4hero

It’s kind of impossible to overstate how integral 4hero’s work is to the UK underground. In fact, in many ways the journey of West London friends Mark “Marc Mac” Clair & Denis “Dego” McFarlane IS the story of the evolution of some of the UK’s core sounds. 

The duo cut their musical teeth in the reggae and rare groove soundsystems, pirate radio and the UK hip hop explosion of the mid 1980s. This latter is an often underreported scene, but was at the time huge and produced some major talents — Shut Up and Dance, DJ Hype, Criminal Minds and Rebel MC (later Congo Natty) to name just a few.

With friends Gus Lawrence and Ian Bardouille, Marc Mac was involved in founding the Strong Island FM pirate station. Lawrence was already beat making for the hip hop scene, and in 1988 the trio worked together making jingles for the station. By the time Dego joined them in the studio, in 1989, the UK was in the full throes of the rave explosion. The quartet founded the Reinforced label, but 4Hero became just Marc and Dego. For their first EP release in 1990, they fused hardcore hip hop, huge reggae soundsystem derived bass, riffs and voices sampled from house and techno, and became instrumental to the birth of breakbeat hardcore.

That first EP gained a cult following, but the second featured the huge rave anthem “Mr Kirk’s Nightmare,” which crystallised the “dark” aesthetic that was rising in the scene. With its big riffs and bleeps it dovetailed with the contemporary and specifically British techno of LFO and 808 State, but also looked to the future. From here on in, solo and together, the duo were consistently one step ahead as breaks accelerated through hardcore and into what would become jungle and drum’n’bass. It becomes incredibly dizzying: their multiple aliases could be one or both of the duo at any given time, and they were hectically signing and working with many other artists, most notably on very early works by Goldie in his Rufige Kru and Metalheadz guises. 

They made dark, crawling rave, some of the most intensely euphoric piano hardcore tunes of the era, and made the breakbeat science of jungle ever more sophisticated, leading up to their Parallel Universe album and work on Goldie’s Timeless, both in 1995. At the same time they were making disco-sampling house and garage on their Partners Inc sublabel — which was mocked up with shrink-wrap and an NYC phone number to look like a US import, although Dego’s production alias here “Crunchy Nut Cornflakes” kind of gave away their Britishness. They were also rapidly building links to Detroit’s Black techno producers, which would create lifelong links — from their Nu Era alias through gigging with Underground Resistance in the late 90s to Dego’s regular work with Theo Parrish today. Even with all that, they still had time to knock out the odd UK hip hop classic too, and were starting to work in their small studio complex in Dollis Hill on recording “real” soul musicians and even string sections.

That meant that when major labels came knocking, keyed up by the hype around drum’n’bass in 95-96, the duo was ready to deliver something altogether more ambitious. Signing to Mercury via Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud imprint, in 1998 they produced Two Pages: one of the grandest statements ever to emerge from UK Black music or club culture. With an international cast, it spans everything from Rotary Connection soul-jazz to fearsome techstep, taking in electro, acid, 80s boogie, beat poetry, rap and a dozen more sounds besides. Meanwhile the broken beat scene, centred in their native West London, was kicking off too, and Marc, Dego and Reinforced became crucial players there as well. 

The incendiary level of innovation that they maintained through the early to mid 90s inevitably died off a bit, but their commitment to quality never has. There were only two other 4Hero albums as such — 2001’s Creating Patterns with cameos by Jill Scott, Roy Ayers and Terry Callier, and 2006’s Play With the Changes — but both have worked and collaborated frequently. Marc has done everything from world class hip hop soul as Visioneers through reviving Manix for hardcore rave and Nu Era for deep techno – while Dego’s post-broken beat work has created a seemingly never ending flood of music incorporating all his previous influences, and he’s not shy of occasionally revisiting rave and drum’n’bass either. 

Reinforced, too, remains a going concern, leaning now to reissues and putting out unreleased past material — though occasionally surprising with new tracks from jungle scene veterans on the Enforcers picture disc series which has been running sporadically since 1992. 4Hero as a specific musical project may be on hiatus, but the do-it-yourself attitude and sense of continuity that has underpinned their work for over three decades continues in their wider work.

