LEVELZ: Challenging everything we thought we knew about Manchester and British hip-hop

Arriving at Wellington House – a converted cotton mill in Ancoats, an inner city area of North West Manchester – to meet the fourteen-strong collective of MCs, DJs and musicians LEVELZ, I’m greeted by a group of middle aged men bumbling out of a taxi. All of them are dressed, rather shoddily, as a variety of ’90s WWF wrestlers. They seem to be waiting around to be let into the same entrance of the building I am, which immediately makes me think I’ve arrived at the wrong place. After a phone call, long-time DJ and LEVELZ’s sort-of manger, Rich Reason, comes to the door calling out “Dan” through a crowd of bewildered-looking blokes in spandex and once he realises I’m not a paunchy Hulk Hogan fanatic, he lets us all in. The wrestlers try and find the bloke they’ve rented a room from to have some sort of wrestling stag party whilst Reason takes me upstairs into the main building to meet the rest of the collective.

Having formed a couple of years ago, the core fourteen of the group consist of members: Biome, Black Josh, Bricks, Chimpo, Chunky, Dub Phizix, Fox, Jonny Dub, Metrodome, Rich Reason, Skittles, Sparkz, Truthos Mufasa and T-Man. Many of the group are veterans of the Manchester scene and have been involved in various other projects, solo outings, club nights and labels in the city, with others more new to the world. The record label Estate Recordings in particular is home to many of the members’ solo projects over the years, acting as a sort of cultural meeting point for the outfit.

Once inside I’m informed we’re running behind schedule and still waiting for some members to turn up. I then arrive to a scene that’s a little bit like an out of control school trip as Charlotte, the photographer, is trying to herd a rowdy and unruly bunch of young men into something resembling an organised manner to take some pictures. Boisterous and mostly with beers and spliffs in hand, it proves a futile task as her voice is often lost to the screaming laughter, jumping around and general horseplay of a group that, it turns out, place having a good time as a pretty high priority beyond most things other than music.

The old mill, with several metal door fronted rooms placed equally along a long corridor almost resembles a prison in its layout and LEVELZ are very much acting the escaped inmates. They clamber the frame of some leftover structure that exists in the corridor and just as they look set to settle for a group photo some people begin to walk past with trolleys, loading in gear.

It appears LEVELZ have new neighbours and said new neighbours couldn’t look more miserable about it, looking especially repulsed by being offered a go on a joint. Some of the group even begin running and leaping over the gear that is being loaded in on a trolley as music pumps loudly from one of the two studio’s the group have in the building. “He’ll learn, mate. He’ll have to,” says Skittles of the building’s new tenant. “Just wait until next week when the metal bands come in or the cover bands that just play the same songs on loop, like some house version of ‘Lady in Red’, I tell ya man. That is hell.”

Within the group’s two studio rooms are mountains and mountains of records. Whether those are being played, music is worked on for beats or bars are being spat, it seems to be a continuous and thriving hotbed of activity with members constantly rolling in and out. The building has even become home to some of the members over the years, Skittles having lived there for a year and a half. It’s the creative epicentre for the collective – a place for the group, who have more members than a football team, to funnel ideas, explorations and experimentations into something resembling a unified output; the sound that is LEVELZ.

They released their debut full-length mixtape earlier this year called ‘LVL 11’, represents the variety and diversity of its membership, thrashing around between grime, g-funk, dub, jungle, hip-hop and anything else the group fancy leaning towards. Reason has in the past described the outfit as a cross between the Wu Tang Clan and the Happy Mondays, and as far as capturing what a group of pisstakers they are, the latter comparison certainly works, but such is the breadth of their membership, and the sound they create, they shake off genre and comparison with contempt.

“Fuck genre,” says Fox, trying to capture the essence of what makes the group them. “I think a reason why so many of us are involved with so many different types of music is, one, boredom, and two, not wanting to represent any sort of one-dimensional view. I get upset sometimes and want to shank people and other times I get happy and other times I want to cry and I think in LEVELZ there is a good mixture of all those emotions in there.”

“That is tough,” says Black Josh when trying to pinpoint the sound and output of the group. “We’re really nice people but we make really angry music and a lot of shit has happened to us, so we all get a bit angry and make this angsty shit. However, we’re inspired by beautiful things. It’s a positive thing, even when it’s a negative, in the broader scope of it it’s positive.”

Often deciphering the truth from a wind-up during the course of the interviews, which are broken up into several small group sittings across the day, is a tricky thing and the large majority of questions I ask are met with jokes, deflections through jokes or an exaggerated lie in the name of a joke. Humour is clearly a driving force behind a great deal of what the group do; it’s what connects them on a level beyond their musical abilities and interests and they love dishing it out to me for pretty much every question. Although perhaps simply they don’t trust me and suspect I’m a narc, as Fox says to me at one point at the end of an interview. “I’ve got a question for you,” he says. “In my experience and where I come from, people who wear shoes like that work for the police or some sort of Government service, yeah? So it makes me quite suspect about this interview and where it’s going.”

