Search Menu
Home Latest News Menu

RIP MC Conrad: A peerless performer who became one with the music

MC Conrad is one of the most recognisable voices in drum 'n' bass who played a pioneering role in evolving the sound. Marcus Barnes pays tribute

  • 5 May 2024

Drum'n'bass pioneer MC Conrad died on April 31, aged 52. Family and friends of the MC Conrad, real name Conrad Thompson, confirmed the news in a series of tributes on social media, saluting the legacy of an artist who changed the game.

For over 30 years Conrad has been one of the foremost voices of rave culture, and drum ’n’ bass especially. As well as his pioneering MC style, Conrad also produced music and ran his own label, Resonance. Widely known for his unique blend of hip hop style flows and soulful singing, he was synonymous with the atmospheric realms of d'n'b, thanks largely to a long-running partnership with LTJ Bukem (a combo DJ Zinc labelled "as good as it gets"). Together they toured the globe, forming an iconic MC/DJ relationship that, for many, was a match made in heaven. Besides his musical talent, Conrad was a widely loved character in the d'n'b community thanks to his positive persona; always laughing and joking, friendly and kind.

Conrad first became involved with the rave scene in the very early '90s, developing his craft from its hip hop origins to adapt to the faster pace of electronic music. Inspired by his father’s record collection of ska, rocksteady, bluebeat and reggae, Conrad merged the influence of his Caribbean heritage with the hip hop and electro sounds that arrived in the UK in the mid-'80s. Among his key inspirations were the mighty Rakim and Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, which included Roxanne Shante, MC Shan, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, Biz Markie, Masta Ace and Craig G.

It was in the late '80s when Conrad began to feel UK hip hop wasn’t providing the opportunities it does to today’s generation of MCs and rappers. He found rave culture offered more potential for him to pursue his craft. Regular visits to London from his hometown Northampton got him more connected to the burgeoning scene, with legendary spots like Clink Street among those that provided his formative rave experiences.

One of his first appearances on stage was with Jumpin Jack Frost at the legendary Telepathy, held at Marshgate Lane. “I was tugging at the trousers of Evenson Allen (from Ratpack) saying ‘Let me have a go on the mic’ and he let me. He’d just done a Ratpack set and he’d crossed over to do Jumpin Jack Frost’s set,” he explained to Mixmag in a 2021 interview. “I did a kind of hip hoppy, high-tempo style, because Frost was playing a lot of Belgian techno, a lot of hardcore, a lot of early proto jungle - music that was in the 120s/130s. I did a few bars and that was interesting. It gave me the bug.”

His big break came when he “bum rushed the stage” and jumped onto an Ellis Dee set at Fantazia. The late Murray Beetson from Dreamscape was backstage, who saw everything. “I tried to get myself on Dreamscape 3 but Murray wasn't having it,” he quipped. He made it to Dreamscape 3 anyway, after helping set up the soundsystem, and after asking Murray again, Conrad got put on for Dreamscape 4 with LTJ Bukem. “The gig that carved the way forwards for me and Bukem was Dreamscape 4. We did the legendary 6:AM set. That Ellis Dee set, and Dreamscape 4 became the two tapes of that summer,” he recounted to Mixmag. “I remember walking through the car park at Fantazia Castle Donnington and all I could hear was those two tapes.”

It wasn’t long before Conrad made his way onto line-ups for many of the best known raves of that era, including Raindance, Dreamscape, Obsession, ESP and many more. Conrad’s hosting skills took him to the big stage alongside pioneers like DJ Trace (who first introduced Conrad to Bukem) and his long-term creative partner LTJ Bukem. Bukem’s incorporation of jazz into what became a more soulful, atmospheric incarnation of d'n'b was complemented perfectly by Conrad’s delivery. A consummate MC, Conrad’s ability to harmonise with the music and give it space to breathe, while injecting his persona and energy into Bukem’s sets, was a marvel to behold. As he noted himself, he would evolve with Bukem’s record box, and almost become one with the music; delivering impeccable vocals, whether it was structured verses or ad-libs that amplified the moment.

In 1994 Conrad joined Bukem and Fabio for a residency at their Speed night, held at London's Mars Bar. The residency was pivotal in establishing the atmospheric style of d'n'b, and also helped cement Conrad’s position as a seminal voice in the genre. Conrad worked tirelessly to elevate drum 'n' bass, as a label head and an advocate for vocalists’ rights. Initially, he worked with Bukem on the hugely influential Good Looking Records; established in 1991, the imprint helped popularise the atmospheric or "intelligent" drum 'n' bass sound with releases from Blame, Blu Mar Ten, Photek, Source Direct, Seba and more.

1998 saw the release of the first 'Progression Sessions' mix compilation, a series that became the soundtrack to the lives of countless fans around the world. From post-rave car journeys to home listening, 'Progression Sessions' has become iconic. His partnership with Bukem took him on tour all over the world, from Canada to Japan: fabric, Ministry of Sound, Coachella, Space in Ibiza and more; sharing the stage with Carl Cox, Snoop Dogg, Grandmaster Flash and Jeff Mills.

In terms of rights, Conrad has spoken about approaching PRS in an attempt to get royalties for his appearances on longer recordings. His desire to achieve fairness for the treatment and remuneration of MCs, for their work on recorded sets, led to him adopting a far more business-minded approach to his career. Commenting on his own experiences, he has highlighted the glass ceiling that rave MCs can encounter and advocated for MCs to build up their recorded works in order to have a sustainable career.

On that note, over the years, Conrad’s vocals have been the centrepiece of a number of classic drum ‘n’ bass releases. They include Adam F’s ‘F Jam’, featured on his album 'Colours', ‘Soul Patrol’ with Total Science, a classic vocal mix of ‘The Western’ by PFM and ‘Golden Girl’ with Makoto, which he co-produced. ‘Golden Girl’ epitomises Conrad’s songwriting, vulnerable and soulful, immediately resonating with listeners, while working in harmony with the rugged beats and bass, while ‘F Jam’ showcases his deft ability to utilise his hip hop flow with a drum ‘n’ bass tempo.

In 2020 Conrad established the first digital-first drum 'n' bass label Resonance, under the mission statement of platforming forward-thinking drum 'n' bass music. To date the label has seen 13 releases, including ‘Lean Upwards’ from Conrad himself, under his alias Con*Natural.

With over three decades of commitment to his craft, and the music he loves, MC Conrad’s legacy is imbued in the lives he touched, the sets he appeared on and the releases he was part of. Widely loved and a fervent advocate for vocalist’s rights, he was an iconic, pioneering artist who will be sorely missed by the d'n'b community, and electronic music as a whole.

In a tribute posted online, LTJ Bukem writes: "Connie was a Lyrical genius. I lost count of the amount of times I’d say — you need to write a book of poetry. His voice, rhymes and delivery were so unique from the first day I heard him MC and suggested to come on the road with me way back at the beginning of the ‘90s. I immediately loved how he was able to get his message across over the mic whilst still allowing the music to breath.

"That incredible energy, emotion and synergy we shared on thousands of stages together. That look we’d give each other when a tune hit us both.

"We literally then spent close to 24 years in each other’s pockets. I will forever cherish that time together."

Marcus Barnes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mixmag, follow him on Instagram

Next Page