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Black Grass

UK Hip-Hop Soul Master speaks during his recent trip to New Zealand

23 Mar 2007

All this current talk about hip-hop being dead is a load of rubbish, and if you disagree, you obviously haven't heard any music produced by Mex from Black Grass. Based in Brighton in the UK, Mex is a self confessed vinyl addict who is most happy around records and came up in the burgeoning Brighton music scene of the mid nineties.

First and foremost a dj and selector, Mex is also a producer and all round music junkie. If you were in the UK in the nineties you might know him from his work in various record stores and his own "Black Grass" Record Store. You could have come across his break albums and battle records like"Ultimate Cakes and Sweets" and "Kleptomania". Or maybe you know him as a dj from the "Knowledge of self" club night where he warmed up for golden era hip-hop artists like OC, Big L and Jurassic Five.

After releasing some singles on a few local labels and establishing his own record store, Mex took things to the next level, turning Black Grass into a production outfit. For simplicities sake I am going to extract a quote from Mex's biography to explain what followed.

Described as a "pantomime of styles" by Mex, the Black Grass sound was hip hop minded but not hip hop, edgy but not necessarily underground, covering territory from dusty funk and jazz to soul to party beats. Working both with established vocalists (including Blak Twang & Maylay Sparks),and talented newcomers, Black Grass gained acclaim across the board from both DJs and music fans.

After spending time Djing and touring Australia, Mex recorded the second album "A Hundred Days In One". Adding even more diversity to the mix than the eponymous album, it delivered enough hooks and beats to light up the dance floor and get heads nodding in equal amounts, with guests like Jehst, Blu Rum 13, Micall Parknsun on mic duties alongside alt-country sensation Dominique Noiret, with a haunting rendition of Harold Melvin's "Don't Leave Me This Way".

Twenty years deep as a DJ ,Mex has developed a reputation as one of the leading underground DJ's in the game. similar in style to legends of old like "The Wild Bunch, Good Times, Soul II Soul, Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money, he has earned the respect of esteemed djs such as Andy Smith and Krafty Cuts.

Mex is currently recording his third Black Grass album with guest features from J-Live, The Good People and other special guests. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mex while he was visiting Wellington to perform at the now infamous summerset festival. What follows is a record of that conversation.

"I utterly loved playing in Wellington man. It was fantastic, so so perfect. The crowd was so warm and receptive, it was so much fun. Some nights when you DJ you're working and other nights you're just there vibing in the moment. Wellington was the second scenario. I was running bootlegs, classic cuts all sorta things and everyone was so open minded and just into good music."

"It's extra good out here cause I got to have my own DJ setup, my own mixer and effects unit, brought along the serato and just felt so comfortable and in the zone.

The venue was fantastic and the catering was great and boy, the local acts!

Sunshine Sound system were so great, such nice MC's, we don't really get MC's chatting positivity like that in the dance back home. Everyone just wants to rap about how hard and shit things are. Us English, we just complain about everything, look at me right now, I'm complaining about complaining!

I have to be honest I don't know a lot about New Zealand music, but what I saw impressed me. Shapeshifter were heavy, and I don't even really listen to drum and bass. Freddy's are freddy's, we know about them back home. I think everyone knows about them now."

"A New Zealand group I've been paying attention to and really loving is Open Souls. My Australian Tour manager gave me a copy of their album "Kaleidoscope" and it's just fantastic, such timeless quality music with no pretense. I'd love to hear more of their music."

"You know as someone who is London born and bred, it's great to get to come out to this side of the world. The people are so much warmer and way more open then back home. Everyones guarded and on edge in the UK. People live such structured force fed lives, so for me to come here, enjoy this great food, vibes and company is a brilliant thing."

Enough about New Zealand and New Zealand music. Back to the UK, UK Hip-Hop, golden era hip-hop and so forth.

"I came up during the first wave of English Hip-Hop, the same time period as artists like "The Demon Boys. However at the same time I was listening to and experiencing the golden era of American Hip-Hop and grounding myself in soul and funk. I really try to take things back to that golden era sound. I'm very specific with what I play and what I produce. I think a lot of music being made these days is really dull. You can find some artists who have a similar sound to the past, but a lot of them are just re-inventing the wheel, there is a real lack of big tunes, too much of a focus on fronting about being street and keeping it real. If I thought about it too much I would cry everyday man, I really would."

"Another issue I have is with these Funk 45 DJ's.I see these guys in the club, playing these ultra-rare, ultra exclusive records no one cares about. I mean sure I like to have rare records also, but some records are rare for a reason. No one cares about them cause they ain't any good.

These guys turn their heads up at James Brown cuts and then play some crusty scratched thing by a nobody from nowhere and think they get more points for that?"

As we've ascertained the English have a tendency to complain, so I decided to direct Mex towards something more positive, music he enjoys.

"As you've probably realised I'm a fussy guy. I like things to sound a certain way. Funky and clean with good overall sound quality. At the moment I'm really excited about a funk band called Baby Charles. They're based in Brighton and have that really classic funk and soul sound thats just full of feeling. I'm doing a few things with the singer and it's turning out wicked indeed!."

Mex was an interesting character to talk to. Negative as he was at points he also expressed huge passion and emotion for the music he creates and the music he is involved in. Most people I have spoken to agreed that he played a blinder of a dj set, cutting and dropping a super blend of golden era hip-hop, classic soul and funk and the odd bit of reggae/ragga. It was fantastic to see the man scratching away, hosting on the mike and totally loving every moment of what he was doing, delivering the real goods to the real heads.

Wellington loves ya Mex, you're welcome back here anytime!

Interview by Martyn Pepperell