Strength In Numbers (Part I)

Geoff Barrow on Quakers and the Myspace rabbit hole

For all of the things people loved to hate about Myspace, the original social network changed a lot of things. Not only did it allow a whole new generation of producers and musicians to connect with each other and share and create together, it also ended up being the primary medium through which Fuzzface, a.k.a. Geoff Barrow, of Portishead fame, sourced the MCs for his Quakers project.

"Quakers is not an “it was better in my day” project but rather an “it’s still possible to have fun with rap” project that embraces the music’s potential as well as the technology that made it possible."

Billed as a sort of hip hop squadron supreme, Quakers features productions from Barrow and long-term acolytes Katalyst (Ashley Anderson, who runs the Australian side of Barrow’s Invada label) and 7STU7 (Stuart Matthews, better known as Portishead’s studio engineer). Fixated on the idea of recreating the excitement they used to get from classic hip hop albums, they set about doing it on their own terms, writing music over a period of four years, exchanging files via the Internet and diving into Myspace’s rabbit hole to source a line-up of more than 25 MCs that is most remarkable in that it brings together complete strangers – FC The Truth, Coin Locker Kid – next to bona fide legends such as Prince Po without so much as the batting of an eye from the listener’s perspective.

The project’s stellar line-up and content was further helped by Stones Throw’s head honcho Peanut Butter Wolf, who brought Barrow and crew the proverbial icing on the cake in the form of his label’s finest MCs, both established and up-and-coming. And so it seems only fitting that Quakers would finally see the light of day – nearly six years after the first beats were written – on Stones Throw, further cementing both the label’s and Barrow and his team’s impeccable hip hop credentials.

There is a lot to be said about the quality on display in the Quakers album, in the raps, the beats, the sequencing and the packaging, though what’s perhaps most remarkable is how the team managed to avoid all the pitfalls of rap albums with lists of featured guests longer than your forearm. Then again, when you consider the combined experience and savoir faire of those at the helm, it would have been more surprising if they’d failed to give us something this good.

Quakers is loud, brash and in-your-face, and it’s also a ton of fun. The kind of fun that evokes the golden years that jaded rap aficionados like to reminisce about. Make no mistake, though, Quakers is not an “it was better in my day” project but rather an “it’s still possible to have fun with rap” project that embraces the music’s potential as well as the technology that made it possible.

We caught up with Barrow over the phone, ahead of the album’s release, to discuss the project’s origins and inceptions, the ideas behind it, the ups and downs of the music industry, and why there isn’t anything out there yet quite like Myspace. We also got some words on Barrow’s ongoing multifaceted work; he has dropped not just one but three projects in close succession this year, including a new Beak> album as well as an album under the name Drokk, music inspired by Mega City One (home of Judge Dredd), which was written by Barrow and award-winning composer Ben Salisbury.

"It’s not a case of us trying to copy what we might think is decent hip hop either. It’s more us trying to recapture the energy of those records that were and are important to us."

What was the inspiration behind the Quakers album?

The inspiration behind it is every decent hip hop record that’s ever been released, pretty much. I grew up listening to American and some European hip hop, and I think it’s safe to say it’s the same for Ashley – Katalyst – and Stuart, who make Quakers alongside me. So essentially decent hip hop music is what drove this project and motivated us to actually get on with it and make a hip hop record.

When you say decent hip hop records, is there any implication that things might have gotten worse over the last decade or so, say?

Nah! [laughs] I’ve been disillusioned a bit, but I don’t think it’s got worse. If you’re an 18-year-old kid and you’re just discovering hip hop, there’s enough new stuff to get a good idea of what hip hop is both in the underground and the mainstream. When I said decent I guess it was more if you’re an old bladder and you’ve been spoilt with the likes of Premo and Marley Marl for most of your early life, and incredible MCs with socio-political content to their lyrics. It’s very easy for people like me to make statements about hip hop; it’s affected me in my own way, ultimately, though.

It’s not a case of us trying to copy what we might think is decent hip hop either. It’s more us trying to recapture the energy of those records that were and are important to us. The whole thing about hip hop for me – and many other genres – was going to a record shop and seeing your mate who worked there and asking ‘what’s coming this week?’ and he’d go ‘oh mate, you just won’t believe this, it’s the new [whatever] record.’ You know? When you first heard “Daily Operation” or an album like that, and you had those sort of ‘oh no!’ reactions to the music. For us it’s more maybe a case of making a weird statement and creating a bit of a drug that we used to live off of, that feeling I mentioned of going to the shop, and this is what Quakers is. It’s not a big politicised statement by an MC or a lifestyle thing, it really just boils down to the making of raw beats, head-nodders and putting some really good MCs on it – some of which have never been on a rap record before and some who are masters of the art.

