I recently interviewed Birmingham and London locals (I’m sure there are trains involved) duo H.L.I. As always we over here at HHLAT are always excited to talk to, or promote artists that take hip-hop down interesting paths, and mix up the genre with more than just what you’d might expect, without being cheesy or done extremely badly (Don’t pretend as if at least 3 people haven’t come to mind). H.L.I are one of those groups and aren’t happy just to keep to one formula or one idea. Don’t think however that you’re any less of a fan just because you’re only a fan of one particular part of the genre, not all of us can be open minded eh?…Well that’s what we’re here for, to be sent a whole ton of bad music, and an even bigger ton of brilliant, and just a litte bit of in between, all to filter it out and present it to YOU (CAPITALS). The dudes in H.L.I manage to mix up all the old skool elements, throw in a heavy flavouring of the recent, and then top it off with their own little take. I’m sorry if that was a pretty messy description but I’m a fan of weird seg-ways. The best way I can describe these guys is to say, whether you like road-man rap, you’re a bboy/girl elitist that hates everything past ’97, a huge packbacker, or like us, and you like pretty much everything done in the name of hip-hop as long as it’s good, then hooray you might just like H.L.I.
Thank-you to the boys in H.L.I for an extremely interesting and good natured interview!
For fans of Scroobious Pip, Aesop Rock, Roots Manuva, The Ruby Kid, Wu-Tang (RZA to be specific).
Generic questions 1 and 2: Who are you, and how did HLI come about?
SENSEI C: My name is Sensei C. I’m a MC, composer, musician, producer, actor and writer. I’ve been making and performing hip hop music for about 10 years. I’m a pizza snob and I love movies.
ELAI IMMORTAL: I am Elai Immortal. Child Educator, head amputator.
SENSEI C: HLI is an experimental hip hop group from Birmingham. We met through our mentor Joel the Custodian and found that in spite of our different backgrounds we had a similar appreciation for words, ideas, knowledge and art and music which pushed the parameters of normality. I guess we both saw ourselves as renegades.
ELAI IMMORTAL: I find the ‘experimental’ tag somewhat a misnomer because what good music isn’t? But it serves a purpose as far as necessary pushes go.
What originally got you into hip-hop?
SENSEI C: I had always enjoyed hip hop from a very early age but it was never something I thought I could be a part of as such. By my late teens I had already been on a long and winding musical journey playing with different types of bands and making all sorts of songs by myself. Eventually I bought a sampler and started making loop based instrumental music. I got into hip hop in big way when I started seeking out and researching non white music. I’d looked at my record collection one day and noticed the distinct lack of melanin. I was seeking out things like King Tubby, Charlie Parker and Jungle Brothers. At this point it was mainly the beats that I was interested in, but soon as I came to realise the diversity of styles within rap I was absolutely fascinated by it. I had always written song lyrics from as far as I can remember around 6 years old but this was something new and I still didn’t see how could be a part of it. It was different then and seeing a white British guy rapping wasn’t a well known thing. Then I discovered some of the more left field north American stuff like Buck 65, Sage Francis and Aesop Rock and I figured that if they were allowed to do it then there was nothing to stop me, so I never stopped from that point on.
ELAI IMMORTAL: I had cousins and friends who would blast Ice Cube, Tupac in their cars. Then I discovered Wu-Tang which changed my life. Not on some ‘J-Dilla changed my life.’ An introduction to ‘Knowledge of Self’ seeking and subsequent historical, political, spiritual, anthropological learnings. I heard these rappers call each other God and the only other place I’d heard that was Sufi poetry. Musically Hip-Hop was so rich and diverse as well, as well as dramatic. I’d grown up listening to Qu’walli, Bollywood and Michael Jackson so sonically that really resonated with me, as well as thematically. Hip-Hop allowed you to party too. Even as a kid, I appreciated its duality and badassery. I didn’t get into Hip-Hop because it was peace and flowers; I got into Hip-Hop because it was hard and menacing.
How would you describe yourselves to someone who’ve never listened to you?
ELAI IMMORTAL: It’s interesting. Sharp electronic synths with organic melodic sensibilities. Wordy but the funk is there. Best to head over and listen to the music really!
SENSEI C: I would tell them that our music pulls sound from multiple directions and is constantly finding new ways to be sonically fascinating but that it retains an essence characterised by time honoured values. We make music that’ll excite your imagination whilst still being banging enough to get your stomp on. The lyrics are in places heavy but are delivered musically, as though they were any other instrument.
Your style mixes a lot of different influences and genres, and still manages to actually work without sounding like a big old massive mess. A pretty hard feat for any artist to manage! Was it was always your active intention to pair hip-hop with less ‘traditional’ musical genres, or did it come naturally?
