made this tune 'In The Air', Katie Pearl, Perempay & Dee. Was there any reason why you felt like Dee didn't want to go under DaVinChe on that title?
I actually don't know. Do you know what? I never asked. Because Perempay was Bossman, and Dee was DaVinche. And then I was like, so if you guys are using pseudonyms, I want one as well, but they just put it out with Katie Pearl. Maybe it was to detach themselves from the identity they had associated already with grime and garage and stuff.
So you've this tune, it's come out, it's hit the clubs, and now everyone's playing it. So what does that feel like?
It was actually surreal. I'd already heavily placed on pirate stations and 1Xtra when doing grime, so hearing my songs on the radio was not new to me. But I think that was surreal because I wasn't told it was going to be put out. I was in the car and my friend goes 'I love this song', and I was like, this sounds so familiar. Then the verse kicked in and I was like wait, hold on, I sang this song! And my friend thought I was mad. I was like, no, I actually went to the studio with my son and sang this song. I asked the guys, why didn't you tell me it was going to be put out? It was really surreal to hear it on national radio stations like Choice FM or Capital Xtra. To still hear it on Kiss is like, wow, I worked on this song with two friends at the time, and it changed our lives. It's amazing.
The female involvement in UK funky has been important, a lot of the records wouldn't be what they were without it. How accommodating have us as the men been towards you and women in general?
Terrible. That's a lot of stuff to discuss. I've always felt like - and this covers a broad spectrum, it's not just in funky house - men are not very accepting or... What's the word I could use? It's kind of like we're just overlooked: you're going to do what we say, and if you do moan, you get labelled as a diva. Or if you say 'oh I don't like this', or you try to take a little bit of control, you're labelled a control freak. You're just so easily labelled as a female in the industry. And I think a lot of women have great ideas, and would like a bit of creative control when it comes to their own careers. We don't just have the voice, we have ideas as well, don't we? Sometimes in the industry you just get overlooked, you're easily labelled if you want to have any form of creative input into the process.
And then I feel like as a Black woman, the labels 'diva', 'difficult', 'control freak' or 'bitch' are just used so quickly the moment you disagree or you try to have an input in things that pertain to your own career. I've witnessed it and experienced it so many times, and it's so disheartening to the point where I was like, I'm just so done with music. It’s quite sad that we are perceived that way sometimes, as that's not the case.
What kind of things have you asked for which has kind of led to you being called a diva or difficult?
Something as simple as just asking to be put in a different area away from some of the ravers before going on stage, because obviously funky was very club based. A lot of my PAs were in the time when you could smoke in a club, and as a vocalist I take care of my voice, so to be around people that are smoking would be detrimental to my vocal cords. Something as simple as that: 'Can I come in a little bit late?' or 'can I come in just literally five minutes before I do the PA?', sometimes people would roll their eyes or they'd be like 'oh you're so difficult'.
Sometimes I didn't even think it was so much that they thought I was difficult, I think just maybe other artists didn't ask. Because we've got male MCs that would be booked by the same booking agency, and they could just go on and shout. So if a female is asking for something different, I guess they're perceived to be difficult.
I also don't always want to be around a whole load of males as well; I'm a very shy person. So me asking to be put in a separate place was not being anti-social. I don’t want to go into the DJ box and talk to all these men. I can understand how that can be perceived as somebody thinking, I'm being a bit diva-ish or being a bit difficult, but it genuinely wasn't that. It's just me as a person, I'm shy.
Some people were very accommodating, I think because they probably worked with other singers, and so understood. But there are some people that would just say horrible things or just consider me to be difficult, based on a few questions. I'm hoping that if they've dealt with singers after me, they now realise that's just a standard thing. The majority of the time it was just wanting to control your nerves, wanting to be able to perform properly, etc.
So I think this is an important conversation as well as a Black dark skinned woman. How difficult has it been, do you feel in regards to your career and trajectory, to be marketed as a solo entity?
That has been quite difficult from every aspect. From having photo shoots and not having a make-up artist that had make-up that matched my skin tone, to hair, to being told not to go out in the sun too long, being told I'm not marketable, or that they're not sure how to market me. The main thing that has probably been mentioned would be skin tone. That's what put me, and probably a lot of other females, off, because people will see a skin tone as a problem. I've never seen my skin tone as a problem. So to go out into the world and work with people that were constantly like, 'don't go out in the sun' or 'that light isn't great for her skin tone' and stuff like that. It was kind of like, what's wrong with these people? I genuinely thought that; I thought what is wrong with these people?
As you get older, you realise that it's just been ingrained in them to say dark skinned females aren't marketable. But when I ask the question - 'why would you say that?' - no one has an answer that I find acceptable. It would always just be: you're difficult to market because you're Black. And I'd be like, ok, so Black girls singing Black songs is difficult to market? Having studied a degree in marketing, that answer doesn't cut it. If anyone comes saying that again, I'm gonna be like, no we need to go a little bit deeper, you need to give me actual factors. I feel like it's one person probably at the top that said it, and every single A&R has just taken that and run with it, and said that over and over again, and nobody actually knows why. I don't see why Black people are not marketable singing their own stuff; I don't see it.
So you release this funky tune, and it's a classic now. How difficult was it to become visible with this tune? Because that's part of the way a record can gain traction, when people can have a sort of relationship and see who is doing the vocals. Was there a lot of issues getting you into the magazines, getting the press around this record?
