UK hip-hop like all largely underground genres no doubt has had its ups and downs; it’s always been healthy in terms of creativity and musical output but as a genre that has existed largely without reliance on major labels or the support of commercial media this is something that brings with it its difficulties. It is however a genre with its own industry, it’s a scene with a framework entirely of its own creation and in recent years as an independent genre it truly feels like the excitement around it, the support and infrastructure it’s built and the artists it’s bringing through are taking it to the next level!
Leaf Dog, Fliptrix, BVA and Verb T are four outstanding individual artists that through their separate involvements with the genre have been at the forefront of modern UK hip-hop. As The Four Owls, they are a super group that are making UK hip-hop history!
The Four Owls released their debut LP ‘Nature’s Greatest Mystery’ in 2011, the release became an instant classic and saw The Owls gaining recognition far and wide. I suspect like myself, the almost three year release gap has been difficult to cope with for many, so thankfully last month we were treated to the follow up! ‘Natural Order’ (released 12th Feb) is a 16-track album that shot to No.1 in the iTunes hip-hop chart within the first 24 hours of release. It’s an album that has been released on Fliptrix’s High Focus, a label as central to the direction of modern UK hip-hop as the artists I’ve mentioned above.
In light of all of this, we felt it was only right to have a chat with Leaf Dog, here’s how things went down…
Reflecting on the project from start to finish, Leaf Dog gave us an insight to how the album came together and how he feels The Owls have progressed as a collective throughout this period.
“It’s come together over a few years… it took a lot of time for us to reconnect as a group and make a new project as we’re all solo artists, we all already have our own things going on. It also takes a lot of time for me to make the beats, I’ve made like a couple of thousand beats since the last Owls album and I have to have the best beat from say every few months, every few months I make a real good beat and that will be going on the album.”
“I think we’ve definitely grown as a group; when we first starting doing it as the Owls it was almost like a bit of a joke in a way, like yeh lets call ourselves The Owls and see if it works. Now it’s a bit more serious, there was a lot more pressure involved trying to make it better than the last one but I feel we’ve evolved as a group and really come together in the right ways.”
Besides ‘Think Twice’ Leaf Dog has produced the album in its entirety. An exceptionally talented producer, the intricacies and depth of the beats contribute to an LP of a timeless quality. No doubt it’s a 12″ with pride of place in the collections of many!
“Mainly I’m just trying to find a certain sound, trying to find a certain sound that fits a certain feeling. I want to make a song that makes you feel good, or you know, feel bad… so I’m always out for a feeling when it comes to records.”
“My advice to anybody else trying to be a producer would be just find things that you like the sound of and forget about the sample, just think about that one sound then bring it to you and find a way of flipping that into a beat, that’s how I do my thing basically, I use my gut feeling. If it sounds right it doesn’t matter if it’s out of time, or a strange tempo or bad quality, as long as it sounds right it sounds right.”
In terms of emotional involvement, a feeling of nostalgia is often something it’s easy to be attracted to in music – is this something Leaf Dog looks for in his choice of samples?
“I wouldn’t look at it like that exactly but I guess in a way that’s what I’m looking for, I’m looking for that old feeling. You’ve got to remember back in the day most songs were recorded one take, in a room by some band or something in the 60’s. There wasn’t those split tracks, it wasn’t really mastered like that and separated, it was just bang that’s it so there’s a kinda feeling that modern music doesn’t have. It was also cut from reel to reel and pressed on vinyl, so it went through a lot of processes to give it that feel which I guess is like nostalgia in a way. Really though, it’s the feel that I’m looking for rather than it being old, because people could make something new that sounded like that and I would still sample it, but they’d have to do it in an old method, so I guess I’m looking for the old way of making music.”
Each of The Owls is an engaging lyricist and they develop themes cohesively. Questioning consumerism and modern ideology, they also question themselves with a level of introspection it’s difficult not to be drawn into. As a result the album concepts can drag you out of the bubble and make you question yourself and your society.
“I can’t speak for everybody else but me personally, I am trying to provoke that in the listener. I want them to think about certain things but really it’s also about me telling myself stuff, the only way I can get through to myself is to put it on a song and then I feel like I have to do it haha. A lot of it is me talking to myself and it just so happens that other people seem to think the same thing… I mean really, no-one wants to hear anybody talking to them about these kinds of themes, so the best way to do it is to talk about your own personal issues and then other people seem to relate to that because they feel the same way, or if they don’t then they don’t and it’s all good!”
Looking at underground and overground music generally, Leaf Dog highlighted his thoughts on the importance of music to societal change.
“I think it’s very important, that’s the shit that changes the world right? That shit right there!”
“I don’t like to think about my responsibility to the world too much because I’ll start changing everything I wanna do then, but we do what we wanna do and it just so happens we’re not dicks like that so we’re not going to put a negative message out there.”
