If you were familiar with the previous incarnation of Sputnikmagazine, you may have noticed a certain Stephen Adams (Re:Flex the Architect) in the contributors section. There was a song streamed with Barrowclough spouting something about Bart Simpson and a short interview, but since then very little has been heard from this shadowy Sputnik contributor. Until now.
For the last decade or so, Stephen Adams has been working away quietly establishing himself as one of the mainstays of Christian hiphop in the UK. In April 2014, we caught up with him about his involvement in the second album by US hip hop crew, Scribbling Idiots. We managed to pick his brains about working with the Scribbling Idiots and to tap into his wisdom on the strange science of beat making.
To stream and buy the album, click here.
Hey, I’m Stephen Adams, also known as Re:Flex the Architect. I’m a hiphop Beatmaker/ MC/Mix Engineer. Living in London, but I’m a Polish-born, Leeds-raised Nigerian.
I’m part of the Scribbling Idiots crew, predominantly based in the US, but I’m one of two European members and the only Brit.
How did you get into making music and how did you hook up with the Scribbling Idiots?
Got into music when I was about 13. Heard some really cheesy youth-group type rap when I was young and for some reason that ignited a spark in me to rhyme. Later on, discovered US artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Tunnel Rats, Grits, Blackalicious, Cross Movement, etc, whom I studied and learned the ropes of how to approach hip hop with a real passion for the craft.
I started producing really because I figured out quickly I needed stuff to rap over & I just assumed that rappers made their own beats at that time. My granddad bought me one of those Yamaha keyboard with the pre-arranged backing tracks. Graduated to the Boss DR-5 drum machine, which I really learned how to produce on for a number of years till I then graduated to more computer-based software. I always wanted the MPCs or the Logics or Pro-Tools everyone else seemed to have, but somehow I was able to make what I had work for me. Pretty much taught myself as I didn’t meet other people who were MCs or producers until I went to uni.
At about that time, I found an online forum called Sphere of Hiphop which had a ton of Christians who were passionate about good hiphop. I used to post some of my beats to get feedback and through that, started talking to CAS METAH, who co-leads Scribbling Idiots. He invited me to join the crew about 2001 and I’ve been their UK correspondent ever since 🙂
What do you feel are the main challenges for a Christian making hip-hop music?
Great question. There are surface challenges which get talked about a fair bit. Things like hip hop’s general attitude towards Christians, where artists are viewed with severe suspicion before you’ve even rapped or made a beat, because frankly, Christians have been occasionally responsible for some terrible hip hop music over the years (not all though). Meanwhile, the church as a whole tends to expect artists to only make musical doctrine statements to discourage youth group kids from sleeping around and leaves no room for artistic expression, growth or voicing your own personal struggles and opinions. Behind the sarcasm lies a large vein of truth.
It’s one of the reasons some of the people who currently inspire me are artists like Shad, who writes from what sounds like a clearly Christ-inspired worldview, but has stayed out of the “Christian music” clubhouse and is respected across the spectrum simply because he is undeniably dope! It’s also one of the things I love about my crew Scribbling Idiots and some of the other artists I work closely with like Tommy Eye or Wizdom (formerly of Greenjade), that we all inspire each other to make good music that steers clear of either of the above traps while still being true to our faith in Christ.
As a producer, it’s a tough one, because you have less control over the end product unless you want to stay in the Christian music ghetto. One of my big influences is a producer called S1 aka Symbolyc One, who has produced for Beyonce, Jay-Z and Kanye West, Game and more, but is a passionate follower of Christ. You’d think it must be tough for him to work on records that the end result may be promoting things he does not necessarily agree with, but to me, his faith shines through in how he goes about his business, the reputation he builds in the industry for his talent AND integrity and the lives he gets to speak into directly as a result.
It’s here that houses the real challenge for Christian in hip hop – to let your faith be seen in the closed-door business dealings and off-stage interactions. To be a man or woman of your word, honour the money, time and trust people invest in you, or to treat others well regardless of their status or immediate benefit to your career.
It’s more important that hip hop as a whole see my faith in action more so when they interact with me as Stephen Adams, far more than anything Re:Flex the Architect says in a verse. I’ve been on the receiving end of shady ethics and dishonesty from artists who share my faith and it makes you quite disillusioned. I try now to use it to remind myself to be better in the way I interact on a business level.
That’s where the real challenges are for me, ‘coz it’s hard to remember that my actions whether in business or in everyday reflect not just me, but how people see Jesus and the church as a whole.
While you are a gifted MC, you are most known for your beat making. For the uninitiated, what does this involve and how would you go about making a beat?
Haha! Cheers Jonny. Beatmaking, to me, is first and foremost about creating a feeling in the listener, whether it’s the rapper who has to write a song based on the emotions the beat evokes, or the listener hearing the final product. I’m always trying to create something that gives me that “Ooooooh” feeling. That feeling that makes me want to stop everything I’m doing, close my eyes, screw my face up like I just smelt something rotten while nodding my head violently! If the track makes me lose myself like that in it, then I know I’ve done my job right. Still a work in progress though.
Outside of manipulating samples and synth sounds, I play keys, drums and percussion to an average level, and am learning bass and guitar, so I try and incorporate either live instruments or at least some form of melody and musicality into the beats.
I’ll be shameless and use my crew’s newest release as an example (Scribbling Idiots – Invitation Only). I produced four songs on the record, but my favourite of them is a song called “Nothing to Prove” . I’ll break down in detail what I did on this one.
While crate digging, I found a 70’s jazz-fusion record where I recognized the “cast list” on the record sleeve had a few incredible jazz / funk musicians of that era playing on it. When I took it home & played it, I heard this incredible song with a gorgeous brass section and piano chords with a beautiful female lead vocal over the top. I hit this section where the singer hit this haunting long note while the brass section played these great riffs that instantly gave me that “Oooooooh!!!” feeling I was talking about earlier.
I sampled that section into the production software I was using, slowed it waaay down to 91bpm and chopped it – picked out the individual brass chords I wanted from different and rearranged them in a different order and style to create something different from the original – to sound more military-like while still maintaining that haunting musical feel of the original.
I grabbed and layered individual drum sounds I had and played a simple, but hard-hitting drum pattern with them from my Korg PadKontrol, ( a USB drum machine that allows you to play the sounds on your computer live). This gave the drums a more human feel, so it didn’t sound super-rigid like if I just programmed them. Then I played the bass guitar live for the verses and chopped it for the chorus to give it a variation.
The result was a track that sounds to me like a scene from a Marvel superhero movie or Leonidis’ last stand in 300. The MC side of my creative brain could picture a character sticking his chest out, digging his heels in and facing whoever comes against him with fiery confidence. CAS METAH who A&R’d the Invitation Only album, picked MCs for the track who, without any instruction from me, clearly felt the same qualities in the song and you can hear that echoed in their lyrics.