Celebrated MC and Vocalist Fox Says His New Album is "Really a lot of Survival Music"

We speak to the widely-respected MC about the difficulties many MCs face, his relationship with Lenzman, and his new album, Squad Dangs In The Key Of Vibes.

16 min
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Jul 23, 2021
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By
Cameron Holbrook

Hailing from Manchester by way of Kingston, Jamaica, the legendary MC and vocalist known as Fox, has been obliterating drum & bass fans with his sharp ear, sonic versatility, and impactful lyricism since the late ’90s.

A key member of both the UK bass & hip hop collective LEVELZ and the iconic Swing Ting crew, Fox has been tapped by some of the UK’s greatest to feature on their tracks over the years. These acts include Dub Phizix, Calibre, Marcus Intalex, Chimpo, Roska, and Call Super, just to name a few.

The multifaceted talent spent much of his lockdown in 2020 grinding it out in the studio, and the result? A full-force 11-track debut LP named Squad Dangs In The Key Of Vibes — out now via Lenzman‘s label, The North Quarter. Featuring instrumentals by some of the drum & bass scene’s most elite producers, the LP spans the D&B spectrum, jumping from hot to cold, raucous to mellow, and even expands into bass, dubstep, and hip hop territory. Piloted by Fox’s vibrant lyricism, the album tells the story of a veteran MC whose craft and musical mentality know no bounds.

We spoke to Fox to learn more about when he first grabbed the microphone, the struggles of making your career stick as a full-time vocal artist and MC, how he put his new album together, and more.

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Thanks for joining us, Fox! How has 2021 been treating you so far?

Thanks for having me. Well, I think it’s fair to say 2021 so far has been carrying on the 2020 legacy lol. Naw, I’m good really, staying busy, broke but not broken.

Bring us back to how you first started MCing in the Manchester scene back in the 2000s. Who are some of the artists that really helped you cement your status in the drum & bass scene?

Firstly I’d say, I don’t see myself as cemented in D&B at all. I’m married to music. I’ve creatively expressed myself in various genres. There are so many boundaries in life, why go seeking more? Secondly, I started making music in the ‘90s, but though my heart was in it, I wasn’t fully committed and other stuff had my focus.

Marcus Megadread from Megatone sound was the first person that I met that was into music and gave me access to a sound system, pirate radio, and dances in Manchester. Those days, there were a lot of dancehall samples in jungle, and sound systems. The younger heads in the crew especially would play jungle, and I guess that’s where I got into it, though I still was into dancehall and hip hop.

I began using music to teach workshops and wasn’t actively pursuing being in the industry, but got back into it in the early 2000s. I found my way into the Estate Recording gang and those were some really creative, transformative times. DRS, Chimpo, Dub Phizix, Skittles, Strategy — we had two studios in the same building, which was also shared by a good few artist bredrins.

We had some wild times and made some sick music. “Never Been,” “Soul Remember,” “Marka,” “Bun Ya,” all these were made back then. The whole thing was organic, creatively different, and was a fresh wave. I’d say doing regular sets at Hit & Run for some of the best DJs and producers in drum & bass also helped. I guess if I’m seen as “cemented” it’s through consistently making D&B tunes and smashing some sick sets.

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In an opinion feature that we did back in July of 2020, we spoke to Inja, who told us: “A grime guy can spit some bars on a set, but he’s still seen as an artist. But in D&B, we are still just MCs no matter how musical or creative we express ourselves.” What are your thoughts on the above statement? How does one rise above the status of “MC” to being recognized as an artist in their own right?

I speak to Inja a lot, we’ve had that convo a few times and I agree. I experience that second-classery constantly, but because I also stay active in other genres, I have the opposite of that to be able to regularly compare and contrast and it helps that I don’t consider myself a D&B MC.

My experiences as an MC in D&B mirrors that of being a black person in life, constantly fighting for basic respect and constantly having to do at least twice the graft for half the rewards. I dunno what the solution is because to this day I still experience it. For example, do you know how many people will post a track from MY album yet tag me last after the producers? Or how many DJs play it on radio, and despite how it’s credited on the album, will still credit me last?

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It’s a lot, and it’s annoying because part of the solution, or so I’d thought, was to put a body of work out that’s mine, but even then some people still reference it in terms of the producers. I don’t even think it’s a conscious thought for a lot of people or something I have control over. If you look at how flyers are done, you’ll notice the standard is, DJ names in bold, and MCs at the bottom in fine print. Why? It reinforces the idea of MCs/vocalists as garnishing.

If I’m collaborating on set with the headliner, why is my name not next to that person? Big-ups to Hit & Run for bucking the trend and putting MC’s next to the DJs. In terms of bookings, often a MC gets paid less than a DJ for the same set, the same energy input, and often will be expected to do more sets. All of that feeds the idea of second-classness.

