Goldie Lookin Chain: The chain gang

One minute they were an unknown posse from Gwent, the next they were music industry darlings. Are Goldie Lookin Chain - the 'Welsh Wu-Tang Clan' - for real? You knows it! Simon Price, who witnessed them taking the corporate dollar, quizzes the Newport massive on selling out and sounding off
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Deep inside the velvet-lined, candle-lit cavern of Sound, a self-consciously luxurious London nightclub, busybodies busybody about, a whirl of clipboards and headsets. There are branding boards to be rolled into place, television cameras to be trained, glamour models and soap actors to be guest-listed, paparazzi to be alerted. Free Sea Breezes are being racked up on the bar, and Radio 1's Colin Murray is rehearsing his spontaneous ad-libs.

Deep inside the velvet-lined, candle-lit cavern of Sound, a self-consciously luxurious London nightclub, busybodies busybody about, a whirl of clipboards and headsets. There are branding boards to be rolled into place, television cameras to be trained, glamour models and soap actors to be guest-listed, paparazzi to be alerted. Free Sea Breezes are being racked up on the bar, and Radio 1's Colin Murray is rehearsing his spontaneous ad-libs.

Unbeknownst to the tourists milling round outside on Leicester Square, two of the most popular acts in the UK today are about to perform for an audience of a mere 100 guests, mainly communications industry bigwigs, C-list celebs, and media whores such as I.

This is the launch party for Wanadoo Wireless & Talk, a new telephone service, and the company has paid top dollar for the aforementioned pair of acts: one all-male, the other all-female, both of whom have recently had chart-topping singles. But that is where the similarities end.

One of them, TV talent show winners Girls Aloud, were very publicly manufactured before viewers' eyes, and are choreographed, styled, and super slick. The other are a bunch of scruffy stoners from Gwent.

Lined up on the red sofas backstage, five-eighths of the Goldie Lookin Chain crew (a Welsh Wu-Tang Clan with a comedy chav slant, for the sake of the uninitiated) are reclining and sipping Strongbow - you can take the men out of South Wales, but you can't take the South Wales out of the men.

We've got the ever-grinning, eye-twinkling cheeky chappie Adam Hussain, the lanky, almost silent Maggot (aka "The Hip-Hop Vampire"), the sleepy-eyed, bespectacled Billy Webb (aka "Tim Westcountry"), the bearded, booming bass-voiced Mystikal, and the talkative, wingnut-eared Eggsy (aka "Mr Love Eggs"). Missing today are 2 Hats, who's gone to the hotel for a lie-down to ease his sciatica, Mike Balls (aka "The Hardest Man In Soccer Violence"), and the mulleted Dwayne Xain Xedong, who has gone for what the others euphemistically term "some fresh air".

A shamelessly corporate bash such as the Wanadoo launch may seem a peculiar place to be meeting the band who form the centrepiece of an issue about the spirit of independence but, as they will soon explain to me, independence comes at a price.

It's a weird old gig and no mistake, GLC going through their irrepressible prankster rap routine, littered with hits like "Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do" and "Your Mother's Got A Penis", to a stony silence from the assembled suits. In the subsequent Q&A session, Dwain publicly admits that they "did it for the 25 grand".

It's interesting that Goldie Lookin Chain and Girls Aloud are on the same bill: Pretend Chavs and Real Chavs. GLC are hamming it up to an extent, but GA really are like that.

"It's all 'cause of newspapers," says Adam. "They could be into knitting, but you only ever see them falling out of nightclubs drunk."

"We're always falling out of nightclubs drunk," Billy admits, "but there are no photographers there. If there were photographers in Newport, we'd be bollocksed."

"Like that photo you took," Eggsy reminisces, "of Adam passed out on the floor outside a bar, with a cockroach on his face. That was the best photo ever!"

Did you place the insect there yourself?

"No, it was crawling past. It was a local resident in the pub. If they ever start serving food, I'm not eating there."

