The Inside Story of the Best Jungle Labels You've Probably Never Heard Of
In conversation with Mark X and Noise Factory's James Stephens.
Kemet and 3rd Party Records are the greatest ragga jungle labels you've probably never heard of. The imprints were run by two old friends; Mark Ranger (aka Mark X) and James Stephens, (better known as one third of Noise Factory, along with Kevin Mulqueen and Terry Tee). From 1993 to 1995 Mark and James shared studios and produced banger after banger, peerless tracks with Afrocentric titles that fused jungle and conscious reggae into chaotic, chest rattling explosions of bass and breaks, pioneering countless rave innovations along the way. Mixing reggae sub bass with screeching techno synths? Pulling samples from pop tunes and laying them over ultra hard breaks? Splicing half speed ragga chat with double time tempos? Writing actual songs over 160 BPM tracks? Kemet and 3rd Party were doing all of that, and often long before their peers.
Up until now the Kemet and 3rd Party back catalogues have never been officially reissued—unsurprisingly, they go for stupid money on Discogs—but that's set to change. Mark and James have put together a new website, kemet3rdparty.com where they have resurrected both labels, and digitised and remastered their classics. THUMP met with the two men to hear the story of their music, born from resistance and love.
THUMP: So 3rd Party came into existence before Kemet, right? How did it start up?
James Stephens: 3rd Party was me breaking out to do my own thing–before the rave scene I was making reggae, I did some dubplates for Unity Soundsystem, for Quadrophonic sound. We're originally from Tottenham but I ended up in Hackney. This was in my naughty boy days, I was around 20 and I'd just come out of prison, and part of the bail conditions were that I had to leave Tottenham. With us it was either selling drugs or making music—music was a way out.
Mark Ranger: We were the first generation of blacks that were born in the UK after our parents came from Jamaica, so we were still being accepted in society—soul boys, teddy boys, all of these people used to give us a lot of racism. We didn't really have time to have our own thoughts, our thoughts were governed by the situation we found ourselves in. We weren't getting much work, we weren't getting much love, what else was there but the streets? That's why a lot of us went down that road. It looked like trouble but really it was a survival thing.
How did you buy your first kit?
James: Back in the day we were doing our little street thing, and making our money. I didn't want to continue doing those bad things, I wanted to do something legit, something legal, so I put my money into buying equipment. The first thing I bought was a little bass machine, a Roland 303. I had a friend who played keyboard who had a drum machine. I had bass, he had drums so we linked up. The first thing we bought in the 3rd Party days was an Akai 950.
So did you write some of your reggae dubplates on the 303?
James: Yeah, I've still got some on tape.
Mark: Proper clash business!
James: I did stuff for Coxsone, and Saxon got dubs from me.
And Kemet had an in house studio as well?
Mark: I've always had studios round me from my brothers and my father. My father had a soundsystem, one of the first soundsystems in England in fact. By the time he moved to Jamaica it was called Sky Ark, before that it was Sky Hawk. I grew up in a soundsystem environment —you know how it is with Jamaicans the only way we know how to release our tension is music and making love. That's why we've got so many children. It's not like I'm saying it's one big party, but if you take it back, the drums and the bass and the rhythm were a form of expression for us. Music followed us all over.
So how did you and James link up?
Mark: Me and James met while at Northumberland Park School. When we left school, he went off to do his thing, I did mine, and we met back up through music. My elder brother, Dan Man, had a studio but he was doing more reggae music, soul music. I heard the jungle music, the faster beat and though, "that's wicked." My uncle's daughter has a son by MC Ribbz and Ribbz knew these producers called Red Skins who could put that fast beat on Dan Man's tracks. They came in, and worked on "Don't Worry", the first release on Kemet. When you first hear the tune it sounds like a reggae, then the jungle slides in. I liked it, so I said "do another one." We had a vision.
And you started off with the name Kemet, can you tell us a little about that?
Mark: When I ended up in prison after the Broadwater Farm riots —I was living in Broad Water, I was on the news and everything— I started to study more black history, ancient Kemet, ancient Egypt. How we were respected and had done many wonderful things. So I was looking at Kemet in relation to bigger things, bigger messages, and thinking: we can do it! We don't have to stay down! We don't have to thief! We don't have to rob! We can look at proper role models and elevate ourselves. I became conscious. On the first release I put out on Kemet, I was Mark Ranger, but after coming out of prison and meeting the Nation of Islam, I thought yeah, Malcolm X; Mark X, it's not bad. Mark X came about through the Nation of Islam.
And James, you were putting out Noise Factory releases on 3rd Party at the time?
James: Yeah I was putting out stuff on 3rd Party when me and Mark reconnected.
I think of Noise Factory tunes at the time as having crazy samples in there, like Fleetwood Mac...
Mark: Yeah, or (singing "Rock Around the Clock") "one two three o'clock, four o'clock rock..."
