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Credit: @rickbxx

Meet The MC: Strategy

Two decades and three eras into his career, Manchester MC, producer and visual artist Strategy has found the ideal home on 140 BPM beats. He speaks to Ben Hindle about the moments that defined his come up, the challenges he faces as a creative, and how being open to new experiences can improve your life

It’s been almost impossible to go to a 140 rave over the last couple of years and not hear Strategy. His deep Mancunian tones have powered hits like ‘Hardware’, ‘Greengate Adhesive’, ‘Blue Mile’, and ‘Lunar Eclipse’ — an essential drum & bass into dubstep DJ tool that, thanks to its BPM-switched flipside and recent Alix Perez remix, has felt ever-present in the scene since 2022. Strategy’s distinctive flow — which flips between rapid-fire, skippy delivery and a more accessible pace — and unusual every-other-bar rhyme style make him instantly recognisable on a track. And his lyrics are ear-catching; from classic braggadociousness, to tales from the streets of Salford, they’re shot through with an idiosyncratic Northern wit that many rappers wouldn’t dare bring outside a battle. “When shit gets dark, all you’ve got is a joke,” he says.

But this seemingly unstoppable run in the 140 sphere is only the latest era in a 20-year career that’s seen Strategy conquer hip-hop and drum & bass, and establish himself as a hard-grafting multi-hyphenate.

Strategy first found success in the mid-2000s as part of hip-hop crew Broke ’n’ English, alongside DRS and Konny Kon. At a time when hearing an accent from outside London was rare in UK rap (and even Brits rapping in American accents wasn’t that much of a distant memory), they broke new ground as unashamedly Mancunian artists. They told the stories of their city and introduced that trademark deadpan humour, and it paid off. They were picked to play the BBC’s first-ever Glastonbury stage in 2007, toured extensively, and supported the likes of Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan. “It was unbelievable, because at that time music was brand new to me,” says Strategy. “America seemed so far away. Then we ended up doing shows with our heroes. It just gave me the belief and knowledge that nothing is as far away as you think it is.”

As the decade progressed, through MCing parties that forefronted drum & bass, like Hit N Run, Soul:ution and their own Ballin On A Budget, he unwittingly set himself up for the next stage of his career. In 2011, ‘Marka’ changed everything. Produced by Dub Phizix and Skeptical and released on Exit Records, its snappy halftime beats and dancehall groove provided the backbone for a career-defining performance by Strategy. His punchy, rap-along lyrics were inescapable from the moment the dub started doing the rounds, and remained so for years after.

Composite image of Strategy playing to a packed crowd
Credit: @moonimmischmedia

“I have two different lives: when I’m on the weekend and doing shows, that’s Strategy, but then when I come home on Monday, and I’m Johnni, I’ve got two kids, I’m doing school runs, doing hair, cooking tea, full time.”

Growing up half Jamaican, half Irish, in a city with a music scene as storied as Manchester’s, Strategy had always had an “eclectic” taste — “I’ve always been able to spit on different BPMs or whatever, but I’d just never really shown people,” he explains. ‘Marka’ proved his skills on a hybrid instrumental that was “a mix of everything in one”. It garnered fans across drum & bass and from well outside it — plus its fair share of detractors. “It was so polarising for people,” he recalls. “Some people just couldn’t understand it. It was just so much at once for them.” And any negativity only added fuel to the fire.

With a memorable video that saw Strategy daubed in warpaint sporting a Native American headdress — a reference to the legend of the ‘Salford Sioux’ tribe — it became an international hit, and Strategy started touring as a duo with Dub Phizix. “That’s when we started going to places I’d never imagined I’d be. And that’s when I saw how big the music is, how people look to the UK for influence and inspiration. And it was an honour to be a part of that.”

