Tales Of The Supernatural
In keeping with the ideals of the hip hop movement, the Stereo MCs new LP sees ingenuity and talent used to wring the most out of a minimum of equipment. Simon Trask elevates his mind.
The Stereo MCs' second album Supernatural confirms them as a creative force in British hip hop. Yet much of the album was recorded in their flat using a modest equipment setup.
SURVIVING AS A HIP HOP ARTIST IN THE UK demands determination and self-belief. Part of the problem is that there isn't the vast audience to support the music and the artists in the UK that there is in the States (where even a hardcore hip hop record can sell in huge quantities, and the market can support a tremendous number and variety of artists). And with such a vital, thriving American scene, it's difficult if not impossible for British artists to make an impact there.
In what is still essentially a black music form expressing black culture and pride, a hip hop group which is both white and British could be said to have a double disadvantage. On the other hand, there are those who would contend that the colour of their skin gives them a significant advantage.
In their three-year history the Stereo MCs have heard it all. But the duo of rapper Rob B and DJ The Head - Rob Birch and Nick Hallam - who are augmented on live dates by drummer Owen If, are intent on letting their music speak for itself. Steering clear of both commercial compromise and an exaggerated hardcore stance, the Stereo MCs display a dedication to the essence of hip hop as an artistic musical form. Their philosophy is perhaps best summed up by Rob B's words on 'I'm a Believer', the opening track off their new, second album Supernatural: 'Well, I ain't one of those who wanna be a picture of something I'll never be/Your own identity's a true form, fashion disappears but we still go on'.
Where the group's first album 33-45-78 has a raw urgency to it, with a dense, compelling sound and a largely upbeat tempo, their new album keeps the rawness but is mellower, more relaxed, with an earthier sound. They do much of their recording in their South London flat, and it's here that I meet them. What explanation do they offer for the different quality of Supernatural.
"As far as the album being relaxed is concerned, I think we feel more confident now", says The Head.
"We know more about what we want to do. When we first started out it was quite tough getting our music over. Also, there was a stage when we were doing the first album when our DJ at the time, Cesare, wasn't on quite the same wavelength as Rob and me. It can be a bit unsettling when you have negative forces working on you like that. We used to do remixes with him as well, but only because we didn't want to upset him by not including him. You can get into situations where, unless you're a complete asshole and say 'fuck otF, you end up doing something for the wrong reason."
So what makes the partnership of Rob B and The Head work?
"Rob and me have known each other since we were six, so we know what we want to do and there's no ego problems", explains The Head. "If Rob wants to do a whole track on his own, it doesn't matter. Basically we're just looking out for the sum of what we're doing."
"Sometimes I'll put a track together but it always steers in a certain direction because we're still collaborating on it", Rob B concurs. "It reaches the destination that bears our name. If you start having definite roles then you turn into a group."
"And then people start getting problems about what their role is", The Head continues, "and you can end up putting a whole track down just because you don't want to upset somebody."
"When Cesare was DJing with us", Rob B recalls, "we used to feel bad about wanting to get on the decks and mess around with some ideas. It's like you're stealing somebody's glory, when really everybody should be trying to get some ideas down. Who cares who does it when in the end you've got a nice bit of music down?"
"Since we split up with Cesare I think it's been much easier for us to do exactly what we want to do", adds The Head, "Sometimes you can know what you want to do but you get disturbed, and you end up not putting it down quite right, whereas if you're left alone it ends up sounding right because it's able to come out naturally. So perhaps that's why this LP sounds more relaxed."
"I think if there's an earthier sound then it's got a lot to do with the fact that the music was started here on the eight-track", continues Rob B. "We've always hated the idea of having to do a demo, because when you've done a track once it's really boring to have to go and do it again. Also, if you just do it once then you keep the initial inspiration that you had for the music in the recording."