Blow the Circuit cover

One of the most pernicious narratives about jungle and drum’n’bass, which set in early, is the habit of dividing the “intelligent” stuff from the supposedly edgier dancehall influenced side — and worse, casting the former as less authentic and creatively valid. Of course, the entire catalogue of Reinforced records gives the lie to that idea, and never more so than on the releases by Cold Misson, a lesser known alias of 4Hero. Over a trio of EPs through 1994 and into ’95, compiled on this 2010 album, they stripped jungle to a breakbeat skeleton, displaying its rhythmic sophistication, letting soul-jazz and Detroit techno chords float through — yet this was just as tough and in tune with dancehall sensibilities as any more obvious tear-out track of the time.

Hero cover

Saxophonist, composer and arranger Chris Bowden has had a circuitous - and sometimes troubled - route in music, from working on the fringes of the Acid Jazz scene and playing for Basement Jaxx, to writing his own sprawling symphony-like pieces that could veer from Weather Report to Mingus to Debussy in a few bars. But some of his very finest work was with 4Hero. His arrangements are part of what make their Two Pages album the monumental statement it is, the strings shimmering in the space between avant-garde and popular culture where Bernard Hermann and Charles Stepney meet. Stranger still is the single EP that he made as an equal collaboration with 4Hero in 1997: just two long tracks, “Hero” and “Lullaby” on vinyl with the extra five minutes of “Greedy” on a CD release. It has production and beat programming to match the most futurist experiments of the likes of Photek, yet sounds entirely “organic”. Its keening vocals have a sense of Radiohead at their most rarefied, and even foreshadow James Blake's work a decade plus later. Though Bowden’s strings and 4Hero’s rhythms are instantly recognisable, the alchemy between them creates something else again - three songs that all have a similar, almost unbearably sad and lovely, mood, but sound like nothing else before or since.

Jacob's Optical Stairway cover

This could be Marc Mac and Dego’s most complete jungle / drum’n’bass album as such. Where 4Hero’s Parallel Universe had been made in a period of untold innovation and was pushing occasionally too hard against the constraints of technology, this — two years later — was the sound of the musicians having achieved absolute mastery over it. All the Detroit techno and deep soul influences are here, but now the jungle breaks cascade with total conviction, and the aquatic and cosmic atmospheres are all encompassing. This is Sun Ra, it’s Drexciya, it exists in a mythical time and space, but it is totally London 1996 at the same time.

The Negative Positive cover

For someone who’s been producing and releasing for 31 years, 4Hero’s Dego sounds extraordinarily creatively hungry on this record. Most of his 21st century output has broadly been in the broken beat spectrum — incorporating 80s boogie, latin and dancehall syncopation, and techno funk production values — and that’s certainly the case here. There are laid back grooves here (the mystical soul of “Recovered Memories” with Samii’s rich vocal harmonies), and classic mid tempo party starters (“This is a Message to You” with Nadine Charles commanding you to get up and pay attention in a p-funk / early hip hop style). But throughout, the crispness of the sound fizzes with appreciation of technology. And the opening salvo of “Stained With the Tears on Their Faces” with its Chicago footwork jitter and “Is it the Whole Truth” which fuses liquid piano soloing with the digital rhythms with uncanny precision make a bold statement that this isn’t someone just relying on influences: it’s a record bubbling with newness.

Hipology cover

4Hero’s Marc Mac originally started his Visioneers project with a series of 7” singles in the early-mid 00s to pay tribute to his favourite hip hop producers — he name checked particularly Jazzy Jeff, Jay Dee (aka J Dilla) and Pete Rock — by reverse engineering what they did and using live musicians to create the kind of grooves they sampled. By the time Visioneers reached album number two in 2012, this already personal project had become a kind of exploration of the groove — with the Hipology blog digging into the connections between jazz, funk, hip hop and jungle, and the album of the same name purifying a laid back groove style that still kicks on a club soundsystem. Some of it literally remakes past tracks (“Apache - Battle Dub”), some recreates classic psychedelic soul (“Shine” with the gospel tones of Jimetta Rose), and there’s some golden age hip hop with MCs Baron and T.R.A.C. on “Back in Time.” It’s so unabashed in its love for its source material, though, it doesn’t feel like a museum piece: this project, like hip hop sampling, is about finding what still has immediate value in the here and now.

