It’s not a stretch to speak of The Mouse Outfit story as one of fairly speedy success. They’ve been ripping up stages up and down the UK and Europe pretty solidly for the last few years, yet there is still confusion as to who and what they actually are. With minimal external marketing and distribution they’ve gone from playing cramped, airless rooms tucked away in Manchester, to dominating the foreground of such festival as Outlook and Green Man.
We caught up with them just ahead of their winter tour for some insight into their beginnings, their process and to find out what exactly it is that has put them at the forefront of the UK boombap resurgence.
At its core, The Mouse Outfit is essentially three fairly humble gents who have made Manchester their home, and are producing music that both supports its considerable crop of rap talent while staying true to its history as a place that produces no nonsense live bands. We meet at Eastern Bloc records in Manchester’s old town, and after a swift coffee head over to their studio in an industrial block not too far away. In a very short space of time you can see the strength of the friendship these three quite different guys share, as well as the different roles that they seem to naturally inhabit.
Chini, the most talkative of the three, holds down the keys and fittingly also takes the organisational lead. Defty plays bass and is clearly the businessman figure, with a wry sense of humour he also deals with promoting the Outfit. Pitch is your typical MPC head, quiet but not shy, taking in everything around him with nodded agreement, but speaking very little; until we talk of specific beats and songs.
Chini describes TMO as essentially a tight production team that orchestrates a larger and ever changing live band. “Musician wise its about 20 people involved. But its arranged and organised by the three of us. We oversee it.” While it stems from these three, the live shows morph to become a session supergroup, which is actually quite a traditional line up in terms of drums, keys, guitar and horn section, alongside Pitch with the samples and hits. They don’t have a DJ, and are not not relying on too many samples at the lives shows. Then come the rappers, a shifting roster of young Manchester talent, often fronted by the ever present industry stalwart, Dr Syntax.
The Mouse Outfit story appropriately starts in earnest with a live show. Organised by Defty alongside rapper Bedos and all round impresario (Bonafide’s own) Jamie Groovement, In the Loop was a series of open mic nights with a live band for hip-hop music. “The idea was that we would take our band, play some classic hip-hop breaks, and then rappers from around Manchester would be able to get up and spit bars” explains Chini.
It was at these nights that The core mice met many of the artists that they would later go on to work closely with, including the then very young crop of new wave Manchester rap talent such as Dubbul O, Sparkz and Truthos Mufasa. “We’d play our own stuff, or interpretations of classic beats, and then [when Pitch got involved] it became a mix of Pitch’s beats alongside the live instrumentation” says Defty. “Sometimes we’d take the drums out of his instrumentals and this drummer called Adisa would play over the samples. It was really organic.”
The Corner in Fallowfield was the original venue that In the Loop was held at when it started in 2010. It is now, predictably, a Papa Johns Pizza shop. But this series of nights was the seed from which The Mouse Outfit as it currently stands grew. In 2011, after Pitch, Defty and Chini had formed a solid working relationship, Dr Syntax joined to front the collective.
“It’s a sad thing that some accents just don’t seem to work for hip-hop, until someone comes along and does that accent really well and then the perspective changes”
“When Syntax started fronting the band it gave us this real professionality because he was so experienced” says Chini. He’s prolific. We all started taking it very seriously. Also from that point, people like Sparkz, who hadn’t done so much hosting began to learn the ropes and he became very professional at what he did too. We were lucky to get a lot of young rappers in when they were still evolving and as they developed, we did too.” Now several years on and two albums deep, The Mouse Outfit stands as a somewhat complex creature to quantify. All at once a production unit, a live show and a self releasing label. “We had a few before but Shak Out is the one that really got us moving, the one I look at as a milestone in our career so far” explains Defty.
They talk of the live show as a different beast from the studio work, a fair mental distinction as each come with their own set of conditions to navigate. With so many moving pieces to synchronise, playing as a live band is always going to be more complex than the industry standard of a DJ backing up a couple of rappers. Chini tells me that after more than a few early stumbles, the set up as it stands is strapped tight. “We played a (undisclosed venue) recently. It was fucking terrible sound! We’d spent ages building up to it, being told this was a great venue, so we went into it thinking it was going to be this life changing gig… and when we got there the sound was just awful. It’s taken a long time to get the right team together. We worked very hard to find people with the commitment and can work at the level that we want them to. We’ve got a pretty slick unit now.”
If you follow the broader UK rap scene, you’d be hard pressed to deny that it’s jumped off in more directions than a wonky sat-nav as of late. One of the most prevalent moves seems to be toward more cerebral content in the writing alongside a move away from the more traditional boom bap formula. This has made it great for the heads who can sit silently and appreciate the writing, but make a lot of the newer releases tough to bump socially.
But The Mouse Outfit make the kind of boom bap that can rest comfortably in the background just as easily as it can shake your speakers and take centre stage. This is one of the qualities that have enabled them to capture such a wide crowd across the festival circuit and wider scenes. It’s classic, feel good hip-hop that doesn’t jump of the nerd plank in its authenticity. It’s got serious mainstream appeal without pandering or needing to be watered down.
“It’s just good music says Pitch. “With hip-hop there’s so many different elements and different genres all mashed together you can please people across the boards rather than just one group of people. and we work with a lot of jazz and funk sounds which… most people like, right?” There is some seriously good music coming out of Manchester at the moment; it’s outcrop of rap and hip-hop that is shining the brightest.
“I reckon if we’d started the In the Loop night in a certain part of London it would have been harder to have got a community of collaborators together” explains Defty. “Manchester’s big enough to have a diverse musical culture, but small enough that everybody can meet up, get together and collaborate. It’s a sad thing that some accents just don’t seem to work for hip-hop, until someone comes along and does that accent really well and then the perspective changes. You can see that ‘scene’ distinctions mean a lot less to Manchester’s rap enclave.”
Chini chimes in. “Back in the 90s, that early Manchester jazz hip-hop scene was there. Mr Scruff did a lot for it, people like DJ Krush and Aim Ray and Christian who were working with the Jungle Brothers. There was a really strong scene for five years or so in the early 90s. Then music changed and went elsewhere. In a way what we do is almost a throwback to that.”
The Mouse Outfit remix album is out early spring, including remixes by Tall Black Guy, DJ Vadim and more. They will also be supporting DJ Premier at Motion in Bristol alongside Levelz and Klashnekoff on November 13th. More info here.
Words: Oscar Burton Xi
Photography: Spike Silverton