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TIMES ARE CONSTANTLY CHANGING AND ALL WE
CAN TAKE ARE
HERE ARE JUST SOME
STORIES OF HIP HOP.
EL-P “AS A HIP HOP PRODUCER, YOU ARE INSPIRED BY ALL SORTS OF DIFFERENT GENRES BECAUSE YOU ARE COLLECTING RECORDS. YOU DON’T MAKE A HIP HOP ALBUM BY JUST COLLECTING HIP HOP RECORDS. A TRUE HIP HOP PRODUCER IS SOMEONE WHO LOVES EVERY GENRE OF MUSIC AND FINDS SOMETHING FASCINATING IN EACH ONE.”
he idea was Fear and Loathing... meets The Muppets. I wanted to make a video that was the most fucked up that people had seen for a long time,” says El-P, explaining the motivation for his new video, ‘The Full Retard’, which sees this long-time emcee/producer embark on a bender of drink, drugs and violence instigated by his psychotic puppet sidekick. By hip hop’s standards, El-P has never been conventional. From his frantic, inaccessible raps as part of Company Flow, to his bleak intergalactic soundscapes in his solo albums, Fantastic Damage and I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, he’s always been at the leftfield of the genre. “It’s an aesthetic that I’ve always loved. It comes from the music I was listening to as a kid and the films that I watched,” he says of this sound. “I was always into John Carpenter film scores and Vangelis. That synth stuff that makes people feel like it’s spacey.” His latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, shows no departure from this sound, more “the next chapter, a natural evolution”. And with it being a five-years-in-the-making follow-up to his previous album, prolific he is not. “To be honest, if I wasn’t pleased with the result, it wouldn’t even go out. That’s probably why I’ve always taken so fuckin’ long to put records out. No matter what, I always make sure I’ve given it my all,” he explains over the crackly phone line from his home in New York. “I have to feel that way when I put a record out there, because then I don’t care what other people think of it. Even if people don’t like it, at least I know that I like it.”
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However, by taking this obscure path, he has inadvertently attracted adulation beyond core hip hop from a more chin-stroking muso crowd including Pitchfork and The Wire. “It was never my plan to appeal to anybody except hip hop heads. I’m glad that it happened though and I’ve gotten a lot of love from it,” he remarks. “As a hip hop producer, you are inspired by all sorts of different genres because you are collecting records. You don’t make a hip hop album by just collecting hip hop records. A true hip hop producer is someone who loves every genre of music and finds something fascinating in each one. But I wouldn’t feel right if I wasn’t getting love from the hip hop community because that’s my heart.” El-P’s influence on hip hop extends beyond merely making beats and writing rhymes. As co-founder of underground label Def Jux, he also became an industry player and helped give rise to such celebrated acts as Cannibal Ox, RJD2 and Aesop Rock. He may have put the label on indefinite hiatus in 2010, partly to concentrate on his music and in recognition of the changing state of the music industry. But on reflection, what does he make of the impact he’s had over the years? “I don’t really know. I think that’s something for other people to discuss,” he says, seemingly unwilling to acknowledge it. “Hopefully what people have taken away from what I’ve worked on is that doing what you want to do musically can be really powerful and successful; not catering your music to anything other than just truly trying to make the best record you can.”
NATHAN ‘FLUTEBOX’ LEE “YOU KNOW HIP HOP FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE IS A MOVEMENT FOR PEOPLE TO POSTURE AND ACT BAD, BUT IT CAN BE A VEHICLE FOR YOU TO BETTER YOURSELF, TOO.”
