Si Phili – “Lessons 4 Lockdown” (@Si_Phili / 2020)
Luton’s mighty Si Phili offers his thoughts on how to handle quarantine over storming Leaf Dog production.
Si Phili – “Lessons 4 Lockdown” (@Si_Phili / 2020)
Luton’s mighty Si Phili offers his thoughts on how to handle quarantine over storming Leaf Dog production.
Truth – “How It’s Supposed 2 Be” (@IllAdrenaline / 2016)
The Queens, NY representative delivers defiant verses over ominous Psycho Les production off his new album “From Ashes To Kingdom Come”.
Backed by talented producers such as Pete Cannon, Leaf Dog and Richy Spitz, veteran UK emcee Si Phili unleashes a relentless barrage of intense wordplay throughout this impressive solo project.
Life MC & Badhabitz – “No Pain No Gain” (SplitProphets.BandCamp.Com / 2015)
Taken off the forthcoming “Deep In The Trenches” collabo album from the veteran UK lyricist and Split Prophets producer.
Life MC & Badhabitz ft. Fliptrix & Upfront – “Nature’s Way” (SplitProphets.BandCamp.Com / 2014)
Taken from the UK duo’s forthcoming collabo album “Deep In The Trenches”.
Album sampler for UK duo Phili ‘N’ Dotz’ forthcoming project “”Phil N The Dotz” featuring production from Leaf Dog and Pete Cannon plus appearances from Blak Twang, Klashnekoff, Verb T and more.
Developing his passion for Hip-Hop in the early-80s, the UK’s DJ Nappa made his name outside of his Luton stomping grounds a decade later, providing the production which would help his crew Phi-Life Cypher grab the attention of heads in Britain and beyond when the group first began releasing wax in the late-90s.
Producing the majority of Phi-Life’s classic 2000 Jazz Fudge album “Millennium Metaphors”, Nappa has spent subsequent years keeping his raw brand of drum-heavy, sample-flavoured beats largely in-house, ensuring the second Cypher album, 2003’s “Higher Forces, was a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, whilst also working on the occasional outside project in-between providing long-time friend Life with strong sounds for his slew of solo albums.
With Phi-Life Cypher announcing their split at the end of 2012, Nappa has remained busy, still digging in the crates, still crafting guaranteed head-nodders and still remaining faithful to the true-school sonic ethics he entered the UK scene with all those years ago as an upcoming producer.
Having just released his instrumental “Late Night Beat Tape” project, a wide-ranging selection of obscure samples, top-shelf breaks and random soundbites, Nappa recently stepped away from his equipment long enough to discuss his early production efforts, the never-ending search for the perfect beat and his creative process.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a producer?
“I had turntables and was already deejay-ing and collecting breaks and stuff. But it wasn’t until I heard Caveman’s “Positive Reaction” album for the first time in the early-90s that I really thought about producing. The production on that album blew me away. It wasn’t the typical UK sound of the time and the album really struck a chord with me. After I heard that, I started putting bits and pieces together on a four-track. I had an Amiga with this tiny little silver box that sat on top of it which was the sampler. So you could play fours things at a time basically, but no more than that. So I started making little loops on there for awhile. At the time, there was another Hip-Hop deejay in Luton, a mate of mine called Johnny The Fox, and he used to be on pirate radio. He started a rave / dance type label called Furious Records and I put my first piece of vinyl out on there. It was a bit s**t though to be honest (laughs).”
Were you recording under a different name then?
“I called myself The Creator and there was one track on the single called “Time To Get Wrecked”, where I used a Pete Rock sample from “The Creator”, and another one was called “Scat” where I just had some drums and put this little jazzy scat sample over the top. It was terrible (laughs). I think I do still own a copy somewhere and I’m sure you can get it on Discogs for 50p or something (laughs). But that was my first venture onto vinyl in 1992.”
So prior to you actually getting into production you were listening to breaks but not with the intention of doing anything with them musically?
“Yeah, exactly. It was all about the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. I think the first one I actually bought was Volume 12 with “Funky Drummer” on it plus “The Champ” and “Ashley’s Roachclip”. There was a guy I went to school with, Steve, it was his birthday one year, this would have been 1986, and he went down to Bluebird Records in Luton, which later became Soul Sense, and he brought a load of the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. I remember we went back to his house to listen to them and that was the first time I heard The JB’s “Blow Your Head”. I was just like, ‘Wow! This is crazy!’ But at that point I definitely wasn’t thinking of making beats myself, I was just cutting the breaks up on the turntables. But like I said, it wasn’t until I heard Caveman that I really started to think about doing production myself.”
