Sam Briggs corners frontfellow Isaac and bass chap Hal of live hip hop outfit The Mega Squad. He then proceeded to wring the following words out of them.
Photos: B.D. Marchant-Williams
It seems apt that we should be talking a week after Titty Monday [the first day of Spring, colloquially speaking]. What did you do to celebrate?
Hal: I was in Meersbrook Park, surrounded by kids, so it was somewhat inappropriate. [To Isaac] What did you do?
Isaac: I stayed in. I could have gone to the park with a hot girl but I decided to stay in.
Hal: For shame.
For those unfamiliar with your work, tell us a little about The Mega Squad, how it came to fruition, and what you’re about.
H: The Mega Squad started as a hip hop jam band in the corner of a club called Wall of Balls some years ago. It was all improv, beats, DJs and bass lines with a few lyrics thrown on top.
I: Well, you only let me rap because it was my birthday. [Both laugh] They didn’t know I could rap but I was just like ‘it’s my birthday, can I go up and play?’ Then Stu [original DJ] said ‘Give him a minute, then cut his mic.’ [laughs]
H: We did have a beat boxer but I think he had mental health problems. Does he even know he’s not in the band anymore?
I: I think he’s got the gist.
There’s somewhat of an age difference between members. [Just under 20 years from either end] Does that mean you’re all bringing different influences to the band?
H: For me, my era of hip hop is the early 90s, the golden era. So everything we try to create is envisaged in that way by me. Things happen differently but the grounding is there for simple music with raw-ass shit over the top.
I: It’s kinda weird. I didn’t really like music until I was about 15 but then I found hip hop and listened to nothing but hip hop. I got into MCing through an MC called Cannabis, he’s the MC’s MC, you know? He brought a new level of intricacy and rhymes.
H: As far as influences go, people do come from very different places. iBalls, the violin player, is very classically trained, grade whatever, he brings a lot of classicism. Whereas Vince on sax is very deep into jazz. My era of hip hop is very tight and reined in, but Vince can just fly off. But that’s cool; it’s all part of it. Oh, and Scragga hits drums.
So is the instrumentation done separately from the lyrical content, or is it more of a collective effort? Talk us through penning a Mega Squad tune.
H: It tends to start with a bass line, usually. Eyeballs will lay on top of that with horns stabbing in here and there. Then it layers up until we have a gig – then it’s ready.
I: Usually I don’t have the lyrics ready so I’m just free styling the first few times we play it. Certain bits can stick but I always find it difficult to write. I tend to write stuff that’s a bit moany.
H: He’s a little emo. You’ll be fine once you hit 21.
[Both laugh. Isaac is around 30]
You’ve recently picked up some new members.
H: It’s a very nebulous arrangement.
I: Lots of ins, lots of outs.
H: There’s a solid core and people bounce around.
So there’s a core with more people appearing. Do you think The Mega Squad is quite organic in that way? Could you see yourself becoming a big collective with double figures on stage?
H: Yeah I can see that happening. I don’t think it’s anything I’d want, though. I do like the tight-knitness we enjoy. I don’t want to be one of those bands that become a seething snake pit of bodies and instruments bouncing around. You can lose some identity with that sort of mass. I’m up for people jumping up and doing their thing with us, but we need to core to allow that to happen.
It’s not too often that you see live instrumentation hip hop anymore.
H: Anymore? Is it an old thing?
I: There’s The Roots, Public Enemy, Burleskimo are no more. Veto Casino are a new one.
H: Are they good?
I: Yeah, actually. They’re a bit more down tempo than us.
Okay, but you’ve got the violin hook, that hasn’t been done too often has it?
H: Yeah, that’s a unique selling point. We love hip hop so we make hip hop. I’m not a rapper or a DJ, I play bass and hip hop enjoys a bass line, fortunately for me. Hip hop has always sampled from funk so horns drop in very naturally.
I: It’s kinda weird. What makes hip hop hip hop? We can do what we want, it’s like a live sample.
H: The Mega Squad is a funk outfit as well as a hip hop outfit that reins itself in. If I were to see The Mega Squad I’d think that’s a hot funk sound they’ve got.
I: Sometimes, with this kinda thing the music, can seem quite disconnected from the MC but because we jam a lot and I try to get in the rhythm that the band is in.
