Photograph by: Mark Burton (pages 1 & 2), Simon Whetley (3)
After several years of speculation and one aborted attempt at self-release, East London’s greatest modern production unit has had its work compiled.
White Label Classics delves from a pool of over 50 tracks – many only retrieved after contacting friends and restoring hard-drives, and most written at ages 14-18 – by Ruff Sqwad, a group of friends from Bow who not only found fame (Tinchy Stryder, one of the crew’s youngest members, has gone on to see chart success) but a level of critical acclaim rarely reserved for grime acts. It’s hard to place exactly why Ruff Sqwad affected people the way that they did, but their mid-’00s vinyl releases are the stuff of legend, now trading for big money on Ebay and Discogs. White Label Classics makes tracks like ‘Xtra’, ‘Lethal Injection’ and the much-mythologised ‘Functions on the Low’, by Ruff Sqwad affiliate XTC, available on CD and digital download for the first time.
FACT’s Tom Lea has written about Ruff Sqwad – who will split up following promo for White Label Classics and a final video, ‘Cold’ – for various publications in the past, but here met two of the group’s core members, Rapid and Dirty Danger, for the first time, plus DJ Magic whose No Hats No Hoods label is releasing the compilation. Rather than use pull-quotes from the group, we asked for testimonials from two current producers who owe a debt to Ruff Sqwad, Night Slugs co-founder Bok Bok and Slackk, who formed the Grimetapes pirate radio resource and releases music both under the Slackk name, and as Patrice & Friends.
FACT is streaming White Label Classics in full all week: open it in a second tab for the perfect musical accompaniment to this piece.
The obvious starting point to this interview would be White Label Classics – how did it happen? Who pitched the idea, so to speak?
Rapid: “Obviously the tunes are old, we’ve been listening to them for a long time – some of these tracks are 12 years old. We were always getting messages on Facebook, Twitter, like ‘why haven’t you put these back out?’ What we originally done, I mocked up some artwork and called it Ruff Cuts, and it was ready to go on iTunes, Amazon and that…”
Yeah, I think it’s still up for pre-order.
R: “Yeah. Well I got a call from Magic, and he was like ‘this is a bigger thing than you think – you should take your time and do it properly’, ’cause I was rushing, really. So we took our time, got more tracks together, got better artwork done, and yeah…”
Magic: “I think this is the thing – neither of you guys knew that people liked your tracks from such a wide range. There’s such a breadth of listeners and DJs who still play these tracks, and for me, they were the ones that I used to rush to the record shop to buy, and none of them ever came out digitally. We tried to find as much stuff from the time as we could – like the cover, it’s just a great image, the Akademiks and that, it just covers that whole period. And if you look at the rest of the booklet, there’s ones from the first Dirty Canvas [event], which was the first time we worked together. A lot of people don’t realise, in this day and age where you can back up everything straight away… a lot of the stuff Dirt and Rapid made was on crappy computers that died every six months, and they were 14 or 15.
“A lot of the computer stuff got lost, and it was really hard trying to find it again… a lot of the other Ruff Sqwad members, or friends, just don’t appreciate how valuable some of this stuff is to some people, which made it a lot harder than we anticipated.”
R: “There’s some that we couldn’t get hold of, tracks that people really wanted, but it was so hard to retrace.’
Did you manage to get the files for all of them, or did you have to remaster off old vinyl?
M: “Most of them we did manage to get the files for, but it was a real battle. I checked this in my email the other day, and it was a year and a half ago that we started collecting them. The only ones we didn’t get that we really wanted… well, ‘All Day Long’ is just lost.”
R: “‘R U Double F’…”
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I was gonna ask about ‘R U Double F’, because that was only ever available as a low bitrate mp3.
Dirty Danger: “Everyone loves ‘R U Double F’…”
R: “I’ve been through boxes and boxes in my house, I can’t find it.”
D: “That tune always felt rare from the first time Rapid ever played it. You know what I mean – it seemed really hard to get hold of, even for us. One of those things that came and went – it had its time – but it’s a big, big song.”
R: “I’ve got one more person – in the world – that I could try and track down.”
M: “I’m hoping that this compilation will help prompt people who had access to these tracks to reach out. It’s been hard trying to contact people about it, I guess because it was so long ago. Think about what you did when you were 14 or 15 – how much have you kept hold of from that time?”
Was the plan always to make White Label Classics instrumental?
M: “Well I think that’s what gave them their unique sound – the production. The range and scope of the tune, from ‘Functions on the Low’, to ‘Xtra’, to ‘Misty Cold’, its such a wide range of sounds and emotions, and to have it all there on one CD is really powerful.”
I wanted to try and talk about your mindset when you were making those tunes and going on pirate radio every week. There was always something different to the Ruff Sqwad tunes – whether that was how spacey and synthy they were, or the romantic feel of them, I don’t know, but you were doing something very different. So you were still in school, I guess.
D: “It just felt like a game, really. We weren’t trying to make music to please anyone – it was more like a game. I’d make a song, and show Rapid, like ‘check this out, this is crazy different’. And then he’d come back with something crazier.”
R: “It wasn’t planned. Maybe it’s because we weren’t just influenced by grime and garage music – we were into African music, hip-hop, soul, really melodic stuff. Other people were making tunes that felt a bit hollow, just for the MC to ride over, but we weren’t thinking about MCs – we just wanted to use mad sounds, but make nice melodies [with them] that could touch people.”
