Appearing on two Foreign Beggars tracks back in 2003, Dr. Syntax, with his Banbury upbringing and self proclaimed ‘speccy’ looks, seemed an unlikely candidate to become a known name on the UK Hip Hop scene, until you heard him spit. You can’t help but enjoy his dry humour, sarcastic anecdotes and that element of self depreciation that seems to go against everything Hip Hop is. His delivery and topics are quintessentially English, as you’d perhaps expect from a rapper born of the sticks of North Oxfordshire. Now with two solo albums under his belt as well as mixtapes, a collaborative album with Skrein (under the name Skreintax) and features left right and center, he’s become one of the UK stalwarts and shows no signs of slowing down.
His most recent album, a collaborative project with musician Tom Caruana who’s been steadily building up a hefty list of producer credits over the last decade or so, recently dropped and sees Syntax experimenting with new concepts, progressing his style without losing the element of honesty and wit that makes him who he is. The particularly astute among you may recognize the title from the Sean of the Dead line ‘How’s that for a slice of fried gold‘ and, in line with this, the entire album is based on Edgar Wright films which dictate the sound and topics of it.
Right from the Universal themed intro, the beats are fairly up beat and bouncy, with punchy drums and Tom utilising the massive range of instruments at his disposal to bring some serious funk into the sound, something particularly apparent in the trumpets and cow bells of Make Your Move where Rebecca Stevens sings a fine hook for the first of three tracks she features on, really impressing on every one. Another Classic changes in style slightly, defined by a rasping synth bassline that’s got my cones vibrating like that suspicious electric toothbrush in the vixen next to you at the airport’s luggage, where they use some action scene samples to introduce a club banger, something that Syntax seems to be quickly becoming more and more adept at smashing.
It mellows out slightly towards the end, with pianos often taking the place of horns and Syntax taking a more introspective approach. Masks really stands out for me, with a jazzy beat that Syntax laces with a look at the masks we all put on in day to day life, while Rebecca Stevens appears once again for a laid back hook. This leads into the only skit of the album (which, considering it’s 15 tracks long, means a lot for your buck) before a similarly mellow beat sees Syntax looking back at his love life, or lack of it rather, during his early years on Weather the Storm. The samples here really show their worth, adding a small element of mockery to what could have otherwise come off as a slightly whiny track. Finally, Heard This One Before finishes things off with euphoric pianos and a clattering snare for a beat that’s relaxed and ear pricking both at once, Rebecca once again appears, this time alongside fellow countryside rapper Clev Cleverley who’s a name I’m not too familiar with, but comes through really strong and particularly gels with Syntax.
The final features come from long time collaborator Enlish on track five, Going Off, which provides that braggadocio sound essential to any self respecting hip hop album, and RLD head man Leaf Dog, who joins Syntax and Clev Cleverley on Countryside Alliance. The guitar riff and shuffling drums of this makes for one of my favourite tunes on the album and acts as a testament to the fact that the Uk scene is no longer based solely around Cities. It’s an interesting insight to growing up in the country, something that is completely alien to me, and Leaf Dog really shows his prowess with an effortlessly flowing verse.
Overall, it’s a really strong piece of music that, despite having been put together relatively quickly, shows a lot of thought into the actual album format. As a collaboration between producer and MC, it has a very defined sound that is only minorly deviated from, but which they instead manage to twist and contort through a variety of vibes. From bangers such as Another Classic alongside more experimental up beat offerings such as the elastic atmospherics of Get Into It, through funky offerings such as My House and all the way to the epically chilled out Busy Doing Nothing, everything is done with an equal level of quality and finesse that makes it hard to pick out individual tracks. It’s an album that will definitely benefit from being listened to as just that, an album, and the samples really help tie it all together as a unit. Another fine addition to both Dr. Syntax and Tom Caruana’s discographies.
Go pick it up over on Bandcamp and hear what Syners himself had to say about it below….
What tunes are currently dominating your ipod?
I’ve been bumping lots of Action Bronson. I can’t get enough of the ‘Blue Chips‘ mixtape. That and lots of E-40, standardly. And Killer Mike’s ‘R.A.P. Music‘.
What are some guilty pleasure tunes you just can’t help loving?
Ha! Good question. That song that goes, ‘Hey, I just met you, this is crazy‘. I know it should make my skin crawl but something about it just makes me happy. It’s like the audio equivalent of a Spongebob episode.
Also pretty much anything by Nicki Minaj. I mean, in small doses. I think I just dropped a couple of IQ points just thinking about her. That with one with Big Sean about her bottom. She destroys that.
You’ve always been completely honest about your country roots, growing up in Banbury. How did you become introduced to Hip Hop from there and how do you think coming from the country influenced your perspective on the music?
