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Beatnik talks hip hop history with two of the UK’s illest rhymers.
It’s 2004, and there are paper planes flying through the air.
The launch of Skinnyman’s album has attracted a diverse group of supporters to the North London club Cargo. Hunkered beneath the railway arches and the rumbling trains, the club is packed. Skinny and his boys are mid-set, and have taken a break to have a paper plane-throwing competition. The stage lights flash off the skirls of paper, soaring over the outstretched hands of the crowd, the room dripping with sweat and energy. This is UK hip-hop at its finest, healthiest and most powerful.
Kashmere grips his pint glass and laughs as he remembers the night. He’s a thin, almost cadaverous MC, with bony hands and a jacket zipped to the neck. “I was trying to brag like, check out the aerodynamics. And it didn’t go! It came back to me.”
Across the table, Verb T – soft-spoken, rocking a sensible woollen jumper – chuckles. “No-one’d ever done it before. They’re all gonna start doing it now!”Verb T & The Last Skeptik: Wade
It’s 2011, and Kashmere and Verb T are still here.
For the past ten years, the duo have lived and breathed UK hip-hop. Name a single significant event or time period in the music since the turn of the century, and they were there. They’re both currently riding high off new projects. Verb T has his new album Serious Games, his fifth, while Kash has just dropped his fourth release, Galaktus: The Power Cosmic. Both have perfected their respective strengths; Verb has his razor-sharp quotables (“Levitate in the lotus position like Dhalsim”) while Kash’s album is characteristically dense and heavy, bursting with endless comic-book references and apocalyptic stories.
When the two friends come together, as they do on Verb’s new tune Tearing The Sky Down, it all works. Commercial success might have eluded them, but these are two partners at the top of their game. For all the gruff talk, for all the various directions their careers have taken, they’re mates first and foremost. There’s no pressure. Younger rappers might posture and pose, bigging up their boys at every opportunity. Kash and Verb are just friends. It’s a friendship built on a decade immersed in a scene, and when it comes to remembering the history of key moments in that scene, there are few people better to ask than these two.
It’s 2001, and a Ghost is haunting London.
The legendary UK hip-hop producer – who has since dropped off the scene, his name proving eerily prophetic – was an early influence on Kash and Verb, and the three had become friends after encountering each other on various tracks. “When me and Kash and Ghost started doing show together,” remembers Verb, “we all had a similar visions. And we got on as people, the three of us, so we could do the projects together with no hassle. We were doing the show anyway, and then we’d be round with Ghost rehearsing and we’d hear a beat and put something down to it. It just comes from being in that same frame of mind…One of the first things we did together was a feature for a guy from the US called Copperpot. We had a beat CD with twenty beats and we both picked the same one [Headtrip – and bloody good it is, too]. Ghost, his place was where we’d go to chill, rehearse shows and just make music.”
At the time, Ghost wasn’t the only producer they were hanging out with. In what must be one of the most serendipitous acts of urban planning ever, Verb had grown up across the street from a man named Harry Love. This was in Ladbroke Grove; Verb moved there when he was eleven, and the two became friends. They played computer games, listened to countless records and, almost inevitably, began to work together.
This was, as Verb recounts, was an intimidating experience. Making beats beside an enormous wall of vinyl, Harry’s workspace was outwardly chaotic – but in reality, everything was exactly where he needed it.
“He’d be making a beat and think, ‘I need some horns’,” says the MC “and you see this mess of records but his hand would just ‘shoong!’ and pick out the exact record. He was so tuned in to what he was doing…He’s a perfectionist and obsessive about what he does. He knows exactly what he wants it to sounds like. He’d be there for hours doing cuts to get it exactly right.”
Of course, you’ve got to put this in the wider picture. Even before Kash and Verb began dealing with labels and putting out whole albums, they were hovering around a little record shop in central London that was having a big impact on the scene.
That shop was Deal Real. You can look long and hard at the record shops that have come and gone in the UK. You can talk about Sister Ray, Mr Bongo, Rough Trade, RareKind. None of them have inspired the kind of love that Deal Real did. None of them became such a focal point for an entire scene, for a whole movement of people. This is a tiny, cramped room which exploded every single day, the shiniest part of UK hip-hop’s golden era. Deal Real was…well, it was the real deal. And of all the memories Kash and Verb go into, these seem the clearest.
