This interview with Elemental of the Brighton based group The Menagerie was conducted some time ago, but due to it getting lost and other things taking over it got left behind. Since the interview the crew have gone on to great things, but these words give an idea of where the crew were at when they were starting out…
OK, can you first introduce yourself and let the readers know a bit about where you are coming from?
Evenin’. I’m Elemental, the crew’s name is the Menagerie. I’m on mission to brighten up hip hop in the UK, tell some stories and get heads cracking a smile again.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Born in Ipswich, but that’s not my fault, it really isn’t. I tried to tell my Mum to give birth to me somewhere else- but I was only a foetus and she couldn’t hear me. I grew up in the countryside, battle rapping to my cat and nicking transformers.
It sounds like you don’t take yourself or hip hop too seriously. How would you describe your presence on record?
Like a big balloon filled with custard bursting when you least expect it. Although sometimes it’s not.
You’ve said that you want to bring back the storytelling to hip hop- what do you mean by this? What kind of stories do you want to tell?
Well, I reckon that UK hip hop is often a helluva lot more inventive lyrically than our U.S counterparts, but we still don’t use enough imagination sometimes. It’s often that typically British, kitchen sink drama stuff, we don’t think outside of what we see every day.
From my personal point of view- I want to drop nusical tales about everything that people wouldn’t expect, stuff that makes you feel like a kid being read a scary story.
How did you come by your name? What about the Menagerie- who are they?
Elemental came from my mate Lex, it was a lucky escape from calling myself something twatty. It works on a lot of levels though, so I like it. The Menagerie is the name of a group formed by myself, Caruana, Nick Maxwell and Dr Syntax- but members come and go depending on what tracks Caruana has cooked up. I think it means a group of animals and I would like to get more live animals into the stage show.
Right, so how did you first get into Hip Hop, and when would this have been?
Back in 89, I was on holiday in the States and was left alone by my uncle for a few hours. He was a proper B-boy and left me with a fresh prince and a Kid n play tape for company. I can honestly say that it changed my life, that’s pretty sad isn’t it? But then I am from Ipswich. I feel very lucky getting into hip hop when it was exploding in so many different forms. But now you have a situation where every fan can make their own music and that’s better in some ways, it takes the most creative form of music to it’s limit.
So, you are from Suffolk, however there hasn’t really been many acts to break out of there. I would be hard pushed to mention any really. So break it down, who are the artists in your locale you really rate? Who is going to be the next big thing from the Suffolk?
I only know one emcee worthwhile and living in Suffolk and that’s Arch Collision. You might have heard him on Cashmere’s ep (just spittin’ wit’ Arch), he’s ridiculously skilled and well overdue to blow up.
Now you’re living in Brighton, there’s a lot of hip hop coming from that direction. Can you break down some of what has been happening Hip Hop wise in the Brighton area over the last few years? What I mean is who were the local heads who have been performing and putting on shows?
It’s everywhere- open mic nights, local shows, battles and big names. It seems to get busier when the students come back and at the moment there’s stuff on nearly every night. There’s more emcees than is probably healthy, but fuck it- even the shit ones give the good ones someone to dis.
There are so much on, that it’s tricky to name favourites but, The Clever looking crew and Slip Jam B (the foundation of Brighton Hip hop). Emcee wise it’s all about Syntax, Lost Souls & Digitek for me- they are untouchable doing live shows. We’re also lucky enough to have some of the best Deejays in the UK I reckon; Asif, Blood 1, Dj format and of course Nick Maxwell have dropped some of the best sets that I’ve ever heard.
Do you think there’s anyone about to break out of Brighton and hit the big time?
That’s the main problem with Brighton- people tend to get big in Brighton, but nowhere else. Like a microcosm of how LA used to perceived by NY in the states. The Lost Souls need to get some decent promotion and get known as they are up to the standards of the best in the UK. Syntax, Maxwell and myself of course are bound to blow up soon. On the instrumental side, there are some great breaks and small labels out here too- keep an eye out for Flevans (Tru Thoughts) and Digital Midgets (Cookshop)
OK, what are the main club nights round your way? Clever looking take care of a lot of the Hip hop don’t they? What about open mic nights?
There’s shedloads of the little buggers. Slip Jam B for open mics, clever looking and PAS for local acts and Beatdown bring in the bigger names. There’s not too many large clubs in Brighton- but the small ones make for a more intimate gig.
What makes a good night out for you? Would it be a night when you were performing, or do you have a better time when you go to watch acts?
A packed dancefloor, some heavy hip hop, my friends and a bag full of party treats. I got very tired of watching live acts that tend to repeat themselves, there’s only so many times that I want to go ‘hooo’ while the ladies go ‘awww’ . The best nights are clearly the ones where you get to perform in front of an audience that love it- particularly the non hip hop heads, they are usually more excitable and more inclined to have a dance.
What have been the best gigs you have done and why? And have there been any mad experiences you can share with the readers?
I did a wedding reception recently where a couple of mates of mine had their first dance as husband and wife to ‘whitey express’ and one gig at Glastonbury where I’d overindulged and hallucinated my way through. For a while I thought my audience was entirely made up of jawas.
