Between 1994 and 2011 Mike Skinner was the spearhead of a now iconic movement with The Streets, combining hip-hop and garage to bring the UK urban scene to the dizzy new heights it reached after the release of Original Pirate Material in 2001. Whilst Skinner was conquering our sound waves, Murkage Dave was destroying dance floors in Manchester with his Murkage crew collective. Monday night raves, a television documentary that featured legends like David Rodigan and aspiring artists such as Example.
In 2015 Tonga began its rise with the monthly London club night at The Waiting Room in Stoke Newington. It quickly gained a reputation, with guests of the highest calibre including Kano, Giggs, Big Narstie and Bonkaz. Later that year their first EP Tonga Ballon Gang dropped and their show hit the road with stops at Glastonbury and Bestival. The momentum carried into 2016 where we recently saw the guys perform at Birmingham’s own MADE festival and collaborate with JayKae and Mayhem on the video for their new single CCTV.
What’s the story with Tonga, would you say it’s the love child of The Streets and Murkage?
M: The audience only knows us as The Streets and Murkage unless you look at my terrible photos of people in nightclubs.
D: I like them!
M: No amazing photos of terrible things in nightclubs. But yes, it works really well for our existing audiences.
D: It’s kind of like a thing that locks together. It’s like Ying and Yang.
M: Good cop, bad cop.
D: Mike’s the white part, I’m the black part.
M: I’ll take that.
What other artists come under the Tonga banner?
M: I mean we’re making music as Tonga and really it’s anyone who is on a Tonga tune who doesn’t get a feature. So that would be me, Dave, Mr Silver, Oscar and perhaps Guyka, if he wants to make a comeback, although we’d probably have to feature him now, wouldn’t we?
D: Yes, we would. And also we’ve got a few strap holders, like Klepto.
M: There’s a few Bez’s. There’s about seven Bez’s in Tonga. There’s a very high Bez count.
D: There’s Teeth. He’s selling the Drugs not doing them though.
Will we see another Tonga EP out soon?
M: Definitely, we’ve been really working a lot about finding what it is we do well and CCTV is probably the first proper thing where we worked out that every song we make, we have to be able to play it at the club. When you go into a studio, you tend to write more emotionally… because you’ve got to listen to the song all day. So it ends up being less clubby. It ends up being more musical and I think you’ve really got to be careful doing that if you’re a club night like us. I think it took us a little while to really get inside that and now we spend all day in the studio listening to club music, which is a headache. When you’re listening to the same bass line of a tune! We’ve made some amazing baseline tunes that I’m playing now that I love when I play them, I love them. But we’ve been listening to that for eight hours sometimes and you have to do that if you want to make club music.
We’ve recently seen you working with another BabMag featured artist, Jaykae. Can you tell us more about that?
M: Well Jaykae is incredible. I actually think that in terms of rap. I think the regions… the North… that’s the most exciting place now. I don’t really have any loyalties really and to be honest, that included Birmingham before really. I guess I grew up feeling like there weren’t many opportunities in music. It drives you mad but it’s really just about the results. You have to get the results somehow. But I do think that they’re the most interesting rappers; the Brummies’, the Manc’s; they’re the most interesting rappers because London is and always has been very showbiz. It’s like the coasts in America. They’re very aware that they’re being watched. They’re very aware of what they’re there to do.
And the North of England has the same kind of feel as the South coast hip hop movement if London was the East or West Coast.
M: Yes, but I think particularly Birmingham. Birmingham is so for its own… they’ve got their own audience, a massive audience and they’re there to really communicate with that audience and I think that’s a much more interesting thing for someone from the outside to look at. It’s closer to authenticity.
D: But at the same time, I kind of feel like with Jaykae, Mayhem, also we were hanging out with Daps that day as well. I kind of feel like they’re bigger than even they realise. From hanging out with them, with Daps or whatever in the car and he was like I can’t believe The Fader posted my shit. I was like bruv, you’re getting mad plays. You’ve got mad fans. It’s like they don’t even realise… I don’t think the music industry has really caught up yet. Jaykae’s plays are insane. He’s getting more plays than a lot of London based artists.
M: It’s very easy to get distracted by America and it’s a big deal for a British rapper to go to America. In your head, you kind of become a caricature. It’s a really difficult thing to go to New York and not get caught up with all that. Similarly, that’s what the Brummies’ have got to do now is to really carry on with their audience and not get distracted by London because that’s what London is. London is just distracted by London. It’s just constantly looking at itself all the time.
You’re both heavily linked to other cities (Dave Manchester, Mike Birmingham) do you feel that for someone who wants to make a name for themselves in the music industry, time spent or a move to London is a must?
