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.
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.
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.
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.
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’…
Q. It’s been said that your tour with the Happy Mondays in the late 80s helped elevate you to the ‘next level’ as a live act. Was that the case?
We toured with the Mondays quite a lot before they started to become well known. It was a good experience, they were nice people.
To be honest, by the time we got to play with the Happy Mondays we were already hardened performers. We played with hardcore hip hop groups to audiences that wouldn’t accept us, so we knew what it was like to be given a hard time. We played with a heavy rock group, Living Colour, and their audience really knew how to give us a hard time.
We played with EMF, A Certain Ratio, De la Soul… all kinds of groups, because we wanted to get out there and get a reaction, no matter what sort of a reaction it was.
But yeah, the Happy Mondays crowd were good for us, because they were open minded and knowledgeable about the rave scene, the hip hop scene, the music scene in general. They were well up for it.
Q. At the moment, there are so many different genres out there, but when Stereo MCs started, you were undefinable – you were a bit hip hop, you were a bit dance, you were a sort of mish mash?
I don’t think we even thought about that. It was about energy. We were riding on a wave of energy and the fact that nobody could define us worked for us more than against us.
We were original, and the whole vibe at the time was that if you’re not original, you’re not really saying anything. When we started there was one dance chart for every type of dance music, but now there’s a myriad of charts covering every specific genre.
Q. After [1992 album] Connected went stratospheric, the band took a longer than expected hiatus – it took nine years for the follow up to come out. Was there too much pressure on the band at the time?
It’s very simple. We rode this wave of energy that a lot of people were riding, and eventually, that has to come to an end. Music changes. You have to say to yourself, ‘wow, I’ve realised my dreams, I’ve achieved my goals, but what am I going to do now?’. That takes a little while to figure out.
You put your whole life experience into making a record, and then it comes out, and they you have to say ‘what’s next’? Sometimes the answer is simple, you just have to learn more about yourself.
Q. So Deep Down & Dirty [released in 2001] was sort of like a chance to press the reset button?
It was something like that, although totally unintentional. The title track came together by accident, we were working on another track, and then I started freestyling on the mic, and it all came together in an afternoon.
There must have been something deep inside me wanting to get out. Sort of like, ‘I’m not f**king going down like that’.
Q. How did the Connected label come about?
We started it in 2016 – we were experimenting with music at the time, and questioning things, like ‘does everything have to be four minutes long?’. So then we thought, let’s get back to where we started, which was underground electronic music.
What we’re feeling on the label right now is afro-house and techno, and whatever falls between that. We have a lot of artists, and we’re also putting out some of our own, more experimental music.
We’re collaborating too, we’ve done stuff with Keinemusik, we’ve done stuff with Anja Schneider and a few others. We’re working with people that we respect a lot, and we’re gradually making a different path for ourselves.
It brings you back to that point when you start questioning things. How did they make that music? You listen to some of the tracks, and it’s not like the artists is getting it out of a box, that’s for sure. The artists we work with are quite open minded; it’s not like tech house, where every track has to be a banger. We want to go deep.
Q. Are you still as passionate about playing live?
When you play live, unless you still feel that spark, that excitement, it’s very difficult to perform and feel honest about what you do. I can’t do a gig and feel dishonest about it. If it’s not feeling right, I have to come straight to the point with the crowd, and say ‘look, I’m not feeling it – let’s try and get it on’. But I still get the same buzz out of it.
You can’t really describe that feeling – it’s like a surge through your body.
Overall, I still feel the same way about music as I did 20 or 30 years ago. I’m still excited about getting up in the morning and getting in to the studio and running the sound.
Q. Some groups are better at feeding off the energy of the crowd than others. I would argue that Stereo MCs are one of those groups.
From my own point of view, what’s most important to me is that we’re on point, that we’re focused. When I hit the stage, and I’m in the mood, I’m not thinking about anything else.
I don’t want to get hoity-toity about it, but it’s like an art. There’s an art to everything – there’s an art to gardening there’s an art to cleaning, there’s an art to making tables, and there’s an art to making music and performing. when I’m on stage, I’m a sculptor. I want to get right down to the source – the essence – of it as I possibly can.
When you stand back, and the track stops, and it’s you and the crowd, it’s like a case of ‘let’s get it together’. We’re all human beings here and it’s as much about you as it is about us. If you want to make this thing fire, then come through.
Everybody in the band works to their utmost ability, and it we can get the crowd to feel that energy as well, you know the show is just going to be wild.
We have to be disciplined as well, and continue to try to put on a good show. Some shows will be better than others, and that’s just life – some days you will be shagged out, and others you will be full of energy.
But you keep going back to the source. Why you wrote the music, why you wrote particular lyrics.
I love that about music; sometimes you question why that melody came to you, or why you wrote things down on that day that turned into lyrics. It’s a beautiful thing.
[Thanks again to Rob for the interview. More information about Stereo MCs and the Connected record label can be found at connected.co.com]