Dr Syntax Interview

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Now a familiar name in the UK hip hop world, Ben Hughes aka Dr Syntax has cemented his place amongst the country’s premier wordsmiths. Starting with a few guest spots on the Foreign Beggars first album, he has been popping up on tracks ever since with the likes of Stig, Flevans, Rup and Dubbledge.

On a mission to further his reputation, he is an integral part of the recently founded Beer and Rap crew with Stig of the Dump and DJ Newborn, responsible for smashing up many an energetic live show up and down the country.

This summer, he released his debut album Self Taught on Dented Records and it didn’t disappoint, helping him to carve out his own sound and vocal style within the scene.

Louis Soul caught up with the Doc at the local GP surgery, for his opinions on the trials and tribulations of the rap game.

Can you shed some light on yourself before you entered the rap game and how you started to get involved?

Dr SyntaxI’m from a pretty Royston Vasey-esque part of the country, so my life prior to rap superstardom was spent drinking cider in barns. It wasn’t the most stimulating environment to spend your teens, but I did spend a lot of time freestyling and beatboxing with only the local wildlife for an audience. I was crap at beatboxing, but I was probably the best rapper in the village.

I moved to Manchester when I was 18, and spent 3 slightly bewildered years as a student up there. It was quite an eye opener. Back in the day when people still made demo tapes, I was constantly slipping people TDK’s in an attempt to get heard, so convinced was I that I was ‘the shit’.

I was alright, but I hadn’t paid my dues, so I jumped up on every open mic I could to improve. I learnt a lot from watching Microdisiacs and Broke N’ English, who pretty much were the hip hop scene then, as well as seeing all the usual suspects playing at a night called C’mon Feet. I later moved to Brighton, where there were always cyphers going on and shows where I could improve my craft, and at some point I met Foreign Beggars, who got me to drop some verses on their debut album and tour with them in 2004.

“…I’ve felt pretty reckless at times, going all out to push what I’m doing without really planning for the future….”

What are your rapping and musical influences? Do you have a favourite rapper?

Like a lot of people my age, I listened to Westwood when his show was good in the mid to late nineties and that was always inspiring. I can remember being nine and listening to Public Enemy, Ice T, NWA, Hijack, Gunshot etc. I don’t have a favourite rapper, but I feel like people I work with and certain people in the scene in this country are some of the world’s finest – Stig, Foreign Beggars, Jehst etc.

Dr Syntax and StigAs far as music outside hip hop… definitely the humour of people like Fats Waller in particular. I remember seeing Little Richard live when I was young, which was a massive inspiration. All sorts of random influences. Nowadays, all I seem to listen to is beat tapes, and odd Latvian Prog rock records at Evil Sun and Ido’s houses (who produced both produced my album).

Do you find that your own level of creativity has increased a lot since moving in with Stig and Newborn?

For those who don’t know, myself, Stig Of The Dump and DJ Newborn tour together as the Beer And Rap Roadshow. We’re also housemates. I don’t think my creativity has increased as such, but being around people who are creative is always going to inspire you and up your game.

Do you think the saturation of people making hip hop in London has affected your progress in anyway?

From an outsider’s perspective, the sheer amount of people at it is quite alarming. When I was at school in deepest rural Oxfordshire, the idea of someone listening to hip hop (let alone rapping) was ridiculous, so I would get lots of ignorant attitude along the lines of, ‘Why are you trying to be black?’.

“…A lot of people will see me and not really expect me to come with the level of skills I have…”

Up in London, I’ve met someone who said they got out of being bullied at school by dropping a freestyle! So there’s a huge amount of people trying to make hip hop music here, and has been for a long time, but I don’t think that has affected my progress in any negative way. If anything, because I’m not from here, it’s been an advantage – people have only heard about me in the last few years, rather than seeing me honing my skills on open mics and growing up in public. A lot of people will see me and not really expect me to come with the level of skills I have, so to some extent I’ve still got the element of surprise here.

Also, as with anywhere, there might be a lot of people into making music, but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. Some of the best rappers in the country are from London, but so are some of the shittest, so there’s no shortage of people around to make you look good.