100% yeah. It wasn't about me, they made it about them. At some point I felt like saying 'why didn't you just get a session singer in to sing it?'. Because I I had a solicitor that was representing me at the time - which is standard procedure, that's nothing to do with who I was working with - just to go over your contract to make sure you're getting what you deserve, because you've put something into this song, you've sang on record. And she even had to put in the contract: 'please could you mention Katie Pearl, give my artist some recognition’, because it was literally a fight just for them to say my name. When I made mention to it on my own without my solicitor, it was kind of like 'what's the big deal?'. And I’m like, I'm a whole singer that has a whole career, and you saying my name on a song like that is helping me. And it’s not like you're helping me because I didn't do anything, I actually contributed to this record, I helped make it. It wasn't just you guys that did it on your own. That's my voice; I sang it like that. So, to say my name would be a huge help for me if you could do that. And it felt like it was me asking for a favour, like I hadn't sung the song. So getting my recognition was quite hard, I'm not gonna lie.
Even to this day, they always say things like, 'it's not her record though'. And I'm like, it is, we have a contract to say part of it is mine, and part of it is yours. There's no shade to the guys because I genuinely feel like they've been slightly brainwashed, or whoever's behind them — or maybe it is just them, I don't know; I would like to think it's not them.
I'm not a person that likes to play martyr at all, I'm not into that life. But you start to think, okay, what's the difference between me and the other female you've worked with who can go out and sing it to her heart's desire and there's no issue; but when it was me, it's not her song. I don't get it. Maybe it's my skin tone?
Do you feel like that was a skin tone issue?
I would like to think no. But based on the records they had done with other females of a lighter skin tone and how their name was constantly mentioned, I'm beginning to think, yeah, it's something to do with me being a Black girl.
This is a difficult convo to have, because like I said, these are guys that I considered friends; I'd worked with then for years and years and years, those guys have seen me grow up. This is the conversation I've had with loved ones that always ask 'why do they never mention your name when they say the song? Is it because you're a Black girl and it makes the song less marketable or stuff like that?'. It's a sad convo to have.
Do you feel like this is an industry issue?
Definitely. I never forget that there was a funky song I loved, and I remember really trying to search to find the singer and I couldn't find her for ages. It was Dennis Ferrer 'I Heard You Say’ featuring Shingai Shoniwa from The Noisettes. I loved that song, and I found it so difficult to find out who she was. And there were other songs were it was just so easy to find out who the singer was. I'm one of them people who always has to dig a little bit deeper, and it was so easy to find the girls of a lighter skin tone, because they're pushed to the forefront. There's no issue finding out who they are because they are used to market the songs. But anyone of a darker skin tone, it was always quite difficult. And that's not just funky house, that's across the board.
Do you feel sometimes that industry practice forces dark skinned women to become songwriters rather than front of stage?
100%. I will definitely say that. I even had a manager at one point, and he was like, 'love my Black girls, you lot are great at writing songs'. His main thing was 'you, the Black girl, write songs for the white girls'. I came across a whole network of females that do that, and I just remember thinking: no one gonna say anything about this, no?
Don't get me wrong, they're in a good position, they're making money, and what not. One of them has come out as an artist now and I find it difficult to understand why they're not doing better than they are. I'm not mentioning any names, but I think she's amazing, and I don't understand why she’s not bigger than she is as she’s written so many number one records.
There's a whole network of girls that were my complexion, maybe a little bit lighter or maybe a little bit darker, that were writing songs for light skinned girls or white girls. Not that I have anything against that at all, it's just that, when you're put in a room and you start looking to the left and right, you're like, ok, you're like me. Then you start looking at who you're writing for, and you're like oh ok, so this is what it is then. And when you speak to your manager, and they're like 'well, this is how it is and how it's always gonna go, because Black girls are hard to market'. And because you want to make it in that industry, and because you want to make a living off it - because you love it as well! - you kind of just put up with it. It's sad.
From your opinion, why do you think funky didn't hit the dizzy heights of success it seemed like it was on track to? Because at the time, it felt like it was everywhere, it was in the clubs, overground, underground, pirate radio. It just seemed like it hit the right balance of music that kids were into and club music.
Yeah man. Listen, that era was so lit.
So from your opinion, as a Black woman, what do you think went wrong?
I just think the quality of the music dropped, didn't it? And if you only got a few songs that can carry it… If there was a lack of quality in r'n'b it would kind of just fade out, but the quality is there. I just don't think the quality was there [with UK funky]. Oh my god, I might get shot for saying this! But genuinely I feel like some of the songs that were being made were just being made for the sake of it, because some people were just jumping on the hype which led to the death of it. If you only have a couple bangers you couldn't have a whole funky house night, could you? Do you not agree?
I think it kind of got to that stage where some of the DJs made compromises with the sound, where only the bangers were acceptable. They couldn't even get to a place where you were building up tracks and play them long enough for it to be a banger in people’s eyes. That and the fact that there's not a weekly night where you can go out and hear a tune every weekend, get familiar with it, then get to a point where you're asking the DJ to play that sick tune. So we was losing the ecosystem to create more hits like 'In The Morning', 'In The Air', 'Sirens', and all those kind of tracks. That played a big part in that. I think what we're talking about is that there wasn't enough banging vocal tunes being made at all. We had banging instrumentals, but to do that, you need banging vocalists. And there's not many of you.
No actually, scratch that. There's a lot of probably banging vocalists like you've said, but what the industry said is they're only good for one thing. You're only good to finish music and not to be marketed all the way. There's Katie Pearls, there's Shingais, they're there. And I think this is the whole part on the conversation, that you need to be made visible.
