Baby J is a hip hop artist and producer and CEO of Baby People. He talks about his memories of Derby from going to youth club and playing hip hop in the 1980s to producing tracks in his bedroom and flying to America…
Can you explain to us how you got into Hip Hop?
I got into hip hop because from a young age I had a real passion for music…I was 13 when I first became interested and don’t remember the first track – I remember more about parts of the culture such as break dancing and MCs etc.
Can you tell us your favourite hip hop track?
Probably True Confessions by Tragedy Khadafi. To me the track represented the sound of 90’s boom bap hip hop.
Can you tell us the first time you went to a hip hop event?
To my knowledge there were very few hip hop events. What you would see was different elements of the culture. There was a nightclub called Twentieth Century. Which to this day is an anomaly in Derby because all the up and coming black music based acts would probably appear there. We used to get coaches coming up from London, Birmingham and Manchester. That was how much of a destination it was – Derek B the first commercially successful UK hip hop artists, London posse played there. A lot of important events would take place they’re. I was around 13/14 at the time (1986/7). I had a friend who worked in the cloakrooms, so we could kind of get in. There was a dance floor, bar and mini cinema showing silent films. One of the first Hip Hop crews in Derby was called Posse and Effect I used to sneak in and see them. Now a lot of them have become my friends. I was younger but used to see them in their with Kangols (hats) and leather coats. I’d be like ‘wow they look like the guys I’ve seen on TV or on a album cover and now they’re in Derby’. It was so much more powerful seeing something locally.
I could always relate to London Posse as they would rap in an English accent. We always used to feel that it was something that happened in another country and now it sounded like people we know.
I remember going into Derby with my Mum and seeing break dancers in the Eagle (shopping) Centre and I would be like wow. Around that time you would start to see graffiti going up on walls . Then all of a sudden this culture that we were interested in we started having access to it. Rather than a mate passing you a tape in the school playground it would be stuff you actually see.
Other things that were happening in the city around that time – there was a youth club that still exists called Merlin just on the outskirts of Normanton. I only went a few times but alot of friends told me they used to have parties and jams there a lot of the time. The other was Mandela centre a little bit later. Back then there was youth clubs in every area I was from West End and I would travel across the city to go to the Mandela Centre because there was going to be hip hop played, there was going to be reggae played and that was where the cultural influences were. Normanton has always received the new communities, now it is people from Iraq, Slovakia and Syria. But back then it was predominantly West Indian, Pakistani and Indian. Because I grew up on the other side of town I was amazed when I would be in the back of a parents car looking at the different cultures. I would be like wow I’d never seen an area that was mostly people from black culture. As I was interested in the culture I was naturally attracted to the area.
The other thing that was really important in early Derby hip hop culture was Blues. Blues would be at a house, someone would bring alcohol and then someone would bring a large sound system that would start at 10/11 at night till 3/4 in the morning. God help the neighbours as the whole street would get kept awake. It would happen at an unused house or squat. It would happen for a few months then eventually get shut down by the police. We started to get the older reggae guys to let us have a section of the night where we could play hip hop, to me that was the first kind of nightclub type place where we could go and play our own music the older dreads would be like ‘what is this noise?’ but the youth who could get into blues would be like ‘yes this is what we want to hear’.
What was the go to hip hop outfit for the 1980’s?
The fashion sense back in the 80’s which is that kind of cliché which is now kind of coming back into fashion. So the kind of the fur Kangol big puffer jackets if you had it it was the leather puffer jacket with the fur collar. There was also remnants of the old disco look with long leather jackets. There was no baggy jeans that was the 90’s.
The 80’s was tight jeans. Trainers were obviously massively important. When we young we had one pair of trainers that you would do everything in not like today where kids have like 30. Back then you could only really afford one pair right up until manhood. I would have one pair as that’s all I could afford. I remember my friend Steven Parker had a pair of puma old school trainers and he had white trainers with thick red laces. I then managed to sell and trade loads of stuff to swap (like football cards etc ) for his pair of trainers. They were like 4 sizes too big but I didn’t care as they were hip hop trainers! There used to be a shop on the outskirts of the Eagle Centre called Fashion Floor that used to stock Kappa cagoules and ski jackets. That was the closest place you could go to for sportswear related clothes for fashion. I would say jewellery but very few people had jewellery back then.
What was influencing hip hop fashion in Derby? Were people looking to older artists or was it London or abroad?
