Once in a generation, a pop band emerges who are simply better than the rest. For the Millennium Generation (teens through the twenties), it's Rizzle Kicks: not only unique, irresistible and funny (as we already know) but smarter than the rest.
Two years on from their jazzily-dazzling hip-pop debut Stereo Typical (top 5 album in the UK with three world-class top 10 singles Down With the Trumpets, When I Was A Youngster, Mama Do The Hump) and their second, Roaring ‘20s, is no less than a generational milestone. Still infused with their trademark sounds - old-school hip-hop, jazz-swing jubilance, ska-pop trumpets and the bantering wit of a whip-smart MC duo (now with added depth, power and sophistication) - the pair are now homing inwards, with a state-of-the-nation commentary on what it means to be 21. In 2013. Roaring ‘20s does what proper art does, reflects the times, a forensic examination of an often beleaguered generation, too easily written-off, the one which grew up in the cultural shallows of instant fame, Reality TV chancers and the self-absorption of the technology which defines it. Then there's money (lack of it), employment (lack of it) and the perennial, awkward trials of sex, love and relationships. With jokes.And supporting-role performances from Jamie Cullum's twinkling jazz piano,
the deathless riff from EMF's 1991 dance-floor detonator Unbelievable and the sound of guest “vocalist” Dominic West (thespian titan from The Wire) doing what appears to be an impersonation of a catastrophically “refreshed” Oliver Reed. How it feels to be 21 in 2013, then, is this: explosively alive, creatively unstoppable, emotionally chaotic and generally completely mental.
“We're young and fun but it gets to the point where people think we're so young and fun it's almost a novelty,” notes the gifted MC (and soul singer) Harley 'Sylvester' Alexander-Sule, 21. “People think, 'oh we can dress Rizzle Kicks up like bananas and they'll run around doing backflips'. But we're not really like that at all. There's a lot more. We're writers. We wrote Down With The Trumpets when we were 16. Which is pretty mad.”
“When you get widespread exposure, sometimes it can blind the audience that might enjoy it the most,” adds Jordan 'Rizzle' Stephens, gifted MC and lyricist, the smartest 21 year old in pop music today. “We're moving on from the kids who made you dance to kids who've actually got something to say.”
Roaring ‘20s was mostly created in Shepherd's Bush, west London, in the tiny home studio of Stereo Typical producer Ant Whiting (British producer/song-writer/mixer whose career began with ground-breaking work on M.I.A's debut Anular). Work began as soon as Stereo Typical was released in 2011, Rizzle Kicks escaping from “the madness” back to Whiting's family home, delving into his “bucket-load of samples”, the pair overflowing with ideas, even as Stereo Typical was turning them into household names.
"There was no rush, no deadlines. We'd have dinner, wine and make music. Totally chilled.”
“We didn't get that 'difficult second album' thing because were just so excited to get back and write, any time we could find,” says Harley. “And what was great was there was never any stress because we were still in the cycle of our first album. There was no rush, no deadlines. We'd have dinner, wine and make music. Totally chilled.”
“We've definitely become better song-writers on this record,” adds Jordan. “Better written choruses and melodies. I've definitely come on as a rapper. A bunch of people don't even know Harley can really sing, if you're basing it on Mama Do The Hump. It's quite cool. That we've left it to the second album for the big reveal!”
Roaring ‘20s is a revelation alright, a kaleidoscopic riot of creative energy (as befits life in your 20s). The song That’s Classic arrives immediately, the Daisy Age hip-hop head-spinner which name-checks Daniel Radcliffe and includes the irresistible chorus, “we get up to all kinda antics...there's another one, that's classic!” Album opener is the foreboding This Means War, an anxious rumination on the teenage traumas of dismissive teachers and estate life rivalries (“estate war, what you got an aggie face for?”), as visceral as old-school Eminem. First single proper is Lost Generation, a formidable ska-pop treatise on the “morphine” of Reality TV, featuring the first-know appearance in pop of the words “hash-tag trend!” Not since The Specials 30-odd years ago have bad times sounded so good.
“Big Brother started off as a tongue-in-cheek spin on George Orwell, it was intelligent and reality TV's taken a weird, downward spiral,” muses the ever-analytical Jordan. “The Hills. Paris and Nicole do some shit and film it. Fake reality. Now, it's just find a section of the population we can laugh at. Honey Boo Boo. Big Brother can't even catch up with the rate telly's developed. Loads of things freak me out. But you've gotta roll with the punches.”
You've also got to dance. Second single, the pulverising dance-floor smash-up Skip To The Good Bit features a saucy female vocal suggesting we all “skip to the good bit” before the unmistakable riff from EMF's Unbelievable drops like a sonic cluster-bomb (this album's “and-then-the-room-goes-off” moment). The madness continues with Put Your 2's Up, produced by Fatboy Slim (sonic alchemist behind the mighty Mama Do The Hump), featuring an increasingly wasted Dominic West imploring the planet to “raise your glasses and shake your arses...and party til the night is through!” (before, eventually, he throws up). Elsewhere there's Lunatic, as atmospherically rich as the Wu Tang Clan where Jordan declares “I'm a teenage mutant ninja freaking genius” while his teachers tell him he's “useless” (also featuring, on vocals, Jordan's mum). Then there's Jamie Cullum on The Reason I Live (about holding onto hope, in Neasden) and several romantic vignettes infused with lust, quips, honesty and regret: Don't Bring Me Down (“love is a Class A substance, and I don't wanna take it”), I Love You More Than You Think (recalling a youthful, comedy PM Dawn), Me Around You (comedy ska-pop thrills) while sparkling reggae-pop closer Wind Up features
the mellow vocals of Rizzle's dreadlocked live bass player, the incorrigible character known as Jordan's Dad. Roaring Twenties stars “random” vocalists throughout on raps, skits and female backing vocals (friends, favourite up-coming artists and family). “We just wanted loads of different voices,” notes Harley. “Not 'featuring so-and-so' but just popping up here and there.” “There's tons of good singing,” chirps Jordan. “Purely for the good of people's ears.”
