“Portishead is my biggest band and I owe my career to them, but Portishead, in my eyes, can’t move forward unless I do these other things.” It’s late on a Wednesday afternoon and Geoff Barrow is at home Skyping with Hive. As he good-naturedly admits, the Bristol-based Barrow’s name is synonymous with the band Portishead; since then though, he’s peppered the group’s intermittent albums with solo projects and remix work that doesn’t so much dip into other genres as plot a course of navigation between their common points. So for this year, Barrow’s “other things” present themselves as his Stones Throw-released hip-hop effort Quakers (cut with long-time engineering cohort Stuart Matthews and Australian producer Katalyst, not to mention a cast of 32 guest vocalists), a Judge Dredd and 2000 A.D.-inspired electronic yarn with BBC composer Ben Salisbury titled DROKK, and the second long-player from his post-rock combo Beak>. Taken together, the projects are something of a micro-blend of the Portishead formula; they testify to Barrow’s own musical upbringing that has its roots in rap but was fortified with a broader perspective by virtue of residing an ocean away from the New York City scene of the late-’80s that laid down the production template that Barrow became so smitten by. Barrow spoke to Hive about the state of modern hip-hop, the tape cassette roots of the Quakers experiment, and the musical differences between all of his current gigs.
The Quakers project is being bandied around with a quote saying that you made it sound like you were disillusioned with modern hip-hop. Is that true?
Yeah, I’m disillusioned by most of the hip-hop. Well, it’s more the modern state of the industry and the hip-hop that gets on the radio and the money that’s invested in that type of hip-hop. I mean, I’m not saying it should be invested in 40-year-old white guys from Bristol, but it’s good to see a Tyler and those guys and what they’re doing and what they’re bringing back to hip-hop and how that’s been related back to punk. I find that side of hip-hop kinda died out — that real kinda commitment to having something to say even if it’s stupid, even if it’s aggressive or not always PC.
Do you think that energy and punk element is down to age and older rappers getting lethargic?
No, I think because you’ve got the American business model which is incredibly hardcore. You couldn’t really call Jay-Z lazy. I think it’s more of a dig at where the industry’s gone really. Old MCs, I suppose, are maybe more reflective, like all artists really with that age. I won’t say hip-hop is a young man’s game, but then I’ve never really been in hip-hop culture — I’ve always just been in a band and admired the music.
So what sort of modern hip-hop is on the iPod of a 40-year-old white guy from Bristol these days?
It most probably wouldn’t have a great deal of hip-hop in it! It would at the moment have the Muppets on it, to be honest, because it’s a lot more useful at keeping the kids quiet in the car.
Are there any big mainstream rap songs out there that have caught your ear though?
The biggest mainstream rap song … I don’t like ‘em, really. I just don’t like ‘em! I respect all people like Kanye West and that but I don’t like the tunes. It’s most probably Eminem, I expect, one of his tunes.
What don’t you like about the current mainstream rap sound?
It’s not edgy, it just kinda washes away. It’s kinda that whole thing like let’s rap this bit then let’s get Chris Martin to do the other bit. And this goes right across the music industry — it’s not just rap. I’m not an authority on it, but it seems R&B music is someone sings bit, then they get a rapper, then Chris Martin. Then the indie rock thing would be a slightly rockier Chris Martin then let’s get a rapper on it too! It’s all the same! I can’t tell the difference of any of it. But then maybe I’m not supposed to.
If money and contacts weren’t an issue, which modern rappers would you like to get in the studio and produce for?
Tyler, or it would be Nas; Jay-Z is an incredible rapper. Obviously, I’ve been lucky to work with Chuck D — he joined Portishead on stage a couple of times over the last couple of years for “Machine Gun” — and that’s been amazing. So I think out of everyone Nas is still the don.
What would a Geoff Barrow production for Nas sound like?
Well it would most probably be awful! I’m sure we would knock out a half decent tune somewhere, because it’s got him on it, but I don’t know … I always just do something rough. Most probably it wouldn’t be that hip-hop orientated, so something a bit different.
Can you remember the first time a hip-hop artist sampled your music?
