Whether you came into the bass game last century, last decade, last year or last week, you will instantly know a Ragga Twins record.
One of the most iconic voices in dance music, they embody the long-standing legacy of UK rave culture while remaining bang up to date. With a career that spans back to the early 80s hosting reggae soundsystems across the UK, Flinty Badman and Deman Rockers have voiced over pretty much every genre possible: from jazz to dubstep, breaks to drum & bass, they’ve left their mark on every corner of dance music by way of over 1000 recorded releases.
This year, however, marks 25 years since they switched from reggae to rave… In a way that was pretty much accidental. We grabbed managed to get a rare extensive interview to understand more about the men behind the most iconic MC voices of all time.
Read on, get to know and join the previously unthinkable dots between Margaret Thatcher, James Brown, Skrillex and LOADS more…
A lot of MCs don’t record in the studio and I think this is one really important thing about us: we are artists rather than MCs. We love the studio vibe whatever the genre we’re working on.
Let’s start with a flashback: Give me some crazy memories from the early days…
Flinty: You know we’re not as mischievous as people think we are! So if you’re after tales of debauchery I can’t help you. One thing that springs to mind was this one time in Germany, right back in the early days. Our driver, who didn’t know the way, decided to take the lead and overtake the guy who knows the way…
The moment he overtakes, the geezer behind is flashing his lights to say turn off. He went to do it far too late and took us off the motorway into a bush. We hit a fucking tree! Everyone was safe but it was mental. We wrote off the rental big time. We made the gig, though! Obviously we’ve had loads of near-misses with flights and stuff but nothing too mental.
I wasn’t looking for rock and roll… Just mad shit happens without your choice sometimes.
Flinty: True! Actually there was another time in Germany we were picked up and we were told that the venue was in the middle of a war zone. The Turkish community was having a row with the police outside the venue and the only way in was to walk through the riots! We were like ‘nah mate’. He told us the club was packed full of people expecting to see us. We had to go through it. Bottles were flying, police with shields, loads of shouting. Mad stuff. Heads down business. We got in and we were like ‘we’re not going outside until this is over!’
So Germany plays quite a strong role in your story…
Flinty: Yeah it does actually. We were one of the first artists in jungle to go there. 4Hero were too. We’d tell guys we were touring there and they’d be like ‘nah mate, it’s a racist country!’ This was the early 90s and things were different back then. We knew Germany was cool. We went there on the regular. Austria followed, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland… It all snowballed from there. We’d been itching to go to these counties during our reggae soundsystem days but all that was just UK stuff.
I love the fact you became accidental junglists. You were 100 per cent reggae back in the day with Unity weren’t you?
Flinty: Yeah we were. But we weren’t getting any studio time with them. Other soundsystems were putting out records – Tippa Irie and Tenor Fly and that – and we wanted to do that too. We had a few records back then. Prince Jammy would supply our soundsystem with riddims and Deman did one track with them that did really well called Iron Lady. It was used on a documentary on Channel 4.
Deman Rockers: Yeah! I’d only written 16 bars… We went to the studio and I had to write another 16 bars. It was a mad experience. I’ll never forget it; I was shaking in my boots! Much more than a packed dancefloor! It was Easy Street studio where the biggest names like Dennis Brown recorded. It was incredible. We put the record out and it charted in the Black Echo reggae charts then it got picked up on by a documentary for Margaret Thatcher. I got paid £250!
That was a little wedge for the late 80s. One of the only times you got paid from the reggae stuff, right?
Flinty: Well yeah! We decided we’d quit the soundsystems because we just weren’t making the records we wanted to make and it wasn’t progressing. The month we decided to quit, Smiley from Shut Up & Dance came into Deman’s shop and told him he wanted to sample us. Turns out we knew them from school!
Deman: We weren’t even calling it jungle back then. We did early tracks like Spliffhead and Hooligan 69 but we didn’t actually go to the raves back then. The first time we went to perform at a proper rave was in Birmingham. We had no idea what was going to happen. We got there and it was pure white people. We were like ‘fuck! They’re not going to understand what we’re saying! We’re gonna get booed!’ Then we started up and it went off. Boom. From there we realised the power of the raves and the power of the music and that people knew who we were!
You don’t have to understand every word: The messages are clear, the vibe is there. You’ve been very conscious with lyrics before haven’t you? Certainly with tracks like The Homeless Problem…
Deman: We’ve always had that balance of party and message. That’s straight from our reggae days; we’d look in the paper and tell a story about something that affected our community or upset us. But it’s a balance; you have to tell a story and you have to have a party. It’s the same with our new album coming soon… We’ve got stories to tell and vibes to give!
Do you think that’s the secret to your universal appeal? No other act has appeared on labels as broad and wide-ranged as OWSLA, Passenger, Keysound and Warp…
Flinty: We’ve always listened to every type of music. That’s the vibe we love. We can connect with reggae, soul, funk, pop, rave… With our style of chatting we work well on all types of music. We find a flow and deliver it. Someone sends us a track, we write something that fits it. We don’t stash lyrics, we always write fresh. The best times are when we’re in the studio. We vibe so much more in the studio. We hear things differently in the studio. We feel things more. So as many of the tracks as possible, we go to the studio and write the lyrics and practice it there and then.
