Cor blimey, where's up North? HHC went all the way to Manchester to investigate the North Hulme sound of the Ruthless Rap Assassins
Strike a light. Hip-hop is alive and kickin' in the North of England. If you thought all authentic British rappers had regulation cockney accents you're in for a shock. Following five years deliberately distanced from London's finest the Ruthless Rap Assassins have emerged with Britain's first indispensable hip-hop LP. Titled the 'Killer Album', and with the notable exception of PE, it shits from a great height on any other record I've heard all year.
For those familiar with the self-proclaimed crew from the North it'll come as no sorprise. A big bang from the Assassins has been in the offing for a long time. Formed five years ago on Manchester's notorious North Hulme estate they wasted no time, via a series of impromptu local gigs, establishing themselves as the city's toughest rap crew. Mad, bad and dangerous to know? You'd better believe it.
The Ruthless posse consists of three - Anderson (aka Dangerous Hinds), the outlandish MC Kermit Le Freak (no other name applies) and the relatively subdued Carson (Dangerous C). The Dangerous Brothers linked up with Kermit by accident - but things got moving pretty quick. Kermit picks up the threads: "I lived above Anderson and we used to play tunes to each other. Things developed and we started f***ing about together. We used to do a lot of college parties - just go down and rip them up. We've done the circuit around Manchester."
"We've done it all," adds Anderson. "We've grown and developed with the music. The whole thing started off when we did a show at International 2 about Housing Rights. Afterwards we brought Kiss AMC in to give us a kind of more commercial appeal. In those days NWA were motherf***ing soft," he laughs. "Now I say we should be called the Mellow Rap Assassins compared to what we were."
Ah yes, the much vaunted Kiss AMC. Ann Marie is actually Kermit's sister and the duo were brought in for a purpose - to counter any sexism in the Assassins' rhymes. "I don't mind guys saying those things as long as they're not making out that this is what they're really into," qualifies Anderson. "But too many are. So we brought them in to try and counter that."
The local buzz surrounding the crew spread to the ears of producer and former deejay Greg Wilson (now the Assassins' manager). He booked them into a London studio in '87 to cut their first vinyl. The true Ruthless side - the manic hip-hop thrash of 'We Don't Care' was completed from scratch in five hours, unlike the flip 'Kiss AMC' - a launch pad for their sister group which took two days in the studio. Only available on white label (in common with most Ruthless product to date) the single has become something of a legend - exchanging hands for up to £30 a copy. Since then, Kiss AMC have splintered from the pack - attempting crossover pop success on their own. Kermit is eager to stress that they're seperate entities now.
"Yes, yes, let's make that clear," he proclaims. "We spent a good two years working hard on Kiss AMC and neglecting our own stuff. When I look back they f***ed up their chance. They never had the right attitude for it. At first they did but after a while they started getting airs and graces."
"It's like us, we've got our heart there and if you ain't you shouldn't be doing it," adds Carson.
Cut to February '88 and the Assassins played a now famous gig at the Hacienda. Major label A&R men had got off their butts to see the crew and, to their surprise, offers followed. At the time Island's 4th & Broadway offshoot seemed 'the most likely', but the Assassins went to EMI instead. Why?
"We chose them because they hadn't really got any hip-hop artists - so we thought they'd concentrate on us - give us more time and attention," says Anderson.
They could have done a lot worse. The deal allowed the crew the chance to develop with regular demo sessions at Chorlton's Drone studios. At the start of '89 they issued another white label 12" - 'The Drone Sessions EP' featuring four tracks (all now available on the 'Killer Album') including the titanic 'Justice (Just Us)'. The thought provoking rap wasn't picked up by Westwood, Pearce or even Stu Allen but Radio 1's John Peel ("He knows the score," - Carson) who promptly booked them in for a session. With the word out that something dangerous was on the cards the crew disappeared again - back to the studio to perfect their LP.
WITH THE LP COMPLETED BEFORE Christmas, 1990 has thus far been frustrating for the Assassins. Still, with a hype album like the Killer, it's never too late. It's no exaggeration to say that the 'Killer Album' re-defines British hip-hop. Via fourteen segued tracks - it's a heavy hour-long trip spanning a wide spectrum of expressions and ideas, pushing back rap's parameters and providing a valid soundtrack for the black British experience. Were they particularly conscious of dealing with that?
Anderson: "We're trying to get something across to people so you have to appeal to something inside them. We're trying to appeal something inside everyone. I think it's more a listening album rather than one you go out and dance to. There are some dance tracks, so I guess once you know the album you can go out and dance to it. But we're trying to give people something from it. We tried to make the lyrics, the serious lyrics, work on different levels so you can come to it time and again and realise something new about it."
