Tuesday, 27 October 2009

London Posse: Roughneck Chronicles Part 1: 1985-1988

Since this article was originally written (based on interviews and articles by other people) I have spoken to/emailed/interviewed Sparkii, Dobie, No Sleep Nigel, Erroll Bull, DJ Devastate and MC Mell'O'. Thank you all for your time and patience in answering my questions and taking time out of your days to get back to me. Nuff respect due. Sparks – you started it all off. Thanks man.
The major (online) sources are listed at the end. I've tried to be as accurate as I can, but if there's anything glaringly obvious that I've missed or got twisted, let me know. Massive props to the various writers for Hip Hop Connection, whose back issues I have pillaged for a lot of the interviews with Rodney P and Bionic at various stages of their career, and Mark 563 for some of the article scans.

NOTE 1: I've marked internet sources for interviews with a hyperlinked "i" after each extract I've taken so the sources themselves get more traffic as a result of this page. MAD props to you if I've used your article, interview or personal recollection as a source - thank you for your effort and for posting it up on the net. I hope this blog brings more people to your site. Let me know (in the comments section) if anything needs adjusting.

NOTE 2: I've taken the liberty of breaking it into three parts to make it easier for you to read. When you get to the end of one section, click on the hyperlink in order to move to the next section.

Part 1 - 1985-1988 - you are here.
Part 2 - 1989-1992 is HERE.
Part 3 - 1992-1996 is HERE.
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Pride's original London Posse logo


London Posse were one of the most influential groups in British hip hop, and one of the first to sound authentically British. Pretty much everyone who MCs now in the UK owes them a debt, from Roots Manuva to Jehst to Wiley to Ghetto to Skinnyman to...well, you name your favourite UK rapper, or anyone who raps in his or her own accent about things that are local to them, and it'll be pretty much down to the London Posse's trailblazing series of classic (but sporadic) releases in the 80s and 90s.
So if you've not heard of them, read on...in fact, if you HAVE heard of them, read on anyway. They are one of those groups that a shadow of legend has grown around, and although their only album was slept on by the general public at large when it was first released, it grew and grew in stature until it became something that was spoken of in almost hushed, reverent tones. And to add to the mystique, it was almost impossible to find for many years until it was re-released on Wordplay Records in 2001. (Tru Thoughts reissued it again in 2013.) Despite that, they have been massively influential to nearly every UK hip hop act that has picked up a microphone in these fair isles, and as a consequence have left a legacy that still permeates the UK scene to this day. Here is their story.
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Key Figures:
Rodney P - London Posse MC
Bionic - London Posse MC
DJ Biznizz - DJ
Sparkii - Producer
Dobie - Producer
MC Mell'O' - MC
No Sleep Nigel - Engineer
Basil Pepperpot - B-Boy
Mode 2 - Graffiti Artist
Fabio - Producer / Covent Garden head
Tim Westwood - DJ / Radio Presenter



The London Posse's original line-up c.1987, at Leicester Square Tube Station
(l-r: Rodney P, Bionic, Sipho The Human Beatbox, DJ Biznizz)



BEGINNINGS – COVENT GARDEN


The London Posse have their roots in a larger UK Hip Hop scene that emerged in the early 1980s. They had allegiances with with the Covent Garden scene and the sound system culture that had emerged in the late 1970s – Covent Garden being the meeting place for what would become the nucleus of the London Hip Hop scene. It was the place in the country's capital where breakers, fledgling DJs and future MCs all mixed together and played off each other. B-boy battles regularly took place and friendships – and rivalries – formed between different cliques. MC Mell'O' ran with both Rodney and Bionic in the mid 80s; Basil Pepperpot (aka Basil Liverpool) was a B-Boy in Covent Garden; Sparkii was a known Covent Garden face and produced much of the early London Posse output; Mode 2 is a legendary Grafitti artist; Fabio was a Covent Garden face who went on to Drum + Bass fame. Together, their stories fill in the early days.


Covent Garden, 1985


Mell'O': "I was in a poppin’ crew with Basil Liverpool, aka Basil Pepperpot; Doran, aka the hardest hit in the popping world; and Bionic who would go on to be part of London Posse. We started off as the 52 Flash Kru, which was a Wandsworth Road / Battersea-based crew, then that grew into SAS, which was the South London All Stars. Cutmaster Swift was one of our best breakers! It was a massive crew."i
Basil Pepperpot: “Covent Garden in the early 1980s was no Bronx, but was the Hip Hop Mecca in England. People from up and down the country were coming to London which was the hub of activity for this new found underground culture. The culture was spreading like wildfire... There were names and crews that were considered dangerous to battle, at the time, underground celebrities like, Dolby D, Mark Monero, Danny Francis, Dennis Charles, Cutmaster Swift, Billy a.k.a Spider a.k.a D.J Biznizz, Pete Pervez, Flipski, Halit, Scotty, Milton and the amazing Breaker King. These names and plenty of others circulated around Covent to remind you of your position; if you had one. Crew names were also a form of tension at that time. Zulu Rockers, Popping Wizards, Sidewalk, S.A.S, Rock City, Broken Glass, Live 2 Pop, Live 2 Break, London All Stars were merely a few of the crews in and outside of London that were making a lot of noise.”i
Sparkii: “There was a small contingent of b-boys from East London, a very small amount, but we did a lot of damage. Bionic was a breaker. That's his breaking name. He's been Bionic since I was at least 14. I've been Sparkii since I was 13. That's my name, my popping name.”
Mode 2: “The scene was on such a buzz during that early summer (of 1984), even before Subway Art, Breakin', and Beat Street. We had Tim Westwood on LWR every Wednesday night, Spats on Saturday from midday until three, then of course Covent Garden itself, Leicester Square at night, and the underground walkways around Charing Cross station, especially the bit by a restaurant called The Tappit Hen, as it had the dark glass in the reflection of which guys were practicing their dance-steps.”i



Even back then, Tim Westwood was starting to have influence on the burgeoning UK Hip Hop scene, steeped as it was in confrontation and one-up-manship.


