I caught up with Ill Literate, one third of Bristol hip hop trio, The Scribes, to chat about their new single, how they, and in general, writing a rap is composed, a bit of their backstory, on diversity and where they’re heading…….
After the unnerving atmosphere of their mind-blowing previous single, Stir Crazy, Bristol hip hop ground-breakers The Scribes release Haunted House Party today, featuring Mr Teatime and DJ Steadi, which will act as a double-A-side with Stir Crazy. Somewhat slighter in neurotic ambience than its flipside, still it maintains a lingering disturbed undertone, an eerie mood weaved by the intensely hypnotic lyrical style which we’ve come to expect from the Scribes.
Despite the haunting opening piano solo, there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek with this haunted house, as might be wrongly perceived by cliché pop songs with similar themed titles. The Scribes aren’t doing the Monster Mash, don’t even go into this expecting something similar!
But you know me, I showed my age with the trio, jokingly citing a lampooning track, The Haunted House of Rock from the debut EP of eighties hip hop trio Whodini. Why one third of the trio, Shaun Amos, aka Ill Literate agreed to chat is beyond me, but he did, and here’s the awkward questions I threw at him, and his answers!
Hopeful he’d humour me, I went wrangling on a technicality with the group’s name. I reckoned it should be “Scribes,” and not “THE Scribes,” as the first denotes a copyist, i.e., anyone who writes, prior to the printing press and can be traced back to ancient Egypt, whereas the latter usually relates to a particular group from biblical times who were largely critical of Jesus, probably contributed to his crucifixion. “What’s in a name,” I asked!
“Wow man, I’ve got to say I don’t think we’ve ever thought about it to that extent!” Shaun acknowledged, “when we first came up with the name, we did have a list of possibilities, including some genuinely terrible ideas like “Guttersnipes”. When we settled on “The Scribes” we did quite like the vaguely iconoclastic undertones going with the main thrust of writing. We already knew we wanted to write music by our own rules rather than by going with trends or scenes.”
I’m glad he didn’t bite at my absurd logic, as likely it matters not one iota, rather there was reason. Being scribes are writers, it leads us into my intrigue at how they, and rappers in general go about writing and composing a track, if they have a set formula?
“It really does vary hugely, we work with a lot of producers and the process of getting a track completed is different every time,” he replied. “When I’ve composed the music, myself I tend to bring it to the rest of the group with an idea of what I want the song to be about, maybe even with a hook already written and recorded. Sometimes we’ve got a topic we want to write about and we’ll seek out music that will fit with it. Quite often producers will make a selection of pieces for us to listen to and mess around with and we’ll get a vibe off a particular track, sometimes by jamming it out in the studio, sometimes on the road between gigs listening to bits on the car stereo.”
I see the writing process for a solo, say acoustic musician, usually being a lone affair. Whereas scripting an episode of the Simpsons, for instance, is a group affair, the best writers gather around a table and knock the jokes and narrative about, which is more how I’d envision they work a song, because there’s three of them and the subject has to harmonise, as they bounce lyrics off each other. Unless, one contributes an idea and the others adlib their parts?
“We do bounce our lyrics off each other a lot,” he confirmed, “checking they make sense mostly! Whichever one of the aforementioned routes we’ve taken to write the track, it’ll almost always end up with us all agreeing a hook together, that then tends to set the topic of the track in stone. We then go off and write our verses separately before coming back together to record. So, while the hooks/theming is generally a group effort, the verses are much more of a lone affair!”
But what of adlibbing rappers freestyling, I’m guessing they’ve set templates to fuse with a running theme, but usually this consists of a simple premise; boastfully bigging themselves, or criticising the opposing rapper. Yet tracks from the Scribes meld like crochet, tackling tricky subject matter, they weave in and out of notions, rather than repeating words or thoughts. How does this process start, with a subject, or with a set of words which flow?
“It pretty much always starts with a subject,” Shaun elucidated. “Maybe not even something as specific as a subject, sometimes it might just be a feeling or an emotion or a general statement. Either way it’s enough for us to aim our verses at, and I think doing the actual verses as individuals does mean we end up with maybe a couple of different takes on each topic, or at least a couple of different ways of expressing it. Having said that, in hip hop there’s always room for a bit of bragging wordplay and head nodding crowd pleasing!”
That said, I guarantee The Scribes could freestyle the ass off most!
“That’s not really for me to say!” he laughed. “I think our freestyle game is pretty tight, we crack it out at most performances!”
Does Ill Literate find a trio is, as De La Soul say, the magic number, when it comes to composing a rap? “Where,” I asked, “and when did it all start? I mean, were you all separate artists who assembled, or have you always been a trio?”
