Ruff Sqwad, R&G, ‘Gina’ & Me...

Words: Jesse Bernard
Photography: Simon Wheatley

2007 feels like another lifetime ago. iPods and MP3 players had become the main portals we’d use to connect us to the music we love, although we were still burning CDs on the daily: whether it was for that 50-track mix for the banged-up Vauxhall Corsa as a first car—that if you looked at from a certain angle, you might just imagine a Benz—or for your friend that hadn’t managed to get their hands on the Collector’s Edition of Ruff Sqwad’s Guns N Roses Vol. 1.

On February 1, 2007, two years after releasing the original, East London grime outfit Ruff Sqwad dropped a special version of Guns N Roses Vol. 1 that featured easily one of the best grime songs of all time. That song was called “Together”, and it came complete with production from Rapid and vocals from Shifty, Dirty Danger, Maxi, Slix, and a featured verse from Wiley. This track, along with “Died In Your Arms” from Guns N Roses Vol. 2, featured on the 2007 Valentine’s mix CD I made for a girl whose name I don’t want to can’t remember anymore. Let’s call her Gina. By 2007, R&G had fully arrived, and you could make an entire mix CD full of R&G songs featuring everyone from Sadie Ama and Kano to Katie Pearl and DaVinChe.

Gina definitely had no idea who Ruff Sqwad were; not many people did at the time, unless you were fully tuned in. I’m sure she was expecting a mix CD that featured hits like Akon and Snoop Dogg’s “I Wanna Love You”, Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”, all of which are reminders of just how different the charts were in 2007. I saw fit to make sure none of those songs appeared. Instead, it featured only 14 UK-based tracks. I was about to show Gina a whole new world and this CD was our magic carpet, traversing through the early soundscape of R&G.

Wifey Riddim”, and all its various illegitimate offspring, had already shown us that grime didn’t just have to be about hype and energy, and that there was room for heartfelt romance (even if it was young and messy because that was all we knew). You could play Kano’s “Brown Eyes” in the dance where “tings come alive”, but that was for the end of the night. Ruff Sqwad, however, found the perfect equilibrium of vibrant romantic expression over ‘80s power ballad samples and beats made on Fruity Loops.

As it stands, and as far as three-track sequences go, “Functions On The Low”, “Together” and “Your Love Feels” may arguably be the most representative of the R&G era—instrumentals you could bop down the street to or bump in the whip with a girl driving nowhere because you only had £2.25 for petrol. They weren’t so much love songs, but they were the backing tracks to our chaotic and naive selves as we fumbled around trying to make sense of what this romance thing was.

We knew that these tracks made us feel something, because we already recognised them through samples such as The Police’s “Message In A Bottle” and Cutting Crew’s “Died In Your Arms”. In hindsight, Tinchy Stryder’s trajectory into making cheesy-pop love songs made all the sense, especially if you were a fan of “Died In Your Arms”. The week Guns N Roses Vol. 1 was released, the only grime-affiliated song in the UK charts was Lady Sovereign’s “Love Me Or Hate Me” at 35. Although the floodgates would open that year, Guns N Roses was the launchpad from which Tinchy’s career took off, soaring high until he became a star in the hood.

Gina unfortunately didn’t approve of the mix CD. R&G wasn’t to her taste, but looking back, it wasn’t to everybody’s. Much of it teetered on the corny side and sounded rough, not polished enough like the Ashanti and Ja Rules many of us were used to when it came to romantic rap. She said that I couldn’t possibly have liked her if I gave her a CD of what she thought was parody music. That free yard she’d been planning for months wasn’t about to be ruined by my mix. Granted, I think she envisaged Usher and Alicia Keys not Ruff Sqwad and Wiley joining us through the speakers.

As time goes on, I’m realising that Gina and I just wouldn’t have worked if she couldn’t listen to R&G. Even “Nite Nite” and Leo The Lion’s hook wasn’t enough to sway her, clearly not the one I was taking home to meet mumzy. The only song on the CD that remotely sparked a gram of warm feeling was “Together”. It felt familiar even though it was brand new; it reminded her of an unspecific moment, but whatever it was, it was profound. Maybe it was just The Police sample or Wiley’s memorable bars.

One of the reasons why Ruff Sqwad are still so dear to us, despite a short lifespan, is that much of their music was made on computers in college for us. Laptops weren’t as affordable back then and Microsoft’s promise of having a computer in every household didn’t quite reach the ends. While we were playing football in our Kickers or chilling in the park, they were in the lab making the soundtracks for our lunchtimes. They made our teenage Valentine’s experiences that little bit more bearable thanks to Guns N Roses and White Label Classics. They made music for the sweet boys among us who didn’t want to admit that they were sweet boys, in a room full of mandem who were all secretly sweet boys.

As you’ve probably guessed, Gina and I didn’t last very long, but that moment was immortalised because it was Ruff Sqwad’s R&G that brought us together and ultimately broke us apart.

Posted on February 12, 2020