Egyptian Hip Hop are an easy band to love. Or to hate, depending on your point of view. The most interesting people are divisive in this way. This interview is the story of a band who are loathed and loved for exactly the same reasons. By the end you’ll know where you stand. And they won’t care what you think.
At Manchester’s In The City Music Conference last year, a powder-puff of sneers billowed with every mention of Egyptian Hip Hop. The vitriol was curiously vocal, and this was confusing; local bands are usually praised unrealistically. It was this unusual venom that drew me to them.
I saw them play a short, inventive and brilliant set, and the day after, scurrilous rumours abounded: brattish post-gig behaviour, apathy towards outsiders who approached them, onstage surliness.
It said much about the Indie fraternity that these traits were seen as bad, and that these opinions were based on these perceived indiscretions, as opposed to the traditional criteria: songs, songs, songs.
The worst crime was, the gossipers’ subtext seemed to be, that they weren’t playing the game; they didn’t care about the PRs, the A&Rs, the tastemakers, and gave them short, teenage, shrift. The disrespect!
Five months after my first brush with Egyptian Hip Hop, the advice I was given was as expected. “Don’t interview them,” I was told, “they hate interviews. They won’t talk.”
I collared them anyway; before a gig in Salford’s Islington Mill, where they lounged on grimy sofas bleeding foam from cigarette burn-holes. The band members are young. They viewed me with a suspicion I recognised from my school days: that particular wariness reserved for over-eager trainee teachers.
We traipsed upstairs into a slightly warmer, marginally less grubby room that was doubling as backstage. Louis, sporting an even bigger, more vibrant, shock of hair than I remembered, took a beer from a box on a bowing pasting table and threw it to me.
We sat next to a surprisingly spiny abandoned Christmas tree. Alex, nominally the bassist, sat so close he was almost in my lap, and distractedly read a comic book. There was an expectant, weary pause. So I spoke first.
Gingerly, I wondered what it was like to be a band that was lauded so highly – the equally prevalent condemnation was left unmentioned, but it hung in the air – and how it felt to have a spotlight shone suddenly upon them, as part of the exciting, nascent Manchester music scene.
A pause. I got the feeling that singer Nick had been asked this before. He picked at his nails.
“In the past ten years, nothing’s really happened in Manchester. So everyone’s really excited. People are now just happy to be making music again. But the scene itself is just a coincidence.”
I dug around a bit and tried another tack. As a young band, I said, Egyptian Hip Hop must feel the pressure of Manchester’s musical history more than anyone. So was there a conscious decision to create music that was ‘non-Manchester’?
“We don’t go out of our way so much. It’s not conscious. This idea that we’re deliberately stepping out of this long shadow cast by ‘Madchester’ is being applied retrospectively. We never made that our intention. It’s helpful being based in Manchester, but we’d make this music wherever we came from.”
All the same, I say, the talk is of a new Manchester scene that has broken free from the past. The new crop seem totally disassociated with the Happy Mondays/New Order days; a disparate bunch that are all pulling in different directions, but working together.
Now, the band are animated. For Nick, the familial aspect of this arrangement is important.
“That has definitely kind of happened. We are friends with Delphic and Dutch Uncles for example, and we feed off each other, although we are making different music. It’s great that we can all be in Manchester, doing our own thing. There’s support, but we don’t rely on each other musically.”
The drummer, also called Alex, agrees.
“People are trying to drag it back to the past. Delphic are the new New Order. We’re the new Happy Mondays. (“I hate Happy Mondays,” spits Nick) Journalists are just clutching at straws. They want to put a genre onto us.”
In my eyes, I say, they’re the one Mancunian band who are genre-less, whose sound can’t be tied to anything in particular. This makes them uneasy.
“Well… we’re wary of that. We’d become pigeonholed as that band who can’t be pigeonholed. At the moment, we’re happy to keep everyone guessing. In a year, maybe they’ll know more about us and then people’s opinion is out our hands. And when people think they’ve got us down, we’ll do the complete opposite.”
So are you being consciously contrary? Again, unease.
“No. We just don’t know what we are yet. We don’t consider the impact of what we’re doing at all. The band is still gestating. Really, the main thing is that we don’t want to write a song we’ve written before. The stuff we recorded six months ago serves as a snapshot – it’s helpful, so we can see where we’ve changed. But there’s no plan, no deliberate contrariness.”
Yet they say pragmatism has its place, and when making songs they agonise over the balance between the reaction and the bloody mindedness that creation necessitates. Nick, again:
“Control is important. We do care about what people think. We spend whole days writing songs and then drop them.”
And speaking of dropping things, their first single has been put back while they sort out the artwork. They all agree that this is as good a reason as any to delay the release.
Abruptly, the Alex that is physically closest, but conversationally in another time zone, is alert. He puts down his book, sits up a fraction, fixes his stare beyond the far wall and says,
“We wanted the artwork to be quite arrogant.” The word stabs the conversation to a halt. His magpie eyes glint. “Good arrogant. Gold! Embossed! Royal! You know – quality.” Suddenly invigorated, he becomes just as suddenly fascinated by his book again.
At this point, the first band of the night strike up, and conversation ends. We file out, down the bare splintered stairs, back into the now-busy venue.
We mumble pleasantries, I marvel at their fringes for one last time, and they vanish into the gloomy corners. I wonder how they feel, pushing towards the stage through a crowd of punters who are, on the whole, a decade older than them.
These locals can remember first hand the Manchester scene of old. As a neat distraction, opening across the city centre that very night, is Peter Hook’s new Factory-themed nightclub. The choice is stark: the past or the future.
Outside of Manchester – in London – the band say reaction has been favourable. The crowds are busier, more understanding, less suspicious. I recalled the jibes, and realised they were rooted not in dislike, but in fear.
Egyptian Hip Hop‘s distant nature worries the majority who are now used to their bands bending their way – appearing on their social networks, updating via Twitter, posting empty weekly blog updates. Egyptian Hip Hop are not that band. They are weary of the usual: the usual songs, the usual bluster, the usual methods.
Of course Egyptian Hip Hop are surly. They’re teenagers. They’re also bright, opinionated and funny. During the interview, that supposed dislike of outsiders turned out to be nothing more than – guess what? – a youthful awkwardness that was, frankly, endearing. But they never really let me in, not once.
Why? Because they’re the best new band in Britain – wildly inventive, sharp and talented. And even they don’t know where they’re going. So why should they do what I want?