"Some things you do, and you just roll with it," Rob Birch, one half
alongside Nick "The Head" Hallam of the creative hub of the long-dormant
Stereo MC's, muses. "But at other times you're not lucky enough to be part
of a wave that's just pushing you along, so you have to get deep down inside
it and just put the grit to the grind. Sometimes you have to find it deep
inside yourself, you have to make it happen. And to me when we do this music I get a deep vibe off it. It's maybe not as easy flowing as some stuff we've done, but it feels very deep."
And it's that depth that helps the Stereo MC's resonate. Not many artists
could hope to return after almost a decade out of the limelight, but you
could argue that the Stereos have never really been away. Their 1992
releases and, in particular, the title track of their double BRIT
Award-winning album, 'Connected' have become part of a semi-permanent
aural backdrop through their use in adverts, films and TV jingles.
But not only has their music hovered in the ether; the way they went about
their business has become the norm. The fact that they're artists who also
remix, produce, run labels and publishing companies no longer marks them
down as special; their existence as a band rooted in dance music who
nevertheless share rock's unshakeable belief in the importance of live
performance is no longer unusual. Yet before the Stereo MC's came along,
these things were almost unheard of.
The story began in Nottingham, with Rob and Nick's friendship. Decamping to
London in the mid-'80s, the Stereos began to evolve their own distinctive
brand of rap-based music. They formed their own label, Gee Street, with
like-minded friends John Baker and DJ Richie Rich, and became its first
artists. Adding Italian-born DJ Cesare and Welsh drummer Owen Rossitter, aka Owen If, the band made the '33 45 78' album for a mere £15,000 and released it on Gee Street, via Island Records, in 1988. Extensive live work followed, Cesare left and singer Cath Coffey arrived and the Stereo sound was already moving on. 'Elevate My Mind', the first single from the group's second album, 1990's 'Supernatural', became a big US chart hit.
Back at home, at the height of Baggy, the Stereos' live incarnation reached
its peak at precisely the right time. A support tour with the Happy Mondays
helped make the Stereos a mainstream proposition, and paved the way for the groundbreaking third album that was to come. Released in 1992, 'Connected' provided a song-heavy and easily accessible summation of everything the group had been about, and its title track brought them a long-overdue Top 20 hit that summer. Three other singles all made the Top 20, and the album, re-promoted early in 1993, was to reach number 2 in the British LP charts, staying in the upper reaches for over a year as the band played stadium gigs across Europe - another first for a rap-based act - with U2. The band were finally recognised by the British music industry at the 1994 BRIT Awards, where they were named Best Band and walked off with the Best Album gong too.
And then nothing. Or so it seemed. In fact, while record buyers remained
unaware, Nick and Rob poured their energies into other projects. Their
Response Records imprint was signed to RCA for a while and put out some fine records. They also set up a music publishing company with their career-long manager, Keith Cooper, called Spirit Songs, to which they went on to sign, among others, Jurassic 5 and Finley Quaye. All the while they never stopped working on new music, but things weren't going well.
"You can't really say in hindsight," Nick begins, "but we never really did
stop working on new music, and maybe that was half the problem. Also, we
toured for a long time, and touring's pretty intense. I defy anybody to do
that and come out the other end with any kind of personal life intact."
So Nick and Rob had a rethink. Buying their Frontline base was the catalyst.
At last the pair had a space they could call their own in which to regroup
and start over. They made a mix album released early in 2000 in the K7
label's DJ Kicks series, and then they got their sleeves rolled up, got back
to basics, and got 'Deep Down And Dirty'.
"A lot of music is putting over this fantasy that somewhere there's a place
where you'll have no problems and everything'll be beautiful, but it's just
not true," Rob states bluntly. "There's always going to be something to deal
with if you're functioning, if you've still got the feeling that you're
striving for something that hasn't been done. There's never going to be one
problem that is going to solve the rest of your life. So the more appetite
you get for solving them, the more equipped you are for moving on."
And the Stereo MC's have always been about moving onwards, moving upwards, forever moving forward, never afraid to take chances and keep you guessing. And they aren't about to stop just now. Because now's the time to get deep down and dirty with them once again, to get back to that creative edginess, to start blurring the boundaries again.