Since their (official) formation just shy of two years ago, the Manchester collective-cum-local-supergroup has released a series of acclaimed cypher videos, packed out legendary venues like Manchester’s Ritz music hall and Fabric, cavorted with the cast of Channel 4’s Shameless (as well as appearing on the channel’s specialist music show Four To The Floor), hosted shows on Rinse FM and toured London in a stretch hummer, delivering melons and mixtapes around the city, as well as leaving an indelible mark on Croatia’s coastline with a Levelz stage and boat party at this year’s Outlook Festival. All off the back of just two singles (albeit with some pretty impressive visual accompaniments).
Part of this rapid ascent could be put down to the expectation (and latterly the proof, if you’ve seen the live show) that the sum of such great parts is bound to be pretty special, despite the fact that collectives – particularly once they’ve been labelled a supergroup – can all too often suffer from too many figurative cooks spoiling the musical broth.
Comprising some of the finest talent to have emerged from the North West’s premier city, if not from the UK itself, Levelz’ DJ/sometime producer/fulltime catalyst Rich Reason – otherwise best known as the promoter behind Hit & Run, the Manchester clubnight at which most of Levelz’ members cut their musical teeth – describes the group as “Wu-Tang meeting Happy Mondays in the 21st Century.” And they’ve already received endorsement from at least component of that analogy, with Bez describing them as “the new pride of Manchester.” Don’t be misled by the description, though: they are MCs, producers and DJs, and they do like a party, but if you’re yearning for an acid house Shaolin boom-bap rap crossover act then you’ll not only be disappointed but should probably be reconsidering your tastes too because that combination sounds pretty awful.
Every member of the group is already an established artist in their own right – spanning drum & bass, dubstep, grime, garage, dancehall, hip hop, jazz, funk and more – but they’ve been sharing studio and stage space with one another in various forms for years, providing a natural and expansive artistic chemistry that can be hard to find (or worse, manufacture). This is not a bunch of guys from rock bands coming together to make a record that just sounds like it was made by a bunch of guys from rock bands.
With this unique combination of cohesive individuality and experience, the collective are writing themselves into Manchester’s musical history: the catalogue numbers that adorn each piece of the Levelz puzzle are a direct reference to Tony Wilson’s iconic Factory Records, which numbered everything from LPs, to parties, to a bet between Wilson and label partner Rob Gretton (FAC-253) and even the Hacienda cat (FAC-191). So with Levelz you have, for instance, LVL 01 as a series of cypher videos, LVL 07 and 09 are singles, LVL 03 is a photography project that saw Manchester landmarks improved with a Levelz logo, LVL 05.1 and 05.2 are the two Ancoats-based studio spaces – everything is being accounted for.
But there’s more to it than simply tracing a line between Levelz and some of the city’s past musical visionaries; there’s a genuine desire to contribute to and build on Manchester’s globally recognised music heritage. Reason talks of the collective’s core producers – namely Dub Phizix, Biome, Metrodome and Chimpo – as “pushing into uncategorisable sonic territories,” and while Jonny Dub – a key DJ within the collective, and co-founder of influential clubnight/label Hoya:Hoya – is ready to pay respect where it’s due, he’s keenly aware that the music and scenes most prominently associated with Manchester “are just not relevant anymore.” Skittles meanwhile, when asked what he thinks is so special about the city, simply answers: “I live there. Me.” Producer/DJ/MC/sock connoisseur Chimpo’s suggested alteration of this response to “us” is barely audible over the sound of Liam Gallagher eating his heart out.
But where Mancunian musical establishment acts like Oasis, Happy Mondays, The Smiths, Joy Division, A Guy Called Gerald or The Stone Roses all came to define and latterly be defined by their respective genre categories, Levelz’ sound is audibly a product of variety and intrigue and one which apparently resists a categorical restriction. Spanning tempos, blending styles and incorporating some of the tightest and smartest lyricism this side of pre-96 US hip hop, demos of the collective’s forthcoming mixtape prove a gripping listen – a rarity when it comes to mixtapes and even albums in today’s digitally-driven, Spotify-playlisted music industry. In fact, it seems that when working together the crew is largely incapable of creating anything that appeals to such easy playlist-able categorisation.
Even when blending their various influences, there’s forever a cheeky, undeniably Mancunian spin to be accounted for in tying things together: a disco tune with back-and-forth rap verses references everything from Vimto to Bisto and Mentos (though it’s not all food talk, flamenco dancing, Sesame Street and Ringo Starr all get mentions too); a G-funk tune paints, with every ounce of self-awareness, each member as a dog. Not to mention the genuinely laugh-out-loud funny skits and ‘ads’ that offer yardie translation services, chip barms and slang tips. But as Rich Reason points out, “the group actually take the craft of music and lyrics very seriously - they just don't take themselves very seriously” – or, to quote Chimpo, “man ain’t Goldie Lookin’ Chain out ‘ere.”
As ever, though, with this many characters involved the plot can sometimes take some time to fall into place – particularly when the cast is such a “toxic mix of partyers and perfectionists,” as Reason puts it. In this case, it’s the aforementioned mixtape that’s taking its time to fall into a final shape. Expectations of release date range from “soonish” (MC Fox) to “fuck knows, but soon hopefully” (Chimpo) to “as far as I know, never” (Skittles). But Dub Phizix, pithy as ever, says they’re simply running by the mantra that “no-one remembers the date anything comes out, they remember the music.” Ian Brown takes notes for his pre-reunion tour press statements.
Words: Will Pritchard (@HedMuk)
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