“I was looking for an excuse to become Mr B for ages”, says Mr B. “Some good friends and I had this rule that if we went out drinking in the autumn, we would have to wear suits instead of T-shirts and jeans. I think I was the only one who really followed it through though, and it was on one of these nights out that I came up with the idea for this character. They say Mick Jagger assumes another persona on stage, well so do I…”
Except he doesn’t really – or not that you’d notice. I’m taking afternoon tea with Mr B in his elegant Brighton abode, and it doesn’t feel like he’s faking it. As he kindly brews up a second cuppa, I endeavour to nose around his front room. It’s all very – as antique dealers would say – ‘mid century’, with furniture and artefacts made during the same period as the tweedy suit he’s wearing. Indeed, his arrestingly twirly moustache looks perfectly at home here. And then there’s his record collection, which is stuffed with original pressings of classic albums from the nineteen fifties to the eighties. Mr B is obviously a devoted music fan, with long-lost Soul classics from Freeez to George Clinton’s entire recorded Hip-Hop output.
“I adore old Music Hall, George Formby and Noel Coward – but I’ve just bought that box set of the five classic Parliament albums from the nineteen seventies. Like Mr B actually, he’s creating his own special musical universe. I do a bit of this and a bit of that, including the odd Steam Punk gig but Hip-Hop is where my heart is, and of course Mr B’s take on this great genre – Chap-Hop. It all started back in 2007 when my last musical project was floundering. I had been to an induction day for driving instructors, then thought about becoming a barber. But I was also in a band called the Schooner Boys at the time, a sort of ‘dandy punk’ outfit with songs like Decanter Riot, and so forth. I fell out with them because they didn’t want to carry on touring, but I loved it. So, I thought, well you know, I’ll carry on in the spirit of this but with Hip-Hop. Mr B was the culmination of all the things I had done in the past…”
“It was one of those happy accidents”, says Mr B. “It shouldn’t work at all, it should be nonsense. But there is a history of people like Noel Coward who would do this talking over music, with someone accompanying them on a piano, speaking in a very clipped, percussive way. Also, there’s no sustain on a banjolele so it lends itself to playing choppy riffs, and what have you. I picked up this instrument by accident around the turn of the millennium whilst out looking for a second birthday present for my godson. I popped into the shop and the chap tuned it up and played a couple of chords, and I immediately thought I’m having that! It’s so easy to play, so then I tried the banjolele – which is the same but with a banjo body. I suppose it’s a bit weird, but why not?”
Mr B has been called “the Nile Rodgers of the ukulele”, which pleases him no end. “Actually he’s a bit of a fan. He called my rendition of Good Times, ‘too funny and dope’. I don’t actually know what that means, but I’m taking it as good and put it on my posters. I’ve always liked the idea of borrowing from the past and fusing it with the present to make something for the future. It always baffled me why bands would want to sound like somebody else. I suppose it’s to do with youth culture. In the early eighties I was a rockabilly, then I remember discovering the electronic band Art of Noise, and one of my pals called me a traitor! But the bassline was huge and in twelve bar blues, so that was fine. I think my whole life has been based on making excuses for whatever I do.”
Mr B’s music is a thing of rarefied wonder. Quirky and funny lyrics – which could only be written by someone with a wry anthropological eye – are delivered in a clipped ‘Queen’s English’ accent that channels Noel Coward. This meets some wonderfully catchy, bouncy, jaunty pop songs which are infused with hip-hop beats. They’re peppered with strange samples and/or popular cultural references, and plenty of self-deprecation for good measure. “I was always fascinated by the whole Acid House thing too,” says Mr B, “and I loved all those weird noises.” There’s no finer example of this than So Many Reggie Perrins in the Arse End of Space, from his brand new long-player, There’s a Rumpus Going On.
The first Mr B song was A Piece of My Mind, and within seconds of it being uploaded onto a MySpace page, someone got in touch and asked him to play a festival. “So I thought I had better write some more songs”, he remembers. Nowadays he shares the Chap-Hop mantle with his fellow Brightonian rapper, Professor Elemental, with whom he sometimes gigs to great comedic effect. The two frequently bicker on stage about who’s the king of the genre, but suffice to say that the music got its greatest exposure to date when Mr B appeared on BBC’s Newsnight TV programme. This happened because the British government’s (then) Education Minister Michael Gove declared that he was a fan. “Ah, Govegate!”, exclaims B. “I think he liked my song They Don’t Allow Rappers in the Bullingdon Club. I think I am the kind of artist politicians mention when they’re deliberately not trying to be cool. Later I saw a photo of an auctioneer on a BBC antiques programme wearing a Mr B tie. Fame had come at last!”
Mr B is as passionate about being a ‘chap’ as he is about music. “I just think it’s good to be polite to people, and dressing well doesn’t hurt either. The whole chap thing appeared ten or so years ago and I love The Chap magazine that chronicles it. There’s something very genteel and British about being a chap. Even if it harks back to an earlier time, there’s nothing xenophobic or nasty about it – quite the reverse. I think we’re uniquely skilled at laughing at ourselves. I’m not sure why, but there’s certainly plenty to laugh about, and there’s always a nice cup of tea to be had. Fancy a biscuit?”