There was basically hip hop culture from the East Coast of America influencing things people like Eric B, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Public Enemy. We would watch these artists and try and mirror what they were doing. At the same time there was a big influence from Jamaican culture. A lot of my friends at the time were from first generation families that moved over from Jamaica and they brought with them a different fashion style. So what happened is British hip hop fashion became a fusion of the two. Looking at early UK artists like London Posse. With the Derby MCs a lot of them were rapping and taking a lot of reference to the American records but they would put their own slang in there like (Jamaican) Patwa and then also add in local slang words that we were all using.
In those days it was all about the different cities each city would have 2 or 3 crews. I.e there would be a jam in Nottingham and you would go with your crew from Derby. You’d all travel together sometimes having a unified way of dressing and sometimes not. Everyone would be there to represent their crew at being the best rappers, graff(iti) artists, DJs or b-boys. It was also about looking the sharpest and being the toughest.
There’s 2 crews that I remember from Derby. Posse & Effect and YSM. Looking back all crews were struggling but my perception at the time was YSM had matching tracksuits etc where as Posse & Effect may have had holes in their shoes. The YSM guys had it nicer. I know one of the guys from Posse & Effect left home at 14, another guy was living in a squat, and they would wear that like a badge of honour ‘we have it the roughest don’t mess with us’ kind of thing. I remember once being at the West Indian Carnival which were also culturally really important. It was a break dance battle and one of the Posse guys was dancing away and got out this knife with no intention of using it and he carried on dancing, it was just for effect telling the other crew that it’s not just about dancing its about being tough as well. As so much of hip hop culture was related to street culture which in turn was born out of the economic situations people were in. It was hard times people were going through which was reflected through music and what people talked about and the lives they were living. People often look at hip hop culture as a negative thing. It’s because people are living in environments where lots of negative things are happening. All hip hop ever did was talk about that.
You talk about Possee & Effect at YSM were there any other Derby crews?
They were the only music based crews. There was lots of other crews that would be described as gangs they didn’t have any creative outlet for anything. Posse & Effect had their own sound system with another crew called Kilowatt which was more reggae sounds. Having its own sound system enabled us to do more and play different places. It was around this time that hip hop started making it into the nightclubs. The first place that had a regular hip hop slot was the Bluenote which is still open now. It had 2 floors with different music – back then it would be split – an hour of indie then an hour of hip hop. That night went on for ages. The indie scene was quite small back then. It was 2 totally different scenes the indie guys would be from different neighbourhoods, dress and talk differently. At the Bluenote after an hour the DJ’s would swap floors and the 2 different scenes would swap floors too. But we all had a mutual respect for each other, as we would all see each other around town and respect that we both had our different scenes that were both part of a cultural thing that nobody gets. There was a kind of unspoken understanding between one another and never any tension between the scenes as we both had the same venue.
Later on there was The Dial which was a bar with a club upstairs called Lows that used to have hip hop nights. Pink Coconut was more of an important club for black culture generally as it was very soul and RnB based so as a hip hop kid I didn’t really go. You had to wear shoes and as hip hop kids we just wouldn’t wear shoes.
Do you have any names of other people involved in Derby hip hop?
My success as a producer within the UK scene came along in the mid to late 90’s up until early 2000’s. When I got into hip hop I was someone that was trying to be involved getting a DJ gig and being asked to DJ at parties. For me it was people like Cokey, NYT, both MC’s. Then there was G Force who was an MC and a DJ Waney B. A lot of these guys would do different things i.e. NYT was one of the best dancers but also one of the best MCs. There was Owen and Kingy some of the first hip hop dancers. A lot of people when they think of the dance side of it they just think about break dancing. People knew how to break dance but it wasn’t just about break dancing as it was also about legwork, footwork and moves. Things like the running man and stuff similar the dancing in itself was a big thing. Early movies like House Party you wouldn’t see anyone doing windmills. At that time it was about hip hop dance and within that you would have some break dance moves. Then it got back to becoming a purist thing of just break dancing.
I was always trying to get into the scene back then. But it’s important to add that nowadays it’s not a problem to be white and involved in hip hop culture. There has been some very successful figures. Nowadays if you go to a UK hip hop dance there will be way more white people. But when I was growing up I would be 1 of 2 or 3 white people in the room and you might get trouble if they didn’t know your face or someone couldn’t vouch for you especially if you’re going to blues which was black music in a black community at night as a white person you would need to have a reason to be there and people would be like ‘why are you here?’ So I was someone that was trying to get into that scene, but the scene was forged and well ahead by then. People like Steady who is now a successful UK break dancer was a young kid (younger then me) trying to get into nightclubs to dance. The West Indian Community Centre was another important place where we would have hip hop dances there. There was so many important figures in the scene that didn’t necessarily go on to have careers in the scene they’re a little bit forgotten now but without them it wouldn’t have grown and developed the way it did.
