One of the most refreshing UK hiphop outfits sat down to field our questions on their background, influences, performing live and what forthcoming projects are in the works.
There's quite a few people in your crew, so what's with the name?
DJ Nonames: The name 'Focused Few' was made up when we first came together, back in 2000. I guess 'cause at the time it felt like we were one of only a few groups of people doing that kind of music. The concept of Focused Few has always been to build tight stripped down loops that have a solid feel, kind of like a sequenced beat does. People in the band have backgrounds in funk, reggae, hip-hop, soul and rock, but all appreciate the feel of hiphop production, and this comes through in our sound.
We used to put on these parties in this basement in an old disused pub in Bethnal Green. Vadim, The Mixologists, Doc Brown, Farma G, Honey Brown, some fella called Orifice… A whole bunch of heads showed up at these parties over the couple of years we were throwing them.
How long have you been working together and how did you all hook up to become one?
Alero Scott: As we are now, about 18 months…
Thomas Zacharias: It initially started with a gig I was supposed to do with another project, some time towards the end of 1999… The guys cancelled last minute and there I was with a slot at a good venue but no band… so I called on Steve (keys) and Wayne (drums), two mc's and a singer and without rehearsal or songs, we improvised a whole set. It went really well, so we decided to keep jamming.
DJ Nonames: I joined around 2000 whilst in my final year at Queen Marys, in Mile End. Taurai (mc) was studying there too and invited me down to a jam in New Cross. Back then, the emcees were Taurai and Mr Two, who emmigrated to Japan a couple of years ago. Diana Fearon was the singer. She went out to Nashville to work with some song writers over there, and has recently been working with Funky DL. Since then, the group has had much the same elements but now the mc's/vocalists are Aurelius, (from LoTek HiFi, who also plays horns), Alero Scott, and Audra Nishita (who's worked with Plant Life and Macy Gray).
Talk us through the different skills each member of the crew brings to the table.
DJ Nonames: There's 5 band members in all. Drums, Mr Casserley. Keys, CBDSteve. Bass/Guitar, Dr. Zak and me on Turntables. Aurelius plays Clarinet and Sax as well as emcees, plus we've got Audra and Alero on vocals. There are a few guest emcees that we work with too. Steve handles the recording, and the bulk of the production. Tom and I help out with the sounds and arrangements and general band organisational matters…
Thomas Zacharias: I think each person is unique, really! Loads of musicianship and creativity. The most interesting thing is our DJ, really, because he can hear music… Say we play in a certain key for instance. He'll pick up on that and play a Coltrane horn-line, in the right pitch, on top of our music and it'll be spot on, providing the hook for the song. Our singers are hot too, making up BV's on the spot, just like that!
Do any conflicts of opinion or niggles occur about your music because there's quite a few of you?
DJ Nonames: There's a kind of order in which shit works. Everyone's on the same page as far as how we want the music to sound. It's a tried and tested formula, and if there's any difference of opinion, we pretty much sort it out between us. A lot of times, differences in opinion lead to the music sounding better anyway… and basically CBD's rock 'ard and no-one messes with him.
Alero Scott: Any band/group/act ever claimed there were no conflicts of opinion when it came to music, it'd be a lie. But we're a pretty harmonious bunch and stuff kinda just gets done.
How did you get with Dented Records and how do you feel your 'Mars And Back' release was received?
DJ Nonames: As far as getting with Dented, I've known Pavan (Orifice) for years. He brought me the first ever record him and Dag (Nabbit) pressed when I was DJing at the Tup in Marylebone with DJ GizRoc (before the council banned us for making too much noise). It was some crusty pressing of 'Where Did The Sun Go'. We were just mates at that point and he knew the band, but it was shortly after that, we did our first show as Foreign Beggars at Kung Fu with Shlomo. That was in February 2003, and it's been growing ever since then…
'Mars And Back' was 2 years in the making. It took a long time because we were all about playing out, and never really knew how to record ourselves well, which is something we're getting better at. Things like getting the drums to sound right through good recording and mixing take time and it's really important that you try out lots of different ways of doing things so you get a sound you're happy with.
CBD Steve: Its a very time consuming and tricky process to record a band, as opposed to making a beat and putting a rap or vocal on it. The songs themselves can come together very quickly in rehearsals but laying it all down and mixing it can take a lot longer with a full band.
What material have you guys been working on and when can that be expected?
DJ Nonames: We've got two new singles we're working on. Expect a July/August official release date. It's gonna have two other guest emcees on it, who you'll have heard of before. They're both sick in their own right. Should have some ill remixes on there too. It'll sound a lot different from the first single.
What are some of the key musicians which have influenced you and contributed to your sound?
CBD Steve: Keyboards: George Clinton, Roy Ayers, Toby Smith, Chris Jasper, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder…
DJ Nonames: Turntables; all types of music, especially jazz. Miles, Lou Donaldson, Django, Donald Bird. Listening (and watching) the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Beat Junkies and the X-men. There's a bunch of inspiring DJs over here at the moment. 2Tall and Woody to name a couple.
Thomas Zacharias: Bass and bass- clarinet players, obviously. People like Eric Dolphy, James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, etc. I'm a great fan of Richard Bona, a Cameroonian bass-player/vocalist… He puts Marcus Miller in the shade for real. In terms of sound, I also always liked The Roots, especially the 'From The Ground Up' EP. When I heard that the first time I thought 'Damn, this is it!'
