There aren't many rappers who were present during the inception of road rap who are still making music today, over a decade later.
So much has changed since that time, from listening to songs via CD or sending them to your friends via Bluetooth, to easily accessing music on YouTube or streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music. But it's not just the way we consume music that's changed: a lot of the artists have, too.
In 2019, the heavyweights of UK rap are the likes of MoStack, Nines, and Mist, but it's important to remember the people who built the foundations—the rappers who took the criticism, the hate, and persevered through. While Giggs is one such name, another is Hackney's own Margs, one of the founders of legendary rap group Mashtown, who recently made his official comeback with the success of his Pen Game challenges. Known for his raw, energetic delivery and his unique brand of reality rap, Margs just dropped his new project Untold Truth, and he is out to make his presence truly known.
Complex sat down with the rapper to discuss his start in music, his regrets, his view on how the scene has developed, and why his comeback is like a new beginning.
What initially made you want to rap?
I first got involved in music through one of my bredrins—one of the olders—because he started DJing. He would invite us to his house and tell us to spit while he was mixing, like grime and stuff. But a couple of the mandem caught wind of what we were doing and they made me start rapping because they didn't really like grime; there was a generation gap with the older ones. I think the way they looked at it was like: 'We don't really like this, but you sound good, so why don't you try something that we like?' So I said, "Cool, I'll give it a go." That's what I listened to as well: as much as the grime, I listened to hip-hop growing up. So I started rapping and it was different, it was fun, and it started get a good response. The feedback was mad.
Did you ever want to go back to grime, or was that it once you started rapping?
Nah, once I started rapping—that was it, and I ain't ever looked back. I couldn't even bring myself to do grime now. I've flirted with the idea, but I wouldn't even know how to do it. If I started spitting grime now, I reckon I'd sound like an MC that I like. I wouldn't sound like Margs. I don't know how to sound like me doing grime because it's not me.
Who were some of your favourite rappers growing up?
Biggie, DMX, Jay-Z, I liked the Outlawz—I used to listen to the Outlawz a lot. Yeah, the Outlawz were cold.
The interesting thing about you saying these guys is that you actually got to live through hearing them in their prime.
Yeah, it was mad... To be honest, though, all those classic songs probably weren't even in my time. In my time, what influenced me in music a lot was probably Jay-Z, Shyne, Prodigy, Lil Wayne, Hot Boys. Like, Lil Wayne wasn't even the best in the clique. To me, Juvenile and B.G were hard; Lil Wayne was sick, too, though. Biggie was already dead by them times, and I never appreciated people like Tupac until I got older. I had to go back and listen to him. I used to listen to the crew that he ran with a lot, the Outlawz, but I never used to listen to Tupac. I couldn't really get into him. Eminem was cold as well. These are people that I used to listen to and be inspired by.
Your name is synonymous with Mashtown. How did that first come about, musically?
"I couldn't walk into a house without someone having a Mashtown CD. It was weird, but it was dope."
Me and Chedz were together all the time spitting, and then Stealth and my cousin T-Mac—they were older than us—they used to rap as well. They always used to rap but they were doing their own thing. When I started getting a buzz, I told them: "Come, let's all start spitting together because you lot rap as well." Me and Chedz had made up the name 'Mashtown' in my hostel, or something like that. Like I said before, people I listened to—like the Hot Boys, Mobb Deep, Infamous Mobb—they were all in crews. So I guess, at the time, I just wanted to emulate that. I wanted to put a crew together, but not just a crew of random rappers—these were all mandem that I grew up with in the area where we all knew each other. We put out a mixtape and, over time, people would join.
Someone like Tricky, he's been in the hood my whole life; he wasn't even called Tricky, but everybody knew him. Everyone! And one day he came to us and was like, "You man, I've got some bars!" We were like, "Whatever, man." [Laughs] But he said: "Nah, next time you go studio, bring me. I'm really on stuff." So he came through to the studio, went in the booth and he laid a track called "Favourite Newcomers", which was the first time we'd ever heard him rap, and all of us were like: "What the fuck! This is dope." We were shocked because he was good, and there weren't a lot of people rapping at that time. There weren't a lot of people doing what we do, so for him to come through and actually be good as well, on a level, was mad.
What would you have done if he wasn't good? Would you have still let him in?
