On Tuesday, Noisey premiered the new Congo Natty video and spoke to the man himself. For this writer at least, that was a pretty big deal. Congo Natty, neé Conquering Lion, and The Artist Formerly Known as Rebel MC has a special place at the top table, alongside Smith & Mighty and Shut Up & Dance. He is a reminder of an era when this music of basslines and breakbeats made itself felt.There was a moment in 1994 which shaped everything that was to come. Carnival was a hot one that year. It was a crucial time for music, the sweltering heat of the underground scorching every slab of concrete from Ladbroke Grove to Great Western Road. It was the time of jungle. Our little crew did the usual carnival route of Rampage, KCC, Westwood under the Westway and ever soundsystem we passed was playing this one tune. It was monstering every corner. We kept stopping because we had to bounce to it.
The tune was “Code Red” by Conquering Lion. He was living up to his monkier, conquering carnival with a bag of samples, a host of gunshots, and Super Cat riding the riddim like it was the last time he’d ever pick up a mic. Even though we’d heard it on the pirates, even at the odd rave, that was the moment, for us, that jungle had arrived.But the journey to that point started a few years earlier. This is the story of Jungle beginnings, from towering estates to the top of the charts. At the centre of it all is Congo Natty, the original jungalist.It begins in 1989 when this guy called Rebel MC was telling me to “Just Keep Rocking”. Natty’s early releases, put under the Rebel alias, were often accompanied by day-glo videos and sampled the easy-going ska of Toots & The Maytals. Chart success had been secured, as with much of the pop reggae of the time. But this was nothing new.For me, all of that changed with “Tribal Base”, (the third single from Natty’s agenda-setting jungle record Black Meaning Good). I heard it for the first time on Dance Energy, the BBC2 music show hosted by the magnificent, maniacal Normski. Rebel MC performed in monochrome clothing, wooly hat pulled down over dreadlocks, prowling purposefully around the stage alongside heavyweights like Tenor Fly, Supercat, and Barrington Levy. All the happy-go-luck skank of the previous singles has disappeared, replaced with something more serious. I bought the album the next day.
When I got it home I discovered that every track followed the “Tribal Base” template, burnishing the hardcore sound of the day with a roots-reggae, dub sensibility. “Coming On Strong” featured slowed down ‘Amen’ breaks, Detroit basslines, and dub FX with Rebel raps accompanied by the sampled voice of reggae legend Johnny Osbourne singing ‘Love Thy Brother”. It prepared the ground for the soon come jungle revolution.Rebel used the clout from his previous chart success to shine a light on other artists. Alongside Tenor Fly he surrounded himself with other reggae music legends like Barrington Levy, Dennis Brown, and Supercat. That’s what made him stand out from most other artists in the scene. “He didn’t just sample reggae artists.” Uncle Dugs tells me on the phone, “He recorded them. Went to Jamaica, hung out, and worked with them.”Before he met Natty, Tenor Fly was a sound-boy for Sir Coxone. “I had to serve my time moving boxes, seven days a week, from city to city, lawdamercy, before getting my chance on the mic!” Eventually he had a number one reggae hit, “Roughneck Fashion”. But he’d never ventured into the world of rave and electronic music. “Rebel was the meeting point between the styles for me,” he says. “I was established in the reggae scene and didn’t really know about this other thing at first.” Fly had always played to predominantly black audiences around his home turf of Brixton. “It was a new experience for me. I wasn’t with the breakbeats and the DJ and rave ting. We used to go to those dances and pass through at the end of the night, come four or give in the morning, but after we’d been to our own parties y’know? Rebel brought me into that culture for sure.”
Hardcore and dub reggae, breakbeats and bass. The clash of sweet bwoy lyrics and jarring kicks and snares: that was the real meaning of “urban” music. In the video for “ UK Allstars”, Daddy Colonel gives a little speech about how the sound of “Garage DJ, Grime DJ…hip hop artists, Beenie Man, Bounty Killa… Everybody jump on a style formulated here inna ENGLAND.” He’s right. This was the first proper late-night, heads-down tower block music. It took influences from everywhere and made it UK.Natty’s next LP “Word Sound & Power” was a progression again, even more dub, rougher breakbeats. Oh and it was faster. “Jahovia” & “Creation Rebel”, the stand out tracks up at 150bpm a piece, got closer to the jungle sound as we begun to understand it. Natty killed off the “Rebel MC” tag in 1993, throwing out some rough and ready sample based music as X-Project, and established the Tribal Bass label, as well as the Congo Natty imprint. That takes us back to where we started in 1994, the crest of his career.Maybe you know what happens after - the unbroken run of dub inflected jungle music. To this day “Junglist” with Pete Bouncer, and the John Holt sampling “Police In Helicopter” are as close as you can get to a home run if you ever find yourself running a carnival soundsystem. Even when the scene decided it wanted to push this particular strand of jungle away, with collusion from committees deciding what could and couldn’t be played (seriously), he continued to make his music.
That’s why it’s so special to me that General Levy, Daddy Colonel, Sweetie, Irie, Daddy Freddy and Top Cat got into the same studio on “UK All Stars”. A magnificent seven, coming full circle after a journey that started thirty years ago in the sound system culture of inner city London, led by a conductor who did as much as anyone to shape that music we listen to today.“He’s the most important jungle producer of the time”, says Uncle Dugs. “The man. He’s always made tunes with a vibe”Do you like Congo Natty? Check these out:"A Real Jungle Soldier Still Has To Work Very Hard To Survive"Congo Natty - "UK All Stars" (Official Video)