Is it likely we'll hear you releasing material outside of the hiphop genre, and what other genres are you digging?
Thomas Zacharias: I've done two albums with Lotek HiFi (Big ups!) which is more bashment, reggae kinda thing.
DJ Nonames: A lot of us are involved in other projects, which are all in a different genre to Focused Few I guess. I'm DJ for Foreign Beggars, Aurelius is a full time member of LoTek Hi-Fi, as is Tom. The other band members also have a seperate jazz project. Wayne is drummer in a voodoo funk-metal band called Los Skeletones too. You're gonna see us backing other hiphop artists. Keep your eyes peeled for forthcoming collaborations.
'Mars And Back' felt quite minimalistic. With a lot of artists getting crazy with electronics, do you feel less is more?
DJ Nonames: Our sound is stripped down. We play together a lot. Rather than everyone playing out, it's about building tight loops. It's all down to how the music is created in the first place. An idea can come from a bass or rhodes lick, a sample, or a vocal hook, then we build around that.
CBD Steve: We came up from playing jam sessions at a recording/rehearsal studio in Deptford- Vampire Music, previously known as Music City. We've always put together songs with each person playing their one part. That's why it works when we play them live. Anything added on top is going to be minimal. We're more likely to drop things out than over dub more stuff, but I've just bought myself a few new studio toys to play with…
DJ Nonames: To see us live you'll understand the record a lot better 'cause we're all about playing live. The dynamic is unique and people vibe off of it.
How important do you feel it is for the live band to be protected from extinction?
DJ Nonames: In other countries I've been to, in particular Norway, France and Switzerland, there's a lot more support for home grown music. The governments in these countries seem to back IE; put more money into, developing a healthy, diverse music scene.
Alero Scott: Depends how bad the band are dunnit! I think people need to be exposed more to good live music… The governments bullshit live music licensing laws which restricts some venues from hosting live music. Don't help.
How often are you guys performing and when/where can people catch you on a live tip next?
DJ Nonames: Lately we've been concentrating on getting this single out, and we've got another project, with a well known London rapper, not from the label, on the go at the moment. There'll be some dates coming up for that. We've performed at a bunch of spots over the years, from stints at the Jazz Cafe, Hackney Ocean, Cargo. We've been to Munich a couple times for shows over there. We're gonna be touring when we release our next 12".
What stands out in your memory as being the best implementation of live instruments in hiphop?
Thomas Zacharias: Roots 'From The Ground Up', and Ty's 'Awkward' live band. Nothing beats D'Angelo's 'VooDoo' (Pino Palladino kills it on bass) and Erykah's first album. The sounds of these two albums is still unchallenged. I also greatly like Common's 'Electric Circus'. It was a brave step away from the hiphop conventions and it really worked!
CBD Steve: The Roots, when they played as the backing band for the Jay-Z unplugged album. They got it just right. Rock solid and sounding fresh, but really subtle in the right places. You can't just play funk and lay a rap on top of it… The Heavy Rhyme Experience was great but that sounds out of date now. It's been done.
DJ Nonames: In general, there's a lot more room for live hiphop music. A lot of hiphop kids have grown up and want a richer, more satisfying experience than what a DJ and rapper can provide. People are less and less impressed with just straight forward beats, cuts and raps. They're looking for a more dynamic experience when they go out to hear music. For that, nothing beats a band.
Who do you think was the most focused artist of 2005 and what releases are you looking out for in '06?
Thomas Zacharias: I'd have to say 'Ty'. I really respect the work he's putting into his project. He's going deep and trying to translate his music into a live setting which works really well. Funny enough, I'm looking forward to Jim Mullen's next 'JimJam' project (Pino on bass!).
DJ Nonames: Recently, beats and rap wise, MF Doom and Madlib… I'm always looking out for Stones Throw releases. ABB, OkayPlayer, and closer to home there's a bunch of amazing stuff to choose from. In '06, look out for releases from DJ Mentat, Skrein, Dr. Syntax, Dubbledge, Kashmere, Verb T, Kyza, Ghost Town… Plus I gotta say the new Foreign Beggars album is gonna turn a lot of heads, and the new single, 'Slow Broiled Ilk', is fire…
Have you got any messages or plugs you'd like to make?
DJ Nonames: Look out for 'Beggars Brew', my new mixtape out in May. It's got a bunch of exclusive stuff on there from a load of talented, up and coming UK artists. There's a bit of Focused Few live on there too. Keep your eyes peeled for a limited run of a mix of unreleased Foreign Beggars material. B sides and other joints featuring artists on the Dented label. It's called 'Bukaki Ski Trip'. We just filmed the video for the new Beggars single produced by OhNo, 'Slow Broiled Ilk'. That's gonna be out May 2nd. Big shouts to the Foreign Beggars, Lotek, SkreinTax, Dyanna Fearon, Los Skeletones, Mr Chiste, Pera, Seleka, Levent and Kim.
Thomas Zacharias: Of course, the key person I've got in mind: my little 6 month old son Antoine Paul Zacharias… You are my sunshine, every day!
Check out the official Focused Few Myspace page.