Self Taught was brewing a long time before its release, what were your priorities whilst making it?

Dr SyntaxMy priorities? Paying my rent, getting home in one piece… There was no pressure, I just wanted to take my time and put together the best album I could for the time. There was some expectancy for me to bring something out off the back of the Foreign Beggars’ first album, but I didn’t want to rush something out I wasn’t happy with.

I dropped a guest verse on one particular record that came out around the same time as Asylum Speakers, and I remember I’d been hungover when I did it. When I heard the test press I just felt like a dick – someone had bothered to get me involved and invested in a project and I hadn’t even turned up at my best to record. That made me realise I should do things properly or not at all – it’s a great privilege to put music out, so it should never be done in a half-arsed way.

What was the most challenging part of making the album? Looking back, is there anything you would change?

Probably just getting tracks in the right order, making sure it had a cohesive sound to it. I didn’t set out to make an album – first of all I was just making random tracks, then I was making an EP, then a mini album, so I never really had the daunting prospect of thinking, ‘right, where do I start?’ as it was already underway when I decided to get it together. If I listen to it, all I hear now are mistakes – a line here and there I could change, a vocal take I could improve on – but if you dwell on that sort of thing you’ll never get anything done. The album’s out there, some people love it, some people hate it. Now I’ve got to make a better one.

“…I had changes in my personal life that caused me to be pretty highly strung a lot of the time, so I’ve felt pretty reckless at times…”

What has it been like on the Beer and Rap roadshow? Are there any particular performances that stand out for you?

It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a strange year for me – I quit my day job, moved to London, and I’ve had changes in my personal life that caused me to be pretty highly strung a lot of the time, so I’ve felt pretty reckless at times, going all out to push what I’m doing without really planning for the future. All things considered though, just to do what I want to do for any amount of time is a blessing, and I’ve felt it’s been a real learning curve, in terms of performance and just getting my shit together. We’re (Beer and Rap) learning all the time, which can be frustrating at times, but I genuinely feel it’s all been worthwhile.

Dr SyntaxAs far as particular performances, there was one particular night in Brighton when we supported Task Force. It was kind of a homecoming for Beer and Rap, and the crowd went mental. I think there’s some footage of that on YouTube somewhere. There have been a few good ones though – Bristol’s always wicked, little places like Stroud tend to show you huge support because they’re happy to get something dope to go and see. We recently did a show in Yorkshire at some under-18’s festival. We were supporting Lil’ Chris from TV’s Rock School. That was quite bizarre, to say the least.

After all the hype that surrounded the UK vs. US rap battles recently, what are your views on the freestyle scene in the UK and nights like Speaker’s Corner?

First of all, Speaker’s Corner is one of the best underground hip hop nights in the country, and increasingly people are coming to it from all over the country. That can only be a good thing. There’s a good standard of freestyling in this country, which is important for international exposure. I was speaking to Reain (aka Whatshisface) recently, who was saying that Americans are still quite taken aback by a British person with skills, so it’s a great time to get over there and show what the standard is here. The novelty will wear off, so it’s our time right now…Stig went over to New York and won the End Of The Weak international final which was incredible and just proves what level the UK is on right now.

“…Americans are still quite taken aback by a British person with skills, so it’s a great time to get over there and show what the standard is here…”

With Beer and Rap starting to step up to the next level, where do you think it will be in five years time? What do you hope the future holds for yourself?

Hahaaaaa… we’ll have to see. I think Beer and Rap can potentially be something very special, and we’re working hard to push it. We’ve got a good brand and good artists, and a lot of people with experience like Dented Records to help us out with advice etc. We just have to make sure we don’t fuck it up. As for me…more shows in dingy pubs and clubs across the UK and beyond. More solo releases, more collaborations…world domination… I don’t know, the future is always cloudy.

Any shout outs?

Yeah… shout to the whole Brap fam, Imagineers, Menagerie, G.O.D, The Evil Sun, Rup, Ido, Team Waste, Rarekind.co.uk, Dented and your God damn self.

Louis Soul

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