He hosts, he sings, he rhymes. He’s just as comfortable on a broken beat banger by Zed Bias as he is a rolling juggernaut by Dub Phizix. He commands both the stage and studio with equal skill and clarity. He spent almost 10 years off the mic to help teach the next generation of MCs to flourish and help give Manchester its now indelible stain on the game. He’s a key force in some of Manchester’s most significant collectives such as LEVELZ and Swing Ting and he can tell you you’re a dickhead in the most soulful way imaginable; if any MC is even close to having any type of masterplan, it’s Fox.
On a personal level Fox is a philosopher who balances a wry world view with a spirit as warm as his smoky harmonies. A strong believer in karma and paying things forward, the Manchester-born, Kingston-raised artist named Phillip Box seems much more interested in connecting with and helping people than his own professional status.
From his own first hand experience at music’s saviour from a life less savoury, he spreads positive messages and pays no attention to grubby industry ego-trappings many other artists get entangled in. You’ll never find him putting his own hype on blast, he seems much more comfortable talking about his Manchester peers and bredrins than he is talking about himself, he’s vibe proud but limelight shy and rarely does interviews. But when he does? Shiddleywiddleyskangdangdiddleywoi he’s worth paying attention to.
In light of his exceptional UKF podcast with FD (that was created to support FD’s killer Alone With Everybody EP on Lenzman’s The North Quarter label), we requested a moment of his time. No apologies for how long this read is. Anything less with the man would be doing him a disservice. Get to know…
Let’s start with that FD mix… You bring the vibes.
Thank you. I don’t host that many mixes you know. I have to manage my time very carefully and I’m better off in the studio, doing dubplates and things like that. But yeah, this one was fun and FD fucking kills it. He got me on a vibe. I think I probably put more vocals down than I thought I would. I’m always really wary of that, always making sure I’m respecting what the music’s doing.
I think it’s different when an MC sings as well. You’re adding a whole music layer.
We live in blurred times. Who’s to say who’s a singer or an MC or poet? I’ve seen some very musical poets just in how rhythmic and melodic they are with their patterns.
What came first for you, singing or MCing?
On stage I started as an MC but rewind it further back and it was singing. I grew up in Jamaica listening to a lot of Motown, my dad had a big record collection. The radio and dances there were a lot less segregated musically. You’d go to a downtown dance you’d hear absolute bashment and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers in the same range. I grew up to that and sang along. But only for fun. Back then my philosophy was if you ain’t Al Green, don’t do this shit. But even in my earliest MC days I’ve always used melody. Then I started to sing odd bits in the studio to show singers the melody or whatever and at one point someone told me to record my own. I was very reluctant and shy to do it for a long time.
A happy accident, then
A very happy accident. But it took me a long time to get comfortable with it. When I was singing in the studio I was like ‘I don’t know why you’re making me sing like this cos I’m not fucking singing it on stage’ I was brought up on the best old school singers, how the fuck can I call myself a singer? But I accepted over time that there are different levels and styles of singers. I’ll never be a Tyler Daley, I haven’t got the voice of an angel, but you work with what you got. I sing in a range I’m comfortable in and I’m lucky people seem to like it.
It feels like the range is always broadening…
I’ve definitely become more comfortable and always want to try new things. That’s been the way since two bredrins sat me down and told me I had to get back in the game. I’d been out of the game for a long time, teaching. I was like ‘no one wants to hear what I got to say!’ But eventually they got me back into it and I tried a lot of things. On the ground there’s Levelz, Swing Ting, collaborations with Mouse Outfit, a bit of bashy stuff. Across all the spectrums the singing picked up in different ways and all that has made me understand what I can do and what my style is. The idea is to get to the level where I feel confident to do an album like I Don’t Usually Like MCs, But… That’s one of the best MC albums ever. I’m not saying that because he’s local and a mate and all that, but the amount of work and energy he’s put into this. His album and Skittles album Poor With £100 Trainers were epic for me. So when I do an album you’ll hear even more singing from me.
Moving from features to your own tunes….
Yeah I’ve done a lot of features. I love the variety they offer as well as the chance to work with a lot of different people across genres. When I came back from my hiatus, I had no studio so that was a way around that. It developed into a habit I guess. I get bored easily, too, so it helps with that. I still love doing features; but I got a taste for projects now. That’s where my focus is.
What caused your hiatus? Who were the bredrins who got you back into the game? And tell me about your teaching…
Well let’s go back to the start. Some people know this, some people don’t, but I was a bit naughty in my early days and music saved me. It was the one thing I emotionally invested in and got nothing but positivity back. So one night we’re in a club, a long long time ago, a bredrin goes up to the stage and talks to the DJ. I’m thinking ‘what’s he doing up there requesting a song?’ Then he comes down and tells me to get on the mic. See, he knows I could do it because I’d been riding round, selling drugs and doing whatever, but always spitting bars while we did it.
So that got me into it. It built up my confidence and showed me there was another life. And I needed that other life. This was Manchester in its darkest crime time. Gunchester. People getting kidnapped, tortured, all that, very naughty things happened. Some situations scared me off, a bredrin got 26 years, a few other things happened and I had a wake up call. Music was my saviour. I got involved with Subliminal Darkness, a crew Jenna G was also involved with. That was amazing for a while but then I got jaded. I went to America for a while in 2000 and thought I’d had enough of England. But I missed the music. I missed a lot of things.
So you came back and became a teacher?
Yeah. Because of the naughty bits I did in the past I wanted to address the karma and put some positivity back into the world and hopefully tell some people some things I wish I was told when I was their age. I loved that job and still do when I get a chance to do it. I didn’t even think about pursuing my own MC career for those years because I was helping the next generation. So the two bredrins were Diemond and Delano who used to produce for a crew called Raw T, one of the last groups Tony Wilson backed before he died. They were like ‘mate, you got to hit the road, you got to get music out there, people will listen to you’ They sat me down for two hours with this and pushed me out there.
