Rob Birch talks Connected by Stereo MCs
PRODUCTION EXPO 2013: The Stereo MCs third full album was a potent mix of indie-style funk and rap beats and lyricism. It fed off Brixton drug tragedy and the LA riots, but was held together by dancefloor grooves. It aimed for the head and the heart - the mainstream and the underground - and was one of the defining albums of the Nineties, copping BRIT Awards for Best Group and Best Album.
The creative juices of rapper Rob Birch and production whiz Nick Hallam were flowing in the summer leading up to the creation of Connected. The success of their remix work for the likes of U2 and the Jungle Brothers, plus their well-received second album Supernatural and its US support meant that their label, Island Records, had faith in the boys to deliver their potential on their next project.
"At the time, positivity rang out and fans of dance wanted some head music with their beats, and the Stereo MCs delivered"
Starting out life in their Lavender Hill flat, the pair worked on beats off old 7" vinyl, sampling deadly grooves and penning lyrics as they watched the girls walk by in the sunshine. A move midway through to a Brixton basement studio meant they were at ground level of the inner city, and its pressures coloured the lyrics and mood of the resulting material. Drug dealers did their trade nearby and Birch reflected in his lyrics. At the time, positivity rang out and fans of dance wanted some head music with their beats, and the Stereo MCs delivered.
From their home studios they took their floppy disc arrangements down Old Kent Road to a place called The Workhouse to jam on grooves and work with drummer Owen If and vocalist Cath Coffey. The magic happened and the resulting hits like Connected and Step It Up featured as heavily in the pop charts as they did in the Walkman's of the hip.
At the time music was segregated. Hip hop heads would never admit to digging guitar music and vice versa, but the Stereo MCs found a way into both camps' headphones.
"We were kind of a hybrid at the time," says frontman Rob Birch. "Rap purists wouldn't dig us as we weren't straight-up rap. We weren't an indie group, or a rock group. We were a bit of everything. Nobody could put their finger on us. What got us through was that we were realist music, saying something about where we were coming from. That helped us to make a record that was, at one point, commercial but was also conscious of the times."
The band are still breaking new ground and spanning the genres today. Their 2008 album Double Bubble, on their own Graffiti Recordings label, was a heavy as ever, and still informed with the up-to-the- minute sounds. "It's a great time to be involved in music, there is so much to be inspired with from Electro to Dubstep and Dance music," says Nick Hallam.
"When we made Double Bubble we were DJing more then we normally do. Pretty solid for 18 months across the globe. It opened our eyes a lot. Seeing how guys like Justice, Digitalism, Sinden and M.I.A were working. We got into a lot of different sounds and how to put tracks together. We're combining that with the fact that we write songs. We're trying to find a way of meeting all that head on - songwriting and what is going on in Dance music right now."
"We used to live in a second floor flat in Battersea in Lavender Hill and we made music in our living room. The turntables were in the window and I used to watch girls go by in the sunshine and put tracks together. It was a beautiful summer that year. It really helped the music come out.
"I had the headphones on one day and I had this loop going that lasted about one and a half seconds and it really caught my ear, and I looped it up and it became the backbone of the track.
"This was at the time of the LA riots, and that was all over the news. I remember seeing all the footage of houses burning and people running all over the place. It just started to come out in the lyrics. It was a jam about what was happening in the world at the time."
"At the time we were moving from Battersea and we were in the basement in the new studio in Brixton. This song was about living in Brixton and people driving through, not being aware of the trials and tribulations of living in the inner city. A lot of people live in fear and see people as a threat because of the way the newspapers inflame everything. That's why the lyric says 'it just depends how close to ground level you are', for you to see where another person is coming from."
"Back then I used to go up to a record shop in Camden and this guy would have a rack of records marked 'breaks' [laughs]. It was like heaven for me.
"We'd then go down to the studio in Old Kent Road with our little sampler and floppy disc with a track on it and record it on to multi-track, because in those days it was still all 24-track/multi-track recording. Old-style. Then we'd get singer Cath to come in and vibe around on it. Then Owen, our drummer, would vibe around on it.
"We probably spent a month or so working on the tracks in the studio, but got most of it done in our front room or basement studio."
"Sketch was born out of groove from a Latin break that I put together with an old live Stax recording with people like Bo Diddley on it. That's the beautiful thing about mixing up all these styles.
"We put Sketch together in Old Kent Road. I had the break, looped it up, slapped some beats on it and it was done. The next day, on my way back to the studio, someone had graffitied the door up, and the artist's name was 'Sketch', so I thought that sounded like a wicked name for this track. In the studio they had this room upstairs which no one used, so they let me go up there and open the window, it was summer, and I'd get my pad out and have a little smoke and write lyrics to a backing track on a cassette in the sunshine."
