In a career spanning over 2 decades and counting, Top Cat’s voice and flow has set the world aglow with a lyrical style so versatile that it’s lit bass bins ablaze in a herb soaked haze. Injecting rampaging soul as he strolls a roll across sizzling beats, turning up the lyrical heat, he takes you from the rudeboy ride to the roots inside in a freeflow stride that leaves the divide outside. From the junglist assault to the cultural vault, I think that we can all agree he’s a legend MC and with his 9 lives still burning bright and a melodic range to keep you holding tight, we turn you over to the man TC with whom we took a moment to see who he be... We caught up with Top Cat in a reflective moment for a chat..Bless
What was your initial drive into music?
Music has always been a part of my life and something I got into at a very early age. My father had a huge record collection that covered all kinds of different genres beyond just reggae – pop, soul, ska, everything – and I grew into that variety of styles and laid down a wide ranging musical education. I suppose that some of that inspiration rubbed off on me because I started writing my own songs early on and had my first hits at the age of 7. One was a playground hit and the other was a football chant that nobody believed came from a 7 year old. I’m not going to go to deep into the football one now, but it took the terraces by storm, and the playground song was massively popular when I was a child, and unbelievably is still being sung in my old area today. So I make up these rhymes when I was 7, and then when I went back to my old manor at the age of 27, I saw my friend’s little nephew running through the house still singing my song. So I stopped him as he tore past and asked him where he heard that, and he just looked at me and said ‘every kid in Manchester knows this song’. Well what do you say to that apart from wow. But I think you’ll notice that a lot of reggae artists listen to stuff well beyond straight up reggae, and I’m just grateful that back then when I was laying the groundwork of inspiration and aspiration, I had access to the wider musical spectrum and that the education I had was the right one for everything that came afterwards. The first official record I put out was Love mi Sess in 1988, and that was also my very first number 1...so I hit the ground running..
So 1988, you’ve got a whole new era in music developing as acid house was going off, but can you tell us a little about the reggae sound system scene at around that time.
Well I came up through the reggae sound system ranks, lifting boxes to get into the dance, and as a little apprentice, I got my opportunity early in the night to hold the mic and MC a little bit. Funnily enough, if we were playing one of the bigger sounds, some of our more established MC’s would be a bit cagey about going up against some of the bigger names, but I didn’t really give a damn – if they didn’t want it – well that was just more time for me. I was originally in a sound called Sledge Hammer and we’d play dances all about the place – and when you mention acid house and that scene taking off, the UK reggae dancehall scene had been going strong for a long time. You had the Steppaz scene, Roots and Culture with Shaka and Ja Man from back in the day, Northern Soul around Wigan and Manchester where they’d be playing soul music that you’d never heard before. We had separate scenes within the movement, different vibes, different flavours and I took inspiration from all of them. I was never that partial or totally tribal – I’d just go to as many different dances and sounds as I could. The musical education that I got never came from no official school, but by immersing myself in the scene and learning everything raw, up front and first hand.
When you were coming up, how did the older MC’s react to you. Were they supportive or did you have a fight on your hands to break through?
With all MCing and the music business in general, you’ve always got to really prove yourself, so yeah, I had my fights, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The more you fight to achieve and the more you fight for what you believe in, the stronger you get and I totally believe that some of those early battles helped me on my way and helped my development. Course I lost some, but I won most of them – so maybe not a 100% record but here I am still....
Did the UK develop a different strain of reggae compared to what was coming out of Jamaica?
Yes. When I started making a name for myself on the sound system circuit in the mid 80’s – back before anything of mine hit vinyl, the English MC’s had developed their own style, which was originally called the Fast style and was really started up by the Saxon MC’s. That was the major divergence between the UK and Jamaican sounds but Jamaica took influence from what was going on back in Britain and so both scenes have really helped push each other forwards.
In 91 and 92 as the Jamaican reggae influence began to fuse with house before moving into breakbeat and then swiftly into jungle, what was your initial reaction as a reggae artist to the changes that were happening?
I kinda liked it. Because apart from guys like the Ragga Twins actually going in and recording it, a lot of my tunes were getting heavily sampled and doing well. And that was the thing – apart from listening to some of what was coming out and getting into it, through being sampled, I was already being brought into and finding myself involved in the new music scenes that were being created in London and being a part of that evolution, of that explosion of style and creativity is something that I’m very proud of to this day.
What was your first track outside the sphere of pure reggae and how did it come about?
The first track that I did outside the reggae zone was with a producer called Bobby Konders, who is currently one of the biggest reggae / dancehall DJ’s in America – based in New York with Massive B sound. So he does reggae now, but originally he was a house man and when I met him in Desire Records London studio, the idea was for me to lay some of my vocals over a house beat of his. I didn’t know too much about him apart from that he was a house producer, but all he talked about in the studio sessions was reggae music and he turned out to be a big Shabba Ranks fan. So we did the track, but at the end of it all, I told him that it was obvious that his passions lay with reggae rather than what he was doing then, and sure enough, when I was in New York a couple of years later, who’s the biggest reggae DJ in the area...Bobby. Looks like he took my advice!
READ FULL INTERVIEW IN LSD MAGAZINE ISSUE FIVE