We did a lot of searching for this project. The majority of MCs actually come from Myspace. We’d sit there all night with a couple bottles of wine, getting smashed and rinsing people’s pages, and then contacting them and chucking them the beats. There’s a couple of things I’ve done in the past, and I know people who’ve approached MCs, where I’ve always felt that working with MCs is a sort of ‘when worlds collide’ situation. European producer meets American hip hop artist, managers and lawyers get in the way… and I just thought ‘sod that, not again. I’m too old for that crap’. So I just decided to chuck beats at people, they weren’t going to know who I was anyway, and then if they wanted to jump on it, they could. And that’s basically how we did most of it, really. We didn’t even go for super big names because we thought we knew what would happen; we opted to do it by digging for talent.

So did you guys choose all the MCs or did Stones Throw also have a hand in helping put people on the tracks?

Stones Throw got involved late in the day. Peanut Butter Wolf sorted out MED and Guilty Simpson, and I’d met Jonwayne when I was out in L.A. through them, and they also brought Dave Dub on board. I went to a few people I knew in hip hop and I just said ‘I’m looking for MCs to jump on this, but we want it to be hassle-free’. Stones Throw were one of the people I reached out to originally and they were super-keen to help. This was before it was decided it would come out on the label, we were just helping each other out. We had 90% of the MCs sorted already though, so Stones Throw helped out, but it’s not like they took over or something once we’d done our side of it. They also brought Aloe Blacc as well. I really liked that one, actually; he sounds proper good like smooth old-school MCing.

There are 41 tracks on the album, most are pretty short, and the instrumental ones feel more like skits or jams. Yet it works really nicely, the album flows and it really doesn’t feel forced or overblown at all. Was that intentional or more of a by-product of how you did the whole project?

Yeah, it was intentional. We spent a lot of time on this album, it’s been in the making for the last four years— more actually, as some of the beats are six years old, and we spent a lot of time discussing how we wanted it to come out. There were lots of conversations between the UK and Australia over what was going to sound good, so if people like it, it’s not by accident. And I don’t mean that in a pretentious way. We put the hours in, and Ashley especially – I think he burnt out two computers doing this album. We listened to every track, found out which went best together, chopping off bits at the beginning and end, and so on. It was a proper job.

"We’ve all produced on the album individually, but we’ve also contributed to each other’s tracks in some ways."

So there were more tracks, I take it?

Yeah, loads. We went back and wrote stuff too, when we’d figured out what kind of vibe or track we might need at a certain point. And we all had our input into it. We also kept the stuff jumbled up on purpose, so you don’t know who made what. We’ve all produced on the album individually, but we’ve also contributed to each other’s tracks in some ways. Ash would send a beat over and then ask to do a mix of one of mine and vice versa, Stuart would come in and do the same. It was good like that; we all got involved in our own ways.

Quite organic?

For sure. It took time also because it wasn’t 24 hours a day and we’ve all got our own jobs and priorities.

Following on from the number of tracks and MCs, I was thinking about this whole idea of producer albums featuring a ton of guests, especially in hip hop over the last decade or so, and sometimes from a fan’s perspective it can seem…

Ah man, it was the ultimate thing we wanted to avoid!

Ok. So how do you think you managed to avoid it despite having all these MCs on there?

Well, did we avoid it? [laughs]

Ha, ha, yeah you avoided it! In the same way that the 41 tracks don’t feel like too much, the number of MCs feels normal, natural, you might say. It works.

It’d be nice to think that it’s because of all the right reasons, you know? [laughs]

Maybe it works because you guys approached in a different way to how most people do it, in terms of how you worked together, but also how you approached MCs. A lot of those albums often feel like they’re the products of marketing schemes and industry people rather than artists genuinely connecting over an open idea like the one that drove your original intention for this.

Well the thing is, we really didn’t want to use the word ‘featured’ anywhere. And to be honest, initially the idea was to not put names to it and to just let it happen. Obviously you have to credit people for their work, so that didn’t really work out as an idea. There were actually a few MCs that didn’t make it onto the final album version because their raps just didn’t work. There are raps on there that make you think ‘man you just made that up on the spot’ [laughs]. And there are other raps that seem honed, but they all feel like they have the right vibe. Whereas there was some other stuff which didn’t work, it was either too honed or the rapper had just not got it and thought he’d just rap mad and try and get paid. It’s really weird, because if you’re a hip hop fan I think you can kind of tell. Dave Dub calls them money verses, and we wanted to avoid that. Ultimately, though, the drive behind Quakers was to make it exciting and close to what we love about hip hop music over the years, so it was a logical decision to not get a money verse or rely on things like that. I’ve never quite understood how producers and MCs, especially respected ones, could do the whole producer- featuring-tons-of-rappers album thing, to be honest.

