Words by Grant Brydon Photos Verena Stefanie
We are on the phone with Nick Bam, of UK-based hip hop collective Piff Gang and he is breaking down the group dynamic for us Enter The Wu-Tang style. “Silk (aka Milkaveli) is the crazy, rapper’s rapper. Phaze One is a proper lyrical emcee, hip hopper guy. Skitz is the trap lord, our trap rapper. Super Dertie is like a wise guy, smooth criminal type of guy. Skout is very soulful, but with a London, grimy side to him as well. Motive is Papa Mo, he’s our DJ and helps manage the group too, he’s like a Suge Knight/father figure! Budgie is like the funky record collector of the group. Crankz is like that hood hip hop producer, and I’m the tall clever one!”
The UK music scene exists largely of rappers trying to digitally ram the URL for their new “Pound Cake” freestyle down your throats, or those stuck in the ’90s making pessimistic boom bap. Piff Gang are a breath of weed-infused fresh air!
“The aim was to reach a different market,” says Phaze One, an original member of PG. The group came together two years ago when Milkaveli, Skout and Super Dertie, who were working on various other projects, joined forces. “At the time we were doing very ’90s boom-bappy shit. Our main aim was to come with something a bit more current and get people in our city really excited about something. I’ve always wanted impact, and with Piff Gang, we had that – people were talking about us before we even dropped any music.”
At their first show, which coincidentally was on the same night of the London Riots, they didn’t have any music available online, yet already had a following. “Piff Gang was sort of like a brand. We built a lifestyle before there was music out,” Nick remembers. “We had T-Shirts – you couldn’t buy them at that stage, but people were like ‘What is this Piff Gang?’ and we had a Tumblr page and stuff, so we had a little following just through that.”
The group soon began releasing mixtapes and have built a strong back catalogue since attracting an impressive following. Contrary to the majority of the material on the UK circuit, Piff Gang’s tapes consist of original production from in-house producers Budgie and Crankz as well as affiliates such as Sumgii and JD Reid. Looking back, the new sound was a drastic change from what they’d been used to releasing individually, and yet it came naturally to them. “For me it was like a 360 thing,” admits Phaze. “Now I can say I fully switched my style, but at the time I wasn’t aware I was doing it. It happened gradually and naturally; once you make that first change various changes start happening – it’s the domino effect. What we came to realize is that I’ve never felt I could buy into in the UK scene. I never felt it was for me, I could relate to the US shit more. The UK shit I was hearing was all, down to my last fiver, struggling on jobseekers, cigarettes in the ashtray – that type of shit. I don’t wanna hear that anymore.”
Their latest output has included some of their most universally appealing music so far. Headed by the Louis Mattrs’ featured single “Middle Finger,” Pizzy was premiered via The Fader and is undoubtedly the group’s most professional body of work thus far. “With Pizzy, we wanted to make as high a quality product that we could make ourselves. Even though it’s a free mixtape it can stand up against albums,” explains Nick. “There’s no difference from [the content of] our previous tapes other than progression. It’s more polished and we’ve gotten better.”
“Middle Finger” marked the first time that the group had released a track with a singer, and was the perfect balance of broadening appeal without selling out. Produced by blogosphere favorite Dream Koala (with co- production from Budgie), the track started life as a Phaze One solo track. “I was on mushrooms when I wrote that song. I liked the beat but I didn’t want it to be perceived as if we were making a commercial song. I wrote the first verse and the hook and left it for months. Louis Mattrs heard it and re-did the hook, then that brought it back to life,” he recalls. “Our sound is more mature and grown now. When we first came out we were very wild, doing wild shit, and things have changed. You can imagine the politics in a group of 10 males.”
Also setting them apart from competitors is their natural sense of style. “Man, like Skout, Silk and Nick, these lot have got ridiculous swag,” says Phaze of the group’s strong image. “I got to know them through clothes and rapping. I used to spend all my P’s on clothes, these lot were the same. Some of the other members of Piff Gang were Lo-Life members. Lo-Life’s are a bunch of niggas from New York. They used to tax the rails in high-end department stores like Ralph Lauren – they’d be fresh to death! For me [the image] was something I was unaware of, I was blind to it. But them lot had that vision.”
While many mistake Piff Gang’s sense of fashion for a lack of ability or substance, this is certainly not the case, although the same can’t necessarily be said for those following suit. “I think they’re looking at people like us and thinking that they can wear a hat that says ‘Swag’ or ‘Dope’ on it or whatever, and at this stage the rapping is almost a minor part of it. I think a lot of these rappers that are emerging aren’t really fussed about rapping. I think what a lot of people don’t realize because our music is shallow, you could say, because it doesn’t carry a deep message, they assume that we don’t come from this culture. We’ve all put in 10,000 hours each of mastering our art, listening to all sorts of rappers. Right now, trap is real big, but on some real rap shit they can’t swim with us. And I think that’s what people are going to come to realize.”
Moving forward, the group plan to reveal more of their individual personalities by releasing solo projects by all of their members. “On a group tape you can’t always gauge everyone’s personality fully, so the solo projects will allow more of our individual personalities to shine through,” explains Nick. “It’ll all come under the Piff Gang umbrella and we will be all over each other’s tracks anyway.” Kicking things off will be Phaze, who has already recorded over 60 tracks for his solo and hasn’t stopped yet, “I want impact with everything. I don’t want no fillers,” he says of the project. “Over here I feel like there’s a vacant crown, and I don’t see anyone going for it. So I’m going for it with my solo.”
It’s this hunger, combined with their talent and style, that make Piff Gang London’s most exciting hip hop collective, and judging by what we’ve heard so far, their solo projects should keep the city’s music scene buzzing throughout 2014.