Taking it back to when shoelaces were fat and Michael Jackson was black: An interview with Hip-Hop trio Ugly Duckling

Long Beach Hip-Hop trio Ugly Duckling

Long Beach Hip-Hop trio Ugly Duckling

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Hip-Hop pioneers Ugly Duckling. When I was a kid, back when shoelaces were getting thinner and Michael Jackson was alive, my brother introduced me to the wonderful sounds of ‘Journey to Anywhere’. Smitten by the funkiness of the music from DJ Young Einstein and the wonderful wordplay between the two MC’s, Andy Cooper and Dizzy Dustin, it was an instant favourite and still an album that I play regularly. A few years later, I was given a copy of ‘Bang For The Buck’ and the love affair continued. Their third album and a total blast – I soon discovered ‘Taste The Secret’ and ‘The Fresh Mode’ EP to complete the collection (at the time) and to pleasure my ear cavities.

This past week, I found myself sat backstage at The Deaf Institute, talking Pacquiao and Mayweather with Dizzy and Einstein, whilst Andy Cooper parked the car. Quite a jump! I’m sure the little version of me would be pretty impressed with his future self.
At the time of interview, the trio from Long Beach, California were a week or so into a lengthy tour of the UK, with dates around the rest of Europe scheduled around mid-May. They’ve always seemed to generate a great vibe whenever they’re in Manchester, and I’ve had the pleasure of catching them at multiple venues across the city, where it always goes off. With the UK love, it’s something the boys themselves have certainly noticed over the years, as MC Andy ponders “I think for Ugly Duckling it’s the fact that we’re kind of a funk and soul group, with relation to hip-hop, and there’s a long tradition of soul appreciation in venues like the one here at The Deaf Institute. Especially in the North of England, but all over the UK and then also along with the love of hip-hop, humour – particularly self-effacing and dry humour that we have, I think resonates with a lot of listeners. I think it’s a combination of the funk and the fun of what we do-“

Strangely, the Yudee sound is one that struggled to get off the ground stateside, much like the situation with the US and Kings Of Leon. No one care about those guys until the release of the dreadful, selling out vibes behind ‘Only By The Night
DJ Young Einstein dips a toe in and weighs up the situation, “People are far too serious in the States and we never really connected with American people for some reason, and we didn’t really get that till we got over here
Andy I think – we talk about this a lot – in America, hip-hop is seen as urban, which really means black, and it’s attitude. Anything outside of that is a little unusual and left of centre, and there’s not much machinery behind anything that isn’t that kind of presentation which is urban, black, violent, clubs, crack, whatever it is. There are some people who succeed doing things a little different, even people like Kendrick Lamar, they have some of that in their music but they do a lot more than just that. But for whatever reason, our thing was so far away from that kind of model. I don’t think we ever got much push behind what we were doing or much enthusiasm for it.
Dizzy It’s ‘cus we’re white, man. We’re just whites, I’m pulling the race card right away (laughs)
Andy “Play it
Dizzy Nah, Andy said it correctly, man. The type of music we do, it just resonates more over here in the UK, and other places on the planet like Australia, Japan, Germany or whatever. In the US, it seems like what Rodney was speaking about a little bit, it’s way too serious. But at the same time, hip-hop culture is also about how you look and how you dress, and I don’t think we fit in that mould”

From listening to those first few Ugly Duckling records, you can kinda piece together how Andy, Dizzy and Einstein got started – Andy went into a room with a pen and a pad and wrote a rhyme about his fat cat, etc. But mutual friendship groups and a shared taste in the music of the time was a big factor, with guys like Slick Rick, Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane being cited as influences, as Dizzy points out “We all had similar tastes in that type of music and it’s what we wanted to do. Being that I was one of the only white rappers around at the time in Long Beach, me and a kid named LMNO (Visionaries), and Einstein being one of the producers, it was like – ok, you guys should meet up with this other white dude…I had this place in my Mom’s house, the backhouse we called it ‘The Pond’ So many people would come back there and do music; freestyling, bringing their beat machines, we even had a drum kit in there at one time. It was the place in Long Beach where everyone would come and, I hate the word cypher (laughs), but would get together and rap and smoke weed or whatever it was, and we just met through that, through that little circle. We just decided to start a group; called it Ugly Duckling and we’re here now

The late 80’s and early 90’s were surely a different time for hip-hop, though I can’t add too much to the discussion, only being a toddler at that point. But it was somewhat of a shock for people stateside to discover that people in the UK and Europe were discovering the sights and sounds – and most importantly, fashion trends – of our brothers and sisters across the pond. Andy I can remember, maybe you guys remember this too, watching ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ on Saturday mornings. One time there was a show where – it might’ve been Gang Starr or somebody, there was a few people in the UK and somebody was in Paris, maybe Guru was in Paris, maybe Public Enemy was in the UK – and just thinking, wow that’s interesting that they enjoy hip-hop over there. I remember specifically them having people breakdancing, and me thinking breakdancing was finished, it was played out for years, and people were still into b-boy culture in the UK. Just thinking – wow, they’re still doing that, they’re wearing sweat suits? This is like maybe 1990-89, something like that. I remember seeing that and for the first time becoming aware that there even was a market for hip-hop music outside of the United States and more than that, outside of New York and Los Angeles.”