Well, I only thought about it when I sat down to write questions, it just popped into my head when I thought about the album, and it’s true that not only does the music and its intention avoid the pitfall, but as you said, the promotion behind it has been good too. Stones Throw is good like that, though.

Well I sat down with them really early on and we were very specific about how to approach the marketing. When it comes to that side of things, with anything I do, I like to take a front seat, basically – Portishead, Beak>, whatever project I’m involved in, the perception of it is important to me. Something can be destroyed by the wrong description or adjective. It has to be right or else the whole thing falls apart. I’ve seen it happen to things that were totally brilliant and I’ve seen stuff that was rubbish do well because people see something that isn’t there. And I know that sounds a little bit business, but you have to get your point across, especially when you spend that long developing something. The people at Stones Throw are totally brilliant in that regard, and that’s why we went with them, partly. You don’t want to go to a label where the promotion for the music – even if it’s just a one-sheet for distribution – is going to be under the wrong umbrella, or term, or genre. At that point you’re selling the wrong thing and you’re basically fucked. So yeah, they’ve been brilliant and helped us out a lot and we’ve hopefully been straight about how it should be perceived. I think it might have something to do with the Internet as well, you know. When we were on Myspace, it was a really global thing, and it hasn’t really happened like that since. Now there’s nowhere that really replicates the Myspace experience, I don’t think Facebook works for music…

"What I liked about Myspace was that you’d hear the music first, and then find out where they were from. So interested parties would at least be able to decide if the music was quality or not before figuring out where we were from."

What about Soundcloud?

Soundcloud does replace it to a degree, but I still haven’t got into the actual exploring side of it. What there used to be on Myspace was the artists’ friends. And that was the key for me. I would go to a hip hop crew and then there would be the main rappers and their mate who was in another crew, and so you’d click on him and it would spiral and you’d find really interesting bands and artists like that. Or I did, anyways! Blogs do the same thing now and there’s more made of recommendations in the industry in general, but you still need to trust the source of the recommendation. On Myspace, the whole ‘friends’ thing was a bit more random. What I liked about Myspace was that you’d hear the music first, and then find out where they were from. So when people checked out the Quakers page we had a message that said ‘these are the beats, choose which one you want to go on’, so interested parties would at least be able to decide if the music was quality or not before figuring out where we were from.

So this is back four years ago right? When Myspace was still the de facto place to go to look for people?

Yeah, I haven’t used it in two years at least.

When you were saying there’re people on this who haven’t had music out yet, that would be MCs you found on Myspace a few years back and this is their first release?

Yeah. We even got in contact with Prince Po through Myspace! Then there are people like FC The Truth. I don’t even know where he lives and he’s not been on anything as far as I know.

Yeah there are quite a few MCs I’d never heard of before. Coin Locker Kid is another.

He’s a good one. He and Ashley have actually done an album together, and it’s really good. If you check out the podcast we did for Stones Throw, the second track in there is from this album. But to go back to the point, yes, Myspace was really important for this project. I got in contact with pretty much all of the MCs on there, aside from the ones Stones Throw hooked us up with.

So in many ways the Quakers album is a product of Myspace, then?

Yeah, very much so. We used to do this typical Myspace thing where we would leave our beats up on the page and leave a link on people’s pages saying ‘this is a project we’re working on that will get released at some point.’ People would download the tracks off Myspace, rhyme to it and upload it back for us to check out. This was the first way we would choose the stuff and then if agreed, they might go in a studio to record it properly and we’d chat over email, send files, and that was it. And we would continue to put up beats over a certain period and do it like that. It was really interesting.

As you were saying, the production is a blend of three producers, across distances, plus a mix of various MCs sourced from various places via the Internet. What would you say were the benefits and drawbacks of such an approach?

The benefits are that you don’t have to get involved in anyone’s life, because as a producer you always end up getting involved if you work closely with MCs, and it’s always a bit of a nightmare. It made it really simple, ultimately, which was great. If people wanted to promote themselves over a beat, because they thought it was dope, that was cool by us. We decided to split anything right down the middle, artists kept their publishing, so there’s no bullshit on that side. That side of things worked really well, ultimately. That was the real benefit of it. And come to think of it, there weren’t any pitfalls I can think of… We weren’t there when they were rapping, so there was no input there, but it didn’t affect the quality.

It’s almost like a version of crowd-funded projects, but rather than ask people for money to make it happen, you let the MCs be in control of the vocal side of the project to a degree.

Some MCs have used the tracks in their own shows, which is cool. And I’m sure more of that will happen now that the album is coming out. As a hip hop label, Stones Throw is highly credible, so it’s a good thing for most MCs, really.

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