Spats flyer from 1986 i


Fabio: “People diss Tim Westwood but that guy was in it from dot man. And he changed the game. He stopped playing the souly kind of things and went full steam into electro. Used to go to Spats, Saturday afternoon. People would be breaking, we were into the Wildstyle thing, all of that shit. (It was) in Oxford St, just opposite 100 Club. Where Plastic People was. Little hovel downstairs. Wicked little space. great dancefloor and stuff.”ii
Basil Pepperpot: “Tim Westwood used to have a column in Blues and Soul called Zulu Message, as well as a radio show on L.W.R (London Weekend Radio). He would write in his column or announce on his show that such and such were going to battle at his next gig, and being a form of Don King within the corridors of Hip Hop, he would get the numbers he was after, to create a buzz at his gigs. Everyone was happy, you and your crew got your name out there and Westwood got his punters.”i


Westwood DJing at Spats, 1985


Sparkii: "Westwood... we used to go to Westwood at Spats every weekend, we used to listen to his radio show and give in the dedications on the Saturday, and he was the guy that used to read everybody's names wrong. Still does. He couldn't just say Sparkii, he had to say "Yeah, and this one's going out to my man Sparkii Ski". And it just stuck. But my actual name is just Sparkii, you know what I'm saying? I did the electric boogaloo, I was fascinated with electronic gadgets, I trained as a theatre electrician, and anything electronic got me. Sparks, Sparkii, you know what I'm saying. But Ski? That's a Westwood-ism. Monie Love made it law when she put it out on that first record. "Sparkii Ski.... for me". And even that, she knew I hated it when Westwood used to do it every week. You'd have Sparkii Ski, Sparky D, Sparky Sparks... it's SPARKII, Westwood, you know what I mean? But that's been my name from dot. "

There was a specific crew of London MCs and DJs who all lived in close proximity to one another who would go on to work together over the next few years.
Sparkii: “Sipho and DJ Pogo were best friends. I live in the middle of where Sipho's house and Pogo's house is. We're all from the same area. I knew of Sipho as well. Sipho was a popper. Mell'O' knew Monie cos they all lived on the same estate. Mell'O' lived at the back of it - Battersea Park Estate - his road leaned onto the back of it. Rodney was along the front of it, a little bit further down. There was two tower blocks - Cutmaster Swift lived in one block with his brother Storm, from No Parking MCs, which was his group. The next block of flats was where Simone lived, Monie Love. She was the youngest out of that crew. Mell'O' introduced us to her and then me and Pogo realised that we actually knew her before - we'd met her in Covent before she went to America. She knew Rodney before she went, cos they all used to hang out in Battersea youth clubs when they were really young. Everyone knew each other and they all lived in blocks on streets that were parallel. It ended up that we had this unit where everybody knew everybody.
What happened anyway, me and Pogo, we decided we were going to up our business, build a crew, and we were going to get an MC. Poges was really cool with Rodney in the Covent scene, well, we was all cool with everybody. But basically, he wanted to get Rodney. Rodney had just got taken into London Posse by Sipho.”
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SIPHO and BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE


Pre-London Posse flyer from December 1985 with Sipho (underlined)

Sipho was a local celebrity on the Covent scene – not only was he a popper, he was a prodigious human beatbox. Along with DJ Pogo, he had been featured in a teen magazine “Day In The Life” style feature on Hip Hop.

Sparkii: “You know the girly magazine Jackie? They used to do these photo stories back in the day, they did "A Day In The Life Of A Hip Hopper" in 1982 and it was based around Sipho. Cos he did modelling and things like that. It started off with "We're going to Upton Park to meet Sipho. Sipho is a b-boy." And it showed him getting ready. "He's going to meet his friend." And he goes to Pogo's house, picks up Pogo, they go to Covent Garden.... it's all pictorial, the day in the life style. This Jackie shit was like 82, 83. It was Jackie, or My Girl, or one of them. ”

Sipho's agent was getting him modelling gigs, due to his “baby-faced” looks - “He was the youngest out of us all, and the baby-faced one,” says Sparkii, “so people used to notice him more.”
In addition to this, Sipho had performed in Mike Allen's classic "Electrorock" documentary on the UK Hip Hop scene from 1985, as part of “Bass And Treble” with his beatboxing partner, Gary Washington-Thomas. Sipho was a known face on a scene that was suddenly exploding. A lot of the Covent Garden crew were making good money b-boying, and b-boys such as MC Mell'O' were performing alongside acts such as Shalamar at the Hammersmith Palais. Indeed, Sparkii sites Mell'O' as “one of the top five breakers in the country”, which was no mean feat considering the talent that was springing from the Covent scene.

It was his striking and confident performance in “Electrorock” that caught the attention of the ever-experimental Mick Jones and Don Letts of the genre-blending Big Audio Dynamite. Sipho was approached to perform on their track "C'Mon Every Beatbox", an updating of Eddie Cochran's rock-n-roll classic “C'Mon Everybody”, which featured on their 1986 album “Number 10 Upping Street”. Fast-forward to "the end of 86", according to Bionic. As a result of “C'Mon Every Beatbox”, Sipho was asked to go on tour with BAD, to support them in the UK and US.
In the UK leg of the tour, he would be supporting Big Audio Dynamite alongside Schoolly D and DJ Code Money, but the offer also included going to the US to support BAD there as well.





Sipho asked his friends Rodney Panton (aka MC Rodie Rok, later known as Rodney P, who back then was MCing with MC Mell'O'), Jeff Tetteh (aka Bionic, who had been MCing as a reggae MC, and had been part of a body-popping crew with MC Mell'O' called the 52 Flash Kru) and Billy Ntimh (aka DJ Biznizz, aka Spider B) to go along with him for the UK AND the US 86-87 tour.
All four knew each other, or at the least were aware of each other, before going on tour.
Rodney and Bionic were friendly in the early days on a mutual acquaintance level - as Rodney remembers it, "Bionic, he used to know my bigger brothers. It was just like through mutual friends."

Mell'O' and Bionic used to go to the Anti-Apartheid 3A (AAA) nights organised by Jerry Dammers from The Specials, with other like-minded friends in tow (like Rodney - "cos we all moved together.") "It was like warehouse parties playing funk, rare groove, Hip-Hop and sometimes a bit of reggae and roots," says Mell'O', who took the mic for the first time at that venue. "That’s the first place that I went to and held the mic properly in a public place with people around. That was the night I realised I’m built for this shit. From then that was it, there was no looking back."


