Interview with Mungo’s Hi Fi
Mungo’s Hi Fi have released 10 albums alongside a number of EPs and singles, collaborating with a variety of artists including Mike “Prince Fatty” Pelanconi, Max Romeo, Charlie P and Daddy Freddy. They produce and play music which blends Jamaican influence with contemporary bass music, resulting in a unique take on Ska, Reggae, Dancehall and Dubstep that has made them firm favourites in the underground music scene.The soundsystem’s three DJ’s travel widely, playing sets featuring their productions in venues and festivals around the world, as well as taking their own custom built speakers in the UK and continental Europe. Their numerous productions have proved extremely popular, gaining extensive radio play on the BBC in the UK, Radio Nova in France and on numerours other FM and internet broadcasters. They have made music with Jamaican legends such as Johnny Osbourne, Johnny Clarke and Sugar Minott as well as working regularly in the studio and on stage with contemporary vocalists Eva Lazarus, Charlie P, YT, Solo Banton, Marina P and Mr Williamz. Highly collaborative, they’ve worked on remix projects with Leftfield, Coldcut, Gentlemans Dub Club, Prince Fatty and Major Lazer.They are fully independent, releasing their diverse styles of music through their label Scotch Bonnet Records and its offshoots – Scrub a Dub and Dumbarton Rock.
Interview By Guy Manchester
Mungo’s Hi Fi have just released a great new album featuring Charlie P titled You See Me Star’. Here we talk to them about the album, about why reggae doesn’t feature on Louder Than War as much as it should and about their legendary “tower of power” or “soundsystem” which ALWAYS passes the “if your chest aint rattling, shit aint happening” test with flying colours.
As you hopefully know, Glasgow is home to the UKs finest dub, dancehall, roots reggae and dubstep soundsystems. End of. We at Louder Than War have a lot of respect for the crew who work it, Mungo’s Hi Fi, as you can probably tell, largely because some of our favourite nights out have been thanks to them and it. Or perhaps more correctly, it and them.
Louder Than War: Hi guys – first off, we’re loving the new record and will get onto that soon, but there’ll be a lot of our readers who’ve never heard of Mungo’s Hi Fi so can you give us a quick potted history of how you came together please? And if you haven’t already explained so many times you want to scream, where did the name come from?
Mungo’s Hi Fi: When we started in 2000 we were two, now we are seven and we basically all gravitated to the reggae scene in Glasgow around a love for soundsystem music and it has been a slow and steady, learn on the job process in every aspect of what we do – and it still is. We do as much as possible in house from production, label and publishing to bookings, promotions and running an online shop and are constantly trying improve on what we do, to make a lean mean reggae machine. The name Mungo comes from our beloved patron saint. He paved the way spreading a good message in Glasgow and also made beer.
Your soundsystem is legendary – can you tell us a bit about that please too? Am I right in thinking it’s kind of in constant flux, that it’s constantly developing and being improved upon?
We were djing in Glasgow and the PA’s we played on were shite. We found some speakers in a skip, with a bit of work and a few amps we built a soundsystem and started a night. It has gone from a bin rig with a box of tangled cables to the tower of power it is today. We like to improve the rig and often upgrade sections. What we strive for is a clean and heavy sound. We use a digital crossover rather than the traditional pre-amp and rely on the scoops to provide the warmth and weight. We also use kick bins to allow for faster transients and response for music where the kick and snare are important, like drum and bass.
You have a strong connection to the roots of reggae (ie its history, not the genre, although clearly that too!) and yet your sound – and that of Scotch Bonnet in general – is always fresh and forward thinking. How important is it to you that you acknowledge your heritage (via samples, say) and do you consciously think about getting that balance how you like it?
We are all reggae geeks and love the history and music. We also love UK bass music and culture. It is a balance and in our production we work across the full spectum of very traditional to very modern and everywhere inbetween. We like the culture of recycling riddim tracks which has always occurred in reggae and try to bring something new to the riddim. In the words of Solo Banton, “to move forward you have to know what’s behind” we have two labels to accommodate our production and if it’s too far from reggae it would go on our Scrub a dub imprint. This helps distributors and shops know what they are buying and allows us to indulge our guilty pleasure that is bass music.
