Interview: Dr. Syntax

The revered UK rapper chats about his acclaimed recent release The Evidence EP and eagerly awaited new album Elaborate Anoraks

Posted on Sep 16th, 2015 in Features and Interviews, Dr. Syntax, Kompyla / By Sam Bennett
Interview: Dr. Syntax The UK hip-hop scene is host to a hugely varied selection of artists. Perhaps one of the most unique is Dr. Syntax. He has a discography filled with great albums, including a collaboration project with Skrein and several albums with producer Pete Cannon. Additionally he's a member of Manchester based The Mouse Outfit, who have been killing the festival circuit, and currently have two albums available for purchase. This year he released The Evidence EP with Pitch, a producer who is also a Mouse Outfit resident, and is gearing up for the release of Elaborate Anoraks, the follow up to his and Pete Cannon's 2014 album Killer Combo. So he's a busy guy. Bearded found time amidst all of that to catch up with the man himself.

'When I first started rapping I was about 9 years old, my voice hadn't broken and I was rapping in an American accent' says Syntax when I ask about the origins of how his witty and identifiable style developed. 'Then it was through hearing English rappers like London Posse, Demon Boyz, people like that, and hearing them rap in their own accent. That didn't make me want to copy their accent, it just made me realise that you could rap in your own accent'.

When I ask about his subject matter, Syntax emphasises that ‘the most important thing is to be genuine and true to yourself in hip-hop. Me being me, I feel there has to be a sense of irony, there has to be a tongue in cheek aspect to what I do. Increasingly so in the last few years what I do is more comedic; even if it's a serious subject there'll be a touch of gallows humour. It's really just as I've got older and more comfortable in my craft'.

Benny Huge was the first album to really show Syntax and Cannon's partnership, which was largely produced by Pete.The album is more of a Syntax solo outing really though, with a few other producers also present. The duo's fruits really came to fruition with last year's Killer Combo, which featured tracks that were at times hilarious, and always entertaining. 'I met him years ago, just through mutual acquaintances' says Syntax about how they first met. 'I think he gave Stig Of The Dump a beat tape once, or a beat CD that's how long ago it was, about 2007. You'd get loads of them knocking around the house, and Pete's stood out. He was called Mr. Dick at the time, and he'd drawn this stick figure with a huge penis on it. I saw that on the table one day and thought 'what's that'!? I put it in and there were these crazy beats. I think he changed his name eventually because Americans didn't want to buy his beats off him on MySpace, so he called himself something much more gangsta like Pete Cannon'.

I am interested to know just what it is that makes their partnership work so well. 'Well, (laughs) apart from the fact that we're just really good mates, I think it's the fact that we've got a lot of respect for what each other does, and we're not competing in any way. It's not two rappers trying to get one over on each other; of course Pete has got some bars but he downplays it. It just works nicely; we play off each other, we've got the same sense of humour'. I agree that Killer Combo definitely sounds really natural and a genuine collaboration and Dr Syntax goes on to say, 'I think these last two albums have been the most fun I've had making albums really for a long time, since maybe the first one, so I'm glad that comes across'.

That 'first one' is Self Taught. Released back in 2007, when the landscape for hip-hop in the UK was very different, it was one of my first introductions into MCs from our own shores, and is still one of my most played albums. 'I suppose it's the influence of having grown up and having different things to talk about. Having different immediate influences musically and the people around me' says Syntax when I ask how his music has grown since his debut's release. 'I was working with two great producers for most of it, The Evil Sun and Ido. Their music was quite introspective and dark in places, and that made me react to that backdrop. That album was made over about four years; you know the first album always takes the longest. At best I would say that there are some good introspective, thoughtful musings on there, at worst to me it sounds all a bit too serious. I was at that age where you're taking life very seriously. Over the last few years a key factor is I take it a lot less seriously', Syntax quickly clarifies, 'I'm serious about making the best music I can, but I want it to have a comic edge to it'.

I ask how he's seen the scene change over those same years. 'It's crazy. I've seen it completely nosedive and die on its arse, and then rise like a phoenix from the ashes, and be something quite big and exciting again. When I was touring with the Foreign Beggars and things like that, I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to be sharing the stage with people like Task Force and Skinnyman. Then there was a point where the creativity dried up a bit; Dubstep emerged, a new generation came through and they didn't want to hear hip-hop from the UK. Things we were doing got relegated to smaller venues, there was a smaller fan base. A lot of the people who were the support acts, or the people booking the likes of myself and Stig when we were touring together, are now the ones that everyone's going crazy for. The likes of Dirty Dike, Leaf Dog, BVA, the High Focus guys. They were on the come up then, and now they've created something colossal, and it's had a knock-on effect for everyone'.

