Tim Hughes meets the dapper Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer – who is introducing hip-hop and rave fans to cricket, tweed and afternoon tea
Straight Outta Surrey, Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer is not your usual rapper. While his urban counterparts shout about guns, girls and bling, the dapper Mr B chats about cricket, waxing his moustache and the the misuse of apostrophes.
“I perform ‘chap-hop’,” he says. “It’s hip-hop delivered with manners in the Queen’s English. I sing songs that rhyme about cricket, pipe smoking and sartorial elegance that are sometimes a bit cheeky.
“There’s a long tradition of posh people speaking fast over music. I perform hip-hop how it was originally intended – with received pronunciation.
“If De Le Soul, George Formby and Noel Coward had got drunk in a club and decided to perform together, it would sound like this. There are beats, rhymes and manners.”
Cutting a dash in a three-piece suit, waxed facial hair and polished brogues, Mr B – real name Jim Burke – raps, or rather ‘rhymes’, about the trails and tribulations of being a gentleman.
Examples include A Piece Of My Mind; Hermitage Shanks; Sherry Monocle, about falling for the wrong lady; Crazy Knights, on which he bemoans biscuits which break in the tea cup and admonishes his butler for giving away his vintage port; and his manifesto Dammit it Feels Good to be a Chap, in which he outlines the moral and sartorial code of the modern gentleman (“A proper chap quotes Byron, with a collar and a tie on,” he insists).
So where did it all come from? “It was a culmination of all the other things I’d done previously,” he says, while taking tea in his hometown of Hove – the posh end of Brighton.
“So there’s hip-hop, dance music and, of course, me playing rave on the banjolele. I was also interested in the whole ‘chap’ thing so I brought it together. It’s something I thought I’d try, that shouldn’t really work at all, but seems to.
“I tried it for the fist time 10 years ago and someone said it was the best thing I’d ever done,” says the old boy of Sutton Grammar School for Boys.
It’s hard to distinguish between Jim and his alter-ego. “Mr B is to me what Slim Shady is to Marshall Mathers,” he says, using the example of fellow rhymer Eminem. “It’s an extension which takes over.
“I become more and more schizophrenic day by day, but then lots of people come up with a character. Mick Jagger is really better spoken than I am. Even Ice T has a degree. Most people erase their poshness where as I accentuate it.”
A live favourite is his song Timothy – a strongly worded chastisement of hip-hop DJ, and originally well-spoken vicar’s son, Tim Westwood, who he reprimands for hiding his RP accent. “His enunciation is an utter disgrace, dropping Ts and Rs all over the place,” he rhymes.
“We both liked hip-hop, but isn’t it strange, that I’ve kept my accent, yet yours has changed. Come now old bean, it’s time to own up, say ‘How do you do?’ instead of ‘What’s up?’.”
Although he whispers: “He’s actually a nice chap, and if he comes round for tea he always insists on doing the washing up.”
It’s all very eccentric and can take unsuspecting audiences by surprise. “Generally speaking I do a lot of shows where people know a bit of my stuff, but there are always people who don’t know what’s going on,” he says.
“There was one open air show in Nottingham which looked like it was going to be a disaster,” he said. “There was a fun fair and it didn’t look like my crowd at all. There were 800 people looking at me wondering who this strange man with a moustache and banjolele was – but then something happened and they suddenly they all got it.”
It’s exceptionally good. “I make sure everything I do, I do to the best of my ability,” he says. “And that means the rhymes flow.”
A popular part of his shows are his “rave medleys” – mash-ups of club classics performed on the banjolele.
Being well-dressed and possessed of impeccable manners doesn’t mean one can’t enjoy oneself, of course, and Mr B admits to a love of life’s little pleasures. He is attached to his pipe, though shuns such rapper delights as crack and marijuana in favour of a tin of ready-rubbed black cherry from his favourite tobacconist. Life on the road, meanwhile, consists of a heady cocktail of Earl Grey tea, Stilton and good quality spirits.
“I do like single malt for the show,” he says. “I have a little nip while I’m getting ready, and then a brandy. Then a gin and a couple of ales, port and cheese and a brandy nightcap.
“I like to do things in a proper fashion,” he says. “There was a time where people would make an effort. After all, if you dress slobbish you act slobbish. Instead of being slobbish, be idle – that has a certain je ne sais quoi. It takes a bit more effort.”
And he likes his audience to join in by releasing their inner chap or chap-ess. “People do turn up in tweed,” he says. “But while I certainly wear tweed off stage, I prefer not to while playing as it gets too hot. One ends up dressing down because one gets too bedraggled.”
Tomorrow Mr B rides his penny farthing to The Bullingdon, in Cowley Road. He admits to having rather a soft spot for Oxford.
“I have played there a number of times and it’s always fun,” he says. “And walking around Oxford I feel less conspicuous than in other places like Rochdale, for example... though they do actually wear a lot of tweed up there too.”
So what should we do to embrace our inner ‘chap’ and chap-ess? “Well I like to say I’m a gentleman socialist. I believe everybody should have the life of a chap. But to look good, you can’t go wrong with tweed.
“A tie and pocket square are also good, but should not be of the same material or colour. They should compliment but not match.
“One should also take one’s hat off indoors – unless it’s splendid. Indeed, if you’ve got something snazzy, just wear it! Of course Ladies know what they are doing anyway. I do hope everyone comes down.”
Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer plays The Bullingdon, Oxford, tomorrow. Tickets from wegottickets.com