Shootin' from the lip
Marxist rappers? Emmanuel Oliver met Marxman
You'd think that four young homies making a rap debut would opt for a trendy theme like kicking their pregnant girlfriend in the womb, or who has the biggest dick in the recording studio. Yet Marxman (MC Hollis, Phrase, K1 and Oisin) settled on Marxism (it's dead isn't it?). It's not surprising they are signed to Gilles Peterson's Talkin Loud label. Peterson, the former Jazz FM DJ, was sacked for speaking out against the Gulf War.
Marxman are four young rappers, originally from Bristol but now based in London. All have interesting pasts which go some way towards explaining the fusing of hip hop drums and bass with an Irish folk feel. MC Hollis and Oisin were both born in Dublin, Phrase was an influence in the Bristol dance scene during the 1980s and K1 is a DJ. Their debut double A-sided single 'Sad Affair'/'Dark Are the Days', released on 17 August, has received a positive response underground and from the mainstream. At the moment they are working all hours in the studio, with an LP due out in October.
Those of you familiar with Bristol's finest, Massive Attack, will appreciate Marxman's sound, which is less of a rap than a south-western drawl. The rap sits on a mellow beat which is becoming a bit of a Bristol trademark. 'Sad Affair' is built around a tough, solid backbeat interspersed with an uncredited female vocalist, over which a mellow mood is laid, which gives the rappers plenty of space in which to get their message across.
And it's the message which makes Marxman different. They might be getting plenty of attention at the moment, but they are likely to suffer the slow suffocation of censorship by disregard which is a typically British technique for dealing with the unmentionable. And when you listen to 'Sad Affair' you'll hear why:
'But my people suffer great injustice daily
Condemned by racism in the Bailey
The Guildford Four, Maguires and the Six
Innocent! But guilty of being Micks.'
A video single, drawing attention to events in the Irish War, and intercut with performances from Marxman, was released simultaneously with the single. According to Phrase, anybody who doesn't take a stand against the British occupation of Ireland and the criminalisation of the Irish people has no right to call themselves a Marxist.
Marxman aren't easily pigeon-holed. They don't fit into the hippy wing of dance music or the nihilistic end of the scene. Instead they have created a slot for themselves as the first Marxist rap crew. They can't really be interviewed on TV because they take themselves too seriously. I can't imagine Terry Christian getting much of a laugh out of the New World Order or Britain's war in Ireland.
At a time when everybody else is saying that Marxism is finished, it hardly seems to be the best ticket to musical success. So why call yourself Marxman? 'We believe the system is wrong', says MC Hollis. 'It's immoral. Calling ourselves Marxman is just the starting point. For us there is a generation of youth who are not ready to be organised and don't want to listen to parties. They are turned off, for us it's about keeping alive an idea.'
In one sense, you could say that Marxman are following in a British tradition of explicitly political rap music. From Hackney's Shut up and Dance's 'Dance before the Police Come' and Overlord X's 'Weapon is my lyric' to Manchester's Ruthless Rap Assassins' 'And it Wasn't a Dream', British rap does have a fairly respectable pedigree. (In America too there seems to be a backlash growing against the gangsta themes which have been the popular rap staple - see the recent acclaimed sets by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Arrested Development, which addressed contemporary political themes while keeping the groove locked tight.)
On the other hand, Marxman have something more to say. They don't just rap about social problems, they're saying that social problems have got social solutions. Marxman's message is 'question everything'. They question Britain's presence in Ireland and the meaning of the New World Order - all in 12 inches of vinyl. They are refreshingly offensive, as in this scathing attack on the defenders of the status quo in 'Dark Are the Days':
'How can you justify, stand up and decry
The communist, when you stand for all this
Persist in your madness and be damned
As the tables turn to a clenched hand
Dark are the days!'
While many critics may argue that Marxman, like most British rappers, lack the finesse of their contemporaries across the water, they are at least attempting to forge an independent identity while staying firmly anchored within the rap genre. As such, they are a welcome addition to the current crop of talented UK rap groups such as Brothers Like Outlaw, MC Mello, Caveman, etc.
MC Hollis believes in the power of the media, and feels Marxman have to beat the media at their own game. So far Marxman have had an easy ride: they've been given the novelty value treatment by the music press. But they know that won't last long and are preparing themselves for the worst. Rap music cannot bring down the system. But as the recent furore about Ice T's 'Cop Killer' in the USA has shown, rap music with a message can still expect to be censored one way or another.
Maybe it's because I ain't a Londoner
Some people have a great time at the Brick Lane Music Hall. Andrew Calcutt was less enthusiastic
The auditorium done out in red plush. Boiled beef and carrots served by waitresses in black skirts and frilly white blouses. Ad-libs about melons and spotted dick. Lovingly preserved jokes and old-fashioned songs sung in an old-fashioned way. This is the stuff of the Brick Lane Music Hall, which opened this year thanks to the enterprise of master of ceremonies Vincent Hayes.
Onetime warm-up man for Benny Hill, Hayes used to promote old-style entertainment at the Lord Hood, a London pub he ran with the late Allan Roberts MP. Last year he began refurbishing the derelict canteen at the former Truman's brewery in Brick Lane, east London. His aim: 'To bring music hall back to its ancestral home.'
