U.K Fresh ’86 has become the watchword for U.K hip-hop vicariousness: were you there? Did you witness it? Was it as legendary as people say it was? To be honest, I was 13 when I went, and mostly what I can remember is sitting in the front row and witnessing the embryonic stages of an art form I had been fascinated with since 1982 or 1983, when I got the tapes “Breakdance: you can do it” on K-Tel records (which came with a poster about how to pop n’ lock and body pop and had “Tour De France by Kraftwerk on the end of side 2) and Tommy Boy’s Greatest Beats”, which was a double cassette of Tommy Boy artists and others, including “Looking for the Perfect Beat” by Afrika Bambaataa, which, to me, is still the greatest record hip-hop ever created. A hip-hop arena tour in the U.K was unheard of and, as far as I remember, it went off without a hitch. I enjoyed it- most of the acts at the time I’ve not seen since. So it was truly history in the making.
Fast-forward 30 years and U.K hip-hop impresario Morgan Khan, the head of Streetsounds Records, brought the elements of hip-hop together under the cavernous space of the Qube Project in London’s Victoria. Khan’s contribution to hip-hop can’t be underestimated: by getting the licensing to many of the staple electro cuts that were the foundation of today’s hip-hop, he created a musical democracy: finally, these songs on Khan’s Streetsounds imprint were affordable and relatively easy to get hold of. Before, they’d be on a multitude of labels- and with the attendant music politics- quite difficult to locate for the average consumer.
So, Morgan Khan created a business opportunity that satisfied labels and consumers alike. The Electro comps were the go-to albums of their day and they were compiled with the same love, care and attention that Khan’s initial and consistent intentions have always expressed. It was listening to the late Mike Allen on Capital Radio that spurred the young Khan to set up U.K Fresh '86 in the first place. Mike Allen paved the way as the pre-Tim Westwood gatekeeper of U.K hip-hop. With his lemon drizzle voice, more Radio 4 than Capital, he started the foundation for hip-hop on the radio, him and whomever was his boss at Capital at the time. Both were visionaries. Why Allen was replaced by Westwood on Capital in 1987 is anyone’s guess, but Mike Allen’s contribution to hip-hop in those early days can’t be overlooked or underestimated.
So, there I am tonight, surrounded by aging B-Boys and Fly Girls queuing up with the usual requests for a pat down or my picture for the I.D. For some of us, mostly in our 40s and 50s, time has been kind; for others, it seemed to have weathered them a bit. There were people wearing Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops, “Beat Street” T-Shirts, U.K Fresh 86 and 2016 tops, fat lace trainers from Puma and Adidas. One dude came in with an authentic beatbox and red tracksuit top and was only happy to pose, pop lock style, for a multitude of Iphone and Samsung cameras.
What’s frustrated a lot of people who lived through the 80s is that most of the hip-hop played now, such as with the Doctor’s Orders (not a criticism, just an observation- they do sterling work to keep the flame alive) is that it’s very 90s oriented and much of the records played are of an era that is too new for some and misses out on so much that came before it. Not so tonight, as DJ’s Andy Smith and Xrated played much of the 80s output that’s not played even in specialized hip-hop club nights or shows these days. Cuts like “Do it to the Crowd” by Twin Hype, “20 Seconds to Comply” by Silver Bullet back with “Hunted Child” by Ice-T (similar BPM), The Badman is Robbin’-Hijack, Know How – Young MC, “It Takes Two-Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock and plenty of electro filled the floor, in a venue stripped down to basics: a bar at each end and plenty of space to bust some moves.
For dudes and dudettes of a certain vintage, there was little reluctance to get out on the dancefloor. A few body-popped and pop locked with aplomb and wild abandon. Breakdancing was a little bit harder to achieve, but, to be fair, some windmilled and “froze” without any need for first aid. The atmosphere was cheery: people came in peace to celebrate a culture that’s had so much negative press over the last 30 years. Which is why coming together tonight was so important, especially hip-hop was dismissed both a fad and a trash form of cultural expression in those early days. Fans of the music caught flack and felt they had to defend the music they loved, but which hadn't become established- both the best of times and the worst, as you can claim cultural capital whilst getting grief at the same time. Of course, racism explained away much of it, but it never went away. It could be argued that the current generation of fans’ could do with a history lesson, but then old grizzled soul boys said the same thing about hip-hop in those early days: it twas ever thus.
DJ Xrated did a heartfelt tribute to the late DJ Mike Allen, by manipulating the samples from his shows, we got a few minutes to remember how influential his presentation and that show on Capital was in the longevity of hip-hop that brought so many together tonight. Xrated was nice on the decks, especially a scratch medley of “Hear the Drummer Get Wicked” from Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”, which spun out into all sorts of sonic loveliness- and the crowd responded in kind, losing their 'shit,' so to speak. But Xrated kept it flowing and stuck in the 80s or early 90s, and that’s exactly where the crowd wanted to be transported back to.
There were two live performances tonight. In essence, they went back-to-back. First up was Newcleus, whose “Jam on It” has been a classic ever since it was released in 1984. Whilst Newcleus have a repertoire beyond “Jam on It”, they’ve been able to tour and eat on that one cut, which is a staple of any electro hip-hop compilation. Members Chilly B, Lady E and Cozmo D gave a gamely and engaging performance. Cozmo D wasn’t feeling 100%, but did his best using the multi media in front of him, and whilst every other tune played was a teasing filler before “Jam on It”, they engaged winningly throughout with the appreciative audience. The anticipation for their song of nadir reached a high pitch and the timing of it couldn’t have been better, as the crowd busted moves in a collective frenzy, and the rendering on the Qube Project’s sound system sounded tougher than leather: a moment to remember and savour.
It wasn’t too long, just before Midnight, before the second live act swaggered on stage. The leaner, sans gold teeth self-proclaimed original gangsta of rap, Just-Ice who seemed purposeful and fit enough to do a powerful set- and he did. Possiby a little too polished and rehearsed, he had issues with his microphone not being loud enough, which threw him off balance a bit, but it was sorted when the soundman woke up from his nap.
Then Just-Ice did a couple of new songs and a few classics, as he said he would, culminating in “Cold Getting Dumb and ‘Going Way Back”- the populist choices pleased the crystallized-in-the-80s crowd, who jammed to Just-Ice’s mixture of stripped down B-Boy breaks with a reggae baseline slump. He hasn't been seen in the U.K for 20 or 25 years, so this was quite a rare and real deal. The naysayers were expecting a no-show, but were confounded when he actual appeared in front of them. When his set ended, Morgan Khan looked like an excited kid all over again, putting his arm over Just Ice’s for a beautiful photo opportunity. Clearly the passion that gripped Khan back in the 80s had come back to him as he urged the crowd to take a picture of Just-Ice, “as we don’t know when he’ll be back again in the U.K.”
Both live acts engaged in a bit of hyperbole- “We love playing in London.” "Y’all remember us when the States forgot about us.” I love playing in London, much better than playing in New York” said Just-Ice, who hadn’t played on these shores for a generation. But it was all part of the live hip-hop package and the crowd lapped it up.
T-shirts, vinyl records, CDs and DVDs were sold in the foyer. Beer flowed in the bar and the Golden Age era hip-hop soundtrack continued to the break of dawn. B-Boys and Girls “broke” down, or had a sit down on the sofas. Some got adventurous with their moves and seem to bask in the reminisces of a simpler time, where history was created, not so much looked back on, as it was tonight. Morgan Khan and his people can be proud of keeping the U.K Fresh banner alive and well. Here’s to the 40th anniversary. This was a night to truly remember.