MC Mell'O'

Mell'O': "Bionic was there. He grabbed the mic too. Now, HE might say that's not the first time he grabbed the mic or suttin, all I know is, I was close to Bionic. We used to rave together, dance together, move together, and that's the first time I ever saw him hold a mic as well. But, like myself, he was absolutely ready, you know... it was ready time."
Rodney: “I used to body-pop, I used to break dance and I used to rap – it was hip hop man, we did all of it. I heard the Sugarhill Gang on Top of The Pops in the early 80's. The Sugarhill Gang came out back in the day… Everyone I know knows the words to that record [Rapper’s Delight]. We knew it word for word and then we were all rapping. We started changing the words here and there, it was a fun ting.”

Rodney, Sparkii and DJ Pogo were already close enough for Rodney to be one of the few to go to Sparkii's house and hear his beats.

Sparkii: “I was quite happy making beats for Rodney. Rodney used to come and work with me. I used to allow certain people to my house cos I had equipment, only the trusted few, cos Covent was rough. Just Pogo, me, Mell'O', Swift, Rodney, Monie. And another guy that never gets mentioned, Reinforced Gus. Then Rodney went off with them (London Posse), which left us with a bit of a problem. I was always jealous that Rodney was with London Posse. He was such a nice guy, and I loved his flow... I'm talking even when he was Rodie Rok, with the American accent.”

Out of the two MCs, Bionic's toasting style of MCing was particularly noteworthy, unsurprising given his past as a reggae MC, whereas Rodney was more of a hip hop head.
"Early days there was a bigger divide in our music", Rodney said in an interview with HHC in 2007. "I would bring the hip hop, Bionic would bring the reggae," which led to a natural meshing of the reggae and hip hop styles that reflected the state of London sound systems at the time.

Bionic: "I do it in my own style, I was a reggae MC before so I still chat reggae lyrics but in a Yardie accent and I use my own cockney accent."
Sparkii: “Bionic was never nothing else. He was a Cockney reggae MC! You can't disguise that! He didn't want to fake the Jamaican. He's got pure integrity in that sense, you have to rate that.”

Rodney got his influences from the heavyweights - “everyone from LL Cool J to Run DMC to KRS One” - but none of the three necessarily saw themselves making a career out of music. They were b-boys or budding MCs or DJs practising in their bedrooms. Indeed, Rodney was two weeks into a YTS computer course when Sipho asked him to tour.

Rodney: “It was an eye-opener. It was an education, but it was more of a party for me cos I was really a kid in them days. When we started doing them things I was still in school, the second (leg of the) tour I had just left school.”
Sparkii: “We all used to hang out in one of the homeless shelters slash youth clubs attached to the West End. If it was rainy or cold or we was bored, there was a place called the Centre. They've got a few of them around the city and they've got one next to St Martin on the Fields. We all used to hang out there. There was a generation of Covent Garden people and Leicester Square people used to hook up there. They had a hall, had a dance studio, had a gym, I used to play in a band that used to go there, there was a little band rehearsal room and everything, right next to Martins on the Field. Still there. Called the Centre.”
Rodney: “Round the back of St Martins, St Matthews, or whatever, Yeah, that was round for years. That was like a youth club, used to be the hip hop kids on one side and the skinheads on the other. It was a strange mix in that place, strange mix. Those were some volatile days.”
Sparkii: “So we used to hang in there. Well, when I say we *all* used to, I mean anybody that's anybody who used to hang in Covent would be there in the evenings. (Then) Sipho said he was going to take them man out on the road.”
Rodney: “We were just all mates really. I'd met Bionic, I'd met Sipho, we all kind of knew each other. Sipho was going on tour with Big Audio Dynamite and we was at Mick Jones's house. He had a little studio in the basement, we was down there doing our thing so we said 'yeah, we'll come on the tour'. They needed a group, they needed more than just a beatbox, so we said we'd do it. We didn't have a name or anything.”
Bionic: "It was Sipho who got asked to go on tour with Mick Jones and them. He asked the rest of us to go along with him, but it was him they wanted."
Sparkii: “It fell on them. It really did. I was one of the only ones who was thinking of being a musician and doing it as a career, but I'd been on that before hip hop. The others, it was just something you did. You did that, you got girls, it was a laugh. Next thing you're in a youth club, Sipho comes in and says "you want to come on tour with Big Audio Dynamite"? And they say "Who are they?" I'm like "You don't know who they are? Oh my GOD!" Honestly. I knew who they were, you know what I mean?"
Rodney: “We just linked on a bredrin vibe and we got lucky.”

To give you a flavour of what they were doing at the time, here's a short chunk taken from an Irish TV show called 'Megamix' (courtesy of DJ Mek). This clip was filmed at The Cathedral Club, probably from October / November 86. It's the group in its very earliest form - Sipho and Bionic rocking the crowd with an infectious interplay, with no reference to Rodney or Billy Biznizz. Notice Sipho's large contribution to the live routines, and Bionic's easy and confident manner with the crowd - as the man himself says, "When I did shows I was a crowd man".


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NEW YORK

The group's experience of the USA after the UK part of the BAD tour was massively influential; not only for exposure, on-stage experience and influence on their style, but on their name.

Rodney: “When we finished the (UK leg of the) tour, they were going to America and we just kinda said 'fuck it', borrowed some money here, borrowed a bit of money there, and we went to the states.”

While over in New York in Christmas of 86 the group didn't have an official name, but because they were constantly referred to as the "London Posse" because of their place of origin, it started to stick so they kept it. According to Rodney, "we were out in New York and we’d just come off the tour with Big Audio Dynamite. Everyone was saying, have you heard about the London Posse? But it wasn’t ‘til we were about to do a show and the guy was like, I want to put you on the flyers, but we need a name... It was a quick second thing; we just said ‘The London Posse’."

They took part in cyphers while they were out there, and although the temptation for Rodney P was to rap in an American accent, if he did and then talked in his normal cockney accent afterwards, it was seen as fake by the Americans. This led to the decision to permanently rap in his own accent, i something Bionic was already doing and a decision that would influence an entire generation of MCs that followed the group's example.

