Interview: London Posse’s Rodney P

The face of UK hip hop changed dramatically with the arrival of the London Posse. Previously focused on the other elements of hip hop, the Posse finally brought a distinctly British edge to the music side of things. Rodney P, Bionic, Sipho and DJ Bizznizz came from soundsystem culture – and sounded like it. The group’s South London-inspired music still reverberates in the work of their descendants – Roots Manuva, grime MCs like Dizzee Rascal – more than two decades later. To coincide with the reissue of their 1990 LP Gangster Chronicle, we asked Rodney P to recount the tales of the pioneering collective.

Tell us about the early days of UK hip hop, the early- to mid-’80s when you guys were coming up. What did the rap scene in Britain look like back then?

There was no rap scene. There was a hip hop scene. It was more about the other elements, the hip hop vibe and lifestyle. And really in those days rapping was one of the lesser elements. It was all about breaking and dancing or graffiti. Those were really the major movements within the hip hop community. There wasn’t really a music setup in terms of getting music out there. None of the major labels had dealt with anything like hip hop before and didn’t know how to. So it really was a learning curve for us. We were really doing it blind. We would make it up as we went along. All we knew was that we really wanted to represent where we came from. That’s what it was about London Posse that made us cut across and stand out.

Not only were you among the first to rap with British accents, but you also incorporated elements from Jamaican soundsystem culture…

We were going completely against the grain, even though we were only doing what we thought hip hop was supposed to be.

Yeah, it wasn’t universally accepted in the UK. We existed on the outside at the beginning. But we came from the original hip hop scene. Bionic and me were known to be on the UK hip hop scene before London Posse came out. We were already players in the hip hop scene but the rap scene was only just developing then. It was new for everybody. There were a few groups out but we kind of stood on the outside cause we were coming with a different thing. A lot of the audience was saying, “We don’t wanna hear that.”

Rap wasn’t supposed to sound English then. It wasn’t supposed to have reggae music in it. We were going completely against the grain, even though we were only doing what we thought hip hop was supposed to be. We were representing us and where we came from and the music that we grew up with. If you’re making music you should really try and be honest about who you are and where you come from. That doesn’t mean you have to tell autobiographical stories in every song you write, but you have to have a feeling and an emotion that is true to you, not just something you’re trying to copy that you heard on the radio. It was a big argument back in the days, but 25 years later history has proved us right.

So where did the soundsystem influence come from, specifically for you guys?

My teenage experience was growing up in a West Indian household and the majority of the music that I grew up with was Jamaican. The first sort of scene that I was involved with was the UK soundsystem scene. Which was the learning curve for all of us. For everyone who grew up in my generation that’s just what we did. Our local soundsystems is where we learned to chat on the mic and get our little swagger from. It was always the soundsystem first. That’s what we grew up with. Hip hop came into my life when I was about 12, 13. It had an immediate impact. It’s the age when you’re looking for that thing that represents you and, for me, that was hip hop. But my soundsystem training is what I brought with me.

In 1986 London Posse took a trip to New York City, where you also linked up with Boogie Down Productions. What was that like?

Well, the background for that is that we had done a tour in the UK with Big Audio Dynamite. That’s how we formed as a group on that tour in 1986. Once the tour was finished – it was towards the end of the year, like November, December – they were going to New York to do some shows. So we hustled up some money and just said, “alright, we’re going too.” I was 16 at the time, Bionic was 19, so we were young and brave and we just went. That trip played a big part in cementing London Posse as a group. We already had the idea of doing a combination of hip hop and reggae in a UK style, but it was the trip to New York that really cemented it.

We already had the idea of doing a combination of hip hop and reggae in a UK style, but it was the trip to New York that really cemented it.

That’s also where we got the name London Posse from. Cause on the block we were those kids from London. The London posse, that was us. It was things like going to the corner store and asking, “Excuse me mate, have you got the time?” Or, “Do you know the way to the tube station?” Those were the things that brought the major reaction from the people like, “What the fuck, why are these black people talking so funny?” [laughs] That’s really what made us stand out, so it cemented our belief of this being what we need to do to succeed.

Also at the time I was already a Zulu. I knew Afrika Bambaataa by then, from the times where he would come to the UK and we would have Zulu meetings in Brighton. So when we went out in New York, we were living with ‘Bam and we were out hustling, meeting DJ Red Alert and going to Union Square and the “The Bridge Is Over” video shoot with Boogie Down Productions. When we came back to the UK we really had a momentum going. The trip really energized us in what we needed to do.

