INTERVIEW: Ugly Duckling

Ugly Duckling Interview (by DJ Moneyshot)

Ugly Duckling

For Hip-Hop outfit Ugly Duckling “Fresh Mode” was not just the name of their first long player, it was a short-hand term for describing a way of life. It’s an ambiguous word that seems to encompass all and nothing, leaving you with a taste of Kool-aid in your mouth and the sun on your back. Under the motto of ‘Fresh Mode’ these three cats from Californ-eye-ay injected a sense of novelty and creativity back into the proceedings, very much like their spiritual forefathers from the D.A.I.S.Y age did way back when. Yet can ‘Fresh’ be seen a an ironic description? It means ‘new’ and ‘ripe’, but aren’t they diggin’ up the past?

“It is sort of ironic” explains Andy Cooper, who along with fellow mic-smith Dizzy Dustin provide the lyrical backbone to the crew. “But I think all music works in cycles. Hip-Hop is based on something that’s been done before. Whether it’s James Brown or what ever, so it’s natural.”

Something they do ‘naturally’ as writers is to have a preference for linking together rhymes and flows that are lifted from classic tunes from the cannon of ‘golden era’ vinyl. You just have to listen to ‘Do You Know What I’m Sayin’ to hear lines like D.O.C’s “I make it sound smooth/and later make a dub” from ‘It Ain’t Funky Enough’ sitting comfortably next to “The answer is D/ all of the above” from Digital Underground’s ‘Freaks of the Industry’. It seems to be both a history lesson for new school listeners and a trip down memory lane for older heads. Why the pre-occupation for referenciality? And how important is it to re-visit the vocabulary and even just the breaks from the past to a member of the Ugly Duckling fraternity?

“I think it’s quite important if you want to be a serious music fan” suggests Andy, who seems to be the member taking the role of spokesperson for the interview. “And I think that goes for a lot more than just Hip-Hop. But Hip-Hop tradition is so much based on breaks and funk. I think at least any descent B-Boy should know his ‘Breaks 101’.” Einstein, taking a moment from the attention he’s receiving from a gaggle of female hangers-on chips in: “It’s vital for us ‘cos we bite all our rhymes anyway”

As producers they also ‘bite’, not rhymes but juicy chunks of the funk. One of the first things that hits you when you drop the needle on a U.D track is the dusty break that provides the back bone of it. Unlike the super producers of the day their sound has a live and organic feel to it. None more so than on a recent collaboration between Andy Cooper and funk band Crankcase on the 12″ ‘The Tale Of The Stolen Funk And How We Stole it Back’, in which Andy raps a sorry story of the detrimental effects of cheesy rap/metal acts biting the style and not the heart of the culture we call Hip-Hop, over a driving live funk instrumental to club rocking effect. The use of a live band seems like the natural step, but how did it all come about? And are there plans for more of the same?

“Well those guys are some of my friends from church, and they got a funk band. So I figured that being that some people like our group and what we do I’d do some vocals for them and put a song together and it would help them. And it worked to a small degree. It was fun to do ‘cos it was a whole spoof on rock/rap which I don’t like. And if we’d tried to do it as Ugly Duckling I don’t think the guys would have been comfortable doing that. But me, I don’t care… It was a outlet to talk some mack.”

I pushed for more. After all talking shit behind anothers back is a time honoured tradition in this culture of ours. Would he draw first blood?

“It’s not the sense of the live music that I dislike” he offers, choosing his words carefully. “It’s the really bad rapping.” We all laugh. “It’s the bastardisation of Hip-Hop culture that offends me” he suggests, then elaborates before I can retrieve my pocket dictionary. “It’s not like a brand new thing. People have been doing metal rap since the early nineties, maybe earlier.”

I turn to Einstein, the silent partner in all this to explain the joy of digging for old records. Because if there’s one topic of conversation that loosens up an audio-phile like this man, it’s old records.

“Explain the joy?” ( Einstein ponders for a second, perhaps simply upset that this interview, and even more so sleeping and eating, get in the way of him being up to his elbows in old wax right now. ) “That’s what I do. For release. If I don’t want to think about anything I go record shopping.” He pauses, looks around and like a authentic beat junkie quickly remembers where his beloved artefacts are. “I got a suitcase over there full of records” he proudly states. It now seems obvious that on these tours there is no room for any other kind of souvenirs. I imagine these guys girlfriends don’t hold their breathes for gifts when the roll back into town. “This is what I do for peace” he then claims. Well I suppose a tour of the Middle East wouldn’t do any harm if your reading Mr. Bush. ( Then again he does only have a third grade reading level.)

Cod politics aside, if you ever get the chance to catch these boys playing a club you will know that the DJ plays a vital role in the live show. Whether it’s dropping a pin-point accurate cut or donning the legendary ‘Gold Chain’ in a ceremony accompanied by the regal strains of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, Einstein’s is a presence felt. And it’s a role well adjusted to Hip-Hop, and the pantheon of crew DJs who have commanded the wheels of steel over the years. From the stoic silence and majesty of the enigmatic Terminator X from P.E, to the hype man attitude of the melody manipulators like Cut Creator or Jam Master Jay, the great acts have required a force to stand behind the 1200’s. And these rap fanatics are now exception. So what role does Einstein play within the group? “Mostly stinking up the car!” jokes Andy. “Nah, he’s essential to our show. Traditionally in Hip-Hop the DJ is the band, and the M.C’s are the ones trying to get across to the crowd the music that he plays. He’s the band: The drums, the bass the rhythm section, the organ. I don’t like to watch a Hip-Hop group leave the DJ back in the corner, anonymous. That seems sort of ridiculous.”