Rodney: “When I started rapping, I started rapping in an American accent, like everyone else, as a fan of the music, following my favourite rapper. I used to go to America a lot with my mum when I was a kid. Me and Bionic would go to America and the first thing you'd discover, when you're in a cypher out there was that rapping in an American accent and killing it and then stopping and being like 'alright mate,' they'd just look at you. So we learnt that the best way to stay noticed was to use what you got. And we bought that philosophy home before we started making records.”
Bionic: "I don’t use an American accent or nuttin’, that’s what’s keeping English people back, rapping in American accents.”
Sparkii: “Rodney said, he just realised, “I've got to talk to these people, and I'm gong to feel like an idiot, rapping American and talking Cockney.” They literally got off the plane with English lyrics - well, Rodney did, Jeff was always on that.”
No Sleep Nigel: "Bionic was the first person who didn't care that he sounded British. He's a one off, and the first as well. He began the process that ended with Lily Allen! (laughs)"

Even though the two MCs had undeniable skills and they were part of a crew with a superb beatboxer and a great DJ, it wasn't easy to be accepted in the States, although they did garner some interest as potential recording artists.

Bionic: “When we first went to New York, we got offered to make tunes with Full Force and Howie Tee, but we didn't want to distress ourselves although there was big money being offered.”

The fact that they used their own accents and rapped about their own backgrounds instead of adopting mid-Atlantic themes and styles worked in their favour.

Bionic: “In New York you get the black man taking the piss. 'Oh, you're English, you all want to be like us.' And it's true. So-called British hip hop is nothing but an emulation of American hip hop. As long as you're British and you're rapping American, you'll never be as big as American rappers. Neither will you have their respect.”
Rodney: "What they (the Americans) liked was when man said "Awrroight darlin, awrroight love, scuse me miss, do you know the way to..." you know? And that would just stop the whole road. Everyone would talk to me. But even that came from Saxon Sound. Saxon used to always be in an argument about "we're English-Jamaican reggae artists doing deejay work, but we're not Jamaican. Our ting is different." And that's where we come from - out of the sound system ting. So when we came into the hip hop thing, we came with that same dancehall ethics. Y'know, "I'm a hip hop artist and I love hip hop, but I'm English and I'm representing where I'm from, I'm south London." So it was really just us taking the UK dancehall ethic and putting it on hip hop."

TRIVIA NOTE: During their time in NY, the Posse were there for the filming of the BDP "The Bridge Is Over" video, according to Rodney - "That's one of our claims to a place in hip hop history! I don't remember seeing no other English people there!"i - although it's hard to tell if they actually made the final cut or not. Play spot-the-London-Posse here.

One of the key aspects of the Posse when they started was the lack of desperation to get signed: it was fun. They were kids, they were meeting their heroes, they were doing what they loved. As Rodney has said more recently, "There was no conception that a decent career could be forged out of making music, especially in hip hop."

When they came back from the States in early 87, buzzing from hanging out with the hip hop elite (according to Rodney, luminaries such as Chuck D remarked on their admiration for the English / Jamaican slang they used), they "toured around the UK on our return. The first record deal came off the back of these initial gigs." (Rodney). In fact, Jazz Summers and Tim Parry of Big Life Records saw the group perform and offered them their first recording contract. The result of their recording sessions was the 12" "London Posse" backed with "My Beatbox Reggae Style", released in 1987.
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WE'RE THE LONDON POSSE




Before we look at the "London Posse" 12", it's important to put the group's output into context with the UK scene as a whole. Other established acts like Kamanchi Sly, Mell'O', MC Duke, The Wild Bunch, Demon Boyz and Monie Love were performing regularly - Monie Love, for example, was part of the Juss Bad Crew with Mell'O and Sparkii.
The earliest UK Hip Hop record ("London Bridge Is Falling Down" by Newtrament) was released in the early 80s, but London Posse were trailblazers in the sense that their 12" was before Monie Love, MC Mell'O, MC Duke and the Demon Boyz: with the exception of The Cookie Crew, some Northern crews and Newtrament, they were the first to drop a bonafide hip hop track in English accents.

However, as Andy Brydon (co-curator of Urbis's 2009 exhibition "Homegrown: The Story Of UK Hip Hop") says, "Hip Hop didn’t arrive (in the UK) in a cultural wasteland: before the London Posse and The Demon Boyz, we had Smiley Culture. Before that, when DJs first picked up American Hip Hop records, they filled in the gaps with vinyl from their existing collections. So already, as soon as Hip Hop arrived in Britain, we had a different slant on the way the music was heard and understood here."

The London Posse, as already witnessed, were different from the other crews and MCs mentioned: for contemporary artists from that era, not only were they the first to have a UK Hip Hop release on wax, but they moved away from the norm, which was to rap with a US twang - which they consciously avoided (although Rodney had a vague mid-Atlantic twang, as we'll discuss later).
This didn't mean that the content was American, but definitely the accepted way of delivery was with a mid-Atlantic style flow. The Posse were very clearly not doing that - they were almost entirely British in output and attitude. Coming naturally from a mixture of reggae and hip hop, they were reflective of the British sound system culture that was prevalent at the time (you can also see this natural crossover between the two genres in sound system crews like Soul II Soul and the Wild Bunch). "People like Tenor Fly, sounds like Coxsone, Young Lion, Saxon Sound, Black Unity; they were really representing the youth," said Rodney in HHC #214. "We were listening to hip hop, but on the weekend we'd be in the dance, because that was the UK black vibes in them times - and we kinda really took that mentality, that philosophy an put it on hip hop." Bionic agrees: "We needed our own ting." For his part, Westwood has said "The thing with London Posse, they were rhyming in a UK accent as opposed to an American accent, which was really happening at that time. They were also talking in UK slang about a UK experience, so it’s great that this record came out."