"Same thing again. Sat there in the sunshine with a wicked beat going. Then you'd mess about with a bass sound and get a bassline going. I started writing a rap for it but it didn't work, so I started singing it.
"At the time, there were a lot of social issues going on with civil rights. The track was about the karma coming back to get people, because you can't get away from history. You can't make it fade away. I was sitting down looking for a different way of getting the vocal out of the lyrics that I had written. "I was listening to a lot of African Funk music at the time looking for breaks, so I decided to start singing and coasting over the beats, rather than do a straight up rap and I think it worked really well."
All Night Long
Rob Birch onstage in 2012. © GEORG HOCHMUTH/epa/Corbis
"Making instrumentals is a real laugh. Nick had a vibe on a break, and we got Owen to do some live drumming over the top, which we made a bigger feature out of. We'd be sitting around thinking what to do with the track, vocally, because the beat had such a nice groove and a cool little atmosphere to it. Nick suggested working on one little phrase rather than a full set of lyrics, and saying it over the track a few times.
"You don't have to do a conventional song, just do a groove with some vibes on it. This track was a little experiment."
Step It Up
"I think this was a good Dance record. It crossed a lot of borders and went into a lot of different clubs. Lots of different kinds of people came up to us and said they loved the track. I think it appealed to a lot of people of all different persuasions. You'd hear it in raves, gay clubs, Jamaican Blues parties. For us it was song celebrating our relationships at the time. A man/ woman relationship. We accidentally made a song about love [laughs], and the beauty of having a physical relationship with a woman. I didn't think about it at the time.
"I was in love at the time and thoroughly enjoying my relationship, and I think the track reflected that love high [laughs]."
Playing With Fire
"We always liked making tracks that had a message, that was one of the things that excited us about making Rap music. The '80s were so vacuous until groups like Public Enemy came along. Music should fucking say something. Playing With Fire was made on the front line where we were living at the time. You could go out and buy any drugs you wanted. We'd had first-hand experiences of seeing people get fucked up on drugs.
"We're not an anti-drugs group, but we'd personally witnessed seeing people get fucked up on smack and cocaine. This track was my personal experiences of people fucking up and people selling it down our road."
"The track started out completely different to how it ended up. We already had something working. Then I went to my man in Camden and got a wicked break off an old 7".
"Then we took an old beat we'd used for a remix we did for U2 and put in top of the track we were running, then took all the bass out and put this new groove from the break I'd picked up over the top. The track just took off in a new direction then. It was firing then!
"I wanted to be positive. Back then people were really feeling positivity, now it's all a bit cynical, people are negative about being positive, if you know what I mean.
"I wanted to say to girls stop giving it up to guys who feed you bullshit. You got to be strong in yourself. Don't fall for the first bit of flattery, was the message."
"This started with a wicked little break, then we had some Dub beat that worked and added a Funk beat over that. Then we had a live string section come down because we had an idea for a melody and we got them to play live.
"We had brass players down too. We had a lot of musical ideas so wanted to express them with other instruments. They were called Kick Horns, they were wicked. It was dangerous little groove, Chicken Shake. We got the name of the track from these little egg-shaped percussion shakers. They were wicked little shakers, man. A lot of the shakers off that album were from the Chicken Shake shakers [laughs]."
"This was a real high point of any live set. We did the WOMAD festival when it was touring around America. We were playing a tent with no sides, so you were covered but could see out at all the landscape around you. I remember just as this track started with its thunder sample, a huge bolt of lightning came down from the sky!
"When the track started the heavens opened. I was on the mic at the time, and I thought 'Boy! This is unreal, man.' That's what it was like playing that track live. It was a force of nature, like you were tapped into natural forces. You were just hell bent for leather every time you played it. We were fucked after those gigs."
"Some tracks were meant to be. It was a pleasure to work on. It was just fluid. I had this track working with a break I'd found, then we got down the studio and we basically replayed all the music live back onto the track.
"Nick was saying that the break was good but we could play it back stronger. We got a guy called Matthew Seligman to come down and play bass on it. He was a great player, he did bass on Elevate My Mind as well, off Supernatural. It sounded good. We kept the rap as was. We just immersed ourselves in the music. Which is what you have to do sometimes if you want it to sound pukka, and we definitely did that on this album."
This feature originally ran in issue 214 of Future Music. Discover more about their back issues here.