You must have some wicked success stories with your students?
My favourite one was a few years ago. This big guy tapped me on the shoulder in the city centre. Massive white lad. I didn’t recognise him, thought he had some beef or something. Turns out I used to teach him. At the time he had bad ADHD and couldn’t sit still. Everyone else had a problem teaching him but I never talked down to him. I talk to everyone like people. Doesn’t matter what age you are, everyone can teach someone else something. Half the problem with life is that adults talk down to children in a top-down dismissive way and that becomes a barrier to actually accepting the information. So yeah he thanked me because I was one of the only people who actually listened to him and it inspired him. That touched me deep.
You said you were inspired by people earlier. It’s all about making that connection, right? Finding the level you share.
I wish more people felt this way though. Even if you’re not looking for the fucking level you should just look out for people anyway. So many people are just pure stressed and wound up about themselves. Everyone wants to be seen as something. They want to climb up the social ladder. That’s a lot of pressure doing this. Pressure on society. Obviously we all have to think about ourselves for self-preservation and self-improvement but if your definition of self doesn’t include others then there’s something wrong. I want things for you that I want for myself. Not a big house or four fucking cars. It’s all ego stroke. I walk past 20 homeless people in the street and I have to do some mental and moral gymnastics to deal with why I don’t give them all something. These are people aren’t going to sleep in a bed tonight. The adjustment I have to do in my brain to deal with that does me a disservice. It does me a harm. People don’t look out for other people. People don’t want to be homeless. People should want for no one to be homeless. You have to put something back in the pot. I won’t lie; it took me a long time to work that out too. But that’s why I fell in love with teaching when I did work it out.
Did you teach any of the new generation of MCs coming through from Manchester right now?
I used to teach Sparkz who’s in Levelz and does loads of stuff with Mouse Outfit. Also Sleazy F. I never taught Chunky but I did some workshops with him and Mark XTC. Skittles was teaching workshops around the same time as me as well. This is it, the youngers coming through now all benefited from these amazing workshops. Pre-recession we had an industry of workshops, there was something popping in every youth club and community centre and you look at the wealth of talent coming through over the last few years, a lot of them came from those seeds – the workshops, the collaborations, the scene, the support.
I’m assuming there’s a lot less workshops and funding for creative projects in the city now due to austerity measures and Brexit?
What makes me sick about Brexit is how people have harped back to ‘the good old days’ You know those days? Those days when England was a super power and they had their foot on everyone else’s neck and made them know who’s boss? Them days.
Britain’s history is nothing to be proud of
I’m not sure that’s a fair comment. But I think it’s definitely fair to say Britain’s history, as promoted by Britain, is extremely Photoshopped and the unedited version would surely have an impact on the level of pride. Quite similar to perhaps building up an idea of a girl through her Insta pictures and DM chats, meeting her for a couple dates in pleasantly lit bars and then you stay over one night and wake to see her makeup-less morning face. Often a big difference, ya get me? Not necessarily such a big difference that you can’t live with the unedited face but obviously, you’ve got to adjust and accept the reality. Now maybe, this Insta Britain lady has now got bad skin from always wearing loads of make-up but some people who woke up to her real face and bad skin want her to go back to how she was, that’s Brexit!
Ha! Back to something positive: Manchester. Can you pinpoint a particular turning point where the city’s music started to really took off in the way it has?
10 years ago Manchester used to be couple of mainstream artists who would never help the other local guys out or even mention them in interview. Now you put a tune out and 10 other local guys are too. That is a good problem to have! So for me I personally put this down to Chimpo, Skittles, Del (DRS), George (Dub Phizix), Strategy, Estate Recordings. All them lot cemented a lot of things. They’re giants in the city in how they can pull from all these groups. It’s such a big collaborative vibe. It’s amazing. You’ll always have the odd negative vibe and haters and moaners but on a general zen the only other place that’s comparative is Bristol.
Plus… Never under-estimate what Marka did for Manchester. George’s style of drum & bass that was unlike any other, Strategy’s style, DRS’s album was just dropping, Marcus Intalex supporting a lot of things from behind the scenes. Skittles’ album, Chimpo relentlessly dropping banger after banger after banger. All this popped a lot of doors open!
But if you want an actual moment when I sat back and thought ‘yeah, no one can fucking touch us now’ it was Sun & Bass a few years ago. Everywhere we went, the party was there. I’m not a party guy, I’m a quiet, chilled guy, happy to sit back and observe. But all those guys are nutters. They’re charismatic but they don’t care about who you are, what you do, what your status is, what you’re wearing or what car you fucking drive. They only care if you can laugh at yourself. If I can’t call you a cunt without it being a negative then we probably shouldn’t be mates. That feeling of positivity, openness, no airs and graces and just having a laugh. That’s the vibe of Manchester that we bring. And so many people are smashing it now. Just that 1Xtra takeover we did with Levelz the other month with Abnormal Sleepz, KSR, Berry Blacc, Don Zulu. So many people shaking the scene, it’s beautiful.
Enough to keep the torch burning even though there are less resources like workshops for the next generation?
I don’t want to say this like it’s something to aim for, but it’s a known fact that out of hardship comes creativity. Being forced to fend for yourself breeds a creative mind because you’re looking for ideas and not resting on your laurels. You’re seeking opportunities. Now we have a good foundation and the level of support between us, we can now help the next generation anyway. Any shit they need to know: PRS, PPL, legal contracts, agents, proper advice. When I came through we didn’t have a clue. None of us did. Those things are in place now, we’re a lot more stable and we keep on passing it forward. If we stay this strong and supportive of each other nothing can fucking stop us.