Matic Mouth: “I hate politics, but I believe I am a person who speaks up if I see something wrong”
Last month, Exposed linked up with artists Otis Mensah and Matic Mouth for a feature we called ‘Right Up Your Street’. In a city which has grown synonymous with guitar bands, the aim was to shine a light on an often underrepresented side of the local music scene: musicians excelling across grime, hip-hop, soul and jazz genres combined with those working behind-the-scenes to help cultivate such talent.
Rapping in a broad Sheffield accent and tackling issues ranging from political corruption to the dangers of social media, Matic Mouth – real name Marcus Smith – has become something of a statesman for the scene, frequently championing upcoming artists and cementing his own reputation via solo releases, working with hip-hop collective Clubs & Spades and opening stages for the likes of Public Enemy and Akala.
We meet in the Riverside pub on the release date for his album 2095: Posthuman, a record which sees the rapper at his visceral best, combining wit and poignancy in equal measure over 12 tracks aided by crunching bass and commanding production. He’s been cleaning out the attic today and has a 2005 copy of hip-hop magazine XXL in his hands to show for it, one of many he devoured while honing his trade – taking the original US influences from across the pond and infusing them with a distinctly northern flavour.
“Truth be told, I’m a bit jealous that I was a bit too young to get involved in the whole grime wave because it was ours to start with,” he says. “Hip-hop came over to us and we kind of latched onto it.”
Can you remember when you first fell in love with hip-hop?
It was probably from something as simple as being passed a tape when I was young. I’m Sheffield through and through: born-and bred around the corner in Upperthorpe, and this area was my stomping ground as a teenager. I went to Notre Dame because I think my mum wanted to separate my home friends from my school friends.
Notre Dame’s a melting pot in itself though. It has a bit of a posh reputation, but since it’s a faith school there’s a wide catchment area spanning the city.
Yeah, but this whole city’s a melting pot, isn’t it? There have been a few well-known people who’ve come from that school over the years – Jon McClure and Joe Carnall for example. But going there helped in exposing me to so much more; I had friends from home and then school friends coming from places like Oughtibridge and Stocksbridge. My whole genre of music just came about from being exposed to different things, different friends, different people. This love just grew and grew until the point where I knew I wanted to be a rapper. I’d write American rappers’ lyrics on the back of my textbook and know every album I had off by heart. Still, though, I wasn’t rapping myself. Friends from back home would try and persuade me to do it, but I wouldn’t because there weren’t many UK rappers back then.
When did that change for you?
When I first listened to Biggie Smalls. He made the hairs stand up on my arms and I wanted to be able to do that to somebody else. Right there and then I made my decision – I needed to be a rapper.
My whole genre of music just came about from being exposed to different things, different friends, different people.
At lot of MCs these days first got involved by getting together with friends and rapping over beats from their phones. Was it the same for you?
No, I got my first phone just as I left school. I didn’t really start writing lyrics until the summer holidays after leaving. Secondary school is such a judgemental place, so I think I was worried about doing it while there. At the same time, my older friends were exposing me to more music and one of them set up a studio in the living room. I didn’t know how to use anything, but the curiosity and intrigue was there. Over that summer it just kind of evolved.
Can you remember your first recording?
Yeah, I distinctly remember thinking: ‘Er, that sounds horrible.’ My name was Butcher Berserk, so just the name alone is bad enough, but I can’t really remember what the rhyme was.
How did the next step into performing come about?
We had a brilliant local youth club called The Hill. There was a basic computer studio there, and as time progressed some of the older kids invited me to get involved. Learning the basics with the computer, microphone and soundproofing was really important. Anybody who knows me from that time in my life will tell you how important that youth club was for me.
It’s a hugely relevant issue today. There are fewer and fewer of those spaces available for kids these days.
Honestly, it’s because of that place that I’m not in jail and avoided slipping into things like drug addiction or alcoholism. I mean, we can slag off kids for sitting inside on their phones and iPads, but what do you want them to do? I’d always be telling my little brother to get outside and play, and one day he turned around and said, “What do you actually want me to do? Stand on a corner?”
They can’t win either, because if you do have big groups of kids outside on street corners it instantly draws suspicion. It’s catch-22.
It is catch-22 and hopefully with the thriving creative industry in the UK it’ll get better. It really has developed in recent years and I’m glad that city kids have a tiny bit of an angle – whether it’s through music, video, gaming, photography. All of that is more accessible now. It’s not just a rich man’s game, which it has been for so many years, but that’s not to say that good youth clubs aren’t still important.
You can’t replace the social interaction aspect, can you?
At a young age I was doing arts, crafts and day trips, but then when I got older we’d go out canoeing, windsurfing, abseiling – all sorts. Each trip cost a pound. I’ll probably never do those things again, but I got to experience it through a youth club.
A lot of local MCs found a bit of commercial success during the noughties by getting involved in the bassline scene up here. Were you never tempted by that?
No, not just to ride a trend. I have a hip-hop head, I’m an ignorant purist. Maybe I’ve sometimes shot myself in the foot with it, but it wasn’t really me. I was more about building my craft, working on my skills and being honest – that’s what I’ve done with this album.
It’s very much a record of its time. ‘17 Likes’ deals with dark side of social media and the damage constantly seeking approval can have on mental health. It’s such a relevant subject, but not one many rappers take on. Maybe because social media use is key to them selling their records?
I’ve been trying to write that song for a while. Kids get everything through a filter these days – literally. We have these words, like and share, and they’ve taken on completely new meanings in terms of human behaviour. I tried to look at that song through both a male and female perspective because it’s very easy to say “boys do this and girls do that”, but it’s two sides of the same coin – behaviours feeding each other.
You’ve written party tunes before, but there are a lot of important themes and messages on this album. Was that a conscious thing?
I’m not a political rapper. I hate politics, but I believe I am a person who speaks up if I see something that’s wrong. I’m not the biggest artist in the world but I still have a platform, and if I can change 50 people’s opinions on something then I’ve done a good thing. I probably will carry on in this vein because I feel comfortable being here. I’m not interested in talking about girls or weed or whatever, and hopefully that opens it up to so many more listeners. I’m past caring about money and the charts; just tell me I’ve made a good piece of work and I can live with that.
I guess there’s only so far someone can go with rapping about postcodes. As an artist, you’re constantly looking for something deeper?
Some kids might want to listen to that now, but they won’t want to listen when they’re 25. They will grow out of that stuff. I don’t want to be this boring political rapper, so I’m trying to pick my topics and keep them light-hearted. I don’t want them all to be really serious; I still want the little moments of humour. Moments of hope, too. So, it’s kind of like deciding what kind of artist you want to be. Do you want to ride a trend or ride it to the end?