UK hip hop/ reggae artist Seanie T took some time off from working on his album Scribes of a Versatilian at Alaska Studio in Waterloo, London to talk with us about his musical influences, the way he likes to deal with people and how a Kool Moe Dee video got him into hip hop.
I was born in North London but I moved to Ilford really young. That’s my allegiance to Arsenal. But I still hang north, south, east, west London.
I started out on a sound called Papa Stylee. That was a big sound in the area. There was a little crew of us that used to roll when I was about 12, 13, 14 years old and we called ourselves Youth Hi-Fi. They used to lend us records and stuff like that. At the time there used to be loads of local parties. Every week there was some little party going on and we used to get to the party and if nothing was going on, one man would get an amp, the next man would get a microphone, the next man would get his turntable, next man would get a couple of little speakers, get a couple of tunes and we’d just take over the party and play.
When was that?
We’re talking eighties, bruv, early eighties. Must have been ’81, ’82, around them times. That was when reggae music was reggae music. The modern day music, not all of it carries soul! You know what I mean?
People will make the music that they choose to make. I make the music that I choose to make, that’s why my album is called Scribes of a Versatilian. My style is a little different, it’s a bit bashy, it’s a bit hip hop. ‘Cause I flip the styles, it’s kind of versatile. So I’m my own species. I’m the leader of my own species, a versatilian. It’s the words of me! I don’t really hear a lot of stories and people using their imagination. That’s the sad part, people not using their brainpower sometimes – people just writing thinking about what people wanna hear. Here and now. That’s all good, though. I’m not gonna say that people shouldn’t do music like that. You know what I mean, ’cause each to their own.
Tell me about a special moment in your career.
Here’s one defining moment I can always remember is when I toured America in 1990. it was a three months tour in a black history play where I rapped and played Pelé.
The football player?
Yeah, that’s who I played. It was a play about black history highlighting all the great kings and queens of Africa, the great inventors, musicians… It had one scene which was called “the great debate” and I used to rap after that. It was a debate with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Marcus Garvey. They looked the part, they sounded the part, but they did it with current affairs. As soon as they finished that segment, I would come on and rap about black liberation and things like that. I never ever really took in the play, because I used to go to America anyway and hang out. Them times I used to go to America and hang out Flatbush Avenue, Queens, Brooklyn. That’s where my family is. I used to be up there listening to sounds like Love Injection and spar with people like Peter Metro, even Dominic. I buck up Dominic from England! I was just used to that type of life. I rolled with certain people. Do you remember a tune with Red Fox and Naturalee, “Down in Jamaica they got…”? That riddim is called “sick”, I’m sure it’s called “sick”. Well, I was rolling with them man and I was going studio with them man. So when I joined this play, I thought “wicked, it’s a paid holiday! I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna see all my bredrin!” I didn’t really take in the whole conscious message that was being portrayed through the play. But one night I sat down at the side, in the wings of the stage, and I listened – we had done a few shows already but I never took in what they said – so this time I actually sat down and I listened to what they said and it was so powerful. It was so moving, it was unreal! I’d say that is a defining moment in my life because I actually looked at the play differently.
So that was a big switch for you?
Yeah, especially about being professional. I had always rolled on sound system but it’s different when you’re in a big theatre production. It was the biggest play to ever leave England and tour. The message was powerful and it actually made me sit down and think and be a bit more conscious within myself. You always have consciousness, but not to the level when you’re actually getting knowledge and having an understanding of it. Nuff people will go around like they’re righteous and whatever but they still don’t understand isms and schisms! They’re still living some dutty life, they’re just fraudulent on the mic, really. I can actually see the world a little different now. I have an understanding, I have more belief in myself, in my culture. It brought pride to me and I looked at life different.
What sparked your interest in hip hop?
