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A Quietus Interview

I've Got Souls To Save: An Interview With Congo Natty
Joe Clay , July 11th, 2013 06:15

Joe Clay talks to junglist MC and devout rasta Congo Natty about his excellent new album Jungle Revolution

Congo Natty is a junglist soldier. Born Michael West in Tottenham in 1967, he was raised on London's sound system culture, an experience he calls his "true education". He played his first DJ set at the age of ten, getting paid a pound and feeling "puffed up with the praise". At 20, he and some friends started their own sound system, Beat Freak, playing hip-hop, reggae and the New York and Chicago house records that were just starting to infiltrate. In the late 1980s, as Rebel MC, he stormed the charts with a fusion of pop, rap, breakbeats and reggae, taking the music of the London streets into the Top 10 with tracks like 'Street Tuff'. That early brush with mainstream success wasn't a wholly positive experience – "The machine that loved you decides it hates you" – and the biggest lesson he learned was the importance of independence. West disappeared back into the underground where he was at the forefront of the evolution of the jungle sound; a perfect storm of roots culture, uplifting reggae vibes, raw energy and turbo-charged beats.

Jungle was a crucial part of the coming together of London's multicultural street scene. Without jungle, there would be no grime or dubstep.

For more than two decades Congo Natty, or Mikail Tafari as he is also known, has flown the flag for jungle. Even when the more anodyne drum & bass came along, tastefully stripping back the form (some would say at the expense of its soul), Congo remained a committed junglist. "Jungle is like a mirror that was broken into many, many pieces," he says. Many musicians profess to live music, but you believe Congo when he says it. For him, jungle is a way of life, a religion. For a deeply spiritual man who converted to Rastafarianism in 1994, music and religion are one and the same. An image of Bob Marley adorns his laptop, Haile Selassie is on his hash pipe and emblazoned on the back of his jacket. Congo Natty is the name given to a Rastafarian who lives off the grid – they grow their own food, make their own clothes and are rarely seen in the tourist resorts of Jamaica. While Congo does not live this life of purity and isolation, his taking of the name is representative of how seriously he takes his religion.

Congo likes to talk – about jungle, politics and the state of the nation, about his Rastafarian beliefs and the problems facing British youth. The threads aren't always coherent and the rationale can be woolly and idealistic, which is hardly surprising when, in line with his faith, Congo smokes a lot of weed. But at the heart of his music is a message of love and positivity, and also righteous anger ("I'd love to be like Gandhi. He don't get angry. I get angry!"), which explodes from every groove of Jungle Revolution, Congo Natty's new album for Big Dada and his first for nearly a decade.

Congo now sees jungle as "a reboot of roots reggae for a new century", and the album is shot through with the blood and fire spirit and sweet hooks of reggae, as well as rib-rattling sub-bass and pulverising breakbeats. He has assembled a who's who of UK sound system culture - including Tenor Fly, Daddy Freddy, Top Cat and General Levy on the storming 'UK Allstars' - and has brought in fresh vocal talent like Nanci Correia and Phoebe 'Iron Dread' Hibbert, as well as working with a raft of producers, including Benny Page, Vital Elements and Serial Killaz. Additional weight is provided in the guise of On-U Sound legend Adrian Sherwood on production duties.

Congo is the visionary who brought it all together, and the Quietus met up with him at Ninja Tune HQ in Kennington for an entertaining, enlightening and sometimes confusing conversation about jungle and his life and beliefs.

On Jungle Revolution you have stayed true to the roots of jungle, despite dance music splintering into many different genres. Why have you stuck with jungle?

Congo Natty: Without wanting to sound corny, I'm a junglist. From day one it's always been about truth and being as honest as you can. That sound that we have is a sound that, for I and I, is a feeling. The feel has always been there. That's why I feel that music is sometimes kinda joked out, because it loses the feel. Bruce Lee put in the terms of what he does, but it applies to music as well – he said, "How can one express oneself honestly and truthfully? I could do a move and make it all fancy and flash, but what's my intent?" I feel with jungle, it was never about showing off - "I can do this, and I can do that, and check my technology and the tricks that I can do." Jungle was more about [bangs his fist into his hand] getting to your soul and waking you up and being free to enjoy and feel the music.

So you're not looking to innovate?

CN: We have innovated already. Jungle Revolution is innovation. Whether I give you that album in 2013 or I gave it to you 1994, it is exactly the same innovation. All that's happened between '94 and now is this… [gestures to his laptop]

Has the process of making music changed for you?