“MK worked there, Tony Vegas worked there, Shortee Blitz worked there, Harry and Sarah Love worked there,”…says Verb, namechecking several UK legends. Kash interrupts: “The feeling of going in there and copping your vinyl off Shortee Blitz – back when he had dreads? Rah! It was good.”
Verb grins, tucking his chin into his chest, and goes into more detail as Kash takes a swig of his pint: “Before Scratch Perverts got massive, Tony Vegas was there working, he’d be playing records and end up doing cuts, and it would turn into a showcase. Harry Love mixing tracks, MK doing beat juggles. In between, Pete Real would be like ‘Who wants two of these for a tenner?’ and all the DJs who had been watching Tony cut it up would buy it!”
Pete Real – the shop’s owner and founder – was a man who would have a huge impact on Kashmere’s life. “Pete Real schooled me about pressing up records and pushing your own shit independently. He didn’t have to do that at all I had no connection with anyone who worked at the shop – I just bought records there, chilled, listened to stuff. But spoke to him on the level, he said, come down to the basement and we just sat there and he schooled me. From production to what a good place to go press your stuff. That was something else. He didn’t have to do that.”
When Deal Real landed in its most well-known location in Carnaby Street, Pete Real was no longer involved. To hear Kash and Verb tell it, the shop was less about the vinyl and more about the performances – a meeting place for MCs more than anything else. Not better or worse, just different.
Immersed in this buzzing scene, things were looking promising for Kash and Verb. And someone was about to come along who would change everything – not just for them, but for UK hip-hop. His name was Joseph Christie, alias Braintax, and his label Low Life was about to explode.
Low Life Records began in Leeds in 1992. Putting out projects by Task Force and Breaking The Illusion, the label only started becoming a serious powerhouse at the turn of the century, when they put out the High Plains Drifter EP from a young rhymer called Jehst. Perhaps sensing that he had a growing concern on his hands, Braintax began looking for talent. He found it.
Kashmere recalls: “In 2001, I did the Raw Styles EP. Braintax pressed it up – he had a pressing business as well. He already knew about me through Taskforce, because I was linking with them quite a lot. I met Farma G at a music technology course I was doing. Me, Farma G, Sway was in the same class, all these people. From there, he recognised me from a couple open mics, and when I came through with Raw Styles, he liked how I was doing it myself. He liked what was on there, and we started working together.”
Says Verb: “I guess we were the MCs coming up that he saw something in. He was working with separate projects for us to put out, and then he ended up putting them together. It was almost experimental, I guess. But it worked.”
It sounds so simple – like Braintax just turned around one day and told them to spit something. But over the next few years, the label would explode. For a time, Low Life wasn’t just a UK hip-hop label; it was UK hip-hop, full stop.
“It was hot in the Lowlife office. Central London, lower ground floor,” remembers Verb. “Hot. I remember the listening party for the [2003 Low Life compilation] Food LP. Every artist, we literally sat through the whole album and nobody said a word. Afterwards, everyone erupted, like, this is a sick album! People shaking each other’s hands, patting each other on the back. It was symbolic of that whole time: you had Taskforce, Mystro, me, Kash, Jehst, Asaviour, Usman, Yungun, Harry Love…it did capture a moment for UK hip-hop, that whole album and whole time.” That it did. And Kash and Verb put out several excellent pieces of music on the label which helped cement their careers, among them their brilliantly-titled collabo album Backhand Slap Talk / Technical Illness.
In an ideal world, this is where Braintax would jump in to give his perspective on how he hired this scrawny, comic-book-obsessed nerd and this pale-faced whippersnapper-rhymespitter to help bang out hits. But in 2008, he abruptly shut down Low Life and left the country. He has not been heard from since, and Beatnik was unable to contact him. According to Mystro, an artist who put out material on the label, he left owing people a lot of money, and a legacy of angry artists and pissed-off producers.
