Toronto-by-way-of-Brighton hip hop pairing Abdominal and DJ Format shared a stage for the first time in ten years at the end of 2015, for what was meant to be a one-off reunion tour. However, we gave them such a roaring reception that they’re heading out on tour again this month, stopping off at The Fleece on 17 May – this time with their first full-length joint album in tow.
Still Hungry, released at the end of April, offers up ten fresh tracks from the pair, including the two tracks released in 2015 to coincide with their reunion tour, Reflective Meditation Rhymes and We Say.
The album title is more than a play on their first ever track together (Format’s 2001 Ill Culinary Behaviour) and was decided before the title track was even written, Format creator Matt Ford explains:
‘Still Hungry so encapsulated how we felt and our attitudes, and for me personally, my approach to making music – I’m still hungry for it.
‘My girlfriend laughs because every time I make something, I tell her it’s the best thing I’ve ever done – obviously you can’t keep making things that are better, but as long as you’ve got that feeling that you’re constantly doing your best work, even if you’re misguided and it’s crap, that’s half the battle – to still feel enthusiastic and inspired.’
As long as you’ve got that feeling that you’re constantly doing your best work, even if you’re misguided and it’s crap, that’s half the battle – to still feel enthusiastic and inspired
On whether the album title and some of the tracks, in particular We Say (you say, old / we say we’re fine / you say, still? / we say, better with time), are in defense of the fact that they’ve been in the game a long time, Andy Bernstein aka Abdominal says: ‘I don’t know if that song was more of an observation or a defense, but I guess it’s a fine line between the two. Maybe it was a little bit…
‘I think in general hip hop has a tendency to be a slightly more disposable music than some other genres. In rock, you have your revered elderly statesmen and there’s classic albums that people still play. You have some degree of that in hip hop, but there’s also a lot of “this is the new club banger, that’s the new hot track” for all of a week, it seems, these days – and then it’s just forgotten.
I think in general hip hop has a tendency to be a slightly more disposable music than some other genres
‘It’s hard because you spend so much time and money and resources and effort and emotion creating an album – I don’t think people realise it’s a very long process; it’s a year, two years. And for that to come out for a week and disappear can be hard. So maybe there is a sense that we have to defend our longevity and that it’s not this disposable thing.
‘There’s value in still listening to and paying attention to people who have been doing this for a long time and who have built their craft up, similar to another genre. So yes – I would agree with your hypothesis.’
Both Format and Abdominal say that it has been a very different process this time around, having previously only featured on each other’s tracks.
‘The dynamic is very different, because we’re both very opinionated and also perfectionistic types of people,’ Abdominal says. ‘So when we are featuring on each other’s projects, we’re still going to be opinionated and defend our artistic decisions, but ultimately, whoever’s project it is has final say.
‘This is the first time we’ve been on an equal playing field at the same time in terms of artistic decisions. So, as was to be expected, there were some clashes and debates here and there, but as headstrong as we both are, we are both also pretty reasonable and not prone to blowing our stacks. I think we both had to make some compromises, but we didn’t sacrifice our friendship in the process!
This is the first time we’ve been on an equal playing field at the same time in terms of artistic decisions
‘Neither one of us would ever want to put something out that we’re not 100% proud of and happy with, so all the arguing goes on beforehand. We would rather scrap something off the whole album entirely, rather than put it out and have our names on it if either one of us feels not right about something. The final product, we’re both totally 100% happy with.’
‘There has been more compromising,’ says Format, ‘but not necessarily in a bad way. In the past, if it was a song from my album, I would have already made the music – and I’m not saying I would have dictated what Abs rhymes about, because that’s down to him, but I would have given him a certain type of song or certain sound because that what I needed for the album, as I was already building it as a whole myself.
‘But doing this album, it was totally – from beginning to end – us looking at it together and seeing what we both wanted to do along the way. We had to humour each other a lot more and consider each other’s opinions equally to our own – it was always an equal collaboration 50/50.’
