Bristol is a law unto itself.
Sure, each city in the UK has its own identity, its own peculiar flavour but Bristol may just be the most independent of the lot.
Want some evidence? Just sit down with Aspects. Founded back in 1996, the collective are a product of the city's ever fertile soundsystem culture. Debut album 'Correct English' dropped back in 2001, but since a second LP dropped in '04 fans have seen and heard very little from the hip hop crew.
Now they're back. Signed to Black Acre affiliated imprint Psycho Boogie, Aspects have been working on material for a new album, material which finds them continually to challenge set boundaries. Aspects - now numbering three MCs and one DJ - are set to play Clash Magazine's East NotEast night this Saturday (April 6th) but ahead of this we sat down for a quick chat with the resurgent hip hop collective.
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What have you each been up to in the period you've been away?
El Eye - After a good 15 years rapping for food, I decided it was to start my own record label, which went really well, so now I make records for food which is equally ill advised. I also cloned myself twice so the records have to feed and clothe them too!
BeelziBubber - Making a mess. Made a bit of a din. Making a fool. Making stuff and (the best bit) making babies. Sat in an office for a bit working on my staring out the window game. Mantis - I travelled all over the world. I also lived overseas for a long time, in New Zealand, working in the industry down there.
PD: Kind of caused the whole banking crisis thingy, so I needed to lay low for a while.
So do you think that taking a break has got you more invigorated now?
Mantis - Hell yes! Without a doubt. More artists should do it. We can't recommend it enough.
Bub - Fully invigorated! I didn't write an awful much in the intervening years. But my mind has not stopped cooking. As soon as we were ready to go on this album, I got the crayons out and couldn't stop churning out all that good new invigorated lyric badness.
El Eye - Aspects has always fed heavily on our friendship as a source of inspiration. This got steadily eroded by the music game, our break up was the biggest test of our friendship, we all disappeared off for 10 years around the world and still managed to come back and find each other. It feels brand new again just without the insecurities.
What are the main reasons that you decided to reunite and re-emerge?
El Eye - It's a second chance to make an album with the absolute creative freedom only no hope of commercial success can bring. It's like a second shot at your first record.
Bub - Once we'd re-established our friendships we just couldn't help ourselves. I couldn't not pursue this album I knew had been laying dormant in us, just waiting to be created. Mantis - Exactly. We couldn't wait to get back in the studio together. I think we all knew we had another record in us, and maybe that's one of the reasons we never officially broke up. We had another album to make and we all knew it. It started to play on our minds. The last album wasn't the right place to stop either, but it was definitely the right place to pause.
How would you say the face of UK hip hop has changed since back when you began in '96?
El Eye - The circular nature of these things means it's the closest it's been to 96 since errr 96... Bub - Loadsa cats come and gone and stayed and come back again. Ha! There was yank accents doing the rounds back then still. That died a death but there seems to be a new accent that makes some folks all sound the same now, wherever they from in the country. Weeeird.
Mantis - It's changed more than people might realise. It was analogue for one thing. No internet. Computers were for nerds back then anyhow! I couldn't have predicted what happened though. I mean, when we began, we couldn't imagine hearing British Hip Hop on mainstream radio. And on the telly? No chance! The culture was completely marginalised outside of, well, the street I suppose. And in '96, that's where all the talent was. Now you have Alesha Dixon judging those dance things on TV; Dizzee rapping at the Olympic fucking Games... and more to the point, an English rapper with a Mercury Prize. As an important man once said, "Things Done Changed."
Recently there's been an explosion of instrumental hip hop, what do you make of it? Has it influenced your work at all?
PD: The explosion of instrumental hip hop is amazing. It's probably grown out of producers no longer leaving their music in limbo on cassettes, Zip disks and recordable CDs (waiting for that call from Kool Keith or MC Shan). Everything is uploaded! I think it's given producers more freedom to experiment and not be tied to the ridiculous laws previously imposed. Hip hop has returned to what it should be about... Rag and bone!
El Eye - Yeah for sure, the whole Fly-Lo + Brainfeeder crew reinvigorated Hip Hop from the drums up! I think beat selection is the most underrated skill a rapper can have, so may great emcees come a cropper coz the best rhyme on earth can't save a shit beat!
Mantis - Personally, that stuff doesn't directly influence me - I'm more likely to take inspiration from a movie soundtrack or something. But the standard is good right now, and there's plenty bass about which is vital!
And how do you think your lyrics have changed since 'Correct English'?
El Eye - Personally I'm free now, I don't carry Hip Hop on my shoulders anymore. I say what I want, no personal censorship. I only really care about the fundamentals my family friends and their good health, if you don "feel" me, I couldn't care less. I just want to rap about new things, say the unsaid.
Bub - Here here! I think also some of the cockiness has been replaced with a confidence. We emmereffin professionals now!
Mantis - We're grown men now. Experienced. Real writers. It's powerful shit we're putting out there now.
What was it like working with Akira Kiteshi on production?
El Eye - When I first signed him to Black Acre back in 2007 I was totally retired from the mic never to rap again... I noticed he had a copy of My Genre on 12" so I was like "Oh yeah you heard of Aspects then?" He was like "Yeah I'd love to do a tune with them one day".. At the time I never thought it would happen but 5 years later pow! Working with Tommy was and is amazing, people try to pigeon-hole him but he can mess with any genre in a authentic convincing way! Mantis - Fantastic. What's great is, he understands vocalists. He gets it so right. But as artists, we see eye to eye on a lot of things as well. They'll be further collaborations too - we work pretty well together.
Can you explain about the title 'Left-Hand Path' - I did my research and it relates to black magic in western esoteric tradition. Why did you choose that?
El Eye - Traditional Somerset upbringing, we have a witch in every hedge...
Bub - I think the term has always applied to us and it's something that I have aspired to too. It's about a love of hip hop that we've always held and about examining what is "real". We are the outside, we are the bad juju, we are the dumbasses, we are the Left and its the only place we're at. Mantis - We're 'Left' in many ways. The more you listen, the clearer that becomes.
The cover art is really dark and enigmatic, it reminds me a bit of that Russian fairytale - Baba Yaga's hut? I wouldn't wanna run into those axe-wielding people either...
Mantis - It's stunning right? Those characters represent us.
Can you tell who's who?
El Eye - All I can say is Eko Eko Eko one of the most underrated visual warlocks on earth yoh!
Bub - That there is the green man and the crone, the wild ancient that lives in ALL of our hearts. That is the stinky truth, the hairy caveperson. Him or her is there inside you if you take a peek. All you gotta do is climb up into the archway and enter the alehouse of our brainfarts.
Haha, great. And finally, what's next for Aspects after the album?
El Eye - My continued pursuit of the perfect beat! Bub - New baby coming. New raps. Think I'll get the snip and tell the surgeon he's an overpaid ballbreaker. Mantis - We're working on something with DJ Woody right now. We're also cutting a record with the German outfit, Renegades of Jazz. So we'll have some more quality vinyl on the shelves with any luck...
Interview by Felicity Martin
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Fancy heading along to the Shacklewell Arms on April 6th? Facebook event page.