Every gig is fun though, even the ones in Basingstoke.
Is it a problem being from an area where there is, on the surface not much of a Hip Hop scene and less competition to make you raise your game? What are the bad points and what are the good things about being so far away from London where most of the UK’s music business is?
Definitely, I got into emceeing pretty much alone so I tend to take a different route and do a lot on my own. It’s good for writing, but it’s only when you get together with other emcees that you realise the high standard that you have to keep up with.
Brighton’s incredible, but it’s insular- you still need to be around London to get anywhere beyond local appreciation. Rightly or wrongly, I think that’s still the case.
It is obvious that so far you have taken a certain route to stand out from everyone else? Was this intentional and what else do you have up your sleeves to make heads pay attention?
Not at first, when I was first emceeing with Manage and Arch Collision I used to try to be more of a battle emcee. Now I’ve realised that getting silly on the mic is more what it’s about. It’s more fun for the audience if you’re having a laugh. The next thing I want to work on, is a live show- possibly a pantomime, but definitely involving costume changes and possibly puppets. I want heads to get their money’s worth.
Right, you have already dropped your Call In Sick LP on Dugout Records. Is that your debut?
Yes, only a few mixtapes and dodgy demos before that. Call in Sick is a mix of the first proper tracks that I’ve got together and it’s all a bit home made- but Caruana and me were still aiming for that classic hip hop feel.
I personally rated the effort. As far as demos go it was well put together and should act as a good advert for you. How did you find it putting that together on the independent tip? Was it a bit of a struggle?
Not really, but it’s still pretty small scale. It’s the independent labels that have been investing their own cash in large amounts and taking risks that I’ve got endless respect for. It’s easy enough to get your name out there if you’ve got a song about dressing up as an owl.
What did you aim to achieve with that first release and do you feel you did it?
To put out a song about dressing up as an owl mainly. I was just tired of having loads of tunes for my mates and nobody else. Some of the best Hip Hop’s all be about small scale releases and home made mixes – so I just wanted to let people know as a taster for proper releases. I wanted people to phone up their workplace and tell them that they were home with diahorrea, when in fact they were just going to get smashed and watch old repeats of cheers.
In case the readers haven’t had the chance to hear your LP can you tell them a bit about it, the overall mood, the topics of the lyrics and maybe the atmosphere in which it was recorded. There must have been pure jokes…
Well, the moods not exactly grimy- but it’s just a lark really. It’s all pie fights with Syntax and toys that terrorise children. We threw on a couple of party songs, some personal stuff and a couple of the best posse cuts to give it a more rounded feel. It’s kind of like a best of… for an artist that you haven’t even probably heard of yet.
So, Caruana is behind the production. You got a really lovely funky sound, which for me harks back to the so called ‘golden age’ of Hip Hop. Can you describe how you see the music you make? What can you say to make people feel where you are coming from?
Let’s face it- Ugly Duckling are right- the 90’s was when the best stuff was constantly coming out. So it’s aiming for that but throwing in everything new that we can find- lots of spoken word samples and charity shop breaks. Caruana is king of the charity shops. We’re lucky cos we have Maxwell on the team too- for a while there didn’t seem to be too many new crews with a proper dj and I’m glad that we nabbed one of the best.
What equipment did you use to make it?
A shoebox, some elastic bands and a whisk. I haven’t got a fucking clue in honesty. Caruana has some computers that can record my voice and put them next to beats, that’s all I know. I think I’m the last emcee that doesn’t produce on the side.
You achieved good results with limited equipment, but I guess those are becoming classic Hip Hop tools. What equipment would you be looking to use if money was not limited?
Two shoe boxes, some chicken wire and an electric whisk. All made of Gold. Or if I was legally allowed, I would rap my words to midgets and then people could buy the midgets to take home and recite the songs whenever they liked. But that’s just a dream really.
How do you feel about sampling in general, and more specifically sample clearance? Your music relies heavily on those trumpets and funky loops. Should your music ever reach a wider audience I fear eager lawyers may be coming after any dosh you may have.
Thank god for Caruana is all I can say. He has loops so obscure and funky that even the people who made them don’t remember them. Although I am scared of the BBC hunting me down for the Nick Cotton song on my next album.
Call in sick has a few guest spots, particularly the amazing Dr Syntax. What is he up to, do you have any more collaborations in the pipeline?
Syntax is all over the album like a dirty rash. I’m glad because he is by far and above the best emcee I know. The menagerie make a couple of appearances as a group- but the Menagerie album proper will be dropping in 2004 and that’s going to make people go nuts.
Is there anyone else in your crew we need to know about?
All of emcees that you hear on the album all have solo projects that need to be checked out: longusto is still UK’ hip hop’s best kept secret and Teej’s debut is nothing like anything you will have ever heard before.
Are there any other releases you have been on that people may not be aware of?
A couple of mixtapes, that’s it. Unless you count those films on the Internet. But, I was young and I needed the money.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m jumping from label to label like a filthy rap whore at the moment. There’s a few tracks on the Boiler room album, and ep for a new label just starting up, a new solo album on Dugout, a couple of guest spots on Caruana’s solo release ‘bric a brac’ and a track on the new Disorda compilation. I was supposed to be an extra in to zombie films being made this year too, I really was, but I’m still waiting to hear.