CN: Brother, when you have a certain way of making music, it's a lot to do with the technology that is available at the time. Jungle music was at the cutting edge of music technology. All the rules that other producers have got and have been given, because they're very technical and they've got certain parameters and certain settings and ways of doing stuff - jungle wasn't about that. We're going to use the desk and sampler and any other bit of equipment we can, in the way we wanna use it. If it goes into the red, or if it does this and does that – so be it. As long as when we put it on a DAT and go down to Music House and put it onto dubplate, and it sounds the way we want it sound – mission accomplished.

So technology for us as junglists is very important, but at the same time, it wasn't the technology that made jungle, it was the spirit. The technology was here already. Akai made the samplers, but no one was doing what we were doing with the breakbeats. So that level of innovation – there's only so much you can do, because you are actually becoming who you are. So think about reggae… Think about reggae music and Bob Marley on his journey of making reggae. If Bob Marley came and made an album right now, seen, he could do it in his original style and buss up the whole world. That is what jungle is about – being timeless.

Jungle is hugely influential on modern UK bass music in all its forms – do you think it gets the respect it deserves?

CN: Jungle gets the respect it deserves on an underground level. If you speak to people on a certain level, they will give jungle respect. But on a commercial level, a music industry level, jungle has been ignored, belittled, abused, violated, y'know, and that's the story.

So how does that make you feel? Because it's so important to you.

CN: It's not a surprise, because remember, Rebel MC went through the doors already. When Rebel MC went through the doors of British music he realised that there's musical superiority and musical inferiority. There's separation, there's class, see? Who's in the Premiership, who's in the First Division, who's this, who's that… Music is supposed to be free. It should be free expression. Jungle… I hope that from 2013, people will give jungle its true respect.

In many ways, Rebel MC set the wheels in motion for grime. It was a way of taking street music and making it accessible for all, which is what Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah have done with grime. That's now a commercial entity. You were one of the pioneers and your influence is being felt on music now.

CN: If you were to talk to Dizzee Rascal and Wiley, then I'm sure that they would talk about jungle with a lot of respect. Jungle wasn't just about the music, it was about the way of life. Jungle was about supporting yourself; making and producing your own tune, having your own label, distributing your own music. Suddenly becoming your own boss and having that mindset of, "I don't need anyone. All I need is my studio where I can build my tunes, then I can get them pressed up and I'll sell 'em." And that in itself is influential. And before us, Bob Marley was doing it. He showed me the way with Tuff Gong. I saw the documentaries, and he's walking from one room to the other and it's his yard. He's got the studio in one room, and the pressing plant in another and he's got a recording studio in another room, and he's living there too. That's all in one yard. And that's what I see as the revolution. If Bob Marley could do it – a mixed race youth from Kingston who wasn't seen as nothing special. But he stood up and he said, "I'm going to have my own studio, and my own distribution and my own shop." That's jungle.

The album exudes positivity and good feeling, and there's not enough of that in some of the other genres that jungle has spawned. Is it important that music conveys a positive message?

CN: Yeah, because we're supposed to be making the music for the children. Ultimately, we're supposed to be making music to uplift the people's sorrow. We're living in a time that's hard. Hard times. And it's been like this for a long time now. And music is the one medium where we can be free. And that's what jungle is – it's that escape. The beauty of the jungle dance is, let me tell you – you have a shit week. You've got peer pressure, things are not going right. But you've got a dance on Friday or Saturday night. You don't really wanna go because life's on top. But you know you gotta go because you're booked for a dance. I'm talking about now – 2013. So you go to the dance and from when you walk in it's like, "Thank you, Jah. Thank you. I needed this bath." It's cleansing. After the session it's always the same, it's like [heavy sigh of relief] – jungle music sets you free.

You're talking about jungle as a religion and the dance as a religious experience. You converted to Rastafarianism in 1994 – how do the two come together for you?

CN: They are at one. If I think about when I was a yout and I was in a dance and they'd be playing Rastafari music, with heavy bassline, echo, distortion, filters – everything. And it was a holy vibe. You felt the Holy Spirit. I couldn't move from the speaker. Jungle for me, it's revisiting everything that was before it.

The two dominant lyrical themes on the record are love and revolution. In your press release you talk about how you're "donning your combat greens" for the revolution. Can you explain what you mean by that?