Do GLC, I ask, get many of these corporate gigs?

"Not enough," says Adam without missing a beat. "They're payers."

Playing devil's advocate for a moment, I think of the traditional opposition from the indie sector towards commercial sponsorship, and I wonder what the hell GLC are doing here. Isn't this ever a worry?

"We've worried..." says Billy, pausing with perfect comic timing, "...but then the offers 'ave come in."

What are the control issues which arise when an independent-spirited act is bankrolled by a major label (Warner Bros, in GLC's case)?

"It's not been too bad, has it?" Eggsy ponders. "We've not had any mega problems. One of the things we wanted to make sure about was they wouldn't say we had to put make-up on or wear a dress, you know what I mean?"

Personally, I would love to see GLC in an outfit-swap with Girls Aloud, but maybe I'm warped. Have they never said no to anything?

"We're on call at all times," says Mystikal, "like a doctor. Someone needs swearing? Let's go! Although I did have to knock back the Ladyshave adverts... Then there was that TV show for Channel 4 where they asked us to mime. We said we never wanted to do that again, and we never have. You've got to find a way to keep the animal alive. You've got to make money, 'cause there's eight of us. If we were a four-piece or a solo artist, it's a different kettle of fish. That's survival..."

"You've got to be proud of getting money out of people," says Adam, continuing the mercenary theme. "It's hard to believe we're having so much fun and getting paid for it. We've been doing this for, what, a year now, and we still can't believe it."

"We used to have a song called 'Making A Hundred Quid From 50p'," Billy reveals, "and that's what we're doing. Lots of 50ps."

Next time I see Billy Webb, he's on the platform of Newport train station, defacing a skateboard with a marker pen. He's driven down with 2 Hats to pick me up, but three delighted 10-year-olds have recognised him and asked him to sign their boards.

You don't get many pop stars on the streets of the 'Port, but GLC are as home-grown as they come. Walking through the door of the terraced house Adam Hussain recently bought - "it's the Youth Club, the Play Area" - I'm hit by a fog of herbal smoke. There's a massive Public Enemy target logo hanging above the fireplace, a giant Dalek biscuit barrel on the shelf, and the various members are taking it in turns to play a helicopter war game called - appropriately, a cynic might add - Mercenaries on the PS2.

As Adam hospitably makes endless cups of tea, and we tuck into M&S teacakes bought by Eggsy ("99p, no expense spared") and white chocolate Easter chicks (it's Good Friday), I try to find out how a bunch of apparent layabouts managed to get themselves to a position where telephone companies are throwing silly money at them to muck about on stage for half an hour.

"In 1983 a team of crack draw enthusiasts created a masterplan for a way of living so revolutionary that its very concept was a threat to the fabric of society..." That, at least, is how the GLC story begins on "The Masterplan", the opening track on their debut album. But, given that their official average age is 24 (Maggot being the oldest at an estimated 38), some members were surely still in nappies back in '83.

"It began in 1983 to the extent that there was stuff going on," Eggsy explains. "The stupid factor. Smashing something up. Going somewhere with your parents, finding a cigarette lighter on the floor, not telling them, taking it home and burning stuff. Brilliant. And what we do now is just an extension of that. Even when we were messing around with a camcorder, burning a dolly in the back garden, and filming it, and watching the video. There was always something going on."

"Regardless of whether we'd got a record deal," chips in 2 Hats, "we'd still be doing it. We get bored, and we've all got the mental age of 12-year-olds. Give us a box of matches and we're laughing."

Most people, when it comes to actually recording a half-decent demo, wouldn't have a clue where to start. I naïvely assumed GLC had somehow begged spare time off a local studio, but my way of thinking is way too old-school, and not nearly DIY enough.

"No," Eggsy corrects me, "just messing around on a PC. And I had other mates I'd do stuff with, just a circle of people who are always around. Just for the sake of having some music to listen to when you're having a spliff."

