Opinion: It’s Time to Respect the Jungle MC
It’s midnight at any given drum & bass rave across the UK pre-lockdown. Spirits are high, the night is young. The crowd cheers as two artists take the stage. One is packing a pair of USBs and headphones, the other brandishes only a humble microphone. They are both fully committed to the hour that lays ahead. Yet their names on the flyer are very different sizes, and their pay is hardly equal. At some raves, as much as half the crowd might not want one of them there.
Welcome to drum & bass: a unique space in the bass diaspora where the voice, energy, and presence of an MC is absolutely vital to the culture and character of the genre. Yet it is frequently and criminally maligned and undervalued.
But MCing is an artform, with roots as deep as the genre itself. So it’s time to respect the MC. Here’s why.
I don’t usually like MCs, but…
Sure, some people just don’t like MCs. “The music needs to breathe, it doesn’t need additional vocals,” they say. And admittedly, a fired-up b2b2b2b badman barrage is usually a little over the top. Many people have had bad MC experiences; they’ve been put off by the many MCs who haven’t quite mastered their craft. It takes a lot of guts to get on stage with a mic — but sometimes big egos push artists to the stage before they’re ready. For the moment, however, let’s leave personal taste aside, while we discuss the value and artform MCing.
On stage, the best MCs can bring a dull set to life. They’re a DJ’s eyes and the crowd’s voice. They know the anthems just as well as the ravers and the dubs just as well as the DJs. They’re seasoned commanders with a barrage of club-ready weaponry at their disposal — hosting, battling, and free-flowing sometimes all on the same night. The best can incite a wild reaction with just one bar. In the case of Bassman, the mere raise of a finger can cause a commotion.
Rooted in soundsystem culture as an intrinsic part of jungle drum & bass’s black music foundations, the MC’s role is part of the genre’s oldest traditions. Tape-pack town-criers, they were crucial in giving voice to the junglist movement that erupted across the UK and beyond from the early-to-mid ‘90s. Pioneers like Navigator, GQ, Moose, 5ive-O, Stevie Hyper D, Conrad, Bassman, and Cleveland Watkiss and were central to welcoming listeners into this uncompromising new musical world. They provided a distinctly human element, counterbalancing the futuristic, mechanical fury of this new sound. And their prominence helped to establish jungle and drum & bass as something totally different from the dominant hardcore, house, and techno sounds of the time, remaining a part of the genre’s DNA ever since — and influencing MCs from across the spectrum; ask any first-generation grime MC who influenced them and names such as Skibadee and Trigga will always be referenced.
This unique role an MC has in the genre is why you seldom see a big-league D&B DJ performing without their MC of choice. It’s also why MC bars and phrases are sampled into tracks every year, creating that authentic junglist punch. (Dimension’s 2016 anthem “UK” is a fine example, spawning countless copycats). Beyond samples, many D&B MCs are recording artists in their own right, creating bodies of work that set new benchmarks for the artform, while transcending the party-starter role they’re sometimes associated with. D&B MCs can be songwriters, rappers, singers, storytellers, and dexterously technical performers. Sense MC, for example, blurs the art of poetry and spoken word in his work. DRS is a soul man, tearing open his heart to convey emotions most of us can only dream of articulating. Harry Shotta is a Guinness World Record holder, beating the likes of Eminem in displays of overwhelming lyrical dexterity. Degs is a multi-instrumentalist capable of composing just as many ballads as bangers.
“We have some of the most talented writers and performers in our scene across the whole aspect of vocals,” agrees Inja, Hospital Records label mate to Degs, and another highly-respected and versatile songsmith. “If you took the best humans in D&B together, put them in a band and matched them against the best in grime, drill, trap, reggae, garage, hip-hop, they would stand the test. They’d pull their weight!”
In a nutshell, MCing to drum & bass is an artform. But there’s a twist. “A grime guy can spit some bars on a set but he’s still seen as an artist,” Inja observes. “But in D&B, we are still just MCs no matter how musical or creative we express ourselves.”
This is the biggest problem MCs face. The lack of value afforded to them as artists ensures their relegation to the bottom of the flyer. When Boomtown festival announced their line-up this year, unbeknown 2020 would take a very sour swerve, MCs weren’t even listed on the line-up at all. Yet, as DRS explains, many MCs weren’t vocal about this mistreatment, because they still want to play to the festival’s infamously raucous and supersized crowds.
“Festivals, organisations, clubs — they all put the pressure on,” Manchester artist DRS says. “They’ll be like ‘This is the bass festival; if you don’t play here, you’re nobody.’ You’re made to feel like that and that’s why you put up with shit. It’s always meant to feel like they’re doing you a favour.”
DRS is one of the drum & bass scene’s most versatile and prolific MCs. He sets an incredibly high benchmark. His and LSB’s remarkable The Blue Hour album alone is proof of the creative and authentic potential of the MC’s artform. When an artist of DRS’s caliber points this out — he’s built his reputation over the past 20 years — it’s indicative of just how imbalanced things are for MCs, both artistically and financially.
Not Paid In Full
“I struggle from time to time, so for other MCs who don’t have the profile I’ve managed to scrape together, I fear for them,” DRS explains. “You’re touring with someone who’s earning twice as much, you’re eating, traveling, and taking cabs, but you come home with nothing, and they come home with something. It goes on to this day.”
DRS speaks from personal experience, but his perspective will resonate with most MCs in the genre. Because each fee is so dependent on the MC’s profile, it’s hard to quantify exactly how large the pay gap actually is between MCs and DJs. But some agents have a rule of thumb: around half (or two thirds) of the DJ’s fee. However, some MCs suggest it’s around a third. A lot depends on the booking itself, and the DJ the MC is paired up with. Particulars aside, MCs aren’t asking for equal fees — it’s near-universally understood that DJs will be the main draw for the majority of fans. Without their selections, MCs would be hosting spoken word shows.
Instead, this is about how much promoters, producers, and fans should value, respect, and acknowledge MCs as figures in drum & bass culture. It’s about crediting them on productions they feature on or are sampled on. It’s about giving MCs their proper place on the flyer, next to the DJs they’re working with, and nothing less. But most importantly, it’s time to invest in MCs — quality MCs who bring their A-game every single time. Without investing in quality, standards will remain low, resulting in the Marmite reputation MCs have in drum & bass — they’re either loved or hated.
But there are signs of progress as more labels invest in high profile MC album projects. DRS set the benchmark but artists such as Inja, Coppa, and Degs have continued to set the creative bar high and represent the artform, both for what it is, and for what it has the potential to become.
“Things are getting better,” says Degs. “Look at Hospital — they’ve signed four MCs now. They’re exposing us as songwriters and there is a shift in perspective. For years before there was a stigma of us being shouty hype men, but I see daily comments saying things like, ‘I didn’t think I liked MCs but this is sick.’ That’s great and it’s down to exposure. The more MCs turn towards the DRS and Inja-led style of musicianship and songwriting, the more people will understand the context of the artform. This goes for all vocalists. We just need to keep writing, keep performing and keep the standards as high as we can and people will understand more about the culture. I’ve been saying this for a while now, but the wave is coming, I can feel it.”
Dave Jenkins is a freelance writer. Find him on Twitter.