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Rizzle Kicks: 'Hip-hop is misogynistic and homophobic'

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

image captionRizzle Kicks: Jordan "Rizzle" Stephens and Harley "Sylvester" Alexander-Sule

Rizzle Kicks are arguably the biggest hip-hop act in the UK, with two top 10 albums and a contemporary pop classic in the shape of Mama Do The Hump. But the duo tell the BBC they're not too pleased with the state of rap music.

"I can't listen to hip-hop at the moment," says Jordan Stephens. "I really struggle."

Stephens is the Rizzle in Rizzle Kicks - the cheeky scamps of British rap, formed in Brighton five years ago.

Grounded in hip-hop's "golden age" of laid-back grooves and dusty jazz samples, Stephens is decidedly unimpressed by his contemporaries.

"The stuff I'm hearing in the mainstream... it's overly-misogynistic and it's still homophobic," he says. "It does my head in."

As a hip-hop scholar, the 21-year-old is aware that homophobia is a running theme in the genre.

Rapper's Delight, the first rap song to make the US top 40, featured a bizarre put-down of Superman: "He's a fairy I do suppose / Flying through the air in pantyhose".

But, as recently as last month, Eminem's Rap God won five star reviews despite lyrics like: "You fags think its all a game".

Stephens acknowledges that "turns of phrases take a while to die out".

"But when it's vicious, I don't understand why you'd bother. Think of something more inventive to say. It's a cultural thing that needs to piss off, basically."

"I think it's even worse for women. I had an ex-girlfriend who was seriously up on her hip-hop, and I played her this song Clique with Jay-Z, Kanye and Big Sean. The first lyric is 'I tell a bad bitch do whatever I say'. And she just turned around and said, 'what's that?'"

"I don't think we know any women - smart women, who you'd want to be friends with, that would proclaim themselves as a bad bitch," he adds.

"If anything, the only women I've seen saying 'bad bitch' seem pretty insecure."

image captionThe band's energetic live shows attract audiences of all ages

His anger feeds into the song This Means War, which opens the band's second album, Roaring 20s.

"I don't want a bad bitch," spits Stephens over a thundering drum loop. "I want a chick that would slap up a guy if he calls her a bad bitch."

He doesn't stop there, addressing the London riots ("some of the things that happened in Neasden weren't pleasing, the stabbings and beatings").

"We wanted to use our platform to mention some social observations," he says.

"You listen to music on the radio and there's a lot of talk about love and partying and dancing. I thought it'd be interesting to have a tune that addresses things that are cultural."

"We intend to do that more, actually," he continues.

"The goal is, in however many years' time, to slowly and surely put in place the most alternative number one. Something unexpected. Something that has real significance."

image caption"We had 40 or 50 demos, so it was hard to pick the ones that were going on the album, let alone the actual order," says Jordan Stephens

"Something that doesn't abide by normal pop rules," adds his bandmate, in a rare intervention.

Harley "Sylvester" Alexander-Sule is the quietly-spoken half of the band - the one who'd like to brew a potion to make him "more confident in certain social situations", and who handles all the singing on their catchy, bouncy pop anthems.

He dismisses the idea that Rizzle Kicks have "gone serious" on the new album.

"I think a lot of it's still tongue-in-cheek, still. It's a step forward in terms of maturity, but that's just natural because we're growing up."

Wikipedia error

Stephens and Alexander-Sule were childhood friends in North London, but lost touch until their teens - when they met by chance at a football match in Brighton, where their respective families had moved.

Their musical career was forged during workshops at the Brighton-based music charity Audioactive, and they polished their act at the Brit School.

Signed to Island Records off the back of a home-made YouTube video, their 2011 debut album Stereo Typical went platinum and earned the dubious honour of being the second most illegally downloaded album in the UK last year (after Ed Sheeran's +).

The follow-up is called Roaring 20s, partly because the duo both turned 21 this year, but also in reference to the big band samples that pepper the record.

"I went through a big phase last year, when I suddenly started listening to swing and jazz," says Stephens.

"Every morning I'd listen Dave Brubeck's Take Five. I love that, and Mel Torme's Coming Home. Harley's always loved crooners, so it just came naturally."

The party vibe extends to their live shows, played with a full live band - an antidote to the standard hip-hop set-up of turntables and "hype men", which Alexander-Sule dismisses as "boring".

"When we started first, gigging around Brighton, we had our drummer Lou who'd play drums over a laptop track," he explains.

"It was awfully prepared but it still had that live feel. And a lot of our music has samples based on live instruments - so it was a natural thing to use a live band."

"Plus, we knew more musicians than DJs," adds Stephens.

One of those musicians is his father, Herman, who plays bass and even provides vocals on the new album.

"It says on Wikipedia that Damien Marley sang on our new album," grins Stephens. "Well, it wasn't Damien Marley, it was my dad!"

image captionThe duo scored a number one with Olly Murs, on the track Heart Skips A Beat

Their concerts are boisterous, hands-in-the-air affairs. Schedules permitting, their mothers even appear on stage to recreate their dance moves from the Mama Do The Hump video.

But Stephens emphasises the shows aren't PG-rated.

"There was one show we did in Portsmouth," he says, "and on the front row there was a mum and a nine-year-old daughter".

"I swore and she gave me a dirty look. I was like: 'Give me some slack! Don't bring your kid to a gig like this! Have you heard the album?"

Alexander-Sule just doesn't understand why anyone would be upset.

"I think swearing's great," he laughs, and hopes no-one is put off by an occasional, exuberant outburst.

"We just run on stage and flip around," he says.

"I think making people smile is more important than being cool."

Rizzle Kicks' album, Roaring 20s, is out now, and the band tour the UK next February and March.

More on this story

  • Rizzle Kicks on being twenty-somethings