The suburbs of Ipswich aren’t exactly Trenchtown but they have produced YT. His latest album is called Born Inna Babylon, which couldn’t sound more classic Jamaican reggae, but dancehall star YT is in fact born in Ipswich.
The Suffolk town is not where you would expect to find the biggest thing in UK reggae, but YT – aka Mark Hull – is just the latest in a number of unlikely recent dancehall artists.
Like Italian dancehall hot property Alborosie, German reggae artist Gentleman and even Sheffield’s whizz kid producer Toddla T, he is inspired by Jamaican music rather than directly from it. Oh, and they’re all white too.
Taking the head-on approach to dealing with his colour – hence the name, YT says his affinity with reggae music and Jamaican culture dates back to when was a little kid.
“I grew up with Digital [drum and bass producer] and his dad ran a sound system and so I knew all the tunes from there”, he said.
Growing up on a diet of Saxon sound tapes and practising the lyrics of 1980’s UK veteran deejays such as Tippa Irie, Papa Levi, Asher Senator and Smiley Culture, as well as Jamaican artists like Papa San and Yellowman it gave the young Mark an education in reggae lyrics and how to flow over a beat.
Listening to all those veteran artists and sneaking into local dances and soundclashes, YT saw for himself how the reggae scene worked and appreciated the standard that you needed to have to take the microphone and not get booed off.
“That is really where I studied the lyrics and learnt how to tackle subjects and them times if you could chat lyrics from a Papa San or an Asher Senator song then that was real skills as they were some complicated lyrics! What they were talking about at that time really inspired me, the message of what they were saying – the whole life experience thing was deep and I had a lot to say on that level from my own life”
Word spread about this white kid who had some skills, and Ipswich soundsystem Ashanti invited him to take the mic when they played in London. He remembers being “rigid with fear” performing in front of a crowd for the first time, but delighted when the place went “proper mad”.
However his background meant he had to prove himself to sceptical new crowds. “No one ever really dissed me properly,” he insists, “apart from in a clash but you can’t take that seriously as that is what clashing is all about.
“The fact that I was white and I could still deliver the lyrics, gave me an edge because that got a reaction. Coming from Ipswich was hard, obviously. I mean to be a UK Reggae artist is hard enough, let alone an Ipswich reggae artist! But because I was with a soundsystem, I got links within the scene when I played out a lot in London.”
After performing at carnivals and early recordings at studios in Brixton, YT had decided that the best way to get his music out there was to produce it himself and he hooked up with another Ipswich producer, Nathaniel – known as NJC. Together they set up Sativa Records in 2003.
YT’s debut album, Straight Outta Britain, followed, including a string of hit singles including Wicked Act, a thought provoking account of 7/7 London bombings, and the dancehall chart topping England Story. The album won him the U.M.A. award for best UK Reggae Artist.
His follow-up, Born Inna Babylon, which includes collaborations with the legendary Daddy Freddy, dub icon Zion Train and UK hip hop star Skinnyman, has just been released. This week sees him visit Norwich for a guest spot at the latest Roots N Culture night at Norwich’s Po Na Na.
His aim is to bring UK reggae MCs up to a level with its grime and hip hop counterparts and reclaiming some of the glory for the UK reggae and dancehall scenes.
“It’s a shame that so many veteran UK reggae artists left reggae to do other projects in the early 90s – while all those other scenes gained a lot of talent reggae basically lost a lot,” he says. “Back in the late 80s all the rappers, grime MCs, drum and bass MCs from today would have been reggae deejay