SENSEI C: Both Elai and I have a strong musical background that goes well beyond hip hop. Either one of us are fascinated by sound and all the different ways it can be rearranged. Both of us intrigued by the role that music plays culture throughout the world and the power it has over people. Hip Hop manages to synthesise all of that. It is constantly being reconfigured as it grows and more ideas come into the mix and things move forward whilst retaining a sense of their history. I think that combining “less traditional genres” with hip hop is wholly in the spirit of the art form.
ELAI IMMORTAL: Afrika Bambaata would play any record that would move a crowd. Any good producer and musician will listen to a plethora of music outside their so-called ‘genre’ so that will be reflected in their music. My culture has a lot to do with things I like or don’t like so it just naturally manifests. I don’t really over-think it. Or maybe I do. Or maybe I don’t. Or maybe I do. Actually, just listening to some 90s Bjork and Radiohead shows how beyond they already were, and look how much Hip-Hop influenced them. Prince had his Hip-Hop modes and he’s an innovator who influenced so many Hip-Hop pioneers in the first place. You can select 5 of his albums and they will sound completely different to each other but it’s always HIM. It’d be boring otherwise. Evolve or die like Alan Moore said.
I hate having to use the word ‘traditional’ because it’s hip-hop; everything is meant to be progression. I feel like anyone could enjoy HLI, backpackers or road-rap lovers alike; but do you ever find there are a certain crowd or group of kids that you appeal to?
SENSEI C: Interesting question. Not really, that’s something we’ve consciously tried to avoid. As I’ve said we love such a range of hip hop and music in general and, without wanting to spread ourselves to thin, have strived to make tunes which can be bumped in a variety of circumstances
ELAI IMMORTAL: I’m glad you say that. Some people listen to ‘Opus Day’ and it’s grime to them which is great because grime has such an intense energy and identity that a lot of newer Hip-Hop lacks. ‘Don’t Panic!’ is grungy. We’ve been blessed by the older gods and had props from the youngest Hip-Hop kids so just want to make the numbers bigger really. This ain’t for everyone but every type of person can get into it.
I know Omniglyph is technically an EP and has remixes, but was there a certain theme or narrative you wanted to expose the listener to, or was it simply how each track came out?
ELAI IMMORTAL: Omniglyph is the launch, the lift-off, the arrival and the ‘we were already here’ at the same time. There’s an arc within the project and an extended arc that carries on for the next few HLI projects. I wanted the remixes to carry on the ‘story’ – each remix is like viewing a landscape at a different time or under a different spectrum of the light so they are not throw-ways or padding but additional songs with each remixer playing an important role. In terms of the words, we wanted to introduce some themes plus show off as well so there’s a mix of playfulness, lyrical gymnastics but an always present meaningfulness. On ‘Vectors’ we’re blowing darts for example, Omniglyph (the title track) is closer to the heart.
SENSEI C: There is a narrative to the record relating to transcending temporal reality and the way that that plays into everyday situations, however, that is to some degree simply symptomatic of mine and Elai’s approach in general. Certain tracks like Unseen Universe and Omniglyph were made with a sense of them being book ending pieces and there were some key concepts we wanted to include but we never wanted anything to be too forced or laboured.
What was the response like for the EP?
ELAI IMMORTAL: We’ve had people champion it. People who have bought it and given us feedback, to reviewers who have ‘got’ what its about, all of which is gratifying and rewarding. We want to push a culture-shift in how people listen to music. To build enough following that could eventually make the mainstream interesting again. An album is like a good book and people really ain’t reading like that these days. The ease at which music can be downloaded and then instantaneously disposed into a recycle bin undermines the process and craft of creating music, which does artistically worry me. There’s an over saturation of creators and media so Tom Waits said it well: “They have removed the struggle to find anything. And therefore there is no genuine sense of discovery. Struggle is the first thing we know getting along the birth canal, out in the world. It’s pretty basic. Book store owners and record store owners used to be oracles, in that way; you’d go in this dusty old place and they might point you toward something that would change your life. All that’s gone.” I’m no Luddite but want to do something about these things. We want people to have a relationship with an album and to discover new things on each listen. Can HLI bring a wonder to listeners? I hope so. Will we carry on making music regardless? Of course! We’re having a lot of fun doing this.
When writing, what influences the content?
SENSEI C: Good question. The vast spectrum of experience. Personally I nearly always equate art to a conversation or interaction with someone, like if you met them at a party. There should be something distinctive about their personality, you should find them engaging. The best art for me is often that which manages to show breadth. At times it can profess values which appear to contradict one another or aren’t compatible. This is the nature of people, few people are entirely predictable and one dimensional when you begin to look deeper into it. As time has gone one I’ve tried to ensure that when I’m writing I’m trying to express as much of my personality as can work.
