A few frosty days before their O2 Arena gig I meet up with Stereo MCs Rob Birch and Nick Hallam at their Brixton studio to right the wrongs of the world over a piping hot cup of builders. We muse on muddy festivals and Simon Cowell, applaud the credit-crunch (‘people are suddenly changing their take on life aren’t they?’) and deliberate the formidable demise of the music industry.
Fully deserving of their Mercury-nominated, Brit Award-winning status Stereo MCs’ genre-bending, bass-fuelled mesh of hip hop, house, soul and funk has spawned such hits as Elevate My Mind and the enduring classic Connected.
Now, with their roots still firmly planted in south London soil, it seems the electro veterans have swung full circle: from late ‘80s urban underground success-on-a-shoestring to chart-topping, Top of the Pops and back again. But for Rob (vocals/producer) and Nick (DJ/producer) Brixton has always been central to their sound.
Nick: ‘There’s just so much going on here. You know where sometimes you go to other cities and you don’t really feel that kind of energy, apart from probably New York in the late ‘80s. That was really buzzing and exciting. I think it just feels good around here. I really like Brixton.
‘We were living up Lavender Hill before, in Battersea, and I actually think that half of Connected was written in our flat in Lavender Hill, and then I think we had to move out because we were sharing a flat there…my daughter was born about that time and we just didn’t really have any space, and the only place we could really afford was Brixton.’
Rob: ‘There’s still a lot of business going on. The drugs change as well you know…there’s so much violence going on now, I think that’s the worst thing.’
Nick: ‘We were living here at the time of the riots and after that everyone put those shop front shutters on. Every shop had one because all these shops in Brixton were kind of burnt out weren’t they? It’s kind of weird really. I think what’s so nice about it is it’s so mixed. You just get a feeling like nowhere else in London really.’
Chugging on cigarettes both guys are chilled, chirpy and affable, and devoid of the air of coolness you’d expect from one of the biggest dance acts of the late ’80s. Their recently unleashed, brilliant sixth album Double Bubble is a reintroduction of the MCs to the masses and reflects the dynamic duo’s melting pot of influences.
Rob: ‘We were really a bit kind of fed up with dance music because it was just generic house everywhere you went. It was either drum ‘n’ bass or it was house. But this sort of music that’s going on now was really giving us a vibe and we could see how we could fit roughly in that ballpark because it had a bit more attitude to it. It sort of seemed to nod its head a bit more to hip hop music, and the attitude of what rap music used to be.
‘So we started making dubplates of our instrumentals and playing them in our DJ sets to see where our music was at, and what we had to tighten down to make our music work on a club level, and that was a sort of starting point for getting ourselves together and realising where it was we wanted to go.
‘We did an Australian DJ tour with MIA and Digitalism and Justice and DJ Craze and people like that. It was a sort of re-education for us, just seeing how everybody worked and there we were with our crate of vinyl, and there was everyone else with a laptop!’
Nick: ‘When we started we had our own label called Gee Street which was this whole group of us in the late ‘80s, and it felt like we were part of something and then we went through you know like the charts and all that type of stuff, and I think it’s easy to kind of end up getting… caught up in this music business somehow, and I think we realised that we had to get away from the big record label.
‘We got a new manager and… we got out of our deal and I think that’s helped us get the impetus back for really enjoying what we’re doing and feeling like there’s a point to it rather than it just being like “oh when’s your next record ready”, you know some marketing guy coming up with really crap ideas for people to do remixes… now it’s down to us really and I feel good about what we’re doing. It’s just more interesting. And we don’t have to deal with like 50 people instead of one.’
It’s obvious Stereo MCs aren’t afraid of hard slog. They were spawned before the current slew of manufactured music shows and bubblegum pop svengalis. So I can’t resist probing – with the TV final still fresh in our minds – what did they make of X Factor?
Nick: ‘I actually think people are sucked into that whole thing really, even people you think would have a bit more taste. It’s kind of like that whole Simon Cowell thing. I actually find it quite sick to be honest. People go on about Simon Cowell having a great talent for finding talent, but actually it’s like I remember him when we had our own label through RCA about ten years ago and I think he worked there… it’s just all the total vacuous, non-event music, you know it’s like cornflakes isn’t it? It’s just how you market it.’
Rob: ‘I watched her, the girl who won [X Factor], and she had a good voice and after all of that television coverage… I don’t wanna sound negative, but whatever she does is bound to be a massive hit. Like anybody if they’ve had ten or 15 weeks on the TV, I mean you’re going to have a massive record aren’t you?’
Nick: ‘…it’s like buying £6million worth of advertising you know what I mean? If you hammer that down people’s throats long enough…’
Rob: ‘…it’s sewn it up, really, you know the whole thing’s a TV show and that’s kinda sewn it up. And sure it’s a springboard for artists to build a great career but it’s not very unique like, as I remember groups being, they’d muck their way through and make their sound, and they’d kind of carve it like they was carving it out of stone. And through their uniqueness they’d find a little pathway to eventually getting somewhere, and they were a unique thing, like Led Zeppelin…’
Nick: ‘… yeah exactly, like Jimi Hendrix or Run DMC or The Specials or The Clash, you know what I mean? Normal people like us, it means something. [X Factor’s] like a little game plan isn’t it, it’s nothing to do with music. I think that’s why it’s good that the music business is, in a way, just completely dissolving as we know it, because I think it needs that change to make the real music creative again and find a different way of exposing itself.’
Stereo MCs play the O2 Arena with Madness tonight.
Double Bubble is out now