Strange bedfellows make a fine marriage of words and music
Growing up immersed in hip-hop and political activism in 1990s Bristol provided the creative foundation for a wordsmith whose clever and poetic writings underpin an intriguing band who demand attention and defy pigeonholes – Dizraeli and the Small Gods.
The eight-piece, who take to the stage at Exeter's Phoenix tonight, represent the amalgam of modern hip-hop, ancient folk, beatboxing and edgy jazz, a surprising union that flows from the hard-hitting to the tenderly melodic, the dangerous to the humorous and playful. They have been experimenting together and consolidating their sound on the live circuit since joining forces in 2009.
Tipped as ones to watch in 2013, they release their dramatic and delightful debut album, Moving In The Dark, on Monday. It's an achievement that has delighted Dizraeli, aka Rowan Sawday.
"We were trying to do something quite new – not just another hip-hop or folk record. I'm glad we took our time," he says. "I have heard it a million times, now; I was there for every second of the recording process. I am super proud of it."
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The record opens with a short track capturing the sound of a living being gasping for breath as it breaks the surface of the water.
"The idea behind some of the songs is this weird creature emerging from the swamp not knowing what he is," explains Rowan. "It's roughly based on a children's book from Australia called The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek. He's not like any of the other animals and he has to find his own way. That reflects the personal stories in the album."
Rowan both raps and sings his cleverly-crafted narratives of love, life and death amid this imaginative soundscape of a myriad flavours.
He remembers being nine years old and hearing the Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince hit Boom! Shake the Room. Everyone was rapping, from Bart Simpson to Carol Vorderman chanting the times tables on cassette tape.
"Hip-hop was everywhere and I became obsessed with it; I wanted to be like those ultra cool dudes," recalls Rowan, who also absorbed the music of artists like Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane from his aunt's record collection. "My dad was an environmental activist and there was a strong political element to hip-hop. It had this outsider thing about it. I started discovering people who reflected how I felt about the world, people who said I'm not like you, but I am standing my ground. It was quite a personal journey."
He was a skateboarder too, and dabbled in graffiti, in a city that was buzzing with cutting edge culture and creativity. Rowan started DJ-ing when he was 16 and Dizraeli was the name he picked at random; it has remained through his decade in Brighton playing with words and performance, his discovery of the English folk tradition about five years ago, his solo album, City Shanties, and now the fruition of the vivid, fresh and exciting Moving In The Dark.
Dizraeli and the Small Gods play at Exeter Phoenix tonight as part of the city's Vibraphonic Festival.