OK – let’s talk about the new album. You’ve been working with Charlie P since 2010 when you met “at one of their legendary nights at the Glasgow Art School” the blurb about the album says. Inevitable question but how did you hook up with each other? Did you invite him to play that night – he’s from Essex I think? – and what was your first impression of him as a musician?
It was all thanks to Dougie from Consious Sounds. We had booked him and King General, who was double booked, so Dougie brought Charlie. Charlie was only 16 or 17 at the time and that weekend he recorded Skidip which was a big hit from our Forward Ever album. He also recorded imitators which features on this current album.
The blurb also describes it as “the culmination” of your relationship which sounds kinda final – is that the case? What’s it been like watching him develop over the years?
Our relationship with Charlie is far from final. We are close friends and speak weekly, not to mention do shows together every second week. We have many other tracks with Charlie and will continue to record. He has developed over the years but he was good in the first place and he is hard working, dedicated to his art and is really focused. He is a wise head on young shoulders and has earned the title of the youngest veteran in the game.
What was the recording and creating process for You See Me Star? I think you do the music and Charlie P the lyrics right? How do Mungo’s go about making music in general?
Charlie is from Essex, but is often in Glasgow for shows or just to hang out. Each track is different, sometimes we will have new riddims, sometimes he will have new lyrics. We looked over all the tracks we had and streamlined them into a coherent collection.
When it comes to making music we have quite a high turnaround. We have two recording studios in our warehouse and we have a weekly night in Glasgow where we often invite MCs and from there, or via the internet, voice artists. We often take a vocal or a dubplate vocal and re-lick a new instrumental under it which goes on to have a life of its own.
The album genre hops quite a bit, from roots to rubadub to dancehall etc. I tend to assume that fans of reggae are open-minded enough to flow with that and yet on the track Musical Politics Charlie P seems to suggest that isn’t the case. Who’s right, me or Charlie P and do you know where that lyric came from?
You’re both right, like any scene you have people who are purists to one particular style or sound and people are more open-minded. With this album we wanted to show a variety of styles with the reggae bracket. Charlie is a versatile artist, he has an amazing singing voice but also DJ (chat lyrics) so the riddims had to reflect this.
Collaborations seem really important in the world of reggae – more so than most other music genres – is there anyone you’d really like to collaborate with who you haven’t yet? Personally I’d like to see you hook up with Dubkasm coz I love those guys and I can’t begin to imagine how great the music you two could create together would be!
There are many people we would like to collaborate with, the list would be too long to go into. Yes Dubkasm are definitely on there. We are good pals with them, they are great guys, they really know there stuff and are a great laugh. We both work a lot with Solo Banton.
I’m of the opinion that reggae (and it’s many splendid sub-genres) is the universal music in that most people seem to like it and very few claim to dislike it. Do you agree?
I agree 100% with you on that. Lots of people like reggae but don’t seek it out, but they like it if it’s there. Many people have the idea that its all Bob Marley and not really dance music. I think festivals help change this prejudice. you often see people, young, old, families walk into the reggae tent to see “whaa gwaan”immediately get into it and stay there all weekend.
I’m going to assume you’ve agreed to that last question, at least to some extent! So with that being that case why do you think the music press in general – and I include Louder Than War in this – give it such short shrift? We have over 200 people contributing to the site, but only one of them really (shout out to Paul Scott-Bates) writes about the genre at all these days. And yet on the other hand I live in Bristol and as I’m sure you know the dub and soundsystem culture here is literally huge – nights invariably sell out Trinity Centre, a venue which usually puts on bands the size of Fuck Buttons and Goat who are never out of the music press!
The music press I guess mainly follow what is trendy or new and reggae is often not seen as that, they partly set the trend and have a certain demographic to cater for. For many young folk it’s their parent’s music or something they have never come in contact with or they feel it’s a bit old and they want to hear something new. Reggae is still an underground music, which is maybe part of the appeal. In France you listen to the radio and about every fourth tune is reggae. We have even been featured in what is the equivalent of the Radio times in Paris. In France even Grannys are into reggae. Bristol is a big music city in general and its pure vibes every time we go and feels very much like a second home.
What’s the summer hold in store for Mungo’s? Lots of sunset slots at festivals I imagine? I’m guessing you’re in your element at festivals, would that be the case? And is there going to be Mungo’s Hi Fi ft Charlie P (pictured right, © Michelle Makie) tour?