D: “I used to listen to say, Coldplay tunes, and take ideas from those – like ok, let’s put this into my music, and switch it up. That’s how I first started making beats – trying to recreate other songs. I remember trying to re-make More Fire Crew’s ‘Oi!’, but as I was going along, I just got on a different motion, where it was like ‘ok, I can just make my own type of song now.’ I guess it just advanced into something crazy.”
How and when did Ruff Sqwad form as a group?
D: “I was in year 9. We were all like 13, 14, the oldest was 15. We used to go to record shops all the time, buying Wiley, Dizzee [Rascal] and stuff – they were from our area too [Bow], so we really looked up to them.”
R: “They were making real music too – it wasn’t just grime, it was real epic, emotional songs about real things. Back in the day, Wiley’s ‘Know We’, ‘I Will Not Lose’, Jammer’s old instrumental stuff, there was a lot of trumpets and violins – more than just big drums and bass.”
D: “[That time] felt like a chance to be really creative. When I first started going on radio, Ruff Sqwad had just formed.”
R: “We’d been on stations before, but it was Heat FM where people started being like ‘right, you guys are ok’. People would hear you clashing at youth clubs, stuff like that, and approach you like ‘I’ve got a radio station’. We used to get a bus from Limehouse down to Hackney and change there – we had to save our lunch money from school. We didn’t think of no dangers, none of that, we just wanted to be on radio.”
D:“We did Heat FM and Mystic FM, and we were gathering a bit of a following. Then we got the call to go on Deja Vu to have a trial show, like auditions or whatever… it was crazy, it was like an opportunity to be part of the elite. Everyone, N.A.S.T.Y. Crew, Roll Deep – they were on the same station, on the same day as us. We had to be on there. To get on Rinse [though], that was the hardest thing.”
R: “With Rinse, our olders were going there, but it wasn’t the sort of place we could just go.”
D: [Former Ruff Sqwad] member Slix used to go on Rinse at 7.30 in the morning, just to be on there. 7.30 in the morning, just spraying bar! No one was listening, but that’s how badly people wanted to be on Rinse.”
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You’ve always had that breadth of people who’re into Ruff Sqwad – people who aren’t necessarily into all grime, but your stuff really did it for them. Was that first Dirty Canvas, where you played at Whitechapel Art Gallery, the first time you became aware of that?
M: “That was the funniest gig. That was 2005, and doing a grime night in London was just… there’d been that So Sold show at the Astoria, where someone had been killed, and venues did not wanna know. The only place we could put it on was this art gallery, probably not even bigger than this room. You guys didn’t really know what to make of it – I remember you were like ‘how do these guys know our music’? Then, grime was all vinyl and pirate radio too, so unless you were tuning in or shopping in those specific stores, you wouldn’t have been aware of it.
“At the time, I was just a fan buying their records. I was working at a music promotions company, and I could see people who I thought would like their music who weren’t being sent it, so I got in touch with them about that. And I remember the first time I went to meet them, I came down to Mile End, turned the corner and there they were, being patted down on the side of a police van.”
D: “I lost my driver’s license that day… I had no insurance [laughs].”
M: “I think the thing that really caught me about the group was how close they were. If you listen to a track like ‘Xtra’, they’re finishing each other’s verses, there’s no set structure… it really shows you the understanding they had, the way they worked as a unit. It made them unique on the production side too – both the competition they had in terms of showing each other beats, and also having a deadline every week because of pirate radio – needing those fresh instrumentals ready for each show.”
What’s the status of the group now?
D: “We’re done. At the start of the year we released a mixtape, 2012, but we each wanted to do our own thing… Slix outside of music, and obviously Tinchy is doing his own thing. Doing Ruff Sqwad and doing our own things at the same time – it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen the way that it should have, so it made most sense to split. Maybe one day we’ll come back.”
Obviously the release is called White Label Classics – I guess you’ve seen how much people have tried asking for on Discogs for an original copy of ‘Functions on the Low’, for instance. Do you ever want to re-press that stuff, or do you like the idea of it being lost?
D: “[laughs] Well when I saw that guy asking £400 for ‘Functions on the Low’ I was like ‘jeez, lemme get to the attic!'”
R: “We did think about it, and we spoke to Magic about it, but we ended up deciding that it was a good idea for the people that bought it the first time around to keep it, as memorabilia.”
M: “For the people who bought it at the time, it makes it special. Sometimes I think you can reissue something like that, and it takes something away from the people that bought it at the time.”
I guess doing this release has made you look back a fair bit. What memories of the early Ruff Sqwad days really stick out for you?
D: “It takes me back to going to all them record shops – driving from East London, to South London, to North London, records in the back of the car. Me, Rapid and Slix, we’d just drive all day, stop off and get a little KFC, just selling records. It was great, just great times.”
R: “I remember when we made ‘Tings in Boots’, the first day I heard it on the airwaves. A DJ called Chunky Bizzle, he was on Magic FM at the time and said he wanted to play it. I got the CD and had to meet him on Bow Road – I sprinted to All Saints station, went to Bow, gave it to him and ran straight home to listen in. They played it as the last tune on the show, and I was like ‘wow, this is what it’s like to hear your music on the airwaves’. That’s when the older people like Wiley got in touch, and then they played it on Deja… That was such a big feeling.”
D: “Even in school, it was a different feeling – we were like celebrities in school. People always wanted to hear their names shouted out on the radio, like ‘yeah yeah make sure you shout me out’, and they’d get annoyed when I forgot. There were too many names!”