It is a cold evening in late June and The Cartoon Club in West Croydon, South London, is hosting Deemore’s Black and White Exposure: a talent showcase for local up-and-coming singers, rappers and dancers. The venue is reasonably full, but the crowd seems extremely sedated as Da Essence, from the Social Misfits rap collective, take to the stage. Without receiving much encouragement from the audience, Mr Roach, Ace and Flamer still manages to deliver a lively set that includes a ‘Verbal Workout’ over the instrumental to M.O.P.’s ‘Ante Up’ and ‘Girl from the Manor’, a cheeky tune about chatting up women. After their performance, I manage to grab the trio and their producer Sir Prestige for a chat.
I start off by asking them how important they feel it is for them to be able perform live. “When we’re in the studio, we do our job,” says Roach, the group’s most fiery character, “but when it comes to the live stage – us three guys here, we give it 100%.” “That’s more or less how we started,” adds the talkative Flamer. “From when we started making tracks, we was performing them at the same time. So live performance is part of us – it has always been there. What we’re here to do at the end of the day is entertain. People have gotta realise that you can be the greatest emcee, but then if you can’t perform on stage, you’re lacking something.”
Da Essence has been together as a group since 1993 and for the most part has been a four-man act (Ace, Roach, Flamer and another rapper called Juicy). The giant-sized Ace briefly explains how the group’s original line-up first got together “Me, Roach and Juicy went to school together,” he says, “and Flamer was a close friend of Juicy – they went to primary school together. Then it was a kind of link up t’ing. We all could rap and we started doing shows. In about ’96 we got introduced to Sir Prestige and then it’s just gone on. We made the ‘Now ‘til Infinity’ album in ’98. We put it out in ’99 and it did well. Now we’re on the Social Misfits album and the second Da Essence album is on its way.” Though he remains an official member of Da Essence, Juicy recently decided for personal reasons to become less involved in the group and reduce his contribution to their future projects.
The group’s producer, Sir Prestige, now joins the discussion and describes how he first got involved in rap music. “I’m originally from Kenya,” he states, “I came here in 1986. I was into hip hop before I came to this country, but back in Kenya you only get the more commercial side of it. So I came here and [was surprised when I] walked into an Our Price record shop and [saw] ‘a hip hop section’! I had a hunger for hip-hop music, so I was able to feed myself a lot on it. I started off with deejaying and then made the progression to making beats and here I am today.”
Back in 1998, Prestige formed the production company, Social Misfits Entertainment, with the aim of developing a roster of local hip hop artists and releasing material from them individually and also as a super-group. As part of their plan for expansion, the Social Misfits have recently released a mammoth double CD entitled ‘Sir Prestige presents… The Social Misfits: The Society Documented’. The package includes two-and-a-half hours worth of tracks from South London acts like Da Essence, Stone Circle, I’ChelMee and PQ, plus guest appearance from Paradise (of 57th Dynasty), Est’elle, Reveal and emerging hip hop artists from the African continent. By putting together such an ambitious project, Prestige hopes that the album will help to establish a strong following for the Social Misfits and also help listeners to get to know the newer members of the collective. “That album is really about us planting the foundations,” he explains. “This is the bit where we [introduce] the Social Misfits as a crew. Some people will already know Da Essence, myself, Sheisty [Da Gypsy] and a couple of the other people that are on the album, but the whole idea is [for you to get to know] other artists that you probably wouldn’t have paid attention to. As they’re [on the album] alongside people you recognise, you’re able to get to know the new artists [in the crew] like PQ.
“What we’re trying to do is to create a fan base so that if, for example, we get 500 people who like this album, we’re hoping that at least another 300 of those will buy the next project from out of the Social Misfits crew without even needing to hear it. The way we want people to look at us is like Social Misfits is like a group. It’s not just a collective of individual groups and artists. We’re actually a group in our own right. And then on top of that you’ve got the different acts as well.”
When I got my hands on a copy of the double CD, the first thing that struck me was the huge amount of artists that make up the Social Misfits. Surely, I thought, this must cause a reasonable amount of rivalry between the various acts to get the attention of British headz. “Friendly competition, is a good way to describe it,” Prestige reveals. “It’s very healthy.” Ace agrees, “That’s what makes us all better as emcees – trying to get into the studio with Prestige. That gives him harder work and makes him have to step up his beats. There is competition, but it’s all love.” He adds “I kinda think that Da Essence – we’re setting the pace for the other people that are coming through in the Social Misfits. They all kinda want our spot and we’re trying to maintain the spot. So everyone’s getting better.”
Our conversation moves on to the subject of the UK rap scene, and Da Essence show mixed feelings about its current state and the position they hold in it. “We’ve been working hard all these years and people don’t seem to realise that it takes a lot for groups to keep it together in the situation that we’re in,” states Roach heatedly. “People just keep on knocking you down. They just don’t show you no recognition, no respect. They’re not even trying to make UK hip hop happen and when it does happen it’s gonna come with such force that whoever steps in my way is getting kicked down!” Flamer is equally as frustrated about the present situation. “If everyone helped everyone we’d be going a lot further than we are,” he says. “ Garage music is a perfect example of how people can work together. They might not like each other, but everyone works as a unit to build up the whole community and that’s what we need to do. It’s a respect thing as well, ‘cos blatantly, sometimes I think I don’t get no respect from certain people. Certain people show us love, but then we don’t get the respect that comes along with the love.”
“That’s just something we’ve got to overcome and deal with,” Ace adds soberly. “I just think everyone kind of needs to link up more. Producers need to link up; emcees need to link up. Just more love needs to be spread.” Prestige is more positive, in his opinions. “The good thing is though, there is a lot of people beginning to support and what I think really helps is that there are a lot of UK hip hop web sites and a lot of pirate DJs now who are like ‘all I want is UK hip hop now on my how’. So a lot of people are now jumping on the bandwagon.” Flame does concede the point that there are some influential people who a trying to push the scene forward. “Something that gave me a lot of inspiration was when Kiss FM [in London] had a two-hour show of just UK hip hop for the London Hip Hop Festival,” he admits. “ I thought, from when they can do that, the UK scene is on a blatant rise. And it’s not like they were playing UK hip-hop that was just alright. It was blatantly good hip-hop. So, when things like that are happening, you know we’re on the rise – ‘cos they couldn’t have done that last year.”
So, while the British hip hop scene remains difficult to predict, Da Essence are concentrating on making sure their group has a future by recording a new album. “We’ve got a few possible titles for it,” Ace explains, “but we haven’t picked one yet. But it’s gonna have quite a few collabs on there, some production from Prestige. He’s given us some beats already. We’ve also hooked up with Fiction [for a track] and we’ll be hooking up with Skeme, Darkjoint and all the Social Misfits.” “We like to be versatile,” adds Flamer. “ So we’ve got a variety of tunes for the album. We’re coming with different flavas for everyone.”
Roach strongly feels that the new LP will help give Da Essence the respect he thinks they have long deserved. “Listen to our tunes. We offer everything. Everything you could ever need in hip-hop is in Da Essence. It’s time to start showing people what all these years have been about,” he declares. Flamer is also dogged in his determination to succeed. “If I have to be up in everyone’s face from now on to show them that I mean business, then that’s what I have to do,” he asserts. “If I have to keep ringing up radio stations to say ‘ play my tune’, I’ll do it! Whatever it takes, we’re gonna have to do it, ‘cos we’re not here to give in.”
Check out the interview with PQ from the Social Misfits.