I always credit Caveman as being a really pivotal group within the British scene and, for me, “Positive Reaction” helped usher in a new era of production in UK Hip-Hop that stepped away from the traditional Brit-core sound and started to delve into funkier, jazzier samples…
“It was all about the sample material that they were using on that album. I mean, before that time, a lot of the samples you were hearing being used, you already knew what they were because they’d been used before. But when I heard “Positive Reaction”, the beats that The Principal was putting together on there just made me say, ‘Wow! What is this?’ I can still remember hearing the “Victory” single for the first time om Tim Westwood’s Capital Radio show back in 1990. At the time, I had a Sunday night pirate show on Pressure FM in Luton. Now, this was when MCM was on Westwood’s show all the time and he was doing a lot of gigs around the UK with Westwood and I remember they went to Batchwood Hall in St. Albans. I went down there and kinda just threw myself at MCM like, ‘You’re the s**t! You’re the best! What are those samples you’re using?’ He was a bit like, ‘Okay, chill out, chill out’ (laughs). But MCM was cool and he ended up playing me some of the “Positive Reaction” album in Westwood’s jeep and then gave me the tape! I was just like, ‘Wooow!’ This was before it had actually come out so I was dropping that all over the place (laughs). But me and MCM swapped numbers and we started chatting on the phone and we’re still friends to this day. But he taught me a lot about music back then. For example, Kool & The Gang, back then as far as I was concerned they were some disco pop s**t, but MCM put me onto the proper Kool & The Gang s**t. There was a track on “Positive Reaction” called “You Can’t Take It” which used Kool & The Gang’s “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight” and MCM told me about that. Then I went and found the record and it just opened me up to this whole other musical universe that was out there beyond the breaks that we’d already heard people using.”
That was the beautiful thing about Hip-Hop back then, that as a fan you took an active interest in the records that were being sampled and would want to learn more about a Roy Ayers or a James Brown. That whole process really helped you join the dots between the music of the time and the music of the past…
“Yeah, there isn’t so much of that happening anymore. But back then, that was a real eye-opener for me because before that I had really just been listening to the original breaks and I definitely wasn’t digging into jazz or anything like that. I mean, during that late-80s era a lot of the samples that were being used on Hip-Hop records were being sampled straight off the “Ultimate Breaks & Beats” albums. But when people started using the jazz samples, that opened up a whole new music world to me.”
So how did things progress for you from working with that original Amiga computer set-up to coming out with Phi-Life Cypher in the late-90s?
“So, like I said, it was around 1990 when I first started getting into the production side of things, and for the next few years I was really just messing around on the Amiga. I was making loops up and then I’d play them to MCM when I’d go and check him in High Wycombe and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, they’re alright.’ He wouldn’t tell me they were s**t, but he was just being really cool about it (laughs). Now, at the time, MCM had an Akai S950 and he taught me how to use it. He even let me me borrow it a few times and bring it back to Luton. So that’s how I really learnt to make proper beats, with MCM teaching me how to work the S950 and how to sequence it with an Atari computer, which was the Atari 520. I’ve actually got an Atari sitting in front of me now that I still use, which is the Atari 1040 (laughs). But yeah, that would have been about 1994 / 1995 that I was working with the S950.”
Was that a revolutionary experience for you to go from using a basic computer set-up to then working on the same equipment that some of the Hip-Hop records you were buying at the time would have been made with?
“Totally. Even though there still wasn’t much sampling time on the S950 back then, it was about ten or twelve seconds, but that was enough. Being able to use that machine back then was a really big stepping stone for me. I was working at the time, digging roads, and I decided that I had to save myself some money and get my own 950. That was around the end of 1995 going into the beginning of 1996. So I saved some money and ended-up buying one off a guy in Crystal Palace that I’d seen advertised in Exchange & Mart.”
Do you remember how much you paid for it?
“I paid £570 for it second-hand which was a lot of money back then. Then, somewhere near Bedford, I brought an Atari ST and started really making beats. I already knew Life as he had a little crew with a studio in Luton and I’d always be messing with them. So I started making beats and giving them to Life. This was around 1996. Life was in and out of prison, I’d be sending him beats, he’d be writing and when we had the opportunity we would make little tapes. Life’s probably still got them somewhere as he’s got hundreds of tapes from back then (laughs).”
So once you’d mastered the S950 there must have been a massive progression in terms of the quality of the beats you were making at that time?
“Yeah, it totally jumped from what I was making messing around on my Amiga to what I was doing at that point. I’d learnt a lot more about breaks by then, partly because I’d also gotten to know Juliano from The Creators through MCM. I mean, Juliano’s on a whole next level with breaks, so when I met him for the first time in the 90s that was another eye-opening experience. It was like, at the time, you think you know everything there is to know about music, but then you realise that you actually don’t know (laughs). So meeting Juliano opened up another different musical world with the library records, the soundtracks, the European records…”
So would you say your beats were getting better at that point because of the familiarity you were gaining with the equipment you were using or because you were being exposed to a wider amount of material to sample?
“It was both, really. I was getting good on the 950, but then going digging with Juliano, taking trips with him up to Birmingham, he’d just be pulling out records and saying to me, ‘Take that, take that, and that one.’ I was just learning from him at that point.”
Were there any memorable digging trips from that period that still stand-out to you?
“Yeah, yeah (laughs). There was one time we were in Birmingham, I can’t remember the exact spot, but this was around the time when people were just discovering David Axelrod. We were in this shop and this place had eight or nine copies of the Electric Prunes album “Release Of An Oath”, with “Holy Are You” on it, and that was just at the time that it had been used on Fat Joe’s second album. I remember we all got a copy of that album and were like, ‘Daammmn!’ There was another guy that MCM knew from High Wycombe, this guy called Gus, this real upper-class posh dude. He didn’t make music but he collected breaks and he had the ill s**t. I think it was actually Gus who Juliano got the break from that he used on The Creators’ “Hard Margin” track with Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Gus was also the first person I knew to have a copy of the “Planete Sauvage” soundtrack. This guy just had crazy records. God knows what happened to him (laughs).”
