Anyone who’s been to a decent Hip-Hop night in Yorkshire should already know about Alphabetix. Consisting of three MCs – ABD, Mr Ris and Angel S – backed up by cuts from DJ Sir-Plus and beats by some of the finest producers in Northern Britain, they’ve gained a well-deserved reputation for their dynamite live shows. ABD was also crowned champion in the Golden Mic Competition in Leeds earlier this year.
The release of their debut EP, Alphabetix Anonymous, marks a new stage for them and for the label they run, 30 Tonne Slug. I got together with the full MC line-up to talk about the dual challenges of running a label and promoting themselves as a live act, to discuss their plans for the future including new signings Verbal Contact and to have a general chinwag about the state of the UK scene.
First of all, tell us quickly about Alphabetix as a group.
Mr Ris Alphabetix has been running for 5-6 years now. We got together in York through rhyming at open mics. We used to go to a lot of events and I used to breakdance – that’s how I met ABD. We met Angel S around the same time.
When did it first occur to you all that you needed to start your own label?
Mr Ris From relatively early on it was part of the plan. When you’re growing up listening to stuff like LowLife Records, Phi Life Cypher and Zebra Traffic, you realise that for a lot of the UK scene, you’re not going to get signed by a major. A lot of people who are aspiring say “what’s to stop me?” – especially now we’re in the digital age, it’s a lot easier.
Back in the 1930’s or whenever, there were a lot of independents but then they all got bought out by the majors and it was almost impossible to run an independent label successfully. Then MP3 came along and now anyone can do it. It’s not easy – it’s hard! – and a lot of labels go under but you need to get stuck in. I’d rather be my own boss and I know these guys feel the same.
So one thing that is helping small labels at the moment is that although for a period the means of distribution were more under the control of the major labels, that’s now changed?
Angel S It is easier now, whoever you are, especially online. Social networking sites and that sort of thing do make it easier for independents. Obviously there’s still a leap between making music in your bedroom and actually getting it out there. I think that you still stand a stronger chance now. There’s more means to get things out there.
You mentioned Low Life and Zebra Traffic – were there any other particular models or inspirations for you in starting a label?
Angel S We all grew up listening to artists on Low Life and Zebra Traffic. More recently there’s been Dented Records and their whole set-up’s been an inspiration to us – I did some work experience with them. That ethos, the fact that they’ve helped us out, has definitely put us in a better position. Foreign Beggars are an influence as artists and Dented Records has influenced us as a label.
Like with any of those labels, we want people to associate us straight away with good UK Hip-Hop.
ABD The reason I bother with doing the label is that we’re constantly surrounded by amazing music in Leeds. It’s frustrating – people hit a barrier and then end up hoping that some external force will come in and whisk you up. It’s nice to think that you might be able to get some of that sick music heard.
The image of a rapper-as-businessman, particularly using the term “CEO” and suggesting a lot of glitz and glamour, has become very common nowadays. How does that image compare to your experience of the business side of Hip-Hop?
Angel S I think it’s completely the opposite. I think it’s one of the hardest things to do. An artist creates their music as part of them and it’s very personal and passionate. On the other hand, you have the cold, hard business side of things – facts, figures, what’s the best decision to make money. How can that not grate against your passion and making your music how you want it?
That’s one reason why we want to be an artist-driven label and give our artists the best possible deal – we know what it’s like.
Mr Ris The way that I look at it is that if you’re calling yourself a CEO, you’re saying that you’re running things. For us, it’s more of a community vibe. All three of us are equally invested. I’m not going to come in one day and say “this is how it’s going to be, everyone’s sacked, fuck you mans!”. We all keep each other in check basically. There isn’t this idea that one of us is running things more than the others.
That leads on to the artist side of things. If we’re doing something with an artist, we want them to have a say on everything.
Angel S This is our local scene. The scene doesn’t really need a label coming in giving it the big “I am..” with chains on or whatever. Why pretend? We don’t have fuck all really but we’re trying to do things properly.
