Outspoken, thoughtful and ready to give you a slice of his musings, B'Tol, the Bristolian MC answers a few of my burning questions in what might be one of the most interesting and in depth interviews I've conducted. B'Tol provides a fresh and insightful perspective on Bristol's musical and social heritage. In amongst that he manages to promote his own music and the entire Bristol Hip Hop scene!
Certified Banger: Yo B’Tol! We’ve finally got this thing happening! Start us off with telling us who you are and what you do:
B'Tol: Well – the name is B’Tol, I’m a 25 year old emcee and some time producer hailing from the fair metropolis people like to call Bristol! I started writing and experimenting with verse about ’93 / ’94 – I was at a real mixed secondary school at the time, and it was a real blessing. I was surrounded by and involved in so many different cultures and sounds and somehow Hip Hop found its way to me. I’d kind of heard the standard chart stuff, but my Jamaican mates were giving me Gangstarr tapes, Redman, Hijack, London Posse and early 3PM and Smith and Mighty TDK’s with the almighty Kellogz on and I just kind of fell in love with it.
I started off by simply breaking, as my mates would tell me that white boys couldn’t rap! But I started to write on the sly and practice my little 16 bar verses as much as I could, then one day I was invited to my friends in St Pauls to eat in ‘96. To this day I can remember exactly what went on. The 90’s in Bristol were strange times, there was still some racial tension from the St Pauls riots 16 years prior. Paul’s had this air of danger amongst the white outsiders and it was very much a case of there being racial segregation in accordance to regions in Bristol. Also, there were huge tensions between the Bristol born Jamaicans and those who had found their way to Bristol at a later date. I won’t lie, due to the history and what the white lower and middle class folk would talk about, I wasn’t sure… but the moment I walked into my friends house I was made completely welcome. He had three generations of his family under one roof, and there were about 15 of us crowded around the dinner table and the most incredible spread of food I’ve ever seen. His older brothers were friends of Kelz, Chrissy Chris and Lynx, and so after dinner, the whole family crowded round and we chucked on some James Brown breaks and starting breaking in the front room in front of his grandparents!
When my mate and his brothers started to rap, I had this little 16 that I’d been practicing for donkeys, so I swallowed my pride and kicked it… and the family went nuts! From there I started to write more, but I’d say it wasn’t until about 2002 / 2003 I really thought I could start making proper songs and the like. I joined British Intelligence and the rest is set in CD and MP3 with me working with Jagos and the biggest friend and influence I’ve found in hip hop, DJ Rogue.
CB: So what’s in the name B’Tol?
B'Tol: Having been around hip hop culture and becoming a part of it at an early age, it was always the mantra that you should represent were you’re from… So I toyed with different ideas for a long time but never found something that fit. I was given a b-boy name (Freakee Freeze, because strange freezes were always the strongest part of my repertoire!) but it never really stuck. I went under the moniker of Friggy Ballss for a while, but one day I was heading out of Bristol, and noticed on the roads it would say B’TOL M32 or whatever… I thought B’Tol sounded good, it represented my heritage and such, sounded a little like “Be Told” (at the time I was listening to a LOT of old KRS and the whole edutainment thing stuck with me!) and so I took it on. Later, I also found out B’Tol is also a scientific term (for what I don’t know!) and during the 90’s loads of emcee’s were talking about “dropping science”, so it seemed to also represent the era I grew into hip hop, so I stuck with it.
CB: Bristol has quite a rich Hip Hop heritage. How does that affect you now? I know you’ve already dropped a few names but do you have heroes from the early days of the Bristol music scene?
B'Tol: The aforementioned 3PM were the guys who really inspired me at first, especially ‘Better Late than Never’, I had got into Smith and Mighty at a later date – I won’t begin to pretend I was listening to them in the late 80’s, but that was more dub than hip hop per se. Later it was the likes of Aspects, Vertabrae, Fat Club, Souljah Clique, Numskullz, Hairy Parents, Sir Beans OBE, Massive Attack and Portishead to name a few.
