How the serial version excursionist helped the veteran UK duo finally make the album they've always wanted to make
In 1991 The Ragga Twins released their debut album Reggae Owes Me Money. It wasn't an ironic or humorous title: after investing 10 years of soundsystem graft and deejay craft with London's Unity Sound, they felt they weren't getting the studio breaks they saw contemporaries such as Tippa Irie or Papa Levi enjoying. So on New Year's Day, 1990, they'd walked away from the culture feeling dejected and poorly treated.
They weren't even a double act back then. Up to that point, brothers Trevor and David Destouche – better known in the dance as Flinty Badman and Deman Rocker – had both been working as solo artists. It was a chance encounter with fellow Hackney legend Smiley from Shut Up & Dance that led them into one of the longest standing partnerships in rave culture.
One of the most versatile, too - no other MCs have touched as many genres as successfully and distinctively as The Ragga Twins. From their staple drum & bass and breaks to dubstep, techno, house and hip-hop, they've stayed consistently relevant, stamping their bubbly, harmonic chats over every current sound you could shake a mic at.
In fact, other than the occasional reggae set booking (which is how they met Wrongtom), original dub, dancehall and reggae are some of the only dance sounds that Flinty and Deman haven't had the opportunity to explore for years. Besides the odd rootsy joint on their only major-released album, 1995's Rinsin Lyrics, their musical roots have remained uncharted since they left Unity in 1990. Until now.
Since the mid-00s, Tom Robinson - better known in the dance as Wrongtom - has developed a reputation for bringing the sunshine skank out of MCs who work in other (but related) musical genres. What began as a remix album with Roots Manuva entitled Duppy Writer in 2010 has now developed into a series called Wrongtom Meets. In 2012 he teamed up with all-rounder MC Deemas J and gave him the reggae treatment. This week, he's following it up with The Ragga Twins.
Entitled In Time and coming your way via Tru Thoughts, the album has been three years in the making, it's home to lyrics Deman and Flinty wrote back in the early 80s and has developed a life and unicity of its own. In fact, it's the most personal and deepest album The Ragga Twins have made since Reggae Owes Me Money.
26 years later and payback is served. Here are 10 things you need to know about the situation…
1. The Ragga Twins’ very first bars were laid down in church many years ago…
Flinty: "Our very first public performances were indeed in church - we were both altar boys. There were quite a few of us doing it and we’d all get our chance every couple of weeks. It was a big congregation and we did readings. That must have helped us talking to a crowd. It took the shyness out of it."
Deman: "Mum was very religious and made sure we went to church. One day the vicar asked if we could do it and she said, ‘Yes they can’ without even asking us. It’s all part of growing up and becoming a man. It was an important part of our upbringing."
Flinty: "Saying that, we both got out of it as quick as we could by playing football on Sundays..."
2. In Time is the album they've always dreamed of making
Flinty: "Definitely. That was how it was done back in the day. The deejay would go on the soundsystem and freestyle. If it's a vibe then they develop that lyric and you want to put it out to the people. Every week you get the response - to put it on plastic was the next level. We just never got to that level back then."
Deman: "This is the album I've wanted to do since the 80s, no question. It's great, it takes us back in time but doing it the way we do things now. Ragga Twins wasn't meant to be a duo, you see. When we were on Unity Sound we were solo acts. Then we went to Shut Up And Dance to do our thing, but they say we'd be better off as a double act. SUAD have come up with a lot of great things, trust me, but this was perhaps their greatest achievement, getting us together as an act.
"Look at us - 27 years together as the Ragga Twins and it keeps getting better! When I was 40 I said to friends, ‘I don't think we'll be doing this by the time we're 50,' but how wrong could I be!? We're only just writing the album we've dreamed of now!"
3. Back in 1990, Flinty and Deman thought this would never happen…
Flinty: "Unity Soundsystem had a label and we really wanted our tunes to come on the Unity label. We stayed loyal to Unity for too long. We'd even turn down requests to voice things for other labels. The geezer who ran Unity was getting tracks from Jammy with requests for Unity deejays to voice them but he didn't do it, he just made dead tunes with his brother."
Deman: "I'll never forget the day we left Unity. We were in a club called Shinolas in Hackney. New Year's Day, 1990. I said to Flinty, ‘We're out of the 80s, we're not doing this no more. We're not going anywhere, we're not being respected. We're not being brought into the studio.' I'm a musician, I want my stuff to be out there for the people, on plastic and in the shops. There wasn't enough opportunity. I remember we played against Coxsone, and one of those guys told me if I was on their system I'd be in the studio every week! It was an easy decision to leave Unity and seek new opportunities. It was essential we left..."
