Photography: Andrew Harvey
As we wrap up 2021 and look back over one of the most interesting and extreme years we’ve ever had, we connect with one of jungle drum & bass music’s MC forefathers: Conrad.
Currently at the helm of his burgeoning label Resonance, home to rising new talents such as Aquariid, Outlier, Cyclic and Kolda (to name a few), Conrad has an exciting 2022 planned as he reignites his Con-Natural production alias, returns to the stage and levels up his brand for festival arena takeovers. We called him up to chat about the value of vocalists in the 2020s, the effects of lockdown on the scene and dig deep into some of the most enduring aspects of his history and role with in this culture.
How’s your year been?
It’s been interesting. Lots of indoors, lots of reflection. Sadly I lost my dad to cancer at the end of 2020 so this year has been a bit of a mourn period for me. I got good people around me who’ve kept me focused and healthily distracted. Many of us have lost someone during these times and knowing I’m not alone and being able to show empathy and reach out to those who’ve lost people has been fulfilling. Having the label has been a great positive focus, too.
Heavy way to start the year…
Very much so. Plus the whole factor of that third lockdown and the insecurity, the lack of information, the fake news, the divisiveness. It was a massive snowball of what the fuck! But the label was something I could have a positive impact with so, like I said, I put a lot of focus into that and felt it was the right time.
Labels fared well over lockdown, all things considered…
Music has gone through some very interesting evolutions over the last 30 years. The advent of the internet, free downloads, vinyl dying then being reborn, CDs, the price of a track ,how you market. All these things have changed. Of course, it’s not all for the better but there are interesting opportunities if you find the right way to exploit the algorithms and the right way to funnel your output, there are solutions out there.
I found it very interesting a few years ago – around 2015/16 – a Dutch banking group analysed the GDP of EDM. I thought if a bank is taking interest to see if it’s profitable then the next five to 10 years will be interesting in terms of investment. No one saw covid coming, but the tech has proved robust.
One positive from that time was the boost labels got during this time and seeing so many people support their favourite acts buying merch. Had you always wanted to run a label?
It’s something I’d thought about off and on, but lockdown had given us time to focus. Every single musician during that time was thinking, ‘what can I do to earn money?’ A lot of people started selling t-shirts and I wanted to do that too but felt that if I’m selling something there needs to be music attached to it. I already had a Resonance Facebook group from an event I co-ran for a while, so that’s how the label came about… And I did end up selling some t-shirts!
It kicked off in September 2020 with a release from yourself. Since then you’ve been diving deep into the new generation. Were these artists already on your radar before?
Yeah a lot of them had my ear. I get hit up a lot by artists who feel I’d work well on their track, which is always very humbling. Sometimes I don’t think I’d work well on it and prefer the instrumentals. I’m a producer as well, I’m in that nerd zone and love good productions so have signed a lot of music in that way. I’m just very happy we’re able to provide a springboard for new artists into the scene.
Important role of new labels! How about performing? What was life like for you as an MC on lockdown?
For myself personally I shied away from my MCing duties because I’ve been in that mourn state. That froze me in a creative zone, I didn’t feel like being vocal. I was feeling more self-reflective. Outside of what I’m doing, I do think when you restrict creativity we get even more creative and there’s been a lot of people being creative with their channels and entertaining their crowd. And in that way it’s brought some exciting skills and features to the forefront. For me I indulged in the label and got into the business side. To be able to create a stable and label so I can walk down the hill and cherry pick things instead of grabbing everything I have to in order to survive.
Building a brand!
Totally. I’m a key feature to it all but it’s made me realise I can’t be an in-demand MC and run the label and organise events and do merch. So I had to pull back on things and next year will be more interesting for the MC Conrad brand. So as an MC I sat back and watched.
It’s funny… At points in the industry everyone wants to do something. Everyone wants to own a label, everyone wants to run a night, everyone wants to be a DJ, but right now it feels like everyone wants to be an MC. Everyone’s got bars, everyone’s on fire, chatting about that man, this man, that man. But count me out a minute. I’m not going to pretend I’m a battle MC.
You’re a musical MC! You, Cleveland Watkiss, Fats. You set the parameters. I think vocalists in general have had an amazing year. It’s been bubbling for a while.
There was a moment a few years ago when some very notable MCs were pushing for this. There was a whole Discord channel dedicated to it and we were all involved and it started some ripples which continue to this day. I hope the business side of it makes the right changes, though. There’s a status in the MC world with a glass ceiling which doesn’t allow you out of the club / larger venue arena but we’re seeing more things which are enabling us to own our own content a lot more and perform our own shows and not be excluded from bigger billing, bigger fees and having our mechanical rights like royalties. It’s being addressed right now and it’s interesting.