To be honest, I just do what I do, embrace my definition and vision of self, and keep working on my craft. I stay particular about who I work with and what conditions I’m happy to continue working under. If I sense a producer isn’t respectful of what I do or doesn’t see it as an equal collaboration, then I don’t work with them anymore regardless of who they are or how good it might be for my CV/career.

I’ve gone to the studio and recorded vocals for a D&B producer and they’re supposed to edit it and send it back to me to OK it or suggest changes, but the next thing I hear of the tune is from a DJ telling me they played the mastered tune in a rave and it got bare reloads. The producer in question admitted they didn’t even have a valid excuse, that it’s disrespectful, and said sorry, but by then it’s too late. That’s the deep end of the disrespect but it highlights it well. Honestly, I take inspiration from DRS. As a vocal artist, he does his own projects, runs his own label etc., but he’s definitely experienced the same marginalisation, and I think his album title I Don’t Usually Like MC’s But… speaks to that struggle and frustration.

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Can you give us some insight into your relationship with Lenzman and The North Quarter — from the time you first started hosting their events to deciding to release your new album on the label?

My memory is at the mercy of age and ‘urbs but I think I’d met Lenzman about six or seven years ago in Sardinia at SUNANDBASS. We chatted briefly about doing music. He’d sent me a track not long after getting back, but it was a soul tune and I didn’t feel brave enough to do it justice back then. We crossed paths, as you do, at various events over the years and eventually he got me to host and It developed from there. I’d also met Freddie (FD) and his wife at SAB in Sardinia, they were noisy neighbours that became good friends.

I like the vibe in the TNQ camp. I think that stems from Lenzman’s laid-back, very respectful attention to detail, commitment to a good music vibe. Everyone is talented, but even better, everyone’s got their egos in check. I’m slowly working my way to collaborating with everyone. As for this album, it happened because Lenzman sees me as I see myself, as an artist and when he’d said he’d be happy to put out a project of mine. He also said he didn’t want it to be a D&B album ‘cos he knows I’ve got more than that in me. Of course, I was down.

Tell us about the process behind writing your new album, Squang Dangs In The Key Of Vibes? How long has this been in the works, and did you face any major challenges along the way?

I’m not one of those artists that can say I had a clear vision. I just had a general vibe and headed in a direction knowing and trusting life will provide clarity as I move forward. But lemme rewind, after I’d met Lenzman, it was a few years before we started working together. In that time I was busy doing stuff with Swing Ting, Levelz and also random features, but I’d decided to do a D&B EP off my own back and then find a home for it.

I’d hollered at a few producers I knew who’d given it the “yeah we should make music” rahrah chat before or who owed me a track. The response was depressing and disappointing, a lot of questioning who was gonna be on the EP etc. Bun all that position-watching business, either decide we’ll make something together and see what comes out of it or naw. It was during this time I think I’d seen Lenzman and during a catch up I expressed my experience and conclusions. Long story short he said come do it on The North Quarter. The first criteria that shaped the album was that I wanted friends and positive productive energy. Echo Brown is the only person on there that I’d never met IRL before. Aside from that, I wanted music from the soul. A fair bit of the album was made in 2020 and it’s really a lot of survival music.

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You’ve got some of the drum & bass scene’s most elite producers featuring on the new LP. In collaborating with these artists, what are some of the tracks that surprised you the most?

To be honest, the more established, “elite producers,” as you put it, didn’t surprise me. They did what they’re known for, i.e. constantly tapping into original creativity and making great music. In a way, nothing on the album surprised me. I approached everyone because I knew they were supremely talented and I believed in them. I didn’t really know Echo so in a way he was the wildcard but it worked out brilliantly and we made something sick. That “Squang Dang” track features T Man, who is a don, and I obviously worked with him a lot in Levelz, and a young 16-year-old Manchester artist called B. Cass, who I’ve known for a couple years now and been impressed with his commitment to craft and wisdom beyond his years. “Empty Promises” with Lovescene is probably surprising to me because it’s out of my singing comfort zone, and thanks to her advice and belief in me, it’s a beautiful vibe.

From your work with Levelz and Swing Ting to teaching workshops at youth clubs and community centers, you’ve helped many young MCs over the years. So to any up-and-coming MCs trying to break into the game that might currently be reading this article, what piece of advice would you offer them?

Advice? Dunno, I’m not regaled as a wise man. Some of the things I’d consider wise are maybe just wise for me, based on who I am and what I value, desire and need. So the first thing I’d say is, know yourself. Do you just wanna host, do you not wanna host, is recording your sweet spot? The answer to these questions will help make your path clearer. I’d say value yourself, set your boundaries, fall in love with your craft, when you’re more in love with making music than what success in music could bring then you’ll become powerful, be respectful to everyone and respectfully demand respect, be supportive of other artists, be original.

Fox’s debut album Squad Dangs In The Key Of Vibes is out now via The North Quarter.

Cameron Holbrook is Beatportal’s Assistant Editor. Find him on Twitter.

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