Of all the bands playing the Cois Fharraige festival this coming weekend, Stereo MCs have had a longer, stranger journey than most (except maybe the Saw Doctors). Formed twenty years ago by Rob Birch and Nick Hallam, they battled through the apathy of the UK music scene to homegrown hip-hop to achieve massive success with the Connected album before disappearing for nearly a decade. Now back in business on their own label and based around the duo and vocalist Cath Coffey, State spoke to Hallam about their past, present and future.
Does it feel like twenty years?
Not really, we’ve just gone about making our and music and we’re more excited about that now than we’ve ever been. In some ways it would be easier to just play live and trot out all the old hits. Fortunately there’s never been the pressure to do that, we got away from the major label and since then we’ve been doing our own thing, rebuilding and heading in a new direction.
When you started British rap music was hardly the coolest thing around. Was hard to get noticed and taken seriously?
It did take a bit to get us going. There were other hip-hop bands in the UK at the time but they weren’t doing what we wanted to do. We wanted to play the big stages with the big sound systems like a rock band. Our agent got us gigs with bands from De La Soul to Living Colour and EMF. We showed we got do something with just a turntable and a mic, although we took it further with a drummer and more vocals later. It was a question of chipping away, getting our message over to different audiences. It was kind of exciting. We travelled across the desert in America in a transit van, things like that. Some of them become the highlights of your life.
State remembers seeing you play Reading Festival in the early nineties, to an audience virtually all made up of indie fans. Were those kind of crowds hard work to win over?
Some of them were, some of them weren’t. It got better the more shows we did. Even if 5% of the audience got into that did what it was meant to do and gradually spread the word.
Connected came at the perfect time we guess, as the indie music scene opened up to lots of different influences.
There were a strand of bands that made the transition from rock to dance music, a few of whom were the key players – us, Stone Roses, Massive Act. They were working as bands rather than putting out on off 12’ singles. Some of those bands are talked about more than others but they all opened the floodgates for what came after that.
That must have been a weird time?
It was great, just very busy. When we made that record we thought it would do well but it took on a life of its own. We had a really intense couple of years, which was great. We toured the world on our own tours, on festivals and with U2. It was exciting but we got burnt out and it took a while to rediscover ourselves.
The main thing was that we should have taken a break but we went straight back into the studio, even though our own personal lives were pretty messed up. That was distracting. We sat there for a year and didn’t even finish one track. After two or three years we figured it out and made the DJ Kicks mix album for Studio K7 and remembered why we were doing this and Deep, Down And Dirty happened relatively soon after that. Contrary to common belief, that record took six months to make rather than nine years. We carried on from there. After that we realised that we couldn’t stay with the record company anymore – there was no-one there that we knew anymore, it was just a excercise in chasing sales figures and pointless for both parties. We got a new manager and started getting back into it, started our own label and that’s where we’re at now really.
Has the way you work changed over the years?
It’s about an organic experience for us. We have to be immersed in music and we are. We felt that we managed to inject something different into our last album (Double Bubble) which hopefully we’ll carry on doing. The gigs we’ve been doing this year and last year have been the best that we’ve ever done, it has more energy, focus and power. That’s how it works for us, we have to build up to things.
British urban music seems to be establishing its own identity at last, does that give you a sense of satisfaction?
These new rappers sound like they’re British, which is brilliant. When we started it was pretty difficult because everybody was trying to sound American and then we came along and just sounded like us. There were groups like Cookie Crew and London Posse but there was insularity about a lot of it, there was a lot of snobbery involved in that scene. We carried on regardless and went out and toured, which most of them didn’t do.
Do you still keep your non-band activities going?
Rob DJs a lot, he goes everywhere playing electro stuff, dubstep and the like. His DJ sets are really high energy and that helps the band keep our energy levels up. We’re both listening to all that kind of stuff, it’s what we do. We listen to music.
Stereo MCs play Cois Fharraige festival this weekend.