Turns out that most of the work - or, more accurately, play - that went into creating GLC's early material (some of which survives in the form of songs like "No Joke", "Tracksuit" and "Taxi") went on at home.

"Dwain had Octamed," Eggsy explains, "which was a programme on an Atari or an Amiga. He had buttons to press and things to do, so he knew about 'the science'. Nowadays, there are all these similar things you can use, like Acid Pro. We had that, and a microphone with a bit of Sellotape wrapped around it, and we did a song about Michael Jackson, and away you go. It's a learning curve. We bought a new microphone, and we sounded a bit better."

"We were saying, the other day," Mystikal reminisces, "that the bits with the Sellotape on the microphone actually sounded more underground..."

The full membership of the GLC crew numbers as many as 23 "soldiers" including such characters as Big Baby Jesus, MC Flatpress and Adam's Nan ("It's like the TA," ventures 2 Hats), and an accurate Rock Family Tree would be almost impossible to draw.

"Bally was the last one to put a rap down," Eggsy reckons. "There was always Adam, me, Xain, Myst... You can't put a finger on it. Always people coming and going, through the turnstiles. There are people in the room, and you're in."

I ask whether the fledgling GLC had a strategy to get themselves noticed. Again, I'm wide of the mark.

"We spoke once," Eggsy admits. "About the World Tour posters. We sat down and got stoned, and we had this whole idea that GLC was a woman who had a sex change from a man, then had another sex change back to a man, and he had a beard, and he didn't sing but he had other people around... We were gonna put up GLC World Tour posters, with all the dates cancelled. But then we forgot about it for two years, and carried on recording stuff and eventually we said, 'Do we wanna do this properly?'"

Doing it properly consisted of burning a mere dozen CDs. "Everyone's got PCs nowadays, and everyone shares music: regardless of the rights and wrongs, we all do it. So we made them for our mates, then they burned them for other people. The biggest thing we ever did - our Terror Campaign - was burn 12 CDs and go on the piss and give them out to people in the Murenger [Ye Olde Murenger, the GLC's local boozer, and the oldest in Newport, dating back as far as 1530]."

Somehow, in the spring of 2003, a 10th-generation copy made it onto the desk of Cardiff's Clwb Ifor Bach, known locally as "The Welsh Club", who begged GLC to come and play their first ever gig. "We just got fed up," says Mystikal, "with people saying when are you gonna do a live show?"

"Well, there was a show before that," corrects Adam, "at a mate's 30th birthday. They had karaoke, and me and Mysty chose Run DMC, swearing over the top. Someone videoed it, but the tape ran out before the end."

The historic date of the Clwb Ifor debut was 26 June 2003, the Thursday before the Glastonbury festival. "We called it our 'Glastonbury Warm-Up' show," says Mystikal, "even though we weren't playing Glastonbury. When we accepted, we just thought yeah, all right then, thinking it would just be about 20 minutes, dead easy..."

"But we got all the words wrong," Billy adds. "There were these songs we'd recorded, and never listened to since. We'd only done the lyrics once."

Regardless of the GLC's lack of preparation, the gig was rammed, with punters breaking and entering via the fire escape to get a peek. "It was carnage," laughs Mystikal. "People all falling on top of you, on a stage that small, it was crazy. When the last thing you've done on a stage was a school play - I was in Peter Pan when I was four - you're thinking 'Fucking hell, what's going on?'"

One reason for this Chain-mania stemmed from a bizarre report in a glossy mag that Mystikal was going out with Charlotte Church, and that the angel-voiced teen diva was due to appear onstage. The chaps themselves deny all responsibility.

Among the crowd that night at Clwb Ifor were members of Welsh psych-pop heroes Super Furry Animals. SFA contacted GLC and offered them a support slot at the Newport City Live Arena on 15 October 2003. "But there was no contact for months," says Eggsy, "and we thought 'Are we doing it?' So we turned up on the day, their tour manager was like, 'Um, have you got a CD or something?' and we did it." The Chain would later become a regular SFA support act.