Are you thinking ‘it’s about time?’ Or is all of this too late? You’ve pushed for this forever…
I’ve dreamt of it. I’ve had nightmares about it. Its been an overbearing thing from the start! Is it too late? No, it’s never too late. My legacy is part of the fight for that. I’ve always enquired why why why and what what what.
Credit where it’s due, my Good Looking legacy was about that fight. It broke ground, but there wasn’t enough follow-through for there to be a mass MC scope to be aware of the business end. People were just passionate about getting on the mic. It was hard because it was during an era when everyone wanted to be a DJ. It would have been nice to see this happen years ago but it was a different business back then.
Let’s stay back then for a second. You came from hip-hop and came into this as jungle was being born. Listening to other interviews with you, it’s like you fell into this after your time in hip-hop with Triple Element?
Yeah in a way. To cut a very long story short, I was licking my hip-hop wounds and had a bit of an epiphany that I wouldn’t be able to break through as a UK hip-hop artist for at least 10 years. The scene just wasn’t ready. But the smiley face rave crew were like, ‘Hey come with us’. So I became a raver. Someone mentioned a rave called Telepathy on Marshgate lane in East London. We went there and it was mind blowing. I heard so many seminal tunes in that space. I was a Rat Pack fan and they would come and do the early morning sunrise set. They were my heroes. I was in awe of their synergy and energy and I’d be that guy. Like ‘give me the mic, give me the mic’.
Oh you were one of those guys! Wow. I think Frost was the first DJ you MC’d for wasn’t he?
That’s correct. At Telepathy! It was actually thanks to Evenson Allen from Ratpack. He covered other DJ’s sets there and Frost was very open to that, as he was a big hip-hop head himself. Then one time, I’m there like ‘give me the mic, give me the mic’ and Evenson does! I didn’t know Frost at the time but he nodded like, ‘yeah cool’. So I did some raps. It was all very quick, a million miles an hour at 140 BPM. Then Frost did this chop into a moody bleeps tune and it had this tumble weed effect with my vocals. Like ‘what the fuck?’ I remember thinking, ‘Okay you’ve just stopped everyone from raving and they’re all looking up at me.’ Somehow a tape transpired and it can still hear it in my head now. But that surged me forward thinking, ‘Okay, maybe I can MC?’ From that, a friend of mine from High Wycombe called Sponge was putting on raves and said, ‘Come up to Club X and jump on the mic.’ So I became a resident MC at Club X and it spawned from there.
And from there you developed a very musical style. When did that take root and did it come naturally?
Well my family is very musical anyway and my mum put me in an Anglican church, as well as being steeped deep in the Pentecostal church. So I was in the Anglican choir with robes, cassock and a ruff and all that business when I was about 7-8 years old. I’d sing weddings on a Saturday and get tip money and go carol singing in the posh estates every Christmas and kill it. We once earned so much we could buy the biggest ice creams and smash them into each other’s faces just for jokes! So, through that, I became aware of scales and harmonies.
But in terms of me singing as an MC I’d say on Logical Four. That’s where I started pushing the boundaries of it in a recording sense, but I was already doing it in my sets. Shouts to Sarah Sandy who was my agent around the time of the night SPEED. She said I should definitely sing. I wasn’t sure if I should and she said ‘definitely do it’ So that was 93, 94.
She was a maverick in lots of ways. I guess the musical style where Good Looking and Bukem existed had the perfect space for you to sing and experiment in that way?
Absolutely. There were certain harmonics happening in the music that naturally lent me to playing with phrases and toplines and holding notes, which is something I’d been doing since I commandeered my parents’ turntables from the age of five. As a young 20 something, in the early 90’s I remember hearing what The Pharcyde were doing at the time. I was, and still am, a huge fan of them and thought, ‘Wow you can harmonise and rap at the same time? I’m doing that!’ So that’s where it took root.
Wow, big up The Pharcyde! I want to ask about a few of your seminal releases and Golden Girl is an all time persy…
Do you know what? I didn’t actually want to sing on that! Makoto and I produced that for the elusive MC Conrad album that never came to pass. The vocal actually started off as a melody line I would always have going through my head on a walk I’d go on into town. Every time I hit a particular set of streets this line would come into my head. I hummed it to Makoto, he eventually convinced me to sing on it and we gave it a try. It kinda wrote itself as a song and there was this interesting thing about the notes resolving which we didn’t think was right but could never get to the bottom of.
I actually sat down with Cleveland Watkiss years later and went through this and he pointed out that a note I sing is actually the resolve. It’s not conventional at all but it creates this haunting momentum which resolves and restarts the next bar at the same time.
That’s fascinating. I was also going to ask about Soul Patrol with Total Science…
I love those two boys! Total ravers. The original Oxford Hardcore crew. That whole clan were noisy neighbours and were responsible for some mystical things in rave. Wots My Code, Champion Sound, Invisible Man’s Beginning Of The End, Gwange. Legendary boys.
