Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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MC Duke: The Originator

Mc Duke
Mc Duke Mc Duke Mc Duke Mc Duke

Described as “a funky time capsule of hip hop circa 1989”, ‘Organised Rhyme’ - the debut album from pioneering East London rhymesmith MC Duke - is widely acknowledged as British rap’s first essential long-player. Thus its current re-release - via a newly remastered and expanded edition - is unquestionably of significance to both old skool heads and hip hop historians across the globe.

Having first gained notoriety as a Covent Garden street dancer in the early Eighties, Duke’s rapping career initially took off in 1987, when he was spotted by since-sadly-deceased UK rap original Derek B while destroying all challengers at a London open mic contest. Following which he was fast-tracked into the studio by producer (and head of nascent UK rap label Music Of Life) Simon Harris - a move which ultimately resulted in the 1989 release of the aforementioned Brit-rap milestone ‘Organised Rhyme’.

Which - musically alluding heavily to Duke’s refined taste in rare grooves - found the former Soul 11 Soul record-boy crafting streetwise rhymes whose diversity ranged from the aggressive battle-rap of ‘The Alternative Argument’ and the colonialism-attacking title-track, to the Equals-sampling single ‘I’m Riffin’'. A powerful ode to the pure joys of rhyming whose funky, freestyling drive has given it an enduring, timeless appeal.

All of which prompts self-styled ‘English Rasta’/’MC Undertaker’ Duke to reacquaint himself with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis, to discuss the aforementioned re-issue of ‘Organised Rhyme’ via new Cherry Red imprint Original Dope - whose stated aim is to “preserve the legacy of the planet’s best hip hop music”.

“Well, over the last year or so there’s been a kind of resurgence in people remembering the MCs from our era”, begins Duke in instantly-identifiable East London tones: “You know, I’d been doing interviews and so on and so forth - to where, when Original Dope approached me regarding this re-release, it actually coincided with me being offered a T-shirt deal, me being offered a new publishing deal... Basically everything kinda galvanised together at the same time. So naturally I said ‘yeah’!”

“You know, with Facebook and the other media of that type that exists today, as an artist you are now able to make direct links with your fans - because anybody that’s internet-savvy can ultimately track down the artist they want to find for THEMSELVES. So to me this is basically a people-power situation. In that the people wanted the album; the record companies saw that - and so they’ve now REISSUED it!”

In addition to its funk grooves and on-point rhymes, ‘Organised Rhyme’ meanwhile also still stands out for its eye-catching cover. A timeless concept originally created by Duke himself alongside then-young UK photographer Normski, which depicts the acutely- image-conscious rapper dressed to the nines as landed gentry in front of a country mansion! A look which became even more iconic when British boxer Chris Eubank arguably copied it wholesale in the Nineties!

“Yeah, that cover came about due to my name being ‘Duke’ - we basically tried to create a look around the name and package it”, replies the fast-talking MC: “You know, because we were obviously competing with what was going on in The States at the time, we were trying to not emulate the look of the American albums. Which is why we went for the ‘English gentleman’ look.”

“And so, on the particular day when that picture was taken, Simon Harris took us down to this stately home just past Bishops Stortford. We basically just straight rolled-up in the Rolls Royce, got out, started walking around outside… Then, when we saw these really massive patio doors, we decided to go INSIDE! So all of a sudden all of us - cameramen, everybody - are there, standing inside this stately home, when this butler comes out and says ‘You have to get out or I’ll call the POLICE!’!… So then we hurried out through the back door, walked back round to the front - and just basically parked the Rolls Royce in the driveway, took the photographs, and legged it!”

“And, though people always refer to it as ‘the cover where you’re dressed like Chris Eubank’, my reply is always ‘No, Eubank stole that shit from ME!’!”, asserts a still-incensed Duke: “You know, this was back in 1989 - when nobody knew who Chris Eubank was, and when he didn’t have any MONEY! So there’s no way back then that he could have AFFORDED what I was wearing on the front of that bloody cover!”

Having previously described UK rap’s short-lived, original late-Eighties heyday (which saw Duke succeeding alongside such other respected UK MCs as Demon Boys, Hijack, Derek B, Einstein, and Overlord X) as “an unstoppable force when we were like the UK Def Jam”, looking back today Duke confirms: “Yeah, aside from having my children, it was one of the greatest times of my life! Because I was basically just a street kid who got given an opportunity - at the right time - to bless the MIC! And the fact that we were doing it over here at the same time that it was all taking off and happening in New York was a fantastic feeling - because back then we were basically getting the same love as the STATESIDE MCs!”

Nevertheless, the mention of Brit-rap’s ensuing speedy decline in the early-Nineties brings out Duke’s more sober, philosophical side: “Well, what happens when a new music style comes out of the underground is that the record companies get on it late, and then they try to COMMERCIALISE it. And what happens when you commercialise something is that the people who like street music will only suffer it for so long, and then - if you KEEP commercialising that music - they’ll stop LISTENING to it! Which is what I believe happened with British hip hop! It basically got commercialised to a point where it ended up in the small room of the club, whereas it had previously been in the BIG room… Like I’ll never forget when we came back off tour in 1991 - we’d been hitting Europe hard, touring with people like Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah and EPMD - and everybody was wearing ‘Acid’ T-shirts! You know, to this day that still stays WITH me! The fact we’d been away so long that the whole flavour in London had changed to the point where you could barely recognise what was going ON!”

Meanwhile, with the remastered and expanded edition of ‘Organised Rhyme’ boasting no less than seven bonus tracks, the fact that these include (in addition to a rare live freestyle from 1989’s ‘Hustlers Convention’, hip hop’s first live LP) four brand-new MC Duke cuts significantly also marks the East London pioneer’s long-overdue return to the mic - with more recordings looking set to arrive in the coming year via his recently-established Blue Chip Rekordings.

“Well, obviously I’m gonna try and go at the situation as hard as I CAN! But, you know, this ain’t 1989!”, retorts an ever-straight-speaking Duke, as our mid-morning chat draws to its inevitable close: “You know, we’re in 2010/2011 today. And so - while my musical tastes haven’t differed from hip hop - the actual PRODUCTION I do has changed! So, though it’ll still be MC Duke, it’ll be MC Duke stuff that’s CURRENT! Because, while back in the day there was other people influencing me production-wise and then I’d add my stuff to what they’d done, today I do my OWN productions! Which means I can change styles any time I WANT - from one flow to ANOTHER! Plus of course today we’re dealing with a situation where you’re better off writing your own music than sampling it - because otherwise you’re giving away your PUBLISHING!... So yeah, I’m just keepin’ it movin’, bruv! Just keepin’ it MOVIN’!”

The album ‘Organised Rhyme’ is out now through Original Dope. A new track 'U Don't Luv Me' will be issued as a free download on February 14.

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