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‘Died in your Arms’: before the legendary grime unit disbands, FACT meets Ruff Sqwad to talk White Label Classics

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  • published
    3 Dec 2012
  • interviewed by
    Tom Lea
  • photographed by
    Mark Burton (pages 1 & 2), Simon Whetley (3)
  • tags
    No Hats No Hoods
    Ruff Sqwad. DJ Magic
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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.

 

“Anyone that knows me knows that grime from the “golden days”, i.e. 2003-5 is very close to my heart. But even within this ultra-niche, ultra-creative genre full of variety, few crews had the unique magic of Ruff Sqwad. It was something about the colour and dizzying emotion in their melodies, the raw DIY aesthetic of their productions – many made on computes in their college music lab – the unusual penchant for ’80s stadium rock drum fills and guitar synths… The MCs had their individual styles dripping with charisma but as a team could sound so honed.” – Bok Bok

 

“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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