Nottingham’s star beatmakers: Mike Atkinson meets the P Brothers, the unlikely new kings of hip-hop.
Few saw the P Brothers coming last year, when the attention of hip-hop fans was fixed upon the likes of Lil’ Wayne and Young Jeezy rather than on a pair of fortysomethings from Nottinghamshire. But the P Brothers’ debut album, The Gas, was voted the second best rap album of 2008 by Hip Hop Connection magazine – nine places ahead of Lil’ Wayne and 12 ahead of Young Jeezy. Not that they are exactly stars: if you’ve heard of the P Brothers at all, perhaps you’ve heard the received wisdom that they only work with US rappers; they think hip-hop died in the mid-1990s; they’re a pair of mithering old grumps, locked into a perpetual 1988. The first is demonstrably false; the second and third require further qualification.
In the flesh, Paul S and DJ Ivory present themselves as affable, thoughtful and disarmingly sincere. They’re quick to claim kinship with John Peel, acknowledging his early influence and later support. Indeed, their whole ethos – fiercely independent, determinedly purist – is recognisably Peelite. It sets them worlds apart from the self-glorifying materialism which informs popular perceptions of commercial hip-hop – and they take pride in maintaining that distance.
Recorded in Nottingham and New York, and released on the duo’s own Heavy Bronx label, The Gas has been a long time coming. Paul and Ivory have been hip-hop DJs since the mid-80s, and they’ve been producers, label bosses and 12-inch recording artists since the turn of the decade – but only last year was the time right for a full-blown P Brothers album.
“Everything we’ve done business-wise has been bad timing,” says Ivory. “We started putting out records when people weren’t buying records, and we’ve put out our first CD album at a time when no one’s buying CDs. We just operate in a weird kind of way, that feels right to us.”
The Gas is vocalised wholly by New York MCs. Their rhymes roll at an even, measured pace, the deftly layered, lovingly sourced breaks and beats rising up to meet them. The brooding soulfulness of the music matches well with the gritty subject matter – but when it comes to lyrical content, the P Brothers maintain a non-interventionist stance. “You can’t tell people what to say,” says Paul. “Politicians might do that, but rappers? No; it’s their life and their angle.”
“They’re in a social situation where they’re not living a life of luxury”, adds Ivory. “So you hear them rap in a certain kind of way. It’s heartfelt, and it’s because of their circumstances.”
With its street-based lyrical flow and its emphasis on 1970s analogue samples, The Gas consciously adheres to the rules laid down by hip-hop’s forefathers. “We’ve been into this since 1983, so that real important rule book of hip-hop is within you,” Ivory says. “It’s part of your everyday rules. The way in which you behave with people is defined by hip-hop. It has to be.” He feels the quality of hip-hop has been diluted in recent years, and that too many people are trying to force hip-hop away from its old precepts. “Good stuff’s coming out all the time,” he says. “But when you went into an import shop back in the day, there were probably only three new hip-hop records out, and they were all good. Whereas now there’s 300 hip-hop records out, and there’s probably still three good ones in there.”
The prevalence of so much “absolute garbage” is what led the P Brothers to steer their own creative course. “It’s the only reason we’ve put out records,” Ivory admits. Their journey took them to the Bronx, attracting the attention of old-school stalwart Sadat X of Brand Nubian. Word of mouth spread, tapes were passed around, and the collaborations started flowing. As for the recent critical acclaim, the Brothers appear largely unmoved – “In terms of what we do, it doesn’t really mean anything,” Ivory says. But when pushed, he agrees it might help steer their work towards “the right people, that can’t find those three good hip-hop records that we were talking about.”
Including Guardian readers? “Perhaps they can put it next to their Massive Attack albums,” suggests Paul.