That’s the thing, isn’t it? To me, that’s the ultimate, when Portishead came out and a lot of people in America involved in rap music were actually kinda digging stuff, people like Muggs, DJ Premier, and people were sampling us like Timbaland. RZA sampled “Over,” you know? No way! I could have quite easily packed up my bags and quit then.
Which sample of your music do you like best?
There’s a bootleg going around at the moment [by Ill Poetic] that’s a similar thing to [Dangermouse's] Grey Album, where he’s taken lots of Portishead stuff — though it might be easier ’cause the beats can be tuned towards rapping easier than raw Beatles records — but he’s put some stuff together and he’s chopped some stuff up. Whenever I’ve DJed or played on radio, it’s been really really good. It’s Joe Budden as the MC, and he’s a raw MC. There’s one where he does “Machine Gun” that’s really good. It goes back through the blender and ends up sounding like the Premo beat that I was trying to copy in the first place!
You mentioned trying to copy other hip-hop producers when you first started out. Whose sound was the hardest to replicate?
Well, I never really got there in the end, but most probably RZA. They’re all so individual. That’s what I’m saying about music, how the individual sound of producers and artists has been absolutely watered down. I can’t really tell the difference between music and bands, you know what I mean? Is this a rock record or is this a rap record? There’s nothing wrong with a rock-rap record but everything’s homogenized into this pap really. You used to really be able to tell the difference of bands and producers, like that one would be Premier. It’s the art of production, I suppose. That’s the other thing: you can tell the Odd Future stuff, you hear it and it sounds like them. But actually I think the hardest person [to replicate] is most probably Madlib because he takes music elsewhere – he took hip-hop music and took it somewhere elsewhere.
Is it true that Madlib and J Dilla’s Jaylib record got you back into listening to hip-hop after a hiatus from it?
I was always into Stones Throw stuff before that, but I had a massive break since the end of the Wu-Tang Clan era up to the Jaylib era. Jaylib was such a brilliant hip-hop record to me, like a [Public Enemy's] “Yo! Bum Rush The Show” or [the Beastie Boys'] “Ill Communication.” It’s that good. It’s got that energy — it’s more about the energy that goes into the record and that record had that real punk ethic in hip-hop that you don’t hear any more. It’s that thing of almost being disrespectful to music the same way three guys on stage only knowing three chords is. It’s a lot more technical than that — and those two guys were at the top of their game — but it’s got to have that rawness. And MF Doom, too. I met Doom and he’s a wicked guy. I met him at ATP and he’s really nice, a really cool guy. I think his music’s incredible. He has that rawness too.
Is that something you tried to convey with Quakers?
Hopefully. That’s where we come from. With all three of us, we’re all kinda hip-hop fans and I suppose over the years if you write music it’s always going to be in the back of your mind to do something one day. For my part, I set myself a task of writing like a 30-minute tape of hip-hop tunes in a day just to try and break the monotony of not being able to write as a task. It was a cassette, 15 minutes a side, five tracks a side, and just using the pause button to make the beats and then mixing them live and dropping them on to cassette — ’cause cassette always sounds great with hip-hop. This was before [Portishead's] Third. So we collected the beats we had, we all chucked ‘em in the pot and the pot was the MySpace player really, and just kinda got in touch with the MCs.
How did making your other two projects, DROKK and the new Beak> record, differ from that?
Well DROKK is an electronic soundtrack record with a composer called Ben Salisbury who writes for the BBC. It’s an album that’s really inspired by Mega City One [a fictional state in the Judge Dredd universe], so we took from that as inspiration. It has that sort of vibe to it. We’re doing special editions for it and stuff with 2000 A.D., which is really inspiring. And then I’ve literally just finished up the next Beak> album which is a three piece, like my other band. Actually, when people say “side projects,” I just get fuckin’ annoyed really. If you’re an artist who paints on canvas, it’s not like I’m gonna paint this one but this is my side project so I’m not gonna paint as well on this one. It’s crap! Obviously Portishead is my biggest band and I owe my career to them, but Portishead, in my eyes, can’t move forward unless I do these other things. They’re just as important.