I found out about hip hop first of all from my friend’s older brother, who had all the great albums from the late 80s/early 90s. The first album I really obsessed over was Public Enemy’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet‘. After that, Pete Tong, then Westwood’s Radio 1 rap shows, films like House Party, MTV Raps, and Hip Hop Connection (RIP).
The world hip hop described couldn’t have been more different to my reality in a village in Oxfordshire. Back then it was faintly ridiculous to most people that me and my friends even liked hip hop, much less made it, so I suppose my perspective was that of a total outsider. To me, hip hop was a deviant, rebellious world beyond my immediate surroundings, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
Was it a daunting experience going from that to try and make your name in a largely city based music scene? What was the reception like when you first gigged in London for example, any nightmare stories?
I went to uni in Manchester when I was eighteen. I was full of cocky self-belief and optimism, so I was giving out demo tapes everywhere and trying to get involved in any open mics that were going on.
I remember once some nasty looking dude told me I was shit and I gave him the middle finger. He gave me a thousand-yard stare and did a throat-slit gesture, and him and his mates proceeded to boo me for the rest of my set. Then I’d see him at other nights and get the same treatment.That was pretty horrible. Thinking back though, as uncomfortable as that was, it made me get better, and more thick-skinned. While I’d like to think that that guy’s either dead or significantly impoverished now, he probably helped me out. If you never face any resistance, you’re never going to improve. Everyone’s a rapper now, but not everyone would be if there was the threat of physical violence if people didn’t like you. I’m not saying that’s a good thing but you had to really, really want to do it.
Do you have any tactics to ease the nerves at shows, the age old ‘picture the crowd naked’ trick for example…
Yeah. If I feel my mind wandering, I picture my ‘Benny Huge’ album cover. I guess because it’s me in character, which is what I have to be on stage. It just instils a bit of focus when I feel myself getting distracted. It’s a good tactic, I think.
Picturing the crowd naked sounds like a terrible idea! Think of the variables! Does it dangle? Is it pert? What colour is it? What shade of that colour is it? Far too much to think about. I need a single focal point. I’m totally going to picture the crowd naked at my next gig now. People of Shrewsbury on 24th November, if I fuck up, it was Broken Culture’s fault.
Haha apologies Shrewsbury! Your latest album, A Slice of Fried Gold, recently dropped. How would you say it’s progressed from your previous offerings?
The fact that it was done in a far shorter time than the other albums – about nine months as opposed to two or three years – and the fact that Tom Caruana handled all the production, engineering and mixing, it feels more like a cohesive project, and of course fresher to my ears. That’s pretty satisfying. I think it’s a good way to work – it was all a bit more organised than previous efforts.
Because I’m older (I’m 31 now) I’ve got more life experience to draw on. It’s a concept album based on samples of dialogue from Edgar Wright films, so I would find quotes that would trigger my writing, and because of that I think I wrote about things I wouldn’t have thought of if I’d just sat down with a beat tape. That method of drawing inspiration from somewhere else feels like a definite progression for me, and something I’ll definitely be looking to repeat and build on.
Where did the name come from and how did it all come together as an album? There’s plenty of samples in the album taken from Spaced and other Simon Pegg programs/films. Why him? I understand theres a bit of a concept behind that?
The name ‘A Slice Of Fried Gold‘ is from Shaun Of The Dead. It’s more of an Edgar Wright thing than a Simon Pegg thing. He directed Spaced, and wrote and directed Shaun Of The Dead, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and Hot Fuzz. He got in touch with Tom Caruana because he was a fan of his past work and wanted to use a track of his in a podcast. They had a few conversations, which led to Edgar sending Tom the raw files of dialogue for his films, suggesting that he should sample them.
I love Edgar Wright’s films. They are like a love letter to other genres, like horror or action, but are rooted in comedy. I kind of approach making hip hop in the same way. I feel like you have to be a bit tongue in cheek making hip hop in Britain, especially if you’re from a middle class rural background. Too much UK rap is really po-faced, which is ridiculous when you think of the popular culture we have here and the part that a very kind of British humour plays in that. If someone just made an action film set in a village in Somerset, complete wth massive explosions and car chases, no matter how well directed it was, it wouldn’t be credible. But because that contrast is used as a comic device, without compromising on the quality of the film making, it is credible, and fresh. I take that on board. I aim to rap as good as anyone in the world, but if I came through with a New Era cap and a scowl I’d look like a dick, because that’s not me. You’ve got to have a sense of self-awareness and who your audience is. I guess I try and make rap music for people who like Edgar Wright films, to put it simply.
Tom Caruana plays the instruments, how did you link up with him and what made you decide to work together?
He’s an old friend of mine – we used to be in a group called The Menagerie in the early 00s. This has been something of a reunion – I moved back to Manchester two years ago after years down south, and he lives in Walsden, which is only about half an hour away. It was natural that we would do something together, so we started off just making a couple of songs, then when Tom told me about his connection with Edgar Wright we decided to make a whole album.