"Also, a lot of people are so finicky about things", adds The Head. "We could have a whole track that's got a little click going through it that you don't even notice, but in studios you get so much more of a focussed sound that people spend hours trying to get rid of stuff like that. We tend to let distortion and any little aberrations go onto tape, because it all adds up to the sound that we want. I think you can get away with a lot more when you're recording than people think you can."
"The important thing is to have the music sounding natural", Rob B continues. "If you mess around with something for too long, rubbing little bits out here and there, you end up messing it up so much that it's no longer natural. You're thinking about the icing layer instead of the feel of the music. It's the overall feel that people hear, they're not listening out for clicks."
"What we're trying to do is make a record with a feel", The Head concurs. "It's not like we're making a record that's meant to be a demonstration of how well the equipment in the studio works. I think that's what a lot of people are doing these days - it's all about how great you can get the music sounding with all this equipment. Whereas we see our equipment as a vehicle for getting our music down. We don't believe in treating equipment with respect - it's basically there to do a job."
The Stereos' equipment setup is modest, but it suits the way they like to work. At its heart is a Bel BD320 sampler/delay, which they use for sampling all their breaks.
"We tend to let distortion and any little aberrations go onto tape, because it all adds up to the sound that we want."
"Breaks are the basis of what we do", explains The Head. "Every track that we've done has breaks on it, and we always start with a break. At the most our breaks are two bars long; sometimes we might let a sample run for longer, but then more often than not it'll go out of sync. Most of the breaks we use have a real drummer playing on them, so the timing goes out pretty wild."
Once the sample is in the Bel, it's fired off an audio trigger from a TR808, pitch-shifting the sample on the Bel to get it in sync with the drum machine. In fact, the 808 is rarely used as a drum machine, though it does act initially as the timing source for laying a sync code to tape on their Tascam 388 eight-track via a Korg KMS30 synchroniser. A second KMS30 acts as standby in case the first one breaks down. At one time they used the SMPTE sync of their other drum machine, an E-mu SP12, but the SP12 broke down on them and is currently gathering dust on a shelf.
"It seems like every time we've started to use SMPTE something's gone wrong, so we think 'why bother?'", opines The Head.
With one break sampled into the Bel, the duo can then experiment with layering up to two others using their SL1200 turntables. However, as the Bel can only hold one sample at a time, each break has to be recorded onto the Tascam before another can be sampled.
The astute among you will have noted that neither MIDI nor sequencing figure in the Stereos' working methods.
"It's a fairly prehistoric way of working", The Head acknowledges, "but it's nice working like this because it's so simple. One reason why we've never bothered getting something like an Akai sampler is that the Bel is so quick to use. We like to do things instantaneously, otherwise it gets boring. If it takes more than half an hour to get a drum loop together then you start to lose the vibe of what you wanted to do in the first place.
"Doing things the way we do them is a lot faster than the way I've seen people working on computers. A lot of people program all their drops on the computer, but I think it ends up sounding sterile. OK, so you may need to program some drops when things start to get difficult, but the mix should be a performance in itself.
"Some people get totally sidetracked by equipment, and they end up not doing anything, they're on this constant search. They make it an excuse, like they can't do something because they need this particular bit of equipment."
ROB B AND THE HEAD GOT INTO HIP HOP around five or six years ago, influenced by electro music and by tapes of Red Alert's and Marley Marl's radio shows from New York.
"We got into it really naturally", says The Head, "and from there it developed into what we're doing now. We were messing around with drum machines to begin with and it progressed from there. I remember we had a really old turntable, and although you couldn't scratch with it, we were making drum loops - taking a bit off a record and running a tape loop of it on our Revox."
"Before we knew about mixing I had one bit of music running on tape and I found that it sounded nice having this other bit of music running alongside it", Rob B recalls. "You can put a different vibe on something just because somebody's made a record in a different place, and you can take a little bit of it and create a whole new aura. And you're not really stealing because you're building something new with it, a vibe nobody's heard."