It’s funny, you know, a lot of my bredrin used to listen to hip hop back in the days but I’m just a reggae man. So I was like “yo man, we can spar” but… I used to go to Saxon and them man used to go places like Auditorium or this night up in Vauxhall, “Dance Wicked”, and jam to hip hop and all that. I used to go to shebeens, go listen Unity, Coxson, Saxon, all them sounds when they came over, Jammy’s, Black Scorpio, you name it. Nobody came over that I didn’t see at them times. All them artists, Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, Johnny P, Ninjaman… When Jammy’s came over, that was great! It was a great period, that music was strong! Anyway, then I saw a video with Kool Moe Dee that was called How ya like me now and I saw the gyals dancing and I was like “whoa, they ain’t got gyals like that in no reggae music video!” So I started looking at hip hop on that level and thought, whoa, that’s kind of bad. I liked how dem gyal dem looked. Next thing I know, I started to listen to the lyrics. I always liked Public Enemy, but I liked Flavor Flav. Flavor Flav was like a dancehall character. Back then dancehall had characters like Major Mackerel, Little Meeky and Daddy Meeky, … Reggae had characters. Looking at Flavor Flav made me listen to Chuck D, ’cause I really tuned into Don’t believe the hype and 911 is a joke. That’s the Public Enemy that I knew. So I started listening to the hip hop a little bit more… Through a likkle slackness is how I got into the hip hop.
Hip hop and reggae seem to often go hand in hand in the UK. Why is that?
The UK got such a strong West-Indian influence, especially at those times. You always had reggae. That’s why London Posse, Demon Boys, they always had that kind of bounce to it, they always had that kind of feel to it. Reggae and hip hop were just like brothers, so they went hand in hand. People spoke about social issues through both musics, it was a music of the people. We’ve kind of done it our way in England. Before hip hop, it was reggae and soul only. So when there was a party, the played reggae music, soul music and calypso. The first big hip hop tune to buss England was Planet Rock.
That was around 1982?
Something like that. I can remember that was just like “wow!” That was kind of mad. Anyway, we just took our influences which is reggae and soul and merged it together and it was hip hop. America wasn’t such a reggae orientated place. They had funk, blues and soul, they had that to work from and so they headed in their direction. We had the Caribbean…
I first heard you on a Roots Manuva record. How did you link up with him?
Roots is my bredrin from long time, from before the fame and all that. We met through Black Twang. Me and Roots always used to just work together. From back then. Back then, man used to just get together with this crew and that crew. That’s how I used to flex. That’s a dancehall ‘ting you know, you just work. Back in the day, you’d get an artist that would get to England and if there were three sounds in the dance, they’d work on all three sounds and make the night good for everybody.
Me and Roots, me and Black Twang, me and Karl Hinds, we have done nuff songs and that’s just from hanging out. When artists get together, what more are they gonna do? You get a beat, there’s two of you there, two pieces of paper, two pens. What more are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to have that energy. We’ve always worked together and it has always worked with me and Roots. For me, the energy and the connection on a bredrin level transpires through the music. We’ve just worked well together from tunes like Big Tings a Gwaan on the first album, The blacknificent Seven, all kind of ‘ting, we’ve done a track for DJ Mentat’s project…
It’s not planned. It happens. You pass each other in the corridor… “What are you up to?” “Cha, mi have something” “Alright, link me!” That kind of vibe.
I like that. To me, a lot of collaborations sound like the vocals have been recorded at different places and everything got put together in Pro Tools or whatever.
I hear you. I like to work personally. Even when I worked with Masta Ace, I didn’t do nothing until he came over. I said to him: “I don’t want no beats, don’t give me nothing. I’m not choosin’. When we get together, we choose it together and we choose the concept and we write together.” That’s how it’s got to be. I don’t want no preplanned ‘ting. You’ve got to feel that energy. If you’re working with a star, a legend, you want to have the full experience. It’s a personal thing. I can feed off that energy, I can feed off that positivity. Sometimes you’ve got to keep it real.
It always sounds a little daft when one says “keep it real.” However, when it comes to describing what I want to achieve with my work, I’d say the same. I take pictures of real people in real locations, no rented cars, none of that!