The stuff I’m talking about now is all relative to the 1980’s. People like Yogi, Rukus, and Off The Hook guys came around late 90’s early 00’s this is when we started releasing records.
What is you earliest memory of Derby Hip Hop?
Some of my earliest memories were of someone giving me a cassette tape of BDP (Boogie Down Productions) Rob Base and DJ EZ ‘It Takes Two’. It was a big track at the time. That was me and my friends being influenced by older people.
But my first memory of a scene in Derby was when I would go into in town with my mum shopping for a school uniform and I would see break dancers in the Eagle Market that was my first memory of seeing a scene in the city. I would then see the young black males wearing the hip hop clothing. Sometimes it was tracksuits or thinner jeans, sports trainers, Kangols, baseball hats and jackets and you would just know that they were hip hop kids. That was around the time hip hop movies started to come out the first one I saw was Break Dance. I wasn’t cool enough to have heard of Wild Style back then haha.
Then you would see bits on BBC news I remember seeing a bit about break dancers and then there was Top Of The Pops I’m not sure I think it was ‘The Message’ or one of those tracks, seeing it on Top of the Pops I was like wow! Derby wise it was definitely seeing stuff in town.
Can you tell us about any Derby park jams and maybe what a park jam was ?
I can’t remember any Derby park jams but that’s not to say they didn’t happen I just may not have been aware. What we had was the West Indian Carnival which was a celebration of West Indian and Black Culture. As the youth became more interested in hip hop it began to become more represented. At first you would see people dress from a fashion point of view in hip hop stuff you would see that more at the carnival. All the sound systems were playing reggae and maybe a bit of soul. You might get break dance or dance battle stuff happening. As more people wanted to MC some of the sound systems would start playing small section of hip hop say 20mins and we would all be around there, that would be when there would be MC battles a lot of that would happen at Carnival. There would be other crews from out of town so we would all battle each other. By then there was an awareness that this crew was from Sheffield this one from Derby and these crews were from Nottingham you started being aware of who was who. From a music point of view this is when there became a blur between the sound system reggae stuff and the hip hop stuff happening because this is where we started to get to play our music for the first time. It sounded different through the sound system to what it sounded like in the clubs. As the reggae sound systems are a lot more bass heavy. Even when we started producing music we would produce it with a reggae influence because that is how people would set up their sound system to be more bass heavy because of the reggae influence. To get on the mic on a sound system you needed to be able to chat which is MC’ing in a Jamaican way over reggae music. Nobody would be allowed to get on the mic and rap American sounding bars that just wouldn’t happen. A lot of the MCs that I worked with like Yogi and NYT were originally sound system MCs so they were doing stuff in Patwa and Jamaican sounding stuff. When we managed to start getting hip hop played then they would start doing the hip hop stuff bringing in the slang and the dialect. That’s what gave the UK its own different sound compared to the American stuff.
Can we now talk about your career as an artist/producer. We’ve spoken about you getting into hip hop at age 14 what happened next?
My journey as an artist and producer initially began with me having a passion for music particularly black music. I was that kid who would spend all my time and money on records tapes and finding music from friends. There were a couple of black music DJs in the city Soul Syndicate, D Brown (reggae DJ) and One Step Ahead, now he played on Heatwave Radio in Nottingham which was massively important as it was a pirate radio station that could be picked up in Derby. So alot of the early stuff we listened to particularly the underground stuff was picked up through listening to Heatwave – our pirate radio stations came later. A friend of mine wanted to put on a birthday party but couldn’t afford a DJ but she knew I had all the records and turntables. I’d not really DJ’d before but I did it and it went down really well. Then all of a sudden I was getting asked to do bits then I get asked to do one of the warm up slots for a night that Russell Davison was doing at the time. I had all these soul records and breaks. I started listening to the new hip hop records and I noticed that they have just looped this Roy Ayres record that I’ve got and that’s what they would do use the old soul breaks to make hip hop and I thought I could do this.
I knew this one guy Carlton who made early house music was selling a drum machine so I saved and scraped waited for my giro and eventually bought the drum machine. I wasn’t shown how to use it but I persevered in my room and eventually learnt how to make what’s known as pause tapes. The reason I started producing is that this music was hard to get and there wasn’t that many people producing it. So we would wait for the next Eric B and Rakim album or the next Public Enemy album and in between there would be nothing to listen to so I thought I could produce my own new music to listen too. I also kind of knew a few MCs loosely so a friend introduced me to Cokey out of Possee & Effect and he said ‘yeah I’ll come and rap on some of the stuff’. He also brought in NYT from Posse & Effect. So they were the first people I really started working with. Then I started working with a young Yogi who was from a sound system background. We forged a great bond in the way that we were working. People started putting out records at that time whereas before it was people like London Posse, Demon Boys, Blade only a few. But now there were more crews emerging.
