This article is the result of a chat I had in the summer of 2022 with Igor Pipercic after I stocked the incredible "Who Said" 12" by Two The Hardway which he had recently released on his excellent Betonska label (and promptly sold out within a few hours of the copies going up on my website). It's exactly the kind of record that I personally find particularly interesting as it exists at the intersection between genres (in this case early 90's rave and reggae) and also highlights the importance of dub and sound system culture in the development of dance music here in the UK.

Following our chat a plan was hatched to conduct an interview with the two members of Two The Hardway (Phil Kirby and Martin ‘Sugar’ Merchant) conducted by Igor's journalist friend Jacob Tucker. As is so often the case it's taken quite a while to get everyone together and make it happen but, as they say, all good things come to those who wait and when you read this piece I think you will agree that it was 100% worth the wait as it is a fascinating and enlightening read.

I should also add that all of the words below are Jacobs work, not mine, which is probably why they sound so professional and well written! Thank you to Igor, Jacob, Phil and Sugar for taking the time to put this together and for letting me share it with you all. Over to you Jacob....

The story of Two The Hardway

Manchester’s place in the tapestry of British music is undisputed, but what do we see when we look beyond the familiar faces? In this interview, Jacob Tucker speaks to the artists behind Two The Hardway, producer Phil Kirby and vocalist Martin ‘Sugar’ Merchant, alongside Igor Pipercic, the curious record digger who gave these old tracks a new lease of life on his Amsterdam-based label Betonska. They delve into the hidden histories of Manchester’s underground music cultures, the influence of dub music, the defiance of imposed categorisation, and the beauty of rediscovery.

Jacob Tucker: Let's start by telling everyone a bit about yourselves.

Igor Pipercic: I was born and raised in Amsterdam and have lived here my whole life. My parents are Serbian, though, they came here during the war in Yugoslavia. I've always been really interested in discovering more music and especially how certain genres and subcultures get intertwined. I started working on this label, Betonska, some years ago. We also do events, playing mostly vinyls often ranging from the 80s to the early 2000s.

Martin ‘Sugar’ Merchant: Starting in around 1984, I used to sing on Manchester sound systems and won a couple of competitions. I joined a sound called Saxon in London, quite famous at the time, and still famous today. They had people like Maxi Priest and Smiley Culture. I didn't meet them but I did know Tippa [Irie], [Daddy] Colonel, Papa Levi, and Mikey General.

Phil Kirby: I didn't start playing until I was maybe 21. That was around the tail end of punk when it seemed like anybody could have a go at being in a band! Over the years I got a bit more serious with it: I was in a band on Factory called Biting Tongues, and then after that I joined a band called Yargo and we had some success, signing a record deal and doing lots of gigs in Europe.

Jacob: How did you and Sugar meet and what brought about your collaboration?

Phil: Well, in the late 80s, I started getting into music technology, as the equipment became a little bit more affordable, buying computers and samplers and eventually building a working studio at home, which is around the time I coincided with Martin. I met you in Out of the Blue when you were doing reggae.

Sugar: I used to come around and chat about reggae and the state of the music business. Phil can be quite funny and cutting sometimes, really just cutting.

Phil: Yes, it was about 1989 and back in those days, you had to teach yourself how to use it. You haven't got YouTube. There were no college courses and it was all trial and error, and that was probably one of the first tracks that I managed to do. Martin was around to play a bit and next thing you know, I've got him upstairs on the mic and you hadn’t really done DJing before, had you?

Sugar: No, not at all, I was one of the Saxon understudies, but I always wanted to be known as a good singer. Papa Levi and Tippa Irie were [Saxon’s] main attraction, along with the dubplates and the sound system.

I got on there as I was getting a bit fed up with the Manchester scene. We didn't seem to have any ambition. Luckily, I joined a sound called Maverick, and they shared my ambition. We played a sound from Leeds called Bubblers, and next minute, we had a gig there with Saxon. After that, I was with them for a few years, touring in London and staying with one of the manager’s mothers. Their fast style took over England and nearly took over Jamaica for about a year. We were all fast chatting like Papa Levi and Peter King.