H: It can get too song-like. With a verse, chorus, middle eight and solos, things like that. That’s where live hip hop can fall down.
What do you think of the local scene? Do you think there are enough places to get out there and gig?
H: I’d say places are limited for hip hop acts. A guitar band can rock up anywhere. Your average band will play at 9-10pm whereas it’s not out of the ordinary for us to go on at 1am. I couldn’t see us playing The Grapes when it was still going, you know?
Where do you think hip hop is as a whole at the moment?
I: English hip hop is not too bad.
H: I’ll be honest, I don’t like much modern hip hop.
I: What people respect now is terrible. It’s not witty, there are no killer lyrics.
H: For me, the very paradigm where hip hop goes wrong is… Did you hear Example’s first album? It’s pretty much straight up hip hop. It’s not the best, but it’s hip hop. Now, he’s this idiot playing T4 On The Beach Festival, running around the stage and whooping and hollering to teenage girls like he’s Robbie Williams or something. It’s an abuse of the situation.
I: The whole culture of hip hop died. Graffiti is coming back, but rap is the only thing which seems to have survived. The whole thing is becoming very commercialised.
H: Rap stars are businessmen. Rather than being in the business of making hip hop, they’re in the business of making money. The actual lyrical content seems to be about how much money they made last week. I don’t give a shit, I didn’t make any money last week. [laughs]
I: How do you identify with Jay-Z when he’s talking about making millions?
So if hip hop has left its roots, what happened to Wall of Balls?
H: Wall of Balls started off as a hip hop and funk night and by the time it dissipated it was a real big mish mash of everything.
I: What happened is you lot got old.
H: That’s a fair comment, Junior. [both laugh] I was leaving earlier and earlier but the night was finishing later and later.
What you guys up to for Tramlines this year?
H: We’re playing Bowery on Friday night with the Cool Beans folk. I think we’re supporting someone quite big at The Bowery, but they haven’t announced it yet.
You’ve got a few songs on bandcamp, would you rather just put stuff out for people to listen to, or are you working towards a release?
H: I’d like to put stuff out on an actual disc. We do have an EP in the pipeline, it’s going to be called ‘It’s Only Little, But It Smells Enormous.’
I: No, ‘It Looks Small, But It Smells Enormous.’ You came up with it.
H: We were drunk. [both laugh]
So do you just want people to listen? Do you agree with bands who hold onto tracks to make money, or do you think it should just be offered for free?
I: The eventual goal is to play some festivals. Some women would be nice, too. Other people in bands seem to get women, we don’t. I do look quite angry when I MC. You think some hot chicks will rush you when you get off stage, but it’s just dudes going ‘Do you wanna look at my facebook and do some music with me?’
H: I initially got into playing live music for that reason, as everyone does. But as I play a six-string bass I get men coming up to me and piss in my ear, asking about the tuning. It’s the opposite of what I intended.
We’ll run a lonely hearts ad at the bottom if you like?
H: The Mega Squad WLTM… But, getting back to the question, fair play if a band wants to make money, they’re free to go about it. For us, putting stuff out there is about establishing a presence.
When’s this EP dropping then?
H: It’ll be out when it’s out.
What are people going to get from a Mega Squad gig? Why should they bother themselves to go along?
H: It’s a spectacle.
I: It’s a bit different.
H: It’s interactive in parts.
I: Titty Monday.
H: It’s a participation piece.
I: It’s a crowd pleaser. Women initially hate it but as soon as it comes to the joining in bit, they love it. Just expect raw shit.
Any burning issues?
H: I feel like this is an opportunity we could be wasting.
At this juncture, Toast gaffer, Si, sits and joins us.
Any questions for The Mega Squad, boss?
Si: Where are you playing at Tramlines?
Done. Investigative journalism right here.
S: Ok, what do you think the brass section has brought to the sound that wasn’t there before?
H: Brass sounds.
S: Is this how the whole interview has been?
H: I’d like to say hello to Hip Drop, Drop The Bomb, North And South; these fun little nights that keep rocking up. [To Isaac] Any shout outs?
I: 216, 412, 505, 721.
S: That’s the lock to your bike isn’t it?
I: Pin code.
Catch The Mega Squad at The Harley (as part of the Contours Festival) on 6th June. Also, they’ll be tearing The Bowery a new one at Tramlines, under the Cool Beans banner – Friday 19th, round about 7pm.