ou can suddenly be in the middle of the music without needing a backing track because you are making the loop, the beat and the melody – you are right in it!” says Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee, brimming with frantic enthusiasm after having just spat out several hard-edged beaty riffs on his flute. He’s throwing out these musical vignettes in between having his photo taken on a street corner in Shoreditch on a wet spring afternoon. But curiously enough, the world-weary passersby seem nonplussed by the sight of a man beatboxing hip hop with a classical instrument. It’s a rather strange non-reaction considering Nathan’s skills have very much appealed to a wider audience than just head-nodding hip hop fans. Over the past five or so years, Nathan has amassed quite a following through touring with his loose musical collective, The Clinic. He’s worked with such high-profile acts as The Prodigy, The Roots and Nitin Sawhney and played eclectic festivals like Glastonbury, Womad and Larmer Tree with what fellow The Clinic member Ed Skrein has described as a “hip hop freak show”. He was even invited to perform for staff at Google’s offices alongside fellow oral beat-maker Beardyman. However, this success is something that he seems surprised by. “Some people probably hate my guts for it. It became more popular than I thought it would. I did loads of random stuff, but then I did the Knightrider theme and it went nuts,” he remarks with a laugh about the nearuniversal praise for his inventive take on the art form. “You can’t control what your public image is, but I’m trying to illustrate the music that can be made with the flute and put it on the less jokey side and make stuff that hits hard. It’s definitely not a gimmick, though.” This path all started back when Nathan, a builder by trade, was caught by the police in possession of cannabis. Soon after, he was given a flute by a friend who saw it as
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something he could channel his abundant energy into. “I was in a lot of trouble, and didn’t really have any options. [..] I wanted to learn classical and prove to myself I was good at something. I’ve been shit at most other things really,” he says with a self-effacing laugh. “You know hip hop for a lot of people is a movement for people to posture and act bad, but it can be a vehicle for you to better yourself, too.” After teaching himself the orthodox method to get music out of this silver-plated tube, he combined it with the art of beatboxing that he’d learned as a teenager growing up in Ladbroke Grove in West London. “I’m trying to make it into riffs that are coherent. I like to organise it into proper hooks,” he says of this art. “It’s an old-school instrument, but I like to make it relevant and hit hard, not put these flowery melodies down. It gives it a totally different character. The beauty of the flute is when you bring that bass [thumps out a bass drum with his throat] it can sound hard edged, then come out of it and play long notes.” To help their music reach a wider audience, the group put out a self-titled EP in 2011. But despite the critical acclaim it received, Nathan insists that The Clinic should try to remain in the live realm. “If everyone is playing live, there’s real energy and character as the human element can be brought back into hip hop,” says Nathan, clearly having given it some thought. “Beatboxing is a live thing, so don’t try and get away from what you do. And if you are going to do a beatbox album, don’t make it so it’s pre-recorded and it’s been chopped to bits. We recorded it live.” So in order to perfect this live art, like Nathan has, what does he think it takes? “Ugliness. Low level autism,” he says with another booming cackle. “You’ve got to put the effort in. If you are shit at music though, you’ll be shit at beatboxing. Just practice a lot and don’t go on X Factor or any of that shit!”
DJ WOODY “BATTLING HAS BEEN PART OF HIP HOP FROM DAY ONE, GRAFFITI WARS, BREAKDANCING AND EMCEEING. IT BRINGS OUT INNOVATION IN PEOPLE AS YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT TO BE THE BEST. YOU REALLY HAD TO THINK HARD. IT’S ONLY EVER BEEN A POSITIVE THING.”
’m constantly busy. I’ll do seventy hours in the week unpaid and four hours at the weekend paid,” says DJ Woody, reflecting on his way to earn a living. “At the end of the day, I’ve seen my dad work a hardcore job he didn’t enjoy for forty years, so it’s a godsend to be able to do it as a profession. It’s a privilege.” The two-times deejay world champion has travelled down to London from his home near Blackpool to exhibit his new display of video turntablism, DJ Woody’s Big Phat 90s AV Show. He’s sitting in the corner of The Book Club in Shoreditch, nursing a glass of water and complaining about general illness yet he still manages to chat all things hip hop in his bright Lancastrian tone. “I saw some press for this show being advertised as boy bands and the Spice Girls, so I think we need to reiterate to people that it’s 1990s hip hop!” he says with a laugh. This audio-visual tribute to the “best hip hop made” sees him taking a chronological journey through the decade, along the way mashing up classics like LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Say Knock You’ alongside videos of young Macauley Culkin smashing the shit out of two burglars in Home Alone - all of which builds upon his previous 2009 AV show, Turntables in Technicolour. “This show has taken a pretty hardcore month of work, gathering material and piecing it all together – video edits, graphics, animations. It’s a good bit of graft, but it’s what I enjoy doing,” he remarks. But Woody isn’t simply jumping on the AV bandwagon to join the likes of DJ Yoda and DJ Shadow. It’s just a natural combination of his interests, helped out immensely by a degree in graphic design and a previous job of making animations for Granada TV.
