INTERVIEW: Scratch Club @ City of Colours 18.06

Scratch Club @ City of Colours 2016 (l-r Tony Culverwell, Tom Dunstan, Superbamz, Redbead) / By Michelle Martin

Words by Ed King / Pics by Michelle Martin

Scratch Club hosts MYSTRO (live) featuring DJ Lok + support from MR FX (Live) – held at The Dark Horse on Saturday 25th June. For more info, click here.

We set up on open mic, open decks hip hop club in the middle of Birmingham City Centre; the postcode was B1 1AA. Everyone was included.”

Scratch Club has hit double figures. Birmingham’s longest running hip hop night has nurtured world champion DJs, born internationally renowned beat boxers; it’s seen labels, rappers and artists through the closing doors of one venue and the opening doors of another And now, with a decade of promotions under its belt, we’re at the second City of Colours event in Digbeth – meeting the four corners of Scratch Club in between sets on their sound system in the Zellig car park. And amongst several things in the event air today, the word ‘inclusive’ seems to be springing from several lips. Pursed, upturned or otherwise.IMG_06027 - lr

Started by Tom Dunstan, aka DJ Automaton – “the artist booker, sound engineer, philosopher, psychiatrist, cat scratching post, punch bag, graphic designer and dreamer of dreams,” Scratch Club first opened its beak at The Yardbird.

Alongside beatboxer Bass6, who now runs The Beatbox Collective – an award winning ensemble ‘made up of a cast of the UK’s top beatbox talent’, Tom started Scratch Club to bring Birmingham an inclusive hip hop night, where you can turn up and play on the decks, you can turn up and hold the mic… we left it wide open.” Now a firm sell out fixture at The Dark Horse in Moseley, Scratch Club has moved its open mics and headline acts into the leafy suburbs, hosting acts including Akala and Jehst since the start of the year.

But, as with the hip hop culture it represents, Scratch Club is a collective – a group endevour, built by those that chose their level of involvement. “We became hosts because we were the first set of open mic rappers who stood up,” explains Superbamz – Scratch Club’s ‘resident pitbull’ and co-host MC, alongside Redbeard. “No one ever came up and said ‘ok, you’re residents’. So now we have the opportunity to go and give the mic to someone who looks like they’ve got something to say; the more the merrier. And the only reason I’ve become ‘the pitbull’ is because certain people take the mick when their on the mic.”

IMG_05577 - lr“We can freestyle about nothing for ages,” continues Redbeard, the ‘stoner good cop’ and Yin to the darker side of Superbamz’s attention, “and maybe get a few gems in there. But by getting people up it helps us, it encourages us; there’s more vibe in the circle. Me and Bamz can keep it going but when there’s more people up there and we’re bouncing…. I’ve heard classics that will probably never be recorded, and we’ve sat there and gone ‘damn, this new kid…’ then you see them on One Xtra or whatever. That’s what it’s all about; we always try and encourage people to participate because that’s what a cypher is.”

Co-founder of Eatgood Records, Redbeard is no stranger to nurturing talent. But the open approach at Scratch Club has polished many diamonds in the rough; Tony Culverwell, aka Mr Switch, “won the DMC World Championships four times, only three consecutively” and first played at Scratch Club in 2007, after being brought to The Yardbird by his dad.

“My parents were always on the lookout for places for me to do things,” explains Culverwell, “they were always on the hunt for community things involving turntables that I could get involved in. And finding out there was a hip-hop open mic, open everything event on your doorstep… I had to see what was going on.” Was it intimidating, walking up to a strange promoter at a strange night and asking to play? “I did have my routine of records on me,” having used them to win two previous DMC Championships, “so once I’m on the decks I can ‘do this’. But I didn’t have an agenda beyond that. It’s like getting up on the mic, it’s just the way you say this is me. It’s the hip hop handshake.”IMG_05897 - lr

“I remember seeing, and with the greatest respect to your dad, this old really out of place looking dude,” confirms Tom Dunstan, “so I went over and bought this guy a drink. That’s when he asked if his son could get up on the deck and I was like, ‘yeah sure. Let’s give him 15minutes’.”

There is a palpable camaraderie at the table, as the collective built on ‘never any contracts’ throws supportive comments and friendly jibes at each other. It’s a team. But the ideals of hip hop can be too often claimed and not owned, with many using their forceful bravado to oppress or antagonise. This is a prevalent duality, especially today, and one that arguably flies in the face of the culture it came from. Despite all the good intentions has Scratch Club ever suffered at the back hand of the haters?

“There’s never been one shutdown,” explains Redbeard – talking about the open mic group cyphers that are a regular fixture at Scratch Club, “Sometimes people get mad, but it’s more of pride thing and an ego thing. Especially with people who are trying to become rappers, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the way it’s seen. But not every rapper is like that – I don’t rap about ‘the bitches’ and ‘the guns’ and whatever. I rap about going to work and feeding my kids. I rap about what I know.”