It's pedantic to single out individual tracks from the LP - it really should be consumed as a whole - but 'And It Wasn't A Dream' is particularly poignant. Set over the funk groove of Cymande's 'The Message' it's the sad, bleak story of the broken dreams of West Indian immigrants moving to Britain. Surprisingly, it nearly never made it onto vinyl.
"After I wrote it I actually thought it was getting too personal," recalls Anderson. "My mum had a stroke - she's paralysed now and she can't speak - I was thinking people might think I'm trying to talk about me - which I didn't really want to put across."
"It had to be done," adds Carson. "Personally, I think that if you've got black parents it's a track for all of them. In there there's a lot of things associated with them from when they come over, if they came over, it's as simple as that."
Anderson: "It's set in the late '50s, early '60s. It's saying the same things that've happened to a lot of immigrants - they're always in the same situation, same position, they experience the same things. I'm hoping that other people can look at that and also draw bits out of it for themself as well. It doesn't have to be West Indians - though it's really aimed at them."
Staying on the serious tip, the foreboding 'Justice' and 'That's My Nigger' deal directly with racism in Britain - the stereotypes black people still suffer from and the whole spectrum of institutionalised racism holding them back.
"We've done all kinds of styles of rap - we must have been going for three years when I wrote 'Justice'," says Anderson. "We'd done everything else you could do in rap - all the stereotypes, all the cliches. The social comment was one thing I hadn't done myself - things just came to me and it is all built around the line 'no justice - just us'.
"The thing about institutions is they're built up over hundreds of years, especially in places like England, so traditions are hard to change. Old habits die hard in this country. It's conservatism. You see, in America they're still overtly racist but they deal with it in certain ways because they're still a young country. They've gone out of their way to deal with it in certain ways, if not exactly fair ways. Over here nobody want to do that. Nobody wants change, everybody wants things to stay the same. I don't think you'll ever get rid of institutionalised racism in this country - the best you can do is try and get across to the children that everyone's the same - there's really no such thing as race. We just happen to have different colours of skin. When your dad dies you feel pain, when my dad dies I feel pain - we're all exactly the same."
'That's My Nigger' probes the racism issue further and questions the problems facing black youth from the surface appearance of their skin.
Carson: "It was time to come out and make a comment. They're just things I've been through. I mean, I've been on a youth training scheme. I've been to college for a year, I've still got no f***ing job. It's like on application forms - there's sections for African, Carribbean, British. But what the f*** do they need it for? Alright, they can say they need it for equal opportunities, but if there weren't no problem in the beginning they wouldn't need it. I know that most of the bosses looking at application forms - they think 'African, West Indian, oh no I can't employ them because it's trouble'. All I'm saying is I just want to live peaceful but these are all the things that are happening."
"There's loads of different angles," adds Anderson. "What we're saying in that track is these are the things that upset us - and this is how we are. We're not gonna be vindictive about it - killing people left right and centre to get our equal rights. In the end we don't want to be made officially equal - we want to have the chance to make ourselves equal."
With the emergence of hip-hop culture in the High Streets of Britain, how far do you think attitudes have changed?
Anderson: "The trouble for people trying not to be racist is that there's so many things around them trying to make them into racists. Even now, with people growing into hip-hop, it's going to be a long time before they're really free of racism. Because it's institutionalised - it's going to take a long time to get rid of it. The way that certain things work are gonna force them at certain times in their life to act in racist ways, and they may not realise it.
"It's so subtle. Sometimes you're doing it when you don't know. Everyone can theorise about it and talk about it but unless you've actually experienced it then you're never gonna really know. It's good that people are growing up and starting to share with people and push things away. But we've got a long way to go yet."
The serious side is only part of what RRA are about. Huge chunks of the 'Killer Album' are laced with heavy satire - check the hilarious critique of the hip-hop scene in 'Jealous MC'.
"At the time we wrote that everyone was doing the sucker emcee raps - we were doing it as well - but instead of writing another rap dissing some sucker emcees we thought we'd do something from his point of view, so you can laugh at it and see what makes him a sucker. I don't dis anyone in particular," Anderson points out, "but there's certain people who can recognise themselves in there. It's a funny track - it was only gonna be a couple of verses but it just kept growing and growing. I think it got a bit out of hand."
Elsewhere there's the bold, self-referential 'Crew From The North', the seriously hardcore 'Here Today.....Here Tomorrow' and 'Three The Hard Way', or for starters try the single - the chiller from the killer - 'Just Mellow'. Set over Karyn White's 'Slow Down' it's p'haps the ultimate laidback summer dance groove. All in all, the 'Killer Album' is dazzlingly diverse. We don't deserve British rap records this good.