“I don’t know if it’s the number of people involved that’s important, more that the people involved are on the same wavelength and get along well. Both for the writing process and for the amount of time you end up spending together on the road! Me and Jonny have been best mates since we were five, and have basically always rapped together, we met Lacey during the early days of gigging and he got onboard straight away!”
While on the backstory, I asked Shaun for his first musical memory, particularly his introduction to hip hop, feeling it was time to remind him when I cited buying Whodini’s “Haunted House of Rock,” in, shit, 1983, though this was not my first hip hop record!
“We do have some pretty old school influences,” he chuckled, “though Whodini may be a bit old school even for us! I think my first introduction to conscious hip hop, as opposed to mainstream hip hop which was very gangster back in the day, was through friends at school. We used to listen to records at each other’s houses, a lot of the early Rawkus Records compilations like Lyricist’s Lounge and Soundbombing. Bristol has a pretty big scene for hip hop so there were also a few local records shops with a good selection of underground releases that we could dig through, though a lot of the time we’d just look for instrumentals we could rap to! I think that late 90’s boom bap hip hop sound is pretty much the backbone of all The Scribes’ tracks!”
I confess; had to Google the subgenre boom bap, certain it wasn’t an explosive breast, as I originally fathomed! I discovered while unfamiliar with the term, many of my personal hip hop likes relate, pioneers like Marley Marl, and acts such as LL Cool J and A Tribe Called Quest. But I’m going to throw Shaun off subject, ask him if he liked English Lit at school, if teachers accepted anything he might’ve have wrote as credible by their formal standards, and if he sees his writing as poetry.
“I never really liked it as a subject, but I have always read a lot, I love books! It’s probably the main thing I do outside of music. That and watching pro-wrestling. It’s a heady mix! I don’t think I ever showed any verses to teachers in school, not sure what the reaction would have been to be honest. I’ve never really found it important to label anything we do but I would personally say it is a form of poetry, just a very rhythmic and flexible one that’s written to be performed rather than read.”
I’ve likened, in previous reviews, The Scribe’s sound, the way they intertwine lyrics and alter voices with accents and intonations to create a certain mood, be it fearful or humorous, to the Fu-Schnickens, but the way its composed, like the magic of Tribe Called Quest, as I reckon, they mastered this best. “That a fair evaluation?!”
“We will always happily take ANY comparison to Fu-Schnickens or Tribe!” Ill Literate contently responded, “that’s good company to be in!”
Yet nothing I’ve heard from their album, Quill Equipped Villainy, or the Totem Trilogy and singles, unless I’m mistaken, use recognisable samples. It’s an easy gimmick to include beats or a riff which people will recognise, whereas everything they seem to do is original. I asked him if I was right, and if so, if that’s something important to them.
“I guess this is something that varies from producer to producer. I personally don’t use any samples in my production, I just play/compose everything myself in the studio on guitar/bass/keys. I know a lot of producers who pride themselves on using only incredibly unknown and niche samples, spending a huge amount of time digging through obscure vinyl to find tiny little elements. I also know a lot who don’t really mind how “known” a sample is, as long as they switch it up so much it ends up as something unrecognisable from the original. I guess including a sample that is well known, so that the song becomes essentially a hip hop version of the original track, almost like a cover, is an easy way to get a bit of traction. Same as if you sample a movie theme song and do a song about the movie. But having said that I’ve heard some great tracks that do just that, so who knows?!”
On multiplicity, the album sees a number of collaborations; Akil from Jurassic 5, and Leon Rhymes. How far would they take diversity; “would it be acceptable to you for a producer to create a drum n bass, or house track from your lyrics? What about a mainstream artist asking you to fuse a rap into some cheesy pop? Because it’s a tricky balance isn’t it, not being seen as selling out to the ethos and genre, but creating publicity and notice?”
“We’re always up for anything,” Shaun replied, “I love hearing remixes people do of our tracks, be it Drum and Bass, Funky House or anything else. Even if someone did want to take our work and turn it into cheesy pop, I think I’d be cool with that. More just so I can hear what they do with it, rather than for any publicity or fame! I’m always interested in seeing what other musicians do and how they work and the different techniques used by different genres.”
Haunted House Party is released today, and yeah, it rocks, but what’s next for the Scribes?
“Well, hopefully we’ll be back gigging before too long, at least in time for the festival season this summer! Til then we’re working on keeping the releases and videos coming! Hoping to do a few more special one-offs on The Get Down Records, like transparent 7″ vinyl for “Stir Crazy”/”Haunted House Party.” People can keep up to date by signing up to our mailing list at QuillEquipped.com and on all the usual social media bits, Facebook and Instagram. It also helps a lot if you follow us on Spotify so we can make sure you know when we drop new tracks!”
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