Stereo Mcs

Stereo MCs' Rob Birch lets us in on how the band bonded, succeeded, imploded and have now found their musical mojo again in underground beats and bass...

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 4 Dec 2014
  • min read
‘The thing I remember most about playing Reading Festival was our little dressing room in a caravan which had a meat pie stuck to the wall.’

Stereo MCs' Rob Birth is recalling one of the band’s most glamorous or least glamorous moments, depending on how much you love savoury products.

The fact that the Stereo MCs are still very much a going concern in 2014 is remarkable. Even more so, is that this dub/hip-hop/melting pot are arguably enjoying a creative renaissance, finding a new lease of life through a love for tech house and underground bass.

Beginning life in the eighties the Stereo MCs Rob Birch and producer Nick Hallam, helping popularise acid house, hip-hop and nu-soul with their hits Get It On, Creation, Deep, Down and Dirty and huge smash Connected. We caught up with Rob earlier this year to hear about the highs, lows and future of the band…

How did you get into music?

My brother taught me how to play guitar as a kid. It was a little 12 quid strat but I loved music when I was younger. I used to listen and draw. Once I learned the basic chords, that was it for me. I was bitten by the bug and it took over my life.

How did you start writing your own music?

It was a natural thing to do, learning chords, then some tunes. I was never one for playing other people’s songs. Once I’d got going the whole point for me was making my own music.

How did the Stereo MCs first come about?

I’ve known Nick since I was about six as we lived on the same street when we were kids. Nick moved to London and I followed him under the guise of studying. We ended up hanging out with my brother in Battersea. I was playing in bands. He started getting into electro and we began to get together more to make tunes.

It was a great laugh as there was no pressure on each other. We just started messing around with tape loops on an old Revox, drum beats, and decided to make some tunes for kicks. We had a four track and I spent an entire night making a drum track out of that loop from Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. That’s how we started.

Where did you look for inspiration at the time?

We were influenced by Rebel without a Pause, Schooly D and lots of early rap. We loved how the music came over with a real message and attitude. We felt that a lot of eighties music was really lacking in spirit and wasn’t saying anything. I was a punk in the late seventies and was more into that vibe. We tried to make something which sounded like the music we were hearing. But as we didn’t know how, we ended up making our own version and creating a new sound, because we’re obviously a different set of chemicals and influences. That’s how we got started.

What was your big break?

We ended up pressing up our first few tunes and taking them round dance music shops. We also used to get the night bus with a mike, cassette of our rhythm tracks and try and gate crash clubs to play in them.

Julian Palmer from Island heard it down the Wag Club, he licensed it and then asked us to do another single, then an album. It was all on very limited budgets. Island’s vibe back then was more of we’ll give you development money but not enough money to buy a Ferrari. That worked well for us.

Getting a live drummer also helped us break through into the festival market and perform properly as a group. We played at Reading where John Peel introduced us. He was a really nice guy. The thing I remember most about playing Reading Festival was our little dressing room in a caravan which had a meat pie stuck to the wall. That said everything about Reading you needed to know at that time. It was all mud and burgers.

How did you find playing live?

We toured with loads of people. There were some where crowds didn’t like us but the heckling does make you harder as a performer. When you get some good responses, you feel like you’ve earned it.

We did a lot of rap gigs but because we weren’t a purist rap group , we got dissed a lot when we played. But we toured with Happy Mondays, De La Soul, U2, Living Colour – all these different groups as we wanted to reach as many different people as possible.

You’re perhaps best known for Connected – how did that record change the fortunes of the band?

That’s when touring got really heavy, meaning we were away for about 18 months at a time. Music in England changed while we were away and being on tour was very much like being in a bubble. We played at Glastonbury and Barrowlands, a quarter of a million people in Golden Gate Park. It was crazy. But after Connected we burnt out and were lost for about three or four years. It’s ironic that when you’re at your peak, you completely lose your confidence. How do you repeat the success and have a hit like Connected?

Deep Down and Dirty was the our way out and the start of a new path and continued with Paradise and Double Bubble. We started DJing again and getting more into electronics.

What does this latest incarnation of the group mean?

Now we’re going back to our underground roots of making dance 12s. We’re no longer on the treadmill of making an album and waiting six months for a record label to get its shit together and then release it when you’re bored with it.

We’re now working on two fronts, still as a live band but doing DJ sets full of tech house, bassline and techno. We wanted to go back to our underground club roots – which is where we started back in the mid eighties – playing all kinds of dance music – rare groove, acid, house, dub – all under the same roof.

So the group has come full circle?

Getting into new music, trying to refresh ourselves, hearing sounds figuring out how to make them. We weren’t born with this kind of gear but it is refreshing to try and work with it. I’m looking forward to what happens next. We’ve been working with Raf Daddy from the 2 Bears on a whole load of new tracks with him. That’s how we we’re kicking off our next chapter.