Having that kind of calibre of people involved in the scene meant I had no choice but to come completely correct. It’s affected me in the sense that back during the late 90’s you didn’t really have the internet and all that bollocks – the only way you would get noticed was by being fucking good! So I had to make sure I honed my craft and had my own way of doing things – something which I believe is missing from a lot of recent hip hop. That pressure also became a bit of a burden though, and is the reason why I really didn’t do anything properly until after 2000. I kind of put this pressure on myself to try and fit in to the echelons of Bristol music, that bloody cliché that people throw around about the “Bristol sound”, and it was to my detriment. Once I found my feet, and also found that I always got the best reaction when I stopped worrying about the “Bristol sound”, the rest followed.
As a result of that now, I’m working with the likes of Beans and Rola from Numskullz, I can kick it with Kelz and chat to Turroe, people I had real admiration for back in my youth! Maybe there’s a lesson there.
CB: Who else is doing their thing right now in Bristol? Who do you rate for the future?
B'Tol: At this moment in time I honestly think that we have an embarrassment of riches in Bristol. For quite a small sleepy city, there is so much talent and so many unique voices, and the scene is really starting to bubble again. Plus, with the Fat Club ‘Proper Bristol Hip Hop’ DVD getting press in the likes of HHC, I think people are really respecting the heritage this city has and looking to it for inspiration and more progressive forward thinking hip hop, as well as that straight up boom bap or whatever.
A lot of the guys above are still doing their thing, but I’ve gushed enough on them! Right now, I think the best emcee in Bristol, and possibly in the UK is Sir Plus, the guy is a monster! His old spar Terminal as well is ridiculous. Then we’ve got some absurdly good groups / crews coming through – Da Label have got a roster of artists that’s simply ridiculous, with R.E and Ceaze really sticking out for me. Se Fire have taken that quintessential Bristol sound and made it their own, mixing dub elements with drum and bass, Dub step and straight forward Hip Hop. Central Spillz are kind of merging Grime, Dub Step and Hip Hop and making some really fresh sounding tracks. The Swamps are absolutely smashing up anywhere they play.
Then you’ve got crews like Mad Method and Project 13 who are about as west country as you can get and have been gigging for donkeys and doing things the right way. With people like Sober and Dribbla, K*Ners, Awkward, Middleman, Jimi Presha, Blacksmith, Ben One, Jagos, Split Pupil, First Degree Burns… I could go on for hours! But each of the folks mentioned are doing things on their own terms and doing it brilliantly, whilst all still coming from the roots of hip hop. I’m also part of a monthly night known as The Hip Hop Lounge where myself and several other guys from the scene are trying to put together a night where every aspect of the cities scene is represented and also have an avenue to network and such, and it’s completely not for profit. The next one is actually Friday 27th Feb and we’ve got Mystro down for it. The future’s bright in this here city.
CB: Tell us about your own work: What have you released that you want people to listen to?
B'Tol: I had some earlier stuff that is now cringeworthy! But the first project I was a part of that I was really proud of was the British Intelligence CD “NOTANMCEP”, a 5 track which we distributed through a massive guerrilla campaign I think in 2003, which ended up in us distributing about 50,000 CDs by leaving them on trains, coaches, buses, in shops and the like with a little comic strip saying to people to simply copy the music, and then leave the CD somewhere else for another person to pick up. It really helped us generate a buzz nationally and we gigged for quite a while on the back of that, but I don’t have a copy anymore! So if any britishhiphop.co.uk readers have a copy, hit me up! The next project was the British Intelligence album ‘Hole in my Old School’. Sadly, we split up before we could get it out properly, but early tracks were played on Radio 1 and the song ‘Gravity’ won a 1xtra Homegrown vote, and we were getting recognition state side too, with a track getting on a Def Jux mixtape and US DJ Noah Zark playing the tracks quite a bit! That album is now available for free on the old Myspizzle and is a good introduction to me and the way I do what I do.
The project right now, which we released last year is ‘Something's What We've Done’ with the young lad Jagos. It’s a mini-album we put together at the beginning / middle of 2008 and it’s been snowballing slowly since then. To date, we’ve got rid of about 3,500 copies. The track ‘Finish This’ with Da Herbalis’ was included in the first ‘On the Radar’ Compilation, ‘People’ with Koast of Central Spillz has been used by Project 360, has had mainstream radio play in New York, and has also been used in a Bristol Graffiti video promoting the ‘Children of The Can’ publication, and due to the press and such we’ve been getting recently, we’ve whacked it up on Itunes so people can get it a lot easier!