After seeing Foreign Beggars absolutely kill it at this year's Boom Bap Festival, and having seen Syntax's excellent live show numerous times before, I ask him what he learnt from his early years touring with them. 'They'd got an idea of how to perform well and structure a show from early on. They were very much from day one geared to having a show where you come out, do some songs with a big impact, then bring a guest on, then doing something else crazy, then having a freestyle section, and end on some big tear out crazy stuff, which they've now taken to the next level of course, and going into a whole different realm of music. I was very lucky to tour with them just being a guest, seeing what you could do before I had to put myself out there and carve my own niche, it was a great education'.

Dr. Syntax's live resume is extensive, and his work with The Mouse Outfit, is certainly very impressive. I ask how he got involved with them. 'I met them through a night they had called In The Loop. They were getting to a point where they wanted to put a show together, and it worked really nicely because I already had a back catalogue. As well as that the younger generation in Manchester just came through, there are all these crazy MCs like Sparkz, Truthos Mufasa who are all part of it as well. It's quite an organic thing really. I think we met each other at a time where I'd come up north trying to re-establish myself and put a new show together, and they wanted an MC with a back catalogue who could hold it down in front of a crowd, so it worked perfectly'.

I ask if he has a preference when working with the band or with a DJ. 'I like them both. It keeps it interesting for me. I love being with The Mouse Outfit. It's much more of a test on your own with a DJ, and I like that and I think that's important, but at the same time having a band behind you opens a lot more doors. As soon as the band starts playing, it doesn't matter if you're into hip-hop or not, everyone watching is going to be interested'.

The Evidence EP is Syntax's latest project; an EP in collaboration with Mouse Outfit producer Pitch. 'It really came out of Step Steadier, the last Mouse Outfit Album' says Syntax when I ask how the project came about. 'A few things didn't end up on the album for whatever reason. There was no need to let them fall by the wayside, so we made a few more tracks. We'd meant to work on an EP since before The Mouse Outfit was what it is today. I met up with Pitch and started making tracks together in about 2010, and then of course I was brought into the fold with The Mouse Outfit, and those tracks became the tracks that were on Escape Music. It was always on the cards and I think we'll be doing some more as well. I feel like he needs his shine as well, he's kind of tucked away at the back of The Mouse Outfit, so it was good to get his face in a video and on a record cover so people know who he is; he's a talented chap'!

Pitch's production is very nineties inspired, very summery. I ask where he drew his inspiration from when writing for the project. 'Well like you say, he's got that nineties style, and a lot of the inspiration that I'll get to write something comes from the beat I get given. I wanted to make something that was different to what I was doing with Pete. When I make stuff with Pete Cannon I make sort of freak out, tongue in cheek, silly and humorous type stuff. I wanted The Evidence to be a bit more introspective, a bit more thoughtful in ways. That kind of marries itself very well with Pitch's style'.

EPs in rap music are becoming more and more common in the current musical climate. I ask Syntax if he thinks that's a good thing. 'Yeah I think so. It's making use of the resources that are available now. If you work on an album, you slave away for a long time, and if you're not the biggest artist in the world with a big promotional budget, it can just be a bit of a drop in the ocean of other releases. If you've got five or six songs and you put an EP out every couple of months or so, your name is still there, there's something fresh. At the same time, I still love the art of making an album, that shouldn't be lost'.

On Killer Combo Syntax and Cannon worked with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien on Do What We Wanna Do, which also featured UK legend Jehst. I ask how that manifested itself. 'We had the same agent, his British agent, about five years ago. He was doing a one-off show in Manchester at a club called The Roadhouse. We managed to hook up at the end, and I went to his hotel room the next day, and just hung out and chilled with him for a few hours, which was amazing; he's one of my heroes. We put that together and then I got Jehst involved. I didn't really have a place for it for a long time; I was sitting on that track for a good couple of years. Then when the album came together with Pete, I thought that was perfect. It just sort came back out of the woodwork'.

I ask whether there are any collaborations outside the box that we look out for. 'I've done an interesting one with Kathika, who is a singer and an MC. She fronts Slamboree, which is very much outside the hip-hop scene. That's on the new album. I think Big Daddy Kane would be the ultimate person to collaborate with, but we've all got our dreams. I'd just have to do a crap Big Daddy Kane impression (laughs).'

Elaborate Anoraks comes out on September 23rd. 'It's in a way more of the same of the style that people have heard on Killer Combo, but it's kind of more focussed towards what's going to convert well when we play live' says Syntax about the project. 'In the last year we've been working with a band, and although it's not a band recording, the tracks Pete has produced have been geared towards how it's going to be played live; it's all pretty banging stuff. I'm happy with how it sounds.'

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Syntax what else he has planned for the future. 'This week, I'm on tour with The Mouse Outfit in Europe, we're going all over the place. Paris, Turin, Slovenia, and we end up at Outlook Festival in Croatia. I'm just late for the rehearsal right now, so I'm about to jump in the cab and go to that. Then lots of promo for the Elaborate Anoraks album, and then a tour. Then there's another Mouse Outfit tour. I might just burn out and wear myself out by the end of the year, but it'll be fun doing it.'