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.