'Wicked' Tony Benn becomes Britain's oldest rap artist

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The veteran socialist Tony Benn has added a new achievement to his long, extraordinary career by having some of his greatest speeches reissued as a rap recording. At the age of 78, this makes him possibly the oldest rap artist in the country.

A speech Mr Benn delivered in the Commons five years ago, warning about the threat of war with Iraq, so impressed the jazz and rhythm and blues producer and composer Charles Bailey that he has set it to music and is issuing it as a CD. An album - tentatively entitled Tony Benn's Greatest Hits - is almost complete, and will be released at the end of the summer. Mr Benn's astonishingly prescient 1998 Commons speech, warning of the dangers of a war in Iraq, can be heard on his website, www.tonybenn.com, set to an R&B fusion soundtrack.

Other Benn speeches that have been set to music include his 1992 oratorical marathon on pit closures, and another from the same year on the threat of nuclear war. The prospect of the hardened clubbing youth of Britain losing themselves to the dread beat of Mr Benn's 1993 speech in favour of the ordination of women priests will also be something to be savoured.

"This has become his favourite project," a breathless Bailey enthused from his recording studio in Brixton, south London. "He's excited. It's wicked. Benn's come to the studio twice in the past week - Tony's hangin' out in the 'hood."

It is a strange departure for a man whose taste in music was set several decades before rap. But then Charles Bailey is no ordinary figure either. Rather than the usual background beat of urban soul in the studio, he prefers to have the television on, permanently tuned in to the BBC's live coverage of proceedings in Parliament.

One of the greatest experiences of Tony Benn's life was being taken into the Commons by his politician father to meet Paul Robeson, who sang "Ol' Man River" for them in the Commons tea room. That is probably as up to date as his musical tastes get, though he has met younger performers interested in radical politics, such as Billy Bragg.

His refusal to compromise during a career in which he has clashed with every Labour leader since Harold Wilson has made him popular with instinctively anti-establishment performing artists.

On Friday night, Mr Benn appeared on the music show Later with Jools Holland. He claimed to be "the oldest person in the studio, by 55 years" - an exaggeration, because he is fact only 33 years older than Holland.

Bailey has worked with the Metropolitan Police on campaigns against gun crime and to recruit more blacks into the force, and wrote a rap in support of the striking firemen that sold more than 50,000 copies. Mr Benn said: "This chap heard one of my speeches in Hyde Park and wrote to me saying he might consider putting some of my speeches to music. So I sent him some of my Commons speeches, which have been recorded, and he liked them ... He's politically sympathetic and has been doing a lot of positive things in Brixton."

The Iraq speech was delivered on 17 February 1998, to warn against Tony Blair's first decision to send British servicemen into action there. Mr Benn said then that any MP who backed the Government was "consciously and deliberately" taking responsibility for the large number of innocent Iraqis who would inevitably be killed. "What fools we are to live as if war is a computer game for our children or just an interesting little Channel 4 news item," he said.

"It's wicked," said Bailey. "A 30-second soundbite is not enough to hear what Benn has to say." So the new tracks, which he calls a fusion of jazz, classical and R&B, run to full speech length - 12 minutes and more apiece. "I've always loved Tony Benn. He's the only politician at the moment who people trust."

However unlikely Mr Benn's flirtation with urban groove, he is not the first Labour politician to have dabbled with the music business. In the early 1980s, Neil Kinnock, then party leader, made a brief and awkward appearance in a Tracey Ullman video, while among the first guests at No 10 after Tony Blair's 1997 victory were the leading lights of Britpop, including Oasis.

Within months, though, most of the fêted rock stars had fallen decidedly out of love with Labour's first Prime Minister since 1979.

Tony's Greatest Hits

Benn on Europe, June 1998

"The referendum will be after the next election ... or before if Rupert Murdoch changes his view."

On pit closures, October 1992

"It gives me huge pleasure that the Tories threw out Thatcher and the miners re-elected Scargill."

On nuclear war, January 1992

"I don't think most of Britain thinks that Russia, with all their domestic problems, are going to invade West Germany, take over Italy, France, come to London and deal with Ken Livingstone."

On women priests, October 1993

"Conscience is not the exclusive property of men. There are many women moved to service in the church."

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