In a career spanning over 2 decades and counting, Top Cat’s voice and flow has set the world aglow with a lyrical style so versatile that it’s lit bass bins ablaze in a herb soaked haze. Injecting rampaging soul as he strolls a roll across sizzling beats, turning up the lyrical heat, he takes you from the rudeboy ride to the roots inside in a freeflow stride that leaves the divide outside. From the junglist assault to the cultural vault, I think that we can all agree he’s a legend MC and with his 9 lives still burning bright and a melodic range to keep you holding tight, we turn you over to the man TC with whom we took a moment to see who he be… We caught up with Top Cat in a reflective moment for a chat..Bless
What was your initial drive into music
Music has always been a part of my life and something I got into at a very early age. My father had a huge record collection that covered all kinds of different genres beyond just reggae – pop, soul, ska, everything – and I grew into that variety of styles and laid down a wide ranging musical education. I suppose that some of that inspiration rubbed off on me because I started writing my own songs early on and had my first hits at the age of 7. One was a playground hit and the other was a football chant that nobody believed came from a 7 year old. I’m not going to go to deep into the football one now, but it took the terraces by storm, and the playground song was massively popular when I was a child, and unbelievably is still being sung in my old area today. So I make up these rhymes when I was 7, and then when I went back to my old manor at the age of 27, I saw my friend’s little nephew running through the house still singing my song. So I stopped him as he tore past and asked him where he heard that, and he just looked at me and said ‘every kid in Manchester knows this song’. Well what do you say to that apart from wow. But I think you’ll notice that a lot of reggae artists listen to stuff well beyond straight up reggae, and I’m just grateful that back then when I was laying the groundwork of inspiration and aspiration, I had access to the wider musical spectrum and that the education I had was the right one for everything that came afterwards. The first official record I put out was Love mi Sess in 1988, and that was also my very first number 1…so I hit the ground running.
So 1988, you’ve got a whole new era in music developing as acid house was going off, but can you tell us a little about the reggae sound system scene at around that time.
Well I came up through the reggae sound system ranks, lifting boxes to get into the dance, and as a little apprentice, I got my opportunity early in the night to hold the mic and MC a little bit. Funnily enough, if we were playing one of the bigger sounds, some of our more established MC’s would be a bit cagey about going up against some of the bigger names, but I didn’t really give a damn – if they didn’t want it – well that was just more time for me. I was originally in a sound called Sledge Hammer and we’d play dances all about the place – and when you mention acid house and that scene taking off, the UK reggae dancehall scene had been going strong for a long time. You had the Steppaz scene, Roots and Culture with Shaka and Ja Man from back in the day, Northern Soul around Wigan and Manchester where they’d be playing soul music that you’d never heard before. We had separate scenes within the movement, different vibes, different flavours and I took inspiration from all of them. I was never that partial or totally tribal – I’d just go to as many different dances and sounds as I could. The musical education that I got never came from no official school, but by immersing myself in the scene and learning everything raw, up front and first hand.
When you were coming up, how did the older MC’s react to you. Were they supportive or did you have a fight on your hands to break through
With all MCing and the music business in general, you’ve always got to really prove yourself, so yeah, I had my fights, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The more you fight to achieve and the more you fight for what you believe in, the stronger you get and I totally believe that some of those early battles helped me on my way and helped my development. Course I lost some, but I won most of them – so maybe not a 100% record but here I am still…
Did the UK develop a different strain of reggae compared to what was coming out of Jamaica
Yes. When I started making a name for myself on the sound system circuit in the mid 80’s – back before anything of mine hit vinyl, the English MC’s had developed their own style, which was originally called the Fast style and was really started up by the Saxon MC’s. That was the major divergence between the UK and Jamaican sounds but Jamaica took influence from what was going on back in Britain and so both scenes have really helped push each other forwards.
In 91 and 92 as the Jamaican reggae influence began to fuse with house before moving into breakbeat and then swiftly into jungle, what was your initial reaction as a reggae artist to the changes that were happening.
I kinda liked it. Because apart from guys like the Ragga Twins actually going in and recording it, a lot of my tunes were getting heavily sampled and doing well. And that was the thing – apart from listening to some of what was coming out and getting into it, through being sampled, I was already being brought into and finding myself involved in the new music scenes that were being created in London and being a part of that evolution, of that explosion of style and creativity is something that I’m very proud of to this day.
What was your first track outside the sphere of pure reggae and how did it come about
The first track that I did outside the reggae zone was with a producer called Bobby Konders, who is currently one of the biggest reggae / dancehall DJ’s in America – based in New York with Massive B sound. So he does reggae now, but originally he was a house man and when I met him in Desire Records London studio, the idea was for me to lay some of my vocals over a house beat of his. I didn’t know too much about him apart from that he was a house producer, but all he talked about in the studio sessions was reggae music and he turned out to be a big Shabba Ranks fan. So we did the track, but at the end of it all, I told him that it was obvious that his passions lay with reggae rather than what he was doing then, and sure enough, when I was in New York a couple of years later, who’s the biggest reggae DJ in the area…Bobby. Looks like he took my advice!