Up until this point I had been on the dole, DJ’ing to make a bit of money, a young parent who produced in my room I didn’t know anyone in the music industry or how it worked, I would produce mix tapes with G-Force from Posse & Effect he would do one side and I would do the other. I’d been doing this for a long time then I had my first break I sent out a load of demos of mine and Yogis stuff to some record companies in America one of them being the label that Wu Tang were on when they first brought out Protect Ya Neck. So the A&R from Wu Tang phones me up and says we’ve heard your stuff and really like it. I was only really known in Derby I would travel to London and try and promote my mix tapes but nothing really happened with that. Then all of a sudden I have someone from Wu Tang call me up. I really believed in my stuff as I’d worked hard on it and believed it was at a certain standard so we sent it out. He told me I need to go out there for a meeting. I was overjoyed I ran out my flat screaming with joy and straight to the night club were my mates worked to tell them the news.
I faced the dilemma of not having any money and being on the dole. So I went and saw the only guy I knew who had any money he put on the street parties and set up the pirate radio station which was the only way for our music to get heard as there was no internet back then. He bought the tickets and we went over there met most of the clan but at the time it didn’t really go anywhere. I came back and nothing happened and I felt a bit dejected. But then I got a call from the same A&R saying he’s left Wu Tang set up my own label and have another artist that he really wants me to work with he asked me to go out there for 3 months and work with this guy. So I had to borrow the money from my entrepreneur friend and flew out there. In that time I met Brand Nubian, Dead Prez, I also met Shabbaz The Disciple who at that time had produced one of my favourite records of all time Death Be The Penalty. The label that my mate made at the time didn’t work out but I had all these links with Shabbaz, Dead Prez. Me and Shabbaz got asked to go and record for a label in San Francisco. We got paid to go out there and got a little advance on that so I bought some gold teeth as that was what you did
I faced the dilemma of not having any money and being on the dole. So I went and saw the only guy I knew who had any money he put on the street parties and set up the pirate radio station which was the only way for our music to get heard as there was no internet back then. He bought the tickets and we went over there met most of the clan but at the time it didn’t really go anywhere. I came back and nothing happened I felt a bit dejected. But then I got a call from the same A&R saying he’s left Wu Tang set up my own label and have another artist that he really wants me to work with he asked me to go out there for 3 months and work wit this guy. So I had to borrow the money from my entrepreneur friend and flew out there. In that time I met Brand Nubian, Dead Prez I also met Shabbaz the disciple who at that time had produced one of my favourite records of all time Death be the penalty. The label that my mate made at the time didn’t work out but I had all these links with Shabbaz, Dead Prez. Me and Shabbaz got asked to go and record for a label in San Francisco. We got paid to go out there and got a little advance on that so I bought some Gold teeth as that was what you did back then haha.
I was also introduced to a guy in London that did the artwork for Wu Tang he in turn introduced me to another label who wanted to put out an instrumental record with your beats. I said I wanted to involve artists from both UK and USA who I knew and they were a bit nervous as they didn’t really do that at the time. I talked them into it and they put up the money for me to do my first album ‘The Birth’. I was working with guys from the USA who were affiliated with Wu Tang and Dead Prez and guys from the UK like Yogi, G Force and Moorish Delta 7 (Birmingham crew). To my knowledge that was the first UK hip hop album that had guys from the USA and UK on the same record produced by a UK producer. At the time I was one of the first UK producers to go out and work with established American artists. It was a big thing at the time as I was pushing American stuff that wasn’t really being heard over here so that helped raise my profile and that’s when I started getting magazine interviews, radio slots, and club nights. So it provided an opportunity for me and Yogi to push our own stuff.
How old were you when this was happening?
This was around 1995/96 so I was around mid 20’s. My first album ‘The Birth’ came out in 1997. The UK stuff really kicked off in early 2000’s including people like Sway and Skinnyman. At that point Derby was really important part of UK hip hop it would punch well above it’s weight. There was people like Me, Yogi, Rukus and Shade One. We were prolific we were putting out a lot of material I was producing for people around the country as well and pretty much every week we would have something on the One Extra play list. We probably had as much radio play as a lot of the London artists at the time and way more than Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield. We had our own sound which was based on USA east coast stuff. The stuff with MSI asylum and Moorish Delta 7 started influencing a lot of the UK stuff. Rather than UK hip hop being mechanical and electrical sounding it started becoming a lot more sample based, musical and a bit darker. That started to shape the UK hip hop sound and Derby was a big part of that. Yogi’s Jamaica Child video was one of the first UK videos to be played on MTV. When I would have meetings in Derby people would assume that it was really popping of more than it was. Reality was it was this small town that was dead broke.
