Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting a rising artist who is bringing something new to the world of music and is capturing our hearts and minds (and ears). This week, we’re featuring Murkage Dave, an East London R&B musician inspired by UK Garage, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and his feelings.
“I asked you to leave me alone, now I’m lonely,” Murkage Dave croons over gentle synths and shuffling snaps in “You Always Ring Me When I’m Busy,” a swift but sweet interlude from the East Londoner’s debut album. There’s a twist of soul in the line’s delivery–a hushed honesty, like a confession–and the song quickly blooms into a gospel of layered harmonies as Dave loops and weaves in and out of his feelings.
“The key thing was me discovering UK Garage—that’s the most important,” he tells me in a busy cafe in Berlin. “I guess it was UK Garage that enabled me—by the late ’90s and early noughties, for every single big R&B song, there was a sped up Garage bootleg, and I guess that’s how it started for me. These were singers that were British on a British beat”.
You can hear it, too: owing in equal parts to dancefloor staple “Sweet Like Chocolate” and Craig David’s hip swinger “Fill Me In” as it does to the moodiness of Manchester’s music scene, Dave’s music is brooding with an undeniably British pathos. It’s the sound of seasons changing, and it’s the sound of cloud coverage coming together before drifting apart.
“It’s a kind of combo, really, of some of the old Manchester bands—you know, like The Smiths, Stone Roses, Joy Division: the raininess of that sound, and the introspectiveness,” he notes when I ask him about his feelings-first songwriting style. For years, Dave called Manchester home. It was there that he quickly carved his own niche with the Monday Murkage, a night that paired his love for UK Garage with the anything goes ethos of the raves that raised him
“It was just necessity. That was the thing: I used to run my R&B nights at the more commercial clubs and that was a bit more flossy and competitive,” he says. “So what I ended up doing was making something that crossed them: I stripped the competition out of the flossy nights but I kept the hip hop attitude; I took the looseness of the rave but it was a bit less sweaty—it was still sweaty, but just sexier”.
For his debut album, however, Murkage Dave is returning to his roots, carving a niche for himself by looking inwards when laying down lyrics. “Put what’s in your head on the page. And then it becomes—I don’t want to say it’s really easy, because it’s still Hell—but it’s never feels like a forced process and if it ever does feel forced, then I just stop”.
“Say ‘Magic Mission Deja Rinse,’ my recent single,” he explains. “I went to the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican because I couldn’t write. I found it fascinating: Basquiat and his work, in every painting, it looks like the inside of Black man’s head. The same word over and over again. The chaos of it. It looks like the inside of a Black man’s head who lives in the West.”
He continues: “Literally I went straight from there back to my little basement, a place I used to have in Hoxton, wrote the whole tune. Going to that exhibition unlocked me being able to order things; one of the things that I learnt about myself because of this album is that I can’t make music for music’s sake.”
Instead, he’s turned all eyes on himself. Murkage Dave is unabashedly in his feelings—an intervention he thinks is necessary in the U.K. “On the American side, that narrative is cutting through: You look at some of the biggest rappers, it’s Kendrick, Kanye, Drake, J. Cole,” he says, before motioning to his chest, “They all talk about their feelings and what’s going on within here, whereas that thing is still missing from some UK Black music.”
That’s not to say Murkage Dave is paving this path alone. Through his work in raves, running through the festival circuit in the U.K. and France, and teaming up with The Streets’ Mike Skinner, Dave’s got a far-spanning fanbase and an enviable list of collaborators, including a recent feature on JayKae’s “Every Country” and on “Men Are Trash” from Roll Deep’s Manga Saint Hilare.
Dave and Hilare reunited for his upcoming album on a woozy classic Grime duet about brotherhood, trading lines as Dave ruminates on going through it before Manga lifts off in a guest verse about the power of a quiet compassion.
It’s this understated understanding that cuts through in Murkage Dave’s music. There’s a tired soulfulness that he weaves in and out of with his words. It’s been years in the making, but it’s not a moment too soon. As he sings in the “Magic Mission Deja Rinse”, a gentle, even-tempered gospel that reflects on his years in the industry: ‘And it felt like magic/I was on that mission/Blud, I’m getting that Deja Vu/So let the ting rinse.”
Next, get to know chanteuse Kenzie, who’s making “hype music for sad people.”
- Words: Nathan Ma