CN: Listen my friend, we're fighting just to be free. How free are we really? Can we really do what we wanna do, can we say what we wanna say, can we feel what we wanna feel? The majority of people think they're free because of the environment – there's a life designed for us. You go to school, you go to college, you go to work, you get a pension. Fuck that. What? You gonna work and go crazy all your life to be told, that's it, here's your pension, go and have a nice time. No. We need to be free. We need to come together and live as one. A lot of the things that are going on at the moment are because we are divided. I'm just hoping with music… I'm not even hoping, I know that music is the key. Music is always the thing that comes along and breaks down all divisions and barriers and negative energy.

You were born in Tottenham – do you still have a home there?

CN: My heart is always in Tottenham.

So how did you feel when you saw the riots unfolding? Where were you when it happened?

CN: I was at a festival and I was told. I phoned home and the first thing they said to me was, "It's kicked off in Tottenham." I was in shock. Not in shock that it's kicked off, but I felt the whole… 1985, the whole 360. Like, Mark Duggan's been shot, why did they have to kill the brother? He didn't even have heat on him. Same old story. And then suddenly we're looked on as being dangerous, we need policing again, we need sorting out, the ghetto's unruly again… I feel sorry for the youts.

Do you think things have changed from you were growing up?

CN: Nothing's changed, friend. Nothing's changed. Well, the youth of now… When I was a yout I'd think something in front of my dad. I'd think it, but I wouldn't say it. But my son now will say it in front of me. Not in a disrespectful way, but he'll just say it because he's freer. They are freer, but at the same time they are more conditioned, more suppressed and more goaded down a certain direction. The good things is that the youts, they've got a fire in their belly. And you can see it in grime and by what's coming out of the UK. That fire comes from oppression. You can see that the oppression ain't changed. The suffering's still the same.

There are a lot of parallels between what's happening now and the 1980s…

CN: Yeah, man, serious. It's like a spiral, where it's either gonna go up or go down. We've spiralled back round to exactly the same time and space. The people are going up, but Babylon is going down. We sussed them out 20 years ago. If we hadn't sussed them out we couldn't do what we did. We sussed them out and we took control. For a minute in space and time – if you think about British culture, we locked it off. We had it running for ourselves. Just for a moment. Think of that revolution – from 1990… Soul II Soul…

So by "we", you mean the black music scene?

CN: Yeah, yeah. The whole black music scene. It got to the point where it was so powerful, and the energy and the things that were coming out of it… No matter who you spoke to at the time, they had something positive to say. But look, Babylon's a hypnotist. Every 20 years, the hypnotist has put the people back to sleep. And every 20 years they need waking up again. We needed waking up. We were sleeping. People came along, musicians made music that woke us up and said, 'Don't look at life like this, look at it like this – have you checked out that? Do you know about this?'

And you feel like that's happening again now?

CN: Hundred per cent. Absolutely. I sat down on the train today and some youts – some MCs – came over and they said, "Are you Congo Natty?" And I said, "Yeah." And they were an MC and a producer, so I said, "Alright, you like hip hop?" and they said, "Yeah." So I said, "Right, have you heard of Professor Griff?" and they were like, "No." So I said, "OK, go and check him out. Have a little search, find out about him and what he's saying and then research into hip hop and what hip hop's about."

Out of all the pioneers of hip hop out there, why did you choose Professor Griff for them to investigate?

CN: He's current. He's doing it now. I don't know if you know about him now?

No, I know about him from back in the day with Public Enemy, but I don't know what he's doing now.

CN: He's got this thing going on…

He was quite a controversial figure. He said some stupid things.

CN: At that time he was a young man with a lot of information that he wanted to get it out of his system. You see Professor Griff now – you still see that young man, but this time he's grown up and he's saying, "Listen, I got some things to tell you, you better know about this stuff." It's not his opinion – he was known as the Minister of Information – not the Minister of His Information. That means he would study, read books. We don't have time to read books. But give it to Griff, he'll read it and he'll come and tell the man dem what it's all about. So now, Griff has a whole set of tours that he does to do with distributing information. He's still part of PE, but he's also lecturing.

But the problem with Griff before was that some of the things he was saying were homophobic and anti-Semitic. Is he more informed now? Is he thinking about what he's saying or is he just putting the information out there, no matter what?

CN: He's definitely more… I don't think he's on that tip. That's the strange thing about Griff – I don't find he's anti-Semitic. But the press picked up on certain things he said and they took it out of proportion. If I say something negative about Jews, for instance, they could turn round and say I'm anti-Semitic. But then I could say, "My grandfather's Jewish." End of story.

And is your grandfather Jewish?