What is also worth remembering is the influence that the punk and new wave movement had on the London Posse. Not just because of the connection they had with Big Audio Dynamite, but also because of the overall influence those genres had on a whole generation of UK kids from the 1970s, especially Bionic. Future London Posse producer Dobie remembers how that influence used to come out during recordings in later years.
Dobie: "Bionic was the punk rock of London Posse. They're both 70s and 80s kids, they've both got that in them. Even though they were Hip Hop kiddies, they were also little rudeboys. They were more rudeboys than b-boys, they'll even say it! Also, you got to look at what they come up in. They come up through punk rock, they come up through Mod music and Ska, so you got all those influences that had been part of them, part of their childhood. It's in em. All of those little influences are in there. You'd be in the studio with em and they'd be talking and Bionic'd be like 'I'm gonna drop my punk rock style.' And it's like Johnny Rotten vibes! He grew up with that!. He might not have been a punk rocker but he heard it and knew it!"
Future London Posse engineer No Sleep Nigel also sees the connection.
No Sleep Nigel: "Bionic had the connection with punk – he knows Paul Cook, obviously Mick Jones. Chatting with him, he recognises people like Ian Dury as influences. Ian Dury's first album, “New Boots And Panties”, although he sings, it's like a rapper's lyrics. It's got that vividness, that first person, he brings it alive in that same way. Bionic definitely rates him."



Sipho (in mirror) and Bionic, c.1987

As a consequence, the "London Posse" 12" was a real head-turner. The track starts with a sparse drum pattern, hi-hat and snare, and Biznizz cutting up the "clap your hands...people clap your hands" part of "The Hand Clapping Song" by the Meters. The bassline kicks in, and Bionic starts MCing in his trademark toasting style - "London Posse, we are the London Posse...." The track then breaks into a back and forth routine between Rodney and Bionic about their time over in New York, rapping about 42nd St, smoking dope and meeting "birds."

Bionic: We was walking with the sorts
Rodney: getting high
Bionic: while smoking /
Rodney: Stopped on the corner
Bionic: skinned a spliff
Rodney: started toking /
Bionic: Passed the birds a joint
Rodney: and the birds started choking /
Bionic: They said
Rodney: would you put coke in? We said "Nah you must be jokin" /
Bionic: (to the tune of London Bridge) Cos the London Posse we don't choke, we don't smoke, speed or coke, or the charlie or go broke, my fair lady...


The fluidity of the routine really shows how the two MCs worked together so well back then, complimenting each others' contrasting tones and styles. The mixture of Cockney / Jamaican accents, the sing-song version of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" and the use of British slang point to something entirely British in creation, with nearly no pretension to being American aside from the use of rap.
Saying that, sharp-eared listeners might hear a slight Atlantic-twang to Rodney's accent on this particularly Englishmen-In-New-York-themed record. As DJ Biznizz explains, "If you listen to our early stuff Rodney actually rapped on the very first record with a little bit of an American accent.”

Biznizz: "After the first record, Bionic was like 'nah man, we can only do the English thing, we're English kids, we want everyone to know we're English kids. When we go to New York, people look at us and say 'Wow, I love the way you talk', and that is what we're gonna promote, that is what we're gonna use to make us big'."



These two classic, groundbreaking and trailblazing tracks were "produced" by Tim Westwood - at least that's what it says on the sleeve. It's not massively clear how Westwood got involved with the London Posse (one unsubstantiated web-based account of the Westwood involvement is that he saw them supporting the Stereo MCs in Birmingham, and decided to reach out and work with them, but there is no solid proof of this), but Bionic provided the drum pattern on "London Posse", and DJ Biznizz lays claim to doing the rest.

Biznizz: "It was me that actually went into the studio, sampled the beats, put the beats together. Y'know, a guy called Brian 'Chuck' New helped with the bassline, cos he was a guy that used to use a SP1200 who helped Westwood with production, so... he done all the bassline and all that, but I told him exactly what to do. I sampled all the beats, put all the beats together, told him what we were going to have in the choruses and stuff." (a 2009 interview with Whoah TV)
Sparkii: “The thing is, in that era there, when you went to the studio to make a Hip Hop tune, if you was powerful and you had money and you were putting it out yourself, you'd be the producer. The group would come in with the records. Yeah, you'd have a bit of gear at home, but you weren't coming in with a TUNE. I would say they self-produced. Westwood didn't produce anything. Even that beat, it was Billy that took that Meters to the session. I remember they called me up and said "Sparki, you should come down here, these men can't work their things. It's taken like an hour just to loop a beat man.” With "London Posse", Billy and Jeff and Rodney did it. It's evident.”


Sipho rocking the crowd

The b-side "My Beatbox Reggae Style" was simply Sipho beatboxing, with Bionic rhyming his trademark fluid rhymes over the top and Biznizz cutting a reggae sample as the basic stab throughout the track. Bionic's classic delivery and lines mean that this was just as well received as the more conventional a-side, and some of his lines still seem killer today. The group were playing to their strengths - after all, it was Sipho who'd got them together, and in this track they created something that was easily as good as comparable tracks from Jazzy Jeff + The Fresh Prince ("Rock The House", with Ready Roc C), or even The Fat Boys ("The Original Human Beatbox"). Both of those groups had released those significant beatbox records in the preceding couple of years. The comparison to "Rock The House" is a particularly pertinent one as both that and "My Beatbox Reggae Style" feature routines with back and forth interaction between the beatbox and MC - in the case of Bionic and Sipho, Sipho breaks into an excellent version of the "Dallas" theme ("if my beatbox ever met JR Ewing / then this is the beat that Sipho would be doing"), and even raps between his own beat at one point, along with performing a pretty heavy-duty version of the "Pee-Wee Herman". This track is very likely to be the first UK hip hop track where an MC has been backed solely by a beatbox. Both tracks appeared (in shorter forms) in Westwood's Bad Meaning Good documentary (see clip below), more of which will be covered in a moment.

Sparkii: “"My Beatbox Reggae Style", that was stage routines that they had from years before, and it was BAD. It's a wicked recording, it's well-recorded, it stands the test of time. With Sipho doing the beatbox and the reggae bassline, that is one take, no overdubs. It's not like he did the beat and then went back and hummed over it. Look how long ago he was doing basslines and that shit. That was the stage routine. That's their stage show. When that came out, people knew those lyrics off by heart. Everybody knew Sipho could do Dallas.”

