Man Like I: As Natty's classic debut album turns 10 it's still criminally slept on 3 years ago

Man Like I: As Natty's classic debut album turns 10 it's still criminally slept on

Man Like I is the true definition of a classic album

I say that because the word classic in the dictionary is described as something "judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind."

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Natty's debut album fits that description perfectly.

At 10-years-old Man Like I has aged like a fine wine. Good for any occasion, but especially ones of the celebratory kind, it's one of those albums that if you've heard it you can be smug knowing exactly how good it is, and if you haven't then you have that first time still to look forward to, it's special in a set-fire-to-your-soul kinda way.

I can remember hearing it for the first time as if it was yesterday. I was blessed enough to have Atlantic Records send me an early copy for review and for that I've always been thankful. And the reason I remember it so well is because I wasn't in the best of moods on that day, I'm not sure exactly why but I do remember Man Like I quickly rid me of any negative energy I may have been holding on to, it was as if the album had healing powers.

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It's an album that has always taken pride of place in my CD collection, to me it's more than just music. It helped me through some of my darkest times and even when the lyrical content wasn't as geared towards the upbeat and positive it still somehow managed to make me feel good.

So when I found out that Natty was going to be touring Man Like I in its entirety to celebrate its 10th birthday - it was released August 1st 2008 - I felt it essential to get in touch with reggae's travelling man for a chat about the album, one I deem as important as Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, Mark Ronson's Version and Plan B's The Defamation of Strickland Banks.

Starting off the conversation by asking Natty if it feels like 10 years have passed since the release of Man Like I, he looks at me pensively and replies, "No, not at all. Everyone I speak to is like, 'Oh my God, it’s 10 years?' But to me, really and truly, it feels like half of that, it feels like five years, maybe six."

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Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix - "He's the reason I even picked up a guitar in the first place" - Skinnyman, Bob Marley, Smif-N-Wessun, Peter Tosh and even Paul Simon and his album Graceland, Man Like I isn't your typical reggae album, it's much more than that. It's more vast than just one thing, it's a combination of styles, genres, influences and experiences. It's Natty the man and the musician.

One of his biggest influences actually came from something an artist said and not what their music sounded like. "It's from something Miles Davis said," he explains. "It's the space between the notes more than the notes that you're playing. It's something that has always stuck with me."

Finding out all kinds of weird and wonderful things about the album, something that I'm surprised to learn is that Natty didn't envision "Bedroom Eyes" being as popular as it was, and it's still to this day a fan favourite.

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"I had no idea it would be that popular," he says with a genuine tone attached to his delivery. "I can’t even do a show without playing that song, they don’t let me not play it.

"It's funny because it started off as just as a little kinda funk punk song that I wrote on my computer," he continues whilst laughing at the idea in hindsight. "It started off completely different and then I just found this chord."

The chord he's referring to is the song's opening "Natty chord."

"Even my band will say to me, 'Yeah, the Natty chord. Natty’s got his own chord, you know?' Because I’ll play the chord and everyone knows what song it is, which is mad as a musician. Because there’s only 12 notes and every chord has been played 100 billion times, there’s no new chords, yet at the same time I can play this chord and not even sing a note, a line or a word and everyone knows what it is."

A heartfelt sonnet about the mother of his children, "Bedroom Eyes" hears Natty inform the listener of his dreams and aspirations with the woman he loves by his side. Also painting the picture of comfort between two human beings who coexist in the same space with different tastes, everything down to the lyrics - "While I play my guitar she reads her magazines" - are all factual.

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"It’s all completely real too. Even in her house today she has shelves and shelves of magazines," shares Natty.

Something else that I'm surprised to learn, which almost breaks my heart because Man Like I helped me get through some of my darkest times, is how the album actually came together. According to Natty the album would have sounded completely different had he been given the time he wanted to finish it, at least another year.

Claiming the songs aren't his songs in the sense that he was a "conduit" for the music, he starts off by offering advice to younger artists today whose record label might be rushing them to get an album out.

"Tell them no," he says. "Let the music tell you when it needs to come out."

While it shatters this perfect idea I had for how the album came together, what Natty says next actually makes me respect him more. There aren't too many artists who would openly admit that they weren't fully onboard with how their most popular body of work came out.