I agree. And I do always believe there is a market. I would genuinely love to have to sit down with whoever made up that whole line 'Black girls aren't marketable' and have a conversation with them because I would like to know where that came from. I think there's a market for everyone, that's why you have marketing departments. The amount of people I've come across and they're like, '[gasps] why are not bigger? You sang that song? Oh my God'. I'm not trying to sound conceited or anything, but a lot of people be like, 'Oh my God, but you're so cute', stuff like that. And I'd be like, I mean, they just didn't want to push it I guess. I don't always think it's down to skin tone and stuff like that, but that's just a really lame excuse [that we're not marketable] that is used. And I think in 2020 it should change.
When you think of that situation in regards to what they perceive as marketable, was there ever planning to be a proper video made and?
The video was a whole other.. That video was just terrible. Again, I was not involved in the creative process of that whatsoever. It was just poorly executed. I had no say. It was like: turn up, this day, this time, and we're doing it, and this is the end product.
And then again with that, I was made to feel bad for even asking what was going on or trying to have an input. It was a dead situation. We were all friends, it was just weird. Have you ever been in a situation where you're like, why are you treating me like this? Why? That's how I felt the whole process, which was weird, because we'd worked together for years, we all had the same manager.
So did that experience with that record leave a bitter taste in your mouth in regards to doing more records within that genre?
It hasn't left a bitter taste in my mouth, like I said, that record was life changing. I would do it all again. That was just one of the best times; imagine singing for years and years and years, and getting a song on the radio and everyone knows your song! That is the highlight of any singer’s career.
But there have been things that have happened in the industry that have put me off: the main thing being the comments on my skin tone. My dad and my mum my whole life have always told me I'm beautiful, and I hope that everyone else's mum and dad and family members have done that. To then to go out into an industry where they're kind of like, don't go in the sun, don't do this — I just thought, yeah, I'm not here for it. I'm a Black girl and I don't see anything wrong with being a Black girl. You're not gonna make me have a problem with myself. And I don't think I even experienced it to a level that some girls in industry have. But that was enough for me to just be like, ok, cool, I'm not gonna trade, it's not up for discussion. I'm not gonna bleach; I don't want to take any skin lightening tablets; I like going out in the sun. I go to Jamaica and I'm going to tan; I will!
So if you was to say in a nutshell, what would you change about the whole aspect of the funky experience to make it more accommodating for other Black female, dark-skinned singers like yourself?
The industry needs to be more female friendly. There needs to be a few more women in places where girls go and sing and in things like booking agencies. I once did a PA in Birmingham and I had a female manager at the time, and the guy just refused to pay us. Had there been a male there, I think it would have been different. There needs to be more awareness that it's a very male dominated industry and not everyone has good intentions. I feel like they need to do a little bit more to protect some of the female acts. I'm not saying all men are creeps and predators or anything like that, but it can be intimidating for women.
And definitely give people their props. If they sang a song, and people know the song based on a line that singer is singing, just say their name on the radio. Give them their credit where it's due. To not do so is cheating them, it's just rude. If you could sing it, then you sing it.
Roska you've been a heavyweight funky producer pushing this scene for many years. Even at points where some of us, even myself, may have deviated from the sound, you've stayed consistent and championed it. You've also experienced successes with a sound that many of us haven't. First and foremost, where do you think UK funky is at right now?
It's missing something. What we had then to now feels like two different scenes, because no one's interlinking. Someone like Donae'O could do that and introduce people, and make that connection. Where we started it was predominantly Black Caribbean and Black African people getting this ting going from scratch, and then it's like we all just gave up and left it.
I feel that there's a massive disconnect in what's going on now. The guys now are inspired by what we done, where we was inspired by the Dennis Ferrers and Kenny Dopes, and anybody that was making broken beats or anything that had a mad edge to it in the funky side, whether it was the vocal, the drums or the grooves. Now they're influenced by us, it's got the funky elements, but it hasn't got that edge that we had. There's a bit more thought process, it's more developed, the tunes are mastered and high quality, but it's missing something. There's disconnect between the artists that are making it, radio, and the generation before.
I always say to people, when I was coming through in funky I never played alongside you. I played alongside Pioneer for the first time this year — and guess who booked him? Me! I had to book him to play alongside him. I wasn’t really included in funky like that. I mean I wasn't the greatest DJ anyway in that period, but I was getting there. Now I can say I rode the test of time and I've got to a point where I'm undeniably the guy for funky.
You mentioned that some people kind of deviated and dropped out from the scene, and there was an edge within the old skool style of UK funky at the time. Why do you think now there’s that whole conversation of ‘funky is dead’? What is it about that edge that is not found in the current form of funky?
The reason why the conversation comes up is because no one one of a key level is playing it. For the last seven years we can say that funky is literally underground, to the point where you have to find it, you have to know who's playing it, you have to dig deep.
You have the odd tune that might pop and get specialist plays, might get Pioneer playing it, might get Toddla T playing it. Remember, even when it was new we had Hotsteppa and Jigs playing it on Choice FM, Footloose playing it early hours of the morning on 1Xtra, bit of Toddla T on 1Xtra and Radio 1. Obviously we had Rinse, Deja Vu and numerous pirate and internet radio stations playing it across the board. We had an average of two to three DJs on each station rinsing funky. We ain't got that now. We got pockets of people who might include it in their sets, and that's where I survive.