Were you spending a lot of money of records back then?
“I was buying records all the time. But it was Juliano who taught me about charity shops. I mean, I wasn’t going into charity shops before then (laughs). At that time, around 1996 / 1997, Juliano was doing a lot of trades with big American producers, going to the record conventions out in New York and doing trades with people like Q-Tip and Pete Rock. I remember, I’d always be carrying around a list of the records that Juliano was looking for. So there might be a John Schroeder version of “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” that he’d be looking for, I’d find it, give it to Juliano, he’d give me some really good stuff, but then he’d trade it with producers out in America because it was a British copy and they couldn’t get it out there. They were going mad for that s**t over there at the time. Whatever deals Juliano did with Q-Tip, he ended-up with all of the instrumental Tribe show albums in his collection. That was all through dealing British breaks with Q-Tip. But I got some of my favourite records off of Juliano, like my Tom Scott “Honey Suckle Breeze” album. I’ve definitely got some good records off him. I actually haven’t seen him for a few years, but Juliano was a real record collector.”
I remember going to Juliano’s house back in 1998 so that him and Si Spex could play me their album “The Weight” for a feature I was writing on them for Fatboss magazine. The interview never actually got printed as the album didn’t come out until two years later. But I can still remember how passionate Juliano was about the music he was playing me and that crazy neck-snap he’d do…
“You probably heard a lot of the same tracks that I did at that point that didn’t actually make the album. There was a Craig G track and also an F.T. track that never made the final release. But, that was the legendary Juliano neck-snap you’re talking about (laughs). There was no head-nodding, it was his neck just snapping. That and his foot tapping (laughs). But that was around the time that Phi-Life Cypher were talking with Juliano about putting our stuff out. We’d made some demos, like “Drop Bombs”, which we’d recorded in Luton. We gave those to Juliano and he was looking to do his own label and put us out. But then with everything that went on with the Creators album, we sort of got lost in the mix. So Juliano passed our stuff to DJ Vadim and that was how we got the Jazz Fudge link.”
I can still remember picking-up Phi-Life’s “Baddest Man” EP on white label from London’s Deal Real Records back in 1998. Something that struck me immediately about your production on there was that it had a really clear, full-bodied sound to it. Was that something you set out to achieve once you started working in a proper studio?
“I wasn’t even thinking about that sort of stuff when we were doing the “Baddest Man” EP to be honest with you. I mean, I found it really hard at the time because I’d never been in a proper studio before at that point and the studio we were using had never worked with Hip-Hop artists before. So I was just trying to make everything sound really loud (laughs). When we started doing “Millennium Metaphors”, Juliano mixed some of the album and was really good in the studio, but he liked to really compress everything at the time, so his snares and everything would be really hard. But we were also working with No Sleep Nigel and that man is just a beast in the studio.”
No Sleep Nigel is a legend within UK Hip-Hop circles thanks to his engineer work with Blade, MC Mell’O’, Hardnoise etc. Did you learn anything from working with Nigel in the studio?
“I mean, Nigel just kinda did his thing. A lot of the time, you’d put a track up for him, he’d stick his headphones on and you wouldn’t hear from him for hours (laughs). The one thing with Nigel was that if you started talking to him you’d never get any work done (laughs). He could definitely talk. I mean, he was a lot older than us, he was a big man and he’d have a story for everything. Once you got him started you couldn’t stop him (laughs). So you kinda learnt to just leave him, let him do his thing and you knew it would sound good at the end.”
What producers were you looking up to at that point?
“Prince Paul was always my number one. Then a little later when I was around Juliano, Si Spex and Mark B, I kinda looked up to what they were doing at the time. Then, of course, you had people like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, The Alchemist, Hi-Tek. All those guys at that time were making real good music that was inspiring me.”
You remixed the Mark B & Blade track “Ya Don’t See The Signs” in 2001 which was on the flip of the Grant Nicholas rock version with that single eventually breaking into the UK Top 30. How was that experience for you?
“Yeah. That was definitely a big thing for me. Mark B liked what I was doing and it was really a big step-up for me to do that remix. I remember I really wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to do it at the same time because I was feeling the pressure to deliver. But I wanted to try and make my version a totally different track to the original and, in the end, it came out nice.”
Unlike many producers, you’ve really limited the number of artists you’ve worked with over the years and a lot of your production has remained in-house on the Phi-Life Cypher projects and then Life’s solo material…
“There’s no real reason for it, it’s kinda just happened like that. I mean, I’ve done bits here and there. Even before Phi-Life came out, I produced something for a crew that MCM had back in the 90s called Next Wavelength for a single they put out on Blue Planet Records. I did some remixes for DJ Vadim and worked with a crew from Scotland called Belles In Monica. Then I also did the projects with Inja and I have the “Rebelbase” album with Cappo coming out. But to be honest with you, nobody really asks me for beats. So back then, everything that I was making was going into the Phi-Life material. ”
How would you say your approach to production has changed, if at all, over the years?