"To be honest the album was thrown together in a very quick fashion," he admits. "I’m sorry to break your heart but it was done in like a Neo from The Matrix moment, where I was like, 'Right, put that there. That goes there. How about you play the drum like that? Let’s switch it like that because we’re playing the drums like that on that track.'

"And I was always trying to better myself and it came from a situation where I didn’t even feel like I was ready to sing the songs. I wanted to wait a year. I actually wanted to do the whole slugging it out, tour supports and just make everything better. I couldn’t sing those songs really, especially in comparison to how I sing them now, the songs were better than my vocal abilities at the time. 

Informing me that "July" was written in 30 minutes and "Badman" an hour, and also how much he hated "Stoned On You" at first, before eventually growing to like it, Natty says he had over 100 songs he wanted to include on the album, including early mixtape cuts, "Officer", "Hard Times" and "Badmind".

So if it didn't come out exactly how he wanted it to, what was it that inspired the 10 year anniversary tour for Man Like I? As well as an accompanying new album - Man Like I&I was released October 19th.

"There were some selfish reasons. Like I feel we didn’t quite hit some of the songs right first time around," Natty admits.

"The main reason though, and the most important reason, is this album helped a lot of people through a lot of times. It was a go-to album for so many people and so I wanted to give it back to them. It all started when people were coming up to me and saying, 'Natty, I need that acoustic version of ‘Bedroom Eyes', and now we're here.

"But there were many reasons. I had my family all like, 'You know it’s been 10 years since you put out that record? You should do a little ting.' And then Kingsley (Akala) was like, 'You should do it man and then you can put out some of the other stuff you’ve been working on.'"

Going on to admit that a football tournament was the real reason we got a 10th anniversary album and tour, Natty continues:

"We entered a five-a-side competition and the prize was a free day in the studio - Moloko put it on. So after we banged up everyone, Island Records I think we beat them 9-0, Polydor got beaten like 10-1 or something, I was like, 'What are we gonna record in the studio in one day?' So as soon we came back from winning the tournament I thought about what we were gonna do and it all just clicked into place. So the idea for the album and tour came about after a football tournament."

Calling upon Seun Kuti, who was the first to say yes to working on the 10th anniversary version of the classic album, Maverick Sabre soon followed, as did Benjamin Zephaniah and Natty's band, The Rebel Ship.

With songs like "Cold Town" and "Coloured Souls" still ringing true today because of relatable lyrical content that focuses on racial tensions, getting lost in the technology of the day and immigration, as well as it just being a shining example of exemplary instrumentation, why is Man Like I such a slept on album? Or is it?

“Nuff people tell me it’s slept on," Natty says. "But for me, personally, and how I see it, everything happens in its own time and it’s provided me with a situation where I can raise a family and I can keep doing what I’m doing.

"If I didn’t come out with that album and I just came out with my other albums people would be like, 'Who’s this guy Natty?' So because of that album a lot of people now check for my new stuff and future projects."

After talking for about an hour the only thing left to ask Natty is how he would describe the album in a few words to someone who had perhaps not heard it before.

"Fuck off," he says in jest. "You want me to describe this album in a few words?"

Eventually stopping himself laughing, he takes a long pause, looks up at the sky and then says, "It's a journey of musical healing. It's a healing for me and a healing for others."

There you have it, one of Britain's most important musical offerings of the past 15 years, as described by its creator, man like Natty.

Natty & The Rebel Ship Man Like I 10th Anniversary tour dates:

2nd Nov, MK11, Milton Keynes
3rd Nov, Waterfront, Norwich
4th Nov, O2 Institute2, Birmingham
5th Nov, O2 Academy2, Oxford
7th Nov, Foundry Studio, Sheffield
8th Nov, Concorde 2, Brighton
9th Nov, Koko, London
11th Nov, Ramsgate Music Hall, Ramsgate
13th Nov, O2 Academy2, Newcastle
14th Nov, Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds
15th Nov, Welly, Hull
16th Nov, The Great Eastern, Glasgow
17th Nov, The Parish, Huddersfield
18th Nov, Fibbers, York
20th Nov, The Bodega, Nottingham
22nd Nov, Trinity, Bristol
23rd Nov, Joiners, Southampton
24th Nov, Mount Pleasent Eco Pk, Porthtowan
27th Nov, Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff
28th Nov, O2 Academy2, Liverpool
29th Nov, Gorilla, Manchester

Tickets are available at www.gigsandtours.com