“I believe a very small percentage of rich people control the world who don’t really care about the rest of us”
These days non-Jamaican reggae and dancehall emcees are many. But few adoptees demonstrate the lyrical dexterity and versatility of Ipswich, England’s YT. The man born Mark Hull is a 25 year veteran of the music having started chanting on sounds in 1987. However it was in the new century that he began to make his mark, impressing the famously tough crowds at Sting 2004, and then causing waves with his Cham do-over England Story and reaction to the July 7th bombings Wicked Act. As a result he only started recording albums relatively late in his journey. When much of contemporary street culture’s response to political and economic strife is to dress up and party, the always socially conscious YT’s third album ‘Revolution Time’ is his most outspoken to date. In this feature length revealing interview, Angus Taylor found out why…
How did you get into reggae? Was it playing in your house growing up or did you seek it out?
I found it by accident really. My earliest memories are hearing it round a friend’s house. I used to play football with him on the park, his parents were Jamaican. I was nine or ten. I wasn’t even into music at that point, just football and kids stuff. Growing up I just found myself drawn into it. When I started to get into music, I was into ska, two tone stuff and I got into reggae through that. I just got into the patois from the music and because when my mates reached their teens it became cool for them to talk patois for certain things. So I just picked it up like that really.
I found reggae by accident really
How big a Caribbean community is there in Ipswich? And how big an influence were sound tapes for you?
It’s had a West Indian community since the 50s. We had a few big foundries and quite a lot of industry here so a lot of people settled here to work. So it is actually quite a big Caribbean community but it’s quite isolated because there are no more that are near. There was a good scene in Ipswich at the time but sound tapes have been a massive influence on me. They still are. I’m in the process of rebuilding my collection on MP3.
Which emcees, artists, sounds and people really captured your imagination back then?
I’d have to say Saxon and all their emcees. Levi and Tippa are my favourite. Yellowman and Fathead, I had an album that was Lee’s Unlimited Vs Peoples’ Choice and that was Ringo, Toyan on Greensleeves. I knew every word on that, backwards. That’s how I learned. I could sort of chat those lyrics and when I started doing that to my mates they lost their minds. They couldn’t believe how well I could reproduce that, and then I got into the vibe of writing my own. I tell you who I should mention because they’re very relevant: Musical Youth! I was bang in to that and that was huge at the time. That was quite an inspirational story in itself because they were kids and I was a similar age. I chatted all their lyrics.
The white emcee Dominic, was he someone you were aware of when you were growing up?
Not at that point. I became aware of Dominic much later, around ’87 when I started actually chatting on the sound. I remember seeing his name on the back of a Super Power 12″, I think Shabba was on the other side, and then obviously Favor Boy George was one of the sides of that. I’d seen the name and then someone told me he was white, I didn’t even realise.
Tell me how you first stepped onto a sound and first took the mic.
I’d been doing it since I was 12 or 13, like I said I used to chat other people’s lyrics. We’d get stoned and start messing around and when we’d be in a group someone would go “Mark, do a bit, do a bit, show them lot what you can do!” I done a few tapes round people’s houses, chatting on their stereo or whatever and recording it. There was a guy from Ipswich called Floyd, we made a tape round his house. He was chatting for Ashanti at the time, he saw me in the dance in ’87 and he was like “Come and chat on the sound”. I had zero stage presence, I just stood there like a rabbit in the headlights and sort of spat this lyric, and that was it, the place went mad! Then I was addicted to it.
Ipswich has quite a big Caribbean community but it’s quite isolated
When did you get your YT name?
Pretty much then, that night. I didn’t really have a name at the time, I don’t think. They were calling me Whitey Don for a while until somewhere in the early 90s we ran into someone with the same name and then I changed it to YT.
How did you come to cut your first recording?
My first recording was done here in Ipswich with a guy called Pat Alexander, he had a label called Eastern Records. He used to work with local artists. We had a band here that was very big in the 80s called Jah Warriors. By then they started to disband but Pat was recording a lot of them separately as artists. I went round his yard and that’s where I did my first bit of voicing. He put a single out with me in about ’88 or ’89. I’ve got it here somewhere on acetate, it’s called Stop Pedalling, Stop Pedalling Cocaine and Heroin.