Mr Ris You’re nowhere in UK Hip-Hop (or in any genre really) without the fans and the backing of the scene. Your first and most loyal fans are going to be the people you’re rapping with and going to nights with, walking back pissed with afterwards. One man can’t do it alone, three of us can’t – if it’s going to work it needs the whole scene.
Angel S It’s been astounding actually the level of support we’ve had from the community. Blade, Dented Records and Fenna Rhodes are all good examples. The scene’s never going to get big if people don’t take that attitude.
Mr Ris One label isn’t going to be running a scene. There’d be no competition – we’re all for healthy competition. It gives everyone a kick up the arse.
What can we expect from your debut EP “Alphabetix Anonymous”?
ABD It’s a pretty organic-sounding thing. We’ve got beats from quite a few different people – Mike D/ Sonar Cousin, Fenna Rhodes, J Bravo, Creation. There’s a broad range of concepts – a couple of story-telling ones, a couple of deep conscious ones, a couple of party ones and a couple of comedy ones. There’s a lot of comedy there – a sense of humour.
Mr Ris Personally I look at the sound as – you know, nowadays a lot of UK Hip-Hop is very Taskforce-esque, in the way that they set things off– “this is the UK, it’s grimy!”. As a listener, I love that shit, but one thing that hasn’t been done enough is the party stuff. You should be able to go to a set and rock it live – not that Taskforce don’t rock it, but we want that kind of party atmosphere. It’s upbeat, it’s something you could put on before you go out, it’s got energy.
Angel SThere’s a big band sounds, lots of horns, some funky stuff, one two-step tune and a bit of a reggae flavour as well.
Mr Ris We’re not trying to go completely crazy with it. It’s UK Hip-Hop, no question of that, but it’s a different flavour.
Do you think perhaps that a lot of UK Hip-Hop acts in the past have had to have had to battle to be taken seriously but that people have maybe got the confidence now to take themselves a little less seriously?
Mr Ris UK Hip-Hop in general is very hard to get into the mainstream and isn’t taken as seriously and it’s worked hard to be taken. You know what British people are like – a kind of “no-nonsense” attitude, “British people can’t rap”. If you look across the world, British Hip-Hop is big and is taken seriously. It’s respected, except in the UK and possibly America. France, Germany, Australia – they love British Hip-Hop. In Asia they go crazy for it and you can make serious money out there. In the past in the UK, there has been that kind of pressure but I think that’s all come to a head now. A lot more people are like “fuck it, let’s party”.
How do you feel the Grime scene fits into the way the UK scene is developing at the moment?
Mr Ris It’s something that can’t be ignored. It’s UK, it started here, it’s a UK sound. I can’t speak for everyone but personally I feel it. It’s original and it’s raw, which is something that a lot of styles of music are really lacking nowadays. The production might not always be the best, the MCs are sometimes a little bit sloppy but that energy is there. The progression that’s come along nowadays is that Grime has developed as its own style of music.
The other thing that I’ve noticed is that Grime used to be all about the energy and not so much about the lyrics. Now though it’s different – especially in Leeds, you’ve got guys like Dialect who are coming with content. From a UK Hip-Hop head’s perspective, one of the things that you could have found fault with in the past is content. Nowadays, it has content and it has energy, it’s put together well – you can’t fuck with it.
Taking the focus back to the label again, you are now starting to bring in other acts, the first of which is Verbal Contact. Who are they and what do they bring to the table?
Mr Ris Verbal Contact is made up of MCs Matter and Prys, plus producer/ DJ Mike D. We started collaborating with them through Northern Hostility, which is a larger crew that Alphabetix are part of. They’ve been mates for a long time, we’ve been on tunes with them. They’re unquestionably two of the illest MCs in Leeds. They’ve both got impact, they’ve both got individual styles and they complement each other really well on the track, they have stage presence… they have some of that classic UK Hip-Hop style but they really push the boundaries of it.
“Alphabetix Anonymous” will be released on October 12th on CD and MP3 and will be available from Suspect Packages and other leading retailers including iTunes, HMV Online and Tesco Digital.
“Literary Vices” by Verbal Contact will be released in November.
Verbal Contact also feature on the Rising Styles 2009 Album