Portishead beatmaker Geoff Barrow (right) is clearly not intent on slacking his way through 2012. Already this year, in addition to recently completing work on a Judge Dredd-inspired electronic album, finishing a new BEAK> record and preparing for a few upcoming dates with Portishead, the 40-year-old has released his first hip hop album with Quakers, a new collective comprised of 32 MCs including Dead Prez and Aloe Blacc. So what prompted the Portishead man to try his hand at hip hop? In a guest column Barrow - or Fuzzface to use his rap name - explains how it all came together.
Hip hop is a bit like jazz in that there are so many different variants on it. There's the incredibly politicised street scene. Then there's the kind of mathematical, Dungeons And Dragons-backpack kind of scene. There's hip hop with rougher edges, like Death Grips, then there's punk element of Odd Future. It's very diverse - which is why four years ago we decided there's probably enough room for three 40 year-old white dudes too. After all, we're basically kids compared to the Beastie Boys and they're still cranking out great records, right?
Quakers is in no way a homage. I mean, it's not like we're trying to be Odd Future, beating our chests and saying we are the future of hip-hop, but we were serious from the start about taking the music further. The three of us have always loved the genre: MC Shan, Marley Marl, Public Enemy, Stones Throw Records acts and so on. We had each been making beats for fun for years and decided that we were going to contact some MCs and possibly work together on a project. The premise of the album was just to make a really exciting hip-hop record that reminded us why we love the genre - the sort of stuff you would hear in a club and think, fuck, that's really heavy. There were no commercial aspirations behind it, it was just like, let's make a really good hip-hop record. And here we are.
We got in touch with rappers and MCs, stressing that it wasn't a big money record but if, for the love of it, they fancied appearing on the record we would love to work with them. We put beats up on MySpace and they would download the beats, record verses over them and send them back for us to stitch together in a sort of haphazard way. So no, it wasn't recorded in Ocean Way with Rick Rubin. But it was kind of liberating doing things do rough and ready.
Rap is such a global industry now. We're not in there to compete at the commercial end of things. A lot of people nowadays are using slick tools: iPads, iPhones, laptops and so forth, but you lose a bit of that bump you used to have in hip hop with those plug-ins and distortions. I mean, if you listen to a Nas record, that still kicks ass, but when things are a little rough around the edges, it brings character to the music, and that is massively missing these days. In recent years, hip hop has paired up with R&B and you don't get so much of that discordance that you used to. The aim with this project was to be a little bit more sonically edgy and discordant.
Listening to a lot of recent British produced hip-hop, it's quite formulaic and business-minded, quite un-explosive. Not the early stuff - Blade, London Posse, Silver Bullet, not those guys. I'm talking about British producers in the mid-90s who began working with American MCs. We wanted to kind of break that down, turn it on its head - some people have mentioned it's almost like "prog-hop" in that respect.
But all that is not to say I get frustrated with rap at the commercial end of things - it's just pop music. When I heard Rock It by Herbie Hancock, that scratching, that's was the start of how I got into hip-hop. I hope for kids it'll be a similar thing, hearing Jay-Z and getting into Nas, that sort of thing and then go from there. It's important that that exists, because otherwise it's all under the line and the genre, the scene, never grows.
The record has come in something of a productive spell for me. I've always been massively work-driven but it's always a case of whether I'm inspired or not to do something. I hit quite a depressive state in music between those two Portishead records where I just didn't want to make music. I didn't find anything inspiring and now I've kind of realised that as I've got older that you need a bit of balance.
The seriousness of making music still remains in me, but it's not life-threatening any more. Where as my life was previously just music and nothing else, now I have a lot more in my life and I'm enjoying it. I don't even care what people think about my music - if I can be a musician and enjoy it, and if I can survive, well, then I'm happy. Geoff Barrow was talking to Al Horner
For more on Quakers head to Stonesthrow.com