words: Jack Tractor
pics: Chris Saunders
"If we signed to a big record company they'd want us to get tattoos, work on our pecs... and rap about cars and guns but we can't do that because that's not what we are. Hip-hop is about being real.”
We've got most of the Hoodz ranged across a garage door as Chris the photographer arranges them to fill the lens. J-Poet (who looks like a young Ice Cube) shapes up to the camera as D-Damage looks up into the sky. Coroner and B-Plate take the mick out of the others claiming they look like catalogue models while DJ Looch looks on... "Give Over," Johnny Atcha tells them.
The Hoodz Underground may well be comin' atcha but not from the East or West coasts of America. This crew swarm in from far more exotic climes, Heeley, Pittsmoor and Sharrow. British hip-hop has taken an age to find its own voice and a strand of it, a multi-headed outfit with a new EP, ‘Where Ya From’, in the shops, has a broad Sheffield accent.
Fortunately for dictaphoning purposes Sandman doesn't have to contend with 8 voices (Raw Deal and Menace don't make it to the photoshoot) and Sandman meets Johnny on Ecclesall Road on a lovely sunny day. Johnny's the organizer, the motor behind the outfit. He's a driven man and in a shady part of the concrete pub garden he details the ambitions of the group, the sheer hard work that has gone into getting to where they are now and the numerous obstacles that face a young black group who aren't gangstas and want to get their music out of the underground.
"Back in the early ‘Nineties we'd all go to The Hub, a kind of youth project behind Mount Pleasant. It was one of the only places where you could listen to hip-hop in the city. We just started free-styling together or we'd end up in flats rapping all night. A DJ called J-Rugged (you can find him in Reflex Records in town) had a show on SCR, a pirate radio station [which, unusually, broadcasted for over ten years seven days a week] and we used to go on there. I've got some old tapes. We were terrible but you can hear that there was some raw talent there. It was a long time before we actually started going out and doing it in front of people. But, because the station broadcasted beyond Sheffield, people on the street would know who we were, it’s where the Underground thing comes from."
"The problem with British hip-hop at the time was you'd put on a record by an American hip-hop outfit and it would sound so powerful then you'd follow it with a British track and it would sound really weak and at the time there was only really stuff going on in London and Bristol. There was very little in the North."
Apart from the small scale of the scene the Hoodz faced another more fundamental problem. Get the Hoodz together for a photo shoot and you’ve have a cheerful bunch of Sheffield lads having a crack. Put them in a photo or onstage and you start to get problems with preconceptions.
"It's hard to stand together because, I don't know, maybe we look intimidating but that's not why we are there. It's the problem of image particularly with black urban male youth. I know that I'll keep getting stopped by the police and there are arenas where I'm well aware that I have to walk on eggshells and that's just the way it is.”
"If we signed to a big record company they'd want us to get tattoos, work on our pecs put us in white vest tops, wear gold jewelry and rap about cars and guns but we can't do that because that's not what we are.”
Close your eyes while you're listening to the Hoodz and you'll not be transported to Compton or Queens, "We're not going to give it 'motherfucker this, motherfucker that. It's not us, we're from Sheffield. We'd probably call someone a cunt." Most of the slang they use is their own, 'steamy as a fishcake' describes the fug when you've got three big lads in the back of a mini, trackshicker, their own label is their own expression when an MC has laid out a particularly heavy verse and they're using their own experiences rather than borrowing from the bling-bling world of MTV. "We're working on a track at the moment called 'Living On G's' which sounds like grands as in thousands but Gs mean giros. Each of the MC’s mission is to get himself across to the audience. Big Critz (a guest who fronts the hilarious track 'The Clinic' detailing the experiences of visiting the clap removal sevices) will rap about shopping in Netto's or Aldi's while Damage might be a bit more street. It's just the way they are. Hip-hop is about being real.”
Eventually the Hoodz started to get out of Sheffield, “J-Rugged was DJing all over the place and started to pass the word on about us so we started getting out to Leeds and Liverpool and places like that.”
Westwood, the barely comprehensible Radio 1 DJ who announces the Hoodz on the ‘Where Ya From’ EP stepped in in 1997 when the outfit got through to the last 14 of his Talent 2000 competition. Jonny points it out as a moment when the outfit got serious.
“I can’t knock Westwood, some people say he should do this or do that but there are plenty of people doing nothing. He’s funny though, we were hanging out in his studio and taking some photos and he was doing all this West Coast stuff with his hands so we were just looking at each other and giving the thumbs up for the camera. He didn’t have a clue.”
But the national attention was the catalyst for the Hoodz to get serious. “We started researching the business, went for funding and learnt a lot. It was hard work. Essentially the Hoodz took on the indie DIY ethic of the 1980s and worked their arses off.”
“We decided we need to get something out there so we made our first EP, ‘The Hard Cop’ and just got in our cars and distributed it ourselves. I was talking to a PR company in London and they were asking for £500 and promising us they’d get us in the magazines and we can actually do that for ourselves anyway.”
Talk turns to boxing. Jonny used to box out of Glyn Rhodes gym as an amateur and reached the point where he took the medical required to turn pro. He points out the clear parallels between the music and fight industries. Each can be dirty vicious businesses but each can reward persistence, dedication and self belief. "How much do you want it? Is what it all boils down to." He points out the prodigious work ethics of fighters such as Herrol 'Bomber' Graham (perhaps one of the finest fighters never to win a world title) and Clinton Woods, Sheffield's unflashy fighter who, last year earned a title shot against Roy Jones, the best fighter in the world over the last ten years. There are lessons learnt from the fight game that Jonny clearly hasn’t forgotten.
"We were all young guys and used to try to be flash, boxing with our hands held low that kind of thing [one of the best ways to get yourself knocked out] just trying to out-do each other and Clinton would just come in, get on with it and train really hard. Then we all went down to London to watch him win the Commonwealth title. The next week we’d be watching him just sitting there reading the newspaper. He brought his belt in to show people in a Sainsbury’s bag. There were signs all over the place saying things like, ‘The only thing worse than carrying on is giving up.’ We’d still be rapping whatever because we’re pasionate about it, we love it and we’ve got the hunger.’
Go and see the Hoodz, you’ll see a frantic full stage with the MCs vying for attention. You won’t see the ten years that they’ve already got under their belts and which still sees them on the beginnings rungs of something but with, at least a solid foundation the hold the ladder straight.
They're currently debating whether to release an album or another EP in September. The way Jonny sees it an album will take them to another level clearly signaling their intent. Good luck to ‘em. A chat with Jonny and you know they’re fighters not thugs.