Later in the ’10s, Strategy had another big track with Dub Phizix in ‘Buffalo Charge’, and showcased his production chops (he’d previously produced a lot of Broke ’n’ English material) with two EPs of futuristic beats: 2018’s ‘Lanterns’ and ‘The Adelphi Lads Club’ the following year. Though he’s still as embedded in drum & bass as ever, his rise in 140 began in 2020 with ‘Black Boxes’, a searing indictment of the industry’s response to the anti-racist anger and protest that followed the murder of George Floyd — “How are we going to let anybody tell us to be quiet? That message was so confusing to me.”

Since then he’s dropped hit after hit, with fan favourites like ‘Premium Grease’, the upfront ‘Mash Dem Down’ with “visionary” rapper PAV4N, and ‘PFTD’, which saw d&b producer Halogenix switch to a 140 tip, solidifying Strategy’s voice as one of the most essential in the scene.  Meanwhile he’s expanded his creative output, introducing the world to his visual art — vibrant, mind-bending mirrored photographs — and regularly uploading freestyles to his Instagram with trippy homemade videos. “I feel like every time I go online, people are trying to sell summat,” he says. “By putting those things out — they’re not even available — it’s like, ‘Just hold that, that’s for you’. And I think people appreciate that.”

Photo of Strategy crouching in a white room wearing a full black outfit
Credit: @rickbxx

With all this success, it may be a surprise to hear that none of it comes easy. Strategy admits the creative process can be very difficult — describing himself as an “outside person” and “scatterbrained”, he finds it hard to sit in the studio for hours on end, while trying to match the energy of live performances in the recording environment has been a learning curve. He’s found opening up lyrically to be a challenge sometimes too, as has finding the confidence to reach out to potential collaborators. “People forget that musicians, you put them on a pedestal, but they are just fucking humans, and I am,” he says. “I have two different lives: when I’m on the weekend and doing shows, that’s Strategy, but then when I come home on Monday, and I’m Johnni, I’ve got two kids, I’m doing school runs, doing hair, cooking tea, full time.”

He says he often overthinks things, a problem that reared its head when finalising his forthcoming album ‘Lower Broughton Health Centre’. The first single, ‘Carbon Footprint’, which has Strats delivering relentless staccato bars over a bleepy nanobot beat, was released nearly two years ago, while the follow up ‘Freezin Cold’, with its story of coming up from his Salford estate, is also over a year old, yet the album is yet to drop.

“I recorded all the stuff at my house, and then I thought because it’s an album, I want to record it properly and try to get a bit of higher level on it. So I booked out a studio, and I went and recorded every song again from start to finish, but I kind of lost the energy of the original recordings — but they sounded better. And then I got myself in a fucking state with it. Because I had so many different recordings, now I’m trying to choose the best take and just losing reference of what even was good anymore. I think it took me a month to write the album and two years to export the files,” he laughs.

It is complete now, however, with final versions handed over to the label, so it’s officially on the way. And in that time he’s readied a whole heap of other music, including a second album, this one a joint project with Footsie. “At one point in my life, trying to get a tune with Footsie would have just been too daunting for me,” he says. “I’m just getting to the point where, now I’ve done an album with him, I’m like, ‘Hang on a minute, I can do this’.”

Photo of Strategy performing live to a packed crowd

“America seemed so far away. Then we ended up doing shows with our heroes. It just gave me the belief and knowledge that nothing is as far away as you think it is.”

Slowly, through repeated success and a lot of self-work — training himself to be able to spend more time in the studio — he says things are starting to improve. “I’ve just started to realise that — and this is something I should have learned a long time ago — some people are gonna like your shit and some aren’t. And you’ve just got to think about the ones that do... I’m not a household name. I’m not well known. But I’ve been to places that bigger musicians have never been, because there’s little pockets of people like me everywhere.”

It’s that travel and those people that keep him inspired. “The best thing that I’ve taken from this music thing is just going places that I never thought I would have been before. It’s been a massive benefit to my own personal life,” he says. “I’ve realised that there’s a lot of good people around the world, and that’s what I want to continue doing. It’s what I’m trying to suggest to my kids to do — I want them to go and see the world. I feel like the more people that go and travel and see shit, the better the world will be, without sounding corny and that. So if you see our name in your city, just come out and see us.”