How did it pick up from there?
I loved doing it but during the day I went from various jobs, being a petty criminal, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t take it seriously until about ’89 when I was chatting on Ashanti and had got a nice name for myself round East Anglia, sometimes in London. I went to London with a sound called Stylee Media. They came here to clash with Ashanti, they heard me and they were like “We want you to come and chat on our sound in London”. And when I did that it was the next level, the reaction I got, so I thought “Hang on a minute, I could actually do this”
And is this what you mean when you sing Reggae Music Save Mi Life?
Out of my group of friends I was one of the only ones that didn’t end up in prison or mixed up in drugs. So that is exactly what I mean. It gave me something else to do. I was really heavily involved with the sound. I was one of the first ones there to help with the sound set-up, I was one of the last ones there lifting the set. I was bang into doing it. It gave me something other than running around dealing, which is what my peer group were doing at the time.
Reggae gave me something other than running around dealing, which is what my peer group were doing at the time
In the length of career you’ve had a lot of reggae artists have done hundreds of albums. Are you happy with three albums or was your progress slow?
Very slow. My first album was 2006, so someone said to me “You’ve done three albums over 20-odd years”, which is true sort of, but I’ve actually done three albums in six years because the first was in 2006. A lot of it was struggling to get recognised. A lot of it’s coming from Ipswich as well, you’re not surrounded by the right people who would encourage you and help you understand that you’ve actually got potential to be big in this, that you could do this for a living. I’d do it and then I’d get sidetracked and have to do stuff to make money to live. I had my first daughter in 1990, so I’ve had responsibilities and couldn’t just go off and live the dream.
Tell me about playing at Sting in 2004.
By 2003 I was totally engrossed in making my career happen. I went to Jamaica the first time in ’99 and I went several times between then and 2004. By 2004 it was organised by Tubby Reds, who’s one of the heads of Redsquare Crew, Spragga Benz’s crew. He’d organised for me to get a run on Sting and when I got there my face was on the poster, people were actually recognising me in the street as “That’s that whitebread what’s on the Sting poster”. That was definitely a turning point for me. I must have been there like a week or two beforehand and I was showing everyone my tunes and the worst reaction I got in the lead up to Sting was “Wow, I hope that’s not what you’re going to Sting with!” The man would go ” It’s all about the entrance with Sting. You need to go on there with a badman tune”, “You need to go on there with a girl tune”, “You need to go on there with a ganja tune”. I’d never done badman tunes, never been my thing. They were all basically spinning my head out in the run up to Sting and making me more nervous.
Is it true you had second thoughts about going on?
(laughs) When I got there, it must have been after 8 and it was really quite empty, a huge place, they were still sort of tuning up the sound. They were like “There’s two more artists and then you’re on” so I’d be on in like 10 minutes. I was like “Wow, I didn’t really come here for this. You know what? Take me off the list”. I proper got the hump about it. All my friends were cussing me going “Nah, how can you do that? You’ve got a chance to go on Sting. You can’t do that!” People were phoning me from England going “Nah man, you can’t do that. You have to do something”. In the end I stayed in the crowd for a couple of hours and at about half 10 I said “Let me go back round there and see if they’ll give me another chance”. Someone had dropped out and the woman said “You can go on right now”. I didn’t have no time to think about it, which probably saved me in a way. So I just did, I went for it and it worked out brilliant. Wicked reaction.
People can get a bad reaction at Sting.
This was the year after was the big drama with Kartel and Ninja Man on stage. That Sting ended with a big shower of bottles on stage, people got killed in the stampede. By this time the Drop Leaf rhythm had come out and this whole generation of Rasta artists had started to bust up: Fantan Mojah, Turbulence, I-Wayne, that’s the first time I saw Queen Ifrica,… like Rasta Sting really.