As that track is quite literally Sipho beatboxing, Bionic MCing and Biznizz scratching, how much production (as opposed to setting up the mic levels and pressing record) Westwood did is up for debate. Saying that, Westwood's involvement would have ensured a higher profile for the group, and wouldn't have hurt in getting a release on a label like Big Life.
Biznizz: "Tim Westwood's name was used by the owners of the record label because he was on the radio, and other such things. To have his name on there for them would be prestigious, it would allow the record to sell more...obviously they used Westwood's name cos they wanted that credit."


Billy Biznizz

Also credited on the sleeve is UK graf artist Pride, who did the "London Posse" tag used for this and the "Money Mad" single (credited as "Name Style"), made up of a fat style of writing punctured with bullet holes, and a target icon underneath. Nexus also gets a credit for designing the sleeve itself, which has a striking black and tan colour scheme. The single was released in late 1987 (#BLR 2T) and was well-received on the UK hip hop scene, although it didn't break the top 40. However, it did reach number 11 on the UK Independent Chart, and stayed on that chart for eleven weeks. The iconic cover was shot at Leicester Square tube station by Steve Double, and features all four original members at the top of an escalator. This was partially possible due to Yazz (a labelmate at Big Life), whose father was the manager of the station at the time, and as a result the Posse were allowed to "run riot" in the photo shoot.


Freestyle on Radio 1, October 87


In late October of 87 (the 24th, to be exact), the original line-up of MCs Rodie Rok and Bionic, Sipho The Human Beatbox and DJ Biznizz appeared on Janice Long's BBC Radio 1 Show, performing three (unreleased) tracks - two routines over KC + The Sunshine Band breaks (a freestyle over "I Get Lifted" and a routine called "We're The Dett" over "That's The Way I Like It") - and the beatbox based "We Rule".



In the same year Westwood had filmed a documentary for BBC TV called "Bad Meaning Good". It featured some amazing footage of UK hip hop artists such as DJ Fingers, MC Crazy Noddy, The Cookie Crew and (of course) the London Posse performing, sometimes to straight to camera, and sometimes in front of a crowd as part of a gig that Westwood set up in London.
It was produced as a response to the Arena documentary "Beat This - A Hip Hop History", narrated on-screen by Gary Byrd (in rhyme). That classic programme looked at hip hop's formative years in the USA, focusing on figures such as Bambaataa and Kool DJ Herc, and looking at hip hop's beginnings in New York's five boroughs.
Westwood's documentary, as a UK equivalent, aired on August 5th on BBC2, and featured footage of (amongst other things) Run-DMC performing at Brixton Academy, DJ Fingers skilfully cutting up Tom Jones and Isaac Hayes in his bedroom, clips of Bionic and Sipho performing "My Beatbox Reggae Style" in the back of Westwood's car, and all the UK artists performing at a jam that Westwood held in London - with the London Posse performing their title track in front of the crowd.



In an interview afterwards, the 17-year-old Rodney said "I write about life, reality, what happens in the street - things people can relate to. I'll be on a train and say to myself, yeah, I'll write a rhyme about that."
Bionic, then 19, stressed the importance of being British: "Everyone's trying to rap American and dress American... we're just ourselves. I rap in patois and in cockney. We use the words we use in everyday life. They've got their slang, we've got ours."i

London Posse didn't always have an easy ride with their home crowds though – at that point, they were one of the only UK acts to use their own accents, and to display an open reggae crossover influence. This was new – and it wasn't always accepted in a positive way. In Westwood's documentary, you can see the crowd standing, just watching Rodney, Bionic, Sipho and Biznizz performing.

Rodney: “There were acts before us but everyone was American sounding, copying what the Americans were doing. I would say, hand on heart, we were the first to come out on the hip hop scene doing our thing, which was the London ting. Representing us. In the early days people wasn't really that interested because we had reggae in the music. That's just being honest. We were some little south London boys, and that's what we grew up listening to. And cos we'd been to New York and saw that little English kids faking American accents doesn't work in America. They got a million American kids, So when we came back, people didn't want to hear it, they wanted hip hop to be this fantasy thing. They wanted to be out there on some Yankee, wanting to be LL Cool J ting. They didn't want to hear no reggae. They didn't want to hear no estate talk, but things kinda shifted that way.”


Flyer from a later gig at Queen Mary College, Mile End Road, December 18th, 1987

One person who saw the London Posse performing live in their early incarnation was Dobie, future Hip Hop producer and London Posse collaborator.
Dobie: “I've always been a London Posse fan, cos, you know, I'm an original London Town Hip Hop kid who used to see them back in the day doing shows at the Astoria, and stuff like that. I used to see them at jams and I remember seeing them at a jam in Holloway. The jam was on the rooftop of some building in Holloway one summer. I remember there being a good buzz about the jam and everybody knew London Posse were coming down to hold the mic. That was when Rodney was called MC Rodie Rok.”

Unfortunately, after the first single, the group suffered its first loss of personnel - Sipho decided to move on to take a job with fellow UK MC Derek B.
In addition to this, the record deal with Big Life fell through, leaving the Posse with no way of putting their music out or building on their new-found success. This could have been to do with the fact that there was record label pressure to compromise their sound.

Biznizz: "we didn't go in a commercial direction, which was a conscious choice because the record company kind of wanted us to do that, but (Bionic) and Rodney never wanted to do that. They always wanted to promote the UK with what they did."
Rodney: "We didn't make music for the audience, we made the music that we wanted to make."
Bionic: “Big Life tried to mess us about. We had dealings coming in from other interested companies but none of them were any good so we didn't bother. After we left Big Life we got solicitors to act as our managers. They went through the contracts we were offered. Nuff man's signing for peanuts, nuff man's in jail. We just said, let's take it easy until we come true.”

One more factor to add into the changing state of the group was that Biznizz was no longer quite as involved as he once was, although he was still having input into some aspects of beat-making and scratching. Amongst other activities and affiliations, he went on to be the mix-DJ for Westwood's Capitol Rap Show, which can't have hurt London Posse's exposure as obviously both men had been closely connected with the group from the early days.
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MONEY MAD

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The group soldiered on, primarily as a duo. With the backing of Tim Westwood, who had been aware of them from back in the Covent Garden days, Rodney and Bionic recorded what would be a UK anthem – and, until “How's Life In London”, the record that would bring them the most recognition – the infamous "Money Mad". Another bass-heavy fusion of hip hop and reggae, this legendary track has several different accounts of its origins.