It feels like we are constantly on tour. We don’t have a set tour with Charlie planned, but we gig with him both home and abroad regularly we were just in Brazil together and before that Peru on tour. The festival season is just kicking off and we are all looking forward to it. We are fortunate that we have many bookings in clubs and festivals and are booked months in advance. We enjoy festivals and clubs across the board all sizes and locations are special in their own way.
Who would you say are the current UK reggae heroes? Who are doing the most to further the genre / bring it to more people? Are there particular DJs, radio shows, groups, artists, blogs, labels that people should check out?
It is a great time for reggae in the UK, there is an immense foundation of soundsystems from Jah Shaka to Saxon and Iration up in Leeds then there is the new wave of sounds and producers like Dub Smugglers, Gorgon Sound, Dubkasm, Prince Fatty, Danny T and Tradesman, Stalawa, Earl Gateshead to name a few. There’s a wealth of vocal talent too, from Charlie P, Solo Banton, YT, Mr. Williamz, Kenny Knots, Soom T, Parly B and bands like the Skints and Hempolics. Even the like of Mala and Pinch I would still consider in many respects under the sound system / reggae banner.
Short interview with Tom from Mungo’s HiFi on his influences, the reggae scene in Glasgow and Europe, and sound system’s place within the music industry.
How did you discover reggae and sound systems, and when did you decide to start your own sound system?
I first discovered reggae through an Andy Weatherhall mixtape, a dub compilation of King Tubby and Scientist stuff. Plus my dad used to like Bob Marley and listened to Bob Marley at home, so I had that from childhood. But the Andy Weatherhall mixtape is what really showed me the dub side of it, the darker, more creative side of it. And then in terms of the sound system. I was making music since school really. But more like Electro and House and Techno. And I started making more dub stuff and buying reggae records. And just by chance really we found these speakers on the street in Glasgow, and we fixed them up started from there. That was probably around 1999.
This is a question that I find quite hard to answer: how would you describe a sound system dance?
I would describe a sound system dance as being organic, and it’s a lot to do with the interaction between who is playing the music and the crowd. Rather than it being a show of someone playing their music and everyone else just accepting it. Like the sound system, the DJs, the MCs will be feeding off the energy from the crowd, and different crowds have different desires, so you have to be reading that. If a crowd gets excited, then it’s easier for an MC and the DJ to get excited, and that generates this kind of special vibe, which doesn’t always happen in a normal nightclub situation. And also the simple factors like the way a lot of sound systems run being on the ground, right next to the people. Not on a stage, far away from the people. That’s another important thing.
About that, when you organize your own dances. How do you organize your system? Is it always the same or does it change?
It depends on where we are, because smaller venues will sometimes only want four bass bins, or be allowed to have four bass bins, so that dictates the set up and the cabling and so on. But it’s generally quite a symmetrical thing. So we’ve got one stack that can be run by one set of amps and then the same for another stack if necessary.
Since I’ve been in Glasgow you’ve played in a variety of places, like clubs, warehouses, bars… Does how you play, or the vibe you manage to create, change according to where you are?
Yes definitely. Some bookings will be more of a dubstep night, where they want a reggae dubstep edge to it, whereas others will be a roots nights, in which case we will be playing more rootical, but with a modern electronic, digital element to it.
Back to the music. For you, what makes dub and reggae have that particular vibe? It’s something you find rarely anywhere else.
It’s hard to say. I think it’s because most reggae has been made with the intention of making good music and with a positive message. And I think that’s the main element really. There’s a sense of freedom about it as well. Where some producers in other forms of music will be trying to engineer their music to fit in with what’s going on at the time, and of course we do as well. But I think there is an element of freedom, of doing what you want in a DIY fashion.
This is a question that relates to several debates that have been going on in France. What creates a sound system’s identity?
It’s crew really, the people in the sound. I mean the speakers is the most obvious aspect, but if you don’t have a solid crew of people to run it, then it’s never going to succeed, no matter how good your speakers and amps are. People often ask me how do Mungo’s manage to make a living from this, and employ several people, all working full time. And I think it happened because each of us has got a set of skills, and we try and make space for everyone to utilize their skills in the best ways possible. For example I can make tunes but I’m not very good at replying to emails and keeping on top of dates and things like that. So yeah, it’s really about the crew, and the vibes between the crew. The crew have to get on very well. If there’s bitterness and division its always going to show in the end result, in the dance. And obviously the music that they produce. Because there are sound systems that are strictly selectas and speakers. But I think there’s only so far you can go with that. Because especially these days people have access to any tune, pretty much. And anyone can learn to select and buy speakers. But when you actually start using your influences to make your own music and add your own edge to it, that’s when your identity forms even more.