Flinty: "We wanted to show Unity what they could have had. That's why we had that energy and enthusiasm to make it work with Reggae Owes Me Money. And everything we done since. Back when we started as Ragga Twins it had to work… otherwise people would say, ‘Well, if reggae owes you money why did you leave in the first place?'.
4. Ragga Twins have been on Wrongtom's wishlist for years
Tom: "I've been a huge fan of Ragga Twins! I played Reggae Owes Me Money to death... I had to buy another copy! I was in touch with the Ragga Twins before Deemas J's In East London record was even out in 2012. The general idea of the series, since Duppy Writer, has been to get artists who have reggae in their backbone, but aren't actually known for it - who are more known for an offshoot of reggae.
"The original plan was also to do these albums a lot quicker! I wanted to work them in the mode of old 80s dancehall records. You'd see Frankie Paul who's gone in and done eight or nine tracks in a day and they're knocked out. It's not rushed, the energy is there. So I planned to do these every six to nine months."
5. The album took years to make, too...
Tom: "They were up for it but it took another year to link up with them. They're so busy! I've learned over the years than when you work with legends, you have to work with them. There's no give or take - you get opportunities and you seize them!"
Flinty: "We got together to do the album in 2014, we picked out what was what and a lot of it was done in one take. Then the next session was 2015. We did seven songs back-to-back, bam bam bam. We had the lyrics in our hands and our heads and they came flowing one after the other. It was easy - reggae's slower to what we do now so there was a lot of space and time to do our thing. It doesn't take long to slip into the reggae vibe. We do the odd reggae show and were doing reggae sets with Wrongtom long before the album."
6. Ragga Twins met Tom for the first time on stage
Deman: "First time we played with him, he was DJing and we'd been booked to MC. We didn't even know him. But you develop a rapport over the shows and we could see we this thing going on. That don't happen with every DJ we play with! It's a strange experience going on stage with a DJ or a band you don't know. It happens less and less these years because we've worked with so many people, but with Tom he was new to us, he played a great set and played things we could adapt to and share lyrics to."
7. They've already had a full nine-piece live band...
Tom: "We've kinda gone backwards. We started with just a DJ set with some rhythms, a few classics. I let them do their thing. Slowly as we were doing more shows I commandeered a young reggae group called the Mighty Leap and sent them tracks to learn. We teamed up and started doing it as a live unit with a nine-piece band."
Deman: "The first time we met the band we'd never seen them. They were strangers to us. We didn't know how it would go. The first lyric we did was The More We Are Together and that went down such a treat with the band and the audience. I can't say how special that is - it's an original lyric I built it in 1983!"
8. In fact, In Time is home to some of their oldest lyrics…
Tom: "I'll never forget seeing Deman pull out an old school rucksack-type bag and leaf through some really old tatty pages, stand there reading through them and going up to the mic and singing this stuff he'd kept since the 80s."
Deman: "They were just left in my cupboard. I never knew I'd bring them out again, if I'm honest. I'd bring some of the ones I remembered when we do a reggae dance but I'd never brought the old satchel out before and the folder was falling apart."
9. There's some beautiful mutual respect between Tom and the Twins
Tom: "A lot of people say 'Don't meet your heroes', but I've met mine and it's great! But you do have to maintain that relationship and respect by not delving too deep into their lives and psyches - the guys are very guarded, and I don't want to rock the boat. So I haven't asked them what they think of the rhythms, for instance. I've just assumed they approve of them because they've worked on them."
Flinty: "Tom understands the sound and culture. He's a talented musician man. These riddims are as authentic to where we came from as you can get."
Deman: "He makes good music! He's a down-to-earth breddah, he works hard and we click. If he didn't think it was worth working with us he'd have stopped a long time ago. It's great he's wanted to work with us."
10. This could be the start of something...
Deman: "My favourite lyrics from the old days aren't even on this album, so who knows? You might even get another album like this."
Flinty: "It would be great to follow this up. Maybe our own record, maybe with Wrongtom? I love what Tom has done for us. It's brought us back our youth days. Lyrics that remind you of people you don't see now. Loads of memories. Loads of lyrics I don't even remember!"
Tom: "I'd love to do more with them! I know we'll be doing shows and hopefully getting the band back onboard later this year. I love how, tonally and thematically, they can complement what's happening in the music, yet at the same time they're the constant and it's the music that changes around them. There are no other MCs who do it in this way."
Words: Dave Jenkins
In Time is out now on Tru Thoughts