ELAI IMMORTAL: It’s true cuz sometimes I don’t know what the heck Sensei C is going on about in his verses. He’s like that at parties too. But colloquialisms can get tiresome and like we said before, we like our art to be latticed. I’m not a fan of didactic art generally. As far as influences go… books I happen to be reading, comic books, relationships, films, conversations, cartoons, mythology, religious imagery. Everything is everything.
Talking in more wider sense, UKHH and hip-hop in general has definitely expanded recently in what it incorporates, and is ‘getting back to the basics’ of real lyrical content. What would your thoughts on this be, and where do you hope to see it going, both in relation to yourselves and the wider culture?
SENSEI C: Another great question. Four five years ago I said that the innovations going on in electronic music were revolutionising production and that it was only a matter of time before that began to seep into vocal music and that this would push artists creatively. I think to some degree I was right. I think now there is a less all pervasive conservatism in regards to how you make a song and the acceptable format of that. People are more willing to be taken by surprise and to appreciate more than just one comfortable formula. Also the gap between “grime” and “hip hop” seems to have diminished in recent times. Artists aren’t defining themselves in such a singular way anymore, meaning they can develop their versatility. Basically I think that a more diverse approach promotes more widespread creativity.
In regards to where I think things are going I would hope to see a wider range of more dynamic personalities coming through. If you look at what’s happening in the states at the moment this is one of the most exciting times for hip hop music in years. People sound like they give a shit about what they are doing and are actually enjoying themselves whilst doing it. Someone like Danny Brown pushes the envelope in terms of the vocal range he uses, the variety of musical styles he works with, the diversity of ideas he brings to the table and so on. You can’t help but be drawn in and I have to admit I really believe the guy when he says something, no matter how ridiculous. I at least assume that’s what he felt at the time. I have this memory of 2, 3 years ago going to a jam with Elai and them playing “Mr Officer” by the Pharcyde. At the end of Slim Kid 3’s verse when he starts wailing “oh please oh please” and bugging out, Elai looked at me and asked “why don’t people rap like that anymore, like they were having fun”. I hope that things pan out to make more room for that type of free expression without things getting ridiculous.
ELAI IMMORTAL: The dudes holding Hip-Hop back are the ones hung up on some nostalgic false keep-it-realisms whilst complaining about how much Hip-Hop sucks. You have diversity from artists like Juice Aleem who can tear up a bashment riddim one moment and then tell a beautifully written poetic story the next. Like the J-Ro soundbite, “I feel it’s all about skills.” Spend time in the dojo, sharpen your swords, and get in. Serocee had this song “Aaargh” and it’s so exciting. It’s grime, Hip-Hop, bashment, soca, dance, it’s just heavy! I do want to see more cohesive, solid albums from the UK though, which is more to do with the attention spans of some audiences.
Closer to home, what are your hometown scenes like?
SENSEI C: I suppose London is home nowadays but I wouldn’t consider it my hometown scene. It’s going pretty well there. There are regular nights and there seems to be a real sense that people who are starting and want to get involved have more opportunity to do so. Birmingham is on the up at the moment. A lot of great stuff that’s really interesting sounding whilst still feeling authentic and true is coming out of a few different camps. Again, the scene feels a little more inclusive and bubbling with new ideas whilst more seasoned artists remain relevant and active.
ELAI IMMORTAL: Birmingham has some of the illest Hip-Hoppers in the world. I suggest you google ‘Straight Outta BC: Tape One’ and that will be a great tour of the Birmingham Hip-Hop soundscape. Gig wise, it’s the busiest it’s ever been with a range of dope Birmingham artist shows as well as from abroad.
Now that you’ve finished Omniglyph, what are your plans for the coming year?
ELAI IMMORTAL: Keep pushing Omniglyph. Finish the next HLI album. Do plenty of shows. A video for Opus Day is coming. Spinning Compass Records is ready for 2013 and we have projects by Juice Aleem, 4th Lord, The Ruby Kid, Eliot Best and Pimpernal Jones in the making. Exciting times baby!
SENSEI C: Shouts to everyone supporting HLI and enjoying the music. Let’s all keep expanding and refusing to fossilise. Thank you very much for what has a been an interesting interview. Peace.
ELAI IMMORTAL: I want to shout out Supreme Design Publishing for constantly dropping jewels that everyone needs to get up on reading. And Cipher Jewels of the legendary Moorish Delta 7 who just released a finance management and investment book for the Hip-Hop generation called ‘The Secret Money Manual.’ Joel Wilson who is readying his medieval rap thriller Film for completion. And anyone who wants to just chop it up with us to find us on facebook or shout me on twitter. PEACE!