Hayes promises 'fun, food, frivolity and falcohol'. For £15 a head, punters get a three-course dinner and a wholesome show. There were plenty of singalong songs on the night I visited. A young soprano trilled 'I know he's clean and tidy 'cos I wash him every Friday', and the audience chorused 'I might learn to love him later on'. In another ditty - 'she was one of the early birds and I was one of the worms' - everyone was expected to 'cheep cheep' at the appropriate moment. Hayes compered from a red plush throne at the side of the stage, ready to rebuff hecklers or gee up the audience as required.
I couldn't help squirming in my seat, but most of the paying customers were having a rollicking good time. A Joan Collins lookalike from Miami was hand-jiving to 'Daisy, Daisy'. The office party from Chelmsford swayed in unison. A group of local residents were game for almost anything.
If the house had been full, no doubt the roof would have been raised. But only half the tables were occupied. Publicist Roger Foss apologised and explained that cheap seats at Covent Garden had drawn potential customers elsewhere. I prefer to think that the appeal of music hall is not quite as widespread as its advocates would have me believe.
To my mind, the music hall turns were unbearably bland. By contrast, some local Bengalis have found the music hall offensive. Brick Lane is the main thoroughfare in 'Banglatown', and when Hayes applied for a music license, some of its inhabitants are said to have 'exploded with rage'. Religious leaders accused Hayes of 'corrupting the youth' and encouraging prostitution.
Hayes refused to back down. He received support from some local residents, and from showbiz personalities including Barbara Windsor. Hayes and Foss welcomed support from such quarters but they wanted nothing to do with the 'rights for whites' types who tried to get in on the act.
Their enterprise may have given offence to Muslim clerics, but Hayes and Foss are nothing like right-wing bigots. Foss has recently worked on Tribune, the ailing left Labour weekly. Nor are they cynical businessmen out to exploit the anti-immigrant chauvinism which has always been strong in the Bethnal Green area. Foss defended the music hall on the grounds that its audience comprises a unique cultural mix: 'We have community groups rubbing shoulders with people from the City.' Hayes believes the music hall is a 'joyous project' for the benefit of the whole community.
However, 'the whole community' does not patronise the Brick Lane theatre. The only black person I saw there was a young man with learning difficulties chaperoned by a responsible adult who looked like a social worker. He didn't seem terribly relaxed. I venture to suggest that few Bengalis would feel at ease with an audience participation routine which involved an overweight white male stripping to the waist and belting out 'Rule Britannia'.
Hayes gets his kicks from the music hall tradition and his role as its protector. Regular customers enjoy the Brick Lane Music Hall for equally innocuous-sounding reasons, mainly because it brings back childhood memories. 'It's part of our heritage', said local residents Don and Jean. 'We can remember our parents singing these songs and going to music halls like Queen's, Poplar.' Memories of the 'old East End' exert a powerful influence in the area. Parish priest Reverend Ted Brack has congratulated Hayes for 'restoring music hall to its rightful place - the heart of the East End'.
'Tradition', 'heritage', 'the heart of the East End' - such are the words and phrases which crop up whenever anyone talks about the Brick Lane Music Hall. Hayes, Foss and the local vicar like to think that 'the East End tradition' has room for everyone. This is wishful thinking. Chauvinism and racism are a traditional part of East End life. Whether its authors are aware of it or not, re-enacting the heritage of music hall involves the celebration of a bygone era when Britain did rule the waves and there were no blacks in 'the real East End'. In the current racist climate, nostalgia for music hall resonates with the unspoken message that fings ain't wot they used to be before they arrived.
Evoking 'the old East End' inevitably gives grounds for viewing the past through red, white and blue spectacles. Hayes and Foss wouldn't have been seen dead on the 'rights for whites' march through Bethnal Green in 1990. Nevertheless their re-enactment of times past would have been warmly appreciated by marchers who described themselves - with some justification - as 'the real East End'.
Thankfully the religious campaign against Hayes seems to have died down. And it would be ludicrous to oppose his theatre on the grounds that its audience are all right-wing bigots: they're not. But it is equally ludicrous to expect Benaglis to identify with a jumble-sale version of imperial culture - which is what music hall is. Everything about the British tradition - even old-fashioned fun - carries some connotation of imperialism and racial domination.
A recent letter from a Hayes fan to the East London Advertiser points to the inevitable side-effects of reliving any aspect of Britain's past: 'I, like many ex-East Enders here in Blundeston prison all agree that it [the music hall] would be a great thing for the East End...give the people good old laughter. What could be nicer than going to the theatre...then have a good curry and a few pints of lager?' If the author is serious about living out the East End tradition, his ideal night out won't be complete without verbal or physical abuse of 'curry shop' waiters or other Bengalis in the Brick Lane area. You put your left foot in....
Brick Lane Music Hall,
152 Brick Lane, London E1
Open: Wednesday to Saturday.
Dinner: 7.30pm. Showtime: 9pm.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 48, October 1992