Brighton duo Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn are making moves. Their brand of reflective, pensive hip-hop is a refreshing departure from the anodyne sound that currently dominates the airwaves and streaming charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sat amongst the beats are sonic and lyrical references to golden-era hip-hop, subtle nods to UK bass culture and commentary on the city that they call home. If this sounds like it could be confusing, it’s isn’t. Everything is delivered with open-eyed clarity and awareness; there’s planning, thought and patience behind the lucid lyrics and tight production. It all seems to be the culmination of a plan that has been many years in the making.
Their music is undeniably of Brighton, mentioning landmarks, talking about growing up within the city’s limits, seeing and documenting its changes. With this in mind, and with the release of a their new single, Love One Another, we thought it time to catch up with the guys to discuss their origins, driving Mustangs in Ibiza and what the future has in store.
“It’s exciting,” says Frankie with a broad smile across his face. “It’s the first time we’ve been played on Radio 1 ever. It’s cool, but I try and not get distracted and gassed, we need it to be played again.” He speaks like someone who knows only too well how fickle the music industry can be. “Once is cool, but you quickly get forgotten about. Not to be all negative about it, I just don’t want to get carried away, I want to be on Radio 1 all the time, that’s the goal.”
The tune they’re talking about is Coconuts, a single that has become something of a breakthrough for them. The Radio 1 play was the culmination of years of hard work and came directly on the heels of another milestone. “The first play for Coconuts was by DJ Target on 1Xtra,” explains Frankie. “He plays a lot of unsigned acts in a section of his show and he selects what he wants to play which is cool. It’s better than being thrown in a mini mix because he introduced us. It was nice, a good feeling.”
What about the accompanying video, filmed in Ibiza? “Yeah that was fun, a good couple of days. Driving around in an old convertible Mustang. I can’t even drive but I had a go at it. Doing donuts around the guy filming was a lot of fun. I was scared about crashing it! We got a couple of friends who live in Ibiza who had connects with old sports cars and his dad had a couple of Mustangs so we just rented one for the day.”
For Harvey, the man behind the beats, his journey into music production began at a Hove youth club at the age of 14. “I went there and learnt to DJ and really got into electronic music. It started with things like drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep and grime, all that kind of quite heavy stuff. From that I started making that kind of music but a couple of years later I met Frankie and started making hip-hop with him. For the past six years me and Franks have been working together. It’s taken ages man, it’s such a slow burner but it has had a nice progression to it.”
You can tell he has a steely determination when it comes to honing his craft. Even songs from years back have a clean, contemporary feel, taking time honoured traditions such as sampling but pushing the envelope sonically. “I’m totally not a purist when it comes to sampling, I will use anything,” he says. “I will use stuff from YouTube. But at the moment a lot of our latest music has been a lot less sample heavy, partly because it usually raises copyright issues!
“I’ve never been like a real crate digger; I’ve always taken anything from anywhere,” he readily admits. “I use a lot of sample packs for electronic music and techno, but then apply that to hip-hop and just try and have fun with it and be creative with it.”
With this simple division of labour – Frankie on lyrics and Harvey on production – we ask Frankie if it can sometimes be hard to get along creatively. “We’re friends so making music has been quite easy,” he says. “It’s never been that awkward because we’re such great mates. If he makes something that I don’t like I’m not afraid to call it shit. And vice versa. We don’t take offence to it. I think that’s why it works because we are 100% straight up with each other and that’s why it has always been easy. I trust him with all the production and he trusts me with the writing. He doesn’t try and make me say something or point me in a direction. It’s a nice little 50/50 balance and it works quite well.”
Things can move fast in music. You can be plugging away for years with no recognition and then something changes. Your listens on Spotify go through the roof, you start getting asked to support big acts, potential managers emerge from the woodwork and want to talk business.
“It’s really exciting at the moment,” says Harvey. “Coconuts, the first single we have put out this year, has gone down really well, we’re really happy with the feedback. Now we’re just taking the time to strategise correctly and have a good team behind us to put things in place correctly.
“There’s lots of music we are sitting on,” he adds. “We’re shooting a video for our next single, but the main thing for us is the tour we have in October and tickets are on sale for that now. We’re going to Nottingham, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, London and Brighton with potentially more dates to come.”
“It’s bigger than the last one,” adds Frankie. “We went on tour not so long ago but this one is bigger. We could upscale it, but we want to keep some sort of demand there for the spring tour. It’s easy to get carried away and try and cash in.”
So what format does a Frankie Stew and Harvey Gunn live show take? What should punters expect on their upcoming tour? “Harv triggers it all live with a launch pad so it is a bit more interesting than just listening to a DJ,” explains Frankie. “It does take a bit of rehearsing but it’s good fun, I love it, man. It’s completely different to performing in the studio, totally opposite. The studio seems like it is fun but it’s not like that all the time. It’s hours and hours of me trying to write lyrics or listening to Harv. Whereas performing, as nerve wracking as it is sometimes, once you get it going there is nothing better than that.”
We ask him about dealing with nerves and whether or not he likes being the focal point in the performance. “I like it. When I first started it was long, but now I’m used to it and it’s great.” He happily admits that he’s “always nervous for the first tune,” but after that “it becomes easier” to enjoy it. “It is always a weird sense of relief when you finish a show though. It’s stress, with so many lyrics it’s long having to remember them all. An hour’s worth of straight bars is hard!”
A huge thanks to Frankie and Harvey for taking the time. You can see them on their upcoming tour this October.
Photography: James Hole