“I don’t think it’s changed too much. I mean, when I listen back to beats I did years back I hear them and might think they’re not something that I’d do now. But I don’t know if my approach to making music has really changed. It’s hard to explain. I just make beats (laughs). I mean, there’s a few bits on the new Cappo album that are literally just loops and I think that’s something that I’ve learnt, which is to just go with what sounds good. Before, I would have thought that I couldn’t just loop something, I’d have to put drums on it and everything. Whereas now, if it sounds good then I’ll just leave it. I mean, if you listen to some of the music being made by people like Roc Marciano, he’s just looping s**t, rapping on it and it’s amazing. I feel that Hip-Hop is coming back around to that raw beats and rhymes sound. Just straight, hardcore beats and rhymes. I mean, a few beats on the new “Late Night” project, I haven’t actually sampled anything. I just recorded the music and then pasted the track together like I was cutting tape.”
What was the idea behind your new instrumental project “Late Night Beat Tape”?
“I’ve been sitting on a lot of those beats for ages. I know that’s something that you probably hear a lot of producers say. But sometimes you make beats for yourself, like, ‘If I could rap then this what I would want to rap over.’ So, a lot of the beats on the “Late Night” project are the type of beats that, if I could rap, I’d be rapping on them. I called it “Late Night” because I’m an insomniac and I’ll be there sampling s**t at whatever time in the morning just making beats. I mean, sometimes you’ll make a beat with a particular emcee in mind or you make something more straight forward with the intention of having someone rap on it. But then, as a producer, you also sometimes make those awkward beats that emcees will say they can’t rap over (laughs). So “Late Night” is just a collection of little bits like that, really.”
You definitely cover a lot of musical ground on the project, including soul, funk, reggae, jazz…
“Yeah, there’s a whole heap of stuff on there. At the minute, I’m kind of into electronic music, Tangerine Dream and stuff like that. I’m finding all of these really weird electronic loops. So there’s a few Tangerine Dream samples on the new project. There’s just a selection of styles on there. I didn’t really over-think it when I was putting it together. I think that if you love Hip-Hop then you’re going to love it. Maybe some people out there don’t like listening to instrumentals and want to hear an emcee on everything, but I think most heads will listen to this and think that it’s dope.”
Does it put you under more pressure when you’re working on an instrumental track knowing that there isn’t going to be an emcee on it to hold the listener’s attention?
“Yeah, it does. You have to make the track more involved and keep the movement going. If there’s not an emcee there that people are listening to as the main focus of a track then it’s very important to be able to keep the listener’s attention. I mean, sometimes you hear instrumental Hip-Hop albums and they’re boring because they’re just straight beats. So, as a producer, if you’re making instrumental stuff, I think it’s really important to make sure it moves and keeps flowing. I want people to listen to what I’m doing and enjoy it, not be thinking of what’s missing from a track whilst they’re listening to it.”
Do you still go out digging for vinyl regularly?
“I was actually out digging earlier today (laughs). I was out with Justice, the guy who’s putting the “Late Night” project out on his Modern Urban Jazz label. He’s from Luton as well and we’ve known each other on and off over the years. He was a big drum & bass man and put out releases of his own. He’s got his own drum & bass label but has always been into Hip-Hop, like a lot of the old-school jungle / drum & bass guys. It was actually him who started pushing me last year to put the “Late Night” project out there. I was just sitting on it and it was something that I would listen to, but I didn’t really know if anyone else would like it. But yeah, we were out earlier today digging. There’s only really one vinyl record shop still here in Luton, Vinyl Revelations, and the guy who runs it has got an outhouse, shed-type thing at his home which is just full of 45s. They’re not in any order or anything, you just have to dig through and see what you can find. But whenever I get a chance, I’m out digging.”
Do you have any other particular spots?
“Not really. I mainly go digging in charity shops, car-boot sales, places like that. There’s a guy who goes to Hitchin market every week with a load of records and everything he sells only costs a pound. I always get bits off him. So I’m still out looking for stuff. I don’t really get that whole online digging thing though, man. To me, it’s about going out, looking at the records, reading the liner notes, trying to find something that has that next big break on it. That’s the part of it that I enjoy most and sometimes you never know what you’ve got until you get home and play it.”
What’s the most you’ve ever paid for a record?
“To be honest, I’ve never had that one record that I’ve paid ridiculous money for. I love records, but I don’t like the fact that people put these mad prices on them.”
What equipment are you using nowadays?
“I got an MPC Renaissance when that came out, so I’m using that at the minute. But I’m having a headache with at the moment because it’s computer-based and my computer is a bit older and they don’t really like each other so there’s a lot of crashing and stuff (laughs). But the Renaissance is really good. It’s definitely a nice bit of kit. I just need a better computer (laughs).”
What happened to the S950 that you started on all those years ago?
“I actually got rid of that last year. I sold it to one of Mr. Thing’s friends, Mo Fingaz, so it went to a good home.”
Was it difficult for you to part with considering the personal history that was attached to it?