The only way I survive was my funky wasn't the conventional funky, it was a little bit my style. That's where I had your Kode9s, Diplos, Zincs, all these guys dropping it. It was a multi-genre at one point where Rinse was putting on line-ups where you could be on before Skream and then after him could be flipping Randall. That's where I survived: I could fit in all these pockets here, 'cause no one said 'I need to go to a house dance or dubstep dance'. It was: you're going to see Roska, Benga and Zinc in Bristol Motion, or Roska, Benga and EZ. And then from 2013 to 2015 it was specifics; it was a manager's game: ‘Who's playing on the line-up?’. If you're playing a deep house dance it's deep house, ‘we're not playing alongside Roska’.
Let's be real, it was even so specific that it's gotta be a white line-up; it can't be a Black line-up. 'You can't play alongside the deep house lot, you're not white enough'. We saw that, you could see the divides. When that point came, that's when it got tough for me. 2012, 2013 and 2014, that's when the Huxleys, Gorgon Citys and Hannah Wants came up; it was tough.
I was fortunate to come through funky where it was house and funky, and then get to a point where it was only funky. Then it was like, rah, I'm leaning bare towards house now. I had to go, right, let me get back on it again and reshuffle my set around and make sure that people know. Fast forward to 2015 and I'm back on it fully. I was like, nah I can't conform to this, I can't let my whole set go to this because no one wants to listen to what I'm doing, Then 2015 onwards it's been the best it can be. We're here now where I've got 119 releases on Roska Kicks & Snares.
How successful has this sound been for you in regards to bookings and your label? Tell me about your journey from being a producer, to feeling like you're comfortable enough to also be a DJ, to a point where you were comfortable enough to leave work and were getting enough bookings.
February '08 was my first release 'Feeline'. I was working so it didn't matter if the tune done well for me or not. I always say this to artists every single time: make sure you've got a nice job or something that's gonna pay the bills or do the evening shift, and then let the music talk and do what it's doing. That year was the first four releases on Roska Kicks & Snares: 'Feeline', 'Before Elevated Levels', 'Elevated Levels' and 'Climate Change'. After that it was like, ok cool, I've actually got a bit of money behind me now, the records are shifting and the interest is coming. People are calling my phone, emailing me, asking me for tunes, digital and physical. I pressed up my first record through J.T.S in the East End, it took the whole year to sell, but as the other ones were coming out, people started paying attention.
We get close to the end of the year and get a call from Rinse and then I'm on Rinse. It was early doors, 'cause I could DJ, but I wasn't the best DJ, you get me? I had to make my DJing catch up with me quicktime! Quick! I remember getting crushed by Geeneus, like, 'bruv stop clanging!'. I was like, rah! But you know what, it's a beautiful thing to get criticised early and not let your ego get the best of you; he was right. You get to '09 and flew it on Rinse. Then we start talking albums now. Geeneus has done 'Volumes: One' and was like 'yeah we wanna do a series 'Roska Presents'. So I gave him 40 demos, I was like choose what you want, I don't care, I just want music out there; this is my perfect opportunity.
Nine years before my first release I was just making beats, it was a hobby, just chopping it up. Now I've found a home, I need to make sure if I'm doing this I put my all into it. I didn't care about who was doing what, I didn't care about politics, all I cared about was people wanting the tunes. Pioneer's calling me 'yo Roska what you got?', Footloose 'Roska I need some more tunes for radio', Supa D, bit quiet, but he was there asking for the tunes! Everybody's interested in what I'm doing so I'm like, this is great! But I'm not letting it get over my head. We get to the middle of '09 and I'm doing a few shows here and there, playing at Cargo, doing b2bs with Scratcha. Then someone asks 'have you played abroad yet?'. I'm like, what?! What you mean abroad?! Lo and behold I'm playing in Croatia. Didn't even know how much to charge, this was all new to me. But one thing I kept throughout my whole career was I didn't set a ceiling on where this thing could go. It could take me anywhere, but I'm not saying that I'm limited to anything.
As this was all going on Pinch from Bristol is talking to me, Martyn from 3024 is talking to me, Kode9's asking me for 'I Need Love'. All these things are happening, but before my first release I was talking labels and no one's interested; Pioneer had 'Feeline' from September '07. I had to start my own label. From then I was stubborn, like, right I'm gonna hold this out until a label that I like or want to be a part of wants my stuff. And that was when Rinse was the right label. During '09 me and Jamie George had 'Wonderful Day' and 'Love 2 Nite' white labels. Then as time gets on, Ministry's interested in 'Wonderful Day, Relentless is interested in 'Love 2 Nite'. But no one was really making sense. Ministry had someone that sounded like Jamie George and we was worried he was gonna get shelved, so we were like nah fuck that. Relentless were umming and ahhing, then we just signed the deal with Rinse. And the guy from Relentless come back saying 'I regret not taking that'. And I said, you kinda should be, 'cause we believed in the tune and it's getting rinsed on every station. After you're hearing 'Do You Mind' and 'Sirens', you're hearing 'Love 2 Nite' and 'Wonderful Day'.
