Interview: ORIGINALS… Rob Birch, Stereo MCs, part one

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the debut album by Stereo MCs, 33 45 78, but to suggest that vocalist Rob Birch (aka Rob B) and producer Nick ‘The Head’ Hallam’s love of music has dampened in the years since would be to do the duo a great injustice.

Back in the early 90s, on the strength of 1992’s Connected, it seemed like Stereo MCs could conquer the world – and in a way, did – with a string of era-defining cuts such as Step It Up, Ground Level and Creation.

A nine-year hiatus followed before the release of 2001’s Deep, Down & Dirty, and since then, the band have been doing things on their own terms – three years ago, they established a record label alongside Terranova, Connected, to provide a platform for their more experimental musical leanings.

Stereo MCs still tour of course, and remain one of the most vibrant live acts on the circuit, three decades on… after all, as one of their biggest hits puts it, “I’ll still reach up to the top… until the last day that I drop.”

As part of our ORIGINALS series, 909originals caught up with Birch at a recent gig in Dublin. Part two can be found here.

Birch (right) with Stereo MCs on tour, 2019

Q. This year marks 30 years since your debut album, but obviously yourself and Nick [Hallam] were working long before that. When did you first start working together?

It was a case of ‘nature will take its course’. Myself and Nick are like brothers; I’ve known him since I was six years old. We grew up together.

We ended up living in the same house in London, back at the start of the 80s. I was playing in a band, and it wasn’t really getting anywhere. It was quite an odd band, to be honest, it was sort of punk orientated, but at the same time quite rhythmic. I’ve always had a thing for Spanish flamenco I love this spirit of it, there’s a fire in the music. So I tried to bring a bit of that into it it.

Anyway, everyone decided to go off and join bands that were doing better, so I found myself all on my todd.

Nick was making electronic music at the time. I was into Human League and Talking Heads and things like that, but he was into Yello, and the darker, industrial sort of music, Front 242 and so on.

He was putting together these tracks on a drum machine and synthesiser and I was intrigued by what he was doing. He invited me into the studio with him, because while he knew what he was doing, he didn’t really have an ear for melody.

Yello were one of Stereo MCs cohort Nick Hallam’s 80s faves

So I came to help him out, and for me it was total freedom. Nick was always playing these hip-hop tapes that were coming out of New York, with people cutting stuff up, like Tears For Fears into Afrika Bambaataa. When you heard it, you would be like, ‘ok, the original of that tune sucks, but the way they are mixing it up is completely new!’.

That was a great thing about hip hop, it made you discover new music.

Q. When you started making music together, you were something of an electronic music virgin, then?

Yes. It was a new experience. He educated me in Kraftwerk and groups like that, and then, just for a laugh, we decided to do a track together. We were messing around with tape loops, and a track sort of came together.

We were doing it at a very basic level of course. When you listened to the early hip hop, like Schooly D, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, the music was so interesting, but we had no idea how they made it. We had to invent ways to try to recreate it.

That’s really what created our sound. When you don’t really know what you’re doing, you might catch a little whiff of something, and then you try to recreate it, creating something completely new in the process.

Our reference points were much more psychedelic than the likes of Public Enemy and Run DMC, we would get our breaks from old second hand records that we would pick up at junk shops.

Early single On 33, which starts with a psychedelic organ riff taken from a Deep Purple track

Q. So by making it up as you went along, you were defining what would become the Stereo MCs sound?

At the start of hip hop, the whole point was about being original – you didn’t want people to know where you got your samples from. You can’t just go ahead and use the Funky Drummer riff – although many people did.

We would find breaks on records by middle of the road rock bands from the 70s. That stuff was littered with all sorts of breaks. I remember we picked up this weird covers record by a choir from East London, and we took a break from that for our first album.

In those days, no one knew what sampling was or was really bothered about it. It was just a case of ‘get on with it and create a new sound’.

You would take a break from here, and a break from there, and it was a bit like a guitarist putting his guitar part on top of a drum track. You would cut it up, squeeze it in, and try to make it work.

Sometimes, we would hear a track by a different artist, and it was obvious that they had just nicked the whole melody and the vocal line, and we would be like, ‘What’s the point? You’re not creating anything new here!’

Q. Around the time you started Stereo MCs, acid house was taking off. What influence did that have on your music?

It was part of the whole vibe that was going on. We used to do a regular club night call the W11 Express down in The Tabernacle in Notting Hill, and on that set of turntables you would have house music, acid, rare groove, hip hop and dub, all in the same night. That’s what music was like then; the whole scene was intertwined with itself.

We would go to the acid clubs, and to be honest I’ve never seen raves like that before or since. It was like a new, collective human experience. It was a new thing, but you got the feeling that it was the start of a whole new culture, and it blew your mind.

People were just outrageous on the dancefloor – I’m pretty sure I saw people making love on the dancefloor. But that was the way it was – total freedom, and total artistic freedom.

Q. You didn’t feel the urge to become an acid house group, through?

We had a lot of influences. Our bottom line was that we wanted people to dance when they came to our gigs. We didn’t want to play music that made people stand there and look at their shoes, we wanted them to have a good time.

Yes, of course we’re going to write lyrics that are conscious and talk about how we’re looking at the world, but we want it to have a groove. We loved Sly Stone and KC and the Sunshine Band, also dub and disco – anything that made you want to move.

It’s the whole vibe of things being on a loop, almost like hypnosis. Like with acid house and house music, we could sit there all day just vibing off a loop from an 808.

Q. When Stereo MCs got signed to Island in 1988, things really started to come together for you musically?

We had just founded our Gee Street studio, and hadn’t been going that long before Island licensed our first single, and then we joined 4th & Broadway and put out our first album, 33 45 78. Just after that, we started working on Supernatural, which was more disco influenced.

Lost in Music, from the album Supernatural

Our method of making music was very basic; we didn’t have an Akai sampler, we were just using an old delay unit and an 808.

When we recorded Supernatural in Calliope Studios in New York, you would have the guys from A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers come down and check out our gear – they couldn’t believe what we were making music from. We had a really rudimental setup.

We used that for our first three albums, but for our fourth, Connected, we bought an Akai, and it really revolutionised things for us. Before that, nobody in the band could put a loop together properly.

I remember sitting up all night with a turntable and a tape recorder, pressing play and record, trying to put together a drum loop. It was a labour of love, but it gave us a feel – everything else had to fit with that drum beat.

You didn’t have a computer screen that you could see what you were doing in real time; it was all by ear. You didn’t know what tempo it was running at, for one thing.

Q. You did have quite a lot of musical knowledge though?

Both me and Nick learned to play the guitar when we were kids, so we grew up with a certain musical education. Then, when we learned about electro and rap music, it was a case of ‘you had better forget everything you know, because you have to get re-educated’.

But the more we learned, the more some of the previous education started to seep back through again, and that musicality because quite useful. I think it enabled us to develop more of a melody to our music, to think ‘beyond the machine’

[Main picture by Martin Bone. Part two can be found here]

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