Duke01’s new album “Steroid Stereo” is out now on Uncommon Records, Duke along with his DJ Furious P took time out to answer some of TheLeftHandSide’s questions.
How long have you been making music? When did you first start rapping?
Duke01: I first started toying around with writing raps in 1987. I was 14 years old and my family had just moved from one side of Nottingham to the other, away from my closest friends that I’d grown up with. These were the days before mobile phones or the internet, so even though I still lived relatively close to all these people, getting to see them would’ve required a lot of effort and I’m inherently lazy, so I lost touch. Living in this new place, which was the embodiment of “white suburbia”, I felt a real sense of isolation and being alone, but no less proud of who and what I was. This seemed to match the message of a lot of rap music at that time, so it really seemed to speak to me. Being somebody that has always loved the english language, reading, creative writing, poetry and the like; rap became a natural form of expression for me to talk about my experiences of being this young black kid (one of only 2 or 3 in my school year) in what felt like a very “fish out of water” time in my life. I’d perform my raps over what ever dope instrumentals I could find on 12″ releases, then perform them at school youth clubs or to friends. It wasn’t until ’89 that I took myself and my art seriously enough to start going to studio’s, recording material and performing at actual venues. It feels crazy that in a few years I’ll have been rapping for 30 years!!
Furious P: Music’s always been a part of my life from learning instruments as a kid to playing guitar as a teenager. My first exposure to dj culture came through the rave scene in the 90’s listening to djs like Carl Cox, Grooverider, DJ Hype etc. I was always drawn to the more interesting beats and breaks, Coldcut, Mo’ Wax stuff and darker downtempo breaks. When I discovered turntablism something just switched in my head. I remember seeing Cutmaster Swift rock a set at the Medicine Bar in Birmingham. He was cutting up doubles of all these classic records, it was just the dopest thing I’d ever seen. I remember thinking I had to learn how to do that! I’ve always enjoyed being creative so the idea of being able to take two records and change the way they sound sent my head spinning with the possibilities. It was just so different and interesting, I had to get involved. That was around ’97 and it’s been an obsession ever since.
Until a couple of years ago I hadn’t discovered Duke01, were you involved in any other projects, groups, etc in the past?
Duke01: As I’ve learned my craft and indeed, continued to learn, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in various projects over the years. Some have been notably better than others, but all of them have taught me something that I either didn’t know about myself, or didn’t know about music. I spent a long time working with a group called Non-Thespian here in Nottingham, which is me and my Homie, Dwyzak (he features on Countdown to Armour Gettin’) and you can grab the last two Non-Thespian EPs (The Art of Conflict & Tangible Horizons) over at my bandcamp page (www.duke01.bandcamp.com). I’ve also worked with swedish metal act, Clawfinger, appearing on one of their remixes back in the ’90’s and I’ve also provided vocals for Gabba artist, Ultraviolence. I’ve just tried to keep myself busy musically and I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I’ve been able to work on a huge range of stuff.
P: I started battling in 2002, entering local battles. Winning pretty much all of them gave me the confidence to try my hand at the DMC. Damn! Stepping up at the midland heat in 2003 was an education! The standard was mad high, around 30 hungry djs throwing down. Wow. Didn’t qualify that year but made it through to the regional finals every year after that, and qualified for the uk finals 2006-2012 coming 2nd in 09 and 12. I’ve also been to three DMC world finals and two IDA world finals with Bionic Stylus (Loop Skywalker, Switch, Cable and myself) repping the uk in the teams. We got third place in the ’09 and ’10 DMC. Not battled since 2012 but will more than likely be back. When I first started djing around Nottingham much of it was with my mate Dirty Joe, playing hip hop nights spinning beats for open mic sessions. Later I played a few different nights with Detail – Selectadisc legend and top break collector – and DJ Squigly who ran a record shop in Notts till a few years ago. I also worked with former Notts resident Endemic and provided cuts for a few of his projects including cutting on ‘Adamantine’, an Endemic produced Rusty Juxx album that released on Boot Camp.
You like to try new things musically, pushing boundaries within hip hop. Is this something that is important to you, or just the way your music turns out?