Tell me a bit about your lyric writing process. Do you write anything down?
I write it down. Not so much nowadays! I use a dictaphone now more for ideas but I’ve started to wonder if that’s took away from my writing in a way, because it makes me lazy. With the dictaphone I end up having 200 ideas and never finishing them. You sit down with a pen and paper you actually finish, you write the verses out and you get it properly done. So what I try and do now is put the idea down on the dictaphone, the melody and the basic idea of the lyric and then sit down and pen it out.
Some European emcees have a very limited number of topics that they’ll talk about: “I love weed”, “I love reggae”, “Kill your sound” and that’s it.
When I was listening to Saxon when I first heard Coughing Up Fire, when Levi goes “Yo, last week when I cussed Maggie Thatcher…” that kind of touched me. You can talk about things, you don’t like and things other people don’t like that people can relate to about their life. Professor Nuts, he’ll talk about ordinary, everyday things but in a funny way. That sticks with you and I think that’s important. If you can say something that people can relate to, that people can feel, that’s going to be a stronger lyric than just the generic “I love weed” and “Kill your sound” and swagger or whatever it is at the moment.
If you can say something that people can relate to, that people can feel, that’s going to be a stronger lyric than just the generic “I love weed” and “Kill your sound”
Tell me a bit about how you came up with England Story.
I’d been toying with the idea of doing a tune about English sound systems, I think I’d started it in Paris. We were talking about it and I started to put it together and it just built from there. When I went to Jamaica Cham Tune was killing it, so I came back here and I wrote the tune. I thought I kind of needed to be said as well. At that time it was a real lull as far as UK artists were concerned, it was really disappointing to see a lot of our leading icons had gone and done other music to the exclusion of reggae. Fair enough you go and do jungle, but you still do reggae tunes. There was a whole generation of people who didn’t even realise how relevant we were in the reggae and dancehall scene. I spoke to a lot of people about it and got their opinions because it was a hard one, you’ve only got so many lines and you can’t mention everybody. And I got cussed obviously!
It’s like these people who try to write a book about reggae or make a film about it. If you make it too definitive, if you say “This is the story of…this” then everyone you don’t mention is going to get really annoyed!
(laughs) Exactly, exactly! To be fair you could never tell the whole story. I don’t even know the whole story. I just told it from my point of view. I wasn’t talking about the sounds like Duke Alloy and all those guys from the 60s who started it over here. That’s outside of my field of knowledge. It might not have been totally accurate but it was honest! (laughs)
David Rodigan still plays a special of it. How important was his support?
Huge, absolutely huge. Rodigan was part of the consultation team that helped me write it. I’d done a rough demo and I was saying “I can’t press this on record. Dave Kelly and them are going to go nuts”. But he was like “No, no, no, you can do it but this is the way you’re going to do it. You’re going to word it on the label that you’re doing it as a tribute paying respect to Baby Cham and Dave Kelly”. He really helped me through it. He supported it from day one and his dubplate has been a huge help to me (laughs).
Let’s talk a bit about your new album. You’ve always done political songs like Wicked Act, Born Inna Babylon but they’re like social commentary from street level. This album seems like you’re looking at the bigger picture. Did you feel like you were being let off the leash a bit in terms of the topics you were talking about on this album?
I hadn’t even thought of it like that. The whole concept of Revolution Time, as a tune and an album after, was that what was happening at the time with the Occupy movement, and in Egypt and Tunisia, people have had enough really. So I did think it had to be a bit broader rather than just speaking about it from a street level, as you say. Born Inna Babylon was the start of that. I found that I was getting encouragement from a new sort of audience, revolutionaries and protest sort of people. They liked that I was saying it from my perspective. That sort of encouraged me, and it’s stuff that I believe so it’s easy to write in that way. You have to temper it as well so it doesn’t become some boring protest thing.
Spragga Benz is on the album. One thing I noticed following him on Twitter is that he’s quite political and class conscious – he often quotes from leaders and political comedians.
