Data Transmission talks to the frontman of DJ Fresh’s new live band: Messy MC, on touring, working with DJ Fresh and the mysterious world of MCing....
How did you start out?
I’ve been a drum and bass MC for about 7 years now. I started out when I was 12 as a hip hop MC, then once I got to Norwich uni my flatmate got me into Drum & Bass and I started MCing the opening sets at his DnB nights, where I got a much bigger crowd reaction and ever since that was where I wanted to go. I was 19 at that point so I was relatively late for an MC. I was just doing the circuit for years, trying to meet the right people. Skipping forward a few years: I won the Drum & Bass Arena Award in 2010 for Best Newcomer MC and was picked up to work with Pendulum and Nero as a result. Off the back that I got into the DJ Fresh band. I’d never worked with Dan Fresh (Daniel Stein, aka DJ Fresh) before, but I’d worked with Nero at LED festival. Dan was playing before us. I had no idea he was setting up a band at the time - I just knew he’d recently done well with Gold Dust. It turns out he’d seen me just before then and hit me up a few weeks later to get me involved. It was nice because at the time there wasn’t much money in it - there wasn’t enough for me to quit my full time job, whilst when Dan offered me a full job I was able to walk straight into my boss’s office and say “Do one!”
What were you doing at the time?
I was a sales manager, running a team that sold energy contracts to businesses. So really, the only tenuous link is that I still had to have the gift of the gab to make money!
Was there any point leading up to DJ Fresh that you thought you really could be a full time MC?
In the years leading up to winning the D&BTV award - which was the milestone- this was always what I had planned - to leave my full time job and make a full time living out of music. The problem with balancing music and having a normal job is that you don’t necessarily get the time to work in the studio as well as experiment with your own ideas, so doing the stuff with the band now gives me mondays to thursdays to sit in the studio and do my own stuff. It allows me to be self sufficient and make money from every part of music.
DJs often pitch to promoters, Producers will pitch to labels. Often both end up having a kind of mentor who brings them along, how does it work with aspiring MCs?
It’s quite a different dynamic. MCs, particularly drum and bass MCs have always been sh*t upon. By DJs, by everyone else. They’ll earn a lot less of what the DJ earns so it’s a lot more grass-roots stuff. But then, it’s also easier to get bookings without a reference point for the promoter. Promoters need something to put next to a DJs name, like a record label, whereas MCs can get work just by going down to nights, meeting people, getting people to listen to mix CDs. On the flipside, there’s also a lot more groundwork needed, doing sh*tty little raves in Leighton Buzzard, playing til 4-6 am for 30 quid when it cost you 40 to get there in petrol. Those initial years tend to break a lot of people. Getting into my twenties, with my parents saying “Really? This is really what you want to do?” whilst I’m out playing to 4 guys on the dancefloor at the end of the night, it’s not pretty. Like anything though - you’ve just got stick by it, then a decent promoter finally books you, and as soon as that happens, others jump in. Fabric, in 2007, were one of the first to give me a real shot , and once I got booked by them other people start to notice, including the likes of Random Concept. I ended up having a great channel in Drum & Bass Arena TV, they helped me out a lot, I had a few shows for them, I was the kind of go to MC for their online shows and that gave me the chance to present to people every single week. That was the year that won me the 2010 Best Newcomer award.
How tribal is the MCing community?
Totally. I’m a drum and bass MC, and if I decided tomorrow I wanted to be a house MC or even put vocals over beats I was making....well...where the f*ck would I start? When you’re in drum and bass for a while you understand the smaller labels, you understand who to speak to. you’re never going to jump into a bigger label, you just won’t get picked up, because that label will know of ten other MCs at a better level than you. There’s certain labels that, once you work with them you can’t work with any others. Bigger artists will pick you up and smaller labels will get funny about it. No one ever puts stuff in writing but you do get a couple of phone calls over the years and you do have to make some tough choices. It’s a total minefield: people will tell you “Working for this guy is the worst decision of your career” and you have to work out for yourself what to call. But I’m pleased with all the decisions I made.
How much of your set is prepared? How much do you know about what the DJ will play?
The band is fairly rigid - we have intense rehearsals - before this tour we had three weeks of every single day, 1pm-6am, running over the same set, making little changes, but then that shows when we actually perform.
When it comes to DJ sets, I literally don’t have a clue. Even if I do get the chance to speak to them beforehand it’s usually “Ahhh, yeah I might play that, but, well you’ll get it”. You end up broadening it to the style of DJ rather than particular tunes - whether the DJ plays deeper stuff, or harder jump-up stuff, and go from there.
MCing has always been close to pirate radio. With more and more online channels allowing stations to become legit, does this make distinguishing yourself as an MC easier- because there are more options, or harder because there’s just so many?