The Head picks up the argument: "People say you're using other people's records, but you can hear the same break on two records and it'll sound completely different. It's down to individual taste, how to put breaks together."
It's this process of combining things in such a way as to create something new out of existing ingredients which lies at the heart of the Stereos' approach. However, there's no particular recipe which says how many breaks should be used or where they should come from.
"We just layer them till if feels like we've got enough, till it sounds like the track's finished", says RobB.
"We try and get the feel more than anything, so that it's like an old group playing", adds The Head.
"Record companies want to sell records on the strength of remixes when they've already got the real music there."
And is there any particular style of music that the Stereos will turn to for breaks?
"Quite often you go for oldish records, where you know that there's going to be a drummer playing", says Rob B. "Obviously 70s funk records are a good bet because a lot of those records have drum breaks on them. Also, with a lot of records from the '60s you find things where people break out and do something stupid. Some of those psychedelic records have got weird stuff on them."
"But there's breaks on just about anything", The Head observes. "Black Sabbath, for instance. It needn't be heavy metal guitar, there could be two seconds which sound completely different when taken out of context. That's the brilliant thing about sampling."
It could be argued that if sampling has fallen into disrepute it's because it's been used all too often as a recreative rather than a creative musical tool. In itself, sampling is a recreative process, so the art comes in transcending this through the choice of samples and the way in which they're used. Creative sampling is not about going for the obvious - the 'Funky Drummer' break that everyone and their dog has used - and that means being prepared to consider anything as a potential source of breaks.
"Sometimes we go down junk shops and secondhand record shops", reveals Rob B. "I've bought really expensive records before, but it makes no difference when you're looking for breaks. You could find a break on a naff record that cost you 50p. It's down to luck, really. You've got to think of it in terms of sounds, and maybe not look at the record cover."
The Head offers a specific example: "On the first track we released on Gee Street Records some three years ago, the break was from a cover version of Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition' on some really dodgy record label. It was a crap cover version, but the drum break at the beginning actually sounded better than the drum break on the original."
While breaks lie at the heart of the Stereos' music, they also like to add live instrumental parts, in the first instance using the instruments they have in the flat. No, not an M1, K1 or even DX7, but Fender Rhodes, Crumar Multiman and Roland SH101. The Head has a simple explanation for why they turn to these ageing instruments: "They sound brilliant. If somebody comes up to you with a sample disk and says they have a Rhodes on disk, you just know it won't sound the same as the original. Also, there's nothing like a real bass guitar. All we've got is a £20 Satellite bass, but we can record a track of it and then sample and loop the nicest bits."
Or as Rob B would have it: "We treat everything as a break".
But while the Stereos invariably start working on tracks at home, when they've filled up the tape on the Tascam or they want to add the raps, they lug the 388 along to a commercial studio, transfer their work across to 24-track tape and continue working from there. Thus alongside Lavender Hill in Battersea, the Supernatural album sleeve contains recording credits for Terminal 24 Studios in London and Calliope Studios in New York - the latter notable for being the studio where the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest record.
"We have recorded a couple of vocals in the flat", says The Head, "but it's much easier to do them in a studio."
"It's quite hard to get the voice sounding good here", adds Rob B. "That's where you really do need to have a good microphone. Also, just being somewhere else with an engineer and maybe a couple of other people around you gives it a bit more distance, so that you get more objective about what you're doing."
Working in a studio also gives them the opportunity to get in live musicians - including their regular drummer on live dates.
"If there's a vibe for Owen to put something down, he'll do it", says Rob B. "Even just a tambourine or something can add a feel to the music."
The new album also includes sax, trumpet, bass and vocal contributions from guest performers, reflecting what seems to be a growing trend in hip hop.
"We're not opposed to using anything if we get the result we want", asserts The Head. "The only thing we are opposed to is taking too long about doing it. Even if somebody performs something for us, they've always done it at most in two takes, a lot of the time in one. If you don't get it quickly then it's probably not really happening anyway."