So as this change is happening – you’ve got reggae MC’s and reggae ingredients, but the bpm’s are heading steadily up, what was the reaction of the more roots based older generation that you’d grown up respecting.
Well I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the older generation didn’t really understand it, but while some were naturally resistant, others were all for it. The thing was though, especially from my perspective, was that this was not only a new sound, but a new UK sound. Seeing as that was where I was based, it was my generation that really took it on, supported it and represented it, and that’s why I really got into it and pushed it.
1994 was a massive year for you – tell us a little about how it all came together for you
Well it kicked off by winning MC of the Year for the 93-94 season for the first time, and I also left the reggae record label I had been working with up until that point to start my own – 9 lives record. That was a major step, and I started putting out my own tunes on my own label, and just as the very first single I ever recorded went straight to number 1, the first tune I put out on 9 lives hit the top spot too. And then sat there for 10 weeks. I followed that straight up with a single done with myself and Tenor Fly, and that crashed in at number 2, so here’s this brand new label holding the 2 top spots on the reggae charts. At that particular time, another of my tunes – Push Up Ya Lighter had been sampled and dropped into another tune called Sweet Vibrations, but they hadn’t bothered contacting me for permission. So I got hold of a recording of it, remastered it and pressed it up myself. Because basically, if people are going to be bootlegging me and taking the piss, then I’m going to damn well bootleg the bootleggers. So I got onto the major distributors and made sure that they were buying from me, and I think that that was probably the first time the tables had been turned like that and the bootleggers got bootlegged by the original artist. So I suppose somewhere in the history books is Top Cat – the first artist to bootleg himself.
You’ve been incredibly versatile over the years. How do you adapt your flow to beats and tempos as drastically different as reggae, breaks and jungle.
Whatever the beat happens to be – I just feel it and do what I do. If you’re getting a tune from me, you know what type of MC I am, you know what my skills are and I do what I do. It’s not like I change or anything. So you go and listen to me on a jungle tune or on a reggae tune at half the speed – yes the beats are different and the overall feel of the track is different, but my part, my vocals are always the same. . If you want a speed rapper, then I’m not the man to come and call for – I have a speech impediment – a lisp, so I wouldn’t really be the speed MC of choice – you’ re going be better off getting General Levy or Daddy Freddy in. If you’re talking about hard hooks and sweet melodies – well that’s what I do and I can do it with whatever tempo you throw at me
But do you have to write differently – can you carry the same set of lyrics across styles
Can’t say fairer than that. These days though – is it enough to just have a good flow or does a successful MC have to have a knowledge of production and music theory
It helps, but then again, I didn’t have any of that kind of expertise when I started out. I just picked things up as I went, got advice from my elders, and being the kind of man who does like to research things, I picked up a few books along the way that gave me a much better handle on aspects of studio work beyond my vocals.
Speaking of books – you wrote the book How to MC. What does make an MC at core
If you can go up there and flow with your words and connect your energy and your lyrics with the people around you…then you can MC. Certain things are improvised and certain things are a prepared framework, but in the book, I explained that there’s really two types of writers – the digital writer and the analogue writer. A digital writer has everything nailed down on paper, and the process of writing out their lyrics and seeing them in front of them gives them the stability to then go out and perform them. An analogue writer has a hook in their head and instead of writing anything at all down, they just keep on building from the hook, evolving the song in their head as they go, bringing in new words and new lines into the freestyle but remembering as they go what they were doing. No one is 100% digital or 100% analogue, but every MC has his leanings.
How does the dynamic work between MC and crowd. Because you’re the front man and you’re responsible for bringing them alive. But say you’re on early and the crowd isn’t exactly moving, how do you get them jumping
By talking directly to them and speaking directly to subjects and emotions that they will be able to instantly relate to. It also depends on what angle you’re coming from and what style of expression you’re drawing from, whether it be comedy, or culture, or taking it rudebwoy. But if you know what you’re talking about, you’re genuine and everything your saying is coming from the heart or coming from experience, you just give out a vibe that brings people in and instinctively tells them that this is the real thing and it flows from there
How much does your Rastafarian beliefs influence your work
I do a lot of deep culture lyrics and reality that people can connect with. I haven’t always been an angel, and so sometimes I do a little bad boy stuff, but it sounds authentic because I have actually lived it at one time or another in my life. But those are more representative of my youth, and as a man now, I try to avoid promoting those kind of things, because ultimately it really is all about peace and love and educating this generation’s youth into positivity, so the older I get, the more rastafari has become a part of what I’m channeling and putting out there.
