Mooching around Park Hill estate in 2016 is something of a surreal experience. Two-thirds of Europe’s largest listed structure remains unnervingly derelict, but references to its previous life as a home for over 3000 Sheffielders are visible throughout – from vacant chairs on balconies to disbanded washing lines still waiting to be taken in. In British society, however, nothing more alludes to prior settlement than a local boozer; and it is while stood outside the remnants of The Link – which previously served as one of the estate’s four pubs – that Exposed meets Kid Acne and DJ Benjamin Hatton, old friends who together make up hip-hop duo Mongrels.
After a hiatus lasting the best part of a decade, during which Acne embarked on his own music projects and released three popular LPs – Rap Traffic (2001), Council Pop (2003) and Romance Ain’t Dead (2007) – an unearthing of early demos have coaxed them back into the studio, with debut album Attack The Monolith scheduled for a June release. Taking a pew beside a large wall dividing the estate of old and the trendy Urban Splash redevelopment, we spoke about the group’s musical roots and what to expect from their return.
I’d imagine you’re quite familiar with this neck of the woods. Didn’t you have a couple of Kid Acne artworks displayed here?
KA: Yeah, there was the ‘Tha Knows’ piece which was situated just in front of the new development when it was still a concrete shell, and there was another wall with ‘You Couldn’t Make It Up’ across it. Apparently that has now been buried beneath the rubble, which I actually quite like. I can imagine them digging it up in 1,000 years’ time and thinking it’s some sort of weird religious text.
So you guys have known each other for a long time. How far back are we going here?
KA: Early 90s.
BH: Yeah, I’d say around ‘91 or ’92.
Take us back to that first meeting.
KA: It would’ve been at Leicester Clock Tower probably.
BH: We were both graffiti artists, which was the initial thing we met through, and over time we just started hanging out through that.
And how did the shift from doing graffiti together to making music as Mongrels come about?
KA: It was quite quick actually. I was just a teenager at that point. We went to different schools, but there wasn’t that many people into hip hop or graffiti, so through friends of friends you would hear about someone who had similar interests and you would link up with them. So we’d meet in the town centre and just go record shopping and stuff. It wasn’t that long after that we started making music.
BH: I had a turntable and stuff, but we also had mates that were in bands and had 4-track recorders so you’d start to knock up a bit of music for a laugh, then it started shaping it up a bit and it was probably the mid-90s when we really started establishing ourselves as Mongrels.
KA: Yeah, there was a big group of us at the start. My brother and a bunch of our mates were in bands and we’d organise gigs together in Leicester, but we were the two who were mostly into hip hop.
So what music specifically did you bond over? A lot of the old school UK hip hop, I’d imagine.
BH: Yeah, that was a big thing. I think the first gig we both went to was a group called Gunshot who, along with other groups like Hijack, were part of a whole genre called Britcore at the time. That stuff really suited us as adolescents: it was quite angry and bordered on heavy metal in the way it was delivered.
KA: Yeah, fast-paced like jungle but over hip-hop and with a lot of the same sort of breaks you’d get in heavy metal. It was a very British sound and you started hearing the first wave of UK MCs using their regional accents rather than trying to emulate American MCs.
And where did the MCing start for you? Can you remember when you first started writing down lyrics?
KA: It was a lot to do with painting graffiti, to be honest. There was bit of a trend for people painting pieces in like a hall of fame or a ball court to write a little bit of poetry or lyrics next to set the mood for the piece. It was a lot of teenage angst and probably really embarrassing to look back at, but that’s how it started! You start off with two lines, then four, then eight, then sixteen. One of the things with growing up in a small town, it was almost like there was no kind of preconceptions on how you’re meant to do it because there’s nothing to compare it to. Looking back, some of it was probably quite embarrassing and naïve, but you started somewhere because you wanted to do something creative regardless, and it was just a case of refining that bit by bit.
It’s that sense of taking something very much rooted in one culture, i.e. New York hip hop, and re-contextualising it with subjects relevant to your lives.
KA: I think so. It was the same with the graffiti to be honest: I loved New York graffiti, but at the end of the day, I lived in a small market town in the East Midlands.
I guess a lot of it’s about not kidding ourself and staying true to your surroundings.
KA: And there are people that don’t do that, who are adamant that they’re “keeping it real”, but for me you keep it stagnant and stop it from moving forward. Good, bad or ugly, do your own thing. When Roots Manuva first came out it was like: “Wow! There’s another interpretation of how you can do this, how you can merge sound system culture with hip hop”.
BH: That’s what hip hop always was and always is: it’s about taking what’s around you and being creative. I love the most violent, gritty, New York street records – but that’s what their thing was. It would be daft for us to try and do that.
KA: You don’t have to be just switching guns for knives, dollars for pounds or obvious references, as you can also enjoy that escapism. For us, maybe the humour in our music is a little bit of a defence mechanism sometimes, but it’s also part of our lives. You know, watching Blackadder in the same era influenced us just as much as listening to grimey New York hip hop and it’s just merging those things.
So what was the trigger for the Mongrels reunion?
KA: Well, a few years ago I busted my knee so was out of action and couldn’t paint. I ended up spending a lot of time on the sofa watching rap battles and documentaries about pyramids, but that’s when I started writing lyrics again. I found a bunch of half-finished stuff from the beginning and I remember listening to it and thinking that it actually stood the test of time better than the music I put out ten/twelve years ago. It’s like things have gone full-circle and we’re now able to go back to the original teenage mind-set and ethos of when we started, but now with a bit more life experience and something to actually say.