UK - !K7
A typical day in the life of the Stereo MCs plays out like every teenagers fantasy. Buried away in their studio-come-playpen in the heart of south London’s Brixton, Rob Birch and Nick Hallam, the creative heart and soul of arguably the UK’s most important hip hop act of all time, spend their hours rehearsing, recording, listening to music (records of every hue imaginable litter the ground floor of their studios, affectionately dubbed Frontline), fielding enquiries on their MySpace page or messing around on the very same table football that adorned the front cover of their 2000 DJ Kicks album.
In short, it’s about creating a vibe, a setting, conducive to their unquenchable musical spirit. Whether it be laying down new tracks for their forthcoming new album, their sixth, and the follow-up to 2005’s stunning Paradise, or preparing for one of Rob’s increasingly popular DJ excursions, the mindset is always the same: take control in order to make a connection.
“We’re constantly trying to change stuff,” Rob B, looking fresh, fit and still the embodiment of lithe funk, admits. “But we still want to keep the identity of the group.” Listening to and watching the pair in action, it’s hard to square them with the duo that released their first album, 33-45-78 – a momentous clarion call for UK hip hop – nearly 20 years ago, such is their boundless desire and enthusiasm.
But their legacy is one to cherish. Although they might not like to countenance it, they were solely responsible for a generation of kids, hitherto listening to meat and potatoes indie guitar drivel, being turned onto the twin pleasures of beats and rhymes. Their second album, Supernatural, gave UK kids seduced by the sounds of Public Enemy, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, their own group, their own identity. America was listening too: Elevate My Mind (alongside I’m A Believer and Lost In Music part of a triptych of tracks that framed Supernatural) was the first single by a UK hip hop act to enter the US top 40. Touring with spiritual cousins, the mercurial Happy Mondays, made perfect sense in those heady times. After all, both were drinking from the same musical well. Today such a pairing would seem revolutionary.
The pinnacle of this first flush of creativity was undoubtedly 1992’s era-defining Connected album. Along with Cath Coffey and drummer Owen If, the group came to represent 1993 like no other. Brit Awards for Best Group and Best Album followed, while their live shows – communal outpourings of joy and strength – were the stuff of legend. Looking back, Rob and Nick are at pains to point out that the inordinately massive gap that bridged the release of Connected and its follow-up, Deep Down And Dirty, in 2001, had its roots in this burst of artistic endeavour.
“Everything happened pretty fast,” explains Rob. “It was a very packed and magnified time.”
“I think we also shied away from some of the more frivolous aspects of our success,” concurs Nick. “All I remember of the Brits is being painfully shy. That and the fact that it was snowing.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” smiles Rob. “I was jogging around Alexandra Palace before the ceremony and it was freezing.”
The Stereo MCs of today, then, is a far more relaxed affair. They’re keen to highlight the vital role Rob’s DJing plays in the new set-up. In the past they didn’t want it to over shadow the recorded output or playing live, now they’re not so precious.
“It’s something we’ve always done,” says Nick. “We started making music using turntables. That was the instrument. Making beats and listening to music for inspiration.” They point to memorable nights at their own Gee Street Records night, W11 Express, over in Notting Hill, to show how what they were listening to and playing out fed into the Stereo MCs sound. Back then, early house would find itself up against the more obvious hip hop, soul and reggae. These days, MIA, Diplo or Justice rubs shoulders with the likes of EPMD and Public Enemy.
“DJing is like a nod to our roots,” explains Rob, “while keeping it relevant and new. It’s about identifying with music now and then injecting that into our own music. It’s not about us making dubstep, but extracting the frequency that we recognise in that music and adding it to our melting pot.”
As Rob attests, the DJ sets are also a great way to introduce the next record. Currently schedule for next year, they believe that after the rebuilding exercise of Paradise (Nick: “We lacked a bit of confidence going into that record but breaking away from Island gave us freedom to explore our sound some more. Paradise gave us a platform, it gave us our bearings”), the new record will be even more exciting, taking their sound further than ever before.
“I think this record is going to be a heavier, bigger sound. And it’s about getting back to that raw essence of a man on a mic living in Brixton,” Rob boasts. And be under no illusion, Brixton, South London, is crucial to the dynamism of the Stereo MCs today.
“The longer we live and the more we travel around, the more I feel part of this place,” says Rob. “I can’t think of many other places I’d rather make music. There’s a natural rhythm to the place, and we get elevated by that buzz.”
It’s like living in umpteen different countries at once, but it’s still London.” “I tell you what,” smiles Rob. “This place has a great bottom end.” It’s no coincidence Stereo MCs make the music they do.
Stereo MCs can be seen DJ’ing at a venue near you soon – Hold Tight!