When me and Masta Ace shot a video, I was driving a Mazda MX-3 and they wanted to rent a Porsche. Why do you want to rent a Porsche and I don’t have a Porsche? It doesn’t make no sense to me. My car wasn’t a bad car and it wouldn’t have mattered even if it was a bruk down car. The track is called Hospitality and it’s about me showing him around England. It’s him talking about how he does it in America. This is how we do it, it is my car, man, just drive, we don’t need no Porsches…
If I made money tomorrow, loads of money, and if I was able to send my children to private school, get them some better education, and I’d be able to pay all my bills on time and I could drive a better car than I drive right now, If I could do all that, then I’d portray it in videos. I would do that. But I don’t live that life and so I can’t talk about that life. Sometimes you’ve got to be true to yourself. Certain things I’m not even bothered about, things that people I work with fuss about. I’m very happy that you can do that, because that’s what you can do. And I’m glad because I need people that think a little different than me as my attitude is a little laid back in certain respects. You have to be a little bit more aggressive at certain times. You’ve got to have good people around you that can help you. But as long as you’re true to them and cool to them, they understand you as a person, you understand them, then the ‘ting must function.
Different views really help to understand certain things. Honesty goes a long way.
Me and Serocee work like that in the studio. I want him to judge me, I want him to tell me “I’ve heard you do better!” That’s why I like to record with people in the studio. I don’t like when it’s quietness and just me and an engineer. Nah, because you need to perform on a track. And you need a few people around you to give you some energy so you can feed off the energy. You see a man saying “nah man, come again and do that better”, or you see a man licking a shot and you see a man feeling it, you know what I mean. That’s what you want! You want that kind of positivity.
I love to use this statement: “each to their own.” When I do my ‘ting, I do my ‘ting in my own way. How a next man do his ‘ting, he does his ‘ting in his way. It’s very simple. I respect everybody for what they do in their own way. It might not be for me but it’s your way. That’s the way you see life. I can’t knock you for seeing life. ‘Cause same way I don’t expect you telling me about my life in the worst way. If my beliefs are stupid, we can have a discourse. Common sense and logic and education and knowledge will make up your mind in a right way. But you can’t just write off people. For instance 279, a dj from Choice FM, he’s very honest. He’ll say “that’s not good, man! I’m not feeling that, I’m not playing that for you!” And I’m like “nuff respect!” I’ve had a good working relationship with 279 for many, many years. But he’s not just gonna play anything I give him. And it’s good to have man that tell me “Seanie, man, …” That’s cool, it might not be for you, it might be for somebody else. And then, maybe, I get a little inspiration, and I will do something to impress him. I want to do a track that he can feel, as a bredrin, as a person in the music industry. “This one’s for you!” Different things are for different people. You can please some people some of the time but not all the people all the way.
Some try – just listen to people like Sean Paul. I reckon it didn’t do them much good.
I do what I do and I hope that people enjoy it. That’s all I can really do. I’m pouring my thoughts and my emotions into what I do and I’m determined to make you have a good time. That’s what I’m here for, you understand? I’m here to give you something. You either take it or you leave it. But I’m always gonna try, because that’s what it is about. Regardless of how you feel, you’ve got a job to do. Perform! Perform! People might not even like it, but still perform! Try to win them over, try to get them on your side. That’s what you do, you’re an artist, man! Lift up the spirits of people, make them enjoy the evening. Whether there’s one person or one hundred people, you’ve still got to rock the house.
…I’ve been to plenty of shows where artists didn’t get much of a motivation out of a small crowd. They did what they had to do to get paid and that was that.
You know what, brother, there used to be a venue in Ilford where I live which was called The Island. It’s seen ’nuff acts, Shabba was up in there, Buju was up in there, it’s a big venue. Alton Ellis performed there one time and there must have been no more than 150 people, in a place that holds like 1800 to 2000 people! So you know how that must have looked. That was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to! He absolutely performed! He absolutely performed for about an hour and a half! To a venue of that size, to an empty crowd! But he still put on such a great performance. He did all the songs that I wanted to hear.
