The first thing that struck me when listening through the almost mythical, oft-revered but never released debut of Tony Rotten was how ‘now’ it sounded. Remastered though it is, the production and lyricism is on par with anything out today. I shit you not. Taipanic flips between braggadocio chest-thumping, stark social commentary, vivid storytelling and scathing political studies at will, over beats as fresh as a baby’s breath. And this is from ’96!
Allow me to digress. The year is 1995. Some friends from London brought down a tape of the latest music coming out of the smoke to us ‘behind folk’ down in Wales. A track called ‘Queens Head’ came on – an ode to the monarch-adorned paper we know as the Great British Pounds – and got every Welshman in the room asking “who in the blazes is this”? It was the second 12″ from Taipanic featuring none other than Rodney Smith (aka the now-legend-in-his-own-right Roots Manuva) and we mistakenly took them for a duo working under the Blak Twang banner.
Being that UK Hip hop back then was alot scarcer than this near-saturated day and age, hearing something of such an unusually high quality instantly got heads eager to hear more. Rumours circulated from London about the debut album in the works – “Dettwork South East” – which would be released the following year. The now-defunct Hip Hop Connection magazine covered Blak Twang in the publication over the coming months; Taipanic’s live shows were fast becoming as legendary as the soon-to-be-devoured material on the album – and the anticipation for the long player had now reached fever pitch.
For reasons unbeknownst to me at the time, the album was put back and back, until eventually it was shelved indefinitely (a common occurrence in those heady days of major labels and their inability to handle underground music or it’s audience).
Over the years there was talk about it maybe leaking via copies of the promo cassette or the test presses. Alas, it never saw the light of day (officially) and although Taipanic went on to release several albums afterwards under different monikers, one got the feeling none of them quite scraped the stratospheric heights that the unreleased debut promised to.
So here we are people. It’s now 2014 and Sony Music have decided to reissue the now beyond-legendary ‘Dettwork South East’, albeit remastered and including a bonus 2014 remix (more on that in a bit). And if you didn’t get an inkling from the opening paragraph: it’s really fucking good.
I was amazed to learn that Taipanic (alongside DJ Rumple) produced and engineered the album too. The beats are really nice, you can instantly tell the warmth lacking in a lot of today’s computer-grilled music is prevalent: that lovely sound of drums processed through an SP1200 (I’m assuming) and vocals mixed through a nice analogue desk onto tape reel.
The choice of samples is classic mid-90’s London too, with understated guitar twangs (excuse the pun) that seem lifted from blaxploitation soundtracks or soul records; subtle horns, pianos, xylophones and strings drifting through the mix – and of course the bass. Bass that to truly be appreciated should be heard on a bigger-than-gargantuan sound system.
There’s a hell of a lot of variation too. Some tracks have a smooth, cinematic feel. Others have a low-key, melancholic edge. Most have that irresistible headnod quality that conjures up images of South East London’s skyline on a smoggy night.
Taipanic is effortlessly on point throughout, showing true versatility as he bounces between a straight-up, blow-your-own-horn emceeing exhibition on the title track; introspective truths and the asking of political questions on ‘Fearless’ (“that inner city mentality / make you wanna fight when you step in my locality”) – to the lucid ghetto fables on ‘Heads And Tales’ and the graphic ‘Real Estate’.
To truly appreciate this album, you have to keep reminding yourself of how old it actually is. It’s testament to the quality of the work here that the weakest track on this reissue is actually the bonus number – ‘Dettwork London Revisited’ which also features Rodney P, Jehst and Sampson over Harry Love’s competent but ever-so-slightly-bland remix. Not a bad track, but – in context of the rest of the original work – it sounds like it was tacked on for the sake of having something new on board.
‘Tai Boxing’ is some straight-ahead, boastful, mic-flipping showpiece whilst ‘Entrepreneurs’ takes things down a notch with a vibe as smooth as Duncan Goodhew’s scalp (Google it), complete with a lush, female vocal sitting beautifully in the mix.
If you think I may be (ahem) sucking too much proverbial dick in this review, bare in mind I’ve been waiting to hear this album since 1996, so please consider that perhaps the rose-tinted specs may be making me all misty-eyed *sniff*.
All jokes aside, though: whether you got into UK hip hop way back in the day, during the Mark B & Blade resurgence in the 2000s, or you’re an avid follower of all things High Focus today – this is essential listening for all of you.
At the risk of gushing for the sake of being ‘old skool’, I can honestly say I surprised myself at how well the album stands up today. No one is a harsher critic than me when I’m in the comfort of my own home but I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album on repeat and it’s seriously made me rethink alot of modern UK Hip hop.
So do yourself a favour and grab this milestone release. It’s a history lesson for some and a course in reaffirmation for others.
For me? It’s been (nearly) worth the 18 year wait. Gold.
By Qred Klimaszewski