Originally hailing from Leeds, Braintax founded Lowlife Records in 1992 and is now based in London. His label roster includes some of the biggest names in British hip-hop such as Jehst, Skinnyman, Task Force, Mystro, Micall Parkinsun, Asaviour, Verb-T and Kashmere, plus new talent in the form of Dubbledge. He also co-runs Riddim Killa with the legendary Rodney P and is an MC and producer in his own right.
On Friday 3rd November Braintax and the Lowlife crew (MC Mystro, DJ Kam and drummer Isaac Heywood) performed at New Bohemia in Leeds to promote his new album, Panorama. For more details on the gig, which featured support from Takura and Kid Kanevil, click here.
Anyway, I was lucky enough to secure an interview with the man himself, Joe Christie AKA Brando Flux, Ginger Washington, Brainzini, Joey Brains… yeah, that’s right, Braintax. Over the course of our discussion I got some fascinating insights into the mind and motivations of the man who runs the UK’s most influential hip-hop label.
Welcome back to Leeds. What can we expect from the show tonight?
Braintax: A bit of rapping, a bit of scratching, a bit of drumming…
That’s the guy from Nightmares On Wax?
Braintax: Yeah, Isaac Heywood on drums, it’s going to be lively actually, it’s going to be quite nice I think.
Do you still keep an eye on the scene in Leeds? Do you know who’s bad, who’s good, what’s going on up here?
Braintax: Not really – just what people tell me. I don’t really follow it as such, but then I don’t really follow music much anyway.
I suppose if you’re doing your own stuff it’s best to keep your own influence rather than what everyone else is doing?
Braintax: Yeah and there’s a lot about now as well so it’s much harder to keep track of the hip-hop scene than it used to be ‘cos there’s just so much stuff coming out.
You obviously moved down to London and got your label started off down there… do you think that that’s something people have to do to actually make money and make a name in UK Hip-Hop?
Braintax: It probably helps being in London but then you get more involved in the bullshit as well. I’d say it probably does help but it’s more that when we moved down then it was something that had to be done but I think now the hip-hop scene’s a bit more nationwide so it’s not so essential.
If you just put out stuff with regional accents then you probably get pigeonholed more than anything else, that’s probably the biggest drawback.
So if you’re doing good stuff that’s got kind of universal appeal… you’re nodding to that… as long as it’s accessible to everyone.
Braintax is well known for including a political element to his lyrics so I was keen to get some discussion going on that level. One question seemed to follow on naturally from a discussion of the North-South divide in hip-hop.
It’s not just in hip-hop – economically there’s a big North-South divide in this country. Do you think it’s something there’s a solution to?
Braintax: I think it’s something that’s changing anyway because a lot of call-centre stuff and a lot of government stuff has moved up North now. I don’t think it is as marked as it was in the Eighties. The track "Decade" on my new album, that’s talking about the North-South divide and then it was marked. It was a massive gap, but I don’t think it’s like that so much nowadays On the other hand there’s probably a massive percentage of millionaires liiving in London as opposed to anywhere else and now there’s probably more of a South-East and the rest of the country divide.
I think you said on one of the tracks on Panorama ["Fade To Grey"] that "The poor move North, the rich move South"?
Braintax: Yeah I wasn’t specifically talking about Britain, I was talking about hemispheres.
We may be seeing some decrease in inequality but a lot of people on the left would describe Blair’s government as a watered-down version of the Tory party – do you think that’s justified?
Braintax: I don’t think there is a left any more, that’s the thing. New Labour are probably just slightly right of centre now and then slightly right of that you’ve got the Tories. There’s a massive chasm now on the left-wing of politics in this country and there’s a massive massive amount of people that are not represented by politics so if anything there isn’t such a thing as the left any more. There are a few people that are represented and that’s it.
Do you think there’s a real alternative that could come through, for example Respect [the socialist political party founded by ex-Labour MP George Galloway]?
Braintax: Yeah, I think that Respect could make a big difference but I’m not overly confident about it to be honest. I don’t know… I don’t know – we’ll have to see. At the moment, like I said there’s a big chasm there.
You sampled George Galloway on your new album – have you got an opinion on him as a person?
Braintax: George Galloway is the only person in politics that I actually agree with, about everything he says.
Personally he’s made some moves that might seem unusual in someone in his position, for example appearing on Celebrity Big Brother… What did you think of that?
Braintax: Big Brother was just a mistake. If you go on Big Brother, you’re going to end up looking like a prick, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, Big Brother’s just a load of shit, it’s semi-celebrity TV and it doesn’t have any bearing on anything. I judge George Galloway by his politics, not by him coming off like an idiot on Big Brother. I’m sure there’s lots of things he did on Big Brother that they didn’t show.
Sure, I didn’t actually see it but as you know there is selective editing and stuff so…
Braintax: He came off like a complete bastard but, you know, everyone else did as well, so, you know, big fucking deal, it’s just empty-headed TV, I don’t really judge my politicians by how they act on Big Brother.