So looking back to the Yudee crew as fresh faced kids, did they ever think they’d be heading out across Europe and the world? Dizzy Truthfully, I never expected it. I was just happy to play gigs outside of Long Beach, like Los Angeles. Shit, even closer cities than that. I think we all started doing music to just get out there and say we love hip-hop, we can do hip-hop too. We never had intentions of getting signed to a major label or a minor label, or touring as much as we have. We did it for the love of it, and I think we wanted to accomplish something and we did that. Our first demo was called ‘Down The Road’, and it was a full length album. We just wanted respect from our peers; we never planned where we’re at today. It’s definitely a blessing
Einstein “There was a time I remember in 1998 when a group – there’s a Canadian hip-hop group called Swollen Members, which is hugely successful in Canada – but they did a show in Long Beach, and we’re hanging out with them at that time and they had said “We just got back from Scotland”, and I remember – I couldn’t wrap my head around it. “What were you doing in Scotland, performing hip-hop music?” They were like, “Yeah, you’re gonna go there too – you’ll see!” The next year, we were out there
Dizzy It was mostly my friends that I wanted to impress. I didn’t go out there thinking I want to get respect from groups like Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5, or groups that were doing what we were doing at that same time. But it was good that it came, ‘cus we all got put in that same circle. Ugly Duckling, Dilated, Jurassic 5, the old school’s back, hip-hop this and that and the fact that we got to know all these people and tour with them and do shows. The fact when we first came out here touring, we came out with the Jungle Brothers. Those were like our childhood idols, and once we started meeting people that we looked up to like De La Soul, like when Maceo came and was like “Yo, I bought like 10 copies of the Fresh Mode 12 inch” You start meeting Guru, and you start meeting these artists that know who you are and respect what you’re doing, you get to a point where you’re like – wow, we’re doing something here! I’m good friends with The Pharcyde now, and these are the groups who I used to sit in the backhouse and just rap over their music. To be able to get in that scene and respect from those types of people by doing the music that we love to do was something special. It still trips me out sometimes, I take it for granted. Like, actually I know this guy now and we’re friends. This is a person I used to watch on TV like – dude, I wanna do that.

Yudee back in 95

Yudee back in 95

It’s a special bond that’s seen the Yudee crew prosper since the early 90’s. There have always been stories in the music press about groups splitting up, with one side taking the royalties and the other getting dick, blah-blah-blah. It’s a story you’ve heard far too often and one that often sullies the good name groups have worked hard to achieve. So what’s been the secret ingredient bonding Andy, Dizzy and Einstein together all these years? Andy “I think we all value that together we can make music and put on a show that people really enjoy, and we can do a thing we believe in and has integrity. I think we appreciate the privilege of that and the opportunity to perform for people, and we need each other for that so that binds us together. Our general view on hip-hop music and how it should be done. Quite frankly, it’s our practicality in that to note what you’re saying – we travel very simply, very lightly, very economically feasibly (laughs) if that’s a term. That’s how we’ve been able to do this for so many year’s, by keeping it simple, very straight forward, taking responsibility for our own career and our own finances-
Dizzy Three guys in a car, driving ourselves from show to show
Einstein “Low overhead, bottom line (laughs)
Andy That’s not the norm in hip-hop music, and probably not in most genres. But, because we’ve all been willing to do that, it’s been able to keep us on the road for many years and I think by doing that, we’ve accrued certain value as a band. We have a connection with a lot of different people, because of our ability to stay on the road and perform. Also, I think it made us into a pretty good live band which I think is valuable for any group, ‘cus if you can put on a show and touch people in the audience, I feel like there’s a certain reaction to that and once you’ve created that, the people will come back to see more of you or they’ll tell their friends or whatever it is, and it will kind of keep your band going