Jacob: Phil, when you wrote those tracks, did you imagine having vocals on top or specifically Sugar toasting?

Phil: I was just getting the hang of using the gear. I wasn't trying to make a reggae tune, but I could play a reggae bass line. Jungle hadn’t happened yet, but there were a couple of records I really liked: The Wickedest Sound by Rebel MC and Radio Babylon by Meat Beat Manifesto. Dance music tunes that incorporated elements of reggae into it were my direct influence on those tracks.

Sugar: It wasn't my type of music, but Phil used to have it pumping up and it sounded good. When Phil was giving me those tracks I could always hear a vocal or a melody; I could hear something but I didn't know what was going to come out of my mouth! I wasn't the greatest DJ but I could do it.

Phil: I think we might have got the vocals for Who Said? in about two takes. I spliced the first bit of one take and the second bit of another take and that was that, probably a couple of hours in an afternoon. Everything takes longer now, I'd fanny around on the computer forever.

Igor: You also had Howard Walmsley playing the saxophone on the Hot Number track, right?

Phil: I used to be in Biting Tongues with Howard, as well as Graham Massey, who was later part of 808 State. I played the tracks to Graham and he was like, ‘oh, that's good, I'll try and help you finish it.’ So he added one synth part on Who Said? and did a tape edit.

Jacob: Why did the tracks never get an official release?

Sugar: Two The Hardway got signed to some company, but they went kind of bust. We always thought the two tracks were really good. Phil worked really hard on the music and he just had a vibe to it.

Phil: I took the tracks to Omen, which was a little label that had some backing from BMG at the time, and they did a white label, hence Iggy picking up on this thing. They never put it out. I can't remember why but I got three grand out of them, which was alright at the time!

It's a funny one because then a few years later, I taught myself to engineer and kept getting burgled in my house, so I moved the equipment into a unit in town. I used to rehearse in there when I was in Yargo but they closed down and a friend of mine took the lease on with Sub Sub. The new studio in there is where I met Mr. Scruff and we worked together closely for a solid four or five years, four or five days a week. He'd heard the [Two The Hardway] track as it had got played a little bit on local radio stations like Sunset and it's because of Scruff that I contacted Iggy about three years ago: Scruff told me that someone had put it on YouTube and your email was on YouTube too. So I contacted Iggy and he said ‘I'd love to put it out.’ I did add that DAT tapes are really unreliable, as I have loads from that period that won't play, but luckily that one played!

Igor: That was a blessing. I remember when you reached out, I think it was on Soundcloud, if I'm not mistaken. I think I played the track once in a mix and you were so confused, saying: how on earth did you find this record? Because there were only a few test pressings made.

Jacob: And Igor, how did you stumble across it?

Igor: Honestly, I was just strolling through Discogs and there was this white label test pressing by some artist, Two The Hardway, with literally no information whatsoever about the release on the page or on the Internet at all. There was only one five star review from a Discogs user around ten or fifteen years ago, saying that it was their favourite release in this genre, comparing it with Phuture Assassins, and other early hardcore and breakbeat sounds. I reached out to the three or four people on Discogs who had the record for sale and asked if they had any sound clips of the record. One of the sellers did send a sound clip and I thought: wow, this is something really, really, really unique. I bought all the copies that were for sale on Discogs. I remember offering you one of the white labels also, Phil, but you said you didn't really need it because...

Phil: I'd given mine to Scruff. As long as I've got a digital copy I can play, I'm not bothered!

Jacob: So were you quite surprised by the reception it got around two decades later?

Phil: Yeah, of course I was. It was crazy. The weird thing was, when they didn't put it out, it kind of messed with my confidence a little bit. At the time I thought: I've got other things I could do, I've got a little bit more backing to do the band thing and then I started working for Scruff all the time. So instead of trying to make my own music, I just ended up helping other people make theirs.