M: You don’t anymore. I mean you probably have to know a few important truths but you absolutely don’t need to be in London anymore because of YouTube. That said, if you’re not experienced, if you haven’t been to London and watched showcases of up and coming rappers and stuff like that. For an artist, whether what you do is good or bad, really the great thing about being a great artist is when they go, “this is what I do, fuck you”, without being rude to anyone, being nice to everyone, but literally, like this is what I do. That’s the hardest thing to do, and I think Londoner’s naturally get that. That’s why I think they’re so much more confident as artists. Up north it’s a bit like “oh, everyone’s going to think I’m a wanker because I’m not humble”. I grew up with that. But you can be humble, you can be nice, but you can also not defer to anyone else. In London, you can put on a carton of Ribena and wear it as a chain right… you can’t do that in Walsall.
Not in 2016.
Dave, you’ve been putting on parties for numerous years now, what’s the key advice you can give?
D: I just think let people do whatever they want, let people wear what they want, go where they want in the club and take whatever drugs they want to take.
M: You know with hooligans, at the beginning they were like beat the hooligans down and then the hooligans got worse and worse. What they learnt in the 90s was if you don’t get on horses and get truncheons out, if you just don’t really give a fuck… no one wants to have a massive fight or take the piss or put beer all over the decks… if you just let them do whatever they want, no one does do anything because they want the party to carry on.
D: It’s kind of self-regulating. I learnt a lot from metal gigs, which is a bit mad, they kind of look really violent, but once you watch it for a bit there are all these rules, and you can see if someone does something then you can’t touch them or you can’t do certain things to people if they’re not in the circle or whatever.
Original Pirate Material was the sound of a generation. Did you anticipate the album to blow up as much as it did?
M: No, I mean it went down very differently. What I was trying to do was to get big in South Birmingham, and suddenly it got really big with hipsters in London, it was quite an indie thing. So kids that were into indie bands got into it and it didn’t go the way I wanted it to at all in a way. It sort of makes you realise that London is a good thing and a bad thing, but London wants the new thing and often that new thing is a load of shit. It’s literally wearing that carton of Ribena round your neck.
There’s a reoccurring thing here with this Ribena carton round your neck.
D: In this interview we did before, I was saying in the New Rave area, people used to do things like wear buckets of chicken like KFC round their neck and wear mad colours and shit.
M: When I first got to London I was like literally what the fuck? But it was everything. Design, tables and chairs… they just want it.
When did you know it was time to put The Streets to bed and was Glastonbury 2011 the last Streets gig?
M: No, the last [The] Streets gig was at Skegness at a Weekender thing, but that was literally because that just happened to be the last one in the festival calendar. Yes, it was obvious. I never really wanted to be a word guy. I wanted to be a producer and when I got to the point where I could have carried on doing that or earn enough money as a DJ and just really do what the hell I wanted really… not many people get the opportunity to basically retire at 30.
With The Streets, a lot of your lyrics were on a personal level and told your story, how does that differ to what you produce with Tonga?
M: Well the difference with The Streets was that it wasn’t supposed to be club music and Tonga is supposed to be club music. It’s that simple. I mean there’s a lot of similarities. We’re going to be making more music but when we’re trying to come up with a hook or something, it takes me back to those days and I think just the way the production is really. I always used to try and keep things really simple anyway, but when you’re making stuff to be really loud in a nightclub, it has to be so simple because most nightclubs don’t have good enough sound to really be able to produce more than a few drums and bass and something very clear. So the back vocals had to go didn’t they Dave?
D: I mean it’s a bit of a shame. I love my harmonies.
You support Birmingham City FC. Does this season’s long-running rivalry with Aston Villa excite you at all?
M: Yes, shit on the Villa obviously. Shit on the Villa. People that are like in football, they don’t really support teams, they just like good football. I don’t really support musicians and I don’t expect them to support me. I’m friends with a lot of musicians but it’s really just about who’s doing the good stuff at the time. Everyone gets their turn in music. That’s what you realise. At some point, that guy will be the guy if they’re good. But after England – Wales, I just switched off. I literally just found that bit in my brain and just turned it off.
You’re playing MADE in Birmingham at the end of the month (July 2016). What can we expect?
M: I’m hoping that we can bring all our new relatives.
D: Yes man, we’re just going to rush security.
M: It’s just a different energy.
D: Just rush security and run on stage.
M: It slightly makes my eyes water a bit. It is a different world Birmingham to London isn’t it? London is so showbiz. It doesn’t matter. You can find the most authentic looking person in London but you scratch the surface and their girlfriend will be a PR for some magazine. You only have to do that a bit but Birmingham is not showbiz at all. It’s kind of like Detroit, it’s our Detroit.
You’re playing the Hare and Hounds pub as well? I know you played there under Mike Skinner not long ago?
M: I did, under the name of Mike Skinner. They gave me the really new decks last time and I’d literally never used them. I had to learn to DJ from the moment the music started, which is fascinating but next time there’ll be a lot more of us. It was a fantastic venue, I loved it. There’ll be loads of us and we won’t be learning to DJ.