Verb and Kash, however, don’t see it like that. “Braintax was cool to work with. Really cool,” says Kash. “I really ain’t got a bad thing to say about the guy. He’s a laugh. First of all, to be working with someone like Braintax who I pretty much grew up listening to…I can’t really think of anything bad around that time. Our music was getting out, CDs were moving. Excellent time.”
“He used to punch me in the face if I did more than one take!” deadpans Verb. “Nah, he was cool. He worked so hard in the day at the pressing plant, answering phones and the business side of things, I think he actually enjoyed chilling out and making tunes. You are going to [hear] a million different stories about him, but my experiences were all good.”
Both MCs say they never had a problem with how he conducted business, either: he showed them statements every six months, and apparently paid them on time for their royalties. When he left, however, it was sudden and unexpected. Neither Kash nor Verb have had much contact with him since.
At this point, we sense something odd about the duo – and not just because Kashmere is busy adding extra bloodstains to his South Park figure (see sidebar below). Though they would doubtless disagree, throughout their careers they’ve consistently landed on their feet. A little before Low Life shut up shop, Verb T began doing some work with Silent Sounds – another key hip-hop label – and soon after, both he and Kashmere joined forces with Jehst. The upstart young rhymer had been busy, masterminding his own outfit YNR Productions. Both Kash and Verb would have releases for the label; Kash won that round, as he released the astounding Raiders Of The Lost Archives there.
And slowly, one by one, the seminal labels fell. First Lowlife, then Silent Sounds, then others like Zebra Traffic. Only YNR remains – and while it goes from strength to strength, it’s still yet to make inroads into a public in love with Tinie Tempah and Tinchy Strider. Kash and Verb continued to make music – Verb released the Harry Love record as well as one with The Last Skeptik, plus a solo album. Kash did more work with Jehst and YNR. At any point, they could have packed it in, left the scene. And yet, it’s 2011, and they’re still here.
Whether they like it or not, Kash and Verb are veterans; O.Gs who have seen everything. Surviving ten years in hip-hop takes a lot. Staying friends through all the bullshit, through all the rises and falls, through the weed and the booze, through the start of a golden era and the end of one, through collaborative albums and solo ones, and through badly-made paper planes, takes a little bit more.
When we sat down in the pub to chat with Kash and Verb, there was a draw-your-own-South-Park-character competition going on. Patrons could fill in the generic outline with their own designs to win a bar tab. Armed with some luminescent felt-tip pens, the guys got scribbling. They didn’t win, but they let us reproduce the entries here. We’d like to point out that these were drawn before any alcohol was consumed.
Kashmere: “This is gonna be the next album cover! I couldn’t get it all in the lines – my hand-eye coordination ain’t what it used to be. He’s obviously from a parallel dimension, and he’s blue like the Andoreans from Star Trek. His hair isn’t naturally purple – he’s just going for a style – and this thing on his head is not actually a Y, because in his dimension, they respect Back To The Future, so he got a tattoo of a flux capacitor on his head. It’s a respect thing. His eyes are yellow because…that’s how he gets down, you know what I mean? Yellow eyes. The bloodshot eyes are because he stayed up so long watching Back To The Future. And he likes to show love, which is why he has a heart. His name is G-Lock MC. He’s named after the parallel dimension version of The Spice Girls, who are all MCs in that dimension. They’re hard!”
Verb T: “He wants to be a race-car driver. He calls himself Hot Rod and wears a custom-made T-shirt. He used to be an elf, hence the red and green. He is a ginger, rocking a goatee, and has yellow eyes ‘cos he’s been a bit sick lately. He’s got jaundice or something. He was into death metal for a while, but he wishes he hadn’t got the tattoo on his head. He’s a pretty cool guy. Just an elf trying to fit in. If I was a ginger elf, this is the look I would go for, definitely.”
Kashmere: “If they met? Beef beef beef!”
Verb: “He’d probably become his driver. He’s not really into conflict, so he wouldn’t be able to win a fight. He’d say, you could kill me really easily with that forcefield, but you know what? I’m a fucking good driver, I’ll drive you about. Spaceships, planes, cars, anything.”