Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: The Scrutiny of a British Hip-Hop Hybrid

Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: AnglesDan le Sac vs. Scroobius PipAngles (Strange Famous, 5/12/08)

Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: “Look for the Woman”

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It’s a slightly overcast but warm September afternoon in Chicago when the English duo Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip takes the Hideout Block Party’s stage. DJ le Sac appears and situates himself behind a deck tangled with the requisite mix of wires, keys, and laptops, and then MC Scroobius Pip’s modern-day Abraham Lincoln figure pops on stage, looking as though he’s ready to spar his focused partner. Before practicing crowd-pleasing warm-up exercises — stretching as though preparing for a marathon — Scroobius Pip delves into the subject that most preoccupies his thoughts and will become, in his words, the Chicago appearance’s theme.

“Right, so, we just found out the other day that our album was given a 0.2 by Pitchfork,” Pip says, teasing the Pitchfork-staff–peppered audience, which promptly boos the rating. Whereas some artists would leave it at that, feeding off the feel-good responses from a mid-afternoon crowd, Pip follows with what has become his trademark MC lyrical technique: mixing conscientious politics in the tradition of Gil Scott Heron with a dash of self-deprecating humor à la Atmosphere’s Slug and rearranging the ideas behind them in such a way that the words, layered over le Sac’s trippy beats, become a manifesto to disregard, debate, or adopt.

In the case of the Pitchfork theme, he slides the site’s name into his banter and underneath the gyrating rhythms of the songs, renaming it Bitchfork and Pitchfuck to more applause. But Pip isn’t out to just name-call; he’s setting the groundwork for a deeper dig. For the remainder of the DvS Hideout set, Pip splices in comments about the review, reading from it as well as previous reviews from the same critic. It would be a squeamish, alienating tactic had the band not become known and loved for such scrutiny: of themselves, music, religion, and whatever else takes the lyricist’s attention.

Rapping tracks from DvS’ debut, Angles — a collection of previously released singles whose lyrics touch upon such wide-ranging topics as child abuse, suicide, and misguided readings of biblical scripture — Pip alternates between jaunty stabs at the reviewer and the review, with the main argument seemingly that the duo is not a pair of hip-hop wannabes. What they do, Pip reiterates via phone some days after the Block Party show, is a mash of hip hop, spoken word, indie pop, punk, and electronica. It’s why they can open for acts as diverse as Saul Williams and Adele and Mark Ronson.

“You’re not meant to be able to agree with everything; that’s the whole point. For people to blindly agree with anything I say is to blindly agree with anything anyone says.”

And even though he understands that “at the end of the day, a review is just a review,” he is particularly annoyed by this reading of the band, which was based on the assumption that DvS is, if not hip hop, trying really hard to be street.

“We’ve never set out to make a specific genre of music,” Pip says. “I do spoken word and emceeing, and Dan makes electronic, almost hip-hoppy beats. It’s just a variation. We never set out thinking, ‘Let’s make a hip-hop album,’ or ‘Let’s make a dance album,’ or ‘Let’s make an indie album.’ We just made the kind of songs that came out.”

From the Hideout Block Party stage, the two joked about being “street enough,” but in private, Pip seems genuinely perturbed by this idea of authenticity. “It’s hard to get a harsh review like that,” he confides, turning the authenticity question back on the reviewer. “But then when you read that the reviewer reviewed the latest Puff Daddy album and thought it was a pretty good hip-hop offering, and that he felt that we should be grateful that a band like Coldplay exists on this earth, it’s not quite so hard to be reviewed in that way.”

The main issue that Pip has with music isn’t authenticity, he notes, but lyrical irrelevance and contrived posturing.

“Don’t get me wrong; they’re a really good band,” he says, adding to his thoughts on Coldplay. “But I don’t think they’re quite up there yet as a legendary, ‘music wouldn’t be the same without them’ band. I don’t think that they’re changing that much at the moment. I’ve got nothing against them at all; they’ve made some good music. But it’s just…they’re one of the bands that seems in interviews to be quite political, and speaks about social issues and challenging issues. Ten percent of their audience will never read the interview, whereas all of their audience will hear their lyrics. Yet in their lyrics, they continue to talk about relationships, and love, and stuff like that. If these issues mean a lot to them, put some of it on record and get the word out.”

A track like “Thou Shalt,” a 2007 single that shows up on Angles, speaks to this idea. The song name-drops a series of legendary bands and immediately dismisses their hallowed legacies with a chorus punctuated by “just a band.” Such proclamations in both DvS’ lyrics and interviews are what seemingly raise critics’ hackles most and are primarily what reviewers focus on when calling the band “angster rap.” They also question whether Pip — this 27-year-old white kid from Essex’s working-class Stanford-le-Hope — can speak from such a position or even knows his hip-hop history.

“When talking on subjects like this, I don’t want to lie; the area I live in isn’t that bad,” he says. “I live in a pleasant-enough little village. I’ve only had two or three people try and mug me in my life, which isn’t by any means bad.”

He also agrees with reviews about his flow, which he admits is always in development but has been labeled quaint, Dickensian enjambment without direction. “That’s one of the things where I agree completely with the Pitchfork review,” Pip says. “I never consciously have a style or flow. The way I write, it’s about the content and the lyrics. The flow is just me fitting it all in, so I can’t argue there. I don’t claim to be well versed or trained in many different flowing techniques.”

Yet when it comes to his proclaimed lack of hip-hop knowledge, the former record-store worker couldn’t agree less. “I’m not an expert, but I’m a big fan of hip hop,” he says. “I’ve got a pretty good understanding of its history and lineage.” Pip adds that although he may have come to the hip-hop/spoken-word game later than most — after a long stint in his teen years as a guitarist/singer in punk bands — he has since done his homework.

“Finding out that hip hop wasn’t just this braggadocio kind of genre, learning about KRS-One and Rakim or learning about Gil Scott Heron, inspired me,” Pip says. “There’s an argument on where hip hop began: was it Afrika Bambaataa or was it Atmosphere’s Slug doing skits in between tracks? But there’s a Gil Scott Heron track called ‘No Knocks,’ which I think defines — more than anything else that I’ve heard — the first real hip-hop song, before it was called hip hop. Learning about stuff like that just opened up my mind to hip hop and spoken word as a broader genre, despite Pitchfork thinking I have no knowledge on hip hop and thinking I’ve got no right to speak on the subject.”

Some may find through Pip’s responses that the duo takes itself too seriously, but nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of its videos and live shows are a testament to the exuberant spontaneity and good vibes inherent in its music, and, as mentioned, self-analysis plays a strong role in its approach.

“We’re not particularly angsty, angry people,” Pip says. “We’re having a laugh out of it, particularly with ‘Thou Shalt,’ which was the one that got misinterpreted, because people thought we were so angry and lecturing. But it’s meant to be tongue in cheek. A lot of it contradicts itself, intentionally. It’s a song that tells you what to do for three minutes, and then at the end it says, ‘Think for yourselves.’ You’re not meant to be able to agree with everything; that’s the whole point. For people to blindly agree with anything I say is to blindly agree with anything anyone says. So the whole point of it was to make people question for themselves.”

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