Currently me and Jagos are putting together ‘Something’s What They’ve Done’, the remix album, and we’re almost done – it’s sounding really good – it’s really interesting to give your tracks to other people and see what they take from them and the new direction a song can take simply by changing the beat. Also myself and Koast are rejigging ‘People’ with an assist from Project 13’s incredible songstress Eva Lazarus to make it not just a new beat, but a bit of a neo-soul re-imagining of it, taking it from classic soul to something a bit different and more progressive.
I’m also on Mr Loop’s ‘Bury All’ album, which HHC just acclaimed their homegrown album of the month – specifically the tracks ‘Satisfaction pt.1’ with Yosh, Mudmowth, Vee Kay, Wordsmith, Slippa and Zoo Mark, and ‘Try Again’ with Eva Lazarus. So go check them s**ts out!
CB: Which of your own tracks are your personal favourites? Do any of them have interesting stories behind them?
B'Tol: My personal favourites change! I think ‘Strike’ from the British Intelligence was the first track where I really put an image of myself out there, and it’s definitely one of my favourite verses. “Monolith of the south with a spliff and a stout, politicking in the kitchen while we listen to Strauss, gals I kiss on the couch, til I’m whipping it out, with a smile quick stick this in your clout!” WOOOOOW …” pretty much sums me up! (Although I’m happily wifed up these days).
The track ‘Saturday Night Live’ is a direct result of a gig I had where I was bombarded by an influx of kids who all sounded exactly the same and they all just spat really bad self centred verses at me when I was just trying to simmer down after the show! But it served as an interesting state of play record, and I really believe a lot of folk need to fix up and stop making such insular music that has obvious constraints and discursive issues and embrace different ideas, and different accents! It does seem like there’s a UK Hip Hop voice that a lot of kids have, all using exactly the same slang and perpetuating this kind of pseudo-patois vocabulary… which me and Da Herbalis’ then addressed in ‘Finish This aka Rassclart Rappers’. ‘People’ is just my love song for expression, be it through Hip Hop or whatever, and having that form of release. I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for Hip Hop my life would be altogether different now, having suffered from depression in the past, having issues with substance misuse and tempestuous teenage years, it could’ve been very different, and I’m blessed. So maybe that’s my favourite!
CB: What inspires you to write songs? What is your biggest influence? Do you ever struggle to come up with subject matter?
B'Tol: The thing with me is that I cannot just sit down any old time and write – I need to be captured by something, be it a moment, life, a beat, a word, a book or a news report and some people become I frustrated by that. Of course I COULD just force something out, but I think that’s just a waste. Part of me thinks that maybe my creativity is some finite source that will one day just run out, so I try to be careful, but also I’m quite esoteric, so I believe in creative energies and such. It’s about moments, it being personal, but also relating that to grander themes so it’s not just a song or verse about me, but relating it to human issues and making sure that anyone who hears a song that I make can take something from it. Even if it’s just one line or whatever, then I’m more than happy.
And I also just try to be honest. I think its human nature to open up to something if you can feel its honesty. We’re all humans, and we’ve ALL had relative suffering, and we’ve all had happy moments. That is what makes life so interesting.
CB: What’s your mantra? What do you aim for when making a song? Is it all fun? Can it be dark? What do you think the people want to hear?
B'Tol: I think that due to the way I came up in Hip Hop, and the folks who have influenced me, and the people I’m surrounded by on a daily basis, I have quite a quote unquote “Old School” mentality. I believe in community, I do charitable work with various folks – people like the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and I’ve done youth work in the past. I really believe in Hip Hop as being a positive force. That’s not to say I won’t make dark songs, but it’s really easy to piss and moan about something and point toward things being f**ked up and crazy, but it takes real balls to actually say “well, maybe if we did THIS, we could change that”, and I always try to put that across in my music.
The current project I’m working on is my solo album proper entitled ‘Seeing Self’. It’s based on the theories of Carl Jeung and his work on the conscious and subconscious mind. It also serves as a really interesting way to frame a body of work – in that I can deal with personal issues, and relate them to a much grander narrative. But it is also about knowing yourself and saying that unless you really know what you’re made of, what it took to become the person you are and what social, political or personal issues took place to form the “self”, how can you honestly tell others how to live their lives? We’re surrounded by people who tell us how to live, who use masks and cater to our egos in order to hide what is being unsaid, so I think it’s about time we all took a long look at ourselves, dealt with the things we ALL suppress and maybe, just maybe, something good could come from it.