It’s interesting to see footage of you guys from ’86 and realizing that this was before the first Boogie Down Productions release…

Yeah, we were doing this hip hop reggae stuff very early. And, in a lot of ways, we used to think that the American hip hop reggae was always a bit corny. I’m a Boogie Down Productions fan and I think KRS-One is the greatest of all time, in terms of MCing. But what we always felt like we had over the Americans was the reggae element that we could do more authentically than they could. That was something that we could take energy from, knowing that we could bring something to the table that no one else could do.

When you came back, you recorded your first single.

Yeah, and the single was basically us telling our stories from New York. Coming back to England, we felt like it was cool. We got kudos for the fact that we had been in New York. Back then it was like going to Mecca. We had done our pilgrimage.

Tim Westwood produced that track, didn’t he?

Westwood was in the studio. None of us were producers. None of us knew what we were doing. I’d say the majority of the production work was done by DJ Bizznizz really. But Westwood got the credit and that was cool. What happened was that we had signed with Big Life after another tour in the UK and they gave us a list of people, asking us who we wanted to produce our record. We didn’t have a clear understanding of what they meant by that. But the only name we knew on the list was Tim Westwood. He was someone we considered our friend, so we went with him. It wasn’t really like he was pushing all the buttons. We just went into the studio and built up a vibe and made a tune.

Did you expect the record to do as well as it did?

We thought we were the greatest thing in the world. We thought the world had been waiting for us and needed us more than anything ever. [laughs] I mean everything changed quite quickly. Suddenly we were really busy and in demand a lot. But to us that wasn’t surprising. I think we should have been bigger than we were. We were that goddamn good. That’s how we felt at the time. We were aware of the fact that we were doing something else. But we had no idea of the legacy we would leave and that 20 years later we would be able to re-release the album again.

So why did it take three years until the LP came out after the single?

I think we should have been bigger than we were. We were that goddamn good.

Music business in England. There was no blueprint as to how to deal with this music, how to make it or how to put it out. We were on Big Life. They were our label and also our management. That conflict-of-interest was an issue. Then the initial success kind of fizzled. We had to ask ourselves if we really wanted to take this music thing seriously. Sipho and Billy [DJ Bizznizz] went off to do some other stuff, so me and Bionic had to find out where we wanted to go with it. We had an idea of what we wanted it to sound like, but we didn’t know how to get that sound. Neither of us were studio guys. We had to go out and find the people who had an understanding of what we were trying to do musically. And then we had to find a label to put it out. Luckily we linked with Mango through Island Records.

What was the process like going into the second album, which ended up not being released? What had changed?

The business side of things got complicated. Mango Records closed down, Island pulled the funding. Luckily for us, we had a good, personal relationship with them. They were straight enough to come to us and tell us they don’t have any more money to put into our album. They were prepared to do another record with us, but they couldn’t increase the budget from the last project. So they gave us the option to walk away with the rights, and that’s why we’re even able to re-release the record now. But in terms of making music, I felt like we were in a much better place by then, because we had a clearer understanding of what we were trying to do and how to achieve the sound we wanted.

Also at the time, the sound in the UK was changing. Drum & bass was emerging. Different kinds of syncopation in the UK were emerging and different scenes were emerging. We were also part of those, because we’re Londoners. The early days of drum & bass and the house scene and the rave scene – we were there for that, too. So new elements were coming in. That’s why “Style,” which is one of the last tunes we put out, sounds musically different from your regular hip hop, but still sounds like a London Posse record. There would have been more elements like that involved in the record. We were about to push the boundaries again. We were ahead of the curve with that shit.

Bionic then went on to do more stuff in the drum & bass direction.

Yeah, he linked up with Stevie Hyper D, who was one of the legends of the drum & bass scene, MC-wise. Him and Bionic had started doing some work together. What they were doing was actually more experimental than drum & bass, with Stevie coming more towards what we were doing as well. It was an amalgamation of MC styles and musical styles. They weren’t doing straight jungle. That’s not what it was. Bionic wasn’t just saying “I don’t do rap no more, I do jungle instead.” He was always more creative than that. It definitely would have been something to hear, but then unfortunately Stevie passed so that never really came to fruition.

Was that shift also one of the reasons why London Posse drifted apart eventually?

Yeah, that was part of it. But there was never a moment where we said it’s finished. It just kind of wore out. It became harder and harder just to keep the momentum. We were very independently minded. By then we had set up our own labels. Stuff like “How’s Life In London” and “Style” we put out ourselves. We got into that independent mindset. I haven’t shopped for a record deal in at least 18 years. We’re not going to record labels, we just do it. So things got hard for London Posse when we started pulling in different directions, just trying to make ends meet, to be honest. There was never a big argument or anything like that. It just wore out.

By Anthony Obst on June 27, 2013

On a different note