Published Jul 17, 2013Michael West (aka Rebel MC, Conquering Lion, Blackstar and Congo Natty) has been a crucial figure in both British hip-hop and the formulation of jungle. With the group Double Trouble and under the Rebel MC moniker, West released the Top 20 UK hits "Just Keep Rockin'" and "Street Tuff" in 1989. Whatever lapses in credibility he might have incurred with his pop-rap success were quickly dashed with his second album, 1991's Black Meaning Good, which helped birth jungle, while 1993's "Lion Of Judah/Innah Sound" and 1994's "Code Red" among others stand as stone cold classics of the then-nascent genre. Congo Natty took some time to speak about Rebel MC's legacy, why jungle isn't respected, his new album Jungle Revolution and the music's future.
How did you get involved in music and the whole sound system culture?
It's something that is in my soul, you know. It's born inside. I don't see it as getting into it, I feel more like I was born in it. It's in my DNA, in a soul and a spirit, music for I and I in Babylon.
You're considered a pioneer of British hip-hop thanks to your work as Rebel MC with Double Trouble. What is the Rebel MC legacy in regards to British hip-hop?
I remember visiting America in the early '90s and the one thing they kept saying to me was "where do we put your tunes? We don't know what category to put them in." So in a way, British hip-hop, it was never taken seriously for a long time. If you said that you were a British rapper, it would be like "What's that?" But now, what I would say that's happened is there's been a growth and everyone had to go through that and now you've got a UK MCing scene that's up on the levels of America now. I don't know if you agree or not but that's how I see it. I would rather listen to some UK MCs than Jay-Z any day. Give me Klashnekoff or some of the MCs in the UK today. That's the way I feel.
You've been known as Rebel MC, Conquering Lion, Blackstar and Congo Natty. I was wondering why you adopted different pseudonyms?
Because music gets a bit political. Not even a bit political because when you have success in music you get a stigma. When you're trying to grow as an artist, your name can be a blessing and a curse. With Rebel MC, I was known for things that got successful in the pop charts. I was never a pop artist. I don't like pop. I fight against pop. I felt like I had to re-introduce myself, and having a different name, there was no bias. So people could feel the tune, whether it was Rebel MC or not.
Would you say then that your transition from hip-hop to jungle was an organic one?
Yeah, mon. I was talking to my children today and I was telling them how important hip-hop was for us growing up in the UK. Hip-hop and reggae are my two biggest teachers more than any instructor at school. This is where I learned things for my life and hip-hop was important for that. I always talk about hip-hop when I talk about jungle and reggae obviously. We were asleep in the UK, but we were kind of woken up by reggae, but hip-hop music, the whole culture: Afrika Bambaataa, the Zulu Nation, all these things were special and they were needed. If you think about the world now, the world sees hip-hop as more commercial. The real essence of hip-hop was a revolutionary music from America to wake up the people.
We carried on the torch. Like a relay. When you've got a relay team going on and each one passes on the baton, so the baton was passed to us in the UK because if you ask hip-hop artists where the country [was] they got the most love [from], they're gonna tell you the UK. When they first started touring, the first time Def Jam came to England, we had a serious amount of love for our brothers in America, and that love was a powerful thing. Jungle took that energy and just carried it on. That vibration was here for the British youths; it was like, we could have our own labels. It wasn't just a musical revolution of getting our tune on the radio station, there were labels now. Def Jam was just a little label in an office. When Bob Marley was signed to a major label, he still had Tuff Gong and sold his tunes from his house on Hope Road and he made the tunes in house. So that revolution of music — hip-hop took that on as well and just made it even more global. The importance of organizing yourself, of having your own team — jungle is like that.
How do you feel that your career has evolved over the years?
It's grown in parallel with my life. From the early days, you see the dreads are short and I didn't have a beard. If you see I now, you see that I have the dreads and the beard, that's how I see the music. It's like anything in life, if you're serious about it you're going to improve and you're going to grow.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the new album?
Ultimately, I want people to take jungle music seriously. I want people to respect it as a musical form. As something that comes out of the UK but has its roots in Africa through slavery and through the triangle from Jamaica to New York to London. For people to take it seriously like every form of music before it. Like jazz, blues, reggae and hip-hop. That's what I want for jungle because jungle has to fight for its name.
Why do you feel that jungle isn't respected?
Because jungle ⎯ and no disrespect to other music, but many music their message is more like, "Let's have a little party tonight" where jungle talks about some real serious global things. Word, sound and power and I feel jungle's very much like reggae and hip-hop in the way that they wouldn't play it on radio at first. But they had to play it because the people demanded it and that's the way I see jungle. To be demanded by the people and then radio has to play it.
Does the title Jungle Revolution tie in to that?
Yes, if you remember revolution kind of has two meanings. It's like a Che Guevara revolution but it's also about the meaning of a circle: 360 degrees. In 1993, we were here in the UK with our music and it was very powerful and by 1994 it blew up. It kind of got out of control. I see 1993 and 2013 as very similar and we're going to move into 2014, which is going to be the 20th anniversary and I feel that jungle's going to re-emerge again on a serious level.
On that tip, what do you see the future of jungle being?
Hopefully jungle is the first music to be free of Babylon. The dreams and aspirations of Tupac Shakur come to light. He saw the light in 1996 and he asked: "Why don't we control our own music? Why aren't we starting up our own label, our own TV company?" We don't own any labels, it's still the corporations that own it. Hip-hop got bought up by Babylon and Tupac prophesized it. You're either going to get bought up and keep it real or you're going to lose yourself.