It's doubtful that when Brian Eno came up with the term "scenius" to describe how a movement within art springs from a group rather than one individual, he was thinking about Manchester specifically, but the city is synonymous with cooperative thought and action. It's that combination which has led to the city undergoing something of a music revolution in recent years, thanks to groups like LEVELZ and nights like Hoya:Hoya. One group who exemplify the city's forward thinking approach to culture is Swing Ting, the club night and label that plays home to MC Fox, one of the most distinctive vocalists working in Manchester and beyond today.
This week sees the release of Fox's first EP on the two year old imprint, and their eighth offering to date. The Musik release is produced by the Swing Ting allstars—Florentino, Famous Eno, Murlo, Brackles, Puppy Disco, Samrai and Platt—and, as Fox tells me, "the only plan with this project was to keep it all in house. I wasn't even gonna have any features by other artists and Trigganom only ended up as the only feature cos he came and played Swing Ting one month and Samrai played him some stuff and somehow let him record on a track. I liked the bar and thought it worked really well so it was hard to reject it."
It's not just because he's largely shunned features that Musik is a record bursting with it's creator's personality. Inspired by their shared love of soundsystem culture, the indelible stamp of each producer is also threaded through with Fox's understanding of himself. "The primary function of my music has always been, in the first instance, to make myself happy," he tells me. "It's a therapeutic tool."
Perhaps it's this attitude towards the recording process which inspires producer and DJ Samrai describes his studio experience with the MC as "time-consuming yet wholly satisfying," with Fox agonising for hours over specific lines as he wanted it to go beyond just the club bangers. Samrai continues, ""I Swear" and "New Swing" are particularly great examples of this. His delivery in the booth still always amazes me, so powerful and dynamic! He'll often want to chat and check in for a good hour or so before we record...not just straight business, and I feel that was an important part of the process!"
"I'm naturally not great at organising or multi-tasking but I do try and step that part of my game up," Fox says of his creative process. "I'm helped by having people in each project who are better than me at being organisers." Which, to us, seems like a pretty strategic approach for someone who claims he's not very good at this stuff. But then, Fox is rather modest, always wanting to shine a light on others as opposed to himself. Manchester's recent musical renaissance, he reckons, is due to "good nights and hubs of artists creating critical mass," rather than any individual's efforts.
There are other factors too. The regeneration projects helmed by councils, combined with a high student population, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of bass music (in its many mutations) have given the city a boost. It could be argued that the continuation of a London-centric focus in the UK media has allowed Manchester, and other cities, to cultivate culture out of the spotlight. "Nothing breeds creativity like being an outsider and the minute you decide to stop trying to 'get in' and just do or create your own thing then I think you begin to flourish," Fox says. "Ironically it's then that everyone wants to get in on your thing. For me, I'd have to say all those things helped create a very strong sense of wanting to express our own identity, and be very collaborative."
He goes on to explain that he thinks "a lot of what came together around the Estate Recordings crew sort of was the final component that caught a lot of ears and piqued interest in the wider scene. From Skittles' Poor With £100 Trainers album, DRS's I Don't Usually Like MC's But..., Dub Phizix & Skeptical featuring Strategy's "Marka", Dub Phizix and my own "Never Been", Chimpo & Trigga's "Gaza" (and everything else Chimpo does), and the Ballin' On A Budget night which showcased a lot of artists beyond Estate, I think a lot of great music just came bubbling to the surface in a short space of time."
Fox, for all his modesty, has been grafting just as hard as the artists he talks about. "He's is the real deal," says Toddla T, "he's cut from authentic Jamaican dancehall cloth, but at the same time he's got his own to the point where if you're in a rave, or if you hear him on radio or on a record, you know it's him instantly, like within the first word, and not many artists have that, so you've got a combination of being very, very authentic but at the same time being quite different." Fox is therefore a genre-bender personified, being more than one thing, by being a sponge of the various cultures which mix, blend and reemerge as something new and yet, distinctly unique and Mancunian.
Perhaps by virtue of being on the scene for so long, Fox is also acutely aware of how difficult it is to be a musician at all, saying that the most surprising thing for him observing the business through the years is, "how hard it is for really talented people to access the industry. You'd be surprised how much ass licking and cliquey shit that goes on," expressing distaste for "all the networking and social media stuff I have to do to get my music out there."
It seems however, that Fox doesn't need to champion himself: everyone else is more than happy to do it for him. "Swing Ting wouldn't be the rave it is without Fox," Brackles says. "When he's not on the mic the vibe isn't the same at all...Which you notice quite a lot coz he's always slacking off and taking fag breaks!" Indeed, Hoya:Hoya's Illum Sphere, argues that Fox has something truly unique, with the way he "can catch you off guard by going wild to something you wouldn't expect. It's always better when he's there and that, to me, is the mark of a great MC." The sentiment is echoed by the night's Jon K, who says "Fox is a force." "Having Fox on set there is never a dull moment," adds Murlo, who along with Samrai, produced "Downtown Uptown" the steamy track Murlo's had on heavy rotation this past year. "Being able to run a few instrumentals in a row I know that he can keep the pace and vibe with the crowd," Murlo continues, "he also stitches together sets that change in pace and energy suddenly. And when he winds up Platt at the end of the night it's funny."
Humour is always at the forefront of Fox's mind, as evidenced by his choice of dream collaborator—Dave Chappelle—though in real life he usually sticks with working with friends. "I had a really bad experience making music with a massive hero of mine who turned out to be an ass so I sort of don't really think about making music with heroes anymore," he tells me. Arguably, this commitment to working with people he's tight with day-to-day, is why Fox has remained such a constant on the city's underground music scene, thus becoming its unofficial Godfather.
When I ask Fox if there's anything he regrets from his long career, he tells me that "I truly try not to as everything is a lesson and helpful in some way and makes me who I am today, but possibly I have some regrets about road life. It's a lot of negativity involved in robbing people and selling drugs. That however, led me to my belief in responsibility of action, and played a massive part in my doing youth work." Fox's educational career now extends to the dancefloor, with keen young ravers all over the world learning about the new Manchester sound he was a pioneer of, which means the newfound good energy is sure to surround Fox for many years to come.
Fox's Musik EP for Swing Ting is out on Friday 17th of June.