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How SL2's 'On A Ragga Tip' became '90s UK rave culture's most enduring anthem

Lifting the vocals from Jah Screechy’s reggae standard 'Walk & Skank’, SL2’s‘On A Ragga Tip’ surfed the hardcore rave wave at the turn of the 1990s before crossing over to bring breakbeats and bass into the pop charts. The track has transcended genres and styles to stand alone as an enduring dance classic. Joe Roberts calls up Slipmatt, aka Matt Nelson — the ’S’ in SL2 — to learn its story

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The opening lyrics to SL2’s ‘On A Ragga Tip’ immediately come up when you type its title into Google. 30 years since its release, there are probably few reading this who haven’t belted out those words at some point in their life. 

Born from the emerging hardcore scene of 1992, ‘On A Ragga Tip’ has all the hallmarks of the era: reggae vocals and piano lifted from Jah Screechy’s ‘Walk & Skank’, sped up hip-hop breakbeats and speaker-rattling sub-bass. It was released on XL, the still powerhouse independent that helped popularise rave, signing acts including The Prodigy, Liquid and John & Julie. But having climbed almost to the top of the UK charts, ‘On A Ragga Tip’ has become part of the national consciousness, as at home at a school disco or the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games as it is Norman Jay’s Good Times Soundsystem at Notting Hill Carnival or in the set of a 20-something DJ shaping rave’s latest revival.

“It’s flown by,” chuckles DJ Slipmatt, aka 55-year-old Matt Nelson, when we call him at his home studio in Essex. “What a journey.” One-third of SL2 alongside Lime, aka John Fernandez, his friend since school, and JJ, aka MC Jason James, Slipmatt has gone on to be the group’s most visible success, subsequently pioneering the sound of happy hardcore before settling into his current groove as a house DJ and producer.

“The DJ thing has always been inside of me,” he says on the deepest roots of SL2. At 18 months, he was playing seven-inch records using his family turntable. By 10 or 11, he was recording songs off the radio onto a reel-to-reel tape player that his dad, a warehouse manager, had brought home, splicing them together. “That led to being fascinated by the music. I was tapping things and putting sounds together, trying to make a rhythm and recording it onto the reel-to-reel.” When he then met John, aged 13, at Buckhurst Hill School, they bonded over a love of hip-hop and electro, eventually buying their first bit of kit, a Roland TR-505 drum machine.

SL2

“The first time we played it at Raindance, it went down really well. At the next Raindance, which was about six weeks after, we played it again and the place absolutely erupted. Then the phones started ringing from record labels.” - Slipmatt

SL2’s first tracks (released as S.L II) came out in 1989 after they’d saved some money to go to Noise Gate Studios in New Cross, which was run by Mike West, aka Rebel MC, and Double Trouble. Drawing inspiration from early house and electro, ‘Do That Dance’ and B-side ‘It Ain’t Nothing’ came out on B Ware Records. It proved a prescient label name. “Typical first deal, we signed the publishing for it and never got paid,” laughs Matt. But it set SL2 on a more self-reliant and lucrative course. “We were already back in the studio, so we thought for our next tune we’d put it out on our own label as a white label, which was becoming a thing by 1990.”

The result was 1991’s ‘The Noise (Raindance Mix)’ on Awesome Records. A record indebted to the emerging bleep sound, it also nodded to Raindance, the party that Matt’s three-and-a-half- year-older brother had started running in 1989 at Jenkins Lane in east London. “Being into music and DJing, it was so lucky for me I had my brother starting up a rave,” he says gleefully. “Fucking hell, brilliant!” It became a vital training ground for his DJing, alongside Raw FM 104.4, a pirate radio station Matt, John and four other mates ran from a flat in Hackney Marshes after friends who worked for the council helped them locate it and break in.