Another humour perhaps loosely based on a truth is Chunky’s explanation of how the group got together and met. “Basically, we all started going to the same drug dealer. So you have all these different rooms and circles going on, you have a room full of the weed smokers and you had people doing bing in the bathroom and then the bing circle and the weed circle meet and the m-kat and psychedelic circle, you all start to walk past each other in the corridor at your dealer’s house. If you’re queuing up to go to the bog you’re probably going to have a conversation, you know what I mean? Then eventually you’ve got the smack heads, the coke heads and the weed heads and it’s like, ‘right, let’s make some tunes.’ It was a natural progression because you could easily be in a crack den and not produce anything productive.” Whereas Johnny Dub says that, “most of us have been doing stuff for over ten years now, from being a little rat on the street just trying to get your face out to actually try and do stuff.” Bricks echoes such a comparison: “When I was being a rat on the street I met most of these guys.”

If you listen to some of the group’s RinseFM sets, not only are they exemplary of the group’s diverse tastes, musically, stretching out across disco, soul, funk, hip-hop and rap but they also hit home this seemingly crucial role of humour. They recorded and placed their own fake adverts into the sets, which are as ludicrous as they are biting and socially aware.

It’s a comparison that could be applied to some of their own music too, such as ‘Drug Dealer’, which at once points out the economic benefits and ease of taking on such an occupation whilst hitting home the larger social issue that renders this the only plausible line of work for some young people growing up, as well as highlighting the comparative damage of a kid slinging a bit of weed and larger governmental practices. Whilst the majority of the group shake off any comment when asked about the political nature of them as people or their music, Skittles is the only person to address its role in any half-serious way. “How would it be possible for anyone to be non-political in either their life or their music?” he says.

Perhaps the biggest political statement the group have made came when their booking agency, Elastic Artists, went into liquidation and reportedly sunk £400,000 worth of unpaid salaries to its artists with it. The group faked an anonymous-style hostage video, complete with masks and a half naked tied and taped up victim who was hanging upside down and being burnt with a hairspray can and lighter. Having a link with the company from an ex-employer they even hacked and took over their social media accounts in a further act of ransom. It was then ended with a fake advert that advertised the job of an artist as an unpaid worker. From the group’s perspective it was a bunch of guys getting on one in the studio being daft and in the early hours coming up with the extensive practical joke. In the eyes of those looking in, it reportedly led to a police call.

Johnny Dub jokes: “The police were contacted but they realised they didn’t have the resources to take us down. They probably came to the conclusion that it was safer for the Manchester Metropolitan Police Force to step down.”

It was, by the sounds of it, the result of a messy, stay-up-a-long-time period in the studio, as Reason tells it. “All I’ll say on that week is that we don’t fully know how much was real. It all got a bit weird. We were at the centre of it and I know quite a lot of the story but there was shit that was going on because we were speaking with the music press and social media, so I don’t know if the police were really called.”

The impact of the incident of their agency soaking up all their money was a lot more serious, however. “It was like half your income for the entire year,” says Reason. “Nobody has got a penny from it. We were owed, all of us together because a lot of individuals were booked through the agency on top of LEVELZ, a five-figure sum. We didn’t even get our mixtape mastered properly because we couldn’t afford it; we didn’t pay rent for two months – they were red lettering us. That agency going down and swallowing about £400,000 worth of people’s salaries had a real significant impact and we’re still feeling the reverberations of that. We couldn’t even afford to do a sponsored post for our mixtape release for example. Some people felt it was a strong reaction but to do nothing [felt helpless] even if it was just a protest. It’s completely unprecedented in the music industry to do that sort of thing.”

Dub explains it was a reaction to a startling lack of clarity and communication behind it all. “What I wanted to get out of that first and foremost was some answers,” he tells me. “But they dealt with it so fucking badly. We wouldn’t have needed to have gone down that route if they had been up front about it. We don’t want to be known for that at the end of the day.”

“Speak for yourselves man, you wet bastards!” Chunky throws in.

Despite all the ribbing and silliness and occasional novelty outfits that some of the group are fond of, any sense that LEVELZ may be veering a little too close to Goldie Lookie Chain territory is always offset by the music they produce. Skittles may like oversized brightly coloured sunglasses and wear a daft umbrella hat from time to time but put a microphone in front of him and he’s like a foaming pitbull being let off the leash. He can spit fast and mightily, mightily hard. There’s an edge to the group, a ferocity and a biting, sneering bark that is inescapable – a listen to the surging ‘LVL07’ alone will be enough to hit this home.

It’s the age-old instance of not taking ones self too seriously but taking the music incredibly so. When putting together their mixtape a large group of LEVELZ relocated to rural Wales, a trip that was instrumental on both a creative and personal level. “It was so secluded,” Fox says. “Having a studio in Manchester we could do it here but having so many other aspects of live intruding you can’t shake it off. It was a beautiful place to be. You’d go to another room for a break but you’d catch a vibe from the beat and then end up throwing something on that.”
“Because we all make different styles of music ourselves it ended up being a bit like a decent house party,” adds Chimpo, “you’d have like the slow jams room and the jungle room and the reggae room. That was what it was like in the house we were staying in; we had about four or five different set-ups in different rooms and each room would be a totally different vibe and you’d lock on something in one room and throw a bit of keyboard onto something and then move into another room and it would be totally different in there.”

