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Rob B squats on the carpet in the cluttered-but-cosy Brixton front-room, and plunges a hand into his medley of raisins and nuts. Perched on a chair beside him, Nick ‘the Head’ Hallam is poised to reveal – in no uncertain terms – why the Stereo MCs have cut all ties with music industry titan Island Records and gone it alone. One thing’s for certain: it feels pretty good.
“There’s a new energy; it’s like there’s a point to putting records out,” enthuses the Nottingham-born DJ/producer. Stacks of papers, rolled-up posters and sound equipment – sheathed in polystyrene – lend the room a kind of casual urgency, offset by the central attraction: a gleaming table football table. Mates who get together and make a sound, says Nick: that’s what music should be about. “For a while it was like a vacuum, but it feels natural now – like we’re where we’re meant to be. And we’re going somewhere.”
No longer shackled by the high expectations of one of the world’s most influential labels, their 2005 release Paradise marked a welcome return to form for one of the pioneers of British Hip Hop. The title seems somewhat ironic considering the hostile world in conflict on which it comments – the hauntingly apocalyptic vision of “Vigilantes and the Stars and Stripes / Crack pipes burning in the morning light” resonating siren-like from opening track Warhead.
But the bustling vibrancy depicted on the cover hints at an alternative interpretation: just down the road from their studio, the pair see Brixton market as a melting pot of ideas and cultures – a raw creative environment to inspire the next wave of their music.
“An athlete in peak condition, whacking down races – that’s what making the album was like,” adds Rob, crunching a sunflower seed thoughtfully. “Everything kicked in: we got a spurt of energy and tracks just pulled together. Suddenly it took a giant step forward and reached a level that we didn’t anticipate.” Infused with a fresh desire to create, they’re already working on the next one.
As the name of their newly-formed label – Graffiti Recordings – suggests, Rob and Nick have always been keen to buck the commercial money-sucking industry in favour of fierce individuality. Ripping up the stencil and freestyling, they’re finally remembering how to enjoy themselves again – and there’s renewed bounce in their funk-heavy, dub-tinged beats. For it’s soon clear that in latter years Island Records and the Stereo MCs didn’t exactly see eye to eye.
“I’d never sign to one of those big labels again,” declares Nick. “They’re a bank. Some people sign bands because they hear something and believe in it, and even if their first record’s not massive they stick with it. That’s what [Island founder] Blackwell was like: he had a real cross-section of bands, from Grace Jones to Roxy Music; Spencer Davis; Bob Marley and the whole reggae catalogue – to bands like us.”
“But now they’re all chasing the next big thing. Those A&R guys who never sign a band until twenty other A&Rs want to sign them – that leads to situations where bands are signed for £3 million and their first record doesn’t make that back. So hang on, why not sign a band for £50,000, put some effort into it, help them tour and build something? They put so much pressure on a record doing well that it sucks the life out of bands.”
Things had changed considerably since the two mates from the East Midlands set up their first label – Gee Street – in the mid ’80s, energised by pressing up records and driving round the local music shops. It just depends how close to ground level you are, as they rapped in ’92 – and the lofty heights of the Island boardroom didn’t exactly pulse with positive vibes.
“There was no motivation down there,” Nick sighs. “We had a meeting about working with other artists, and they came up with Pharrell, Outkast – the big thing at the time – or getting Mos Def to do a rap on a track. That’s really original: Mos Def’s been guest rapper on about fifty other records, what does it have to do with ours? Or we pay Pharrell forty grand to try and buy a hit. That’s not what we’re about: it’s just total laziness.”
It also smacks of commercial achievement for its own sake – and at the expense of the music. It was partly the mounting pressure for the next hit single in the wake of flagship tracks Connected, Step It Up and Elevate My Mind – not to mention Brit Awards for Best Band and Best Album, and world tours with U2 and the Happy Mondays – that put a dampener on their creativity post-1992. “Sometimes success can de-motivate you,” admits Nick. “We never thought ‘let’s make a number one hit’ – it was just about making some good records. The minute we started thinking like that was the minute we forgot how to make anything.”
After that much-lamented nine year interval, 2001’s Deep Down and Dirty was always going to face close scrutiny. “Island put an overwhelming expectation on it to sell a few million, and I don’t think it was that sort of record,” he goes on. “Major labels turn off if a record doesn’t perform how they want it to. But there’s more to life than selling two million copies. It wasn’t a failure for us: we toured for a year on that record, and it sold more than our first album easily. For us it was an important part of getting ourselves together again and doing something.”
Commercial pressure aside, the perks to signing to an industry giant with serious clout are hard to ignore. “If you’ve got the money to tell people that your record’s available, they’ll at least check it,” reasons Rob. “The main pro of being on a big label is they have the money to buy shelf space. That’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years: retailers sell shelf space.” And while the creative freedom might be absolute, getting work out in front of people becomes a personal challenge.
“But it’s not difficult to start a label,” Nick insists. “It’s just down to belief and hard work. Millions of bands out there have put a record out on their own label – pressed out a thousand copies, got a buzz going and then signed to a bigger small label. If you can make it work with a team of your mates, you’ll enjoy what you’re doing a lot more – and you won’t get shafted.”
Laying down tracks in their bespoke basement studio helps keep that personal touch in the recording process. But increasingly powerful – and portable – software has also widened the scope considerably since they started in the mid ’80s. “You can work on ideas wherever you are,” says Rob: “Little vibes for a track come all the time. The B-side on our next single is something we did on the tour bus going through Germany.”
“That’s the fun aspect of it: one day you’ll be doing it in the snow, the next you’ll be in the sunshine, looking at the sea through a hotel window hours before you play to 5,000 people at a festival. It’s a bit of a new thing for us,” he grins.
“During that era of bland Trip Hop music – when people thought ‘everyone can do this with a few break-beat CDs’ – we had a Deep Purple record that our drummer gave us, an old cassette deck with a turntable, and a four-track reel-to-reel. We were whacking down break-beats, pressing play and record, rewind, rewind, bang. I think it gave us a natural feel for what’s good.”
And with famously energy-infused live performances and a uniquely infectious sound that defies genre boundaries – they’ve been described as everything from jazz funk to rock rap to electronica – the Stereo MCs are nothing if not independent-minded. Now they’ve pushed through the rough patch and reinvented themselves: in the words of Set It Off, “Take the pressure, take the pain – it’s the only way you’re coming round again.”
© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 3 of TEN4 magazine