Sparkii: “When they came back from the states, 'The Bridge Is Over' was out, and there was also a tune by the 45 King and a guy called Latee called "This Cut's Got Flavor".
Rodney: “Money Mad” was inspired by another tune that was out at the time by Tenor Fly called “Pure Badness In The Inner Cities”. It was just a hip hop version of that really.”
Sparkii: "'Money Mad' is Latee being beatmixed with the reggae bassline. That's all it is. That's what they made. A lot of times for the shows, they would mix a Hip Hop record with a Reggae record or Sipho would do a Hip Hop beat and hum a reggae bassline. It was always about doing the two things together - literally, a mix. So, that's what they did, they used those two - I'm not too sure who bought what, but I'm pretty sure Biznizz bought the Hip Hop tune and then they did the mix.”
Westwood: "I produced 'Money Mad' with my man Chuck New."
Sparkii: “At that time, Bryan "Chuck" New and Westwood had got pally pally and Bryan "Chuck" New was the main man in England for mixing and mastering Jive/Zomba's stuff. It was cheaper to mix here and master here, so they used to record in New York and then come here to mix all of their artists. So, people like KRS One, things like that was all done here. And Bryan used to get the chance to do remixes, even though he couldn't creatively mix so well, he used to just EQ them and that. He was the go-to man in England at that time. Westwood approached Bryan "Chuck" New to do this. Billy then reached with the tunes.”
Rodney: “The morning we were going to the studio, me and Bionic went to Dub Vendor in Clapham Junction and bought all these bits of tunes that we wanted to use. And we took 'em to the studio and gave them to Chuck New, who put it all together. We told him the idea that we wanted, We knew the elements of it: the bassline, the little 'bigga-bing, bigga-bing' – all the piano bits. We left it all with him, came back the next day, and he'd built it. And we was amazed... It was amazing! It was amazing.”


Westwood broadcasting on Kiss, 1987

Whatever the reality behind its conception, the “Money Mad” 12'' came out in 1988 with Westwood's backing on his Justice Records imprint (#JTT 003).

Rodney: "Money Mad was a big tune for us, it was a classic tune for us. Before that we were all fans of hip hop music, but it didn't really represent where we came from."

The version that most people know and own is the version that's on the "Gangster Chronicle" album, which was a remix with different lyrics. As Rodney says, "the original is a lot more dub, a lot more sound-systemy. But the remix definitely works. It's a lot more immediate." So, for those who haven't heard it (and it's hard to track down, even though it was reissued a few years back), here's the original 12" version of Money Mad, as opposed to the album one.



"London Posse, we are gon tell you bout the ones who are bad / cos them a gone Money Mad..."

So, with the origins of the track based around the 45 King's chopped up version of Lyn Collins's classic “Think” break, sprinkled with a touch of Courtney Melody's dancehall classic “Bad Boy”, rumour has it that Biznizz was again involved with the single's production, although (yet again) it was credited as being co-produced by Westwood and the mysterious “Bevington”.
Regardless of the extent that Westwood was involved in the actual recording of the track, the connection he had wasn't hurting the group's exposure. Some accounts say that he played it endlessly on his Capital Rap show, but the man himself is keen to contradict, that, saying "Money Mad, I never played on the radio once... (even though) it was such a big record on the streets."

Musically it highlighted again the connection between Jamaica and England with a heavily reggae influenced sound, even more so than "London Posse" or "My Beatbox Reggae Style".
Using wailing siren sounds and a digital keyboard reggae-style stab on the down-beat for most of the track, not to mention an earth shaking sub-bass, it was more like a dancehall track (at a slightly slower speed with a massive hip hop drum pattern) than a rap record.

"At the time", Rodney says, "I would say that was the most honest British rap record... (people) could hear themselves in it."
Even if you disregard Bionic and Rodney's heavy Cockney-Jamaican accents, it's difficult to argue otherwise. With Rodney's references to dealers, bad boys wearing Adidas and Reebok, pawn shops and stolen Sovereigns, and Bionic's lines "In London they're robbing, it's coming like a fashion", "from other rappers you'll never hear a word of these things, it's happening in England", sticking up Securicor vans, and the classic line "I make it easy, or you can get it hard / gimme your money, your jewellery and your credit card", it was basically untouched territory as far as recorded output went for a UK hip hop act. And all this was in the first verse. The deal was sealed when Bionic boasted how he "got a video from Curry's in the riots" - this was an unmistakably British record, through and through like a stick of rock.

Looking back, it's hard to underestimate how big that track was. DJ MK considers it to be one of the landmark records in UK Hip Hop. "'Money Mad'...was the first tune that really incorporated the whole ragga side of it, the reggae side of it, into hip-hop," he said in a 2002 interview. "At the same time you had people like Asher D & Daddy Freddy who were doin' it as well, but they were kinda older and were more like just reggae emcees, people who chat over hip-hop. But Bionic and Rodney P were hip-hop kids who can chat. 'Money Mad', that shit was definitely ahead of its time."
The Posse's tracks were one way or another having an influence on other artists of the time, not just regarding accents, but musically. DJ Supreme from Hijack was one such producer who was affected by their reggae influence. "London Posse at the time were dope," he says. "They really represented Britain and themselves as well, but their sound was closer to reggae in a way, it was orientated that way because of who they were and what they wanted to bring through. And so I tried to do something that was more hip hop but with my own flavour, not reggae orientated like the London Posse guys."
In a later interview with Max and Dave on KISS FM in 1993, Rodney and Bionic were asked about Money Mad. "It's now come to pass, because like, the crack, money's the God and all that kind of thing," said Max.
"Really, it's not a matter that it came to pass," Rodney explained. "At the time when we wrote it, it was like that."
"Yeah, that's how things were," said Bionic.
"And got worse, y'naa mean. Yeah, you say we tell the future, maybe I could make some money off that! (laughs) I dunno about that but, yeah, it's just life, living, that's what we write about." Rodney concluded.
---------------------------------