Meanwhile, GLC now had enough songs recorded to make an album. Released on their own imprint, Gold Dust Gramophonics, but pressed up with the help of Leon West from Cardiff's SFDB records, The Manifesto came out with an initial run of only 1,000 copies. "They're collectors' items now," says Eggsy. "I haven't even got one myself. We got them into local shops, and Dwayne went over to Bristol, put a few in the shops there. It could have stayed at that level, doing little gigs..."

Another fortuitous meeting happened at Pop Factory, a music show filmed in Cardiff, where they met The Darkness, who would also later use GLC as a support act. It was via the Darkness connection that GLC came to the notice of Atlantic Records' Korda Marshall, the man who would eventually sign them. Things were starting to get serious, and GLC - seemingly passive agents in their own rise - needed management. After some early help from Andy Barding (now managing rising girl group The Pipettes), Conal Dodds of Metropolis Music took them on, and they landed a prestigious, high-profile NME show in January 2004, supporting The Streets at London's Astoria.

Management means that the GLC modus operandi can continue unsullied by the dirty music biz. "We get out of bed and see what happens," says Billy. "'Have we got to get on the bus today?' We just carry on living in this... dope bubble."

Well, perhaps not completely passive. "I did go to EMI once," Adam confesses, "and give them a CD. I said 'Listen to that', and sat there. And I could see her inside the window thinking, 'Hasn't he gone yet?'"

The preference, then, was always for a major rather than an indie? "We got indie labels getting in touch," Billy recalls, "but we thought, if we're gonna do it, we wanna be able to live off it, 'cause we'll be giving things up."

When the call came from Atlantic, how was the decision made to whittle the 23 "soldiers" down to eight full members? "It was a question of who wants to pack their jobs in? Or more like who's got a job?" Yes, the GLC aren't all feckless dole scroungers. Some of them have worked for a living.

"Me and Mysty had a good one, didn't we, Myst?" says Eggsy.

"We had a blinder," Mystikal confirms. "We were working down at the Passport Office. We know all the tricks. If you want a dodgy passport, give us a shout and we'll get you a dead man's one for a few quid."

Further investigation reveals that Maggot worked in the Pot Noodle factory, Mike Balls in the Megabowl bowling alley, Billy in pubs, 2 Hats driving replacement cars to people's houses, Mystikal used his reassuringly deep voice on telephone helplines, and Eggsy served time in the warehouse of shopping channel QVC, who are so cheap that they roped staff members into appearing in their ads. Look closely at some of them, and you can still see the rap superstar lurking in the background.

Word of the GLC's genius spread like wildfire, with the help of ready-made catchphrases (Newport slang like "you knows it" and "safe as fuck"), killer tunes packed with sick humour, and hilarious depictions of working-class lowlife ("I got you this necklace it cost me 12 pounds from Argos, Elizabeth Duke/ Baby you're the Skywalker to my Luke"), delivered in strong Gwent accents over Eighties pop samples, while wearing garish shell suits from the local market.

Debut single "Half Man Half Machine" released on the Must Destroy imprint (original home of The Darkness) was a minor hit in April, but after a summer of festival triumphs - notably the Carling Reading/Leeds weekend at which GLC, first act of the day, were the surprise hit of the weekend (with the phrase "you knows it" on thousands of lips) - they were poised for their big breakthrough.

"Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do" crashed in at number three in August, and suddenly GLC were properly famous. "Your Mother's Got a Penis", despite being utterly unsuitable for radio, did nearly as well in October, and a re-jigged version of their album, now titled Greatest Hits, went on to sell a quarter of a million copies.

The inevitable question, then, is how fame has changed them. What have they spent the GLC millions on?

"I got a PlayStation," deadpans Adam.

"I buy two lottery tickets on a Saturday," says Eggsy, "and I've bought a mini portable DVD player."

"I got a penis reduction," booms Mystikal.