“Yeah, it was quite sad to get rid of it, but at the time I needed the money. I mean, all the Phi-Life albums had been done on that and a lot of other stuff. There were a lot of memories attached to that 950 so it was quite a big deal to let it go. But like I said, it went to a good home so I know that it’s going to be looked after.”
When you look at the newer generation of talented UK emcees, is there anyone out there that you’d particularly like to work with?
“I think M9 has been putting out some really good music. I think Fliptrix from the High Focus camp is amazing. Also, Farma G’s son Remus, he’s definitely dangerous. I think there’s definitely a newer generation of emcees and producers coming through now who know what real Hip-Hop is all about. They’ve watched and learnt from the people who came before them and aren’t just jumping on a bandwagon. So there’s definitely some younger dudes out there who are really making some good music, which is something that can only be good for the scene overall. But aside from the newer emcees, I’d still like to do a whole project with Micall Parknsun and also something with MCM as well because he can definitely still rap.”
What albums, both inside and outside of Hip-Hop, do you listen to and think, ‘I wish I produced that project’?
“Outside of Hip-Hop, the first thing that popped in my head when you said that was Portishead. They were just on some next s**t when they came out. In terms of Hip-Hop, there are just too many albums I could think of that I love, man. My favourite Gang Starr album is “Daily Operation”. That’s the ultimate Gang Starr album for me. I’d also have to say Ultramagnetic MC’s’ “Critical Beatdown” and Diamond D’s “Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop”. Those albums just don’t age and are definitely some of the albums that have influenced me over the years, but I could keep naming others for hours (laughs).”
What’s next for you musically?
“Well, Life has an album out called “Sound Of The Underground” that has beats on there from Leaf Dog, Mr. Thing, DJ Lok and myself. But after that, there’s another Life album coming later in the year which is produced entirely by me. The “Rebelbase” album I’ve done with Cappo is all done now and just needs to be mixed and everything. Plus, I still have a lot of Phi-Life Cypher tracks that were recorded before we broke up that will see the light of day at some point. There are still Phi-Life fans out there and I think people would still like to hear that music. I mean, we’d basically recorded a whole album before the split and I don’t think it’s fair that the Phi-Life fans out there can’t hear that for whatever reason. But I just make beats and that’s really all I know. So whether they’re being released out there or not, I’m still going to me making more beats tomorrow.”
So going back to your favourite Gang Starr album, making beats for you really is a daily operation…
“Yeah, exactly. Whether anyone’s listening or not, I’m still going to be making beats. It’s something that’s ingrained in me now and I just still have that real love of music.”
Follow DJ Nappa on Twitter – @Nappa72
Life MC – “Ether Mics” (@LifeMC / 2014)
The UK emcee drops some potent rhymes over the infamous Nas “Ether” instrumental for his upcoming mix-tape.
DJ Nappa-produced track not included on the UK emcee’s current album “Gift Of Life”.
Life MC ft. Genesis Elijah – “Power Of The Mind” (LifeMC.BandCamp.Com / 2013)
The veteran UK emcee reps for his Luton stomping grounds in this video from his new DJ Nappa-produced album “Gift Of Life”.
Since debuting in the late-90s alongside DJ Nappa and Si Phili as part of Luton-based UK Hip-Hop crew Phi-Life Cypher, the talented lyricist known as Life MC has left a huge mark on the homegrown scene thanks not only to his work with the group, but also his quality solo projects and formidable live freestyle skills.
Having helped to influence a new generation of UK emcees with his thought-provoking rhymes and love of the culture, Life now stands as a veteran of the UK rap game, still active, still passionate, and, perhaps most importantly, still considered to be a relevant and important artist within the British Hip-Hop community.
Returning with his fifth solo album “Gift Of Life” (also Life’s first project since the unexpected announcement last year of the Phi-Life Cypher split), the dynamic emcee sounds as inspired as ever, dropping his trademark mix of quickfire punchlines and social commentary over hard-hitting Nappa production whilst also collaborating with the likes of Reveal, Genesis Elijah and Micall Parknsun.
Here, Life discusses his new album, the end of Phi-Life and divisions within UK Hip-Hop.
Keeping in the tradition of your previous solo albums, what’s the concept behind the title of your latest project “Gift Of Life”?
“I feel like I haven’t properly put myself into an album for a good while now what with Phi-Life Cypher splitting up. When we were first doing stuff as Phi-Life we’d try to do twenty tracks on an album for the fans and then you’d get reviews with people saying it was too much music (laughs). So with this new album, I just wanted to give a gift back to the fans in terms of how much music is on the album and I also wanted to be seen to be trying to put some life back into Hip-Hop, which is what I’m really trying to do now with all the different projects I’m currently working on. I just want to really put something back into Hip-Hop because the music has given me so much over the years and has really taken me on a good little journey. So that’s what the basic concept behind the “Gift Of Life” title is.”
I remember picking up a white label copy of Phi-Life Cypher’s “Baddest Man” EP from Deal Real Records in London when it dropped back in 1998. How difficult was it for you as a group coming from Luton to break into that London scene?