Duke01: Getting into hip hop when I did, the sound had no status quo, pushing boundaries was what it was all about. These were the days when the majority of hip hop didn’t sound like anything else out there anyway. It was absolutely unique. It was a brand new form of music. Over the years, I’ve watched corporate approach get more and more of a foothold in the culture and consequently, it has become diluted in my opinion. Now we have rap music that, if you remove the rapper and put the latest “hot” singer on there, it becomes just another song… The majority of hip hop has no unique identity. That unique identity is important to me. Working with Uncommon Nasa and the type of beats that he provides for me is perfect, because his beats are undeniably hip hop. You couldn’t, for instance just replace whoever is rapping on his beats with say, a Katy Perry or a Leona Lewis, or a Rhianna… It’s not that cookie cutter hip hop that you might see or hear everyday on any of the major TV or radio stations.. It’s that genuine “break the rules”-“sounds fresh”-“how the F did he make a sample do that?”-hip hop… It’s that inventive hip hop that I used to hear when I was 14 years old, which is exactly the sort of music that I want to make.
P: I’ve always been into different, interesting sounds. I listen to quite a broad variety of music and the influences definitely come through whether it’s putting a battle routine together or seeing what sounds I can pull out of the synth when laying down scratches for a track with Duke. I’ve always thought music’s part of our identity so if you make music that’s true to who you are it will sound different as it’s your personal expression. I love to hear new sounds and ideas and that’s what I get working with Duke and Nasa. Proper hip hop that has it’s own identity. Nasa’s beats bang but theres lots of interesting s### there too. Me and Duke are pretty like-minded so when it’s time to bring the beat, vocals and cuts together it tends to flow.
What’s the general concept behind the new album, “Steroid Stereo”?
Duke01: The title and Boombox cover art is a bit of a homage to the period that I got into hip hop. In the ’80’s there was an anti-drugs campaign that had a big media presence on both sides of the Atlantic. I remember seeing one of the famous US anti-drugs ads at the time which always stuck with me… Maybe because BDP referenced it on their Edutainment VHS tape… It was the advert that showed you an egg and said, “this is your brain”, they then cracked the egg into a sizzling frying pan and the voice over continued, “and this is your brain on drugs.” I had this vision in my head of a voice over saying, “this is your stereo”; someone putting one of our tracks on it and then, “and this is your stereo on steroids”! Haha! I’m not sure if anyone would actually make that connection, but these are some of the thoughts that go through my head during the creative process! As for the concepts behind the songs, they’re looking at some of the worlds biggest problems at their smallest. For instance, Eat Your Mistakes is about taking responsibility for your actions, conduct and behaviour in relationship breakdowns (be they friend to friend or romantic etc.). For instance, how many times have you split from a partner, or a relationship hasn’t worked out and when people ask you “why?”, you reply with something like “She/he was crazy!” That’s someone who isn’t taking responsibility for their part in the breakdown, or isn’t aware of their role in why it didn’t work out. If you don’t know your past, you’re doomed to repeat it again in the future. The point is, you can apply the concept to some of the worlds biggest problems to get an understanding of what’s going on, at a very basic level. e.g you have countries that seem to be in an endless cycle of war or unrest because they haven’t addressed the mistakes that they’ve made, are not aware that they’ve made mistakes or worse, know the mistakes they’ve made, but refuse to acknowledge them. The songs themselves are pretty autobiographical, so they’re as much a lesson for me as for anyone that might be listening.
P: For the cuts on the album we looked for vocal samples that fitted in with the theme of each track. We took bits and pieces from a variety of sources, some familiar, most pretty obscure. A lot of the sounds used were made in my studio on my synth, something that opened up a lot of possibilities to take the way rapper and dj interact in a different direction.
How did you hook up with New York producer and MC, Uncommon Nasa?
Duke01: Via the wonders of Twitter! I’d just split up from a long-term partner, had just had a record deal with a group implode and decided “F it, I’m taking control of my own destiny!” I’d recently read the book, “The Yes Man” by Danny Wallace and I felt inspired to start taking advantage of some of the opportunities that life was presenting to me, which historically, I’d have probably said “no” to. Nasa is someone I’ve been a fan of for a long, long time… I’d discovered him through his connection to Def Jux, had followed his career as an MC and producer from a very early period, so he was someone that I was following on Twitter. He posted a tweet, which I initially scrolled right by, offering his services as a producer. Remembering my new positive, take control outlook that I now had, I thought “F it! You know what, I’m gonna respond to the tweet and ask him to produce my new stuff!”, and the rest is, as they say, history.
With you in the UK and Nasa in the US, how did your working relationship work?
Duke01: Surprisingly simple, but I did learn a lot during the process of creating the record, that I’ll definitely use in the future. What’s great about the working relationship that we have is the respect & trust. We’re all masters of our respective crafts and we all allow each other the creative space to demonstrate that. I’m a strong believer in treat people how you’d like to be treated, so it’s great that I can write what ever I want to write, deliver my lyrics however I want to deliver them etc. and no one questions me, or tells me I should be doing something differently. Nasa knows he has that same freedom to express himself as a producer, without interference from me or P.. What’s most rewarding about the whole experience is not just the product that we created, but the fact that while I’ll always be a fan of Nasa and his work, I can now genuinely call him my friend too.
P: Without doubt this is the easiest thing I’ve worked on. The combination of three artists all up on their game gives a freedom I’ve not really experienced working with others in the past. There’s no need to compromise ideas, especially performing live. In terms of studio time it’s been surprisingly easy laying down cuts and sending them to Nasa. Definitely learned a few things to refine the process but ultimately it’s about doing what you love to do.
Have you got any plans to go out to the US to perform or work with more artists?
Duke01: Yes to both! But to elaborate more on my answer would probably jinx things, so I’ll keep those close to my chest for now.
I get a definite Public Enemy influence within your music. You have performed on stage with PE in the past, how did that come about? Are you friends with Chuck and the boys?
Duke01: Haha! Man, I wish I could tell people that me, Chuck, Flav and the boys are all close friends.. I’ve met them a few times but the reality is a lot different! I’m a huge Public Enemy fan and I try and see them when ever they’re in the UK. I know the majority of the first four albums word for word and you’ll usually find me in the front row of their show, jumping around like I’m 20 years younger than I am, while rapping the lyrics at the top of my voice.. They’ve spotted me in the crowd doing my thing a couple of times and hauled me on stage. I dropped one of my own verses with Flav on the drums at the Indigo2 in London and performed Fight The Power with them at Rock City, Nottingham.. That was the day I landed back in the UK from my honeymoon in New York! Jetlag never felt so good! Haha!
You are part of a live band, Def Goldblum. Do you prefer performing with a live band rather than a DJ, or do you keep the Def Goldblum performances separate from Duke01 live?
Duke01: Performing with a band requires a very different energy and approach to performing with a DJ, and vice versa. Trying to master both has allowed me to push my vocals in new and interesting ways and shown me things my voice is capable of, that I genuinely wasn’t aware of. Furious P has performed with Def Goldblum live a number of times, and he also appears on the Def Goldblum EP We Are The Fly (www.defgoldblum1.bandcamp.com).
Looking to the future, do you have plans to collaborate with any artists out there? Producers or MCs?
Duke01: I have some collaborations lined up so you may see me popping up on some other upcoming releases. Don’t want to jinx those either, so I won’t say anymore.
Who is on your wish list for collaborations?
Duke01: The great thing is I’ve already ticked some of my wish list off! Getting to work with Masai Bey, Passive 65ive, Atari Blitzkrieg and Uncommon Nasa on Countdown to Armour Gettin’ was an absolute dream come true. But going forward, I’d love to get Chuck D on a track.. In fact, my wish list is pretty much endless, but the reality is, I’d never reach out to an artist just because they might sell me a few copies of the record. It’s got to be right.
P: Djing in clubs gave me the opportunity to play alongside uk and us artists and have got to meet and cut with many of my heroes through the battle scene. Apart from Bionic Stylus I’ve generally been solo as a dj until now but it’s always good to do gigs with djs and other artists. Some highlights so far have been playing on the same bills as Ghostface Killah, Qbert, C2C and Foreign beggars.
What are your thoughts on the current state of UK hip hop?
Duke01: I think that UK hip hop is just a microcosm of global hip hop as a whole, so what ever you see happening out there, is happening here too. So what are my thoughts on global hip hop music? I think it’s certainly alive and well. I think there are still new artists undiscovered and coming through that are creating new and challenging music. However, I also think that the balance of media coverage and what most mainstream audiences consider to be hip hop, is unfairly weighted towards a very corporate style of music, that does not represent me and my struggle.
P: There’s such diversity within hip hop I think it’s in a good place, especially on a global scale. Music’s so accessible these days it’s hard to look at it from one perspective. People are making hip hop all over the world and despite the variation there are common sentiments that fans can connect with. If you keep an open mind the quality’s out there.
Is it something that concerns you, or do you see yourself to be slightly removed from the scene?
Duke01: I’m definitely removed from what the mainstream media perceives to be hip hop in the UK and I feel that that’s something to be celebrated.
P: Knowing that our sound is unique keeps us pushing ourselves in what we do. Its not about trying to fit in.
Which cartoon, old or new, would you like to supply the soundtrack to?
Duke01: That’s a dope question! Not technically a cartoon, but an 80’s puppet show called Star Fleet with a Duke01 & Furious P soundtrack would be next level.
P: It’d be a toss-up between Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors or Ulysses – can hear some future funk on that bizness!
Any last thoughts or shout outs?
Duke01: Go buy the record and book us for some shows!
“Steroid Stereo” is out now on Uncommon Records.