If the identity is from the sound system and the crews behind them, you go to certain nights because they have certain identities. Let’s say, you have Iration Steppas playing on your system, will it be just a Mungo’s night with Iration Steppas playing on your system, or will it become an Iration Steppas night when they play?
Well it’s a bit of both. In that case it is a Mungo’s night, but when Iration plays it’s very different from the set that we’d play and for that time he’s playing, then yeah, it’s an Irations set. If we play on OBF, then they’re inviting us to show our identity on their sound.
So you can move around your identity in a way?
Yeah absolutely. And especially in that situation where we go play abroad for example like an hour and a half set or two hours and its generally strictly Mungo’s production, not vinyl and so on. And that’s the idea to get a Mungo’s vibe across. But on the other hand at a festival where we have more hours to play then it will be much more selection as well.
As you were saying, you manage to play across the world – Japan, US, Europe – especially going to Europe, does the sound system scene in France, Italy or Spain change from the one in the UK?
Yeah, it varies a lot from county to country. I would say France is one the most advanced in terms of the number of people that come to sound system nights and that are into it, and the way that reggae is generally more mainstream in France than here. And you notice it in the dance, we always have a great time when we play in France. People know the tunes, they’re really excited to be at a sound dance. And then other countries are still learning sound system culture, and people don’t know so much but you have to give them a flavor of what it’s about.
One comment that has been made is that France and Italy are slightly more conservative musically wise than the UK.
From personal experience I’ve never really felt that. I mean, the kind of dubstep we play, generally bassline and very reggae influence, and for me there’s very little difference between that and a hard steppers tune, it’s just a few details really that make a difference. And for some reason, people will love to pigeonhole things, and even if they’re very close to each other they will say “ that’s different, it’s for different people”, which I just totally don’t see the point of. But in France, any experience I’ve had has always been good, and even playing more dubsteppy tunes always goes down well. I mean there are more orthodox sounds I’d say in France, who are much more into the UK steppers style, and more into the Rastafari part of it, which is not such an important element for us.
Is there something else than music that you try to bring to your dances.
Definitely. Like I was saying before about how the crew works together, that all reflects in the vibe of the night. Even who you have doing security, the first people that people meet on the door when they come in. If they’re grumpy and rude, then that puts things off to a bad start. So these small details are important. Whoever is talking the money on the door, and the bar staff….And generally… I’m not sure why it’s the case, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any fights or troubles at a dance we’ve done in 14 years. Maybe once or twice. But compared to other clubs scenes I’ve been to. People are expecting a certain openness, friendly vibes, there’s no particular agenda, and it’s quite open to different kinds of people.
In the last 5 years I’ve noticed, mainly because I’ve been more aware of the sound system scene. But even in the three years I’ve been in Glasgow I’ve noticed this, there seems to be a lot more people building their sound systems. Any ideas why that would be happening?
I think it’s just the natural kind of growth and spread of sound system culture. And in Scotland especially compared to England and London in particular has never had a West Indian community. So it’s never had the reggae history that London or Birmingham or other towns down south has had. So I think it’s really ripe for Scotland to get lots of sound systems on the go, and more MCs and things happening.
One of the first things I was thinking of looking at was how reggae moved from Jamaica where they had ghettos and poverty, to England where there was racism and poverty too. And now it’s grown to places like France, or Italy or Scotland, places that don’t really have that, or not on the same levels in any case. They assimilate with the history even though they didn’t experience it.
Yeah, well people approach it from very different angles. For a lot of people, and including ourselves, it was mostly about building a sound so we could play when we wanted and where we wanted without anyone else controlling the sound and the music policy…And I suppose to some degree just the frustration with poor quality sound in so many venues we’ve played in. It’s always a pleasure to turn up with our rig and play somewhere because you know what you’re dealing with straight away.
You’ve incorporated dubstep and electronic music to the reggae ethos, how did that come around?