Nah, or maybe we would've given him like one feature and palmed him off [laughs]. There's a couple of the mandem who made the mixtapes back in the day with a couple of features here and there. but they didn't make the crew. So yeah, we probably would've palmed him off with one track but he was actually hard, he was dope, and he added something different. And after that: Asco. He's grown up around here, came out of jail and he was rapping, and he was cold.
Being as big as you were, going from being on the roads to everyone knowing who you are, how did that feel?
It's weird because I've always been popular, so I think after I went on Westwood and it was nationwide, stuff like walking down the street in Birmingham and someone going "Rah! Margs", my instant reaction was like "What? You know me?" But in the hood, I've always been popular. I've always been known. What was a bit surreal was seeing people playing my songs in their cars or hearing my voice on the radio. Like, everybody's house had a Mashtown CD—seriously, no joke. I'm talking everybody. It's like a generation thing: our age group, our kind of people, you go in a man's house they have Jay-Z's album and they have Mashtown's too. I couldn't walk into a house without someone having a Mashtown CD. It was weird, but it was dope. I try and explain to people, before I got big nationally, when I was only big in the borough, that's when I actually felt my biggest because I had everyone supporting me and that was mad.
Did you think you would still be rapping over ten years later?
When we first started rapping, we weren't doing it to be musicians—we had our own motivations. There was a lot going on at the time. We thought we were good, but there was a lot of politics at the time and the longevity wasn't there. Plus, at that time, I didn't even know if I'd even be alive in ten years' time. That was my mindset. I didn't think I'd be alive past 25; I thought I'd either be dead or in jail. I had loads of examples of that, with bare of my bredrins either dying or going to jail. Things have calmed down throughout the years but it was hectic back then. So, as a young youth, you don't think that far ahead; you're not thinking about life because everything's going at a hundred miles per hour.
Do you like how UK rap has changed and progressed over the years?
Nowadays, it's more of a business. I like it because it's got to somewhere. I've been rapping before there was a UK rap scene. I've been rapping since people were telling me, "Why are you rapping? No one wants to hear that." So to see it now, I can only be proud. It's dope to see where it's come from, and to know that we haven't even hit the ceiling yet. Think about it: every boy that blows up gets bigger than the last one. We're laying foundations. I've been hot on the roads; like me and Joe Blacks were buzzing, then Giggs comes and is hot and takes it to a next level, and then there's certain people that come through like Sneakbo. Sneakbo's buzz was crazy, through the kids in the schools and stuff like that, to where people like OG Niki can come and go viral—and it just goes on. J Hus, 67, it's just getting bigger and bigger.
Outside of your break, has there ever been a time where you felt like quitting completely?
Yeah, when I stopped I wasn't gonna come back. It's life. When you've got life to live, it's just too much. I felt like I wasn't seeing the benefits of being so bait and being so popular, and I wanted to not be bait anymore. I wanted to just be a normal person. People treat me like I'm somebody or like I'm famous, but I'm not. I see how other famous people live and certain opportunities they get that I've never had. I haven't got all the benefits of the lifestyle and the opportunities and the career that other people have, but I'm just as bait as them. It's not fair. I'm out in the streets walking around in my flip flops [laughs]. I need to be on the same pedestal as the rest of them! I need to be doing different things like what they're doing.
People always rate me but they don't want to elevate me. The other day, my friend was saying he supports me and I had to say to him: 'You support me morally, but you don't actually support me. You were one of the people that wanted me to start rapping again but you don't buy my singles or stream them or repost my stuff. Just because I'm your bredrin, you just take it for granted." Like, I need people to actually come through and start supporting me now, or it's just long and I'm not going to get anywhere. I've been popping before and people weren't trying to elevate me and take me out the streets, they just wanted me to be bait, well-known and popular, and that didn't work for me because it's just dangerous.
Expanding on that, is it fair to say you feel like you've never got the recognition you've deserved from the industry?
It's weird: I've had recognition from my peers and stuff, but not from the industry and people where it matters, where it's important, where people can push me where I need to go. They always overlook me and sidestep me. The rappers know I'm good, and the core UK hip-hop fans know I'm good, but you need to be spoken about in the right places to remain relevant. There's people that got involved in UK rap when Cashtastic and Sneakbo were popping and they think that they started it. They don't know it was to do with me, whereas if the people that were popping and relevant talk about me or give me the right opportunities in that light then you remain relevant. And it works both ways. I've done it before. I've done features with loads of people, and I'm saying when I've been HOT—like smoking hot, buzzing—I've done features with people and it puts others on a whole different platform, introduces them to a whole different audience. I know what I'm doing when I'm doing it but when the shoe is on the other foot, it's not reciprocated. People don't really want to share the love.
