Dave Lewis has lived a life. A Stratford native, after being kicked out his university he found himself in the country’s rave capital – Manchester. There he founded the Murkage Cartel, a collective of garage DJs, promoters and hosts whose acclaim grew to mythic levels within the city. Wherever crowds were found, the Murkage Club were close by. But such as all good things do, it came to an end, and Murkage Dave was forced to ask who he was without Murkage Club.
Fast forward a few years, and Dave is in a café enjoying a vegetarian breakfast in Hackney, where he calls his home. The fracturing of his group, complacency and the waning allure of Z-list celebrity forced him to look within himself and make the move back down to London, to rebuild. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of his relocation, it led to his creative reinvention. With his back to the wall, he thrived. In 2016, he released ‘Car Bomb’, a track that got him recognition from Pharrell’s OTHERtone Beats1 Show. In 2017 his first solo project, ‘D.A.V.E., Pt 1’ gave us an inkling of the disparate influences that the East End crooner was beginning to bring together. It was soon followed by more singles, with creative partner Patrick Scally under the name HALFBROTHER, and a feature on Jaykae’s Skepta produced hit ‘Every Country’. The run of small wins gave him the confidence to complete a full length album, and he started releasing singles in the run up to his debut album Murkage Dave ‘Changed My Life’. “The album’s about being a hybrid nigga, being a hood adjacent nigga. I’m kind of in the entertainment world through some of the friends that I have but im not a celebrity myself, like never fitting in any room,” Dave tells me when we meet to talk.
“There’s an acceptance with making a record, like there’s people that I went to school with that are like ‘We’re so proud of you Dave!’ when they were just not giving a fuck when I was at school,” he tells me. “Like I’ve been an outsider in every room, when I’m at the Brit Awards after show I’m an outsider, when I’m in studio with 50 man, I’m an outsider, when I was at school I was an outsider.. and I feel in music now I am still an outsider, cos I’m talking about something not a lot of people are talking about from my perspective and I feel like what’s good is that you end up being a translator. So I’m explaining this to them, and I’m explaining that to them and people are expecting it now. Someone said to me, in a way everybody wants acceptance, it’s a universal thing – some people find acceptance by fitting in, and some people find acceptance by standing out. You still want the same thing and I feel like through this record, I’m tryna find acceptance from both sides, all the rooms I didn’t fit in.”
I’m not the only person who has like free trainers or is looking the part, but my flat is fucked. There’s an element of facade to it.
Finding acceptance is something Dave seems to have become good at, walking through Hackney he acts less like a minor celebrity and more like a friend to the area, regularly stopping and greeting familiar locals. Even in the cafe we stop as he pauses and comments on the change of the decor, he’s attentive and thoughtful, adjectives that you could to describe his album. “Hackney’s a fucking weird place to live. [But] it’s more reflective of where I am now… I guess I’ve just been lucky, through doing music stuff I guess I can afford to [live here], – I think when you do music it gives you access to a world you don’t have access to. The first song on the album ‘King of First World Problems’ is kind of like about that – having a route into this world, but it just feels weird being in it – I’m not the only person who has like free trainers or is looking the part, but my flat is fucked. There’s an element of facade to it. What I’m trying to do is I’m trying to break through it…what I really want to do is to inspire other musicians to tell the truth.”
Honesty and vulnerability aren’t necessarily the tenets of the music Dave grew up hearing in East London, the peacocking of a grime set on Rinse FM or Deja Vu were easy to fall in love with but didn’t provide much room for emotional complexity. “That’s why a lot of MC’s listen to my stuff, it’s like I’m almost saying the things they can’t say – there’s no one else to say it” he tells me as we walk through Hackney’s back alleys. Getting the inside out is at the forefront of his mind at all times, over the course of our conversation he constantly refers to his album as a message more than a record, something that sets the path for more MC’s to introvert their sound; “They can get a career out of it; I wanna show that you can kind of do something when you can talk about your feelings.” Someone he found that same message in was Dizzee Rascal, who he unashamedly loves.
