Since they emerged in 1987, the Stereo MC’s have proved to be masters at fusing together a variety of styles of dance music. On their latest LP, Connected, the Stereo MC’s take this even further by getting away from using breaks from other people’s music and using more live instruments. Like groups such as Massive Attack, the Stereo MC’S fuse together rap, funk, soul and whatever other style of dance music they feel like working with.
Stereo MC’s was started up by rapper Rob B and DJ/remixer The Head in 1985. The duo, along with friend John Baker, started up Gee Street, a label that was then picked up by Island.
The first Stereo MC’s album, 33-45-78, was released in 1987. The band then added drummer Owen If to the line-up and began working with vocalist Cath Coffy to create the breakthrough album Supernatural.
Rob cites such electro pioneers as Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa and early rappers like Whodini and Schoolly D as major influences on the Stereo MCs’ music. But despite their name, and their tendency to incorporate rap influences into the music, the Stereo MC’s don’t see themselves as a rap group. In launching their career in America, where it seems everything must fit into a musical category, the Stereo MC’s are faced with an extra challenge.
“It’s quite weird in America, we noticed that last time we came,” explains Rob. “We saw everything was really segregated and it was a bit hard for the record company to know what to do with us, because we didn’t seem to fit in anybody’s category, so it was hard to start with.
“But I think it was just up to us to make an impression of our own and just say that we weren’t coming over to be the rap group every rap fan had to listen to, because America’s got enough rap groups of it’s own. We just wanted to come over and say ‘we’re the Stereo MC’S and this is our music and it’s just kind of a melting pot of lots of different influences.”
The group’s new album, Connected, marks a major change for the band in the way it was created. While Supernatural relied almost entirely on breaks, with only the occasional session player filling out the sound, Connected made more extensive use of live musicians.
“We started everything with breaks, but most of the tracks ended up losing most of the breaks,” explains Rob. “We ended up taking the music several stages further than we had gone before and playing things ourselves on bass and keyboards and getting other people in to play things like the horns.”
The change in the group’s approach to creating their music was the result of a change in approach towards songwriting. The group found just using bits of other people’s records to be to limiting. “It was just because we had a lot of melodic ideas that there’s no way to find in a record collection,” says Rob. “We were composing a lot of the music ourselves.”
Although they are getting away from the use and sampling, it’s not because the Stereo MC’s have any problems with it. Rob feels that as long as it is done creatively, sampling is a bona-fide source of music. “I think is stands on it’s own right as a form of expression,” he says.
“A sampler is a musical instrument. You don’t think about where the sample comes from, it’s just a matter of making a groove out of tiny part of records. I think sampling has brought a breath of new live into music, where music was going nowhere.”
Another difference between making Connected and Supernatural was the locations of the recording. Rather than going to New York, like they did last time around, the Stereo MC’s stayed home in London to make the record, and Rob feels it made a big difference.
“We figured that’s what this LP’s all about,” says Rob. “Us just being quite honest and making it where we live and a living the music kind of thing.”
For Supernatural, the group had done the complete opposite, choosing to record in New York simply because they had never recorded there before. During this time, the Stereo MC’s hooked up with Afrika Baby Bambaata of the Jungle Brothers, who sang on two of the album’s tracks. While the Stereo MC’s had done mixes for the Jungle Brothers in the past, the collaboration was not planned and came about simply because Bambaata was working at the same studio at the time.
“It was nice, no ego problems or nothing, it was easy-going, just doing music, it was kind of nice,” says Rob. “That kind of stuff we just do if it naturally happens. There’s probably loads of people that we’d like to do something with, but kind of a bit boring if you premeditate it”
Supernatural was actually released twice in the United States. The original version hit the shelves in 1990, but then a special American version was released that featured re-mixes of several tracks. Rob says that the decision to do this was made by the label, but he feels that it made sense since “Elevate My Mind” took a long time to catch in the States but eventually did well.
“They probably figured ‘well, if we pump the LP a little bit more, we can get more people into it’,” explains Rob. “That’s cool – I understood that.”
Though their studio techniques have changed, the Stereo MC’s still make coming up with a catchy groove the most important factor of songwriting. Rob compares building up a song to “painting a big oil painting.”
“You gradually just get an atmosphere going with the groove and then pounding different parts so that you can work arrangements,” he says. “Just building the music very gradually until you get a kind of a whole picture built. Sometimes, you may have a lyric to begin with, but usually you get a groove going and that inspires a vocal.”
In terms of writing the actual lyrics, Rob says the subject matter is wide open. “A lot of the motivation is just things that we see, things that we know about,” he explains. “What we think about life, what we think about life in England, the way we see society and the way people live, and how we see nature and how we see everything.”