Do you think that jungle has the same depth of spirituality as reggae
Yes it does. You haven’t got an awful lot of people exploring that side, and it’s a niche that people like Congo Natty and Knowledge and Wisdom are really pushing, but there is a great deal of scope for that within jungle.
Speaking of Congo Natty, how did you become part of the project
Well with Tenor Fly and Daddy Freddy, we go way back to our times together with Sir Coxon sound system. We toured for years from the late 80’s to the early 90’s and that’s where I really developed my relationship with both of them. I actually met Rebel MC for the first time when I was doing that track with Bobby Konders and Rebel was signed to Desire at the time and working in the studios at the same time, but I never really knew him back then – he was more Tenor Fly’s brethren. It wasn’t until about 2 years later that Tenor Fly introduced us properly and Rebel was a fan of my work so we decided to do some tracks for his Congo Natty label, (originally Black Star). We did Champion DJ and Original Ses – 2 classics right there and we just carried on working together and doing the live shows. There’s always the vibes when we get up on stage as the original Congo Natty crew. Me and Fly and Freddy have been sparring since we were youths, and we’ve gone our separate ways over the years but always come back together, and when we do, it’s like home, like we never left. And we know each other’s style and flow so well that we have an almost telepathic way of MCing and passing the lyrical baton.
You’ve also done a lot of breaks work with Deekline, but the real question is – how did the Comfort fabric softener ad come about
Well from when Deekline and I did Outta Space together – we just carried on working up tunes, and you know, if it ain’t broke – then don’t fix it, but funnily enough, he asked me the same thing one day in the studio and I had to tell him it was his link that made it happen. One of the guys Deekline works with doubles up in an advertising agency and they were looking for a reggae singer for the Comfort piece. The commission had already gone out to about 10 different ad agencies who each brought in whatever singers they had, and when this particular agency had the smart idea of bringing me in and it came together beautifully. I made sure that I toned it down a little and was more deliberate on my pronunciation than I might usually be for it to be that much more accessible on a commercial level, and you know what…..I thoroughly enjoyed it
Do you see things like that as evidence of just how far Jamaican music and culture has penetrated the norms of wider UK society
Definitely. Every reggae artist has to have some kind of gratitude towards Bob Marley who really did open the door to reggae’s growing acceptance. As a UK artist, people like myself and Tenor Fly have now built a platform that the newer youths can take off from with opportunities and options that we never had when we were taking our first steps out on stage. And equally, I have to pay my respects to the pioneers that came before me like Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie who through their work not only helped inspire us, but created possibilities that simply wouldn’t have existed for us without everything they did. Legends like the Godfather Sugar Minott – may he rest in peace, Errol Dunkley, Aswad, Janet Kay and everyone who brought reggae music to the fore in the early days opened doors for the next generation to move even further forward. And no matter what kind of MC you are – a UK style MC or an American rapper, hip hop – you name it , every possible incarnation of the MC you can think of can trace its roots directly to reggae music, and that’s a very special heritage, and something we’re all deeply proud of.
Where do sound system culture and club culture meet and where do they differ
Well the first and most obvious difference is that within club culture, the rig is part of the venue and is the club system that you as an artist will come and play on with your records – or even just a laptop these days. A true sound system will physically store a rig and carry it into the venue with all the blood sweat and tears that goes with getting up stairs or round tight corners or whatever the obstacle course happens to be, then wire it up, phase test it and get it sounding fat. You play on your own sound, and if we’re talking a clash, the opposing crew will bring their sound and the hardware is as much a part of what you represent as the music you play on it. Sound system culture is very similar to supporting a football team – you have your sound, your identity and you support that sound from the heart and if anybody starts taking the piss out of your system, you’re straight in there defending it. It’s all about teamwork and unity and community, and something you are fundamentally part of. The club thing is more consumerist and much more individualistic, where a DJ just hooks up his laptop to the mixer, does his thing, has a quick drink and then often leaves. He might have 1 or 2 MC’s with him, but it’s still an individual unit. Within a sound system, you got your box boys, your engineers, your selecta, your operator, your MC, and it was like a family. All that has kind of been lost, and yes, there’s advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the coin, but it’s a shame that we don’t really have sound system culture like we did once upon a time.
How has 2010 panned out for you so far
I’ve put 2 albums out already this year. The reggae album has been doing well and getting great reviews and getting played all about the place and downloaded all about the place. The jungle album I did with Nu Urban records came out on vinyl and CD as well as digital, and that’s been really well received too on all formats. So I’m pleased with the results on both and I’m currently in the studio working on a third album while juggling one or two outside projects. From the middle of this month though, I’m back out on tour, so watch out….. Bless