CB: Is there anything you would avoid writing about? Do you get into politics? Do you like to rap about social issues?
B'Tol: Politics are a really contentious issue – everyone has their own opinions and everyone can point at what’s wrong and get all shaky fisted about it, but as I’ve said, I think it’s about prescribing ideas and saying that maybe things are a bit messed up, but there is always a way out of it, and maybe we could try this. I think it’s also a little sad that we just generally don' talk about politics that much anymore, it’s become marginalized, and folks would rather just sit playing their PS3s, moan about the state of the nation or whatever, yet not actually engage in any political debate, or any kind of activism or political forum. Maybe if we all got more involved, actually used our votes and our voices, then we wouldn't have so much to bloody moan about!
The only thing I try to stay clear of is straight up braggadocio rap – I like my music to have a point. I know I’m far from the greatest person on Earth, and I’m not the best rapper, so I won’t write songs about being the best rapper on Earth or battle bars. I like to hear that kind of thing, but I had my spate of battling and what not. I’m done with that now! Though saying that – doing ‘Satisfaction pt.1’ for Loop was enjoyable as it had been a long time since I’d written that kind of thing… so who knows!
CB: What social or economic issues bother you at the moment? Obviously there are a lot to talk about – there’s the credit crunch, knife crime, kids having kids…
B'Tol: The credit crunch is an obvious one, but I think people need to take a little responsibility for what’s happening. Obviously, the banks hold some of the blame, we’re shown that if we don’t consume on a huge basis, have the latest HD TV or whatever we’re inadequate. But we need to take some of that on our shoulders, because we seemed to believe we could borrow money exponentially and there would be no repercussions, or that the value of property would just constantly increase and there would be no crash!
Then this links back to the whole crime issue and kids having kids… It’s like we’re taught from a very young age that capitalism is the way; that we should consume on a massive scale, and if you don’t, then you’re inadequate. It breeds this whole mentality of one-upmanship, that kind of corporate cut throat stereotype is now beginning to permeate not just the business world, but culture and society in general. Now I’m not saying any of this is justified, but if you’re told that you’re inadequate because you haven’t got the latest Nike SB’s, let alone the fact that you can’t put food on the table, and there’s this whole dog eat dog mentality, then crime becomes a realistic outlet.
Further, you’re being told that you need a home, yet you got out of school with few qualifications to your name, and the only realistic avenue you have to earn money is to work some minimum wage job which you’ll never be able to get a mortgage with, you’ll be taxed out the arse and you’ll be broke. But, if you have a child, don’t get a job and such, then you can actually get more money through benefits than if you were slogging it out at some fast food restaurant, AND you get a roof over your head. If you try to look beyond the whole issues of class, whether or not such behaviour is right or wrong or whatever, it’s basic human survival, and as much as we want to judge, as much as the tabloids want to reprimand benefit cheats, crime and whatever, you have to kinda say, “If I was in that situation, what would I do?” It’s easy to judge, but once you’re in that position, we as humans have a strange way of justifying things.
CB: What’s the solution to such problems? Does the responsibility lie with the government and schools? Parents? People in prominent positions such as rappers, sports stars? Who can actually make a difference in your opinion?
B'Tol: I wish it was as simple as saying that there is some hard and fast way to solve things, but there really isn’t. We’ve lost all sense of community in this country – the old folks are scared of the young hoodies, apparently violent crime is on the increase, though there are just as many reports to contest that, we’re bombarded by war and suffering from the media, all our hospitals are dirty shit holes and apparently a zillion Polish guys are coming over every second to take your women and our jobs. This means we’re being distracted from the things that truly matter in life, the little interpersonal relationships and nuances that make life special. People don’t smile at each other in the street anymore! What’s that about?
But the fact is, we can all blame the Murdoch’s of this world for perpetuating these messages, but we fucking buy into them! We need to start taking responsibility for what is happening. It isn’t the duty of one individual to change the world and right all the wrongs for us, we ALL need to stand up and be counted, be accountable not for our individual actions, but of the culmination of everyone’s actions! Essentially it’s about empowerment – we all can do something do change the world, but it’s easier to sit back, distract ourselves and forget it.
