- Fri, 2004-05-21 17:30
Mark B and Blade – the aspirant and prolific beat maker and the hard-headed energetic lyricist – have an style of music that signifies independence and a hard-working ethic and captures the soul of UK Hip Hop as it is today. ‘The Unknown’ finds the duo speaking not just about their own struggles for recognition after years spent pioneering in one of popular music's least travelled enclaves - British Hip Hop - but about the music itself. And anyone criticising them simply for taking opportunities needs a dry slap.
This duo have, like a number of other British Hip Hop acts, been working in the scene and making fine music for well over a decade and are finally achieving the props they deserve – and they’re doing this for themselves, so let The Unknown get heard and make a stand, because anyone who’s seen these guys live will know – they are true professionals with a wicked sound that no one can deny.
Mark B and Blade are no newcomers to the scene, for Blade a string of independently financed and distributed singles and albums culminated in his 1993 double LP, The Lion Goes from Strength to Strength. It sold 10,000 copies via mail order and got Blade his first step up the ladder, but it was a hard slog, which was made even harder when radio DJs refused to give it airplay, despite its rave reviews.
''...I remember almost every track on the LP had a swear word in it...''
“I remember almost every track on the LP had a swear word in it, coz I was a bitter little so then, but there was one track that had no swearing until the very end, and then it was just a couple words. Ice T had a track out and radio DJs were taking time out to replace the swearing with beeps on American artists records, 30-40 times per track, whereas I had a song with one swear word in the whole thing and they wouldn’t take time out to beep it out. I won’t name the DJ, but that was low.”
Their paths crossed when Mark B bought records from Blade via mail order and organised a party in Kingston that he invited Blade to perform at. The landlord was griping about the loud music and when Blade turned up he pulled the plugs and all the lights went out. Mark B was keen to produce Blade’s music, but Blade, who wanted a faster pace of beats said, “Come back to me when you’ve got something more energetic.” After getting some tracks out with Vadim, Mark B released his first twelve-inch with vocals from Big Ted and MCM and finally persuaded Blade to collaborate on a track for Jazz Fudge, Vadim’s label. The result was The Hitman for Hire EP (1998) which finally got signed up by Worldplay, Source’s Hip Hop label.
So what’s the secret of their success, apart from the hard work and dedication? Maybe it’s the fact that they don’t just rap over a beat – they’re creating something more professional while still ‘keeping it real’. Whatever, music has been a strong influence from day one.
“Apparently when I was three years old I used to attempt to dance to the Jackson Five. ‘Getcha back up off the floor.’ And by the time I was four or five I was doing Elvis Presley impersonations, says Blade. “My brother and Aunty also seem to think I made beatboxing type of noises as a baby!”
Mark B remembers his dad and nan playing naff records, “You’d just turn it off or go out. No kid wants to listen to Cilla Black or Tom Jones.” Blade has something to say about that, “Don’t laugh I’m cutting some breaks from them on the next album. You just wait!”
Kingston native Mark B, now 29, had early aspirations of being an architecht, but these dreams were dashed when in 1983 he discovered the spray can and the rich textures and abstract styles of graffiti art. This became an obsession which plunged him deeper into the world of Hip Hop, so by the time he was nearing the end of his teen years, he’d replaced his thoughts on building houses with thoughts on building beats.
“ When I first saw Hip Hop as an art form I was really into graffiti,” says Mark “Although, I really wanted to be a breaker really but I can’t dance. I’m too tall and I haven’t got the moves. I tried and hurt by back a few times. Generally I’d be the one carrying the lino and the stereo with those street sound tapes blasting out.”
Blade also found Hip Hop through it’s other forms, “I was into everything: mixing, rapping, bodypopping, breakdancing, exchanging marker pens to keep up with tagging… everything. When I got into Hip Hop it was 1980 and it was the whole vibe that was going on was like totally different to everything else. In those days it was people like Odyssey, Shalimar, Culture Club and stuff. But it was this NEW thing, which had a different vibe to it than anything else did.”
“Back in those days it was like a religion to buy electro albums,” comments Blade. “I used to do breakdancing and bodypopping too. We started a little crew. One guy, Flyboy, who was well known in Covent Garden and a couple of Indian kids that went to our school, and we just went round our local schools and battled everybody. The two Indian kids specialised in the bodypopping and we specialised in the breaking and I specialised in the beatboxing and rhyming as well.”
So that was the singing into your hairbrush era that led Blade onto the mic and to where he is today. “Blade don’t need a hairbrush. On second thoughts yeah he does, for his bellybeard,” laughs Mark.
Prior to this Hip Hop awakening, the boys had been into other kinds of music as they still are today. “The first record I ever bought was by Madness, with a record voucher I got for Christmas. Used to love em and still do,” says Mark B. Blade adds, “I taped a lot of stuff off the radio in those days, but I think the first record that I actually bought was Ian Dury, Hit me with your rhythm stick.” Non Hip Hop music still has a big influence on the pair, one of the reasons they ended up with a Feeder remix of Ya Don’t See the Signs.
“When we first came up with the idea of getting a rock remix there were a lot of names thrown about, including the Red Hot Chilli Peppers,” says Mark. “Just on a listening level we’re all fans of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers,” adds Blade. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t really. So working with them would be like heaven.”
''...Personally, for me, I feel like I owe something to Oasis...'' Blade
Other dream collaborations include Oasis. “Personally, for me, I feel like I owe something to Oasis,” declares Blade. “So I’d like to do something with them. Basically, my life was at the lowest point it could ever have been, and one track – Wonderwall by Oasis and one book – by a guy called Gercher, ‘View from the Real World, kept me focused. And those two things kept me together, along with my son smiling at me every time I was pissed off with something. So I feel like I owe Oasis something. Gercher is dead so I owe him nothing.”
