We talk to Spring Break’s DJ Butterscotch.
In the beginning . . .When I first met DJ Butterscotch he was Ross, that nice bloke from The Greenhouse. Through chat I came to appreciate that Ross was a ‘DJ’ but I wasn’t quite sure what ‘kind’ of DJ until November 2013 when at a Hip Hop night at Madhatters he took to the decks to provide backing for Loki – the penny was dropping that Ross was part of Scotland’s hip hop scene.
It wasn’t until February of the next year that I realised he was also a rapper; himself and dancer Robbie Synge contributed a memorable performance piece to Plan B Shuffle (a piece that had in turn been devised following an invite to that years Breakin Convention). Meanwhile, I had come across Ben & Emily as an act at Bogbain, and of course, had watched Ben perform with Ashley & the Cosmonauts. But, being a newbie on the scene, I had no idea who was connected to who and how.
DJ Butterscotch and Robbie had been invited to perform their piece at the Burke and Hare Stage for Belladrum 2014 but alas, Robbie couldn’t make it. Invited to perform the rap component minus the dance, as DJ Butterscotch said “I didn’t quite fancy being there with the beats just doing it myself, because it was integrally made with rap and movement, so . . .” DJ Butterscotch wasn’t about to let the opportunity to perform live at one of his favourite festivals, a festival that he was a strong advocate of and had been closely linked with for years pass though.
He had been friends with Ben Hesling for years and they regularly jammed at home, post-pub, with DJ Butterscotch free-styling over whatever Ben was playing. DJ Butterscotch tested the water with Ben about filling the slot and of course “he was completely up for it”. With DJ Butterscotch also being friends with Emily Mackinnon and having regularly jammed with them on-stage to rap with them on their version of Pumped Up Kicks it was a no brainer, Emily joining DJ Butterscotch and Ben to sing the hooks was an obvious call.
With such a short time frame to develop a 30 minute set, Pumped Up Kicks was of course going to be in the set, “all the rest of it was stuff that I’d written and a couple of tunes that had been lying about that they could breathe new life into”. For example, “The Slouch was a tune that I used to do with a French guy called Skribbo that I used to rap with in Glasgow”.
Roddy: “So, it sounds like that whole Belladrum performance was a happy accident; at what point did you think, we need to do something with this?”
DJ Butterscotch: “Aye well, probably about half-way through the set on the Saturday night. I was thinking that actually the crowd are really into this and we’re having a really good time doing it, y’know I was looking at Ben and Emily and they were smiling and dancing away, so we thought, let’s continue on with this and see what we can do.”
R: “Okay; well from speaking to you I never had any sense that you might have a strategy in place?”
DJB: “Not really. Initially we just wanted to strengthen the set, we didn’t want to just be gigging for the sake of it. We did get a few offers for local gigs and we were like, well, we appreciated the offers but we’d rather have something cemented that we’re a bit more happy with. Because we’d practiced a fair bit before Belladrum, but then after that we were like, let’s get this together and get something that we’re all happy with before we start putting it out to the public.”
R: “Were you surprised by that really positive reaction?”
DJB: “I think we were surprised by the extent of it, because on the Friday night it was wet and there were a lot of our pals there, but it was quite well received. But on the Saturday the weather was a lot better and it was a lot more of a kind of festival vibe. The sun was out, we were in better spirits we knew that it worked so we were confident enough to give it a bit of gusto.”
R: “Did the amount of offers take you by surprise?”
DJB: “Yeah. Initially we were just really happy that it had went well given that we had only been together for a couple of months before Belladrum. But after Belladrum we were like, right – this works, so lets tighten up the tunes.”
R: “I guess with the popularity and the gigging, that forced your hand with the EP, or again was that just circumstance?”
DJB: “Well, it pretty much just happened quite organically, the tunes were working but we didn’t want to dilute it by diving straight into an album. We thought, let’s get a few solid tunes and test the water with that. It’s largely been well received.”
What is pretty clear is that the initial reaction to Spring Break has been sustained. We both acknowledge that there is often an early buzz with new bands that diminishes after a couple of months. In this instance, sustaining that buzz is in part due to the band honing their set first and keeping up their work rate while trying to maintain some forward momentum. The good news is that a lot of that hard work has been happening ‘out of area’, and it seems that wherever they go they get a good reception.
DJB: “Yeah, we’ve had a pretty good reaction wherever we’ve gone, Well, we had a ‘reasonable’ luke-warm reception in Aberdeen . . .”
Talking about that a bit more it seems clear that the venue and the crowd they had been booked to play to wasn’t, for once, a particularly good fit.
DJB: “We were playing in what was essentially a restaurant pub after dinner.”
This was however unusual. I have personally been to see Spring Break play to different audiences in a variety of venues and every time, the audience response has been good, they make a connection. To put that in a the bigger picture, in an earlier interview with Dave Hook (Solareye, rapper with Stanley Odd), it seems clear that the Scottish hip hop seen is at this time really quite vibrant. And this is by no means a new scene – as DJ Butterscotch s says “it’s taken a while, it’s been on the go since the late 80’s early 90’s”.