Why do you think that is?
I don't know, maybe I'm bad for business or something. I don't know. Like I said, there's people that are doing good for themselves now, that when they were on the come-up they asked me for music and videos and I gave it to them and did it, and now where I'm at now, I don't feel like I could ask them for a video. Or even a feature. I should be able to but I don't feel like I could and it's not to do with pride or anything like that. It's not until I'm flavour of the month that they would do it, so I've got to get myself hot again.
Would you even want to work with them at that point?
It depends. I'm grown, and I'm tryna chase a bag [laughs]. If it makes money, it makes sense. The game is fickle, though, and I've been the flavour of the month many times over. I've seen how people treat you when you're on and how they treat you when you're off. There's bare people who thought I lost it, who thought I shouldn't even bother rapping anymore—loads of people. They didn't think I could get back to a level of relevance.
Did you ever think that? Did you ever think if you started again you might not get back to the level you were at? Or did you think that you've done it once so you can do it again?
I just thought that if I keep going, it's impossible. Like, the music I have that I haven't even dropped yet, I just thought that if I keep dropping music, someone is going to have to notice. They can leave me in the corner to do what I'm doing but, eventually, seven songs, eight songs, nine songs, ten songs, someone is going to have to stand up and be like, "Wait there, what's my man doing over there?" People around me told me it's not gonna work but I was just like: "Cool. Let me just do what I'm doing and we'll see." People that like it, will like it, and whoever doesn't like it, doesn't like it. But I just want to build. I want to build my fanbase up again, because I do think that I'm lyrically dope. I've never had any confidence issues. It sounds conceited and crazy but I just think people are sleeping on me. Whether you think the recent stuff I've dropped is hard or not, I spit at a certain level. No matter what I do, if you like rap and bars, I tick off certain boxes every single time. So if you haven't noticed me before, it's because you're not switched on. I just have to do whatever I can to switch people on now. That's it. I have to keep on going.
How have you felt seeing the success of other rappers you worked with early on like Giggs and Ghetts, even the producer Steel Banglez?
Dope! Dope. Big up Banglez every time. You know when someone works hard and just grinds... Banglez phoned me one day, I didn't know him, but he phoned me and he said stuff to me about what his plans were for the future for himself, and said how he wants to work with me. We got together and made a mixtape called Margs On A Hype Ting, and he produced a lot of it, engineered it all for me—we worked together big on that; it's one of my best bodies of work. So when I see him and what he's doing now, when I'm riding around and I hear him on Capital Xtra—and not just one song, he's got about four or five different songs in the charts—I can only smile. I'm just happy to see a man living his dreams.
And even what Giggs is doing... You see someone like Giggs? For me to be disheartened, and people can say what they want—at one point, Giggs wasn't the flavour of the month. He wasn't. But he's always had a big following and a big fanbase. Always! So when he puts stuff out, it can get received a certain way because he has that big following. But there was a time when he wasn't hot, he wasn't buzzing, but he was still Giggs! He worked and got buzzing again; songs playing in clubs up and down the country, shutting the place down. He's jumping on tunes with these grime man and shutting it down. Big songs with Jme and Kano; he was in the wilderness and he came through, and that's because of hard work and talent and commitment to his craft. So if he can do it, I can do it. That's how I feel. I don't look at anything negatively, I take a positive from everything. And I'm happy for everyone. Whatever I'm doing or whatever I'm going through is my cross to bear, and I have to sort it out, but everyone else is their business. I can't take away from what someone else is doing because of what's going on with me. I don't look at life like that. These man are kicking down doors; the things that Giggs has done, they don't call him the Landlord for no reason. What he's done for this country, for UK rap, you have to pay homage. He's a father out here. You have to respect it.
You've had a lot of success of your own recently with the Pen Game challenges. Did you expect it to blow up the way it has?
Nah, the YouTube videos have gone mad! The songs are bigger than me now. I didn't know it was going to do this, how could I? I see man that can't even speak English spitting to the beats, and I just think that's crazy. It's done wonders for me, man. I didn't know how I was gonna become relevant again, but I feel like I've done it with these songs. When you talk about things that have happened in the year, in your yearly wrap up for UK rap in 2018, you have to mention this. For that alone I'm proud, and now it's just for me to keep going and drop my next bit of music because now people are looking to see what I'm going to do next.