It’s so tough. it’s easier to be seen these days - you can do a mix and it’ll be up on YouTube within 20 minutes with people able to view it straight away, but that also means the market is saturated with loads of MCs that sort of sound the same. Back in the day, to do something like Kool FM was such a huge milestone, and once you’d played on one of these stations you’d start getting bookings. Whereas nowadays you have to gain a following. You’re not gonna get picked up by Fabric just because you’ve done some underground FM or something similar. It’s probably a little bit fairer - there’s a broader chance to be picked, but then it’s harder for MCs to go through all the extra work to get noticed.
There’s been a big rise in urban lyrics being done over commercial electronic music - what’s a traditional MCs take on that?
I think it’s helped because the majors (music labels) are starting to look at dance music. You’ve also got a dilemma because you’ve got dance music producers, but then you’ve got MCs from a grime or garage or drum and bass background which may be more of a traditional frontman than the producer themselves. I think, there are MCs now coming though because majors are jumping on board with the sound. The thing is, if you take a really talented hip hop or dubstep MC, and you give him a house or a drum and bass beat, they’ll still be able to produce something on that better than most native MCs. Dream Mclean on Chase & Status’ label, he traditionally only raps over dubstep, he’s got a very unique style that works well on dance music style of MCing. Years ago, the underground was the underground, it started with garage and grime but, off the back of the whole dance music explosion, MCing is coming through now in a way that just would not have happened five years ago.
You’ve played in a lot of different countries - do the crowd respond differently to MCs in different countries?
Yes and no. MCs have been sh*t on for years, it’s a universal thing. Places like East Europe are a little less keen on the concept, but I think it is more down to the individual MC to be fair. You never get a flop, or a country where they just hate MCs, but in a lot of Europe they like their music harder, techier and are less into a guy jumping around on stage. However, most places will accept it.
Tell us how the 2012 tour came together
There’s always an idea when it comes to touring, but that needs to be taken up by promoters. You’ll have a tour company that handle pitching to the major arenas, whilst other appearances are ad-hoc bookings. There’s an idea where you want to go, but that doesn’t always translate to reality. It’s all down to having a good tour manager and agent - ours are pretty close to point on most of the stuff we do. There’s always a feeling that you want to do more - but then looking back over our schedule last year, I’m not sure if that would have ever been possible. Next year we’re looking to take on America and Australia. It’s all part of the world domination grand plan really!
You’ve played Radio 1 Hackney, Ibiza Rocks, you played a range of places - what were the highlights?
Some of the festivals were immense. Because we were a band we got to play some amazing stages. At V Festival, Nicki Minaj canceled, so we got to play mainstage second to the headliners, which was great. We did four sets over the weekend, and the main one was 60,000 people as the sun was setting. We all went to Ibiza and Mallorca to do the Rocks! gigs, we did the Australian Parklife tour with Rizzle Kicks and Labrinth and Plan B. Because you’re living together and partying together you become this little crew, which is wicked.
On tour with a group, what’s the vibe like? Does it feel like a group of mates travelling, or quite businesslike?
It’s fairly party, like... It’s how you imagine. You’ve got the management; the tour managers who walk around the place stony-faced, sh*tting themselves if the shuttle from the airport to the hotel is five minutes late but then that’s what they’re supposed to worry about I suppose, but the rest of us just want to know where we’re going out that night. You all get drunk together, you all look at each other sheepishly over breakfast the next morning, then you all go and do it again. By the end of it you are sort of looking forward to just going home, because when you’re on tour, you can’t say no. There’s always someone in the band that’s going out that night, so you’ll want to go along with them. It ends up being three weeks of what feels like a constant hangover.
Did anything....controversial happen?
Well.... there’s....(laughs) there’s a few things that happened but in no way could i tell you, especially as they didn’t involve me! We forgot people from time to time. We forgot our photographer in Ibiza. He went out on a bender and ended up on a beach somewhere. We got to the airport and everyone was like “Where’s Steve?” He’d come back at 6am and we’d all gone to the airport. Our tour manager looks after us brilliantly, but any extra freelancers, well, they just sort of have to fend for themselves! The other stuff.....I really couldn’t say (laughs)
How does the band produce?
My roles more reactive. Dan’s the main source, he comes up with the bulk of the ideas. The band have a lot of input as to how the actual tracks sound live - and that’s often quite different to how the tracks are on the album, he’s keen to our input on that. We’ve all had a few sessions with him in the studio - he gives everyone a shot.
What are your plans going forward?
Going forward my focus is very much with ‘Fresh and the band. It takes up a lot of my time and I wouldn’t contemplate leaving without it coming to a natural end, because now I feel part of it and want to push it toward a peak. Aside from that I’m now part of a collective called AMPM, we’re making kind of indie-dubstep sounding stuff at the moment (a bit like Alex Clare) The other half of the group have come from a real indie kind of background whereas my roots are more electronic, so it’s a good meeting that’s happened. In the last year we’ve managed to push out about 40 tracks in total of which about 10-15 we’re really pleased with, of which we’ve just been sniffing around and having a few major label meetings at present, so it’s looking very promising. It’s gone from using a bit of spare time productively and jotting some ideas down on paper to becoming this full on project. I’m in a nice place, with the ‘Fresh band going well and the side project taking on its own form.