DRS is a game-changing MC. His rare sense of artistry and honesty is breaking down the toxic masculine stereotypes often associated with mic men, all while also battling drug and alcohol addiction. We speak to the Manchester legend, ahead of the biggest solo shows of his life.
You mentioned your girlfriend had to help you connect with Zoom. Are you not a fan of modern technology?
I’m an old guy who does enough to get by in this technological world. I’m trying to be the cool hermit, but I’ve been drawn out.
So you’ve got to the stage where you are wanted for interviews, you have a big profile, but actually, you don’t really enjoy the notoriety that comes with it?
Yeah, exactly. The bother and the stress and all that, I’m not arsed with, like people knowing your face or whatever. I’d rather them know my song. I never get any hate. But I don’t like the bother on the street and all that kind of stuff. Because in Manchester, it happens quite a lot. Because it’s a tight-knit musical place and it’s usually when I’m at my worst, I’ll be throwing up in a doorway and people will be like ‘can I get a selfie?’ Nah mate!
So last week we had to postpone cause you were in A&E with a bust wrist. Why was that?
Skateboarding. In the last two years, I’ve got back on it. Music and skateboarding were my first loves. Basically, I was an alcoholic and drug addict at the time. So it was like a bit of madness. One day I woke up and thought what do I actually like to do? You know, like, rather than what do I do to get by or whatever. So I just started throwing myself at the board again. Every day, I get up early morning, go to this skate park for an hour and then set my day up – either painfully or positively with a big euphoric land.
The drug and alcohol abuse, was that just too much partying?
Basically. The alcohol was because of the anxiety of doing gigs. This is what I worked out afterwards. It was stage fright. I’d neck half a bottle of brandy before I went on, another half during, and then another bottle afterwards. So like, over a weekend, six bottles of brandy. It was starting to take its toll after 10 years or so.
What was it like to get off it?
There was no withdrawal or anything. It was like, the gigs stopped, obviously, at the beginning of lockdown, and that just kind of did it for me. There wasn’t a need for it anymore. That’s how I realised it was anxiety from gigs, because I realised I don’t even actually like drinking, it was just to be sociable and stuff. And obviously, since then, I’ve had to change my whole social structure. Like, how much I spend time in dangerous situations, where and with who, because I think as much as I know the trigger, I think, also, I’m human, so give me the right scenario and situation and I’ll be right back on the horse. So I’m just finding the parameters.
So you won’t have done a gig without drinking yet.
Yeah, I think I’m worried about vibe than having the drug and drink buffer. Because you use them as vibe crutches, you know, like if the vibe’s not there I’ll just get off my tits and make one, which is totally wrong but how I thought at the time. So yeah, I’m kind of apprehensive, but, you know, this is my job. And this is what I do. But also I’m honest with myself. And if it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen. I never say never. I’m human, and I’m weak. So, you know, the first gig I could be right back at it.
Almost guaranteed it will be the best gig you’ve ever done.
Yeah, but I think also, without it, I wouldn’t have got to the place where I am as an artist with my words. I feel like I’m at a divine place like I can come from both the light and dark, I can speak from both sides without being hypocritical.
Was it important to the creative process to be drunk or stoned or whatever it was?
I was doing like fucking coke, MDMA, valium, drinking lean [a cocktail of cough syrup, pain killers and soda]. I was just a mess, I couldn’t deal with a comedown so I would have lean, then something else to counter that. Just dumb shit. I think it’s just like the fear of going on stage and the crowd looking at you and stuff.
But I think I was born to write words down whether it’s a book or music or whatever. I think music, growing up in Manchester, you know, 1989, it was the fucking the catalyst for the world almost. It was glamorous. Being from Manchester, it’s always part of the story to be like, bang at it. Your older brothers or older mates did it. It’s just part of the story here. The gangland stuff and the drugs is part of the DNA of the city. It’s just so intricately folded into everything. You don’t even see it.
Will you still be as accepted as a clean artist?
