Cone artists: How Scroobius Pip and Dan Le Sac went from YouTube to Newsnight
Three years ago they uploaded a £200 video to YouTube. Now Scroobius Pip and Dan Le Sac are asked to discuss the state of the nation on 'Newsnight'. Not bad for a poet and a computer nerd from Essex, says Fiona Sturges
Sunday 10 October 2010
Three years ago, two young men from deepest Essex made a track called "Thou Shalt Always Kill" and, after cobbling a video together for £200, posted it on the web. A spoken-word parody of the Ten Commandments, it was a witty and impassioned tirade against contemporary culture played out over a sparse dance beat. It exhorted listeners not to watch Hollyoaks, read the NME or take Johnny Cash's name in vain while boldly slaying pop's most sacred cows ("The Beatles were just a band/ Led Zeppelin, just a band/ The Beach Boys, just a band"). It was striking enough to get three million hits on YouTube, earning them a record deal and a top 40 hit.
The men in question were Scroobius Pip, 29, a bearded street scribe and pop poet named after a creature in an Edward Lear poem, and his old school friend Dan Le Sac, a 31-year-old DJ, laptop musician and self-confessed computer nerd whose propulsive hip-hop and dance beats provide a framework for Pip's estuary patois.
Today, Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip are stalwarts of the UK hip-hop and spoken-word scene with two albums, a world tour, a book of poetry and guest slots on Radio 4 and Newsnight under their belts. Last month they were nominated in the Artist of the Year category for the BT Digital Music Awards alongside Kylie Minogue, Muse and Gorillaz. To their many followers, they have become spokespeople for political and social issues – their Facebook page and Twitter feed were hotbeds of discussion during the European and general elections – while their music tackles everything from knife crime and teen pregnancy to the education system.
If this makes them sound overly serious, well, in conversation they undoubtedly are. But their songs come with a distinct warmth and humour that are also evident in their live shows, where they frequently decorate the stage with sofas and a standard lamp, as though they are performing to fans live from their own living-room.
Critics have accused them of preachiness, though they say they are merely reflecting the issues faced by ordinary people. "Our job as we see it is to start a discussion, not tell people what to think," maintains Pip, a laid-back and self-deprecating individual in baseball cap and Cyndi Lauper T-shirt. "I think people do have this perception that I'm more opinionated or highbrow than I am and I do my best to show that I'm not like that. I don't think I've read more than 20 books in my life. There's this assumption if you do spoken word that you're somehow more educated and politically minded than the next person. But it's not the case. If you go to the gigs you see kids off the estates going up on stage and doing amazing stuff."
Certainly, in the past two years the spoken-word scene has undergone a renaissance. While poetry readings have been practised for centuries, its modern incarnation was ignited during the 1980s in American hip-hop and poetry slams. It was through the US hip-hop poets Saul Williams and Sage Francis that Pip realised spoken word and beats needn't exist in separate genres, and led him to search out pop-poetry events.
"The first I went to was in east London in a pub and it was full of old punks still talking about Thatcher," he recalls. "The next one I went to was at Rada. It was all soliloquies and actors reading poems from a book. I realise now that these were the two extremes of the scene. In the past few years it's become more diverse and people have opened their minds."
Pip was in and out of bands through his teens but was frustrated by the lack of commitment from his band mates. He began a degree in photography in Wolverhampton then dropped out and got a job in a record shop. After saving up some money, he took to the road in a camper van, busking and doing impromptu pavement performances to people queuing outside gigs.
Meanwhile, his old friend Dan, who until that point had vowed never to work with other people ("especially drummers"), was experimenting with drum machines and synths. He heard about Pip's spoken-word tour and asked him to send over some poems to see whether they could be set to music. The second one he worked on was "Thou Shalt Always Kill". Within a day of receiving it, the radio station Xfm played it on air, and offers of record deals quickly followed.
Both Pip and Le Sac grew up in Stanford-le-Hope, a small town along the Thames estuary in Essex, though Le Sac moved to Reading when he went to university. Pip stayed on in Essex, the small-town environment providing inspiration for his increasingly indignant rhymes.
"There are levels of prejudice and racism and unnecessary drug use there," Pip concedes. "And I get my fair share of abuse when I'm out and about. Little kids look at the beard and go 'Oi! Bin Laden!' or call me a terrorist. But it's still home to me. My family are there and I've just bought my first flat there. For those precious times when I'm not away or on tour, I can't see myself being anywhere else."
Earlier this year Le Sac and Pip released their second album, The Logic of Chance, to critical fanfare. Among the more memorable tracks is "Great Britain" in which they ponder their love/hate relationship with their country of birth, weighing up political corruption against a land that produces some of the best music in the world. I wonder if the balance has shifted since the general election.
"It's a difficult one," reflects Le Sac. "Having this coalition as our leadership is not necessarily a good thing. But what it has done is underline the fact that we are such a nation of individuals with a diverse set of views. It's quite exciting to be in a country that won't make a unanimous decision. It's these opposing ideas that moves society forwards."
For a band that was initially enabled by computer technology, it's no wonder that they are hugely excited by the internet and its possibilities. "We're now fully into this internet-based dissemination of ideas," observes Le Sac. "We're involved in politics every day, whether consciously or not. In the Thatcher era, if you didn't want to talk about politics, you didn't buy a newspaper, but now on Twitter and Facebook it's unavoidable. Any counterculture that comes up is going to emerge strong and fast."
"It also helps us communicate with our fans," adds Pip. "Of course we get inevitable posts telling us we're rubbish, but we also get messages from people who say they like what we are doing and it's as if we are talking specifically about their lives. For us, that is a beautiful thing to hear."
The single 'Cauliflower' (Sunday Best) is out tomorrow. Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip begin their UK tour on Thursday at Hatfield Forum. For details, visit lesacvspip.co.uk
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