The UK rap scene has never been in a more diverse place. After decades of neglect, a world of British MCs has exploded and taken over the country. As a result, there’s been wave after wave of innovation taking place, with one genre birthing another at a dizzying rate. UK hip hop hasn’t been immune from these changes either with various artists taking influence from the shifting landscape around them. A perfect example are Subculture Sage. The coming together of producer Subculture and MC Sage, the duo have been working on the periphery of boom bap-inspired UK rap and grime for over five years. Their latest project Niccolo’s Dead blurs those boundaries even more, bringing in elements of political theory and current events. The result is a fierce statement of independence and a singular sound that paves the way for a whole new kind of British hip hop. We met the duo after the EP’s release to talk Machiavelli, staying DIY and how to fix Brexit.
When and where did the pair of you meet?
Sage: We were brought together by a mutual friend back in 2011, I was very much involved with London’s rave scene getting booked to host sets at drum & bass, dubstep, garage and grime nights. I felt like I had more to give as an MC than what I was doing with my lyrics at those raves and so when I heard Subculture’s beats I felt it was a great opportunity to grow and explore my abilities as an MC.
Do you have a favourite hip hop album? Why?
Subculture: My favourite hip hop album’s probably To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s always so hard to benchmark favourites with records as I think it’s important to take into consideration the context of the time it was released. Though I’m still going with this one! It’s overlapping thematic concepts of fame, white supremacy in America and the music industry are genius. Plus what they did musically on that record with Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, referencing P-Funk, jazz and 70s soul, was insane.
Sage: Going way, way back it would have to be Music Mysto by Mystiggi fka Mystro. He was the best rapper going back then when UK hip hop was what it was, his patterns and rhyme schemes were (and still are) incredible, plus I enjoyed that he involved humour into his tracks and skits and often told fun stories or was thematically consistent with his rhymes for each song.
Moving forward into the more recent years though I would have to say Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap. This mixtape/album/whatever it is blew my mind and had it on repeat for about a month. I then found his earlier body of work 10Day which amazed me even more. He brought what rap could be into a new realm from what he spoke about, how he spoke about it, the way he put his rhymes together, even how he used samples to make his music. I was very inspired.
Beats first or lyrics?
Sage: Has to be a bit of both! Usually, it’s the music that gets something going in me and brings on the thoughts and feelings which I turn into words and get down on paper.
Have the two of you ever swapped roles?
Subculture: We tend to stick to a formula that works for us. I’ll put together a bunch of musical ideas; sometimes simple beat loops more often more structured song ideas. Sage will gravitate towards whichever land best with him and start writing vocals. Once that process begins, it’s more of a free for all as we both mark our own instincts towards the music. If I’ve been working on a song for a week or two, Sage’s fresh ears will bring a totally different perspective to the table, which can be so valuable! Sometimes I’ll drop a hook here and there and Sage will play a melody here or there but ultimately whatever instinct either of us feel towards a song’s end goal has to be tried and tested.
Your new EP is one of your most all-encompassing projects, how did it come together?
Subculture: Niccolo’s Dead definitely has its roots in both the darker sides of our characters and the darkness we were seeing in the world when it was being made.
Subculture: Niccolo Machiavelli was an Italian politician, philosopher and writer from the Renaissance period. He had many quite brutal theories about morality, fear, strength and vengeance – many of which relevant in today’s political climate.
How did he die?
Sage: So Niccolo Machiavelli actually just died of natural causes… But the point we’re making by stating he’s dead is his philosophy of ‘to become truly good you must learn how to be bad’, which people seem to develop into acts of manipulation and make it seem a negative thing, is what we are putting to bed here. That is what’s dead!
There’s a lot of political turmoil hanging over society at the moment – what do you think the biggest issue facing the world is right now?
Subculture: The world is a complex beehive of interlocking and contradicting theories, perspectives, collective histories and traditions. In my opinion, the biggest issue facing the world today is a combination of man’s desire to reduce these complexities to one singular thing, laziness and our incapacity for empathy.
Sage: I’d say greed. It seems that the people in control can’t see beyond their own noses and just want the most for themselves now with no thought of how that will affect the future.
What should we do about Brexit?
Sage: Honestly, I don’t really know what there is to be done, it’s done now, and no-one knows what’s going to happen, not even the people running the show! Unless the UK can convince the government of a re-vote it feels like all we can to do is buckle up and try to survive the ride!
What do you think of UK rap at the moment?
Subculture: Personally I don’t think UK rap has one distinct sound, family or scene. I think the UK has always had an unhealthy obsession with defining and suffocating genres to be one specific thing, though I feel like today it’s enjoying one of it’s most free and unrestricted periods. The mainstream is often dominated by formulaic music, but the marriages in this country of rap with progressive electronic music, visual art, grime and afro beats is mad exciting. In my opinion, when it becomes difficult to draw lines between things, that’s when you know something special is bubbling.
Sage: I feel likes it’s been in the best place it has been for a while, we have so many sub-genres of “UK hip hop” now it’s even hard to define what UK hip-hop/rap is anymore. We’ve got all the boom bap stuff happening which is great; road rap has now grown into drill through trap, grime is the strongest and most popular its ever been internationally having ten years of increasing connections with the US. The scene is good. If anything we could all do with supporting each other more across the board and encouraging people to stop wanting to put things in boxes and embrace the crossovers.
Why is being DIY important to you?
Subculture: We have grown a lot with our music over the years. When artists have a lot of support and pressure from day one, it can make it harder for them to grow into their own shoes, rather becoming a wave of external forces telling them what they need to be which is ultimately based on what will sell. The music industry is filled with opportunistic people that draw lines between things that aren’t always there. Ultimately I believe there’s a thin line between commodity and art; and in terms of music, where you sit on that line will define how important it is for you to do your own thing and express your own instinct.
Sage: It leaves us in complete creative control. The idea of someone telling me what I can and cannot do within music just does not compute. Saying that though, with the right input from the right people who get what you’re doing always help.
Who are we sleeping on?
Subculture: Onoe Caponoe, Tertia May, Cold Callers and Idles.
Sage: For me right now its gotta be Rocks FOE. Google him, YouTube him, Spotify him. He’s a grime MC with mad crossover potential. Crazy lyricist with intelligent and interesting bars plus he makes all his own beats (which are also very fucking dope!). Get to know. You won’t be disappointed!
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