Hector Bizerk: "Drums and rap. That’s the core of it"
Hector Bizerk are a young band – formed eighteen months ago by rapper Louie (who had already made a significant contribution to the Scottish hip-hop scene with his album Paranoise, a collaboration with beatboxer and scene legend Bigg Taj) and drummer Audrey Tait, who also plays in several other Glasgow bands, they quickly garnered attention from fans, DJs and music critics with their unique, stripped-down approach to rap music. Their sound is perhaps best described by their oft-repeated catchphrase, also the title of their new album: DRUMS. RAP. YES.
As Tait knocks out complex polyrhythms, switching and changing tempo and style, Louie provides the melody and vocals, in his densely literate, complex, sing-song flow. The result is powerful, immediate, and unlike anything else in Scottish hip-hop, earning them high-profile support slots with US hip-hop legends such as MF Doom and GZA. As they prepare for a series of festival gigs and the launch of their new album, The Skinny cornered them for some chat about drummers, hip-hop culture and Glasgow politics.
The album was recorded at Paulshalls, a recording studio in Cumbernauld, by the band themselves, and they are planning to release it digitally through iTunes and Amazon, and on limited-edition CD vinyl. There’s even a planned cassette release: “We’re getting a bit retro on it!” laughs Tait. As an independent band, with no label to hide behind, the group have raised all of the funds for recording and releasing the new album themselves: “The money from the merchandise and the CDs and the gigs all goes back into the band,” Tait explains. “We run the Loosely Speaking battles, too. The first couple of those we ran, we put all of the profits into Hector Bizerk.”
Louie is an old hand when it comes to running nights involving rap battles and performances: “When I first started putting on events in Glasgow, most venues wouldn't let hip-hop in,” he recalls. “So we had to try to bridge a gap between the music scene in Scotland, and the hip-hop community. They were just two separate entities.” Has that changed? “I think that after six or seven years of really working towards that, Hector Bizerk kind of epitomizes being able to pull people from different backgrounds, who would maybe not necessarily go to a hip-hop gig, but perhaps if they saw us, or someone else on the bill, they might go,” says Louie.
The band are happy running their own affairs: “Getting signed, it's maybe not as much of a big deal as it was ten years ago, pardon the pun,” says Louie. “Obviously if the right offer came along, to work with the right people, we'd certainly be up for that. It's tricky to put all your eggs in one basket, especially if it's with someone you don't know too well. People are full of great intentions, aren't they, but when it comes down to it, some people can only talk a good game; others deliver. I think it’s quite difficult to know who's going to help to push you to the places you need to be going.”
The duo first got together via one of Tait’s other bands, Rio Callahan. “We were forced to work together,” jokes Louie. They started jamming tracks together using djembe drums, and liked the drums-rap method of writing so much that they decided to carry on: “We brought a full drum kit in, and started writing songs – Burst Love was the first song we wrote together,” explains Tait.
“It was important for us, at the time, to try and do something quite different,” says Louie. “I was in a crew before with a bunch of other emcees, and played with guitarists and so on. Audrey's played in soul bands, acoustic stuff... so for both of us, it was a real challenge. We wanted to push ourselves, to really develop. There's ways that I rap in Hector Bizerk that I would never have thought that I could pull off, or thought that I would. We've really pushed ourselves to explore the birth of our talents.”
Louie brings a lot of melody into his rap style. Was that something he had to work on? “When there's nothing else to hide behind, it's really up to the two of us to bring a dynamic like that,” he explains. “As a rapper, I've been writing for quite some time, and recording as well, but I've never really been happy with it being recorded... if you don't like the sound of your own voice, it's quite a setback. It has really helped to develop my technique, just working with drums and rap.”
On the new album, Louie has worked hard to bring more of a dynamic sound on his verses: “Tone is a massive thing, which is often overlooked by a lot of rappers and emcees,” he says. “If you've sampled, say, a piano ballad, you've got to soften up a bit... that's the platform you're on, you can't just become someone snarling punchlines, you know what I mean? You have to make a song, as opposed to just rapping over a backing track. We really talked about making dynamic songs, and just trying to be as open-minded about it as possible.”
Do the songs change much when the band are playing live? “It's all quite structured,” insists Tait. “I don't really like jamming.” Louie laughs at his band mate. “I think it's good, and it serves a purpose, but I'm not the type of player to go on stage and just improvise. There's maybe a couple of fills that aren't exactly the same, but I think that's why we're so tight. We're both know exactly what we're doing.”
“There's nothing worse than a drummer who starts doing big solos through a song, is there?” says Louie, still laughing. “It's not appropriate!” says Tait. “We work closely together. There are parts where we're very much in sync with each other, there are other parts where it gets a bit looser, but what we're doing complements each other. But I pretty much always know what I'm doing in advance. I'm very regimented!”
The fact they use live instruments has helped the band gig beyond the scope of traditional hip-hop artists: “See the amount of people that have opened a sentence, talking to us, by saying: 'I hate hip-hop, but...' Or, 'I'm not into hip-hop, but...' We've had three sound guys say that to us before our gigs,” laughs Tait. “In Glasgow, when you're playing a gig, you're often playing for other musicians; to other bands. So I think, because we've got the drums, that counts with other musicians. They know that there's a bit of musicality to it, which they might overlook that with a regular hip-hop act. That's a whole skill in itself, but... There's an energy that comes from using live instruments.”