That is something I think about. Half my crowd is youngsters that get on it. I tell them the full stories and they identify with it, then it’s olders who have done it and by telling my tales they live it again. But even now in my writing for new material that’s coming, I can feel my pen changing. I’m still speaking from the same point of view but I don’t want to be like Future who is teetotal but still raps about drugs and has got a whole generation of kids onto them.
And is that what gives the most recent album its title, Light Language?
It’s a spiritual thing, only radiating love and light. Real hippie stuff, but that’s really my stuff. I started at street level and getting into trouble and then got into music, then enlightenment and higher consciousness. That’s how I got here. So I feel now, not in a religious way, like I’m in a divine place. A new place, the cloud has gone and I’m speaking from clarity, not with the toxins in my body, but with spirituality there.
You have mentioned before dealing with frustrations in the d&b game.
Being an MC, there’s a lot of stigma which comes with it from the 90s, where it was 40 guys with hoods up, not letting tunes play and passing the mic around. I hate that too. It’s tainted the whole game. I’m a million miles away from that – I’ve done albums, I’ve had 400 tracks out over 25 years, but still, I was getting tarred with the same brush. You can’t earn more than this. You can have a number one album, it doesn’t matter. This is the benchmark.
So it wasn’t respected as an art form?
It still isn’t. The whole of d&b isn’t. Because it’s so close to the street. In dance music you have house and techno, which I love too, it’s all very clean cut. They’re in their nice garms and that. But they look at us like the shit on the shoe of dance music. And I’m fine with that. As the underdog, you just have to work harder.
But, say, rappers don’t get that same bad rep, they’re heralded.
Yeah and any grime or hip hop or whatever MC in this country, I will twist them up! I was a rap artist but then I heard breakbeats and it’s where my head was at. It is what it is. I’m not bitter. In Manchester, people I have put on have become millionaires and never looked back and gone ‘oh nice one.’ But that won’t stop me from putting the next kid on. I love music. And for as long as I love it, I’ll make it.
I hate to take it here but maybe MCing is too black for some people. Loads of street youts just talking about what they live, that scares people. Someone who came to see Calibre but DJ Hype is on before with 10 MCs, they’re like woah, it’s kinda what they’re into but not. But I talk about the same things but in a different way.
And every MC feels this way. I would stand on stage with a DJ who gets four grand. I get 700 quid. But the crowd have all come to see me. The DJ could be anybody. But I’m all about being a part of the scene and unity. I just wanted it to be slightly fairer for all of us. So that’s where this whole thing started where I was like right I’m not MCing anymore, I’m not doing it for that. I have 400 tunes, so they generate trickles of income, and I realised during lockdown I can get by on that.
But now having crossed paths with a new and understanding agent, you have full solo shows coming at Jazz Cafe and Monastery in Manchester. What will the show be like?
The Manchester ones will be with my band and an orchestra, and then the London one with the band. So yeah, it’s going to be loads of practicing and working out stuff. I want to make it into a proper live show because before when I did it, I was fucked so I was really awkward in-between tunes. With sets they all blend into one another so it never actually ends, but I released with live shows it was fucking falling apart. Now that people are giving me a chance to step up, I’ve got to come with the goods.
What generally is your writing process like for the album? Do you ever have reservations or any sort of barrier to putting things down on the page that you’re feeling? Do you worry about being open and honest, do you try and abstract it a bit or are you happy to be literal?
Yeah, just literally what comes out, it goes out. I spent more than the first half of my career worrying about being blokes and what people would say. I could sing but I never sang. I feel like I’ve been peeling layers off bit by bit. Living in Manny, shit goes on, like, I’ve lost a lot of people overnight. Like Marcus Intalex. I can’t remember what it was, maybe a breakup or someone passing, but it was like a lesson and from that, it was just like, I didn’t give a fuck. A lot of belief came from that, I decided to just do what I wanted to do. I get messages like people saying they were suicidal but they heard my music and it helped them through. So that’s the most important thing. I don’t really care about the music or the money.