As we're fast forwarding, February 2010, no more annual leave left. I've gotta make the jump. I've got the whole month in America lined up in April, album drops start of that month. Sonar festival lined up, Mary Anne Hobbs brought me on for a half hour guest mix and let me run on for an hour, Gilles Peterson’s taking an interest. I'm like, yo I'm here, I wanna play next to Pioneer, I wanna play Tribal Life, I wanna play all these events that everybody's playing! Nothing, nothing. Everybody's talking to me saying I'm gone, I'm over this side now, 'cause I'm going where the love is. I'm not saying no one loved me over that side, everybody loved my tunes, but I just weren't getting nowhere. Then I joined Amy over at [FWD Agency] and I'm playing all these festivals. Looking at it, it's like man, maybe it was a blessing in disguise I didn't get caught up playing Tribal Life and what have you. So I had to leave work 2010, just focus straight, head down, do my thing. I'm not doing crazy bookings, but I'm doing the right bookings,
It was an interesting time because I felt it was a beautiful thing when the MCs were part of it, but no one knew how to incorporate it. Everybody's like, nah I'm leaving, it's too much for me, I'm going deep house. Bruv, I said wait it out man, this is London, every scene has an MC in it. Every Black culture-based scene has — bruv, best know if we had techno access there'd be a host in there somewhere! Best believe it bruv!
Everybody's trying to blackball MCs, and tell them 'nah, nah, it's this'. But if the kids want it, you gotta accept that the kids want it. I've been talking to Funky Dee for the best part of six months, and when you listen to Funky Dee's side of it, it's like rah! We weren't really trying to communicate with no one really and understand MCs. I said to Funky Dee I never had a problem with the MCs man; I embraced it. There was one thing. Maxwell D jumped on one of my tunes back then. Then 1Xtra plays 'Climate Change' with Maxwell D on it, and they're announcing it as Maxwell D, no announcement saying Roska production or nothing. And I'm like, come on, we need to work better together. I got his number and called him, I said you done it the wrong way, you could have contacted me and worked something out properly. I didn't mind him jumping on 'Climate Change', but it's the principle. My thing is, if we're gonna work, let's do it professionally. Let's try and make something of this.
So we moved forward. 2011 summer, that was it for playing a 100% funky set for me. The last full on funky set I remember playing was me, Benga, Crissy Criss and L-Vis 1990 at XOYO. It was the Field Day after party. After that it was literally like someone said to everybody: 'that's it, no more funky'. I remember playing one dance, and you know when you can feel like there's a little bit of tension in the crowd and you gotta work it. It felt harder, the next week it was harder and harder. Then lo and behold it got to about 25% of funky in my set, from 2012 to end of 2014.
That was because other DJs around you weren't also playing funky as well which meant that you had to change your set up a little bit?
100%. The tunes lost their lifeline. I feel EZ is pretty much the only one that can get away with playing an old skool set week in, week out. I was playing it, but I am an up front DJ, I like to make sure that I've got the latest and educate the crowd as well. It was getting tougher and tougher, I can't lie. '12, '13, '14`, the house resurgence, 'Hungry For The Power' - it was no longer popular, it was no longer the in thing. It got frustrating I can't lie. But I was like, I'm sticking with it, I enjoy doing this, I'm not gonna conform.
What I've always noticed is that the marketing around you has been amazing: you’ve been part of the Rinse machine, they was able market you and produce you into a lot of spaces. What that shows to me is it's proof that funky can work on the mainstream level. So why do you think some other artists were having trouble getting signed?
Consistency. On average, every artist bar me had a maximum of two releases out. Apple’s tunes weren't accessible to the general public, you either get them from someone or from Apple. Naughty had two EPs and one single out during that period. Hard House Banton, one EP. Fuzzy Logik, two EPs and a single. Geeneus, couple singles here and there and an album. Invasion Records, no digital. Everybody's playing Serato but you're just providing people with vinyls. The thing that they said was that they don't want it to get leaked. I said, big man, it don't matter, it's gonna get leaked anyway. If the tune's banging, someone's going to leak it. Didn't want to listen — not here today. That's just how it goes.
It's sad to hear it because I tried to tell people; I'm doing it! The blueprint is being set in front of your eyes. You could follow me and you'll win. What I was doing was no different to what I’ve seen before. All these guys have been there before me; I'm new to this, I'm trying to make something of nothing that I don't know; it’s uncharted territory for me. But I'm going in with no fear, putting out releases, don't care if they do well. I'm not setting myself a ceiling of appreciation or expectation.
I had no manager until I got to Rinse. As soon as Gorgon City and all those guys started coming through, your '13s and '14s, I knew my time was up on Rinse. I was like, ‘boom I'm out’ and left. Rinse weren't really paying attention to my music anymore; I had to go down to the office to speak to them because they weren't answering their calls. I knew it was time. But I'd already patterned everything up. Because when I went to Rinse, the goal was to go there and understand business. That's why Kicks & Snares has got 119 releases today, because I went to Rinse and paid attention. When everybody's telling me, 'don't do it, don't do Rinse, they're gonna rob you', I got my money's worth, I got what I needed from that situation. I went there with an idea of: if I'm gonna do FWD>> for £50, I'm gonna walk away with some knowledge that is priceless.
After leaving Rinse and the machine that was propelling and pushing you PR wise, was you able to see how racist the industry was in regards to getting your music out there?
I saw the industry was racist before that. Every time I called it out, you get: 'Ah you're just pulling the race card!'. When I had a little issue with a couple people, the rest of them turned their back on me and tried to blackball me. But if I called it out, I'm the ignorant n*****; 'you're just here to cause aggravation'. You start to realise, not everybody, but there's a lot of people that just want you for your talent, they don't want you, so you end up missing out on some opportunities. And don't get me wrong, I've had a sick career to date. But I should be a £mil up man, best believe. Because there's opportunities that were given to to other people based on their melanin, man; I know that. But I can't be angry. All I can do is know what I've been told to do all my life: work hard.
Do you ever feel like sometimes you were working harder than necessary?