Louie says that he has always been into hip-hop, even before he knew what it was: “I've always been a keen writer, ever since I was wee, and I've always written rhymes,” he says. “I didn't know necessarily that it was rap. It was writing. It was all on paper, I wouldn't recite them or anything. And then in school, in second or third year, there were a few of us who were quite into the whole 'gangsta rap' thing. Gangster's Paradise, you know what I mean. 2Pac and all that, all your kind of traditional, clichéd rap, got us hooked. Years later I discovered UK stuff, that was all getting quite big at the time – not really commercially, but there was kind of a presence there.”
Eventually he found his way into the burgeoning Glasgow hip-hop scene, encountering the nights run by Major Threat and Krash Slaughta, for their label Criminal Records: “I was only sixteen, seventeen at the time, so sometimes they'd let me in, other times I wouldn't get in,” he remembers. “That's when I came across guys really spitting in a Scottish accent... and I thought 'Wow man, this is... this is heavy. This is the real deal, right here.' Guys like Respek B.A., he was on that label, and Loki, he was on that label at the time as well, and they've kind of been constants, whereas other people have kind of fallen away.”
It was a while before he felt confident enough to spit some rhymes: “There was an open mic at the end every time, and I would never get on it, because I thought everybody was freestyling. I thought that was the point of an open mic,” Louie explains. “They weren't. The quality was there, and I thought, 'I could never freestyle like that, wow.' I've always been quite into freestyling, and the standard was just so good that I didn't want to get up. And then now, in hindsight, I realise people do written thirty-twos or sixteens at open mics, all the time. I was just naïve I suppose.”
Is Louie at all interested in battling people these days? “Well... with the battles, I mean, it's a good PR tool, first and foremost,” he says. “That's the primary reason for doing it, isn't it. It's to get your name out there. You could have a bill of great emcees and DJs, beatboxers playing, but if you put a battle on that bill, the audience triples.” Louie has competed in a total of ten battles, winning them all: “I'm proud of the battles,” he says humbly. “I've battled some really talented guys, which is important, because like... a boxer could be undefeated for his whole career, but if they've all been hand-picked fights, with guys they know they can beat... But, I've battled some really talented Scottish guys, and talented guys from England as well, and there's a real respect there. For that five or ten minutes, it all goes out the window.” He laughs and shakes his head. “It gets quite venomous. It's like any sport – if you don't respect your opponent, you're gonna lose! You can't sleep on somebody, or else you'll just end up getting annihilated.”
Do the duo think Scottish hip-hop has the potential for a wide appeal outside of Scotland itself? “There's a lot of snobbery in every type of music,” argues Louie. “Everything is London-centric in the UK. There are always going to be people who have a negative attitude towards something that they're not used to hearing, but I think a lot of people are pretty open-minded, but probably more so outwith Scotland. We seem to be quite ashamed of our own vernacular. Like, Radio Clyde is a Glaswegian station. And it's like: [puts on American accent] 'Radio Clyde!' It's transatlantic. Everything's kind of watered down or anglicised. But I think to hear the Glasgow accent is quite refreshing for some people.”
Louie’s rhymes are sometimes political, often personal, and he is an accomplished storyteller: “In one song you might have that kind of braggadocio style, and a real storytelling style in another. There’s a bit of both going on,” he explains. “We’re trying to write songs that people can sing along with, that they can follow, and decide for themselves what it means.” Has that ever backfired? “We played a gig in Fort William and there was this woman who says to us: ‘Oh, that song that you did which was about divorce and that... I really liked that!’ I was just like, what the fuck are you talking about, man? But I just said: ‘Thanks!’”
And the political element? ”I suppose in terms of ‘conscious’ lyricism, if you’re not talking about things that matter, then what are you talking about?” asks Louie. “You’re just talking shit, really. See in a city where you can have politics thrust into football... I mean, those things are worlds apart, but somehow, in this city, they sit together. When you throw in pseudo-religion as well, you just have this big melting pot of madness. I think in Glasgow in particular, when it comes to politics, everybody wants to moan about things. Nobody wants to actually get off their arse and do anything. I do have a keen interest in following things, but I wouldn’t want to overly thrust my opinion into people’s faces... I don’t think that’s what music should be about.”
The band are expanding slightly to fill out their sound for the Festival circuit: “We've brought in a bass player, Frazer Sneddon, also from Rio Callahan, and our good friend Jen Muir, she's in a band called The Miss's, which I'm also in,” says Tait. “Jen's doing some synth-y stuff on Korg, and some percussion as well. It's to enhance what we're already doing, but just make it a wee bit of a bigger sound. The recordings do have other musical parts on them, which we do ourselves. So for a couple of the older songs, Jen and Fraser are kind of emulating what’s on the track, giving it another wee edge. There are a few of the new songs that they’ve really made an impact on. Something we always say is that a great song should stand alone, whether it’s a vocal and a guitar, or a vocal and a piano. With hip-hop, with what we do, the song should stand alone with just drums and rap. That’s the core of it. That’s the heart of the sound.”