It came naturally. I mean partly because, like I was saying before there isn’t a set of rules established in Scotland for how reggae sound should be, and it doesn’t have to be an orthodox strictly rasta based sound. And also just from having played in various jazz and funk bands, and having made electro and techno before, I don’t see any point in leaving these styles alone….And importantly in order to connect with young people and people who aren’t reggae heads already, you have to be playing them tunes that make them move. And that’s not going to happen if you always stick to strictly old school roots. I think it’s something that’s always been happening. I mean the whole ‘Sleng Teng’ thing when digital arrived. A lot of people were really against it, and yet it became the most popular thing and really gave reggae a big boost at the time.
Many new sounds in France appear to come from free party backgrounds. There are some similarities between both, but are there also some differences?
Well there are differences yeah. I would say from an outsider point of view and from having been to both kind of dances, the free party and techno and that kind of scene is more strictly hedonistic in a way. It’s strictly for having fun and release, which is totally valid. But it doesn’t have the more integral, positive message that reggae and dub has. It’s just my opinion, but for me it would seem people are more there in an individualistic way, in a techno free party. Taking drugs or whatever, and still obviously having fun with their friends but for me a reggae sound system dance has deeper underlying currents somehow. I’d have to think about it, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is. The closest thing I could say would be about the positivity thing which I keep coming back to. And the ability for people to get on, for strangers to get on well, no fussing no fighting.
Another thing I’d like to add, it’s a little bit more about the DIY things, with regards to sound systems. For us when we first started, we did play a lot more roots, and rasta style tunes. And although there’s still a great deal about the rasta side that I admire, I don’t feel like it’s part of my culture. Not part of my immediate culture anyway. I think, as well as the positive vibe of the dance, there’s also something really valuable in showing people that it’s possible to build up something from nothing, and do what you want to do in life, and earn money from even if it’s not much.…And I do see a lot of other sounds being inspired by that, that it is possible to do full time music and run a sound system if you work hard enough.
From an outsider to that, it seems that it is, well maybe not a resistance, but maybe some form of counter culture?
Yeah I think it is. I definitely think it is. It’s one of the few ways where you can get involved in music and do exactly what you want to do. If you’re a talented producer or singer in the pop industry, you’re still basically a lot of the time going to be working to a certain set of rules that have been defined by a label or a taste maker of the time that thinks that a certain sound is going to make a hit record. Of course we would like to make music that becomes popular, but that’s not the main point of it.
So does the sound system scene run parallel to the traditional music industry, or does it go completely against it?
It’s not completely against it. But it kind of acknowledges how much rubbish there is in pop music (laugh). And it’s more that music that’s been engineered purely to make money, like a chemical a lab, they’ve got this much of the chorus, and this much of that, and a certain formula to try to make money.
Does vinyl link into that too? In the sense that pop music seems to have abandoned it?
Yeah that’s right. That’s definitely a kind of underground counter culture thing. Well, counter culture suggests it’s against culture, which it isn’t really. But it’s kind of making a point about being autonomous I’d say, by pressing vinyl.
You have a lot of stages at festivals, like Outlook, Glastonbury, Dimensions… how does that change from organizing your own dances.
Well we’re not programming the acts you know, so sometimes there will be music that we don’t like (laugh) But I mean that’s part of making a living from a sound system sometimes. You have to do things that aren’t your style. But that’s like any job you can’t always be completely what you want. It depends on the festival. We always try and have a say, especially in the placement of the sound and of the stage, because that’s really important to any festival. It’s often put second to like the décor or whatever, but people don’t realize that that’s going to affect the quality of the night for the DJs and the crowd. So we always try and talk to the festivals about what we’re looking for. Then things like the details of the décor are generally up to them. But it’s always good fun doing a stage where there is a wide variety of music, because for example at outlook, it’s all nearly kind of bass music, and most of it I really like. And there are very often MCs involved so we still try and run the night in a sound system style. Even the sound of the mic, and the power of the bass compared to the rest of the music. For example at Outlook there’s nearly always someone on the delay of the mic, waiting for the last word in an MCs verse, and so it goes “OUTLOOK… outlook… outlook”. And they love that, they really appreciate it. You have to be careful with it of course, you don’t want to annoy MCs as well. If you put too much delay and they’re doing a fast chat then you’ll cut it right out.[:]