“It was probably a bit more difficult for us in terms of communicating and knowing certain people, but all in all, I don’t think it was that difficult for us really. We just made some good music and it got accepted. That was the one thing that I liked, that all the people that I was listening to from London at that time seemed to be feeling our stuff. So I don’t think it was actually that difficult for us at the time to get noticed. It probably did do you a favour as an artist at that time to live in Central London or something, but all in all I don’t think it was really that much of a problem for us to get on the scene. Anything that we did seemed to make an inroad straight away. Obviously the work we did back then with the Gorillaz helped as well because that actually happened before we released our first album in 2000, “Millennium Metaphors”. That definitely helped get our name out there. So yeah, I think it was all good, still.”
You’ve always been known for your freestyle skills – when did you first become aware that was a talent you possessed?
“I came up through the whole Hip-Hop thing from day one when it was all about the electro and everything back in the 80s. I was a body-popper and I was in this crew and we used to battle every week. We’d go to this local club and it felt like a scene out of “Beat Street” (laughs). I just loved Hip-Hop from the first time I ever heard someone rap. I mean, I used to do reggae deejay-ing and still do. But from listening to Hip-Hop and hearing people rhyming, that’s when I started doing the freestyle thing. Back then, we were living on benefits and didn’t have much money, so at school, I’d do anything to try and get money and it soon became obvious to me that I could freestyle and people liked it. So it got to a point where people would pay me to sit in the school library and they’d bring me books to make up rhymes about. If I could rap for a certain length of time then they’d give me ten or fifteen pence (laughs). I was in a crew with DJ Nappa called Posse In Effect and we won this South East Rap Championships competition or something and all those things were just giving me the inspiration to want to become an artist and really do the music thing properly. What really woke me up in life was going to prison and then really sitting there and reflecting on what I wanted to do. I was sitting there thinking about how I’d talk about people like Malcolm X but didn’t really know what these people had done. So I re-educated myself while I was inside, obviously I had plenty of time to write lyrics and Nappa used to send me TDK tapes with beats on them that I’d put lyrics to. So when I first came out and started spitting stuff, Nappa was like, ‘Yo! This is hot! Do you realise what you’re doing here?’ Nappa called MCM from Caveman, I spat for him and he got me straight onto Kiss FM with them for Max & Dave’s show and I remember a couple of the rappers who went up there with them didn’t want to spit on air after they heard me (laughs). That was 1996.”
Would you say there was a Hip-Hop scene to speak of in Luton at that time?
“It was really difficult rap-wise in Luton because everyone was a dancer or a deejay. There wasn’t really that many people rapping. That was always the thing when we first started, that we had to look to London really when it came to Hip-Hop. There were a couple of young groups trying to do their thing around that time who would come around and cypher but all in all there wasn’t really nobody else in Luton except for ourselves. At the time and even now really, Luton has always been more of a reggae town with the sound systems and all of that. There was always a reggae sound-system culture in Luton so when we first started rapping people would look at you like you were a bit of an idiot (laughs).”
Your solo projects always feel like they’re of the moment rather than being a collection of tracks that have been recorded over time and then pulled together for the sake of putting an album out. Is that the case?
“Anytime I rhyme, even if it’s battle rapping, there will always be something in there dealing with reality because that’s what I’m about. Each of my albums are basically about how I feel in life at that particular time. I don’t really just do tracks here and there and then try to make an album out of them. I’ve always got a thought in mind about what I want to achieve with each album that I put out. But any album I put out will always touch on different aspects of life in some way because that’s what I’m about, talking about reality.”
As an elder statesman of the rap game now, do you feel even more of a responsibility to include some substance in your music than perhaps you even did when you first came out?
“I definitely do and I think that’s something that’s very important for me to do. Also, I’ve spoken to a lot of the UK artists of today or those who’re coming up now who tell me that they grew-up listening to my music and my style of lyricism was an inspiration to them and I can hear that in the way some of those artists rhyme. So, as a forty-four year-old emcee, I definitely feel a responsibility to the UK scene and to the younger artists to really contribute something worthwhile and that’s something that I’ve always been conscious of really. I think more emcees out there should sometimes realise that they do have a responsibility on the microphone and that what they do can have a big impact on the scene as a whole, so it’s not always just about you as an individual. At the end of the day, I want to be responsible in my music and I understand that even if people don’t understand all of the messages in my music, they do get most of them and it’s nice when people look to you as an influence. I enjoy that and I definitely don’t feel it’s a burden. I mean, I had people who influenced me, like seeing Rodney P, Sipho and Bionic when they were doing the London Posse stuff, and also the first time I heard Caveman when they came out in the early-90s. I remember reading Hip-Hop Connection and realising that Caveman were from High Wycombe and thinking, ‘Wow! They’re from a town that’s not too far away from where I am in Luton!’ Because back then, unless you came from New York or London, you sometimes felt like you couldn’t really do this Hip-Hop thing (laughs). So seeing MCM was from High Wycombe and knowing how much I liked his stuff, I was like, ‘If he can do it, then I can do it.’ So all of that stuff was an inspiration to me and I’m happy that I can inspire people in that same way today and that, fifteen years after I first came out, I can still be considered relevant and that people still feel my music and skills.”