“I do think we have a level of responsibility for the things we say and the things we make because of the people we may influence. It’s a bit of a deep one though really, I do think about it but then I don’t put anything out there that’s too bad, some people need to worry because they’re the ones putting out that negative energy! It’s definitely important to think about though because there’s a lot of stuff going on in this day and age that isn’t spoken about and isn’t questioned but needs to be, that’s why it’s a great thing that the underground is still in existence and that YouTube and everything is pushing that and keeping it alive!”
On a slight tangent point, the album features a bar in which Leaf Dog recalls listening to Verb T’s music when he was younger…
“When I was 16 years old I supported Verb T in Bath, I remember pulling him to the side and spitting, spitting in his ear like ‘yo, check out my bars’ and rapping to him and shit, haha he was like ‘yeh, that’s good man… that’s good’, then I remember saying ‘yeh, I wanna get signed to Lowlife Records’ and them just looking at me like ‘yeh, yeh’ haha, it’s just mad to think that I ended up being in a group with the guy many years later…”
‘Think Twice’ is a UK / US hip-hop collaboration of a calibre previously unheard of! The Four Owls with a beat produced by the legendary DJ Premier, it was the albums first single and one that got every hip-hop head talking! So how did it come about?
“I made a track for Army of the Pharaohs; King Syze, Apathy, Celph Titled and them mans, then Apathy and Celph Titled were playing in Bristol so I went to the show, said hello, what’s up and shit and I saw that one of them had a message from DJ Premier so I was like ‘yo son, hook me up’ and he did! He text him and said ‘yo, this kid wants to do a song with you’ and shit, he checked my beats out, I got the email, spoke to his manager then got through to Premo and the rest is history so it’s all good!”
Celebration must have been in order…
“You know what, I was just happy! We didn’t really celebrate like that; it took quite a long time of my life to just make it happen, so by the time it happened I felt like it had already happened if you know what I mean. The way I explain it, it’s like this, we had to build the stadium before we got to play in it, so by the time we got to play in the stadium as we’d already built it, it didn’t really feel as great. I wish I could have just got the beat and been like ‘YEHH’ but really it took so long that by the time we got it, it was almost like finally, one of them kind of feelings but it was worth it.”
In terms of stateside reaction and press, it seemed a lot of online commentary went along the lines of “well I hadn’t really checked out UK hip-hop before, but if there’s more like this….”
“Yeh, I thought that was quite surprising to be honest but thinking about it, doing a song with the god of all production, he’s going to bring that to the table. So yeh, I mean it’s funny to think that people don’t know that UK hip-hop exists even though it’s been around since like the 80’s, but that’s just how the game is and that’s the beautiful thing about music; there’s always a new kid who’s just finding out about it. So I’m happy that people say that, it’s a good thing for me.”
Then and Now
Looking at the stateside reaction, it does make you wonder why there’s been a lack of recognition for UK hip-hop in the past.
“I think primarily a lack of promotion and mainly people not being willing to hear it. Before YouTube and MySpace and all those things, there wasn’t really anywhere for anyone to be heard, unless you got pushed by a big label. When I was a kid growing up I had Blak Twang and stuff like that in HMV because they must have had deals with Virgin or whoever it was they got hooked up with, but you only saw a few creep through, then you learnt about everybody else from being down with the scene and shit.”
“It was harder for the older generation to break through because the Internet wasn’t the way it is now, so it’s just different man. High Focus wouldn’t be High Focus without the Internet, I wouldn’t have gotten a DJ Premier beat without the Internet as I wouldn’t have known Army of the Pharaohs and they wouldn’t have been able to hook me up, it is what it is; the internet age we live in has changed everything. That’s why I think personally, it’s not that people weren’t dope before because everybody was dope from every generation of UK hip-hop, Chester P, Gun Shot and them mans, London Posse and shit, everybody was dope and they all did their thing, they made their noise and they made enough noise for me to start wanting to do it as well.”
Having mentioned the Internet as a factor in the success of High Focus, what else does Leaf Dog feel it is about the label that makes it such a force?
“Mainly it’s just the music, people resonate with the music and it’s all that really matters. A record label is essentially like a base, it’s like a clothing brand, I guess after a while you buy it for the label but really you’re buying it because the clothes. High Focus is the same thing; the music is good so people will buy it. Obviously Fliptrix does a great job of pushing everybody and getting it out there. And I mean he obviously dedicated and believes in us enough to support what we do so it’s all good!”
“I’ve got my new solo album which I’m going to be dropping this year on High Focus called ‘Dyslexic Disciple’. Me and BVA have got an album with a guy called Young Zee from the Outsidaz and we’re going to be dropping that on RLD Records. I’ve got a track with Nottz Raw as well, he’s one of my favourite producers and if you don’t know you should check him out, I’ve done a song with him, M.O.P, something with Inspectah Deck from Wu Tang so yeh, I’ve got a few big things coming!”