“There’s a point, when you’re in a certain headspace, where you feel you can actually do anything we want to do, and not really have any preconception about it,” says Nick Hallam. And for him and his long-time Stereo MCs partner, Rob Birch, their journey into sound has been constantly defined by the battles they’ve had to fight for creative freedom – not with record companies or industry figures, but from the pressures they put themselves under.
Britain’s first global rap stars, Stereo MCs paved the way for the Plan Bs and Dizzee Rascals. They were the first rap group to play at British rock festivals, and managed to fit everywhere and nowhere at once: appearing live with everyone from U2 to the Happy Mondays, from Living Colour and Peter Gabriel to Jane’s Addiction and De La Soul. The Stereos were exceptions to every rule – the rap band rock fans could dig, the dance act it was cool for indie fans to groove to, sought-after as remixers, producers or collaborators by everyone from the Jungle Brothers to Madonna.
At last feeling free from their early 90s work’s status as both musical milestone and creative millstone, Hallam and Birch are doing what they’d wanted all along – allowing hip hop’s liberating philosophy to help them make music that obeys no rules but their own. They’ve reached out beyond their core group of long-term friends and on-stage collaborators, and, for the first time, have written with other artists: Bruce Woolley (best known for his work in the ’70s and ’80s with Trevor Horn – he co-wrote “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Slave to the Rhythm”), Nathan Drake and Greg Fleming (who go by the name Deekline and Wizard for their breaks work, or The London Punks in their live incarnation).
Freed from the pressure to rap simply because it’s expected, Rob sings on the record, much of which was written not how the Stereos have usually worked, by building up grooves from sampled loops and beats, but from old-school jam sessions, with bass, guitar, drums and vocals all playing together until they find a common thread. It’s a sound that will surprise those who think they know what the Stereos are all about because they’ve heard “Connected” used in ads for mobile phones for most of the nearly 20 years it’s been around, or who nostalgically remember “Elevate My Mind” and think they know what these guys are capable of. But to long-term fans who’ve grown up with Rob and Nick, and shared some of their adventures through sound, the record will feel like the next logical step forward for a band who’ve only ever been about making music that’s true to hip hop’s sense of limitless creativity and do-what-feels-right spirit.
“We’ve really had to re-learn how to make music,” Rob admits. “But when you actually start to see some progress, and hear yourself making some sounds that you’ve never made before, your enthusiasm really starts to generate again. And then you get a grip on it, and you start to see what you can do. It’s like we’re not really in the dark any more.”
1. Wooden Heart
2. Boy (feat. Jamie Cullum)
3. Phase Me
4. Far Out Feeling
5. Sunny Day
9. Bring It On (Path To The Mind And The Soul And The Spirit)
11. Desert Song
12. Wooden Heart Reprise
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