Anachronistic cover

Tek 9 is Dego from 4Hero - originally his solo guise for rave and jungle, in the late 90s it took a turn to downtempo / trip hop beats. Sonar Circle is Dominic “Domu” Stanton, a mainstay of 4Hero’s Reinforced label and the London broken beat scene. Stuck in their respective homes during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020, while others made introspective “lockdown ambient” they went the other way and revisited their rave roots with some hyperspeed excursions. But there’s nothing retro about this - though “Anachronistic” is often wrongly used to mean old-fashioned, the word really means “out of time”. This is rave music for the age of Sherelle, not for the 90s: it uses jungle’s complex breakbeats as its starting point but uses the crispest digital production and brings in Chicagoan footworking, zippy techno keeping it living and vivid the whole way through.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is? cover

Sometimes you may wonder if Dennis “Dego” Macfarlane ever stepped outside a studio in the 1990s. In 1994, right at the point that he was becoming one of the defining producers of jungle with 4Hero, Tek 9 and his work with Goldie, he also found time to co-produce (with Mysterious K and London Posse’s DJ Bizznizz) and play keyboards and bass on this low-key UK hip hop classic. The mixdown might not be quite up there with what Pete Rock and DJ Premier were up to across the Atlantic at the time, but the sample choices, beat editing and integration of live instruments pretty much is. And the guest MC verses show exactly the kind of confident, cheeky London charm you’d expect from a record with track titles like “Hippy Skippy, Footshaking, Toe Tapping London New Buck Streetdance (Check How Me Gwarn Check How Me Stay!)”, too.

Lord & Dego 2 cover

The broken beat (or “bruk”) scene, in which 4 Hero’s Dego and Bugz In The Attic’s Matt Lord were key players, is often seen as forbiddingly complicated. And certainly some releases can have fiendish chords and rhythms designed to trip up all but the most expert dancers and DJs. However, it is still dance music, and above all else is built around funk. And that’s rarely clearer than in Lord & Dego’s two albums to date in the 2020s on Dego’s 2000Black label. The music here is futurist, it’s sophisticated, it’s got the sublimated dancehall and jazz undercurrents that “bruk” requires — but ultimately this is gorgeously smooth disco and funk, the grooves steady, and the pleasure principle right up front.

Two Pages cover

In the second half of the 1990s DJ Gilles Peterson signed a series of albums to his Talkin’ Loud imprint for Mercury which used modern dance culture as a Trojan horse to bring the deeper, older values of soul, jazz and funk — “grown folks’ music” — to a large, young audience. Masters At Work’s Nuyorican Soul LP did this for house heads, Roni Size Reprazent’s New Forms for drum’n’bass and MJ Cole’s Sincere for UK garage. Most ambitious of all, though, was Two Pages. Only five years before Marc Mac and Dego had been making great, but still raw, rave music — but over 80 minutes here they covered decades of musical history and showed complete mastery of the studio. The record begins with the beat poetry of Philly’s Ursula Rucker, instantly linking it to 70s spiritual jazz, and lavish orchestration (thanks to wayward genius Chris Bowden) and song structures throughout show understanding of the classic arrangements and production of the likes of Isaac Hayes and Rotary Connection’s Charles Stepney. But likewise there is hip hop, there is drum’n’bass, there is production, synthesis and beat manipulation as advanced as anything Dego did in his work on Goldie’s Timeless. While many of the jungle / drum’n’bass generation fixated on Afrofuturism, 4hero embraced past, present and future all at once.

Callin For Reinforcements cover

This 1992 Reinforced label compilation was, and remains, one of the best illustrations of the swirling hotpot of influences — bleep techno, hip hop, house, dub reggae, dancehall and more — that combined in hardcore rave at the time. It also serves as a showcase for the early work of Marc Mac and Dego, as between Manix (Marc), Tek 9 (Dego) and 4Hero (both of them), plus their work in Rufige Kru with Goldie, they make up well over half the album. It is very definitely of its time, with little of the finesse that would come when these influences sped up and coalesced into jungle and drum’n’bass — but it makes up for that in giddy variety and sense of raw invention using minimal technology. And tracks like 4Hero’s “Mr Kirk’s Nightmare” and “Cooking up ya Brain” and Manix’s piano anthem “Feel Real Good” will still send a dancefloor wild, 30 years on.