Rob B sees the increasing use of live musicians in hip hop as just another aspect of something which has always been a part of the music.
"The music's never going to lose its roots of being a DJ and a rapper in front of a crowd", he says. "Rap's about lyrics and rhythm, and it either comes over or it doesn't. The crowd comes to test you. That's the first situation. It's like anything, if the vibe's there then it's brilliant. Nothing but hip hop can do it like that - but I think it's good that some people are doing other things, like including more live elements in the music, because it just means the music's going to be more entertaining."
WORKING UNDER THE NAME ULTIMATUM, Rob B and The Head also function as remixers from time to time. They first established themselves with an inspired remix of the Jungle Brothers' 'Black is Black', and from there have gone on to remix such records as the JBs' 'Doin' Our Own Dang', Queen Latifah's 'Ladies First', X-Clan's 'Funkin' Lesson' and Mica Paris' 'Contribution'.
While a commercial studio is usually the finishing point for their own music, for their remixes it's the starting point, as The Head explains.
"We go into a 24-track for an hour, transfer the vocal and any other bits we like off the original tape onto quarter-inch, then bring it home, put down a code at the right tempo and then a basic loop. Then we sample the vocal off tape and spin it in and build it up from there. Because we have the vocal on tape already we don't have to go back into the studio."
Here the Bel's 32-second sample time comes into its own, allowing them to spin in extended vocal sections if they want. But what is it the Stereos set out to achieve with a remix?
"Just to get the same inspiration that we do when we're working on one of our own tracks", Rob B replies.
"The record companies have a boring attitude", says The Head, "they do remixes for the sake of it. We were asked to do a remix of a Monie Love track, but we really liked the original mix that the Fine Young Cannibals did and we couldn't see any point in remixing it. The record company were expecting us to do a radical remix with totally new music, but what we ended up doing was more a traditional kind of 12" remix using what was already on the tape, because if sounded so nice.
"We gave it to the record company and they didn't accept it as a remix, they wanted a radical remix. So we did them a radical remix with totally new music, just keeping the vocals, but it was the one they'd turned down originally that they used on the A-side of the remix 12", and that's the one that got in the charts.
"When they said they didn't accept that mix, we explained to them why we'd done it like that, and obviously a few weeks later they must have changed their minds. In effect we might as well have been the A&R men as well, because we were the ones that told them the track didn't need new music on it."
"When you've got a track that sounds really good, what's the point of putting new music on it?", Rob B asks. "That's the trouble with all this remixing stuff, record companies want to sell records on the strength of remixes when they've already got the real music there, which is what people should be satisfied with." Sometimes it seems the record companies panic. They have to make their money back somehow.
"...and then they'll get someone to remix a record for the name of the remixer", The Head confirms, "which isn't really a good reason for getting a record remixed. I think also they take remixers for a bit of a ride. If we've written completely new music for a track and we mention publishing... But why shouldn't we get publishing? If the original track was using other people's breaks, those people get publishing, so why doesn't somebody who does a remix get publishing?" How would they feel about having one of their own tracks remixed?
"'On 33' from the first album was remixed by the 45 King ages ago, but I actually hated what he did to it", recalls The Head. "I thought he was taking the piss. I can't really think of anybody I'd like to have do a remix of our tracks, apart from maybe Marley Marl. I really like what he does. But I wouldn't like CJ Macintosh or anybody like that to do a remix, because I think he naffs things out a lot of the time.
"Actually, we were thinking of doing an Ultimatum remix of our own stuff. We use the same method with other people's stuff as we do for our own, but we thought we could approach it from a slightly different angle."
Have they ever wished after a track has come out that they'd done it differently?
"Often you think you could have done something different", replies The Head, "but that's just how it is, it's part of what you're doing. That's the nice thing about it - always wanting to do something different."
Interview by Simon Trask
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