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The Black Flag Meets SKA Hip-Hop Pioneers Swagga

Swagga are a five piece SKA/Hip-Hop fusion band from the Essex/London border. They’re the band that shouldn’t work, but for some strange reason manage to seamlessly meld two varstly...

Swagga are a five piece SKA/Hip-Hop fusion band from the Essex/London border. They’re the band that shouldn’t work, but for some strange reason manage to seamlessly meld two varstly different styles of music together in such a way that Swagga are accessible to everyone from Skinheads, Mods, Hip-Hop fans and of course Rude Boys.

For the last five years Swagga have been tearing up the uk SKA circuit and redifining the genre for the 21st Century. During their time the band have worked with everyone from The Aggrolites to Bad Manners, The Selector and The Beat, they’ve been played on XFM and even appeared on the News at Ten and London Tonight.

Lyrical genius Ray raps about everything from teenage pregnancies, to the Americanization of British culture, while treating us to the delights of old style two tone grooves, while sampling everything from Bugsy Malone to your dads favourite Desmond Decker EP’s.

The band consists of Ray Gudge (Vocals), Alberto Danelli (Guitar), Ian Richards (Horns), ‘Lucky Luke’ (Bass) and Jase AKA Flameboy (Drums & Samples).

Swagga are a great band and one that I’ve been very lucky to have worked with on more than one occasion. I’d definitely recommend you check them out, they play great music and their live shows are always amazing and packed full of energy!

The Black Flag was lucky enogh to catch up with Ray Gudge, front man, lyrical master and main geezer behind the band that is taking SKA to a new level and beyond.

WARNING: The following interview may contain traces of Rap…

Black Flag: So tell me a little bit about Swagga. What’s the bands background?

Ray Gudge: I’ve always been in bands going way back. I was in a SKA band years ago called Skaface, which was just me and my mates messing around really, it never really went anywhere, but that was where my interest in song writing started. And then I put another project together back in the nineties which was a poppy Hip-Hop type thing, there wasn’t a SKA influence to it. But we got signed to Polydor which helped developed my interest in song writing even more. Then I took some time out for a few years, not doing anything. And I decided to give it one more bash, but I couldn’t decide what sort of musical journey to go on.

I’ve always liked SKA since I was a kid, the Trojan stuff and Two-Tone and what not, but I tend to able to write Rap better than anything else. Which I think is because I’ve got a lot to say and I think you can get a lot more out of Rap. So I decided to fuse them together.

That was five years ago. It started out as a solo project initially and then I was offered a gig supporting the Selector, well a version of the Selector. And because I knew I was gonna be up against a band with real instruments I decided to get a brass section in. Then slowly other members joined over the years and it’s turned into what it is now, a full band.

BF: So are you still a five piece or has that changed?

RG: Yeah we’re still a five piece. Our drummer uses an electronic drum kit and a sampler. So we’ve still kept the dancey hip-hop element to it. I found that when I was trying other versions out where all the band was organic, it kind of lost the very thing that was different about it. There’s a lot of SKA bands out there, some are great, some are not so great and they’re all doing quite similar stuff and the whole thing about Swagga was that it had a different element to it, the samples, the Hip-Hop. In a couple of versions of the band, we lost that element but once we got the Drummer on board and the sampler it kind of facilitated that aspect of it.

BF: Yeah that’s what I like about you guys. You don’t sound like you’re standard SKA band. It’s an interesting fusion of two very different sounds that you wouldn’t normally think about putting together but it so works especially in your live act.

RG: Yeah that’s what people say. I suppose it was a happy accident really, it’s probably something that shouldn’t have worked. I went in to record the first song which was ‘Rude Boys’ and I wasn’t necessarily going to do any more SKA/Hip-Hop songs, I was going to just do whatever else come to me but it really worked and I just took it from there really.

BF: You’ve worked with most of the famous classic Two-Tone acts. How have they responded to your act?

RG: When we first started I would say amongst the kind of die-hard SKA community and with the bands themselves there was a little bit of suspicion, they didn’t take to it straight away, their minds were made up before they ever heard anything. As soon as they heard there was a SKA/Hip-Hop band on the circuit, a lot of people made judgements on that but we’ve pretty much won most of them over now. I used to say at the beginning of the night ‘the following set contains traces of Rap’ and we always used to get boo’s. But by the end of the set, I’d have 6’2 Skinheads come up and say ‘That was fucking blinding, I hold my hands up, I booed you at the beginning, I don’t usually listen to rap but I really enjoyed that blah blah blah.’ And I think it’s a lot like that with bands. The bigger the band, or more known band, you don’t usually speak to them anyway, or get to speak to them but some of the other ones like Nick Welsh from Skaville UK, really supported us, the same with Jennie Bellestar from the Bellestars, who’s still on the SKA circuit. And with Rhoda Daker, as well. They’ve been quite complementary in the past.

So yeah we’ve worked with all of them, the only one we haven’t worked with is Madness. They’re still right up there. I’d say the Specials as well but it’s actually Nevile Staples that’s doing all the Specials stuff, so I’ll add that to me CV.

BF: So what’s next in store for you guys?

RG: What’s next in store? Well we’re still writing stuff. With this latest line up that’s only been together for just under a year, what’s kinda happened, and its enjoyable for myself is that, I’m not a control freak or anything, but I used to do everything in the band and with various past line ups, without being disrespectful to those people, but they were just jobbing musicians, they didn’t really have any creative input or the desire to get too involved in that aspect. But the line-up that we have at the moment, everybody has some kind of song writing skills and it’s developing the sound. It’s nice for me now, because I felt under pressure before to come up with goods. So yeah we’re trying new material, getting out there gigging. We’re probably gonna try and go down the Publishing route…

BF: Really?

RG: Yeah as you know, trying to get a record deal these days is pretty impossible. But I think we’d get more interest from the publishing side of things. I’ve had a couple of bits of interest from publishers already.

BF: And it is a lot more possible now with the internet these days

RG: Yeah the internet has been both a blessing and a curse at the same time I guess. It’s never been easier for bands to do their own thing, you can represent yourself, get your website together, social networking and all the rest of it but to get the illusive record deal is nigh on impossible now. When I got the record deal before back in 94 with the other thing I was doing, I look back on that stuff now it makes me cringe, but we got the deal pretty easily really, but times change at the end of the day. So yeah we’re gonna see if we can get a publishing deal initially and just keep at it. As much as I’d like to have a bit of proper success with it, it’s just what I enjoy doing so as long as I enjoy writing song’s, I’ll carry on doing it. But yeah it would be nice to have a bit of success at it.

BF: Anything you wanna plug?

RG: Well obviously there’s the website and on there, if anyone’s interested in buying either of the two EP’s, there’s a six track EP and a three track EP. The six track one covers all of the older stuff, stuff like ‘All the Rude Boys’ and then there’s three songs on another EP, which were the first three written by the band as it is now, it’s a bit more organic sounding I’d guess you’d say. Plus we’ve got T-Shirts on there if anyone’s wants them.

You know we actually did a world cup song two years ago. It was for a competition, a global competition to write a world cup song. We actually finished in the top ten and we got some interest from record companies and we were on News at Ten and London tonight but unfortunately I’d approached the record companies too late. They were like this is a top ten single, if I’d approached them three months before they would have got it out. So I’m in the studio again soon remixing that song, it’s called the Victory Bus and I’m gonna add a different verse, because in the first one was talking about Africa, which was of course where the last World Cup was. So we’re gonna be putting that out in the summer when the Euro Cup is on and try to get back in with record companies.

BF: Ok our final question. How do you see the band in five years?

RG: Ahh that’s a really difficult question. If it was just a SKA band then it would be easier to answer. Because since I started this project it’s gone through so many different line ups and I’ve tried it out in so many different formats, on my own with a backing track, with DJs, with partly backing tracks, with partly instrumentals, with full bands. I’d like to think that the line-up we’ve got at the moment would carry on touring and get the success that I think we deserve. Its changed so much over the years that all I can say with assurance is that I’ll always be doing it. In five years time, I’ll still be doing it, what format it’s in I couldn’t tell you. As long as I still enjoy it, I’ll be doing it. I’d like to think we’d get a bit more recognition.

Bizarrely it seems to go over well in America, I think it’s because obviously kids are brought up listening to Hip-Hop over there, more so than over here, and SKA, well they never really got SKA the first two times, in the late sixties and late seventies, they got it ten years later. So it’s sort of less nostalgic shall we say. The college kids are all into their SKA and Hip-Hop as well, so we seem to get quite a lot of interest from America. If I was twenty years younger I’d jump on a plane and try my luck over there….

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