Over the last few months, Life At 140 has taken a look at the inner workings of two of the best emerging, grime-centric independent labels in Manchester and Bristol, focusing on BPM and Sector 7 Sounds respectively. To complete our trio of label-profile pieces, we’ve headed back to London to investigate one of the capital’s original grime hubs, No Hats No Hoods.
Established back in 2007, No Hats No Hoods has played a pivotal role in the development of grime talent at its rawest. Acting as a halfway house between proving ground and finishing school, their hands-on approach and aggressive release policy has not only birthed a slew of grime classics, but equipped artists with the necessary skills and understanding required to establish themselves within a wider music context. Tempa T, P Money, Kozzie, Chronik, Merky Ace and Ruff Sqwad have all released through the label, as have producers ranging from Rude Kid and Spooky right the way through to Mumdance and Starkey.
Now boasting its own studio, merchandise arm and penchant for directing music videos, No Hats No Hoods remain one of grime’s most active and influential independents. Still overseen by label head Pete Todd, better known as Magic, the label’s ethos hasn’t changed too much over the years either. “I think we've always stuck true to what we are about, we’ve just grown the infrastructure around what we do,” he tells us.
With a debut project from Lewisham crew The Square now in the offing, a crew incidentally headed by 2014 breakthrough star Novelist and home to highly rated producer Lolingo, we caught up with Magic to get the inside track on the label, moving with the times and some of his favourite No Hats moments.
- - -
Tempa T – ‘Next Hype’
- - -
Talk to us a bit about the story behind NHNH…
No Hats No Hoods was started in 2007 by two friends and myself – they left the label three years ago, though. We had put on quite a few grime nights at a time when it was pretty much impossible to do so, and knew a lot of the artists, so we just grew it from there. I had also worked with Ruff Sqwad, helping them to put together (2006 album) ‘Guns And Roses Volume 2’ and was working at a music promotions company, which gave me a good understanding of what was required to get your music heard. We’ve progressed from putting out vinyl to eventually releasing music videos and full-length projects, and having our own studio and merchandise.
What has been the secret to maintaining NHNH’s level of influence over the years?
I don’t know, to be honest! We’ve just always concentrated on music we like rather than what’s flavour of the month. I think our success with club nights really helped, as we’ve built some strong relationships with producers and MCs. We always tried to learn as much about the industry as we could, and helped a lot of artists that weren’t on the label – which is why we’ve always been supported [in return] by a lot of the scene. We’ve always tried to represent the culture in our music and reinvest into the scene. Music videos are where we have really tried to stand out, especially as it is so competitive now. There are quite a few artists such as P Money, Kozzie and Rude Kid who’ve had their first release with us, and I think a lot of people respect the fact that we have given unknown artists a chance based on talent rather than profile.
Has it been a case of moving with the times or sticking true to what you set out to do?
I think we’ve always stuck true to what we are about – we’ve just grown the infrastructure around what we do. We’ve now got our own studio and make all our own merchandise, so we are pretty self-sufficient, which enables us to go further in our ideas and be more creative. Running a label has never been harder financially, but we want to continue to invest in new talent.
- - -
Mumdance feat. Novelist, ‘Take Time’
- - -
Is the challenge of sourcing and working with new MC talent more difficult than it was before?
We’ve always found that MC talent comes along in waves. I remember wondering in 2007, when we were doing our Dirty Canvas nights, where the new MCs were – then the Chipmunk, Ice Kid and Griminal generation came along, followed by the Kozzie, Scrufizzer, Merky Ace generation. I think now we are at the start of a new wave, headed by Novelist and The Square. In terms of sourcing new MC talent, there is enough talent out there, but it is spread further around the UK and needs a lot more work and support than previously to get to records and projects that do them justice.
It’s pretty confusing for a new MC in 2014, as there are so many platforms and ways of working. It’s hard for them to know what do and how to make the most of their work and get heard.
The very early days of the label were fairly straightforward in that there were lots of good tracks floating about, and it was just about getting them out and to DJs. Now it’s lot harder, firstly because everything moves so much faster now everything is online, and we might not get to a track we want to put out until it is too late. There are also fewer tracks we would want to release, so we have to put together projects a lot more hands on.
Secondly, with MCs we want to do full projects with, the range of grime beats available are a lot more limited and harder to source. If we had to source all the beats for [The Square’s] ‘The Formula’ from outside producers, I’m not sure it would be ready yet. The relationship between grime producer and MC has never been more distant. The range of sounds you can get from producers has shrunk down over the past few years. In simplistic terms, you have a lot of producers making trap/grime productions for MCs, and the more experimental producers making beats that aren't intended for vocals. A lot of people criticise grime MCs for going over trap beats, but the reality is that it’s hard for them to find good grime beats.
It’s not all bad, though, as it’s now much easier to shoot music videos, which has helped us massively to get our artists heard with limited radio support.
Can you tell us a bit about your new project with The Square? Do you see them as having what it takes to establish themselves as a crew of the future?
We’ve been working with Novelist for just over a year now, and a few months ago we thought we’d do a project with his crew. ‘The Formula’ is The Square’s introduction to the scene – there’s a crew track, one solo track from each MC, and one instrumental from each producer. Ninety per cent of it is in-house production, which I really like as they’ve got their own their sound. They’ve done a lot pirate radio and grafting to hone their craft, which is pretty rare these days and makes them a lot better when performing live. It has been amazing working with a crew with so much passion and energy for the music – after a recording session they’ll still be going lyric for lyric and clashing in the car park!
I think a lot of people don’t realise most of them are just 17. A lot of people I’ve played them to say they remind them of early grime – not in terms of sound, but the vibe and the way it makes them feel. They definitely have the potential to establish themselves as a crew for the future, and they are improving week by week. We’ve tried to take care of all the admin and organisation that goes with releasing music, so they can just concentrate on recording the best music. We’ve got two more The Square singles coming out this year
- - -
Chronik, ‘Deepest Darkest’
- - -
Could you pick out your top three NHNH moments since you started?
Shooting the ‘Deepest Darkest’ video in Ghana with Chronik. We went out there with just a cameraman and a guidebook that was three years out of date and just spoke to loads of locals and made it happen.
Tempa T’s ‘Next Hype’. We all knew the track was good, but none of us realised how big it was going to be. The track was about for a few months without much attention, and then when we released the video and suddenly it became huge. I knew Tempz quite well as he had come down to a lot of our nights, but I could never imagine him working a normal job – so I came up with the story of him working at Pars R US, got a T-shirt designed and called Tim Westwood who did the intro shot in one take.
Thirdly, it’s not strictly a NHNH moment, but Wiley versus Ghetto at our Dirty Canvas night was very special, as they were the top two MCs at the time.
Could you also pick out your top three iconic NHNH releases?
Tempa T’s ‘Next Hype’; DJ Spooky’s ‘Spartan’; and Rude Kid’s ‘Are You Ready’ EP.
- - -
Words: Tomas Fraser