Interview: Apollo Brown, Verbal Kent and Red Pill are Ugly Heroes
Here are the basics on Ugly Heroes, an interview for Mello Music Group, if you’re unfamiliar…
The crew (comprised of producer Apollo Brown and lyricists Red Pill and Verbal Kent) made their Manchester debut this week at Band on the Wall, the final date of their first group tour.
I walked in to Apollo Brown punching some dark 80s pop post-soundcheck, before sitting down with the crew to reminisce over the tour.
The show itself was banging yet sparsely attended – whether that was the fact it was a Thursday night or that people in the city aren’t familiar with the group yet, it was symptomatic of where Manchester seems to be at a lot of the time – rammed, or empty. From talking to Red Pill after the show, it seems numbers in attendance had been very healthy in Europe and London – maybe all the rap fans get caught in a hip hop Bermuda Triangle in Manchester. I certainly can’t make every show I want to go to myself, particularly on weeknights or with teaching commitments such as planning and marking, but it was definitely disheartening that it wasn’t busier.
@LRCN0CNNR London. For those we came out in Manchester, they were a great crowd. But London actually showed up lol
— Red Pill (@redpillrap) March 8, 2014
Professional to the max, Ugly Heroes didn’t let the low numbers affect their attitude at all, maximising the intimacy with a real connection to the audience. If you want to have a listen to some of the show as you read, hit play below.
As it was World Book Day and I’d spent the day dressed as Iron Man in school (comic books are books too, haters!) I kicked off with: What’s your favourite book?
AB: That is a good question. My favourite book is ‘Land of Opportunity’, it’s a biography of the Chambers brothers from Detroit.
RP: I think my favourite book, which maybe is kinda lame, is ‘1984’. I read it in high school and it impacted – I don’t even know how much it would impact my thinking today, but it totally altered the way that I thought about everything. It planted the seed of thinking about politics and things like that for me.
VK: I guess ‘Crime and Punishment’ is one of my favourite books. I read it twice, and every time I do I gotta read it again. It doesn’t really do anything for me, but it’s really interesting and I like the writing style.
Are you familiar with Manchester at all?
VK: Soccer. Ah, football.
AB: Manchester United.. that’s about it, though.
RP: Manchester City, right?
AB: Not United?
Yeah, both, the red and the blue. This is the last date of the tour, how’s it gone?
AB: I can’t complain, it’s been good. It’s been better than expected, well received, the reaction and response has been amazing in every city. It’s just setting us up for further trips over the pond.
Have you found a difference between European and US audiences?
VK: Sure, it’s a different feeling in Europe, there’s a love for hip hop that’s not necessarily the same as in the States I think.
With the lyrics being so important in this project, have you felt a difference in the ways audiences connect geographically?
RP: The things is, we actually haven’t toured over in the States, so this is the first Ugly Heroes tour in general, so I guess we can’t know. I do know it’s easier to tour here, it’s more accessible, they support more here. With Apollo Brown’s production and our lyrics – it’s more about feeling anyways, I think. Obviously when people can understand it, it’s probably a better connection, but they feel vibe of the song and that’s what’s moving them, they get certain words from the hook, and they can piece together things.
AB: From my experience, the European crowds are more open to songs with feeling. Slower songs from the heart, versus the US who, again from my own experience, like to hear music that bangs.
VK: It’s just where the market is, really.
The chords that run through your work – and the 80s synth pieces you were playing as I arrived – are very emotive and I guess can be related to on any level.
AB: Yeah I mean, I think people can relate more when the song moves you. Not necessarily to dance but to reflect on something in your life.
Your Wikipedia entry lists you as ‘alternative hip hop’ – how do you feel about that?
AB: We have a Wikipedia entry?
VK: I didn’t know we had a Wikipedia entry. (At least, they did when I googled last week… I can only find a French wiki now!)
AB: I have no idea. I don’t even have a Wikipedia as Apollo Brown.
VK: Heh. I have one.
Do you think that’s indicative of the scene? Attitudes to the music?
AB: Alternative hip hop.. it’s classified as alternative now?
VK: Hip hop’s alternative. That makes sense, though. Alternative to ‘entertainment’ hip hop.
AB: It’s the alternative to… y’know, whatever. Whatever genre or category they put us in, I don’t care (VK chuckles)… as long as they listen to the music. And feel it.
Has Bandcamp been the main proponent of getting the album out there?
AB: No, Bandcamp is a very, very supplemental, small part of getting the album out. We have worldwide distribution, iTunes, it’s in stores.
I ask about Bandcamp particularly because, I guess, as a consumer that makes me feel more in touch with the artist than say, iTunes.
AB: The Bandcamp is a part of it, but a small percentage.
RP: But I think that it is a more direct way, especially for independent artists, Bandcamp’s fee is very nominal compared to iTunes or a distribution deal through a label, and the artist is usually, unless they’re working with a label, directly in charge of their Bandcamp page. Every dollar that comes in is going right to me. There’s no middle man, no anything. Bandcamp will take a little percentage but it’s small. I think it’s a cool way to directly support. There’s no in-between, it’s right there.
