Stick to My Roots | 'Hey Mama' and the journey to mainstream


In 1988, Soul II Soul’s unique sound caused a massive storm both on the streets and within the music industry. This started with their first releases ‘Back to Life’ and ‘Keep on Movin’, performed by Caron Wheeler and Jazzie B, the Funky Dred. The theme of this new dance generation was captured in Soul II Soul’s motto: A happy face, a thumping bass for a loving race. The nineties soon arrived opening a new technical era with new inventions. DVDs were in, VHS was out; CDs were in, vinyl was out. Out with the home-phone landlines; in with the mobile. I found myself entering head-first into a new world of technology, where everything was becoming slimline and more compact.

In the world of politics, British working-class people rioted in protest against Thatcher’s Poll Tax, leading to pitched battles with the police in Trafalgar Square. In 1990, my hero, South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, was released from prison, ascending in triumph to the presidency in 1994 and bringing to power the African National Congress.

This era also began churning out processed, manufactured, mass-produced bands. The Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls were all the rage. Pop had Oasis and East 17. Prince and Michael Jackson kept making chart-breaking songs. In 1991, the country’s Number 1 rock band, Queen, was in mourning over frontman Freddy Mercury who died from AIDS-related pneumonia. On my radar, American R&B, hip-hop, and soul were becoming massive, with the likes of KRS-One, 2Pac, Biggie, Public Enemy, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, R Kelly, and Mary J Blige. On the UK reggae charts, British lovers’ rock was holding its own in the Number 1 slots. Essex boys The Prodigy were popular under- ground and would later go on to capture the ears of the mainstream.

There were big tunes in the grassroots world of jungle, with the latest independent singles hitting the dance floor with the likes of ‘The Helicopter Tune’, ‘Burial’, ‘Sound Murderer’, ‘Limb by Limb’, ‘Dark Age’, just to name a few. Later, as the jungle movement grew, labels released compilation LPs. The popularity ensued. UK Apache’s and Shy FX’s tune ‘Original Nuttah’ entered the UK national Top 40. In 1994, jungle crossed over with General Levy’s and M-Beat’s track ‘Incredible’, which was produced by Fashion Records. The tune was a UK dancehall MC smash hit, a breakthrough (M-Beat, its producer, said: ‘Yo, General, we want you on this track.’ He replied: ‘Incredible.’ And the tune exploded). In the same vein, I was invited by of The Black Eyed Peas for ‘Hey Mama’, which become a hit song. Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Hollywood.

I knew General Levy from back in the late eighties. He featured on a north-western sound called Tippatone, in the times of Robbo Ranx. General Levy would spar with Junior Dan. As a young man, he travelled down south to watch me perform with Saxon. I linked with up-and-coming British MC Sweetie Irie when he featured on the hit tune ‘On and On’ with Aswad. Sweetie Irie coined the ‘Irie’, part of his name after me; I view him as my son in the reggae fraternity. He was part of the One Love Sound System that was run by Steve-1 love, who used to move with Jah Shaka.

I believe it was positive that ‘Incredible’ crossed over into the mainstream. General Levy became famous, and it enabled him to buy a car and a nice house, to have money to look after his family—a great thing. At the time of the release of ‘Incredible’ there were haters from inside the jungle scene, hating on General, jealous that he made it and they didn’t—the usual stuff. I heard a rumour that General had proclaimed he was one of the originators of jungle; others called him a bandwagonist jumping on the back of jungle music, snatching his slice of fame. There were two minds: commercial jungle versus grassroots, underground and independent. Anyway, I thought, ‘good luck to you, General, my brethren.’ It was good to see jungle music empowering brown, black, and white, young British working-class musicians from out of the ghetto. To provide another youth from the streets a living? To me, that’s got to be a good thing.

The nineties delivered to us a new London sound with the birth of jungle, a fusion of old meets young, bringing the heritage of Jamaican dancehall and roots reggae to a new generation born into the party vibes produced by electronic sounds and beats. As a teenage artist at home in your bedroom with keyboards, sampler and mixer, mic and drum machine, you’re set and ready to go. Doing it yourself: the new standard. Teenage mastermind engineers living in council tower blocks arranged and produced a line-up of banging dance tunes. This underground jungle movement rejected the mainstream music business, music contracts, and record bosses. This time around, young people were feeling in control of their own destinies.

I first knew Congo Natty when he was known as Rebel MC. I joined him when he was doing some community projects, helping, and supporting youths during the nineties. I remember doing a show in Bristol when Congo Natty first came out under that name. There was barely anyone on the floor on which he was performing, so he came down to our dancehall floor, which was packed, and in the end, he joined me onstage. It was good to see him do his set for the first time. Congo Natty was not popular then, but steadily made a name for himself as a jungle DJ.

Later, Congo asked me to work with him on another project, joined by Sweetie Irie, General Levy, Top Cat, and Daddy Freddy, honouring us as recognised forerunners of UK dancehall. We collectively rode a junglist tune, ‘UK Allstars’. The song was recorded and engineered at Sleepy Time Studio, Lewisham, with Unit 137 Sound System. Our tune became a hit. It was very easy for me to record with my fellow MCs; we had worked together for up to 30 years, and the vocals session was done in no time at all. There were great vibes in the studio, and we all got along. Congo let us do our own thing. Most of the time, when I do work like this, they send me the raw beat, and I put my vocals on the track and leave them to mix it. The same applied to the ‘UK Allstars’ project. Our video was filmed in the same studio in which we did the song. In the jungle scene, our tune went huge; it blew up. We started headlining at massive festivals such as Boomtown and were the main act on its Lion’s Den stage. We were the supporting act at sold-out shows for the nation’s favourite ska band, Madness, and performed at the House of Commons Festival in south London.


Stick To My Roots, Tippa Irie's long-awaited autobiography is out now and available to buy direct from our bookshop, and at local bookshops across the country.