“’Do It’ is responsible for so much of my writing style. Cos I used to play it all the time and I never thought about it, but when I thought about it that song is like my whole style,” he says. “Boy In Da Corner was so important cos it was like a textbook for these kids that no one understood. Like ‘Sittin Ere’ he’s talking about being depressed …it was such a weight off my shoulders when that record came out. It was an illogical thing but I felt like I was in spaces where I had to explain and worry about the stereotype myself. Really and truly that album is so introspective, and there’s not a lot of introspect in grime.”
Although he’s now a resident of Hackney, Stratford still has his heart, and the love for Garage and Grime is still apparent, it’s impact is felt across ‘MDCML’, track ‘Magic Mission Deja Rinse’ is a love song to the four pirate radio stations he could get from his home on Canning Road in the East End. “At one point I think I might’ve even called my album that cos those four stations Pure Magic, Mission FM, Deja Vu, Rinse FM were just emblazoned in my head from when I was because that was how I accessed all this shit.”
“I was going to school in Essex, and I was growing up in Leytonstone, on the border with Stratford – when I was doing A Levels that’s when jackings were at the height because you couldn’t block phones yet so the resale value was high. The guys from my area were just going on eats, coming out and going to bus stops – they’d just come and be like “phones”. They’d be like “yeah yeah” just give it all to them, and I’d be hearing about all this stuff, ‘Dave I got robbed by this black guy’ – sometimes I did know them to be honest. (Laughs) I felt like I was constantly having to fight the corner cos I’d be never be that kid. I was always gonna back it – so I was just fighting, sometimes physically, I had to beat up a lot of people for racist shit, but I was also fighting ideologically with people, tryna explain it.”
Being caught between two worlds isn’t something Dave is unfamiliar with, years acting as a translator for ideas has given him a unique perspective on the simplest of things. During the shoot, he comments on a few pigeons flying into frame. “All pigeons are doves.” Even throwaway comments carry a level of complexity. It comes out in his music most, it’s no surprise that someone with an openness and understanding as his pulls from a wide range of influences. He talks about Dizzee Rascal and pirate radio stations with the same reverence he does Ian Brown and Joy Division, or the soul music that he grew up listening to in his childhood.
I grew up in London but Manchester’s the place I kind of became a man.
“I’m influenced by a lot of that stuff like The Smiths and Stones Roses, that Manchester stuff – I grew up in London but Manchester’s the place I kind of became a man. I was always doing soul music or R&B music, when I moved to Manchester, Craig David was like on top of the world, I just wanted to be him really. When I was there first I had a soul band and one of my tunes got remixed and DJ EZ picked it up for Pure Garage Rewind Back to the Old School. I was always into garage growing up and grime, but then I explored electronic music deeper. And I ended up getting into guitar music, guitar music is something I never had in my household – my dad has maybe the odd Duran Duran song and my mum would just kiss her teeth, like what’s this foolishness you’re playing. [They were listening to] mainly soul – my mums got a big soul collection. She was deeper into the rare groove but she had all the big commercial stuff like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin. I had a housemate [in Manchester] who was obsessed with Prince, to a deeper level. And he got me into all the different eras – the Revolution era – and that got me more into Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard and I guessed I just followed it through to Bob Dylan.”
Manchester’s history of music leaves a large impression on anyone who’s lived there, it’s hard not to fall for it when each street seems to have its own legacy, whether it’s the electronic ambient tones from the infamous Hacienda of the ‘Madchester’ era, or the House and Garage stalwarts Zed Bias or A Guy Called Gerald, to the many indie bands that have cropped up from the Northern powerhouse. All those sounds seem to congeal on MDCML, production and melody varies, swinging between the golden eras of East London and Manchester. “In Manchester I had mate who used to make tapes, who was an indie DJ, and we used to go to the indie clubs around Manchester because it was way easier to get girls cos the indie guys never knew how to move to girls or they weren’t from London where it’s a struggle! But yeah, we used to go to indie clubs in Manchester and he was really into Morrissey, really into The Smiths, he was an Asian geezer – we were like ‘the ethnics’ – we used to run up in the indie clubs and draw down a few girls (laughs). He got me into Morrissey and into the Smiths, and Ian Brown and Joy Division – you can hear that kind of.”
The switch up north liberated Dave, the independence and freedom of post-adolescence gave him a chance to stretch his legs creatively, though there was a little bit of a culture shock moving from London to Manchester. In reference to the 20 man brawl mentioned on the title track, he tells me: “the rudeboys there were different, they would wear Rockport shoes, they were actually about that action. These man were wearing technical tracksuits and Rockport shoes built for hiking, kicking each other’s heads in. I didn’t understand it, I was just tryna draw down a ting”.