“The two things I’ve loved since I was a kid were art and music; drawing a hip hop culture. As soon as Serato came out with the AV mixing technology, I wanted to get straight into it,” he says. “I always found that turntablism didn’t translate well onto a big stage. Unless you are a complete geek, you don’t know what’s good and what’s amazing. It was only ever five guys at the side who really knew what you were doing. The AV side of things lets you use the deejay skills built up through competitions and make it into a show. [...] And it allows me to perform without having to do all the hands-in-the-air shit!” As a kid raised on hip hop - Run DMC, in particular – Woody, like many kids in the 1980s, had to wait until he had a part-time job in his teens before he could buy decks. Though passionate about all the elements of hip hop, his rise into competitive turntablism and eventual deejaying world champion fame came through a local rivalry with Manchester-based deejay Peter Parker. “It only started due to an ego thing. I saw his props go up from battling, so I saw he was the guy I needed to beat. The entire reason I entered competitions was to battle him. It snowballed from that,” he explains. “Battling has been part of hip hop from day one, graffiti wars, breakdancing and emceeing. It brings out innovation in people as you’ve got to fight to be the best. You really had to think hard. It’s only ever been a positive thing.” But after winning international titles in 2001 and 2002, he has stepped away from the competitions fully satisfied and now indulges the simpler pleasure of rocking a party. “I don’t have that motivation to prove myself any more,” he explains. “After winning a few times, you’ve got nothing to gain by carrying on competing, just everything to lose. So I moved on.”
DISORDA “EVEN NOW, OVER FIFTEEN YEARS IN I’M STILL PASSIONATE ABOUT IT. IT’S NOT JUST A MUSIC, IT’S A LIFESTYLE. IT’S THE FACT YOU CAN EXPRESS A MESSAGE THROUGH GETTING AN ILL BEAT AND JUST RHYMING OVER IT AND PULL IN SO MANY PEOPLE FROM THAT. IT’S SUCH A POSITIVE THING!”
urking deep within the suburbs of South West London, there exists the ultimate den for any hip hop head. In this dark, narrow space, vinyl and CDs are stacked from floor to ceiling in a vague semblance of order: stickers, flyers and posters daub the walls, and various collectables litter the shelves. This is The Bunker, the broadcasting hub of deejay and promoter Disorda, who has been distributing UK hip hop to the masses under the Suspect Packages banner for the best part of two decades. “I’ve just about got enough space to fit in all my stock and about three-quarters of my record collection. It just keeps growing though,” says Disorda, turning down the soft reggae spinning on the decks that seems to unwittingly complement his subdued persona. “My biggest collection is UK hip hop. I’m really nerdy about it. I’m a Virgo so I’m very precise with everything. If I see a spelling mistake on an album or something, I’ll pick someone up on it.” The Suspect Packages business began life back in 1996 when Disorda started selling mixtapes from the likes of DJ MK, DJ Yoda and Dan Greenpeace as a sideline to his job at a printers. “I used to cane all their postage and machinery!” he says with an amused lilt to his voice. When voluntary redundancy came his way a few years later, he went full-time with Suspect Packages alongside running a distribution company, Boombox, all the while aspiring to give the UK scene a push in the right direction. While Boombox may have folded after a five-year run, he still manages to eek out a living from Suspect Packages with an online music store, club nights and monthly radio show – although he admits that the monetary reward makes it little more than a “glorified hobby”. “I just hope that I can maintain and keep things going, because if Suspect Packages leaves the scene, then I don’t know what would happen really,” he says thoughtfully. “I’m
not trying to big myself up, but there doesn’t seem to be another core point where people can sell their music and hear what’s coming new.” And so through this, he’s found himself as a pivotal figure in the UK hip hop scene and one who can hold a lot of sway over breaking new talent and releases to core heads. But it’s both a privilege and a responsibility. He explains: “I get a lot of people approach me and ask, ‘What have I got to do for you to sell my product?’ At the end of the day, it’s got to be good. Not good by your mates’ standards, but think of your favourite artist and ask, ‘Is it as good as that?’ It’s not a case of just pressing up a CD. People need to know about it so you need to do shows, get on the radio shows and give it a push yourselves. Some people just expect it to go on Suspect Packages and sell shitloads. It doesn’t work like that.” And being a gatekeeper inevitably means having the unenviable task of turning people down. It’s something he seems to take in his stride, though. “I physically don’t have the time to sell everybody’s releases,” he says almost apologetically. “I don’t like turning people down, but if I do it’s for a good reason and I’d like to think that person would take what I say on board. I’m quite an honest guy so someone needs to be told sometimes, ‘This is shit, you are wasting your time.’” Keeping on top of all that’s new often means fourteenhour days on the administrative grind. It’s a tough way to scrape by in an uncertain era of declining record sales, but it’s the simple love of hip hop that seems to keep him going. “I think if I was [doing this] with a music I wasn’t into myself, it would do my head in. But even now, over fifteen years in I’m still passionate about it. It’s not just a music, it’s a lifestyle,” he says happily. “It’s the fact you can express a message through getting an ill beat and just rhyming over it and pull in so many people from that. It’s such a positive thing!”