Soul Patrol came about when they were working on their Mars Needs Total Science album and they’d given some tracks to Bukem to play in his sets. They’d asked me about singing on one of them and it turns out I’d been singing over one of the tracks anyway… That track turned out to be Soul Patrol. Pretty much what you hear on that record was what I’d been doing live.
Oh brilliant, so it came from the dance. Just like Total Science did. How about Western with PFM?
There’s a funny story to this one. Mike had got the opportunity to do a live PA in Norwich and he said he’d love to have me as a front man. We fashioned this rehearsal and had a jam and I realized there was a big difference between a live PA and a set, which is that a set is much more layered.
So when this track broke down I thought, ‘woah I quickly need to add something here’ and came up with the sequence you still hear on the track today. There’s a video of that performance online. The line in the breakdown happened right there in the minute on that night.
Thinking on your feet, reacting in the moment! Is that how you naturally work anyway?
I think so, as an MC that’s what you do. I knew the music and would have these moments I knew I could work but I also knew that any given minute, a brand new dubplate could be pulled on me which I’d have to very quickly adapt to. So that sort of pressurised knowing-but-not-knowing type of zone is a very comfortable space without it being too premeditated.
This is something that happens best when the MC has a good relationship with the DJ, right? I know that relationship is no more, but at the time….
Totally. And yes, relationships break down. There were a lot of things wrong to create that amazing right. The feedback I get to this day is incredible. I knew we were doing something special but didn’t appreciate just how much it meant to people and how unique it was.
There are very few DJ/MC partnerships of such historic legacy. Brockie and Det is the closest comparison. Did the musicality help drive it?
Maybe? I was in love with the music and still am. But I had this lyric I’d often say… “There’s a twisted kind of pleasure from the pain riddled with toil.” That kinda puts it in a glass crystal. A lot of pain, a lot of painful expression and I’m grateful to the platform to be able to deliver that but I’m also reminded that pain wasn’t good for my health. It almost aligns itself with self harm or drug miss-use. All these things that people do to soothe souls the wrong way. For me this MC legacy has partially served as a huge chunk of that.
Like workaholism or addiction to your art?
It’s hard to answer. But here’s a little nugget I often give that sums things up for me. I remember going on an Australian tour. I arrived at Heathrow with a pound in my pocket knowing that at the end of the tour I’d be coming back to Heathrow with that same pound and I’d have to work out how I’d get home. I was flying business class, staying five star, silver service all the way. But I’m there, with a pound to my name. That was the oxymoron. A day in the life of. Those parallels that made me say why am I doing this? But then we’d go to perform some of the most amazing shows I’ve ever done, which happened during those times.
You also formed some great relationships with Good Looking members that still exist to this day. Paul SG always shouts loudly about you any time I talk to him…
I love Paul to bits and we connected at the start of the end of Good Looking days. I still remember telling him to keep hold of Jazzsticks and have his own thing. I’m proud of how he maintained it and kept it going and I’m blessed that he’s offered me a space and place to jam there whenever I like. Actually, there’s a tune that always got played at the end of the sets which blows my mind every time that he wrote it. He’s given me that and told me to do what I want with it. I’m hoping to put that out on another label project – Connatural Music.
Yeah. I actually had thoughts about it before Resonance, but it’s taking time because it’s a lot more personal to me. Some of the things that are due to feature on it are the most requested things for represses or digital issues. Paul’s track will be part of that. It blows my mind, it would put me in a spin every time I heard it. I’d be like ‘who’s made this?’ It captured me perfectly in the music. I’d throw my mic down and be in my rave zone.
Brilliant. Take us to the future zone. What are your plans for Resonance in 2022?
I’d like to put out some longer players in the future and I’d like to achieve an MC Conrad EP soon, too. In the summer we’ve got a stage at The One In The Woods, which I’m looking forward to hosting. That’s in June. We’re doing the Friday and DRS is doing the Saturday. That’s a great feeling. I take my hat off to Del, he’s put so much work into this culture since we first met, so to be hosting the same stage is an honour.
Beyond that, Connatural Music is bubbling away with a lot of retro things that need rejuvenating while Resonance is all about the futuristic and new so it’s getting that branding solidified, which will all be revealed next year.
Exciting, man. Any shouts to sign out with?
Yes, shouts to Triple Vision Distribution, Ten Eight Seven Mastering, Gareth Jones on the artwork and my Resonance team and the supporters and people who’ve given us guidance. Rick Davis from Cybotron is in our Facebook group and Underground Resistance gave us a like on the new EP from Aquariid, so some nice nods from the Gods. Also can’t forget to big up Abdul Haqq from the Drexciyan Empire, who I had the pleasure of doing a live audio/visual set with. Onwards and upwards for 2022, man.