I ask Andy who, as a DJ persona, has Einstein styled himself on. He chuckles as he repeats the word ‘persona’ with query, as if such posturing of identity is the furthest thing from their minds. “Well, he definitely goes the old school DJ route. But I never really think of him that way.” Einstein, never one for people taking about him behind his back sets the record straight: “I’ve patterned myself after, like… Quincey Jones or Jimmy Page or something like that. George Martin, them type of things.” I’m about to state the obvious that these guys have never worn a pair of shell-toes, let alone scratched a record when Andy offers us an insight into the way Einstein got his given role as the groups on stage mix-master. “Actually getting him to perform live took us quite a number of years to encourage him to do that. He wanted to be a kind of behind the scenes kinda guy. But now he’s taken to it quite happily with the gold chain and the stares and glares.”

Ahh yes, the aforementioned gold chain (an essential icon he wears, which is said to give him special B-Boy powers). Tell me about that. “The ceremony?” says Andy, weary of such lines of questioning. “You know what? Our act is getting so much like a Vegas side-show it’s pathetic. We’re gonna be bringing out midgets and juggling pretty soon.” Einstein seems animated by the impulse of absurdity that’s taking over. “We’re working on a routine” he suggests with an accomplished straight-face “where we juggle chain-saws”. Andy, seeing this avenue can go on for ever resumes the tone “So, yeah. We just go for any stupid routine that can make people laugh. We think that there’s not enough humour in Hip-Hop. So we’re not really serious guys so it’s fun to do jokes in the show.”

These guys tour. They’ve been to many places. I ask them about the experience of touring with rap veterans the Jungle Brothers. “That was good” says Andy, casting a misty mind back to their first ever tour. “It was also our first time over seas. And even though the boys had moved over into a dance music genre at the time they were still some of my heroes growing up. Every night they gave one hundred percent on stage and really put on the best show, even if the people there didn’t give a shit. They had a good attitude and were pretty nice guys. It was a good experience defiantly. As oppose to some of groups we had played with before like, on the underground level, were for the most part self-centred jack-asses who only cared about their turn on the mic. Where as the Jungle Brothers were real pros. It was a privilege.”

In his serious praise towards touring buddies the J.B’s, Andy touches on some of the sentiment and heart-felt feelings that are also present in their work. What are some of the issues, not about partying, that you like to explore in your records? Your differences as a crew has come up before as a subject for your lyrics.

“Oh, I just think that when you got three different people that have creative intuition you get into some battles about what you want to do stylistically” reasons Andy. “There’s a lot of fun to be had in complaining. I’m more like a strict task-master than these guys, so I get called the Hitler of the group.”

I suppose a few Nazi high-kicks wouldn’t go a miss towards making a more Vegas friendly show. But Aryan choreography aside, if you take my position then you welcome acts like Ugly Duckling. They’re an oasis in a desert of dick-grabbing M.C’s, spouting redundant gibberish to a uninspiring DAT. They’re part of a new wave, a west coast resurgence in happy Hip-Hop. Current bed-fellows could include Jurassic Five and People Under The Stairs. But who do they consider as their contemporaries?

“Yeah, J5 and PUTS, those two stand out” cites Andy “especially People Under The Stairs, ‘cos they’re one of the only ones really interested in using loops. There are a lot of smaller groups as well, but as far as established artists who put out records their one of the few ones who are really into music and loops.”

Taking this a cue to get down on some ‘who’s fucked up Hip-Hop’ ish I ask them ‘what is the state of this music right now?’

“Erm, I don’t know man…” worries Andy seemingly sick of fighting the cause “to me I’m not really into new Hip-Hop for the most part ‘cos I like a certain part of Hip-Hop, but that doesn’t make it bad. The particular kind of thing I’m into, people don’t do any more. That’s why we do our kind of records. You listen to our record and I think it’s o.k. It’s good to see people being enthusiastic about stuff and learn, but I would hope that they would take the opportunity to go back and learn about music and about the records, that’s where It comes from. So many of ’em wanna buy a keyboard sampler and casio… I’m gonna be a rapper tonight, you know. As oppose to learning the fundamentals. You know how punk music is. The whole idea is: ‘I don’t wanna learn how to play anything’. No matter what you wanna play: learn about music.”

All this talk of the past and the problems with the culture, lead me to wonder if we can ever see another ‘golden age’ in Hip-Hop music. Like the ones that grace the mythical past, seen through rose-tinted Cazel shades?

“Yeah, maybe we wouldn’t consider it a golden age though” considers Andy. “Just like my parents generation who like Elvis or Chuck Berry might not like Led Zeppelin even though it was sort of rooted in the same fundamentals of what other people would call a golden age. I’m sure there will be a time when, on a major level, artistic credibility will be a lot more important to Hip-Hop. Because on a major scale it isn’t right now, it’s more about making money. Most rappers openly admit that, especially the big ones… the Jay-Z’s or what the hell always talk about making money. At least their being honest.”

It would seem that Ugly Duckling are ones to admire honesty. Their only problem is with rappers who aren’t honest to the advancement of Hip-Hop. One from a time and place of true spirits and the such that adheres to the motto of ‘fresh mode’. As long as we have the few that still rock you with a guarantee like this crew we could see a happy day for this movement, and one that takes the time to honour the past as a way to re-building the future.

Ugly Duckling: “You don’t know where Hip-hop’s going ’till you know where it’s been.”

Never a truer statement para-phrased.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.