Jacob: The release has come at a time where a lot of young people, myself included, are really getting into Hardcore, and obviously Jungle's had a big ‘revival’ too.

Phil: It's an interesting period of British music, that transition. House happened, and our take on House wasn't like the Americans. When Hardcore happened, and then Jungle, the technology had become more affordable. You could buy a second hand computer and a second hand sampler, and you started getting working class kids making dance music. I used to refer to it as estate kids getting involved.

Jacob: And Sugar, did you have any involvement in the rave scene at the time?

Sugar: Well, my forte was singing, and in the early nineties, I kind of got into the indie scene. I met Mandy who used to work at the Out of the Blue studio and started to do some indie stuff with her. We formed the Sugar Merchants, and then went on to form Audioweb after that, whose sound was a bit tougher.

Phil Kirby: I can remember clearly how Sugar came to do indie. I think it might have been [watching] The Word [TV programme]; they had a band called the Soup Dragons with Junior Reid, and I think in Martin’s mind he went: ‘I could do that.’ That was a revelation to you.

Sugar: That was because Junior Reid had done some chatting on it. Then I heard Scritti Politti had done something with Shabba [Ranks]: She's a Woman and then Take Me In Your Arms and Love Me with Sweetie Irie. That was the moment I thought, OK, that’s what I’d do if I performed with guitars. A lot of our generation got frightened of guitars when it was the in-thing in the 50s and 60s. There was no crossover with black people.

Phil: There was no crossover. You know, that was a revelation to you.

Sugar: It's a funny one, Manchester. It's not been great for Black musicians over the years. Not compared to London. It's always been a little bit difficult, whatever genre you were working in. It's kind of different now, but certainly in the 80s and 90s, there weren't really any labels or anybody really helping anybody along. I think the indie scene, the dance scene and the northern soul thing got more help. I don't know if it was a bit of not understanding the reggae scene, a bit of racism. There was, of course, from the top end but not from the people who loved the music and danced to it. It was the people who made the decisions, sitting around the desk with rich tea biscuits! I think they didn't understand it. Even when we were doing Audioweb, they didn't understand. They couldn't get the crossover. It was too much.

Jacob: It's interesting because a lot of people talk about Manchester as a place where there is a similar sort of musical melting pot as in London but, as you say, Black musicians, such as A Guy Called Gerald, haven’t always had the same success.

Sugar: Yeah, I know he had a lot of struggles building a career.

Phil: There was a bit of an infrastructure in Manchester at that point in time. There were a few little labels, but the dance music thing got really big, and then straight after that, you had the Madchester thing, which in reflection, was fucking rubbish, but at the time, it completely killed everything else that was going on in Manchester.

Yargo was on the front cover of the NME in about 1988. A year later, they did a great big four-page feature on Manchester and suddenly we didn't exist. I was thinking: hang on, we were on the front cover of your fucking magazine and we hadn't gone away. We had put records out, but we weren't lumped in with the Happy Mondays, Stone Roses thing which just completely took over.

Sugar: That's why sometimes, although like you say Manchester was a melting pot, it looked quite difficult for black people. It was hard for black people to be into different types of music. If you were doing soul or jazz as a white person, it was hard for you. As a black person coming in with something different at that time, you had no chance. So although people look at Manchester as a melting pot, it didn't come out in the music. It seemed very racist.

Phil: In our experience at that time it was often easier to be successful if the band was white.

Sugar: With dance music coming in, there were a couple of people of different colours who could get in doing the chatting or doing the promoting so it opened things up a bit more. The drugs did bring even more trouble, and sometimes you had to be on your toes, but it opened it up more. I think the music writers/journalists should have done a bit more than they did.

Phil: I mean [A Guy Called] Gerald did the early drum and bass stuff and left Manchester about that period. He was involved in 808 State to begin with and then became an early pioneer of Jungle / Drum and Bass but about that period he left Manchester.