When we met at Rinse around 2009 or 2010, I remember chatting to you, because like yourself I like to go into spaces and learn, and I think I learn best from the people around me. I think one of the conversations I had with you was in regards to the amount of music you were making. I think you got me into that headspace where I’d set up a month and decide I'm just gonna make as many skeletons as possible so I can just put the layers and melodies on top of it. Because Roska's making like 40 tunes a day! Your output's crazy. But I felt that your output was unique to you. Does that sort of fuel a pressure, an anxiety, that you can have to do this to keep your job. 'Cause remember, there was 'destroy and rebuild' innit. Did you feel like we had to do that to keep our jobs?
Nah, you know what I learned about destroy and rebuild, yeah? If you was called on Rinse for something, you stay doing that something. I saw patterns. First pattern I saw, and I'll name names 'cause it was apparent. Marco Del Horno, he was on Rinse for deep house, and he was on Defected at the time. Then all of a sudden man's playing dubstep. That's why Marco got dropped. Fingerprint was on for being one of the founders of funky, all of a sudden he's playing deep house and deep tech. You're gonna get kicked off; they don't want you for that. If they want someone for that they'll go and get someone who specialises in it; that's how Rinse works. They got people who specialise in something, they got people because they had something before Rinse. Then as soon as you dip or switch lanes, they don't want you, 'cause they can get someone in that lane. I learned that from early. If I'm doing funky, I'm on Rinse for funky. I was fortunate to be on Rinse for so long, seven years, until I called it like, you know what, I'm done. I needed to leave and just focus on playing in the clubs and doing what I'm doing. You've gotta have your thing set, so if you're doing something, you can't stop doing that thing and rely solely on Rinse. That's why a lot of DJs that left Rinse didn't have a career , because they put all their eggs in one basket, and that's what I didn't do. Throughout the whole of Rinse, I still had releases on Kicks & Snares. So when I jumped back on Kicks & Snares in 2015, it was like nothing stopped. I still had Naughty's release, Jamie George, J Kenzo, Shox, putting out little hybrid funky, house cuts and broken beat bits here and there. People knew it was still there, I made sure of that.
What would you like to see in regards to a future for UK funky in regards to its growth, its visibility, just in the nature of the way you are marketed? Because the Roska that I know and that I sometimes bump heads with, but still love, is the Roska that needs to be presented. We can't have you watered down.
Look, I'm 37 now, and I'm tired of certain things. Even yesterday I was explaining to Donae'o that I'm tired of explaining that funky's not dead. So I've learned valuable lessons over the years, even from me and you bumping heads, bumping heads with Marcus, even my thing Zomby as well. As a man, I just want to be a contributor to something, and I want it to thrive and do well. With funky, I ended up just going, you know what, let me focus on what me and the label do, because I was getting heartbroken bro. I'm talking to Naughty, I'm talking to Banton, I'm talking to everybody, and everybody's got this negative cloud on funky. It's like, bruv, just forgive, forget. Let's move forward man. I think my energy just got drained from trying to convince people that this is your scene bruv. We made this scene; take ownership of it and do your thing! That's why, when you talk to me now, it's a different light. That energy goes into my daughters!
It's a beautiful thing to be able to travel to all these countries and spread the sound. Because don't get it twisted, when I go to these countries and they're asking 'who else should I book?', don't feel that I'm not reeling off names to them, telling them the tunes. I'm doing that on a regular basis; that's all I can do. But if no one's willing to follow the footsteps or see the blueprint that I've set… The one thing that I always say to people is, consistency is key. If you're not putting in the work, you can't expect the rewards man.
I just wish that, if we didn't have so much systematic racism in music that we can openly talk about now but I couldn't say then, we could be in a different space. Who knows, I could have been able to finance and invest that extra bit of money in a bit more promo for myself and maybe take on a Naughty or someone else to invest in them and give them that extra bit
You're MC versatile, you've had a very important part in the development of UK funky with your tracks with NG and Katy B first, and you've worked with Crazy Cousinz. When you was making those tracks, what did you see about the scene at the time? Did you think it was gonna go anywhere, did you think you was onto something?
I think I was one of the first MCs to do the thing on the funky house scene. I saw the underground raves and I was like, rah, this scene's kinda good, I like the vibes still. And there's that one Supa D CD [‘Street Tuff Records Presents - The Soulful Funky House Experience’] that got me into the whole game; that track ‘Travelling’. I heard funky, I was like, yeah, this is the one man.
I liked it so much, so I brought Katy B and NG together. NG made a beat, and I was like I've got a singer for you, it's a white girl, commercial singer, He said it ain't gonna work. No, trust me, Katy's good man. She wrote 'Tell Me', and NG weren't really feeling it — it's a banger! But NG's that guy, he's never sure about nothing: I'm not sure, I'm not sure. He said 'why don't you spit on it?'. I'ma say a little eight bar on it, but nothing obviously great, just to get involved. Done the song, nobody's playing it at all. Then Statix played it once, and Pioneer and Supa D were in the building and saw the reaction. So then they started playing it, and from there it picked up and done pretty well. Got a Ministry of Sound deal. That didn't do much 'cause obviously record labels sign songs like that a year after they're out so it's a bit dead then.
Do you think that some of the record labels didn't know how to market us properly?
They didn't know how to market us, but I also think bruv, it was too underground for a commercial. 'Tell Me' was not gonna be a top number one single in England.