CN: He could be. I don't know one of my grandfathers. My Mum's Welsh, you get me? Directly, we're living in a world of mass information. But unless you've got the wisdom to decipher the knowledge, you're not gonna really know about anything. So the youts dem, if you think about them they're so blessed. They're so special. They do need some guidance.

I guess that's the problem with the internet – kids have access to so much information. Sometimes you do need a filter.

CN: Exactly. That is what I'm trying to do. Give them something to focus on…

Be a filter?

CN: Hundred per cent. My message is love, positivity, no colour, the words black and white, they shouldn't be in the dictionary any more. I shouldn't be allowed to say, 'A white man came in the room.' I should say, "A man came in the room. He could be from Europe. He could be from England." Yeah? To say a white man or a black man – suddenly we're different. Say a dog came in the room. "What sort of dog?" Then you can start breaking it down, "What breed of dog was it?" With us now, as humans – the black and white issue – it's one of the biggest cons in society.

Do you think it's being perpetuated by society?

CN: Hundred per cent. Hundred per cent. Babylon feed the fire of that shit all the time, they stoke the fire of it.

By creating those divisions, what do you think they're hoping to achieve?

CN: They want to keep us distracted. They're scared of us waking up and saying, "We don't need you any more, fuck off." Yeah? Straight.

So a full-blown revolution?

CN: Proper revolution. Why do you need to be fed? Because you can't feed yourself. If you can feed yourself with your hands, why aren't you feeding yourself? Why aren't we feeding ourselves? Why are we relying on Tesco and Asda and all this madness? Why don't we all have a little bit of land where we grow some stuff? Why aren't we teaching the children about the land? The fundamentals of life, the grassroots, we've forgotten it. And they are the most important things. Because if you think about it, if tomorrow all the chain stores closed down and there was a shortage of something, there'd be fights. Fighting over bread like animals. This is how fucked up we are. We think we've gone further and we've improved ourselves. We got some gold medals in the Olympics and we're nice and we're this and we're that… That's bullshit. A year before the Olympics, London was burning. It's a soap opera, bro. How can we go from London's burning to London's having the greatest day of its life? What a myth. The poor are still poor. The hungry are still hungry. The baby's still got nothing. There's a woman still going crazy, they're taking her kids tomorrow. Nothing's changed.

I really wanted to find out some more about the time you spent in Ethiopia. I understand you moved to Shashamane [home to the single largest Rasta community in the world] for a period – can you explain a bit about how that came about, why you went there and what happened when you were there.

CN: I would say, part of all of us – there's a part of us that wants to search. And a part of me felt that I had to be in Ethiopia for the year 2000.

I read you went there in 2007?

CN: Ethiopia's chronology is so called "real-time". So the Gregorian calendar that we run by now was changed in the 15th-century by Pope Gregory XIII, I feel, and he added seven years on. So in 2007, it was really 2000. So I had this thing in my heart… I took my whole family, my wife and my children. It was like being born again. My spirit was there. I felt like I had returned home.

How long were you there for?

CN: I was there for seven months. My children went to school in Shashamane. It's a beautiful place, but at the same time it's got its issues, same as any African country. There was no running water. The power would go all the time. That aside, it's beautiful, with three harvests a year. The soil is so fertile.

That's not the typical image we're given of Ethiopia.

CN: When I stayed in Ethiopia I saw the real Ethiopia. I wish I'd documented it. If Jah spares my life, I really want to do a documentary about Ethiopia. The proper Ethiopia – the one the people aren't told about. The Chinese know about it. That's why they're over there investing. Because they know the growth rate of the Ethiopian economy is one of the fastest in the world. And why? Because Africa is the richest country in the world in terms of resources. But that's been flipped on its head and made to look like the poorest country. Africa is not allowed to trade for itself. It can only trade through the West.

Do you plan on going back there?

CN: I left my furniture and all my stuff there. I look at Africa as being one. I came from there, I was taken away – my ancestors – through slavery. And I'm returning home. I feel that. I'm going home. Whether its Ghana, Gambia, Mali… I will go back. But for now I've got to be on the battlefield. That's here, in England. I've got souls to save, children to talk to. Just by being here I can spread the message. People come up and talk to me all the time. And that is the most important thing. I was doing a video shoot for my new tune, "Jah Warriors", and some youts ran in and were saying, "Congo, big up." And one of them said, "Congo, can I give you these bars?" and this yout did these bars about fighting Satan. It was a special moment. This is why I am here. I am here for this lickle yout. I'm a servant. When I'm no longer required to serve…

You'll go back?

CN: No, I'll go forward.

Jungle Revolution is out now on Big Dada