“I always wanted to be a DJ when I was younger coz I remember, when I was working at JD Sports, I saved up enough money to buy some Beltdrive decks and they were like the worst vinyl decks you could buy, but they were affordable – I saved up the money, and I was on the phone to the guy. My dad just came in the room as was like ‘nah you’re not doing that’. So when I came to Manchester that was the perfect way for me to get stuck into the scene. I ended up putting on parties because no one playing garage, there was a couple man who were Electro dons that would play the odd garage tune, but there wasn’t like a rave that catered for what we wanted to hear.”
Forming the Murkage Cartel was the platform that gave Dave the chance to experiment with those sounds and people flocked to it. Gaining popularity in the city, doing raves in Manchester and across the country for close to 10 years, and spawning artists and DJ’s like Gaika, DJ Madam X and Phaze One, the collective’s light shone brightly, but burned them out. “I mean it was a madness. You see that first Weeknd mixtape, House of Balloons, that tape was out, and that was our lives. We were living that life. It was nonsense, I look back on it fondly, but I don’t wanna go back there. I never wanna say Olly Olly Olly again – if I say Olly Olly Olly in a rave, it hasn’t worked. I will never say Olly Olly Olly unless I have mouths to feed.”
“It got to a point in Manchester where I was quite well known. I was starting to feel like everyone knew me, and within the city you feel like a celeb, but it was fucking bullshit. I had no money, I wasn’t on anything, and I hadn’t really done anything – or it felt like that anyway. And it’s almost like I’m getting rewarded for just, nothing. I feel like I got into a bit of a rut, it’s like you’re just living in a bubble.” The freedom he thought he’d found began to become distorted, making the decision to move back home and start from scratch gave him the chance to clear up the haziness that local celebrity built.
“When I first got to London I was pretty low. My crew fell apart in Manny. I was tryna do music and no one was really tryna hear it, they were just like whatever. It was only when I did Car Bomb, and the video that it kinda turned it around. Really and truly I was just tryna find my feet creatively. I was just trying to do stuff and it wasn’t working, but it was the best thing for me, cos my back was against the wall and I couldn’t try and jump on a trend, I couldn’t try and jump on a wave, I just had to be creative – that was the only way I was gonna get out of the situation I was in. I had to create through, and be honest, and be original, and be myself.” The video, directed by Marco Grey, was a turning point for him, helping him gain some mainstream recognition thanks to a feature on Pharrell’s OTHERtone Radio, as was making the lead single ‘Put You On My Shoulders’ that Dave says was “the first time that [he] wrote a proper song”.
Being back in London, put him on a path to meet more people who would help instil confidence in his music – Manga Saint Hilare, Oscar #worldpeace and of course Mike Skinner, who he met by “being a stalker but not being too weird” all inspired Dave to take risks, and trust the process even when it didn’t feel possible. In that time he met collaborator and friend Patrick Scally, who produced ‘Car Bomb’. A chance encounter between the two turned into a partnership and friendship, helping build each others confidence to experiment with their sound, producing and featuring on one another’s work (Scally is credited on 5 tracks on MDCML) and eventually forming group HALFBROTHER, where they manipulated Brit Pop sonics with contemporary ideas. “Back then I was just like eating Chinese everyday, drinking a bottle of Prosecco a day, and we were just fucking up in front of each other. And that was the thing, I could fuck up in front of him and he could fuck up in front of me. That was so valuable in both of us developing – with me and him there was no one to impress in the room, and I feel like that was such an important process for me to get to where I am, and I think he would say the same thing.” Being comfortable fucking up or in other words being vulnerable helped him hollow out his anxieties through his music – it wasn’t painless, mending a wound never is, but it became more and more necessary in the process of making the album.
I feel like that’s a message I wanted to get out there, get the mandem to talk to each other and let them know that I’m going through what you’re going through.
