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The United Kingdom was an unlikely spot to find rappers in the late '80s. Merlin (of Jamaican descent) was born and raised in South London's Brixton. At 11, he sang and played in a funky church that used drum machines and synthesizers to augment the traditional organ and piano. With musical bloodlines -- reggae star Smiley Culture is his uncle -- Merlin formed the Juveniles to play at school dances. At 14, he started hanging with local rappers, befriending MC Blade. The teens won a big rap contest, and DJ Master Mix quickly whisked Merlin away to sign a solo deal with Rhythm King Records. The British label released Born Free, and Merlin successfully collaborated with local rappers including Bomb and S'Express for many chart hits. His discography includes "Who's in the House" from 1989, and the LPs Merlin (1989) and The New Rap Messiah (1992). A six-month prison sentence for stealing checks from Mute Records stopped everything. He resumed rapping when released, but his glory days were over and his career ended before his 21st birthday. ~ Andrew Hamilton
Brixton, London, England