Funny you should say that because next question is do you feel ready to capitalise off of the attention you're receiving?
I've been ready. I've been working, grinding. The whole of 2018 and 2017, I've been grinding; recording new music, shooting videos. But I was sitting on a lot of it. Even when I put out "Pen Game", I put it out because I was pissed about stuff that happened with the previous single and I felt like I wasted an opportunity because it was a good song that got put out wrong. Then the song started bubbling; the challenge got way bigger than the song, though. Even if you didn't know, if you cared enough to talk about it with your friends, in barbershops or whatever, I knew it would all tie back to me eventually. So now, when I put my next song out, people are more likely to check it out off the strength that the Pen Game challenges captivated them before so they'll give it a listen, whereas before they might not have paid attention. The marketing on that, it was genius. I'm a genius [laughs].
By your own admission, you're sort of like a new artist to a lot of people. What tracks would you suggest they go and listen to that captures the essence of Margs?
I'd suggest you listen to "Brand New Problem" first. That's actually Tricky's track but I feature on it. I actually did that track on Westwood as well, and people went crazy! There's some gems in there, and everybody who hears it seems to love it. So that one, definitely. The next one would be "LL Margs"; that's a dope one for the ladies, and probably one of my biggest songs to date. People call me LL because of it [laughs]. That’s my name now. It's an old song but girls love it—it's timeless, a classic. The third one would be "Hard Rock/Roll Call" to give a bit of everything, but choosing a third one is hard. I have loads of good music, it's just about me getting it out. I need to get my back catalogue on Spotify so people can see what I'm really about.
Being a Hackney legend, who in Hackney are you feeling right now?
There's bare man in Hackney doing their thing. Shouts out the whole of Hackney. Not3s is from Hackney, he's popping. 23 [Unknown] is from Hackney. SNE, he just dropped a new tune the other day. He's cold; he's got flavours and style. The mandem are doing their ting, too: Kaos, Zanco, Spades is coming back. There's bare man. The borough is popping right now.
I have to ask you about your relationship with Wiley. How did you guys first meet, and how did your bond get so strong?
I can't remember how we first met; I remember he phoned me out of the blue and I bucked him at Morpheus' studio, randomly. He just got my number from somewhere and reached out and he was mad cool, and said that we should get some work done. At the time, he was building this collective called A-List that he had and he asked me for some verses. So yeah, we started rocking, and I was kind of part of the collective. It was weird because it wasn't like a group—I was still with Mashtown—but it was like a mad little group of creatives. It was fun, man. We travelled the country, we made some stuff, and Wiley was just someone that I looked up to musically. He got me more focused and more into studio culture.
What's he like in the studio and what sort of time are we talking about here?
Like '09/'10 times, and there's hella weed and he's a quick writer. He just loves the studio, he loves being in the studio. Everyday he's in the studio! His body doesn't feel right if he hasn't been studio [laughs]. Sometimes he doesn't even have to do anything, but he just likes being there. And he got me into that. I like going studio now; I'm like a proper little studio rat. Before I was more focused on road than studio, but Wiley got me used to working and being in the studio. He would get onto me to record and work and drop stuff. Even just seeing how he worked his own albums and projects was an experience. And yeah, we just got closer, and like I said, we travelled the country together: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool. There was just a good energy at the time.
Tell me about your latest project, Untold Truth. What was the creative process like for this one, and what are your hopes for it?
The creative process was simple; once I decided I was gonna release a project, I spent as much time in the studio as I could and just got to work. This is what I do! My hopes for Untold Truth was to just put out a project that's a good representation of the music I like, my rap style, and who I am.
As someone who's been there from the early beginnings of this UK rap/road rap scene, if you could go back, what advice you give your younger self?
My younger self was a savage! He did everything right. The only thing I'd tell my younger self is don't stop. I should've persevered through. It's easier said than done, but I should've kept going. But it's my fault because I dropped a couple of tunes and got good feedback because, even when I dropped "All On Me", that was live and buzzing and people were onto me but I didn't have anything to follow it up with. You know when you just flirt with something, when you wanna know if you've still got it type of thing? It was like that. So yeah, I'd tell myself not to stop pursuing a career... But don't worry, I won't be stopping again. I haven't even started yet.