So much for the “dumbed down” generation...
Roaring ‘20s is even smarter than it seems, a pin-sharp picture of life in your twenties which simultaneously reflects the 1920s, the historical Roaring Twenties. The album title sprang, in fact, from Jordan's obsession with the era, a lifelong film buff besotted with Woody Allen's Oscar-winning romantic fantasy Midnight In Paris (2011), Stephen Fry's Bright Young Things (2003) and the lives of Earnest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald (references you don't often hear from Kids These Days). Jordan has a theory and it goes some way to illustrate pop's most inquisitive mind.
“I was fascinated by the idea that before the 1920s there were Victorians,” he explains. “The change of a woman from wearing corsets to becoming a flapper girl. It was like the metropolitan cities of the world went from black and white to colour. Gay people started arriving. Black people started performing to white people. White people didn't mind black people so much. There was more of a free spirit. And that directly correlates with human age. If you say 1914 to 1918 was World War I and put that into the context of a human life, 14 to 18 is end of GCSE's, you're just becoming legal, hormones have all kicked it, I'd definitely describe it as a war, trying to get a job, all this shit kicks off. Then you get into the roaring 1920s and that whole mentality is very reflective of what it's like in your 20s, the time to have fun.
The punch-line being that after the 20s is the 30s, the great depression, and people always whinge about turning 30! So it's a parallel. Music could be seen as being black and white and we're dipping some colour into it. We're the personification of the 1920s.”
Blimey. So much for the “dumbed down” generation...
Rizzle Kicks have been mates forever, pals in north London aged five, who separately moved to Brighton aged 11, who both attended the Brit School back in London where neither studied music. Jordan opted for media, hoping to become a film-maker (his granddad is John Boulting, director of classic British movie Brighton Rock starring Richard Attenborough), while Harley studied theatre, intending to become an actor. Besotted with old-school Golden Era hip-hop (late 80s to early 90s, especially De la Soul and A Tribe Called Quest), Lily Allen and Arctic Monkeys (sometime indie-kid Harley has a Libertines lyric tattooed on his arm), they pooled their musical passions into the Rizzles unique sound and by 16 were making DIY bedroom demos, three of which appeared on Stereo Typical including debut single and first Top 10 hit, Down With The Trumpets, championed by (hitherto unknown hip-hop connoisseur) Stephen Fry, who enthusiastically tweeted to his several million followers, “unexpectedly loving the old-school hip hop sounds of Rizzle Kicks”.
Ever since, like a pair of MC meerkats (taller than the rest), they've towered over contemporary pop, cheering up the nation, a cross-over phenomenon loved by the public aged 6 to 60, admired by peers who've become friends and collaborators (Ed Sheeran, Tinie Tempah, Example, Professor Green, Jessie J), an exuberant live show spectacular (with stunning band) where bras, routinely, are thrown upwards into their cackling faces. Their social media connections are vast: 55.8 million views on YouTube and Vevo, 1.3 million Twitter followers, 1.1 million Facebook likes, 182,000 Instagram followers, 1.2 million soundcloud plays...and counting. Today, they're part of the nation's entertainment landscape, immersing themselves in all the opportunities preposterous showbiz presents: appearing on Celebrity Juice, presenting a comedy award to Morgana Robinson, hanging out with This Is England acting hero Stephen Graham (who told them he loved their music), attending Alan Carr's Summer Spectacular, alongside Stephen Fry, Justin Bieber, David Walliams and the cast of Made In Chelsea.
“I'm continually bewildered by the fact I've managed to wiggle my way into situations socially with people I shouldn't really be socialising with,” blinks Jordan. “People off the telly! I've got a massive love for film and telly and I've been analysing how power works.”
“Essentially, Roaring ‘20s is just great music”
In 2012 they were hand-picked by ITV to present ITV2's Red Carpet Interviews at The Brits (and further backstage bedlam), attempting to wiggle some sense from the likes of Dave Grohl. Soon, that night, the pair were sliding down celebrity couches, goofy smiles spreading on bewildered faces.
“We were pissed,” confesses Jordan. “That day was definitely one of the moments.”
It doesn't get more roaring ‘20s than that. As does the Roaring ‘20s artwork: our heroes cavorting on one of the London Mayor's legendary Boris Bikes one hazy metropolitan night (they've now relocated from Brighton to west London), an action shot taken on
a camera-phone by “some dude we didn't particularly know”, who then tweeted it directly to the Rizzles. “It could,” decides Jordan, ”be iconic!” In 2013, they've already toured the U.S with Ed Sheeran, worked on four songs with Pharrell Williams in Miami (the results of which we may hear next year, including one “stand-out clear-cut banger”) while in 2014 touring the planet beckons. “We're not averse,” twinkles Jordan, “to world domination!” It's for the good, after all, of the planet's ears.
“Essentially, Roaring ‘20s is just great music,” concludes Jordan, rightly. “There's grooves, ideas, I just hope everyone can lock in. People have only heard music which is a reflection of us in our 19 year old heads. And 20 to 21 is a big year in anyone's life, so it's great to fast forward two years. I'm really excited. I think we've outdone ourselves. But not strayed away from ourselves. We're still 'us', because that's where we sit best.”
Rizzle Kicks are the best. Better than the rest•