So is that the same with Skrillex’s Ragga Bomb?
Deman: Well that came through the sample pack we made with Passenger. Skrillex used that sample then he called us to re-record it… We gave him the real vibe and extra vocals. MUST DIE! used the sample pack, too. We knew a few people had used that vocal, so we called him up and told him we’d do him something special. I love that song actually.
The only thing we ain’t done is classical! As well as jungle, drum & bass, breaks and dubstep we’ve done house, we’ve done techno, we’ve done pop. We listen to everything and we get involved. We’re not elitist; we want to spread our messages with everyone.
Perfectionists. You insisted on freshness!
So going back a bit again, after Shut Up & Dance disbanded, you started working with Aquasky and getting busy on the breakbeat scene…
Flinty: They’re our boys! When Shut Up & Dance had to disband for a bit we had an album ready to go and they couldn’t release it. That’s when we started really MCing. Before then it was all about the PAs . Then we MC’d hard in all the raves and also teamed with a jazz collective called US3. We did a jazz album called Rinsin Lyrics which got signed to EMI. But they were signing some mad shit and didn’t really know how to work it. It was a proper jazz album.
Deman: We had this mad event where EMI got all their artists together in a really fancy place in Dublin. Everyone was there, D’Angelo, Gemini, loads of people who were big in the mid 90s. It was all sit down and posh. It weren’t no rave thing! Lots of press and industry people, all nice and polite. I turned to Flinty and said ‘I don’t care about the rules, let’s get them dancing!’ We got on the stage and said ‘where we come from, this is what we do… We get people to dance!’ Two songs deep and we had everyone up, all of them in suits, all up and dancing. That was special.
That sums up the Ragga Twins vibe to me!
Deman: Yeah man. We’ve done gigs that are sold out. We’ve done gigs that have only 10 people. Whatever; we always make people dance. We want people to enjoy themselves. You can have a party by yourself if you want…
Back to the EMI deal…
Flinty: We had loads of people from EMI telling us it was going to be a hit but they took so long to release it that it never did nothing. That was a lesson learnt. We never work with majors. We handle our own music. We do remixes and collaborations on major labels – like with Skrillex – but we don’t sign to them. It was a mad time in our career, though; we had a live band. We did full tours all around Europe and we supported James Brown.
Flinty: Yeah! He came backstage and we took photos but our mate lost the camera. It hurts my heart to say that even now. James Brown was such a pro. He’d be doing the soundcheck and pointing at the problem without even looking at it. A proper bandleader. So inspirational.
Incredible. Then from jazz and funk, you got into the breakbeats…
Flinty: So yeah it was a good couple of years but then we came out of that deal and Aquasky called us up. We hadn’t done the breaks side of the music. Early Shut Up & Dance was breaks but that was hardcore. Breaks was huge at the time and we just vibed with Dave, Keiron and Brent. They put us to work! The more we worked together, the more the tracks got better. We’ve got a great body of work with them over the years and with them we’ve kept on all the new beats and styles.
That’s one consistency… You move with the times.
Deman: Every artist has to! We love it. And it doesn’t matter what the style is, we have to keep up with fresh lyrics and keep the game up to date. A lot of MCs don’t record in the studio and I think this is one really important thing about us: we are artists rather than MCs. We love the studio vibe whatever the genre we’re working on. Just in May and June we did 12 tracks. Every day people hit us up for collabs and features. The Skrillex collaborations has definitely boosted stuff – it’s doubled our requests! I love recording stuff. Studio work is for life, parties are of the moment, you know? We’ve voiced for so many people I’ve lost count. We’re not musical snobs, we never say no unless we don’t like the music. We hear the riddim and we make up our own minds.
I’m trying to think of a genre you haven’t voiced on…
Deman: The only thing we ain’t done is classical! As well as jungle, drum & bass, breaks and dubstep we’ve done house, we’ve done techno, we’ve done pop. We listen to everything and we get involved. We’re not elitist; we want to spread our messages with everyone. I understand people who stick to roots and stay with one genre but for us it’s just worked out better to work on every track we like. And all of this feeds back into the parties. You know my favourite thing about the work we’ve done over these years?
Deman: Seeing the reactions. Seeing people vibe off what we do. We’ve been doing this for over 30 years now. And I’ll never tire of people saying we’ve given them a buzz. That is the ultimate over everything. Like people coming up after a show and saying ‘my mum told me to come and see you’ or ‘my dad always said when I grow up I should rave to you’. I had one the other day, this geezer came up with his son and said ‘I’m 50 and I raved to you back in the day. My son wasn’t even born but I knew I’d tell him if you’re still about then he needs to rave to you. Now he’s 20 and we’re raving to you together!’ That’s better than getting paid for me. Money’s good. Nobody does nothing for nothing. But respect and personal connection is a lot more important….
Watch out for Ragga Twins – Who Inspired You? retrospective album on Passenger later this year.
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