It’s all changed – back in the day, Matt would send me, not even CDs, literally cassette tapes
‘99.9% of the time, the way we work is that Matt will send me the music first, or a whole bunch of rough beats, and I’ll pick the ones I naturally gravitate towards,’ explains Abdominal. ‘Then I’ll start writing to that particular rough beat or loop and record rough versions of the verses onto my phone to send back to him. Once he has some rough lyrics to work with, he can start fleshing in the music, start adding all the bells and whistles, and we build it up from there. But that’s all changed – back in the day, Matt would send me, not even CDs, literally cassette tapes!’
Both parties have a reputation for their technical skills, which is one of the things that has made them such a popular live act. Format makes his presence very much known from behind the decks, mixing and scratching in a palpably live way. And Abdominal takes his name from his mastery of the abdominal breathing technique – which ranks him pretty highly as a speed rapper and makes for a phenomenal live spectacle. His famous Breathe Later track features an insane 16 bars in one breath, although he says that these stunts are less important to him as he gets older.
The whole technical prowess side of rapping, it’s always going to be an element and it’s good in a live situation, but now I look at the technical side more as a tool, not really an end in itself
‘The whole technical prowess side of rapping, it’s always going to be an element and it’s good in a live situation, but now I look at the technical side more as a tool, not really an end in itself,’ says Abdominal.
‘It’s still exciting and I still like doing that stuff, but I’m more interested in the actual content in the lyrics and the songs. Okay, it’s cool that you can breath really deeply and say a bunch of words, but what are the actual words that you’re saying? In general, my focus is more on crafting good songs that have meaning and resonate with people. It’s cool to show off a little bit within that context, but it’s a little less party tricks and more really trying to connect with people.’
‘Hopefully we haven’t been barking up the same tree or repeating ourselves,’ says Format. ‘For example, the track Behind the Scenes is literally talking about behind the scenes of our lives as working, travelling musicians. It’s all very relatable stuff – for anyone that’s had any sort of insight into that world, whether they know a DJ or have lived it themselves.
‘Whereas Diamond Hammer, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily any real subject matter, that’s just me and Abs doing what we’re known for – going hell for leather, super fast, heavy drum breaks, brag raps. It’s a bit of a cliché, but maybe we’ve ticked every box – or certainly we’ve tried to. We’ve got different styles and moods on the album to suit all sorts of musical tastes.’
It’s a bit of a cliché, but maybe we’ve ticked every box – or certainly we’ve tried to. We’ve got different styles and moods on the album to suit all sorts of musical tastes
For fans heading to their Fleece show in May, particularly those who have never had the chance to see the duo perform together, Abdominal explains what kind of thing we can expect:
‘Matt and I both like to take a traditional approach to our live show, which is one MC, one microphone, and one DJ with two turntables – no real pyrotechnics beyond that. We really pride ourselves on being able to bring energy and excitement and hold the crowd’s attention just with those stripped down elements.
Matt and I both like to take a traditional approach to our live show, which is one MC, one microphone, and one DJ with two turntables
‘That said, we do like to tweak the songs somewhat in the live setting, so you’re not just going to hear the songs verbatim as they are on the album. We like to do little tweaks and remixes and mash ups, but beyond that we just like to bring our A game, bring our skills and connect with the crowd.’
‘It’s safe to say that people can expect to hear a mixture of the new album and, of course, the old stuff,’ says Format. ‘People want to hear the songs they know and love and of course we’re going to give people want they want.
It’s safe to say that people can expect to hear a mixture of the new album and, of course, the old stuff
‘But as artists, it’s important to put a focus on the new album. We haven’t just made a load of mediocre stuff or stuff we’ve half-heartedly thrown together for the sake of having some new songs. This is stuff that we’re really proud of, that we’re really excited about performing for the first time. So we’ll be mixing it up with the old stuff, and making sure we’ve got the balance right, the energy right, and that the show is entertaining.’
DJ Format and Abdominal – 17 May, The Fleece
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