How where you recording the stuff back then were you still recording in your flat?
All the initial beats, lyrics and demos were done in my bedroom. When we were putting records out the New York stuff was done over there. In the UK we used to go over to Birmingham there was a guy called Roger and somewhere called Goldnine studios. There was the Black Samurai stuff that came out of Derby. He was an artist that would bring together producers and MCs to put them together on one project. He released I think 3 projects in the end 1 and 2 were Midlands based all the artists that had something in common such as sounds, style street life, and political outlook. I think that was some of the best stuff we came out with.
I had a studio set up in my flat on Duffield Road. The smokescreen guys lived there and the landlord was an old hippie traveller, so we made as much noise as we liked. I also had one when I lived on North Parade and there was others in Cavendish and Normanton.
What do you think are the key moments in Derby Hip Hop history?
Twentieth Century was important, thursday night at the Bluenote as it was the first space we had to have a hip hop section. Much later on Off The Hook (around 2000) was important – I was a bit skeptical at first but they brought some amazing acts to the city its now missed now its not here. Bass Battle at Deda brought together all the different elements. The Cronxx were really important around the late 90s early 00s. They had some big acts over from UK and USA and were people from the Derby scene so it felt more of a Derby night rather than put on by promoters.
What are the key moments for you in your journey?
Personal stuff for me includes Heatwave radio, DJ One Step Ahead his shows were recorded religiously, he was a massive part of my hip hop education. The first De la Soul Album was important to me as it made me realise that hip hop was broader than just street life it was anti thug. The Off The Hook Nights were also really important.
Can you tell us about how Baby People started?
One reason is that I came back from America and was a bit skint. Rukus asked if I wanted to get involved in doing some work with some kids. He was an MC I was a producer and it made sense. When I was growing up there was nowhere to record in the city. We started working with some kids teaching them hip hop DJ’ing , producing and MC’ing. We then started sourcing work for other artists including break dancers and graffiti writers. We started organizing it with the schools and it went really well as the kids were coming in and having a positive connection to hip hop culture it’s something they felt they had an ownership over and was theirs. The challenges they had with education they didn’t have with this creative outlet. Now that’s grown and grown over the years 17 years later we now have a place in derby that has 11 music studios, break dancing every night and we have centres in Nottingham and Wolverhampton. We are also doing work in schools across Nottingham and Derbyshire. We have 30-40 artists all from hip hop background and we work with a round 3000 kids per year. We are the first hip hop school in the country as we teach all 5 elements of the culture.
It’s grown because it works for the kids the same way that it worked for me as a kid. I didn’t like or respect what I was being taught when I was young so I knew I had to find another way and hip hop worked for me doing things on my own terms. That’s the same reason it works today kids that are in school who don’t get on with teachers or what’s being offered to them academically but are still bright and hungry to learn the things they want to learn about on their terms. What we do here is give kids the chance to learn about something they want to learn about. It could be grime, bass line, break dancing, graff etc. Its just a space for them to come and do their thing. Baby People is a legacy of the artists from the city. If it wasn’t for Posse & Effect, Killowatt Sound System, Yogi, Shade One, Ragz all these people we wouldn’t have been doing this.
We set a precedence of hip hop artists if you were an MC and started rapping in 99-01 we had already set the bar that you were meant to be getting played on Radio 1, 1 Extra playlist or get your video played on Channel U. Baby Knotted films a video company we had was the biggest supplier of videos for channel U for a period of a time. When I look at people like Eyez now I always think that people like Yogi and Shade One set the level coming from a small town where artists around are successful people expect things to happen. So this school that we have set up is a result of that us being able to say the power of hip hop and the impact it had on our lives and where we’d be without hip hop it’s another option to what is going on on the streets which is why it works for these kids.
What does hip hop mean to you?
Hip hop for me is a creative cultural way of saying I’m doing things on my own terms. Whatever is being presented to me by society I’m not just going to accept it just cause its there I’m going to question things. If I don’t like it then I won’t do it unless its on my terms. Hip hop from the fashion and the 5 elements to the culture represent a way of saying actually I’m me I want to be respected on my own terms for being me I’m not going to fit into the mould but do things in my own way. Everything about it is about being who we are and not trying to fit the status quo of what expected of us.