Featured Artist: Blade (November 2018)
Blade can be seen as one of those rappers that epitomises the early years of UK hip-hop. Fiercely independent and immensely hard-working, he was able to find a resilience and ingenuity to be able to release no less than five albums in eight years during a period in the 1990s where many were abandoning UK hip-hop as interest from outside waned. Blade was adept at creating connections with fans and peers that helped him fund releases and keep hip-hop going in the UK and as such many fans see him as a legend of the scene. Despite a flailing hip-hop scene, Blade managed to amass sales of over 60,000 units through his own label and his most fruitful period would culminate in 2001 with an appearance in the UK top twenty singles chart.
But there were many downs to go with the ups. Born to ethnic Armenian parents in Iran, he was sent to boarding school in London at the age of 7 only for the revolution to leave him stranded there, with no chance of returning, no way of his parents sending him money and no means of support. To survive, he washed dishes and rap became his way of release.
His first recording came in 1989 with Lyrical Maniac. However, wandering the streets with a bag full of records slung over his shoulder trying to persuade strangers to buy a copy proved a difficult sell. He was on a platform at Charing Cross contemplating suicide, when a woman asked him if he was OK. He told her his story and she told him Tim Westwood had played his record on Capital the day before. She bought the first copy he sold. A few weeks later, and after a repressing of the record, he'd sold 9,000 units. Almost three times as many copies as most UK hip-hop 12"s generally managed. A further string of 12” singles followed including Mind of an Ordinary Citizen and Rough it Up all of which sold around 10,000 units, though the money made was barely covering studio costs and expenses.
Blade's first mini-album came in 1992 with Survival of the Hardest Working released entirely off of his own back and obtained either from him in person or via a PO Box address where orders could be sent. As this meant he bypassed the record shops and consequently mainstream radio, Blade gigged relentlessly supporting acts of all kinds of styles in a bid to get his face out there and his music heard. These may seem slightly odd routes to take, but remember that we're talking about the early 1990s here when internet usage was by no means universal and support for UK hip-hop, outside of the small band of loyal fans, was minimal.
What Blade did with his second album, however, was extremely risky . In order to fund The Lion Goes from Strength to Strength, Blade set up a sort of subscription model where fans paid in advance for the record before anything had even been written in exchange for additional perks. While again this may not seem completely radical now with the likes of Kickstarter and Indiegogo to help us achieve this, but in 1993 all Blade had was a PO Box address and a phone number, despite not being able to take card payments. Although there were a number of set backs, such as parting with his long term DJ Renegade and his father dying, the record was eventually released as a bumper double LP, something never done in hip-hop at that time. The level of sales and interest also encouraged Blade to sell some in record shops and also press a run of CDs that helped more people hear the music he had put so much in to.
Subsequent solo releases (Planned and Executed in 1995, Storms are Brewing in 2004 and Guerilla Tactics in 2006) never really reached the same level of success, but they did take a more conventional marketing approach. Unfortunately, the bankruptcy of his distributor in 2006 left him owed two years worth of sales, perhaps justifying his previous independent stance and speeding up his eventual retirement from music.
Nevertheless, there was some commercial mainstream success, even if it was somewhat unwanted. The release of The Unknown in 2001 alongside the late producer Mark B, propelled the rapper in the the top twenty singles chart for Ya Don't See The Signs, helped no doubt by a cameo from Feeder front man Grant Nicholas. The single got them onto Top of the Pops and a slot as support for Eminem on his 2001 UK tour. There would also be sold out headline shows that would justify all the work that had been put in in the years before. Unfortunately, internal fallings out with the Virgin record label meant this success was not capitalised on fully, but nevertheless The Unknown remains one of the best selling albums in UK hip-hop history and helps solidify Blade's place as one of the legends of UK hip-hop.