What’s the creative process like between you and Nappa when you’re working on one of your solo projects?
“When I decide to do an album, I usually have a period of about six months where Nappa will just continuously bring me beats and I’ll just keep going through them to find the ones I want to use. What I’ve found is that a lot of Nappa’s beats actually help inspire my lyrics because of the vibe of a particular track. Nappa’s music just brings those lyrics out of my head and I’ll sometimes get an idea or freestyle the first few bars of what then become full verses just because of the way that one of his tracks may feel. I don’t even really have to think too hard about it. It just happens. I’ve always been doing some work lately with other producers like Leaf Dog and also Bad Habits from Split Prophets whose music also has that same impact as well. Their beats do that same thing to me and just bring the lyrics out.”
There was a lot of talk some years back about there being a large generation gap developing within UK Hip-Hop between older heads and the younger generation of artists who were coming up at the time. Do you think that’s still an issue or do you feel that gap has been bridged now in some ways?
“There’ll always be a gap between the different generations of Hip-Hop heads to some extent because everyone has their own vibe and opinion of what they see the music as being. I mean, to me, I do feel there was a bit more of a scene when we were coming up, then when the grime scene came up that contributed to that generation gap to some extent as well because there were a lot of young rappers making music that some of the older heads didn’t feel had anything to do with Hip-Hop. But, really, there will always be a gap between different parts of the overall scene. I mean, the one I’m seeing happening now is between the battle rap scene and everything else that’s going on. I really don’t like it and I’ve been seeing a lot of things on Twitter between different people who’re involved in that part of the scene and I’ve been trying to call people up as an elder and tell them that I’m not trying to get involved in people’s business but that I think that all of us who’re part of the UK Hip-Hop scene have to keep in mind that the next generation who’re coming up might be kept apart because of divisions that people are contributing to today. It doesn’t benefit anyone when fans of certain events or artists don’t mix with the fans of other events or artists because of divisions that are being put in place between them. That does nothing for the UK scene as a whole and everyone always claims that they’re all about doing stuff to benefit the scene so it’s time everyone realised that for that scene to flourish and for us to build something for the future, sometimes we have to understand that it’s not all about our own individual agendas. That’s what the scene is really missing now is a little bit more unity and togetherness. But I think in today’s generation, everyone just wants to be a superstar and it’s not even necessarily about the message in your music, what you’re doing to contribute to the scene or anything else. It’s just all about you. But personally, I don’t think that’s healthy for the UK scene overall.”
I know some people feel that part of the problem with some of those within the battle rap scene here in the UK is that they’re not approaching it as being a part of wider Hip-Hop culture. It’s just a competitive sport almost. They might rap, but they’re not necessarily of the culture…
“It really doesn’t make sense to me because, battle rap or not, it’s still Hip-Hop. But what you’re getting is people becoming involved in the battle rap genre here in the UK who know nothing about the music it’s come from. They know nothing about the history of Hip-Hop, they don’t understand the culture or know about some of the music’s most influential artists. They just know about what’s happening within this battle rap scene, which I don’t think is good because that then means you’ve lost track of the culture when you need to know as much about it as possible to be able to help move it forward.”
With that in mind, you recently performed at this year’s Boom Bap Festival. Although it’s only in its second year, how important do you think an annual event like Boom Bap is to UK Hip-Hop?
“It’s very, very, very important, man. Even though it’s only once a year, it’s a time when you know that everyone has the opportunity to come together and celebrate our scene. It’s a great opportunity for networking, it’s a great opportunity for the fans to see so many of the artists they like performing in one place, and it’s also giving people a real sense of the culture of Hip-Hop that shows people that it’s about more than just the rapping element. So I really rate what everyone involved in the Boom Bap Festival is doing and I definitely think it’s good for Hip-Hop. I really felt that myself when I was there. Personally for me, it was great to see different people who I might not have seen for awhile. Like, it was great to see someone like Chester P, give him a hug and have a quick chat. So Boom Bap is definitely helping to bring back that sense of togetherness and unity to the scene.”
You announced late in 2012 that Phi-Life Cypher had split and earlier this year you and Nappa released a lengthy video blog which gave some further insight into the reasons behind the situation. How difficult was it for you to walk away from a group you’d been part of for so many years?
“Like I said in the video blog, it wasn’t really a case of me walking away from the group, that was Phili’s decision. So after that, there was really no choice but to just carry on and get on with what we’re doing now as myself and Nappa. But again, like I said in the video, in the background of Phi-Life Cypher it was a difficult situation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always what it seemed to be to the fans. It was hard work. I mean, it had got to the stage really where it was like when you’re watching a movie, you’re thinking, ‘This is pretty boring, I don’t think I like it, but I’ll give it another ten minutes to see if it improves.’ But then it gets to the point where you’re so far into the movie that you may as well just watch that last hour and see it through. So that’s kinda what it was like with the situation within the group. But what I’ve found since not being in Phi-Life is that there’s now a massive difference in my productivity in terms of how much stuff we were doing as a group then and how much more stuff I’m actually working on now. I mean, I’ll never feel comfortable with the fact that the group ended and, as far as Phili is concerned, for me to know that we travelled the world together for fifteen years, we did all these things together, we spent so much time sat down together writing rhymes, I’ll never feel comfortable with the way it ended and the bad feelings that now exist. The whole situation has really affected me quite a bit, even with regards to it making it more difficult for me to do what I’m trying to do now with the music. Certain people started unfollowing me on Twitter, people who were working with me stopped working with me and wouldn’t even reply to my messages, things like that. But, at the end of the day, it’s a part of life and you just have to move on. I mean, you can be vexed and annoyed for a certain amount of time, but as a grown man I don’t harbor bad feelings or hate and nothing good can really come out of negativity unless you turn it into a positive. So that’s what I’m really trying to do now with the end of Phi-Life Cypher, is just turn that negative situation into something positive through the music I’m making and what I’m now able to do in terms of working with some of today’s younger artists and being able to collaborate with more people in the scene.”
