There’s a point, when you’re in a certain headspace, where you feel you can actually do anything we want to do, and not really have any preconception about it,” says Nick Hallam. And for him and his long-time Stereo MCs partner, Rob Birch, their journey into sound has been constantly defined by the battles they’ve had to fight for creative freedom – not with record companies or industry figures, but from the pressures they put themselves under. To many pop fans, the Stereos are the group who burned bright in the early ’90s, when their third LP, Connected, won two Brit Awards and shifted millions of copies, and who then disappeared for the next decade. But as their new album, The Emperor’s Nightingale, suggests, the true story is much more complicated – and far more fascinating – than that.
Friends from Nottinghamshire who moved to London and discovered hip hop’s liberating potential during rap’s mid-to-late-’80s ‘golden age’, Hallam and Birch became Britain’s first global rap stars, paving the way for the Plan Bs and Dizzee Rascals. The first rap group to play at British rock festivals, they managed to fit everywhere and nowhere at once: appearing live with everyone from U2 to the Happy Mondays, from Living Color and Peter Gabriel to Jane’s Addiction and De La Soul, the Stereos were exceptions to every rule – the rap band rock fans could dig, the dance act it was cool for indie fans to groove to, sought-after as remixers, producers or collaborators by everyone from the Jungle Brothers to Madonna.
The first Stereo MCs single, Move It, was built on a tiny Casio keyboard atop a drum beat sampled from a cover version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. With third member, DJ Cesare, Rob and Nick took to the live circuit – for their first club Pas, travelling across London on the capital’s night bus network. They cut their first LP, 33 45 78, for ¬£15,000