Working with The Mouse Outfit as well, you’ve been very open to the idea of more live bands and musicians in hip hop. What do you think are the benefits of this and how do you feel it changes the sound?
Working with the Mouse Outfit is incredible. In terms of a live show, it elevates what I do into a proper spectacle. They are all fantastic musicians in their own right. I might kick a verse that gets a good response, but when that verse is followed by a sax, trumpet or drum solo, then it just gets people that much more hyped. It also increases the audience massively. There might be people in the audience just listening to the music and not the lyrics, who don’t even listen to hip hop, but then after a while it sinks in and they get into it. It’s been amazing – it feels a lot like a logical progression. I saw an interview with Rakim recently where he explained how he was surprised that live instruments haven’t played a bigger part in hip hop’s evolution, and I agree – not having a band was once a revolutionary thing, but it isn’t now, it’s the norm.
Who else helped out on the beats, or features otherwise?
All the beats were by Tom – he did all the production, recorded all the vocals (except for a couple of features), mixed every track and played a big part in the mastering process. I’ve got features from Leaf Dog, Enlish, Clev Cleverley and a singer called Rebecca Stephens, cuts from Fidel Cutstro and Pete Cannon.
One of the lead singles, My House, is basically an attack at a messy, student like house you used to live in. You mentioned you’re out of there now, do you miss it at all?
No. If you’re not comfortable in your home environment with the people around you and the way you co-exist, it stresses you out and makes everything else in your life harder. It’s all about finding a balance, and the more people you live with, the more likely you are to clash with someone. Obviously I make light of it in the track, but if your house isn’t your home, then your whole life’s foundation is a tense situation.
I understand you’re living in Manchester now? How’s the north treating you?
I love it. As I mentioned, I came to uni up here years ago, then moved down south. I’ve been all over the country doing shows over the years, which I feel very priviledged to have done. A lot of people never see more than two or three places. For me Manchester is the perfect balance. It’s a proper city, but it’s not too big to feel anonymous and unfriendly, and it’s bang in the centre of the country.
Previous releases such as Benny Huge have talked about girl issues and woes in the present tense, whereas on this one tracks such as Weather The Storm switches it to the past tense. Has the Dr. developed game?
Haha. No. I’m just older. I like it though – when you’re with someone in your thirties, you know where you stand. When you’re twenty one, you might feel great but you don’t know where you’ll be in five years, and the odds are against you. That sounds really bleak, and sometimes things do work out, but if they don’t you’re richer for the experience, and that’s where I’m at now. I’m fortunate enough to say that being in love (and falling out of it) constitutes the most intense emotions I’ve felt so far in my life (arguably), so of course I keep coming back to it.
Your music since Self Taught has always been fairly self analytical in that sense. Is that purely for catharsis?
I suppose so. Each album has a different neurotic undertone, counterbalanced with a good measure of good old hip hop bravado as a way of deflecting attention from that. Then again, with this new album, it goes back to what I was saying before about the concept – I wouldn’t necessarily have written something as personal as ‘Weather The Storm‘, if I hadn’t been watching Scott Pilgrim, which then triggered my own reflections on adolescent angst, which I can now talk about more lucidly than if I was still experiencing it.
Speaking of Self Taught, one of the tracks on there that never fails to make me smile is Subcultures, a story of the struggle to find your place among the overly cliquey scenes in the UK. Where do you think you fit in nowadays?
Downwardly mobile lower-middle class decadent, alienated by the Conservative elitist set due to a lack of ambition geared towards financial gain, but distrusted by the alternative for an apparent absence of rebellious conviction. Or just a normal person who likes eating cheese and watching The Wire.
Skipping straight over Christmas, my life seems to already be dominated by excessive planning for the fateful night, NYE. How are you planning on celebrating and what are some resolutions for the new year?
I’ve got a gig in Bristol. Details are to be announced but it’s a night with a massive UK hip hop line up, and loads of other stuff too. People should check my Facebook page or the Rhyme and Reason page for details as they emerge.
Resolutions? I normally fail miserably with that sort of thing but I do feel like I’m at a bit of a crossroads in life. Get some more gigs, broaden my horizons, write some more raps, eat less biscuits. If I get any of that sorted I’ll be chuffed.
What’s planned musically for 2013 once you’ve overcome that hangover?
A new album with the Mouse Outfit, which will hopefully be within the first half of the year. I think some more collaborations too – hopefully something with the 3 Amigos, something with Pete Cannon and a remix EP of different producers’ takes on ‘Fried Gold‘ songs.
Cheers for the time! Any shouts/last words?
You’re very welcome! Thanks very much for asking me these questions and helping spread the word. Huge shouts to all my pals, all the blogs who’ve supported the new release, and all the awesome people I meet on a weekly basis who make life worthwhile. Cheers!
Check out Dr. Syntax on Facebook.