Mark B and Blade have come a long way – their independent beginnings have given them a determination, a good knowledge of the business and a maturity that some Hip Hop tracks lack. “I personally don’t feel the need for cursing in Hip Hop, but if people do and it’s part of their vocabulary – and that’s the way they talk – that’s fine,” says Mark B. “And I can’t imagine one of those songs without the swearing, it wouldn’t be right.”
Blade agrees, “I’ve always said that personally there’s nothing wrong with swearing if it serves a purpose. But if like Ice T (no disrespect) you do something that’s got like 257 ‘fucks’ in the song. I mean I wish I got fucked that often but … seriously though. I don’t swear once on the whole album, but we’ve done this track ‘Sealed with a Diss’ were I swear about three times in total because it went with what I was saying. Basically it’s a track where we have a go at the people who go on the Internet (the same few) who basically have a go at us for doing a rock remix and succeeding a little bit – so this track is like retaliation to them to say I basically don’t give two shits what think. I’m living my life for me not for them, so like the song says, ‘Enough of being polite. F*ck you’.”
“We didn’t do that record for anyone except else except ourselves,” adds Mark B. “Why should we sit here being skint, not making no money from record sales? If something is a way to get more radio play and get into the industry a bit more, surely they’d do the same.”
“There’s been a lot of obstacles, but the main one in getting ourselves actually known was just being on the right label with the right backing, “ says Mark, “and finding someone to really believe in you. Coz we’ve put our records out on other labels and it wasn’t really going anywhere.”
“No disrespect to Vadim, “ adds Blade, “but he’s an artist himself. So there’s only so much an artist can do for another artist. There was one point where we were just like ‘oh fuck it, let’s just do it.’ And then we woke up and realised that if we do this we’re just gonna end up eating cheese on toast forever, if that.”
“We’ve still got a lot of control,” sayd Mark. “It’s not like we’re ever gonna bang out a house mix or Hip Hop remix that we don’t like.”
“Speak for yourself mate,” says Blade, “I’m gonna release loads of ‘em.”
So how does it feel having Posh and Becks as fans? “Don’t you mean David and Victoria,” Mark chuckles. And warming up Eminem (oo-er) this Summer – that was a great experience for these representees of London.
“He was safe,” says Blade. ”I met him for about 30
seconds just to say ‘Good to meet you, you’re an influence.’ I didn’t tell him who I was and we just went about our business. The next day, Westwood went on the radio and said that Eminem was well into the show and then we saw him at Reading and the last song before Dre came out on stage was our song. My son was on my shoulders and he was like ‘That’s my dad’s song’. I didn’t realise it was the last song until the lights went out and I was like, ‘mad he played our song as his last one!’ That was a reality check.”
So what next for Mark B and Blade?
“Right now we’ve got a new EP out” says Mark. “It’s called There’s No Stopping It. One features live from Phi-Life Cypher on it, plus Benny G is on there from Mixologists doing some scratching and we’ve got an old Blade classic on there called, ‘Survival of the Hardest Working,’ which you ain’t gonna find nowhere really, apart from on this new record. Apart from that we’re just keeping at it.”
Any tips for rhymers or producers?
“ We’ve got a manager and he takes care of stuff for us, but nothing will bypass us without our say and that’s down to artwork, mastering, mixing, remixes. You need a plan, and if plan a fails you move on to plan b and so on,” advises Mark B.
“My tip is to keep doing what you’re doing,” adds Blade. “Don’t give up just because the doors aren’t open yet. Everything happens for a reason, if you’re being held back it’s for a reason and one day that reason will become apparent. So stick with it. Don’t give up and don’t believe your friends when they tell you you’re good – you’ll know when you’re good. Friends are afraid to tell you what they mean, so you should have faith in yourself to carry yourself through. You don’t need anyone else to do it, so believe in yourself.
I N F O F I L E S
Favourite all time rapper: Rakim
Favourite DJs: Grasshopper and Plus One, “Plus one is really one to watch – he’s wicked at scratching as well but on the technical side he’s untouchable, he’s got routines that’ll blow your mind and his fingers are so fast think he’s gonna make some girl really happy.”
On my CD player right now: The Nirvana album: Never Mind
Favourite all time rapper: KRS 1. I just think the guy’s incredible. Ever since he put a record out in 1985 he’s been a favourite. His last record was called Hot and he’s still hot.
Favourite DJs: Scratch Perverts come at the top of my list, including Mr Thing and Plus One. And also a guy from the mid ‘80s called DJ Cheese. Plus One is back in the Scratch Perverts now and he is unbelievable. He’s on four or five tracks of our album scratching – that was nearly two years ago. When I first saw the guy I was with Tony Vegas and he was like ‘this kid is gonna kill it,’ and he’s come a long way, he’s the ITM Champion, the DMC UK Champion and I’m hoping he’s gonna win the World Finals. I think the UK DJ’s are leading the world, although I’ve got to take my hat off to A-Track and Craze and Grasshopper and DJ Riz as well.
On my CD player right now: A compilation album I’ve just put together made up of old skool records. It’s called Harlem World and it’s out now. It’s not run of mill old skool like White Lines and the Sugar Hill Gang, it’s more like Buzzy Bee, Mister Magic, Afrika Bombata, and early stuff with Cosmic Force and so Sonic Force, proper old skool stuff.