I've been having an affair of sorts with this town for a long time. I spent a few years making music with some heads here, and used to visit the place regularly. The city has a rich history of socialist ideology, which makes me warm to it. I once walked past a shop on Ecclesall Road and saw a book in the window called Sheffield Troublemakers. The cover was an old black and white photo depicting a mob of rabble-rousers, milling round a street as some firebrand poked holes in the air from halfway up a lamppost. This has become an enduring image for me- a romanticised vision of Lefty Sheffield, buoyed in no small part by my friendship with John McClure- a highly politicised local musician with a big gob and an even bigger heart.
We once borrowed some players from Arctic Monkeys and his group, Reverend and the Makers, to form a little zygote of a band called Mongrel. With Andy Nicholson on bass, Matt Helders on drums, Joe Moscow on a set of old analogue synths and myself on guitar, it sounded like British Hip-Hop fused with old G-Funk. This was before UK Rap blew up like it later did, and John felt there was so much under-appreciated talent in the British Hip Hop scene that we should make a record and get as many of them on it as possible. Though a host of rappers featured on the album -Mikill Payne, Skinnyman & Wretch, to name a few- the songs were mainly centred on McClure's voice and the highly politicised rap of a guy called Lowkey.
Real name Kareem Dennis, Lowkey is a remarkable individual of British and Iraqi decent. Utterly committed to his political views, his activism at the time crossed over with John and mine's, especially regarding Palestine. The result was that the Mongrel record went from being a musical experiment at its inception to a fiercely political beast by time of release. We were even invited by Hugo Chavez to appear on television in Venezuela. Touring the album Better Than Heavy was an experience I'll never forget. I'll also never forget the deafening cheer that went up for local hero Andy, when John introduced the band members when we played The Sheffield Plug. Another thing I admire about Sheffield- they look after their own here.
The Leadmill is a great gig. The backstage has a wall plastered with a load of old music magazine covers from the 80s: Melody Maker, Sounds etc. It's sad they aren't around anymore; the latter especially holds fascination for me since I saw Kurt Cobain wearing a Sounds t-shirt in an early photo shoot.
We played pretty well, a touch rusty perhaps after a short gap since Paris. It didn't matter though; the crowd were determined to make it an incredible evening. Every so often an audience shocks you with their reaction- Sheffield were just such an audience this first night back on the road, they went berserk from start to finish. The Steel City embracing some London Troublemakers, what?
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