You’ve mentioned on Twitter recently that you have a number of new projects in the pipeline – what can people expect next?
“The next project I have coming is with Bad Habits on production which really just started with me listening to Split Prophets, thinking they were dope, talking about maybe doing a track, then that turned into possibly doing an EP, and Habits just kept sending me beats and they were all just so dope. Initially, I started writing to about five different beats in about two days and I was having to tell myself to chill and just finish one (laughs). So when I got to about four or five tracks, I was like, ‘Yo! We can do an EP!’ But he just kept sending me beats, I kept writing and the next minute there was basically an album there that came out of nowhere that sounded really dope. So that will be coming out on Split Profits’ label. I’m pretty excited about that album. I’ve also done an EP with a guy called K The Original. Then my next album with Nappa is already recorded, I have about twenty-four tracks done for that. But then before that, there’s another EP coming out which has production from Leaf Dog, Mr. Thing, DJ LoK, Nappa and B109. I’ve also got a little group which I’ve started called Team Classic which is me, Nappa and a singer, which is still Hip-Hop but it has a soul, jazz feel to it as well which is really nice, positive music. It’s another way of making the quality music we want make whilst trying something different without trying to make something that has that typical radio sound to it.”
And after what’s just happened to Choice FM here in the UK, the traditional outlets for quality Hip-Hop are becoming less and less…
“Yeah, a hundred percent. It’s horrible to see that happening, but you just have to keep fighting the cause and hope somebody hears, man.”
So given that homegrown Hip-Hop artists making credible music still face so many obstacles today in terms of being heard, what keeps you motivated after all these years?
“Honestly, and I know this might sound corny or whatever, but it really comes down to my love and passion for the music. Growing-up and maturing, I’ve found that I just want to be more creative and for there to be progression in what I’m doing now. I want to be able to sit down in another ten years and know that I really made a difference with my music, whether that be to the UK scene overall or by influencing certain artists, whatever it may be. Plus, at this stage of life that I’m at, I’m in a difficult situation because for the last few years I’ve had a really bad spinal problem which has given me a lot of pain and mobility issues, which has meant I’ve been having to spend a lot more time at home. But being home a lot has reminded me of the time all those years ago when I was in prison and I realised that it’s still possible for me to do something, make a difference and contribute to the UK scene, which is all I want to do. I still want to see the UK scene continue to grow because it helped me and allowed me to travel the world with my music and make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve taken so much from the scene over the years and now I really want to be able to give something back. That’s my inspiration right now, man.”
Follow Life MC on Twitter – @LifeMC.
Life MC ft. Reveal – “Beat Smashers” (LifeMC.BandCamp.Com / 2013)
Life MC ft. Reveal – “Beat Smashers” (@LifeMC / 2013)
Produced by DJ Nappa.
Phili ‘N’ Dotz – “Rockfresh” (Rockfresh.Co.UK / 2013)
Taken from the “Rockfresh” EP – check Si Phili suffering for his art halfway through this clip.
Life & Nappa – “What I Say” (Plant Pot Productions / 2013)
Quality boom-bap business from the Phi-Life Cypher duo’s forthcoming album.
UK veteran Life MC delivers a potent freestyle over a DJ Nappa-produced beat.
Life MC – “Survival Mode MC” (@LifeMC / 2013)
Live performance of a Sensa-produced track from the veteran UK emcee’s forthcoming fifth solo album.
Life MC – “Pun Wars” (@LifeMC / 2012)
The Phi-Life Cypher member drops some bars over Big Pun’s 90s favourite “You Ain’t A Killer” for a forthcoming mixtape project.
Phi-Life Cypher – “It Could All End 2Morrow” (@PhiLife_Cypher / 2012)
Life MC and Si Phili drop an in-house live performance of this new track from the crew’s forthcoming album.
Footage of Phi-Life Cypher performing “2, 3 Break” at a recent Speakers Corner event in London.
Footage of UK emcee Life dropping some heartfelt rhymes over the Rapsody / 9th Wonder “Black Diamonds” instrumental.
|Ang13 on New Joint – Ang13 / Shad…|
|frankensense1 on 100 Favourite Albums & EPs…|
|Mr K on Flight School Vol. 4 Mix Strea…|
|don manolo pinchadis… on New Joint – J Littles…|
|Don Cave on Sunshine Philadelphia: The God…|