DETT

At the same time that the Posse were growing in stature and addressing the attitudes and concerns of a certain generation of British youth, there was a sense of community amongst certain groups in the UK Hip Hop scene. This was a time where things were looking big for UK Hip Hop acts and DJs - Cutmaster Swift had won the DMC World Title; Monie Love was moving with the Native Tongues; Hip Hop Connection magazine had just started; Overlord X, Gunshot, Demon Boyz, Hijack, Blade, The Cookie Crew, Derek B, Hardnoise, Simon Harris (and the acts on his Music Of Life label), Merlin, and other hip hop and cut-and-paste inspired acts like Bomb The Bass and Coldcut were really taking off in the UK media and sometimes across the world. Despite some rivalries (like the one between Merlin and Overlord X, as half-chronicled on the Hustler's Convention LP from 1989), there was a genuine vision that UK Hip Hop would make it big, and that everyone would get a piece of the pie. Some super-crews emerged with this in mind.



Mell'O': “It was exactly around that time that DETT Inc came together, which was my idea. Determination Endeavour Total Triumph Incorporated. We looked at the Juice Crew, Flavor Unit, all those crews, and we had Trouble, Reinforced Gus, MC Bee, Monie Love, Cutmaster Swift, No Parking MCs, myself, London Posse, DJ Pogo, DJ Biznizz and Sparki. We had all this talent but I felt we really needed to put a stamp on it and firm up what we were about. It gave us mileage. I remember when Cutmaster Swift won his DMC event in 1989, held up his belt and started shouting ‘DETT! DETT!’. That was the day we’d rushed the doors. It was at the Royal Albert Hall and they wouldn’t let us in so the door had to get smashed (laughs). I remember us all running in down the corridor and Queen Latifah was coming the other way like ‘Yo! Yo! Mell’O’ what’s going on?’ It was so funny. We had bouncers chasing us trying to stop us, people were trying to stop the bouncers. We hit the auditorium, spread out and represented.” i



Certainly the London Posse worked closely with DJ Biznizz and Sparkii over the next couple of years, and each of these acts stayed intertwined with each other in various combinations through the following decade, at the very least. These close working relationships resulted in some of the best releases that UK Hip Hop had to offer.

However, soon after the release of “Money Mad”, Westwood started to get cold feet with the running of a record label (Justice), and the politics it involved.

Westwood: "I just found it to hard, to be honest. Also, it put me on the wrong side of the fence in my opinion because I wasn’t used to dealing with artists like that. I wasn’t used to have that type of relationship; I didn’t want to feel compromised... Plus it was real hard work, plus UK rap never really jumped off either."

Life wasn't easy for the Posse at this point either, despite having a 12'' out on the streets.

Bionic: “Let's take a yout' like me for instance. No parents, no money coming in and I have to pay bills and rates. I've got qualifications but I can't get a job cos of the colour of my skin.” i
Rodney: “On one level, it was good days then bruv, 'cos you was making records. But the reality was I was living in a hostel at the time, sharing a room with man, and bruk, signing on the dole. SO in one way, yeah, it was the beginning of a career. We were focused and we knew what we wanted to do, but at the same time life was hard them times, man was struggling. We never made no money off that record, it never paid us. It wasn't like suddenly we started earning. We just had a really good record that we was proud of.”

This was despite their live performances, often sharing the stage with Hip Hop legends from across the pond again. At the time Money Mad was out, London Posse were supporting for one of the greatest posses of all time – the Juice Crew. Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, MC Shan and Biz Markie were on a world tour, and the London Posse were supporting them. Also on the tour were Mister Cee, DJ Polo and Marley Marl.
The live shows were a massive part of keeping Rodney, Bio and Biznizz going while they worked out what to do next.

The story continues here: Part 2 - 1989-1992.



22 comments:

  1. rad as mate. learn something every day.

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  2. ood stuff - defo gonna link to this. What was the rumour?

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  3. Jimmy, great work mate and a thoroughly enjoyable read. London Posse still sound raw today, and definitely in the top 3 of all UK rap acts (no question).

    Keep up the sterling work ...

    Kid Dyno

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  4. Real good read this morning jim, any one would think your an english teacher.

    big audio dynamite video made me cringe!

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  5. yeah big article! props Jimmy, reminising on those tracks, need to dig em out!

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  6. great write up mate. who knew that Yazz's Dad ran Leicester Sq tube station?!
    I used to rinse that Style acapella over D&B tunes back in the day. Sounded sick!

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  7. Dope read. Like all good articles it made me go dig out them old records....Props

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  8. Wicked, Nice write up. LP was the first 12" I got!!

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  9. great article, one of my first 12" records was Money Mad on Westwoods Justice label.

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  10. Blindin' read, quality I'm gonna link to this on Disco Scratch, great work!

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  11. Hey Jimbo

    Thanks for the link. You've done a good job with the bio, these stuff in there i didn't remember myself.
    Thanks for taking the time to put it together i really enjoyed that little trip down memory lane.

    BigUp
    P

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  12. Blinding article Jimbo.

    Still spin out some London Posse when I play out.

    Massive fan.

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  13. Fantastic piece of journalism there, Jimmy.

    Always loved the Posse, ever since Westwood rinsed 'Money Mad' endlessly on his Capital show. 'Gangster Chronicle' is one of the best debut albums ever.

    Nice one.


    Chr!s/DWG

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  14. Great piece Jimbo. Discovered this at work and had to read all the way through! Big up to the Posse too. The UK's finest for me.

    Pride/TCA

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  15. Wonderful biography, thank you for sharing everything.

    moving company

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  16. Intriguing stuff you write about. Thinking of publishing any new feeds to your blog ?

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  17. "...tragically he is no longer with us after his untimely passing..."
    Sipho died because of mental illness, support M.I.N.D.

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  18. Outstanding piece of London Posse history, got more if you need it,
    Ronny Oner

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  19. For sure man... any light you can shed would be fantastic. What's the best way to get in touch?

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  20. What's your email address?

    ReplyDelete
  21. ....in actual fact, I'll put it up so it's less likely to get picked up by spambots.
    all one word -
    stupid fresh
    online
    at
    yahoo dot
    co dot
    uk
    :)

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