James: Yeah and I did "In The Air Tonight."
I didn't know that was you!
James: Yeah it was a white label. Funnily enough it went to Belgium and, at the time, Michael Jackson and Madonna were in the charts, and we still went to number one. I couldn't believe it! But we couldn't release it here because of the sample from Phil Collins, so we just put it on a white.
Tell me about the first release James did on Kemet
Mark: Talking Breaks was the name James used for his first Kemet release. He did the tunes "Don't Throw Your Life Away" and "Truth". On "Truth" he sampled Louis Farakhan saying "you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." "Don't Throw Your Life Away" was our first collaboration.
And it was around this time that Noise Factory bought out "I Bring You The Future", which is such a milestone in music. Did people get it at the time?
James: Straight away. It blew their minds a little bit. That tune was literally done in 15 minutes. On our Noise Factory EPs there were always 3 tunes and a Breakage track that was one of the other tunes without any of the samples on, just the drums. "Future" was a breakage track, but DJs took it and played it to death. They loved it.
Were you listening to any Detroit techno? It's the only comparable thing I can think of from that time.
James: I was. I went through the 1989 rave scene – I stopped listening to reggae cos I'm not into the slackness reggae, all the talk about punnani and that, and I had a friend who was going, "come to one of these acid raves man," and I was like, "Nah I'm not into that," but I went, and for me it was more about the vibe. I'd never been a place where there was black and white people raving together. I ended up listening to a lot of Detroit techno then. But I'd add to that, I've got to bring in Paul Ibiza. At the time when me and Paul started making the jungle stuff, we were listening to a lot of the Belgian stuff, Joey Beltram all that stuff, and we'd be like, "boy, we love all the noise, but it ain't got that sub bass," the bass we were used to listening to on soundsystems. So that's what made us say, let's make a tune with some sub in it. That was the "Box Base" tune. And because Paul was playing all the big raves at the time he had a platform to test it out, and they loved that sub bass, along with those top noises.
I love the artwork on the label, particularly the picture of the Egyptian guy outside the pyramid – who did that?
Mark: (laughing) I did that.
James: That picture's supposed to be me —we had bald heads back then. Funnily enough a guy got that tattooed that on his arm and he sent us a photo saying "look what I done!" I was like, "oh my God!"
Mark: But you know, we're so humbled and thanful that anyone would choose to use our logo."
Can you tell me about the vocals on the Repatriation EP from David Thomas and Simpleton? They're like full reggae songs which was pretty rare at the time..
Mark: The way the scene was at the time, it wasn't based around full vocals, it was little snippets to make it hype, but we were working with full vocals from the start. The vocals for this EP, I went to Jamaica and brought back the full a capellas, so they weren't samples, they're proper vocals. My father had a soundsystem out there, so I was going out there, telling the singers, do this, and then bringing back the vocals. At the time we were still learning time stretching, so if you listen they go off rhythm sometimes.
How many records were you pressing?
Mark: Sometimes it'd be a couple of thousand, sometimes it'd be just 500. They're all limited and we never did more than a couple of thousand pressings. We had a little fight from the industry back in the day, some of the distributors weren't pushing us quite as much as they could. Kemet was ahead of it's time, so people didn't understand us. We had people in France and Canada loving our tunes, we put some tunes out in Japan that we didn't release here.
So you're coming back. What can people get from the new Kemet website?
Mark: We're gonna start with Kemet3rdParty.com. We want the traffic to come to us so we can sell tunes at a better price. We've also got a couple of books coming out. I've written two books, one called I Don't Believe, and the other is The Blueprint: The World Without Money. Most of the problems we have in society are based around money—the system doesn't work. Money is put before everything, people are willing to kill to get money, to survive. I've put together a blueprint, but t's not like a conspiracy thing hitting out against anyone, I'm just saying the system doesn't work and putting out some ideas to change it, talking about shared ownership. Money makes classism, elite groups and a majority of poor people. People are getting pushed far behind, and I wanted to show how the world could be if he had a different system in place, a world of shared knowledge, shared everything. The book I Don't Believe is about religion or rather how religion is used as a control tool. Religion is used as a negative to divide people. I don't believe God believes in separatism so I wanted to say I don't believe in hell, or that God would be happy that people would use religion as a badge of honour, or to justify their wars. The two books are about trying to bring about a better society.
You're not doing it by halves eh?
Mark: Trust me, when you read them you'll see. I'm not pointing fingers at people, I'm talking about institutions
And what about the Kemet back catalogue?
Mark: We've remastered them, and they're all gonna be there ready to download, as well as our new tunes.
James: The jungle dub we're coming with is really reggae orientated. It's got the jungle but it's a bit slower —cos we're older— it's got more chops in it, it's reggae.
Mark: The way we've designed the music now, it'll fit in reggae, it'll fit in jungle, dubstep, it's more vocal orientated, it's not so much Amen, now everyone can listen.