“I think we did about 3,500 copies, which was pretty decent back then for a couple of fairly working-class lads who weren’t earning a lot of money,” Matt says of the white label. The track eventually also appeared on their first EP for XL. “We had a pretty good vision of what we wanted,” he says of the follow-up, “something really euphoric with the dirtiest beat.”

‘DJ’s Take Control’, which featured a large sample from The Night Writers’ 1987 Chicago house classic ‘Let The Music Use You’ and the drum break from Uptown’s ‘Dope On Plastic’, “did exactly what we wanted it to do”, with Awesome putting out 500 white labels. “The first time we played it at Raindance, it went down really well. At the next Raindance, which was about six weeks after, we played it again and the place absolutely erupted. Then the phones started ringing from record labels.”

Out of the eight or so bidding, they chose XL as they were London-based. “That was about July ’91. I was out DJing quite a bit in ’90/’91, but I’d also just finished my apprenticeship as an electrician. Once we got the deal, that was it. Work was finished.” Entering the charts at No.11 when it was released, next came a call from Top Of The Pops. “It was a huge surprise,” admits Matt, “but we absolutely lapped it up.” Suddenly they were saying hello to Kylie and Phil Collins, “all these people we’d been watching on TV for years”.

From there followed live PAs and radio interviews as they were whisked around the country. “It was odd. Unexpected and... nice, really,” he says after a small hesitation. “Our music was underground dance music, but it just happened that in ’91 it turned into pop,” he reflects on the group’s experience of being the right people in the right place at the right time. “I suppose there was a bit of pressure for the follow-up.”

SL2’s reggae influence went back to when Matt was 14 or so, listening to David Rodigan’s weekly show on Capital Radio and sneaking into gigs while underage to see the likes of UB40, Yellowman and King Tubby. ‘Way In My Brain’, a B-side to ‘DJ’s Take Control’, had revolved heavily around the distinctive digi-dub of Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’, and had also been a huge underground club hit.

So while their follow-up single was pencilled to be ‘Changing Trax’, which sampled another Chicago house hit, the duo decided to make a B-side in the vein of ‘Way In My Brain’. “There's a ton of reggae with toasting on it,” says Matt of the distinctive sound they wanted for ‘On A Ragga Tip’. But when they tried to sample a Yellowman track he’d found, there was too much bass behind the vocal. It was John who went around to an old school friend’s house, who Matt had got into reggae, and found Jah Screechy’s ‘Walk & Skank’ while going through his collection. “We sampled it to bits and there was ‘On A Ragga Tip’.”

The drums, meanwhile, while originally from Kid 'N Play’s ‘Gittin' Funky (UK Remix)’, were taken from a Kevin Saunderson tune. “He did a track after ‘DJ’s Take Control’ that also used The Night Writers,” says Matt. “We thought, 'that’s a bit cheeky',” he goes on, giving another good-natured chuckle. In return, the duo thought it was funny to sample Saunderson back, only later finding out the source.

John was the first one to start thinking that ‘On A Ragga Tip’ had something about it. “The other track was put together as a follow-up, rather than because we wanted to make something like that,” recalls Matt, “whereas ‘On A Ragga Tip’ was unique. John just got this bee in his bonnet. He talked me around. I think it was John who suggested it to Nick [Halkes] at XL. In the end, he came round, too. The best decision we’ve ever made, I think!”

SL2

“Jah Screechy did Top Of The Pops with us both times, we had a right old laugh. We’ve since met up and done pirate radio and a couple of events together. He’s a really nice fella.” - Slipmatt

Part of the track’s enduring success is the synergy of its video. Capturing the naive energy of the time, it features the group’s dancers Jo Millett (who was dating Lime at the time and went on to release various hardcore/jungle tracks on Awesome Records) and Kelly Overett dancing loose-limbed at various locations around London while JJ mimes the track’s lyrics. Joined by Slipmatt and Lime in a chunky American car, they also visit long-gone record shop City Sounds.