The vinyl’s sold well, hasn’t it?
RP: Yeah, third pressing, right?
AB: Vinyl is definitely an expense, if you’re gonna try and do it by yourself.
So you’re happy with the way the album’s got out there?
AB: Yeah. For me it’s better than I anticipated. Starting a brand from scratch is hard. Ugly Heroes was never before, so now just to jump on a scene with a group called Ugly Heroes with three people in it… I dunno, it’s done way better than I expected and I’m pretty happy about it.
What’s the deal with Mello Music Group – I assume you have something to do with running the label?
AB: I make decisions in the label but I don’t run it. It’s based out of Tucson, Arizona, run by Michael Tolle, and a couple of other people involved with it as well. Myself, Oddisee, and a couple other background people. It’s something that started from an apartment, a living room, to now it’s one of the top five indie hip hop labels out, period. That’s pretty dope.
Has tour life brought you closer?
AB: We’re all friends, no doubt. We all know each others’ personalities, we know how to push each others’ buttons and that stuff. (There’s a lot of charming sparring between Verbal and Red Pill both on stage and Twitter.)
Is there a genesis for a second album forming?
AB: I believe so, we’re looking forward to a sophomore, definitely. It’s kinda one of those things that I think is inevitable – time wise, who knows, but I think it definitely should happen.
What do you think’s brought the most attention to the album?
RP: It’s Apollo Brown’s history, man.
VK: If Apollo Brown’s starting a new group, people are gonna automatically check for it. It’s just up to us to make sure the quality’s there. We definitely had a head start with that.
AB: It helped that it was coming off of doing this ‘Dice Game‘ album, ‘Trophies‘… it helped that this came right off the wings of that. ‘12 Reasons‘ with Ghostface… you know, it kind of put a spotlight on this album, a lot of attention on it. For good reason. Even those people who didn’t know what to expect, they listened to it and were like, whoa, okay, this album garners its own respect. I think that, and promo and marketing, and I’ve seen and heard a lot of word of mouth, obviously social media.
(There’s a great little piece about the making of his 12 Reasons version here. I hadn’t realised he hadn’t even heard Adrian Younge’s version before making it.)
Is that too close to the bone sometimes? Most social media feedback seems to be positive.
AB: Yeah. I don’t read a lot of the feedback anymore because, y’know, I don’t take it too much to heart because a lot of … there’s a lot of opinions out there, I don’t get a lot of negative feedback, but the negative feedback I do get, I just take it as I came into this industry knowing that not everyone’s gonna like what you doing. You just gotta keep that mindset, there’s a lot of people that take that to heart and literally read a negative comment and go sit in their room and cry. You can’t, you just have to kinda take it and let it roll off your shoulders. I don’t feel like I’ve been violated yet, as far as being too personal or too open to the people. I don’t think I allow myself to.
I guess you put that out there anyway, in terms of lyricism.
RP: Yeah, you invite people to enter your world, into your life, through what you write and what you recite. But you give the people what you want them to know. If you don’t want them to know something then you’re not gonna divulge that information.
So what have you guys got coming up? Verbal, you just had an album out.
VK: Yeah, Sound of a Weapon just came out about a week ago, produced by Khrysis, and that came out on Mello Music Group too. That’s fun, that’s exciting for me.
It seems quite bouncy in places.
VK: It’s different, I mean it’s just on a different level of where my mind is, or whatever, that’s all. There’s stuff brewing, there’s always something cooking, but my focus is on my writing and on my work. There’s a few releases that could or couldn’t be, but no matter what, the Ugly Heroes shit is where I’m at for sure.
Do you guys get to physically meet up?
VK: Every couple months, yeah, it’s not far… five hour drive.
Red – can you sum up BLAT! Pack?
RP: It’s a collective that I grew up with, we started in Lansing, Michigan which is about an hour and a half outside of Detroit, it’s the capital city of Michigan. It was based from a bunch of people that went to Michigan State University. It was founded by a couple of members named Joshua Smith and James Garden, a couple of rappers, MCs. It was really a collective of artists that I kinda came up with, producers, singers, couple of people that had industry connections. We decided to get together and make a team that was, y’know, individual artists but we benefit from each other. Everyone’s doing their own thing right now, we kinda moved around – BLAT! pack is family, man. I’m always gonna support whatever they’re doing. Hopefully there’s something in the future with them, too.
What you working on right now?
RP: Right now a solo for Mello, that’ll be coming out… sometime, I hope, this year. It should be done pretty soon actually, it’s just a matter of timing. If I get it turned it in a couple of months it’ll be out in Fall, that’s what I’m working on right now.
AB: Y’know I’m always working on something, so… I just finished an album that will be coming out in April, called ‘.38’. I’m also working on an album, that I kinda gotta keep under wraps a little bit, that’ll be coming out in September. So this year’s gonna be a big year. A real, real good year. And then I have a compilation album in the works, finally, a producer compilation in the works for early next year, 2015.