In part, DJ Butterscotch thinks that the scene has shifted considerably from being really quite hard-core to having guys like Hector Bizerk and Stanley Odd who are very definitely not afraid to be true to hip hop but manage at the same time to be authentically themselves while drawing on other influences. A healthy scene then will of course have emerging acts, locally DJ Butterscotch cites Sherbert (currently recording an album), “but in the rest of Scotland, particularly the central belt, there is a lot of good acts there, there is a lot of young guys coming in as well.”
So, after a lot of hard work the profile of rap has definitely been raised. It has taken time and DJ Butterscotch has been a big part of that, as Dave Hook said in our interview: “For The Ironworks we’re absolutely delighted to be playing with Spring Break because I’ve been a fan of what Butterscotch does as a rapper for a decade or so – really excited to hear what they’re doing now.” Meantime we reflected on how articulate the likes of Dave Hook and Louie (Hector Bizerk) are when you hear them being interviewed, and with Louie being considered for Poet in Residence at BBC Radio Scotland, the future is bright. In sum, they have as ambassadors created a really positive view of the hip hop scene and rapping.
But of course, it’s been a bit of a struggle. “The main thing that held Scottish hip hop back was the stigma, because people were afraid to rap in their own accent for fear of ridicule because traditionally, y’know it was born in America, so people just thought that that was the standard template”. Ironically, they were also given stick for faux American accents.
As DJ Butterscotch pointed out, this was an odd tension. He reasons that the stigma makes no sense because for certain, British bands like Led Zeppelin and others right on through the decades, sang in a mid-atlantic American accent. Allied to their recycling of old American blues riffs, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were actually American bands.
There is also a tension surrounding the genre itself; “A lot of them (mainstream rock and pop) scoff at hip hop because they think that it’s not a legitimate art form in it’s own right.” But then, it’s hard to square that with another point, that, “hip hop is the number one music genre globally in terms of sales”.
That leads into a discussion about the universality of the genre and perhaps more importantly the shift from the initial hard-core rap template with it’s Americanised accent to the current crop who now rap in the vernacular. One thing that has improved the position of hip hop is that the music scene in general is less tribal. This is reflected in the local scene, a scene that DJ Butterscotch believes is characterised by respect for what other folk are doing as artists. And of course, to complete the picture, consumers who are into music have far more eclectic tastes than previous generations.
Amid a bit of chat about the difference between rap and poetry, we land on a particularly impressive feature of performance, free-styling. I was lucky enough to have seen DJ Butterscotch in a rap battle with Solareye.
Roddy: “Is it possible for you to explain to me how you do that?” DJ Butterscotch: “A lot of practice; it’s practice and it’s confidence in your own ability. I used to rap with a group in Glasgow called The Being, a hip hop collective including Loki and Gasp. There was a good ten or twelve of us in the group so we used to free-style with each other all the time – just for sport. So practice and confidence and if you have been writing stuff down for years then your vocabulary builds up. So Dave (Solareeye) is a great free-styler as well so it’s just nice to bounce off him.”
There is no doubt that the hip hop scene is popular right now and indeed Louie from Hector Bizerk was on the selection panel for this years T-Break stage at T in the Park. Not being too sure I asked Ross about the selection process that saw them make their appearance. “Well, it was suggested to us that we should enter and we thought, well, we’ve got absolutely nothing to lose”. With that philosophy behind them they then had to submit a track for consideration. They opted for The Slouch, and, it did the business: “we really didn’t have any expectations, we really were like well, we’ve got nothing to lose. So with not being together that long we were not going to take it too personally if they’re not into it. But, it turns out they were so we were pretty chuffed with that because obviously, T in the Park, T Break is quite a big deal, and for a band that hasn’t even been together a year . . .”
And therein lies my thinking behind why I felt the need to talk to Spring Break, because that is quite a year they have just had: from debut at Belladrum, to first EP (read the review of Departure Lounge) to T in the Park in about 10 months is a noteworthy achievement in anyone’s books. Indeed, putting our heads together, we can’t think of anyone else who has had a similar trajectory.
For a band without a strategy it seems, well, blessed, “everything that we have had, something has led on from it”. For example after Belladrum, they were approached by The Ironworks to support Stanley Odd. That gig led to Spring Break accompanying Stanley Odd on the very successful Sweatbox Tour.
Self-managed and still busy, DJ Butterscotch and Ben are stowed out with admin, but there are no plans to look for a manager at the minute. That said, “there may well be a point when we need one but we’re quite happy to handle our own affairs at the moment.”
What strikes me listening to DJ Butterscotch is that, it’s really not been an overnight success, there’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of connections made prior to the point where the band was formed. There is no doubt that this has not been about luck either, although you could argue they have made their own luck which is a different thing entirely; right place, right time and well connected.
DJ Butterscotch: “Yes, this has been the right time for us all to come together, it’s a fortunate thing. Because Ben’s been performing consistently for years and teaching guitar. Emily’s been performing in front of crowds since she was really young and I’ve been rapping in front of crowds for, well, over ten years anyway.” So, overnight success? Far from it.
In the immediate future then, they will continue to keep moving and keep things fresh. For sure work on new material that will help populate an album (keep track of Spring Break via their Facebook page). Some of that new material will showcase at two sets at the Burke and Hare stage again at this years Belladrum, one on Friday and then again on the Saturday and also the Seedlings Stage at 10.15 pm on the Friday night.