"I bought a door!" Adam excitedly remembers. "I bought a door, right, and I put it on upside down and back to front! Dreadful. I did employ Roy Ganja, who's a great carpenter. But he just gets more and more drunk and says 'I'm gonna come back tomorrow'. I'm gonna get my cleaner to sort it out."

The news that Adam has a cleaner is met with general derision.

"I bought a 'Billy' bookcase," says Webb, "'cause my name's Billy. From Ikea. Flatpack, made it myself."

"It's not like Lego, is it?" Adam empathises. "It's fucking hard!"

Mystikal agrees. "Adult Lego."

They've yet to be tempted to move up to London, and they still drink in the same pubs they frequented pre-fame.But have GLC really lived the down-at-heel life they describe in their lyrics, or are they having a sly laugh at those who have?

"We all know these stories," says Billy defensively, "whether it's personal or second-hand."

"We've all been unemployed and screwed over," contributes Mystikal. "Everyone has felt hopeless at some time in their life. But stuff about having sex with a monkey, we haven't done."

"We're leaving that to Billy, for the live show."

"That's the next tour," he sportingly smiles.

As GLC's popularity sky-rocketed, they found themselves getting some unusual offers. The airwaves of Radio 1 were handed over to GLC for an hour one night, which they filled with silly voices and much Goons-inspired idiocy ("We put on stupid voices all the time, just to amuse each other"), and they were invited to guest-edit the NME. "That was hilarious. Arts and crafts. They sat us down in a big room in a photography studio with crayons, and we just drew stuff. It was like a retirement home. Adam hadn't had that much fun since making his own T-shirts at school." Even weirder, they were invited to give a talk in local schools: one wonders what the board of governors would make of these foul-mouthed druggies being held up as examples to Gwent's children.

On 22 January, these social menaces were booked to play the huge Tsunami Aid concert in Cardiff, and stole the show. Unusually, they were on perfect behaviour.

"Yeah, no swearing," Billy smiles. "I made up for it by swearing a lot in private, before we went on stage."

Between our first and second meetings, GLC have made their first ever visit to America.Even though they had predicted that "British bands never work in America", they report that "it was more fun than we thought it would be." The Gwent slang - which, even as a fellow South Walian, I often find impenetrable - translated surprisingly easily. Eggsy has a theory. "We're just giving them some of the confusion they've given us."

But not everybody "got" the GLC. "There were a lot of Edvard Munch's Scream's in the audience," Eggsy recalls. "You know, when they hold their face in horror?"

Right now GLC are tackling the classic Second Album Syndrome. Having had their whole lives to work on the first one, they have to scrap around for stolen moments to write its successor, tentatively slated for a July or August release. On Greatest Hits, they were rapping about things that made them laugh. Now they're so popular, do they have one eye on what the audience will find funny?

"They share our sense of humour anyway," reckons Mystikal. "We do a straw poll amongst ourselves - 'Do you find it funny?' - and if we do, we reckon everyone will. And we're not gonna be singing about having golden Bentleys or anything like that."

"Or finding God," Maggot chips in.

"You've got Coldplay for all that," says Adam. "He can sort out all the troubles in the world, with his guitar."

Any new titles you can let slip?

"'Short Term'", reveals Mystikal. "That's a banger."

"I have a short term-memory problem," Billy explains. "I was hoping it would go away in the New Year, but it 'aven't, so I wrote a song about it."

"And another one," Eggsy adds, "about the evils of binge drinking."

Speaking of which, it's time for the pub. The night winds down over more ciders, at the now-legendary Murenger. Later, as I'm leaving, I encounter one final piece of evidence that the GLC, experts at doing things their way, are still breaking rules. On the door, there's a photocopied sign in big bold capitals. It reads "NO TRACKSUITS".

Goldie Lookin Chain are performing alongside UB40, Eric Clapton and Roger Daltrey at the Teenage Cancer Trust concert: Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212), Friday