Let's talk about 'The Funky Anthem'. So by that time, the scene is a little bit more solid, people know what they're dancing to, it's got a name, they're calling it UK funky. You've got Supa D, Pioneer, Wigman, myself, a few of us, playing a mix of the UK stuff and US stuff. And then you've seen the gap in the market and the space to make an infectious song out of it with the video shot in Napa. So what's your thoughts when you've linked up with Flukes and that?
I’m home in my van and Flukes was on the radio playing the beat. I said, that beat is sick. So I hollered Corey [Johnson, licensing exec], he said yeah, license the beat, do your ting 'n' that. I done it all in one take, it was a bit of fun. Then I went to Ayia Napa, paid like a grand for the video and shot it there. The song is picking up, but not majorly. But in September when I got home to England, I put the video out, that's when everything changed, it's starting to hype. But people are [unsure] saying ‘the MCing thing though..’. I didn't really care, end of days. You do you, and I'll do what I wanna do, it worked for me. Then two months after that, KIG done one. After that, funky needed it; the whole scene turned to MC hypeman fest bruv, as you know.
I think it's important to have you in part of the conversation because we don't really get a chance to speak to the MCs that made our scene as well, and about getting DJs who traditionally were not used to having people on their set to see your vision. Because I saw it, but there was the DJs within the circuit that didn't think it fitted the scene. So how difficult was it working in that environment?
Listen, I wasn't thinking of The Fridge and the Brixton crowd. With me, I was thinking more the commercial way. I wasn’t trying to play inside a little venue in ends. Nah, that wasn't my vision. So I knew from then, them man wouldn't accept me, but there's a bigger market than them. Remember, all the times you seen Kyla doing 'Do You Mind?' all over the country? It was never in London. That's what it was to me. I'm thinking, it's a happy, corny tune, it's not for the rude boys. It is what is, innit. So I done my thing, and obviously it popped, it worked for me. But the thing about that though, is that me doing a simple, fun MC song made other people do it. Grime wasn't popping them at all you know; even the grime MCs were doing it. Look at "we need some more girls in here" ['Too Many Man' by Boy Better Know], that's a funky house song!
I've got tunes from Skepta, I've got tunes from Frisco, they did funky house, yeah. It was a big scene.
It was a big scene, but it was a scene nobody really cared about. Nobody loved funky; everybody used it. Everybody just thought, let me do a bit of that with it, then fuck off.
What did you think they were using it for?
The UK scene is like this yeah: if it ain't this way, we don't wanna fucking know. That's what it is. Like drill, drill's the one that all the MCs are doing now. Nobody cares about grime, or only one or two man care about grime, like Ghetts and Kano. Garage is different, it’s the biggest UK sound ever. You'll never beat garage in the UK. AJ Tracey makes garage songs still bust now fam. But no other garage MC is busting now. Do you know why? They're too bumbaclart old. The 19 year old kids don't wanna go see their dad on the stage MCing bruv. They wanna see young people MCing and doing their stuff bruv. That's the way I see it. In the UK, you've gotta do a certain thing or your song ain't gonna blow, and them days there were funky house.
So let's look at it from the perspective of the potential that funky had. Because whether we're classing it as funky or UK funky, it was played everywhere, up and down the country, your tracks, Donae'o's tunes, Crazy Cousinz, you could hear these tunes in places where they don't necessarily have Black people, and you were hearing the funky sound. So why do you think it didn't cross over into a mainstream commercial sound?
'Cause the record labels were too late on it. And nobody really, really loved it. To be honest with you, the DJs wasn't really sure about it themselves. EZ loved garage, Matt 'Jam' Lamont loved garage, they all loved garage. Now funky house, Supa D, loved it — but he didn't love it. He was ashamed to say he liked it. It's true! Them mans called it wonky; nobody could say funky's the one and feel happy and smile about it. There was no real love in the funky scene.
I had an interesting conversation with Roska as well as part of this series, and he said that we didn't take our opportunity to take ownership of the sound.
The thing with that is though, Roska was big. We didn't see him nowhere; Roska was doing his own thing. If the scene had five or 10 Roskas, we'd have been cool. Us artists were doing some shit, one sided singles — that's shit bruv. Say we had like 10 Donae'os, it would have been bigger, artists doing more and more songs. We all lived off the one song and thought we were getting bookings so that's cool. That's dead! The artists weren't artists, they were all just doing one or two songs then popping off.
So the output in the UK funky scene wasn't great.
There were no actual artists bro. Everyone was on a dancing hype thing, but nobody actually had the artist skill to do.. do you know, the person with the skill was Katy B. But Katy B went beyond funky and left it. You can't name many more artists apart from Roska and Donae'o. Who else can you name me with more than five songs?
I can't think of many artists in the scene.
So there's no artists then. It was all hype men innit. To make a scene you have to have artists. Look at the drill thing now, these kids are artists bruv; they're doing bare songs. Remember, when I was young, my goal was to be like Romeo and them man. They weren't really artists. Kids now look up to Stormzy.
So as a clubbing scene, then, maybe not a mainstream scene. Why do you think it died?
It turned into a joke ting. 'Swine Flu Skank', 'Nandos Skank', it turned into a skank fest of bullshit bro. You couldn't have five hours of funky, no way bro. Two hours max
But we used to have that kind of, those lengths of funky house in the dance.
What raves at bruv?
Some of the ones that Hotsteppa was putting on for example.
Those were r'n'b stroke funky raves. I'll be real, I'm 40 now I ain't got time to fuck about. The scene was good while it lasted but it ain't gonna come back. Everyone saying this and that about funky is everyone living their past dream fam, their past memories of funky. It's bad, but half the DJs changed their names to fucking suit and tie names, to get into the other scene. And none of them got into the other scene; they're all still playing to the same crowds.
