In Depth: Defenders Of Style
Known as one of the most active hip-hop collectives from Leeds, after gaining notoriety for freestyling and rap battling together in school, Defenders Of Style have always been a tight clique. Although various members have come and gone; the quadret Jack Danz, Disgust, Prys & Joe Snow have prevailed on the roster since their 2009 debut, Thoughts Of The Nameless. Fast-forward over 10 releases later to 2018, their combined passion for producing quality, consistent hip-hop remains a phenomenal force to be reckoned with. Their growing talent is demonstrated clearly with their latest release, Upper Echelon. Although this project takes a step back from the dark boom-bap DoS are renowned for, the 11 track album perpetuates their new sound laced with dynamic flavours, which has proved hectic to witness at live showcases. Despite Joe Snow moving to Australia, it has only opened more avenues which shall become apparent over the coming year. On a snowy night in Headingly, Jack Danz, Disgust & Prys revealed their uninhibited insights and intentions of the Upper Echelon album.
Firstly what has inspired your work-rate over the years?
JD: It's enjoyable for us, I think that's the key. It's a labour of love. You need to have quality control, you could be ploughing stuff out left right and centre but what good is that? We prefer waiting until we've got some gold from start to finish.
D: We scrapped about two albums worth of material for Upper Echelon. We probably could have put out two albums a lot quicker but...
P: To be fair, compared to others our work-rate isn't full throttle. You hit a certain age where you need to start paying your rent legitimately rather than... you know, other means. I think we just all have a passion for putting out consistent quality and that's the most important thing. Over the years it'd have been very easy for us to put stuff out, but Danz is a perfectionist, that's kind of rubbed off on us as well. We've put an album out every two years, that's how long it takes for us in to put an album out that has every single track that's worth putting on there.
When did the creation process for Upper Echelon begin?
P: Those two had a track down, Stronger Loving World, which is probably my favourite track on the album. It was almost like a little project that those two were working on. We thought it was the basis of an album, we just jumped on it. At the time it was recorded, these boys were just living in a flat on the same road as me, so it was easy just to wander up and chill. We did Georgia, that was like the first track we recorded for the album after Stronger Loving World. Then we were just kicking it every single night. Even if we weren't recording, we just watching bare music videos of music that we were into at the time. A lot of bass-heavy music, Flatbush Zombies and stuff like that. We were subconsciously being inspired by this new sound. At the same time, we still wanted to keep that gritty, boom-bap sound that Defenders are known for.
D: It evolved from Stronger Loving World, it kind of turned into something else. It went from dark and eery boom-bap to start with, really minimalist boom-bap. It turned really bass heavy and turned out the way it did. The Upper Echelon process turned into what it was, to broaden our horizons on live sets as well. Back in the day we used to smash house parties off loads. Me personally, I used to do grime back in the day, then loads of other different genres at house parties and that.
P: We've been doing a lot of stuff with Northaze and Jack Jetson as well, when you see those boys in a set - Pertrelli, Teknico, all Tha Office boys as well - the live energy that they bring to a set is sick. Sometimes we were jumping on to do our sets with Death Of Meaning, I'm not saying it's bad or anything, but the energy levels of the type of the music is down...
JD: It doesn't receive the same response, does it? Obviously there's a time and a place for both styles, we try to come with a contrast of styles.
P: Norf Leeds, There You Go were the key bangers that were in a way inspired by their live sets. We needed tracks that would bring the same energy that Northaze and Tha Office bring when they do live sets. So we're inspired by the people we worked with as well.
Did Joe Snow being in Australia hinder your creation process?
JD: He's working on his own stuff in Australia and we've been working on ours. I guess we were just making this project for the shows we'd be doing when he wasn't here. He features on one track in Upper Echelon. It didn't really hinder the creation process because it was us three creating it.
P: The album was put together for that reason alone. When we did Death Of Meaning, there was me, Jack and Joe. Then he went to Australia about a month after dropping it. So when we were getting all this exposure and lots of gigs being thrown at us, it was just me and Jack doing it.
D: I had a kid so missed out of the picture.