Integrity is a bit of a hot topic in the music industry, seeing as a lot of musicians seem to forget all about it if there’s a hint of a pay day. It’s sad, but it’s hard to gauge how you might feel if it was you sat in some big-wigs office looking at a contract for a big wad of cheese.
Andy Dustin mentioned De La Soul, and I remember there’s a point where De La Soul’s career kinda changed and they were a bit more – I don’t wanna say poppy, but a little more tough and cool. I remember talking to Maceo about it and  saying “You guys are saying things on record that you used to make fun of people for saying in 1989” and he thought that was interesting and amusing – ‘yeah that’s what happens, you stay around long enough, these things kinda start happening’ to some extent that you become a parody of yourself. But we were determined that we’d be consistent and have a certain integrity about our message and our attitude. Maybe because we’ve been so determined about being a humble, modest, low-budget band we’ve remained that band (laughs) we haven’t become a lucrative operation. At the same time, we’ve stuck with it….We played some place recently, and it was a really small room, and they were like – wow that was a great show, I can’t imagine you guys playing in a really big club. I was laughing like – that’s probably true, we are meant to be in a tight room, that’s how we can dominate. We’re the greatest band ever in front of 100 people (laughs) A thousand it gets, it’s sort of like diminishing returns – like the opposite of Led Zeppelin or whatever (laughs)

The Yudee crew touring the globe

The Yudee crew touring the globe

Andy That’s one thing that’s been interesting the last few years, because I remember touring with The Pharcyde in the 90’s, and in the early 2000’s thinking – wow, they’re still just doing all stuff from 1993. It’s a great album, there’s lots of great songs – even the next one, which was shortly after, had some good stuff – but generally for a two or three year span that was all their material. Then that’s kind of continued to be the case, and they had enough good stuff where they can do a show, and they add lots of little bits of new flavour here and there. But I just felt like unless we were functioning as a group, both recording and live, then it’s not a proper group, it’s like some kind of throwback band. Like when we go to some festival and they’d have The Spinners or like a group from the 60’s like The Temptations, and they’re still doing ‘My Girl’ for the 60th year in a row
Dizzy Hey, you’re gonna hear ‘…Samba’ tonight (laughs)
Andy (laughs) My point is to say nothing wrong with doing old songs, but I always liked it when old songs were a vehicle for pushing what you’ve got going now
EinsteinWhen we’re doing our gig, we’re performing songs that span like 15 years
Dizzy It’s a trend right now too, I see a lot of groups come out doing the album in its entirety. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, like I don’t wanna see Nas do just ‘Illmatic’, even though it’d be a good show to see. Especially in LA or where we’re at, like Wu Tang doing 36 Chambers in its entirety. Laziness (laughs)
Andy They’re doing the anniversary tour or something in its entirety, I’m like – they want to make money and they’re looking for a way to present it that isn’t just another show
Dizzy Dude – our 20 year anniversary is coming up soon, we’ve gotta do a 20 year anniversary world tour
Einstein Somebody bought up a really good point to me a couple of days ago. They said why – because every time you look at youtube, every hip-hop video, everyone’s saying like ‘fuck this, I’m all about old school, golden era hip-hop. I love golden era hip-hop’ Why are there no groups doing golden era hip-hop anymore? There’s a void there – everybody is saying this
Dizzy I think it’s all shit (laughs)

From Fresh Mode in ’99 to 2011’s ‘Moving At Breakneck Speed’, Ugly Duckling have been spinning yarns across five full length albums and an EP. As listeners, they’ve taken us on tours across the globe, from as close as Down The Road to the beaches of Rio De Janeiro. They’ve served up delicious Meat Shake’s one minute whilst fighting in a Revolucion the next. They’ve given relationship advice and been in school yard fights, and even tangled with the likes of Daisy, Abigail Silk and a honey in a long plaid skirt and a shirt with a little picture of Ernie and Bert. So what lies ahead for Ugly Duckling?
Dizzy I’m tired, man. It’s hard for us to say; like we mentioned we’ve done five albums and an EP, we’ve kinda covered everything we can cover as far as recording and writing. We don’t have any fire under our asses to work on any new music. Right now we’ve got a lot going on – we’re all married and we’ve got kids. It’s kind of hard to say what’s gonna be next. I’m looking forward to a couple more tours here and there, but more or less just try and stay home with the family, and do the right thing as far as being a Dad and a Husband at this point. Making the wife happy, you know – happy wife, happy life, you’re good.

With Ugly Duckling, you couldn’t expect anything else. They’re not the sort of crew to rest on their laurels and stick to shows that consist of the same album (though as Dizzy said, there is an Anniversary due soon!) Their live show is always mixed up, and you never really see or hear the same thing twice. With that in mind, with the clock on the wall that wouldn’t stop ticking, I tried to get a feel of what the trio had in store for Manchester that evening.
Andy Erm, We’re just doing our songs (laughs)
Dizzy (laughs) Just trying to make it to the next show, that’s it
Andy Few routines, few jokes, some laughs. Special brand of Ugly Duckling live presentation that hopefully keeps us moving and stops those tomatoes from being thrown, that’s the way we approach it

The Ugly Duckling crew are still in the UK until Wednesday, before making their way to Europe. To see if they’re anywhere near you, check out the dates here. To read a review of the Manchester show, point your peepers here, and check out the interview in full below:

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