Keep The Fire cover

It’s maybe surprising given how much of the early jungle scene featured rare groove and lovers rock vocals — either sampled or performed — that more singers never attempted a full jungle project. However, we do have this gem, released in 2000 on a Japan only CD, but from the sound of it mostly made in the mid-90s. Maximum Style is Marc Mac of 4Hero’s more junglist guise, and JB Rose is a South London singer, songwriter and lately playwright and director. Together they made a record that is perfectly in the very British tradition of Sade and Soul II Soul, but merges it seamlessly into those rolling jungle breaks from start to end.

Beyond Gravity cover

Maybe because they were casually revolutionising music week by week with their jungle records at the time, 4Hero's early 90s techno output is rarely given the credit it deserves. But somehow among all their other activities they found time to run the outstanding Reflective label, collecting a stellar array of international names on their Deeper Shade of Techno compilations. And their Nu Era alias produced several EPs and this album, which is easily the equal of any release of the time by Luke Slater, Mark Broom or any other producer you care to put it up against. It’s unashamedly indebted to Detroit, but it takes the basic principles of machine funk and sci-fi dreaming as challenges to go as far as possible with sound and imagination, and sounds like a trans galactic voyage to this day. 4Hero’s Marc Mac would take the alias for his own in the 2010s and run with it, making a slew of records that, astoundingly, sound equally fresh, revitalising techno with broken beat, soul and p-funk essences.

It's Not What You Think It Is!?!! cover

In 1996 it could feel like the trip-hop wave had crested. It was a year since Maxinquaye and Smoker’s Delight and two since Dummy, and every man jack and his dog was putting low and slow beats and rudimentary scratching on everything. But for every lazy repetition of tropes there was a fresh iteration of downtempo loungey hip hop, and who better to demonstrate that than Dego of 4Hero? His Tek 9 alias had previously been used for experimental hardcore and ruthlessly taut jungle, but on this album he is in the mood to kick back and relax, albeit in the most sophisticated fashion. He already had form for jazzy hip hop, but here he really let it breathe, with snaking Fender Rhodes lines unfolding across whole tracks, with plenty of Lalo Schifrin suspense and space age bachelor pad stylishness, but also some good times vocoder soul, genial rap verses and a King Britt co-production on “Gettin’ Down Again,” and just a sprinkling of jungle syncopation to remind us that we were still in London. He probably doesn’t want it called trip-hop (nobody really did by 1996), but it is genuinely trippy and definitely hip hop.

Tom and Jerry cover

Alongside their continued accomplishment and willingness to change and learn, one major part of Marc Mac and Dego's longevity is down to never losing touch with the dancefloor. And their Tom & Jerry project has always been emblematic of that. Back in the white heat of rave, while they were experimenting left, right and centre, they started the Tom and Jerry alias to consolidate all he elements they were using into straight up DJ secret weapons. Starting in 1992, with airborne hardcore rave as dizzyingly euphoric as anything LTJ Bukem was doing at the time, they quickly matured into the classic T&J jungle sound: lengthy rare groove samples, ragga/dancehall shouts, furious breakbeats and of course plenty of sub bass. The gung-ho attitude to sampling may explain why these 12" singles have never been re-released, meaning they now fetch prices into the hundreds of pounds. The main flurry of releases ran from 1992-96, but every so often through the 21st century unreleased T&J material finds its way out on a new 12,” the latest being three releases in 2020, meaning there is now a serious body of work out there.

The Third Adam cover

For most of the 21st century Marc Mac has been known for very purist hip hop beats under his own name, and hip hop inspired deep soul funk with his Visioneers project. But he has never left more obviously electronic music behind, as he showed dazzlingly in 2013 when he resurrected the Nu Era guise from almost 20 years earlier — formerly a joint project with his 4Hero partner Dego, with which they’d explored the possibilites of Detroit techno. The techno fundamentals are still at the heart of these more recent Nu Era releases, using retro technology to try and create new imaginative futures. But this time, decades more experience of joining the dots between genres has come into play. So while the feel and sonic signatures are 100% techno, with Kraftwerk, Eddie Fowlkes and Juan Atkins running through them, new rhythmic complexities have come into play. Electro merges into broken beat, soul-boogie into abstract patterns, but always the sense of these tracks being futurist vehicles is vivid.

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