Sugar: The ‘Manchester thing’ just took over and it was easy for them to write about, even if you were a cousin twice removed from Oasis, you've got a four-page spread in NME and Melody Maker. I mean we did get things done. We got a couple of things in the charts, so we did get on TV, but it was Channel 4 and they were promoting the Black side of England at the time, so we kind of got through that way. At the time, all the early hip-hop from America was coming over so they had to write about black and white.

Jacob: So do you feel like the coverage and the way it blew up didn't reflect the underground, grassroots scene?

Sugar: no not at all. It was lazy journalism. It was too easy for them to go to this or that festival, get off your head listening to Ian Brown or Ian Brown's girlfriend or something like that. I know many people who just got tired of the music business, and that's why I can't really complain because we got quite far with Audioweb. A lot happened but nobody has ever talked to me about music like this before in an interview, they didn't know anything about my background.

I did get a big page and a big picture in the Daily Mail on me and the band, but all she talked about was my muscles because ‘I don't look like a singer’... You would take anything in them kind of days, but they should have done more. All it needed was for somebody to take a step back and go: ‘What's this music? Why is A Guy Called Gerald or Ruthless Rap Assassins doing this or that?’ I noticed at the time that those kind of people weren't getting the spotlight on them and they were as good as anything out there.

Phil: There was stuff happening but nobody was really getting the push.

Sugar: What’s the common denominator? Oh they’ve got a black person in it, but you’ve got people like Simply Red, all the kind of white soul things that were getting through. That was more like coffee table music. If you knew what was going on it didn't bother you but you just wanted a bit more recognition. I still think it was a great time. Combinating and working with Phil and everybody else, I won't take it back

Phil: There’s no point in regretting anything though, otherwise you become bitter and twisted, like many people we know!

Sugar: absolutely, no time for that, but I think one thing we also kind of missed out on here is the dub element. Dub has had loads to do with drum and bass, reggae, all the progression. The dub thing has been a massive umbrella, we know about Lee Perry, but there were loads more smaller producers. Joe Gibbs was as good as him. King Tubby was as good as him, obviously, so I think we owe a lot to dub music. Drum and bass especially did.

Phil: All dance music, all the progression. The dub mix is in disco, it's become integrated into dance music in general, like dub techno or whatever, but you get disco stuff that's also pretty tripped out where they've been listening to Jamaican music.

Jacob: Yeah, I mean, the whole practice of using the mixing desk as an instrument, that was a dub innovation.

Sugar: Of course it was, yes. By accident as well, wasn’t it? The story goes that they forgot to put the vocals down, and people started dubbing it.

Jacob: You can really hear that influence in the record’s last track, the aptly named Blossom Street Dub.

Phil: I think I did that just after I'd moved into Out of the Blue studio, and I used to muck around, stick some samples in the computer and then fuck around doing a dub mix on the desk. More often than not, I wouldn't record it, I'd just do it for the fun of it, for a few hours.

Jacob: Igor, I know you were a bit tentative about putting this one on the label, as it was a bit outside the realm of your musical knowledge. Are you happy you went for it?

Igor: Most definitely. Initially, I wasn't planning to release house, techno, jungle etc. on Betonska. However, when Phil sent the Hot Number "Alternative" version I just thought that it's too good not to be released. We were also not really sure where the license was! Eventually we worked out that BMG had funded the label at the time, and that they had been bought by Sony some years back. So that was our only lead and I'm very happy that Sony was so co-operative and that Phil and Martin were happy to see it released all these years later.

Phil: Vinyl gets around the world in a way almost. I mean you get digital music, international platforms like Spotify and Apple, but it's been interesting looking on Discogs, people are trying to sell your record all around the world. It's ended up in shops in Japan or America and that still amazes me, how vinyl can do that.

Sugar: Igor, thanks from me and Phil anyway for putting it out anyway. Cause you never know. That's what I'm saying with life. What you've done in the past, you never know what's gonna be for the future, do you? You just never know.

Igor: I should be the one thanking you. That you trusted the label.

"Who Said" by Two The Hardway is available to purchase at the Betonska Bandcamp.