The idea was to show “a regular day out messing around”. But when the group originally arrived to pick up their car from Ladbroke Grove, “it was a three-wheeled Robin Reliant that was covered in pink fur all over the outside,” Matt says, breaking into full laughter. “It was just like, ‘What?!’ It’s not like we were trendy or anything, we were ravers, but we weren’t that uncool. We weren’t demanding, but we did actually put our foot down on that! We can’t drive around in that for the video to this track that’s doing really well.”

Released on 6th April 1992, ‘Ragga Tip’ went to No. 6, and then No. 3, with Right Said Fred’s ‘Deeply Dippy’ at No.1. All five were on holiday in LA after doing a show, when the label phoned them on a Wednesday to tell them they were No. 1 in the midweek chart. “It was like a dream,” says Matt. “Unfortunately, KWS ‘Please Don’t Go’ just beat us,” he goes on, joking with a laugh: “Worst tune in the world! Nah, just a real catchy pop song.” Despite staying in the Top 10 for 10 weeks or so, they never made it to No. 1. 

From then on, they were super busy, getting presented with a silver disc at the Royal Albert Hall and making further TV appearances: “But we stayed fairly grounded because we weren’t a pop act”. Their next release was a remix of ‘Way In My Brain’, which hit the Top 30. “But towards the end of ’92 that whole bubble was bursting with the charts.”

Playing three or four sets every Friday and Saturday, as ’93 and ’94 came around, Matt was playing and putting out bits of jungle, such as the seminal ‘Breaking Free’. “But as a DJ I also loved playing the four/four stuff and the real euphoric proper raver’s music,” he says. With John having done much of SL2’s hands-on production, in ’93, Matt got himself an Akai S1000, which led to his defining SMD series mashing up various hardcore and rave hits. “From there it’s a whole other story really. I went down the whole happy hardcore route and was at the forefront of that.” 

By ’94 or ’95, however, he was also back playing house, his brother setting up Club Aquarium in Old Street, where he was a regular, and Matt heading to Ibiza. “I get a lot of people who just remember me from 1991 to 1996, which is only five years out of a 33 year career. It was only that period I was totally focused on hardcore, drum & bass and the real ravey stuff. The rest of the time I’ve been playing house.”

Preferring upfront, techier sounds now, he recently had a Traxsource No.1 with ‘Zipped Up (Going Back To My Roots)’ featuring Andy Galea from Sol Brothers, and spent the summer DJing at various festivals. ‘On A Ragga Tip’, though, refuses to be forgotten. From ’92, when it provoked Progression’s barbed breakbeat response ‘On A Rubbish Tip’, through to 2010’s ‘Badayo (On A Ragga Tip)’, where Dr Victor & The Rasta Rebels turned it into reggae-influenced pop, it continues to provoke a reaction across sounds and scenes.

Over the years it has featured in various adverts, including by First Direct, McDonald’s, Virgin Media (“which was in 2019, quite handy before we went into lockdown”), and most recently Betfair. It even appeared in this year’s Jubilee Celebrations. “Me and the missus were watching a bit of it in the afternoon and suddenly ‘On A Ragga Tip’ came on as a procession of cars and buses went down The Mall,” says Matt, the soundtrack moving chronologically through the years being celebrated — as close a royal seal of approval as it’s going to get.

Part of its legacy of course belongs to Jah Screechy — XL made sure they cleared all the samples. “He did Top Of The Pops with us both times,” says Matt, “we had a right old laugh. We’ve since met up and done pirate radio and a couple of events together. He’s a really nice fella and we get on like a house on fire. I don’t see him loads, but when we do we get on really well. Blacker Dread, who owns the record label, as well. It’s great for them, they get a lot of the publishing so they’ve had a nice journey with it too.”

John, Matt says, has moved out of the spotlight into sound engineering. But they’re still best friends and the two continue to do SL2 PAs. “Thirty years later, it’s making more money than ever,” Matt remarks. “It’s crazy.”

Joe Roberts is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @corporealface