CB: What's coming next from you musically? Will it reflect any of these current issues?
B'Tol: My solo album is in the works at the moment, and I’m getting really excited by it! I’m working with a few artists, some regional, and one or two international, but you’ll have to wait and see on that one!
I’ve just finished a track with Ben One that will be on his release and hopefully my album called ‘4:12’ which I think is my strongest song to date. I’m also putting together a little project called ‘The Cover Charge EP’, which is essentially a covers project – either re-imaginings or rejigs of some of my favourite tracks, and I shall also be singing on it! I just want to have a bit of fun, and I’ll be distributing that for free once it is finished. I shall also be popping up on some stuff with Sir Beans, Central Spillz, Rola, Ben One, DJ Rogue, Mr Loop and Project 13 amongst others, so it is all systems go at the minute.
CB: Is getting radio play, for example on Radio 1, something you want to achieve? Do you think that is necessary for UK Hip Hop? Or should it stay out of the pop world?
B'Tol: I’m lucky in that I’ve already had the privilege of Radio 1 airplay, and I won’t for a minute lie and say it wasn’t a blessing or an exciting time, but I don’t think it is essential. I think people just need to concentrate on the artistry, make songs, beats and albums they believe in, then give themselves the best opportunities they can to make it successful… and success is such a relative thing these days anyway!
I think if you’re making great, soulful music, then it will get heard regardless. Also, if you’re doing it for the right reasons, it becomes less about being a success and more about the message – I’d be just as happy playing to crowds of thirty as to thirty thousand!
CB: Where do you want to take your music? Obviously you want it heard by as many folk as possible. How are you gonna achieve that? What do you think of the current methods people use? Does the internet change that?
B'Tol: Man, I could rant about current methods all day! I think Myspace is a gift and a curse to be honest. When I was a young ‘un the only way to get any recognition was firstly by honing your craft, being involved and making sure you stood out from others, and secondly, being dope! Now someone can make four songs, chuck em on Myspace, get a friend blaster and add 30,000 people and think they’re the shit… where’s the craft? Where’s the open mics, the love, actually getting involved in a community and giving something back?
Then you get the people who do the little bulletins, the popular thing at the moment is Rhianna and Chris Brown. The Bulletin will say something like “Picture of Rhianna’s injuries revealed”… you’ll click on the bulletin, and there’ll be a picture, then that person will imbed their player in the bulletin and the autoplayer will kick in – PING, it adds to the play count! It’s bad enough you need to ride some other c**ts coat tails, but you’ve got 30,000 plays or whatever, yet how many people actually LISTENED? It’s like the only people they’re fooling is themselves.
But, at the same time I’ve heard some of the best music I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing through Myspace, and met and linked up with some great musicians through it, so I’ve had benefits. For some people also it is the ONLY avenue they might have, so it can become a very powerful thing.
My personal bug bear is when folks use the internet to bemoan things, to cast down something they don’t like. If you don’t like something, move on! Just accept that you may not like it, but to others it could be the shit. It’s about maturity. I’ve had people talk all kinds of shit to me over the internet, and when I catch up with them face to face, they change their tune pretty quickly! If you held those opinions in the past, then you would say it to someone’s face, it would be dealt with, and it would be done. I’ve had things said, or seen things said about other people that are really unjustified, and if they’d been said to someone’s face, then that person would’ve taken a beat down. People hide behind the anonymity, use aliases and such to cast people down. I’d have much more respect for them if they had the minerals to say it person to person, and they accepted what ever repercussions might come with it.
CB: Have you got any plugs, shouts or thank yous you wanna say before we finish?
B'Tol: Yes! ‘Something’s What We’ve Done’ is now available through itunes, so go have a listen and if you like it then please support! And look out for ‘Something’s What They’ve Done’ coming very soon. A gert big thank you to all of those who’ve supported the project up until now, it means a lot.
Shouts to DJ Rogue – I don’t say it enough, but if it weren’t for that grumpy c**t, I would’ve given up a long time ago. The guy keeps me grounded and is my most honest critic, and is one of the countries best DJs, so fark off!
And to Jo, the Mrs, for always supporting and pushing me forward.
And big ups to Bristol – the city and the artists who are keeping it fresh and interesting and making folks take notice again!
And cheers to Certified Banger for the support and positive words!