“For five days we were constantly making music,” says Fox. “I fell asleep when my body refused to stay awake.”

Black Josh says that despite running out of weed on the first day, “It was inspirational. Going away on that weekend to record got me away from my tiny gaff in Rusholme and I found myself in the sort of house you aspire to live in. If you blow up in music that’s the sort of house you want to be living in. It was a good thing to put in the context of saying we’re at the start of LEVELZ but this is what you could achieve.”

When asked what LEVELZ offers him creatively that other projects and solo stuff don’t, Skittles jokes in response: “Fuck all, a pay cut.” But he goes on to talk about the sense of camaraderie that comes from having such a large group number as being key. “You’re with your mates aren’t you,” he says. “You could go play Jamaica tomorrow at Sizzla’s BBQ and if you’re on your own you’re fucking on your own, aren’t you? LEVELZ is like going to a mates house but you’re getting paid and you’re doing what you love. If I’m playing in London and LEVELZ are playing in Bristol, there’s not a chance you’d be thinking about staying in London. You’d be thinking, ‘can I do that London show and get to Bristol in the same night?’ A few weeks ago we were at Fabric in London and LEVELZ were at a gig in Kettering, Fabric being like one of the most famous clubs in the world, but it was like, ‘fuck that, get me to Kettering in the middle of nowhere.’ Someone drove to Fabric, played a show and we drove back to Kettering. But really, it’s a fucking pay cut isn’t it?”

The cross-generational nature of the group has cemented what many refer to as being a family unit. Metrodome got taught by Chimpo’s mum at primary school and Fox, as the oldest member, can see the structure of multiple generations playing an integral role. “It is a bit like family,” he says, “which is a bit harsh from me because I’m proper cut and run when it comes to my family. If I don’t like someone I’ll just fuck them off whereas LEVELZ is a bit harder. I have to deal with people here and it teaches me to put things into perspective. It’s about patience too and understanding people’s space so in that sense it becomes more than just a music thing. It’s growing together.”

Despite the harmonious family bonding type situation the group creates, I query as to whether any ego arises with there being so many people in the group, perhaps competing for space on a track or to implement their own ideas. The entire room erupts into laughter. “We’re all one big ego that gets along,” says Bricks with Skittles adding, “Everyone knows why they’re sick and what they’re sick at. All of our ego’s are in the right place.”

A healthy confidence is certainly found within some areas of the group though, as Black Josh points out. “Nigga’s see me in the rave and are like, ‘I know you’ve got something to say.’ I’ve never, ever begged for a mic in my entire life. I’ll be in the smoking area and nigga’s come up to me and say, ‘Yo, Josh spit me a bar’ and I’ll be like, ‘how the hell do you know I MC?’ and they say, ‘look at you, of course you’re a rapper.’

The city of Manchester as a base and as a musical legacy is a crucial one for the group. LEVELZ’s cataloguing of notable events in their history so far, through songs and gigs, is based on the Factory Records approach and as Reason sits back legs crossed in a large feather coat, he seems to possess an air of the Svengali perhaps based on Tony Wilson.

“Growing up in Manchester has played a big part in LEVELZ, it is very diverse,” points out Dub. “It’s a small city but there’s a lot going on. It’s not a sound as such but it’s an amalgamation of sounds. There’s a synergy between us whether we’re doing a disco type thing or a grime-y type thing.” Reason feels that Manchester is currently going through a strong swing period. “I think it’s time again. Any great city has its ups and downs. There’s a civic pride to what we do. I believe that this is one of the best cities on earth to be creative. It comes in waves and I think now is Manchester’s time.”

After an evening spent larking around at the studio drinking beers, working on tunes and laying down spontaneous vocal takes with everyone jumping on one another’s tracks in seamless rotation, it’s soon time to go to the club where the group will take over a venue for the evening with rotating DJs and MCs in each room across the night and into the early hours.

Located yards away from the barbed wire tall walls of Manchester’s infamous prison, Strangeways, the club slowly starts to fill, the evening kicks in and the sweat begins to pour. It starts to represent a similar state of chaos that I’ve seen from the group all day. A manic sort of energy, an intensity that is fuelled by the vigour and momentum of the group’s inner dynamism and a desire to lose themselves in a shared moment of musical creation. There’s crowdsurfing atop of shuddering dirty beats as bars are spat fiercely and Red Striped slopped around as people bounce feverishly in response. It’s in this moment I realise that for every frustration and passed, joked-away question I’ve encountered throughout the day, whilst trying to extract what LEVELZ are all about, it’s clear that it exists in a club full of raving kids, and being pummelled through a P.A in the hedonistic sweat of the night, not in a smoke-filled room talking to a bloke who is stopping them from recording, and who they suspect is a copper.