MR LOOP & MARK FROM THE ZOO “I KNOW PEOPLE EXPECT YOU TO BE PROFESSIONAL AND FLAWLESS, BUT TO BE HONEST I FIND A LOT OF HIP HOP BORING WHEN IT’S BEEN AIRBRUSHED INTO PERFECTION. THE LITTLE STUMBLES AND MISPRONUNCIATIONS SHOW YOU’RE ONLY HUMAN.”
t’s a wet spring afternoon in a rural zoo near Canterbury, and it’s feeding time. Zoo-keeping rapper Mark From The Zoo is making his rounds armed with a bucket of severed rabbits, throwing portions into the cages of the various cat enclosures and dropping facts about each species as he goes. “The last thing I’ll show you is the honey badger. That’ll be the laugh,” he says with a dry chuckle. “It’s the only animal where we don’t go in their cage. He’s vicious!” I’m visiting here today, accompanied by producer and fellow Canterburian Mr Loop, to talk to them both about their latest collaboration project, ZooLoop, a dark yet wryly humorous album telling tales of everything from deprivation and depression to love and alcohol-fuelled, blokey mishaps. Although the pair have previously worked together on Mr Loop’s albums, The Bury All and Music From The Tanhauser Gate, this new project is a more narrowly focused vehicle for Mark to vent his spleen. “Half of it is probably me wanting to hog his beats. It’s cool to have a crew together on a tune, but at the same time, sometimes I want to go off on a different, more obscure tangent and tell a little story. Without wanting to sound selfish, I don’t want others impeding on it,” explains Mark. “Though I didn’t think of a concept really. It was just based on moods... and drinking.” “It’s super dark and incredibly funny in places,” adds Loop, helping Mark out on his rounds by dangling half a rabbit into the cage of an Indian desert cat. “It’s flippant. Then it delves into how dark things can be, and that reflects us both as people. Although Mark’s a fun guy, he’s mentally ill!” While Loop’s last comment may be tongue-in-cheek, Mark’s real-life ‘everyday fella’ character does seem hard
to match to his more angst-ridden, on-mic persona. But there’s a reason for this. Mark explains it best: “I don’t tend to speak about these things in everyday life. I’m a bottler. That’s exactly why I started writing raps. It was purely to get thoughts out of my head. I need to do it. I’m an obsessive thinker and I’m always talking to myself. Rapping to me is me questioning myself out loud and like having a conversation with Parky – that’s the real Michael Parkinson, not the rapper Micall Parknsun!” Despite working hard on the album, the result of over a year of trading emails and Soundcloud links finished off with studio time with ex-Beefeaters producer Vee Kay, the pair seem very realistic about their prospects for anything resembling fame, fortune and ditching of the day jobs. It’s something that’s reflected in their decision to give away all their music for free and happily put on shows for nothing more that a promise of a few free drinks. “I think having a day job makes putting out albums even more profound. Rather than having a label pay for you to do it, you do it off your own expense and your own time,” says Loop. “You have a finite time on this earth and if you choose to sacrifice it to make hip hop, that shows real love.” And this down-to-earth approach stretches to the final product with Mark in particular happy to leave some earthiness and flaws imprinted on the record. “I know people expect you to be professional and flawless, but to be honest I find a lot of hip hop boring when it’s been airbrushed into perfection,” says Mark, celebrating the end of his rounds with a roll up. “The little stumbles and mispronunciations – like you often hear on some Roots Manuva tunes – show you’re only human.”