I’m so glad that I got a chance to see Alton Ellis. That must have been about a year before he died. Before he went to perform, he was standing backstage, looking old and tired. But as soon as he got on stage, something switched and he was so full of energy…
‘Cause he feeds off the people, feeds off the energy of the people, you know what I mean, brother? What he’s done for reggae music is incredible. You’ve got to realise, if there was no Alton Ellis, there was no Bob Marley. I heard this from Alton Ellis’ own mouth, I heard him talk about how Bob and them man used to come around to him as a youth. Man like him and John Holt… I got my tapes put away now, but I got three tapes from New York, 90 minutes, and two of them was just Alton Ellis playing acoustic and talking about his whole life story. He was having bare problems in his life with his women and he said that Coxsone (Studio1) used to love when he had problems. He’d say “Go studio!” And he knew that Alton was gonna put it all into a song, pour his heart out. Alton Ellis, him and Sugar Minott are my greatest artists! The greatest reggae singers! What they’ve done for reggae music is phenomenal. Sugar Minott was given the Studio1 library to do what he wanted to it. This stuff is all on that The Story of Studio1 dvd.
Tippa Irie told me that Alton Ellis was still performing around the time before he died because he most likely needed the money. To me that’s really sad. You’ve got somebody who’s done so much for the music and…
You’ve got to realise… Look how rich he was! It’s a shame he had to work so hard, it really is. But the love and respect, his legacy, there’s no price to it. Sometimes the monetary side of it, it means nothing! Nothing! And it means a lot as well, you know what I mean? I used to be like that, looking at all these struggling people and it used to get to me. But then I started looking at it not on a materialistic level, on a more realistic level, on a higher level.
As long as you’re good with your maker, you’re good. That’s the way I see it. I’m the kind of person that deals with life on a level of human beings. I treat people as people. One thing I always say is “ I don’t see colour until colour sees me.” A man is a man. A title doesn’t make you a greater man.
Everybody bleeds red…
That’s right, brother. So at the end I don’t conform to those kind of things. It gets me into a bit of trouble, it makes me kind of stubborn, but it’s because people think that because of a uniform or something it makes them a greater being than me. How can you be a greater being than me? That’s not down to you! That’s down to someone greater and higher than you! I can’t deal with people like that. That’s down to even a door bouncer. I had a gig last night and I was like “You’re overdoing your job! Why are you overdoing your job? I’m an artist, why are you trying to shake me down. Why are you trying to search? I haven’t got a problem if you’re searching me, it’s just your approach. You think that just because you’ve got that little security batch on your arm, you can deal with people in a certain way? We’re decent people! What’s wrong with you!”
I’ve had bouncers grab my balls while searching me at a bashment night in London.
They’re overdoing their job, man, they’re crossing a line, because they’ve got a bit of authority. You need to be able to do you job and be able to identify bad from good. Some have something on them that they shouldn’t have. You search them, nice and easy. If a man’s got a ‘ting on him and comes in the dance with it, you tell him, “I understand, bruv, but not in here tonight! If you’re bringing an attitude, you can’t come in this venue tonight. I’m not being horrible to you, you’re being horrible to yourself!” But a man thinks that he can’t reason with a man. A man thinks that he has to rough him up and prove something. You don’t have to prove nothing! Reason with the man! I’ve worked with youths and most of them youths just need somebody to reason with them and show them, because they don’t know. And if they don’t know, they’re gonna act in a certain way. Not everyone will respond to you but a lot of youths will respond, because they needed reasoning with. Talk to them as a human being! Just because you were in trouble some times, now you’re a problem in society? Nah!
That’s some real talk right there and we’ll finish the interview on that note to let the man get back to his work. Check him out on Facebook if this got you interested.