So when you were trying to be the macho MC you thought everyone expected, how different was it?
I was still not writing like other people. I was still over here. I would write stuff about anger and say it in an aggressive way over a heavy beat, but when you listened to it, the lyrics were breaking it down instead of being so literal. I was still trying to be part of the gang but also me. But life and turmoil flipped a few times and it was just like, right, and I decided this is where I am. This is me.
I think what is crazy is you’re scared of doing this thing, but when you do it, every person identifies in some form with it. I’ll be in the airport or on the bus with headphones on and another MC will tap me on the shoulder and go ‘yeh bruv I really felt that,’ but it’ll never be shouted or celebrated. It’s not as extreme but it’s sort of like coming out. Showing emotion is labeled a certain way so you’re scared of doing it. But I’m blessed and I’m lucky that I feel like everyone accepts me.
I’m not here to be The One or the GOAT. I’m just making music that helps me, and I’ve realised that helps other people. If I can make you dance at the same time, then happy days, you know.
Looking back at the titles of your albums, you’ve hinted at how you felt all along – I Don’t Usually Like MCs. I guess people said that to you a lot?
Oh, yeah. You know, it’s like people who say, ‘I hate black people but you’re alright.’ I just looked at it like that, so it’s a slight satire, but at the time it used to hurt me.
So what is the reaction of people of colour to you as the honest, open MC you are now vs the macho guy from the past?
It’s mixed. It’s often people who have done all the mad shit and come through the other side that appreciate it more. But then I will get some super hood kid who was in prison and will say he was playing my shit. It’s mad. I spent a lot of time in my career wanting black fans. But that’s wrong. Music is universal. Now I feel like my music is for the person who needs to hear that right message.
I’m mixed race, so I’m half white, half black. So I’ve always had this kind of turmoil. I didn’t grow up in the hood. But there was a time I was seeking my heritage, I gravitated towards it as you would, but I grew up in a mostly white area. Before we got on the phone, I was listening to Pink Floyd. But then afterwards I might fling Dave on. So that’s why I think I’ve evolved to speak from a place of light for everyone. If I’m all militant black issues, then I’m not being true to myself, or vice versa. It’s a complex issue that’s so ingrained in culture, music and art and everything else. And as black people as well, you never really get to talk about it. It’s going on somewhere else, and you’re watching the world burn, but it’s good to speak about it, and I think it will happen more.
So do you think about your audience when you write, do you have to think, are they gonna understand these references?
I think my music rings a bell with anybody who’s either trying to change, who has changed or is in pain in some way. That’s my thing. It will either make you cry or smile. But it’s the truth. And that’s why I’m not bigger. People don’t want to deal with their feelings. A lot of my music will help you if you’re in the right place, but if you’re not, then I get that it can get you down.
Was it easier to be creative with more time to focus during the lockdown, or harder with fewer stimuli to work off?
Apart from the sobriety and stuff, I think it’s been pretty much the same. I get up at seven.
Yeah, well, that’s what I’m saying. Before I was sober I was getting up at four in the afternoon, you know, getting in fights with fucking cleaners, barricaded in there for hours, then not being in the right place to write.
But yeah, I love it now. I go and skate and then it’s work until my Mrs gets home. Lockdown sort of intensified it and just more gave me the time to be adamant and to stand my ground with this stuff. You can’t complain about something that you haven’t actually used 100% of your ability to change. And a lot of people in life, whatever game they’re in, they do that, you know, they’ll blame everything but themselves. No one likes to say they need help. And that’s the main thing. People need to realise you always need help.
So now it’s all about prepping the live shows.
Yeh, I’m working hard on it, but not putting too much pressure on it because that’s when you can’t enjoy it. I’m a realist. It could flop. But so be it. It’s better to be in a room full of people who love you who see you flop than a room full of people who don’t give a shit. Everything’s just a test. But there’s no exam. Life is about how you handle these things. If you handle it and turn it into some good energy, that’s all there is. Be good to people, and they will be good to you.
For more on DRS you can visit: