If you missed our coverage last week, then you won’t know that UK Hip Hop legend Dr Syntax released a new album, called “A Slice Of Fried Gold” (see links after the article). Well, we grabbed a copy as soon at it dropped, and we’re glad we did! The release sports the classic Syntax vibe on lyrics: well-worded, catchy, well-considered rhymes, and the renouned Tom Caruana laces each beat near flawlessly. The work features clips from the works of director Edgar Wright, from films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Spaced. In fact it was Wright who contacted Tom Caruana to give him carte blanche to sample his work.
In short, Dr Syntax has been rapping for years. He first appeared on Foreign Beggars’ 2003 album “Asylum Speakers”, and since then has toured the country and the continent with them.
He released his debut album “Self Taught” in 2007 and was a regular at Brighton’s Beer and Rap events. He’s worked with many artists from up and down the country, notably with Stig Of The Dump; collectively they are known as “Fatty and Speccy”. (At the end of this article there are some links to the above references.)
So, since we’ve long followed the work of the Doc, we decided to catch up with him, and quiz him a bit, on his new album, life, the future, and all things hip hop:
Hi Synners, thanks for joining us for some virtual questioning. How’s it all going at the moment?
Hi. I’m very well thanks. I just did a gig in Manchester after having been bed-ridden with flu for a couple of days, so I’m pretty chuffed that I’ve got through it without keeling over. It had been playing on my mind a bit!
Jeez! Glad you’re better now. So, you’ve just dropped your album “A Slice Of Fried Gold”, with Tom Caruana. Tell us about making it. Were there any fun collabs? Leaf Dog for example?
The whole process was a lot of fun. Tom is an old friend and one of the first producers I worked with over a decade ago, yet we haven’t spent that much time together or made music together for quite a few years. Despite that, it was very natural for us to pick up where we left off, and it also felt like something that was long overdue. He’s one of the most easy-going people you can ever meet, has a great studio in the top of his house out in the country, and has a very quick work rate. It was a pleasure really!
Leafy and Enlish both sent me their verses so sadly there’s no story there, but they are both emcees that I have a lot of respect for – definitely two of the UK’s best. Both came through really quickly and smashed it out the ballpark. I love their verses. In the same way, Fidel Cutstro sent his cuts for ‘Out Of My Mind’ through, and he killed it. As much as it’s preferable to get everyone working together in person, it’s a buzz anticipating what someone’s done with the music you’ve sent them and hearing it unfold.
Clev Cleverley, Rebecca Stephens and Pete Cannon came through to Tom’s to do their bits, and they are all close friends of mine, so it didn’t feel like any kind of work at all. It felt a lot more like having a laugh round my mate’s house than being in the studio ‘grinding’, which is how it should be really. There was never any pressure and we got it done pretty quickly by our standards.
Describe the creative process a little bit, in terms of an album made mostly with just one producer (Tom Caruana). How much are you in sync? Or how much are you working off beats/snippets the producer gives you?
We didn’t set out to make an album at first. We were just catching up, with a view to making a couple of songs, and Tom was playing a few beats he had. At some point he casually mentioned that Edgar Wright had been in touch with him and told him he was a fan and that if he wanted, he could get the dialogue from all of his films to sample. We’re both massive fans of Edgar Wright’s films, so came up with the concept of making an album where every song would stem from a dialogue sample, and try and explore themes touched upon in the films. It’s the first time I’ve ever been involved in a concept album, and it made the creative process really quick from my perspective – I didn’t have to start from scratch with anything, just watch great films and pick out any bits that sparked some interest. Then Tom would either find an existing beat that suited the theme, or would build one from scratch. Most of the time Tom would give me a loop to write to, I would come and drop the verses and then we would structure it and add the dialogue.
In terms of working with one producer, it made things so much easier than working with multiple people I think. It’s not my album; it’s our album, which means we’re working towards a common goal all the time. Also, the more people you have involved, the more likely you are to have differences in opinion – when it’s just two of us, working in a studio piecing it all together, it means things move a lot quicker than if you’re getting mixes sent back and forth from different producers and getting them to tweak it here and there and so on. It felt a lot more immediate, and simple. I’d definitely like to work like this with other producers, and hopefully with Tom again at some stage.
That said, Pete had a hand in 3 of the tracks from “A Slice of Fried Gold”, how do Tom Caruana and Pete differ in terms of working with?
Pete didn’t have a hand in the production on this album at all, although we did play him everything and get his opinion on things as it progressed. Not many people know that as well as being a great producer he is sick on the cut, and he just came through and laid some down in an hour or so. Pete is great fun to work with – I guess Tom is more laid back in his approach while Pete is a bundle of energy. They are similar in the sense that they both give good advice when I’m recording – they know how they want the vocal to sound on the track. It’s never a chore because they are both so enthusiastic about making music, and getting vocals is like them having a bunch of new samples to mess around with. It was brilliant to introduce them and see them hit it off, and start geeking out about production methods. Hopefully they’ll do something together at some point, and I’m hoping to get Pete to remix something off the album for an upcoming EP.
I know you still do shows with Foreign Beggars and the Extended Fam, but it’s been a while since FB delved into Hip Hop. Since then, you’ve all branched away from straight Hip Hop. (You’ve done some incredible work with The Mouse Outfit, and FB are doing Europe with various electronic music teams.) A step away from straight hip hop beats is refreshing, but what do you prefer, those classic beats or the accompaniment of a full band?
The full band is all about the live performance. Mouse Outfit are amazing musicians and because of that the show is a lot more accessible to people than just me with a DJ. As much as I still enjoy doing that, working with the band has opened my eyes to where we could take it. It will need a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, but we could get ourselves on a live circuit that wouldn’t necessarily be that open to just a rapper and a DJ, and that is starting to happen. I feel like I’m part of something really exciting with them, where I’m just one cog in the machine as opposed to the main focus.
I learned a lot from touring with Foreign Beggars, and while they make a lot more dance music nowadays, as opposed to just straight-up hip hop, they’ve always used different types of music styles in their sets and I think that’s a part of their key to success. Their show has always had build-up, starting with more down-tempo, lyrical stuff to all-out carnage, and while only they can do it in their style, I’ve taken a lot from their approach, in terms of piecing a show together.
Personally I think your track “Time” from “Self Taught” is one of the most well-rounded and solid tracks I’ve ever heard, and I’ve always felt you had your opinions and concepts down to a T. Is this normally the case, or do you have brainwaves in the studio?
Thank you very much! It’s very rare that I’ll just sit in the studio, write a whole track and put it down. I like to take my time over a concept if I think it’s worth it, and be prepared when I get to the studio. Sometimes I have several goes at it, and sometimes I think I might not have nailed it, except for maybe a line here, four bars here, and will rewrite until it feels right. That particular track was written pretty quickly, but was recorded on another beat, and sat dormant for a long time. I’d pretty much got bored of it. Then when I heard The Evil Sun’s beat, I had to record on it there and then, and so I tried those verses on it and it breathed life into them and made me drop them in a more emphatic way.
Now a question about “My House” from your new album: It’s certainly a bit of an anthem. (Think I actually had a nightmare about one of my old student houses last night!) Is this something you’re still experiencing or is it a kickback to older times?
Hahaha. Well, I’m sorry about that but I can’t help feeling rather pleased to have triggered some dormant suppressed memory. That probably sounds a bit sadistic. That’s another concept I’ve had a couple of cracks at but the tone was important – it had to be fun and light-hearted, hence the beat and the hook. If you don’t get the balance right and there’s not enough humour, then it can just come across like a whinge.
I’m not experiencing this at the moment thankfully, but I think most of us can relate to that sort of situation. I have lived in a couple of houses in my time that were a lot like the Young Ones. This whole album was more about reminiscing about past experiences rather than talking about my situation in the present. You can get more humour out of things when you’re not currently being traumatized by them on some level.
“This is my house, but I’m telling you it’s not my home”. Where would you like to live when it comes to finding a “real home” and settling down and stuff? (Not a very Hip Hop question, but here’s to keeping it real!)
I live right in the city centre at the moment and that suits me fine for the time being, but I did grow up in the countryside and would love to be back out there one day. Where Tom lives is super rural, so I’ve had a little taste of it recently while recording the album. When you’re a teen and you’ve grown up in the sticks, chances are you can’t wait to get away from it, but as you get older you realise what you took for granted.
(2:17 – FYI, FML, there’s something on the mirror I can tell isn’t hair gel, there’s no air, just dead cells – shit I might as well sit and drink meths in the stairwell.)
On par with the previous question, what are your plans for the future musically and otherwise?
That’s a good question. One that makes my stomach lurch a bit. I want to keep on making music and hopefully tour far beyond the circuit that I’ve been working for years, but I’m conscious that time is of the essence now. I can’t imagine anything else being as satisfying as this but at some point you’ve got to consider whether it’s too much of an uphill struggle and whether your energies are better off being put to use elsewhere. The short answer is I don’t really know. I’ll get back to you on that. The next couple of years are going to be very decisive for me and I need to work hard.
How much do you enjoy being part of a great music scene, namely UK Hip Hop?
It’s awesome. There are some great new artists coming through, and I’ve watched it rise and fall and rise again in popularity. At the moment I feel like there’s more variation than ever in terms of artists’ styles, which is very exciting.
What’s the path of evolution been like? You’ve been making great music for a faaaair while. How has the “scene” (or “UK Hip Hop community”) changed over time in your eyes?
When I was a kid I listened to the likes of Hijack, Gunshot etc. They all had a really hardcore style, which was dope, and then the next wave in the early 00’s with people like Task Force and Jehst and Phi Life Cypher broadened the fanbase a bit – I guess it became a bit more accessible. I was lucky to tour with Foreign Beggars in 2003/4, and there was a real excitement for something new and interesting. That went away for quite a few years, but it’s really coming back now with some of the new artists coming out and a younger generation of fans, but nowadays there’s less of a distinction between grime/hip hop etc. The younger generation don’t think like that – they’ve grown up with all of the different influences and capitalise on it.
And how do you see the future of the genre?
It’s hard to say, of course. Hip hop in general is fantastic right now I think. There are some really interesting artists getting massive exposure and touring the world. Time will tell and things move in cycles – in two or three years, something new might come along and the scene might become stale, but at the rate that new artists are emerging and the variation in styles, I think we’re good for a while.
On that topic, you worked with newcomer (new to me at least) Clev Cleverley, on “A Slice Of Fried Gold”, how did you find him?
Clev is another old friend who has been a sleeping giant for years. He was Kid Acne’s hype man for a long time so he’s done loads of shows and been all over the place, but in his own right he’s been quiet. He’s got a very amusing take on rapping – dry as a bone, very witty and tongue in cheek. I think hip hop in this country does have a tendency to take itself too seriously. It needs more sarcasm, which Clev has in spades. He’s got an EP coming out with Tom Caruana called ‘Whatever’s Clever’ – they’re just putting the finishing touches to that.
Have you got your eye on any other rappers that we should be looking out for soon?
There are some great emcees about that will make their mark very soon I think. Bill Next from Split Prophets stands out to me, as does Jman, and Sparkz from Manchester, who I’ve been working with alongside The Mouse Outfit. There’s quite a few.
And our (almost) last question Doc, how did you actually start rapping? We read somewhere that your babysitter was an influence, but what was the first time you wrote a verse, and how did it come about?
Haha. Yeah, shout out to Graham Dunning, my babysitter when I was about 8 I think. he’d come round with NWA albums and Vietnam war films. What a terrible babysitter. That’s when I got hooked on hip hop.
I think I wrote a verse when I was about 9, trying to sound like a cross between Chuck D and that guy who did the Ninja Turtles rap. I liked corny rap as well as good rap. ‘Do The Bartman’ was my joint. I’ve got a tape of me rapping when I was about eleven somewhere, with a high pitched voice in an American accent. I think I’ll keep that to myself though.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Last one: What should we be expecting from you next? You’re not gonna parachute jump from the edge of space or something?
Hell no. I’m not an adrenalin junky. I’m too much of a wimp for that sort of thing. You won’t even see me bunny hop the curb.
I really enjoy playing live, so this year I really want to do shows in less familiar places, whether with a DJ or with The Mouse Outfit. I’d like to get out to Europe a lot more. We’ll see.
Also, I’m two thirds of the way through an album with The Mouse Outfit, so hopefully we won’t keep you waiting too long for that one. And I’m going to work on an E.P. with Leaf Dog on production, so I’m trying to stay busy.
Much respect from Hip Hop In English, and we wish you the best of luck with this album and any future projects.
Thanks for taking the time to ask me these questions. I appreciate it very much.
A big thanks again to Dr Syntax for taking the time to answer our questions. We hope you enjoyed this interview. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
We leave you with some links:
Dr Syntax on Dented Records
All about Dr Syntax on our site
Dr Syntax’s profile on Rapperpedia
Dr Syntax’s Bandcamp
Dr Syntax on Facebook
Dr Syntax on Twitter
Dr Syntax on Soundcloud
A Slice Of Fried Gold (Tea Sea Records)
Credits to Dr Syntax (words) and Chris Lucas (photography).