Significantly, another aspect the LP puts over is positivity. 'Law Of The Jungle' is a call for "Positive thinking not negative fear" - the will to triumph in the face of adversity.
"Well you have to - if you don't try, you're gonna fail straight away," states Anderson. "You're here for a reason - give it your best shot. If you don't make it, you don't make it. If something bad happens, don't let it get you down. Especially if you live in Hulme, it's so easy to fall in to the same habits as those other people."
Um, the North Hulme estate - to say it's not the nicest place in the world is a gross understatement; row upon row of grey tenement walls, one would hardly call it inspirational. Still, the Assassins insist their music is a product of their environment. It would have been different if they'd lived anywhere else. So what's it like to live there?
"To me personally, when I came up as a little kid, it was just a good atmosphere," remembers Carson. "It's got a lot of good memories."
"They blame the architects but the blame is not all theirs," adds Anderson. "North Hulme was better than where a lot of people lived there came from before. They built it and then they slagged these modern developments, so everyone's on a downer about it, everyone's negative about it. People who've moved into them have heard all these negative things and so they let the place go down. That was the first phase of Hulme falling into disrepair."
Kermit, though, is the most vociferous in his contempt for the estate - not for what it is but for what it's become. "We've moved out from Hulme now. It's getting worse. Y'know, there's smackheads all over the f***ing place. The students come down for three years and they just wreck the place, they don't give a shit. The students there are living rough so they can say they lived in the ghetto for three years, and leave, you know what I mean? They wrecked the placem sprayed all the slogans all over the walls. Manchester's got the largest university campus in Europe, so there's whole rows of them. That's why I had to get out - it was getting too much. I've got equipment which I need, without it I'm f***ed - and there's all these smackheads out there. You have to get out."
THE 'KILLER ALBUM' MANAGES to sit proudly head and shoulders above the rest of Brit rap pack for countless reasons. It's innovative, inspirational, instinctive and unrestricted. No phoney American accents here, no gold chains - this is the real deal coming at you right and exact. Quintessentially British - the Assassins aren't afraid to bash reality in your face.
"You get a lot of guys now - going 'I'm a gangster, I'm motherf***ing ruthless' all the time," points out Anderson. "In America you can do that - that's the accepted form. but this is Britain."
Carson: "It's like Chuck D said: 'I never tried to imitate an accent that I never had' and that just says what we've been doing for ages."
Anderson: "What we call rap now - we can say it started off as an American thing although it goes back further than that. If we're gonna do it then we should do it as English people - because first you've gotta be different and not sound like every other rapper - there's a lot who sound the same, 'cos they're from the same area."
Kermit: "I get bored if I buy an album chatting about gold chains, what car they got and all that. I'm not down with that. When I first got into it I thought 'yeah it's alright' but when I started writing my own lyrics - there's other things to talk about. Just turn around and look behind you - there's loads of things going on. Make people think about things, open their eyes."
Anderson: "I'd rather be poor and know that the music is saying something than be making some money and not saying nothing. It's integrity, we can't stress is enough."
Has living in Manchester been beneficial then - a chance to develop out of the limelight?
"It's probably been our greatest asset," Anderson agrees. "For a start we'd have a London accent which would make us sound like the majority of of English hip-hop."
"I've heard us called an indie rap band," interjects Kermit. "What the f*** is an indie rap band? We don't make music to cater for other people, we make it for ourselves. We take time. There's no point us writing about bullshit - 'I got this, I got this', 'cos we haven't. Check reality man. That's what it's all about. You've gotta be true to yourself. We wanna do it in our own way, different from conventional hip-hop. The album was just done off brain power really."
For further evidence look out for a forthcoming TV documentary, Kermit jokingly refers to as "The lives and lies of the Ruthless Rap Assassins". In the wake if the media spotlight constantly focused on the more hedonistic aspects of the Manchester scene, it promises to be something different.
"It's mainly about us and the parts of Manchester that you don't see in the media," says Anderson. "Everytime they do these things on Manchester it's always the house scene, the Hacienda, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, the Inspiral Carpets. Everyone in Manchester is not into the independent scene, they're not into house or Happy Mondays. People susceptible to the media think the Hacienda is it! To people who neglect all the trendiness and fashion following, the Hacienda is just another club in town. It's not all it's cracked up to be so don't believe the hype.
"I don't want to be associated with that scene - it's a f***ing drug scene man," screams Kermit. "This programme's really trying to show the other side of Manchester. The black side. There's a big black scene in Manchester. Really big, bigger than anything else that's going on because it's been going for a long time. It's not just started. The white bands get it a lot easier. If we were a white rap band we'd be massive."
By rights they will be. Listen up screwheads, the killer has spoken.