I think increasingly so. Spragga lost his son three years ago. His son was murdered by the police in Jamaica. To my knowledge no-one got found guilty of it, and when it came to court the guns had disappeared. It was, dare I say, a classic corrupt thing that happens in Jamaica, I’m afraid. I think Spragga turned Rasta in the early 2000s anyway, so after what’s happened to his son, I think he will make it his mission in life to fight against that.
And tell me a bit about your long-standing connection with Joe Lickshot.
I’ve always been a fan! Not just him, there was Jackie Knockshot as well. Even over here, I remember we played a sound called Gemini from Luton and there was a guy called Jumbomouth who used to do something along those lines. It’s a unique reggae sound system thing, where they pull up the music and this guy chats some madness! I’ve always been a fan and it worked so well on the first album and people were like “You’ve got to do it again!” on the second album. So it seemed almost rude not to do it on the third album as well (laughs).
You mentioned the Occupy movement. You and Solo Banton appeared at the St Paul’s encampment. How did you get involved?
My friend Nicole has to take a lot of credit for that. By then I’d written Revolution Time and we’d had a lot of conversations in the lead up to it. So when Occupy happened in Wall Street and then London she phoned to me saying “Have you seen it? Have you seen what’s going on? You should go and play there!” She got in touch with them for me and that was it. When I told Solo about it he didn’t hesitate for a second. They loved it man, they loved it.
Also on the album you talk about conspiracy theories. What so-called conspiracy theories do you hold with?
Haha! You haven’t got time! If I disappear after this is issued it’s your fault Angus! I believe politics is just like a fraud. What goes on behind the scenes is nothing to do with politics. What actually controls our life and what changes everything that’s happening in our world is nothing to do with politics. Politicians are… not even puppets, they’re just a sideshow to distract you from what’s actually happening. I believe that a very small percentage of rich people do control the world who don’t really care about the rest of us. I do believe in the 99%. Someone told me that years ago that 1% of the population own 90% of the wealth in this country. I don’t know if that’s a conspiracy theory. It’s just a fact.
Do you for example think that September the 11th was an inside job? Do you think the Bilderberg Group are involved in occult practices or any of that?
I am careful because I do think that some people can become over the top, but I do believe there’s some truth in it. I do think that the Bilderberg Group exists, or if not by that name I do think that organisations like that exist and actually play a major role in how the world has to live. I don’t think 9/11 was what they say it was, there’s too much evidence otherwise to be honest. What about you?
(laughs) I’m too busy doing reggae interviews and typing them up to have opinions on things like that! What news sources do you trust to form your opinions?
You have to look at all of it. One of my friends said listening to the BBC is like listening to enemy transmissions. I listen to it across the board, the mainstream news, stuff that people send me on the internet. People know that I think in this way so they send me stuff. I’m not into all of it. I see the hypocrisy in both ends of it.
When I was practicing lyrics, if you could chat Smiley Culture’s lyrics you had skills!
Finally I want ask you about your tune Tribute To Smiley Culture with Mr Williamz. How big was Smiley for you? In terms of his death in police custody, do you think that the truth is yet to come out?
I should have mentioned him earlier. Police Officer came out when I was leaving school, and we were allowed to bring records in on the last day. I was there with Police Officer, Cockney Translation and Coughing Up Fire and they were all looking at me like I was a complete nut job. When I was practicing lyrics, if you could chat Smiley’s lyrics you had skills! It’s a bit clichéd, but he crossed a lot of bridges because he brought the English accent into it. I’m scared the truth will never come out. It’s back to the same thing we were talking about. Nothing ever gets done. What that did uncover was how many deaths there have been in custody and zero police convictions out of hundreds of murders. To be fair, if you break down the story that we’re expected to believe, it’s a little bit ludicrous, a little bit farcical. If you’ve ever had experience with the police… without going into major depth about it, if you’ve got a major court case coming up for drugs and they’ve come to your house early in the morning and they let you leave the room, out of sight, to make a cup of tea… unheard of. Basically, no, I think the truth is yet to come out but I suspect that we’ll never fully know.