P: Yeah, Jago didn't feature on that album but we didn't want the same thing to happen with Upper Echelon. So in the nicest way possible, we didn't want to turn up to shows and not be able to do a handful of tracks because one person wasn't there.
JD: Defenders Of Style is an umbrella term. It's got everyone within this clique, but at the same time it doesn't matter if we're working on projects separately or with all of us. We'll always be together in that sense.
Why doesn’t the album feature any collaborations?
P: For us to get in a room together and make a track is hard enough to do in general, so we may as well box off the product rather than waiting on other people to get back to us. 90% of the time, the album's unfinished and you're waiting around for the person to put their verse down. Secondly, 80% of the tunes made on that album are made because of the vibe happening in that room. If you're sending the beat over to somebody and you've got a vibe in your head about how it's going to roll, when their verse comes back it might not be on the same wavelength..
JD: The problem is with collaborations, 90% of the time you can't do them live properly. You'd have to re-arrange the beat or whatever. We wanted stuff to play at live sets, that was the aim for the album.
You're arguably the most successful hip-hop group out of Leeds. Does it feel like it?
P: Personally I did it because of my love for the art. If someone had said to me that my music would take me to different countries, stages or whatever, meeting and working with artists then yeah, I'd say I've been the most successful artist ever. It doesn't matter about making money and blowing up. It's good to see people from the scene actually doing that like Rag N Bone Man, Ocean Wisdom doing shit with Dizzee Rascal. It's fucking huge and it's about time that shit happened. The amount of talent that the UK has got, people like Stormzy and Skepta opening doors and paving the way making rap music.
D: Even thinking of the Four Owls linking with DJ Premier and everything like that, it's big. I'd love to just not doing anything else apart from music. It'd be great to not work 60 hours a week in kitchens chopping shit up, shouting at co-workers... I'd rather shout about motherfuckers in rap.
Did the release date have any significance - was there a reason it dropped when it did?
P - No it was just when it was ready. In fact you know what, I'd say this has been the most organised release we've done by far. There's been times we said we'd commit to a date and then it's three hours before release date and we realise no-one's done the artwork or something. But this one we got a press pack put together, the artwork was knocked up perfectly. I don't really want to talk about it too much, but there was a lot of thought that went into 'Easter Eggs' on the album. So far I've only noticed only one person's clocked it. Then there's one thing on the hard copies album that's fucking genius. I don't think anyone's clocked it yet but it's genius. If you get a hard copy of that album, you'll find the 'Easter Egg' and a hidden secret somewhere. We're not going to say it til people start clocking it. There's so many clues, everything from names to tracks to the visuals in there, it's all based around one thing that controls everybody's lives. It's very clever and that's why this is my favourite release we've ever done. The amount of time, effort, passion and though process that went into making it what it is, then looking at the finish product I think it's the best thing we've done.
What were you trying to portray with this release that people hadn't heard before?
P: Just give us a load of free beer and yak, we'll go mental with a banging playlist. Whilst we were making the release, we used to get stoned and think about a load of shit. Out of that came the 'Easter Egg' that we've been talking about. We wanted to test people to see if anyone would figure it out. I hope someone finds it, otherwise there's been a lot of fucking thought gone to waste. It kind of worked backwards, we had this idea then started putting clues into it. The meanings came from those clues, I can't really say much without giving it away...
D: We wanted it to be a bit more lively for sets, we wanted to bring more vibrance to the set. Something which people could actually go screwface to, but still keeping in the same vein as Defenders Of Style. We wanted to have a different kind of approach to it as well so we can kick in with one of those hard, heavy wobblers which people would go mad to.
Can you relieve a memorable day in the studio creating Upper Echelon?
P: One time we got baked as fuck when we made There You Go. The beat was pounding away and you know them Ristorante pizzas, they got the picture of pizza on the box? Disgust was eating his pizza off the box without a plate. He gets to the end of the pizza, he was so stoned that when the track finished, he went to pick another slice of pizza up but was just grabbing at the picture on the fucking box. That was a high moment.
Upper Echelon is out now @ http://defendersofstyle.bandcamp.com
Words by Evo
Photos by Rob Searle