So do you think that it wasn't helped by the fact that tech-house became trendy as well, that a lot of us tried to jump ship. But we couldn't have stayed playing funky then, could we? 'Cause some people were getting fed up of it.
The UK has cycles, bro. Music has its time, time's done, what's next? You know what it's like. And nobody was pushing the scene seriously. There was not enough Roskas, not enough Crazy Cousinz. Crazy Cousinz done bare remixes, they shouldn't have done that, should have been other songs with people on it. Where was Kyla's album? You can't have one song and that's it for 10 years. You can if it's garage, but not funky.
So is there any way do you think that we could bring funky back? And I say back, but some people don't think that it's dead. Like when I speak to Roska, he doesn't think it's dead. He just doesn't think it operates in the Black spaces; it's like a white sound now.
Funky ain't dead for Roska. You know why? Because Roska found his own place and his own home for it by himself. All us lot relied on something, we relied on Aiya Napa, we relied on them Hotsteppa rave. But Roska just thought, fuck you lot, I'm doing my own thing, and it worked. Funky ain't dead for him, but for everybody else it's dead. It's not fully dead, but... it kind of is to be honest with you. The kids don't really want to hear it, they don't say 'I want to be a funky house MC'. No one says 'I wanna be Versatile', they say 'I wanna be Stormzy and Dave'. Listen, AJ Tracey has got a big garage song right now. The kids don't say I wanna do a garage song, they say 'I wanna be AJ Tracey'. They don't care about club scenes no more, they care about being artists.
There is no club scene any more is there, for the kids.
The club scene is not the one no more. All the big raves, house raves and so on, it's always old people running it. There's no new kid who's 21 who's saying, yeah, I wanna do a funky house rave. They're either at LoveJuice or Abode or something, the house ones.
And they play a lot of garage at those raves as well.
Yeah, exactly, they play 'In The Morning' by Fuzzy Logik and Egpyt, and that's it. One tune; they don't care about funky as a whole. Everybody has gotta move forward now. We've all learned something from the whole scene. Your knowledge you've got is power to keep moving forward innit.
Do you think the reason why we didn't get the exposure that we deserve is because our scene was completely Black? From the beginning I think there was two white people in our scene, probably Katy and Geeneus. There wasn't a lot of white contributors to for the press to concentrate on, so maybe you think that would have played a part?
Do you know, that's a sly idea, that's a big part of it. And also there's the factor that nobody got on. Me and Funky Dee talk more now than we talked back in the day, me and Cold Steps talk more now than back in the day. Back in the day, it was like 'oh he's got a better tune than me', there was no teamwork. It's like I'm moaning, but I'm just being honest.
Nah, nah. We're never gonna push forward unless we give the honesty so the next generation can build from what we're educating them on. But it is quite sad that there's no club scene now, there actually isn't a club sound because drill's not club music.
But remember, us lot's era is from the clubs. We didn't have no mobile phones them days. Us lot had to go out and see our friends, you had to go to these things. It's different now; for music, clubs don't matter. The only club scene that's everlasting is drum 'n' bass, 'cause it's quality music. It don't stop, it's always evolving. Always new MCs, always new things. You show me a funky house MC now? It's dead as a scene, but a certain individual can use it still, like Roska can cut through in a whole different world to us, ‘cause he done the smart moves from the first place.
He looked at the global picture.
Yeah that's it! My weekend was like Tribal Life on a Sunday, get £100. We all thought: just keep money coming in. £100 there, £100 here. Roska thought: no, set up a label, build my studio. I wasn't thinking that far bruv. I'm being real: I had a big tune, I thought let's give bare PAs, get quick cash, fuck it I'm making money innit. But now, kids don't know about no funky, they only know 'Are You Gonna Bang?'.
We had a scene that we could have made massive, but we were all young, we was all kids enjoying the moment, not realising what we had in our hands. I manage artists now that are making money, making hundreds and hundreds of grand at 17/18. The opportunity for these kids now is a whole next level. The money in music now is completely flipped, but you've gotta be an artist bro. Think about it, if funky house was big now and we had Spotify and stuff.. rude boy! We woulda made P bruv.
I'm just thinking about, I'm just processing it. Because we just missed out on that numbers part of the music business, where the numbers and the money started getting ridiculous, because we were still just selling vinyls and things like that.
But we were just about selling vinyls fam, we come a bit late to that. We was in the worst time of UK music.
We were trying to sell vinyls at a time when the CDJs were just coming out.
Exactly. It was a good experience, it is what it is bruv. But trust me, it's not coming back as a scene. Individuals will win. Marcus Nasty will win, Cold Steps will win, you know why? 'Cause they ain't fucking stopped bruv. Consistency is key. That's how Cold Steps will clean up now. He's the only MC .. Marcus Nasty, Roska, clean up because they kept going. Pioneer kept going.
To be honest with you, I could be MCing the same lyrics to this day, and still get bare bookings bro — that means something's wrong. Same with garage; MCs do the same lyrics for so many years, and the fans of garage don't wanna hear no new bars. Do you know why? They're all old people fam. When you're in your 30s, you're stuck in your ways innit. Look at Geeneus, he knew more than all of us. He knew: get the acts, get the art, bust them, fuck off. None of us saw that coming.
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Kwame Safo is a DJ, broadcaster, label head, producer and music consultant. He is the Editor of Mixmag's Blackout Week and you can follow him on Twitter here
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