What have you learned from your recording, performing and business experiences so far? What advice would you have for anyone trying to get out there now?
Stop waiting for stuff to be perfect- get it released somehow now and then work on putting out something better each time. Also, you’re not nearly as good as you think you are- silly rappers. For Christ sake enjoy it, ‘cos there’s every chance that you won’t sell a million records. Unless you’re really rubbish, then you probably will.
At the moment, Bush and Blair are still occupying Iraq, and despite the ‘end of hostilities’ several months ago, people continue to die out there and many people in the country are worse off than they were before. This comes on top of the Bali bomb, the overthrowing of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Muslims in Palestine (and throughout most of the world) getting a proper hammering from the Israelis and the US with our help. What are the reasons for this and how does it make you feel? What can realistically be done to help people live together?
The reasons behind it all is simple greed. My understanding of politics is still pretty limited, but as long as George Bush is in power and he has Tony Blair as his pet- we should all be scared.
Why are we still in Iraq when there are so many horrific things happen all over the world, often in countries where Britain or America are in a large part responsible for the situation? Why do we let the despots that suit us stay in power, whilst ousting those that we don’t approve of?
As for what we should do, we should speak out, demonstrate, commit acts of civil disobedience- anything to make ourselves heard and make life more difficult for the politicians that screw us on a daily basis.
Things are getting heated in the UK too. Gun crime is certainly being focussed in on by the media, as are asylum seekers and so on. What do you feel are the wider problems facing the country?
The Daily Mail, McDonalds, Sainsburys, Pop Idol, Tony Blair, public transport, wack emcees, Big Brother, Sky tv, The Daily Express, banality, apathy, small mindedness, racism, the police, the potential introduction of ID cards, exploitation of poor people, the lottery and motherfucking Kilroy. I think Kilroy is the devil.
Does this make you at all political? I ask everyone about politics, because I think it is important that we have knowledge of what is going on, but occasionally heads decline to answer. I guess they don’t want to upset anyone. Do you have anything to say on that? Any issues you think people need to open their eyes too?
Yes. Definitely. It just feels like the obvious questions aren’t being asked (like a full independent enquiry into the war) that you have to ask them yourself. It’s a lot easier to talk about things than actually do anything though, we’re all the same in that respect.
If you could change something about society, what would it be and why?
Kilroy- Lynched on his own show.
UK Hip Hop seems to be getting a fair bit of positive press at the moment, but yet our home-grown music rarely breaks the charts and many people purely check for US material. What are the reasons for this and how can the situation be remedied?
I’m probably going to get death threats for this- but I think historically it’s been because we haven’t been as good at I as the states. UK hip hop also has a tendency to be keep to it’s own and sometimes we keep new listeners away by being territorial about our music. The other sides are that a lot of hip hop musicians don’t have the business experience to play the industry game. Alternatively, it’s pretty good we haven’t broken into the charts. Look at the state of US rap now it’s all over the place. Some of the good stuff is getting through though- Ty and Roots Manuva are breaking through and still making good music.
Outside your crew who are the UK artists you listen to and admire? What is it about them you like?
Jehst, Braintax, Mole, Iris, Wagon Christ, Quantic, Black Twang, Stuff on Ninja tunes, Catskills and Tru thoughts. And anyone that sends me demos. I love new peoples music.
Who or what are you other influences? What do you do when you are not doing Hip Hop stuff?
It’s all about doing too many things at once for me. I try to write something every day, comedy and kid’s stories as well as hip hop. I’m also thinking of becoming either a cult leader or a primary school teacher.
Where can people hear your stuff?
They can copy it off a mate, or buy some from me.
Where can people pick up your stuff?
Leave a message on my machine with your number 01273 710542 or mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The album’s still available for £6 on cd (inc postage) and you can get Maxwell’s last mixtape for a mere £5 (plus postage). It’s also for sale in all decent Brighton record shops (52 recs, Dance 2, Mic check). The menagerie can also be heard on The Boiler room album and single- out later this year.
What do you make of the internet? Do you have any plans for your own online presence?
One day- if I can get someone to help. Me making my own internet site would be like watching an ape try to fly a plane. The results wouldn’t be pretty. Anyone out there reading this that could give me a hand, I’ll make it worth your while and will get my missus to bake you a lovely cake or something.
OK. To wind this up, what is going to be keeping you busy over the next few months?
Changing the world of hip hop, building a frankenrapper from the corpses of Tupac and Biggie, convincing Tom to do a beat that will allow me to remake Aha’s the Living daylights for Hip hop, eating cake and dressing as an owl so that I may hunt mice on the Brighton seafront.
What are your longer term plans and objectives?
To take over Disneyland and live in it forever.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Not really, I’ve gone on for far too long. It’s a bit like therapy doing this interview- any more questions and I’ll start telling you about my childhood and my relationship with my parents….
Finally is there anyone else you would like to mention?
Kermit the frog. That little green fella is an inspiration to me.
Thank you for your time.