IMG_05847 - lr“Hip hop came from the streets,” continues Superbamz, “and there’s going to be that angst amongst it all. So when some people come and rap with someone who’s virtually ‘a nobody’ they can get a bit upset. But at the end of the day they’re just words. If you don’t like it do something about it. And if you’re going to cause a problem then just take it somewhere else. Luckily it’s never been like that though.”

Never any crossed words that got a bit too crossed? “I remember having to walk Redbeard out once like Batfink, with my wings of steel,” admits Tom Dunstan, “but what I loved about those early cyphers, which could get angsty, was that the really good rappers – yourselves included – once you’d ripped each other to shreds, each other’s mums, each other’s lives, each other’s style, you walked of stage and hugged each other. That attitude is kind of why I’m still doing this.” It’s a response and respect I’ve seen in many a boxing ring, but there’s usually someone with a bit too much spite in his punch. Where’s the line?

“There’s no line,” explains Superbamz – the man often clearing up the aggressive overspills from a Scratch Club cypher, “it waivers. It depends how phonetically good you are and that you’re not too offensive. And if I see that someone is hogging the mic, I’ll step in. But it’s not just my intuition; I’ll often get a nudge from Redbeard or Tom and then I’ll step in too.”

“We haven’t actually told anyone they can’t come” continues Tom, “but what we have done is made sure we’ve kept ourselves consistent – to be as good as we can be, so that hopefully other people will up their game too. And it’s the same for us. I make records that Tony plays in his world championship routines, so I’ve had to make them better. Likewise with the artists on Eatgood Records, which I wasn’t doing before I became friends with Redbeard. He pushes me up, he pushes me up… we all up our game all the time because of each other.”

It’s a healthier approach than others, with the elephant in the Internet marauding around City of Colours like a petulant giant. ‘Inclusive’ is not always a kind word. But how much shade do the storm clouds of finance and gossip throw over events such as this?IMG_05927 - lr

“Everything that’s happening today is all hip hop,” answers Superbamz. “The dancing, the music, the rapping, the street art, the performers – it’s all hip hop. And people who are ‘murmuring’ about it either don’t know, or don’t know enough. And people fear what they don’t know.”

“It (City of Colours) can only be good for Birmingham,” continues Redbeard, “but money’s normally the problem. This is a free event, and I don’t know the ins and outs but its good promotion for the city.”

It is strange to hear people deride anything that helps shift the perception from criminal damage to street art. But I remember when Temper started selling his work through the Mailbox’s Art Lounge gallery, when Korsa got a double page spread in the Birmingham Mail, and when a variety of other graf artists have been offered lucrative commissions from FMCG brands and retailers. In this corner of sub culture, at least, it seems behind every healthy pay check are 1000 angry reasons why it’s duplicitous or ‘selling out’.

“I’ve heard great and awful things about all of you,” continues Tom Dunstan, “I’ve heard you hated on, I’ve heard you hated on, I’ve heard you hated on; you’ve all heard me hated on. But I’ve also heard people speak amazingly well about all of you. That’s part of the deal. You’re going to get people who are really supportive and people who are… So with all that understood, do you imagine the people running one of the biggest graffiti festivals in Europe might get a bunch of haters just for existing..?”

IMG_05397 - lr“It’s a double edged sword,” agrees Superbamz, “the more that you get loved the more you’re going to get hated. And if you think you’re a big part of something that’s going on, and you’re not involved, you’re going to feel a problem – everybody does it. We all have that in our human nature.” Certainly sad, arguably bitter, but a true corner in probably most of our hearts. In the ten years it’s been going, has this backlash ever been a problem for Scratch Club?

“You know what it is,” continues Superbamz, “we’ve had people come to Scratch Club and they’ve come up on the mic and started to spit about postcode wars and this and that. But you turn around and politely say ‘it’s not about that. It’s just about spitting bars, if you don’t like it you know where the door is’.” I can’t argue the principle, but with the egos and aerosol still thick in the air around us how has this ‘polite’ advice been received at Scratch Club?

“They haven’t left,” describes Superbamz, “when you explain it people have just turned around and said ‘OK, I understand where you’re coming from.’ Because when it comes to music, whether it’s DJing, rapping or production, you just want people to hear you. And hip hop is a culture; everyone’s got bars and lyrics that will be enlightening to somebody.”

Scratch Club hosts MYSTRO (live) featuring DJ Lok + support from MR FX (Live) – held at The Dark Horse on Saturday 25th June. For more info, click here.

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For more on Scratch Club, visit www.facebook.com/scratchclubbirmingham

For more from City of Colours, visit www.cityofcolours.co.uk

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