Callum recently had the pleasure of speaking to Jungle legend Congo Natty.
There’s a palpable electricity running through the crowd in Birmingham, The ASBO Disco are busy laying the table for one of the most prominent people in jungle music: Congo Natty.
For the unfamiliar, jungle music is an infusion of breakbeat, reggae and dub influences that practically reinvented the London nightlife. Congo Natty’s been active under numerous names since the late 80s as an MC and as a producer and the UK underground scene wouldn’t be what it is today without him. He takes a moment to survey the crowd before stepping up to the booth, but first he makes a point of turning to his son, Congo Dubz and giving him a warm, loving embrace. This is pretty telling, jungle music started out in small clubs in London just like drum and bass, dubstep and other genres did but unlike them it has retained an ingrained, familial vibe, there’s love in jungle music if you ask me and Congo Natty agrees. “It’s the spirituality of jungle,” he says later in the green room, winding down after a massive set. “Whether jungle is playing to 100 people or 4000 people or 5000, it’s stayed with the people.”
As true as that might be, jungle has definitely moved on, since the early, humble beginnings it has informed and influenced many different movements, but it’s always been on the edge of the spotlight and now it seems like it’s enjoying a resurgence; jungle nights are flaring up all over the country and even further out. “Outside of the UK it is popping off, as they say. It is really popping off. It’s gathering momentum, there’s more awareness, you’re getting to raves now and it’s sold out, na mean, it’s special.” In the past few years since blasting back onto the scene with ‘Get Ready’, Congo Natty has toured all over Europe as well as Japan and Russia, his regular collaborators Nãnci and Phoebe even toured India. A new era also means new material and Congo has been touring off the back of Jungle Revolution, an LP he put out last year and his first one in quite some time, it features dozens of other artists and it feels as much like a celebration of the genre as a revamping of it, so how did working with all those peers feel in the studio? “It was an honor.” He relays, wistfully. “Seriously, such an honor, because, you know, I love these guys, na mean? For real man, working with them, it means a revolution.” He’s particularly enthusiastic about some of the younger people involved, the ones that are only just breaking out, such as Lady Chann, a prominent dancehall MC “Lady Chann is a revolutionary MC, she could go on stage with a top Jamaican MC and hold her ground.”
Congo has a great deal of faith instilled in all this new talent and there’s a lot they can learn from him, he started out by putting on his own nights in Tottenham and it wasn’t easy gaining traction. “We’ve got about 5 of us in the dance, that’s it, dance empty! You know them dance when you’re promoting it, you’re just a little youth? I’m a little teenager but I’m trying to put on a dance, no-one’s turning up.” He points towards his son. “Got his Mum, got a couple family in there and you just rinse out your tunes because you just want to play, see, and then you keep doing that until we got the point in Tottenham where we were the biggest soundsystem in Tottenham, when we were coming through for our generation.” That’s the essence of it then, doing your own thing, but as far as Congo is concerned it still isn’t quite enough, things aren’t where they should be. “They’re still giving the people Kylie Minogue and they gave David Bowie the best British artist award at the British Music Awards for 2014.” He says. “They’re still not accepting the underground, and giving it its true elevation and its true place in British music.” Once again it comes back to the younger generation, the people who are discovering this kind of music for the first time, jungle is a potent, high-tempo, high-energy kind of music so it’s hardly surprising to see more young people gravitating towards it, but there’s a significance beyond that, a fairly major one. “The beauty of jungle now is that a whole new generation discovered it without being brainwashed and told that ‘Oh you better listen to this music’ or ‘Do you know this music?’” He says, with a notable enthusiasm. “Jungle is probably the most freeform music that came since jazz. There’s no rules to jungle.”
This idea of non-conformity is fairly evident in Jungle Revolution, particularly in the penultimate track, ‘Micro-Chip’, which seems to belay the oppression of technology. Speaking on it, Congo produces his phone and holds it out. “This is the chip, right. The chip comes in the form of a phone, it comes in the form of a computer, it comes in the form of your plasma TV, your smartphone, your smart TV, whatever you got around you, then that chip is distracting you from doing real stuff.” There was always an element of rebellion present in this kind of music, largely emanating from the organic, livening qualities it has. “You gotta participate in jungle.” Congo says. This is the darker, harder edge that jungle has, ideas about eschewing racial identity that resonated so much during the riotous 80s and 90s, it’s just as relevant now as far as Congo is concerned, particularly evidenced by the new information coming to light about Stephen Lawrence, a young black man who was murdered in London in 1993. “The parents of Stephen Lawrence were asking the police to assist them to find the killers of their son, the police instead of going to try and find the killers, turned on the family and started to investigate Stephen Lawrence’s family. This is what’s come out now in 2014.” He explains. “We’re still behind times, still like, you know, still on that black and white ting. You know, like, look you for a job, they’re gonna ask you what nationality you are and then you can’t just say British”
The more Congo Natty speaks, the more I understand the significance of the term revolution in his music. He and his peers have made strides musically but they’ve also strived to move on from racial identity to something more unified, which makes this new movement all the more significant. “The whole point of this music is to bring people together. So if people ain’t getting together, this music’s failing, I know that the music’s not failing because it’s bringing all genres, it’s bringing different people from different walks of life.” This is where the real message to the young people emerges; it goes far beyond jungle and beyond genre. “We grew up in a system that doesn’t care about us, they’re going to tell us what we want to wear, what we should be wearing, how we should be looking, what we should be eating.” He says, with a glint in his eye. “What I’ll say to you is that you should find yourself.” As much as Congo is disappointed that the term ‘underground’ is still applicable to the world he comes from, he still sees promise and still sees hope in the freedom and creativity that’s appearing. “For any youth man, they can just do their ting, that’s the beauty of life right now, the beauty of all these genres is that a youth, look at Ed Sheeran, did you see when he first come? What kind of styles he was busting? One of them was kind of a little reggae ting.” He laughs. “You feel me? So if you think of these genres now, they enable artists to come through and put their artwork to the people and give them something that’s kind of original and unique for this country.”
Even as he speaks, the mooted thrum of Aries, a local hero in the genre can be heard from downstairs and many of Congo’s other contemporaries have big plans. “Sista Mary is coming through with some new stuff, Nãnci and Phoebe got a new single coming soon and Tenor Fly is coming with Born Again, the new tune. It’s become an anthem.” As for Congo himself, one of the tracks from Jungle Revolution, ‘UK Allstars’, featured an absolute who’s who of big name acts and it’s looking like it’ll move beyond just the one tune. “By the will of Jah, we’re trying to work on a UK Allstars album, but right now at this moment in time I’m working on ‘Jungle Revolution in Dub’.” Both these prospects are very exciting and with the latter, Congo is once again trying to get younger producers involved in order to help extend their names and he’s trying to do the same thing in other interesting ways. “We’ve got a night called Revolution, it’s Nãnci and Phoebe, Dubz and I are putting it together, as a little collective, we’re trying to put our heads together, we’re not promoters but we feel like we should be doing a night where it’s not just about us doing our ting. There’s too many promoters out there and there’s not enough real events.” That’s the guiding prerogative, spreading the message and helping people find their voice. Congo Natty has built himself up to towering heights and now he’s acting as an ambassador, somebody to speak for rising talent and promote the message of jungle and everything beyond.
Here’s hoping many others learn from his shining example.
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