OK, moving on… we mentioned “Decade” before. On that track, you’re discussing a lot of events from the Eighties. There was a big change in British politics – a move to the right – which saw the unions weakened and eventually led to Labour abandoning their commitment to public ownership. Do you think that’s going to be a permanent change or can you see things going back at all?
Braintax: It just depends what happens with the left-wing in this country. There is currently no left-wing and there’s nobody really representing the trade unions at political level so… maybe?
On “Tools” [from 1999’s “Travel Show” EP] you looked back to when you started off in hip-hop, talking about the simpler elements like looping up beats on rubbish equipment and writing rhymes about "spliffs and gynaecology". You’re in quite a different situation now – do you miss how things were when you started?
Braintax: No, I prefer it now because when I started I wasn’t getting paid for it and it was a struggle. There was a million things I wanted to do and it seemed like they were miles away. Now that I’ve done most of them, it’s a better situation to be in.
I’m glad to hear that you get on and you’re glad you got there rather than thinking "Oh my God, ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems’" or whatever.
Braintax: Nah, money makes life easier.
At this point I pulled out a copy of the Wikipedia entry on Braintax which, unless it’s been radically edited in the meantime, you can see by clicking here. He was obviously interested to have a look, despite insisting that he doesn’t read his own press. I highlighted one particular statement from the article.
It says here that you have a more middle-class audience than a lot of other hip-hop artists. Do you think that maybe other artists on Lowlife reach a more hardcore hip-hop audience whereas you maybe also attract other listeners?
Braintax: I probably have got a bit more of a middle-class audience because the people who tend to being into politics in this country tend to be more middle-class kids than working-class kids but nearly everybody’s hip-hop audience in this country is middle-class. It’s not really working-class music, to be honest with you. To an extent in London maybe, with Skinnyman fans and stuff like that, it’s working-class, but by-and-large the hip-hop audience in this country, sorry, the UK hip-hop audience in this country, is middle-class. The working-class audience is more into American stuff so…
And maybe grime?
Braintax: Yeah… but I don’t really give a fuck who buys my records, the more the merrier, really. I don’t specifically try to appeal to middle-class kids but… I couldn’t give a fuck.
In terms of content, you generally see two extremes in hip-hop. At one end, you’ve got artists who just talk about cars, clothes, money and women then you’ve got acts like, for example, Dilated Peoples who mostly go on about their skills as MCs and DJs. There’s obviously a lot of stuff that’s not discussed if you limit yourself to those topics. Do you think it’s hard to hit that middle-ground or that other ground of content?
Braintax: No, the thing is it’s piss, it’s easy. There’s only about four subjects that regularly get rapped about and there’s about a million subjects in your life that you could be rapping about so how hard can it be?
I don’t care how hardcore you are, how street you are, how much of a hustler you are… you’ve got other things going on in your life, so rap about them, you know? It could be anything – you can rap about doing the shopping, you know? It’s just about being creative and doing it well.
If you look at the hip-hop press they tend to over-report “beef” stories and in the mainstream media you’ve got, for example North Korea which is a big story but which some analysts believe has been over-hyped. Do you think there’s a tendency to focus on negative stories at the expense of other issues which are important but less dramatic?
Braintax: Yeah… but that’s the news full-stop really. It’s the same with everything. People are interested in big negative issues, they’re not really interested in the small things that just like make life tick along. It’s the same when you go the pub – your mates don’t want to talk about, yeah, your life’s quite nice and who made a cup of tea today, they want to talk about who’s fucking who and who’s said something about someone else. The news is just like that but on a different level. It’s just like world gossip, really. It’s not a well-rounded picture of what’s going on in the world at any one point.
So it’s just the way that people talk, it’s human nature but on a bigger level with a budget or whatever?
Braintax: Yeah, pretty much, I think so.
You’re not the sort of UK rapper who defines himself particularly in terms of your Britishness but do you think it’s possible to be proud of where you come from without ending up being mindlessly patriotic and just slagging off the States or whoever else?
Braintax: Yeah of course it is… you can be. I’m proud of being from Yorkshire. That’s the thing I’m most proud about of all. That doesn’t mean that I’ve got to go waving a flag and being a bigot. The thing is, in this country, we do patriotism at the expense of other people – we don’t do it for ourselves. We do it in terms of slagging other races and other people off.
Ok so finally, what can we expect coming out soon on Lowlife and Riddim Killa… I gather the new Klashnekoff LP is coming out through Riddim Killa when that drops?
Braintax: My album’s out now, that’s "Panorama". My next single features the tracks "Syriana Style" and "Anti-Grey" [both from the Panorama LP] and the 12” includes an exclusive track with Rodney P.
Klashnekoff’s album is coming out February 12th.
Dubbledge is coming out on Lowlife next year, probably like March / April… Dubbledge is fucking wicked man!
And Dubbledge was on "Anti-Grey", wasn’t he?
Braintax: Yeah… he’s the boy right now… he’s fucking heavy.
So there you have it…
All photos by Jamie Blaza