SKITZ “AS LONG AS YOU KEEP GOING WITH WHAT YOU BELIEVE, YOU WILL MAKE IT – IN A CERTAIN WAY. I MIGHT STILL STRUGGLE TO PAY MY RENT EVERY MONTH, BUT I STILL LOVE WHAT I’M DOING. AND THAT’S WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO ME.”
’m one of those people who takes time over everything. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I don’t cut corners,” says Skitz, explaining his approach to music as he puffs on an afternoon cigarette in a beer garden in London Fields, Hackney. “It’s all mastered properly and I bounce it all to two-inch tape to get that warmth and the old school sound, so anyone who knows about sound will be able to tell its quality.” Since the mid-1990s this deejay/producer, born Joe Cole, has been applying this almost artisan method to make many a classic heavy-bottomed beat for the likes of Roots Manuva, Skinnyman and Rodney P, and has remained a lasting figure in UK hip hop for it. Today, he’s up in London from his home in Hastings, Kent, stopping off for the interview before picking up the aforementioned Rodney P to do a show in Swansea that evening. As a duo, they’ve spent over a decade together putting out tracks, touring and, at one point, even hosting a show on Radio 1Extra. “I’ve known him fucking ages! We are like an old married couple,” he laughs. “The first single I brought out was with Roots Manuva. A mutual friend played it to Rodney and he loved it. I went round to his house and just linked. We are from different worlds, really. I’m a country boy, he’s from the city but we just kind of gelled.” His close collaboration with Rodney is just one example of the importance for Skitz to create tracks with emcees, not just throw beats their way. And these collaborations have got to be organically grown and nurtured by good times.
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“I like to tailor my beats with certain emcees in mind. On Sticksman, Rodney’s got the reggae fire stuff, Buggsy’s got the double time stuff and the Taskforce beat is a bit folky and hippy-fied,” he explains. “To me it’s pretty important as it’s got to gel together with the emcee. I have to hang out with them, have a laugh and a joke with them. If you hang out with them, you are going to get an insight into their character and so the track will create a better vibe. It’s just getting into their mindset and linking on their terms.” However, this slow-going, perfectionist approach, which sees Skitz produce entire albums that never see the light of day, puts him at odds with today’s age of hype and immediacy where an artist’s worth is measured by YouTube hits and Twitter followers. “Instant Pot Noodle rap is what the industry wants,” he remarks with amused disdain. “Someone good will come out then there will be ten second-rate versions of them.” But it seems he uses his ‘fuck the industry’ attitude as a driving force for inspiration, drawing in particular from the “rebelliousness and revolution ethos” of reggae. “Some of the best beats I make are when I’m hungry and down and out. I’m pissed off and depressed. A lot of good shit comes out of the struggle,” he says. “The reason why people like J Dilla shone through is that they did their own thing and kept going at it. As long as you keep going with what you believe, you will make it – in a certain way. I might still struggle to pay my rent every month, but I still love what I’m doing. And that’s what’s important to me.”
WORDS Ed Andrews PHOTOGRAPHY Jake Green, Max Hamilton, Paul Willoughby, Tim Saccenti , Ed Andrews ART DIRECTION Rob Longworth THANKS Stack Magazines, The Church of London, Ben Harris, Steve Watson, Corin Douieb, King Adz, Shelley Jones, Andrea Kurland, Vince Medeiros, Christine Binns, Matt Drane, Liz Seabrook CONTACT firstname.lastname@example.org ÂŠ2012
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Take the Stage is a quarterly digital book telling stories of hip hop. Through interviews and portrait photography, Take the Stage gives an...
Published on Jun 22, 2012
Take the Stage is a quarterly digital book telling stories of hip hop. Through interviews and portrait photography, Take the Stage gives an...