One song in particular that wouldn’t exist without that process is ‘Niggas Need Each Other’. The song, that takes its name from a message in a Whatsapp group chat with friends and family, was made by Berlin producer Jonathan Walter, on his phone after a night out in Visions. “That one…its so important to the message of the record – I feel like that’s a message I wanted to get out there, get the mandem to talk to each other and like let them know that I’m going through what you’re going through, and he’s going through it and he’s going through it, so we can soften up a bit and no ones gonna lose a stripe, and I feel emotional saying it now, I’m really happy I managed to get that message onto a song that people can absorb. There was guy who we all knew – fly, tall, would ask you for the latest hood banger, handsome guy but he’s tough, all the girls fancied him, and i found out he died, someone posted him up with Rest In Peace, and I was like this is very sad, and in my own head i thought it was some road ting and I come to find out he took his own life – it was a bit of message. He was not a stereotypical person that I would have expected to do something like that and it made me think…there’s really stuff going on in niggas heads man.”
The longer we talk, the more reflective he becomes. Despite sitting with the album for so long, he still seems to still be discovering things about it and about him. It’s reoccuring themes and deliberate focus on openness came from a deeper place than the Instagram posturing of Mental Health Awareness days. We start picking out lines from all over the album, assessing their meaning and their origin, one such line comes from ‘Niggas Need Each Other’, “some of us do know our dads, some of us do know our dads, but do we really know our dads”. Relationships between immigrant fathers and sons are rarely ever easy, whether they’re present or not, there still remains an unknowable distance between the two. Reflecting on his relationship with his father he tells me: “West Indian men don’t really show their feelings. I understand why – they came here and they had to crack on and get on with it. You ain’t for time to be like ‘I feel like this today’ you gotta grind it out, you got mouths to feed.” he muses. “Like you’re running away from skinheads in the 70s, so I was never really taught how to do that, but I’m glad I’ve got to a point where I can do that and I can kind of set the path for other people to do the same thing. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to get to know him. But I think it’s cos he’s older, and he’s had health complications, and he’s softened up a bit, and I think as I’ve gotten older and I guess I’ve started to understand. I probably don’t think I’ll ever know him properly …even if your dad is around, do you [know them]?”
To no one’s surprise, the live debut of his first album made for emotional viewing, friends and collaborators Manga Saint Hilare and Mike Skinner made appearances, with the latter being an impromptu reload from within the crowd. Selling out only 24 hours after it was announced, I asked him if he felt any pressure leading up to what would be his first headline show as a musician and not a DJ. “Largely I am comfortable on stage, sometimes I’m a bit more comfortable on stage than I am off stage. [But] I probably will get nervous. A guy told me he got a ticket and he got a flight from Belgium and I was just like – Ok this can’t be shit. There is that pressure to make sure its good entertainment I can’t just turn up and do any old shit.” Acting as an international DJ has given him good practice, as has touring with Jaykae, who came to perform ‘Every Country’. Whilst touring with him in Glasgow he tells me, “I seen a guy with no teeth in the street shout, ‘MURKAGE DAVEEE’ (laughs) I was just like rah …I’ve never even been here before and a guy in the street with no teeth just knew me – it gave me a confidence boost to see people would accept more from me than just being on someone’s project”
He’s right in that aspect, people have done more than accepted Dave’s music, they’ve found themselves in it. He’s reached a level of acclaim that’s admirable for an independent artists’ debut album and the live show is a testament to that – his fans are surprisingly rabid for someone’s whose music demands a level of melancholy to really enjoy, storming the stage for his final song ‘Keep Up The Bad Work’. Seeing him on stage with dozens of other people singing his words is the result of a lot a hard work and probably a lot of mixed emotions, all that soul searching seems to have paid off and connected with fans in a way that would be hard to predict. “Yeah people have been saying ‘Mercury Dave’ – I’m here for it. Like why not? I think it should be nominated. I had to think about it and stop cos I don’t like saying things like, that are a bit arrogant,” he says. “What I underestimated was word of mouth, people are just playing the album to each other. When I finished it I said I was really proud of this .. and I thought that maybe all my people who were already following me would fuck with it and then maybe get a few new fans – but it’s growing exponentially. One person passes it to the next, they pass it to the next. I’m happy about it and I wanna own it and take it as far as possible cos I wanna create a path for me and other people in the scene to take this introspective angle and talk about what’s going on with us as people. But yeah I wanna um…fuck it – it should win the Mercury.”