During my years as a freelance band merchandiser, a swag company asked me to do the European leg of Guru’s Jazzmatazz tour, a groundbreaking musical experiment fusing hip-hop and jazz, played by key figures within each genre, including Gang Starr’s Guru, Donald Byrd and Roy Ayres. The two previous -swaggies’ had fallen foul of what was described as a ‘personality clash with the entourage’ and had come off worse during their disagreements. The tour was offered as a ‘no one else will do it’ scenario. Up until that point, I’d only worked with rock bands, so, brimming with zealous confidence, overly satisfi ed with my likeability, partial to a bit of hiphop and actually owning Gang Starr’s Daily Operations album (which still holds up as one of the best rap albums of all time), I took the gig.
On day one, joining the band in the lobby of London’s Embassy Hotel, this 5ft 6’ white boy with punk purple hair and a nose-ring came to realise that smoke means fire. My initial meeting with the band saw my confident swagger dissipate within three seconds, resident touring rapper Big Shug (pictured – 6ft 3’ tall and 4ft wide) choosing ‘You look like a bitch’ instead of ‘Hello’ as an opening salvo.
What followed was days of hair curling gang-life stories (never clean a gang member’s apartment without gloves!!) and tales of what happened to the likes of me back home in the -hood’, interspersed only by tales of what would happen to me in prison. A week in, the backline tech was sacked with drive-by finality in a hail of abuse for -sabotaging’ the music’. Being a drummer myself, the tour manager asked that I fill the void and perform drum tech duties, which brought me even closer to the band. Gulp!
Arriving at a French TV channel for a live broadcast, hours were spent perfecting the sound. Drums sorted, heart-rate slowing, brow mopped. Phew. However, when the broadcast went live minus Guru’s vocals, the kickoff between the producers and the band was nothing short of a mini riot. I stood my ground in front of the female backing singers in an unconvincing pseudo protective stance, bricking it. All hell broke loose, with monitors and chairs suddenly soaring through the air. Seeing a chance to get the girls out, we bolted for the door, knocking a security guard flying.
The tour manager subsequently spent hours calming heads and negotiating between all parties (the French constabulary in attendance) and getting back to the bus and out of France with a full complement of personnel was a miracle. Even more a divine intervention was the new attitude afforded me. My erstwhile tormentor, Big Shug acted like a personal bodyguard for the rest of the tour, saving me from a pasting in the depths of dark hip-hop clubs several times. Whenever I was challenged, Big Shug would loom up behind me with comic timing, saying ‘He’s with me’. It always took every ounce of my semblance not to say ‘yeah, muthafucka, step off ‘ instead of the English boy sarcasm of ‘that must be quite upsetting for you’. Yep, I was now a -G’!
I came to learn that all the abuse I’d endured was a test to see how much I would take: quite a lot, apparently! Further along the tour, I’d be trusted to retrieve a solid gold lion’s head chain worth $25,000, from Switzerland, a story for another time and an adventure to fear in itself. But as it was, I’d survived, and shot the breeze with both jazz and hip-hop legends to boot (meeting Donald Byrd was as enlightening as it was humbling). I even learnt to use the words -whack’ and -fly’ without so much as a hint of English white-boy self awareness.