WHP FEATURE 18
we’ve done it there about 5 times now, and they still don’t understand exactly what we’re doing- but they like it. They do mad shit…”
Check out any of the videos of a Tonga Balloon Gang floating around online, and you’re confronted with visions of jubilant chaos. The DJ/MC collective, made up of ex-Streets frontman Mike Skinner, Mancunian producer/singer/mastermind Murkage Dave, and a nebulous grab bag of MCs and party starters that make up the extended Murkage family, have been touting their rambunctious, rules-free rave around the UK and Europe for the last couple of years. The results- especially for those fans unschooled in Tonga’s unruly mix of rough basslines and road anthems- have been eye opening to say the least.
“We play in Berlin, and that’s really quite mad, because no one really knows ‘what to do’,” muses Skinner over the phone. “We’re literally wheeling up every tune and shouting. We’re almost trolling the audience…. There’s quite a lot of trolling with Tonga. Anyway, we’ve done it there about 5 times now, and they still don’t understand exactly what we’re doing- but they like it. They do mad shit…”
This mad shit comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from people getting overly sexy on the dancefloor (“fornicating” is how Skinner puts it), to a near constant state of stage invasion that renders the boundary between crowd and DJs meaningless. At Tonga parties, the normal DJ booth etiquette is chucked out the window – and it turns out this isn’t an accident but an article of faith
“Anyone can go anywhere,” Skinner confirms. “Dave’s this mad socialist guy, with this open booth policy. It terrified me the first time I saw it. You just think, what the hell is gonna happen? I’m used to people jumping up on stage, having a bit of a dance, then a massive security guy coming on stage and throwing them back into the moshpit. That’s my experience, but with Murkage, they’re just surrounded by people and they don’t care.”
To most DJs -let’s get real, to almost all DJs- this would sound like a recipe for disaster. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the majority of big name performers would rather be stationed in a luxury booth elevated a good 30 foot above the dancefloor rather than suffer constant tune requests, endless selfies, and the risk of having a wild punter chuck a pint over the decks. But, according to Skinner, the crowd, given freedom, don’t exploit it.
“What happens is they self-regulate. You get people who want to stand up there, but they don’t want drunk people fucking around. It doesn’t get rowdy, it gets kind of calm in a way; ultimately the group doesn’t want the party to stop. The decks never get touched, it’s amazing. If you invite two drunk people to get onstage, they’re going to be the two drunkest people in the venue- they’re going to be the only ones willing to get up there, so in that situation your decks might get pushed over. But if everyone’s allowed up there, it’s the complete opposite. At the periphery you get the wild people, but they get pushed out, because if the decks go over the parties done and you’ve wasted 5 quid or whatever.”
“I never wanted to really grow up too much – for someone who’s been associated with being some sort of urban beat geezer garage poet, I’m actually not into ‘clever’ music at all.”
He does concede that venues aren’t always on the same page (“we have a lot of ‘talk’ with security everywhere we go” is the deadpan response), but there doesn’t seem to be any chance of the Tonga Gang changing their format – Skinner’s pleasure in the parties evident, and he attributes being out DJing in the centre of all this craziness as the driving factor in his reigniting production career.
“I wasn’t happy with the sound of my music production for a while. For a few years I didn’t really like anything I did. But now I’ve been DJing an awful lot, making stuff and playing it every day. DJing, really, it’s kind of selfish in a way – I’m getting more out of it, as a producer it’s about being in nightclubs every weekend; you just pick up music. It keeps you young musically. There’s that fear, that you just become that guy banging on about the Stone Roses. But now we’ve just released CCTV, we’re really happy with that, and that was only a month ago, so it all begins here. Now I want to try and release a tune a month.”
On CCTV, Skinner’s re-enagagement with what’s popping off in the clubs is palpable. His early success with The Streets was down to a particularly British mix of UK Garage rhythms and introspective vocals that drew on the tradition of sort-of-rapping punks such as Ian Dury. CCTV, however, whilst still unmistakably British sounding, is less concerned with offering melancholic lyrical insights and more concerned with kicking off a party. With a chorus built from heavily autotuned afrobeats vocals, and bass hits straight from the school of Pulse X, the track is an overt attempt to make something that can set a party off.
“My tastes have become a lot more ‘ignorant’,” Skinner laughs, “which is good I think. They’re a lot more base – I don’t mean base as in ‘bassline’, I mean base as in; if it shells it’s good.” [‘Shelling’ being a bashment term for tracks that generate crazy hype on the floor-] “I never wanted to really grow up too much – for someone who’s been associated with being some sort of urban beat geezer garage poet, I’m actually not into ‘clever’ music at all.”
This is slightly disingenuous. Whilst Skinner may be wary of the ‘urban poet’ tag he had stuck to him for years, and whilst he may not be into music that beats you over the head with its intelligence, he clearly considers what he’s going to do more than someone who was just cranking out tracks without a thought. And it turns out that the Tonga family have settled on a plan; the current scheme is to explicitly champion MCs from around the country.
“People talk to me about stuff I did 15 years ago every day,” he sighs “I feel a bit like Macaulay Culkin…”
“We’ve really found our direction, the Tonga Balloon Gang stuff is gonna be MC led, and we’re keeping it regional. The next one after CCTV is with guys from Manchester called Burst Gang. I’m kinda gutted that [Liverpudlian] Tremz has blown up, cos he was the next one on my list, but he’s a megastar now. We did a thing in Nottingham with Mez, I’ve got a great relationship with Jaykae and Mayhem and Dapz and all those guys in Birmingham… It’s been really fun. Dave and that lot really made their name in Manchester, and we’ve all got connections to the North, so it feels right to fuck around with that, and make it our thing. Plus, personally for me it gives me some sort of redemption for leaving my ends. I’m safe with a lot of London, but a lot of them are megastars, and with Tonga we wanted to do something a bit different. Regional accents are the exciting thing now.”
Whilst Skinner is happy to hype up those around him (he regularly expresses his admiration for the production chops of DJ Q and Murkage Dave), he’s not so happy to big himself up, and anyone coming to a Tonga party expecting to hear him performing cuts from The Streets back catalogue verbatim is going to be disappointed. “I play remixes of my tracks, I don’t play the actual versions,” he says. “It’s weird cos I’m not there to sing, but the remixes are quite fun to play.”
The thought of playing his own old records sets him off on a typically self-deprecating tangent;
“I know this fashion DJ who does a lot of runway shows and stuff. She did something involving Jay-Z and put together this playlist of amazing hip hop – and the guys showed up and one of them said, ‘why the fuck aren’t you playing Jay-Z? Jay-Z’s here, you need to be playing Jay-Z!’ That’s the difference between our country and America. If I went to a club and they played my tune I’d tell them to turn it off. The American’s would see it as a slur if the DJ didn’t play your record. But I mean, how would you feel if your voice started echoing around the nightclub? It’s weird!”
This shying away from the bizarre trappings of celebrity is indicative of his desire to move on from The Streets, a part of his life that was done and dusted in 2011. It’s doubtful there’s going to be a nostalgic track for track live performance of Original Pirate Material any time soon. The Mike Skinner who was a tabloid staple in the 00s is gone, replaced by someone who is keen to get back to making music for the underground without the drama of award shows and gossip columns. But no matter how much he wants to move on, the world doesn’t always let him.
“People talk to me about stuff I did 15 years ago every day,” he sighs “I feel a bit like Macaulay Culkin…” This is quickly replaced by pragmatism;
”The upside is I don’t have to do a job like everyone else. I just have to have people come up to me and talk about Has It Come To This all the time. I know which one I’d chose..!”
And then he has to go, off to meet Murkage in studio, off to craft more of the bangers that are making them – and the Tonga faithful – so very happy.