Grippa, if I describe Hempolics as being your brainchild, do you agree?
Robin 'Grippa' Laybourne (dub effects/keyboard): "Yeah it is a bit my musical dream come true, but with the help of a whole crew. I'm the gang leader so to speak! (laughs)"
What did you envisage when you started this project?
Grippa: "I love the island of Jamaica and its culture has had a profound influence on me ever since I was a little lad and with The Hempolics I really wanted to get reggae across to audience that might not even be into the genre. With The Hempolics we try to stay away from the whole Jah, Rastafari, dreadlocks stereotypes which often surround reggae music. At base I'm a sound engineer and to be honest it took me quite some time to find the sound I was looking for. For the longest time I focused most of my energy on producing other artists and The Hempolics was just a little side project I occupied myself with in my spare tie. I guess our sound is quit dub influenced, as I've been a massive dub head for as long as I can remember. I still remember the first day I spent in a studio and I took to dubbing like a duck to water basically! (laughs) If I had to name just one album, I guess I'd go for 'King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown', which in my opinion sonically is one of the best mixed albums ever! The shit King Tubby was doing was miles ahead of the experimentation of The Beatles. Musically speaking Jamaicans have always thought outside the box and together with the rebelliousness that's part of why that music appeals so much to me. In short The Hempolics is about making a little bit of a difference and try to avoid copying something existing as much as possible, but rather try to create something new."
How did you go about in finding the right people to join you on this journey?
Grippa: "For our debut album I collaborated with a number of different vocalists: there's Paolo Nuttini, Maxi Jazz voiced one of the songs - we go way back as I did the engineering for quite a number of Faithless albums over the years - a ganja tune titled 'In My Brain', then there's Dandelion, who was one of the first vocalists I worked with. But I always felt I also needed a female voice, and even though I had a number of female vocalists come down to the studio, I never felt any chemistry. I needed someone who was into the same music and then basically the universe intervened because I crossed paths with Nubiya on Glastonbury. It's a great story actually… My parents are hippies, so I have been going to Glastonbury ever since I was about six years old. So I was at Glastonbury with my son a few years ago and suddenly saw this girl pass by. Now if you know a little bit about Glastonbury, you'll know that it's a huge festival filled with the most colorful people you can imagine, but somehow Nubiya's aura and appearance still made her stand out from the crowd. However, I didn't feel like going up to her and introducing myself as being a producer and what have you and before I knew it she'd disappeared into the crowd again. Many hours later I noticed her sitting in a small field watching a band. From her body language I could deduce she knew the sax player whom I was also acquainted with. Some weeks later I crossed paths with that sax player again and asked him about her and he told me her name was Nubiya Brandon and that she'd just graduated from university and is now focusing on a career as a singer. When I first contacted her, she sent me a CD with some of her music, quite jazzy trip hop sounding stuff. I liked what I heard, so invited her to come down to London from Leeds where she was living. She came down and ended up staying in my front room for the next two years! (laughs) I slowly got her to open up. I still had a song ('Hurt So Good', red.) I wrote ages ago for Lindy Layton from Beats International and that was the first song I recorded with Nubiya on vocals. In the mean time she's started writing her own song though."
Dandelion, Nubiya, what did you see in Grippa, which made you decide you wouldn't mind teaming up with him?
Daniel 'Dandelion' Collier (vocals): "Well once again, that's a whole story, but the short version is that at one point my brother was working with Rollo (Rowland Armstrong, red.) from Faithless and as he just told you, Grippa was their sound engineer. Grippa got to know my brother and told him about his Hempolics project. At that time I'd just started doing reggae up in Norwich, a north-English city which strangely enough had a large sound system scene I got involved in. So when my brother told Grippa I was a reggae singer, he invited me to come down to London. Like Nubiya I ended up living with Grippa and I've actually only moved out just recently! (laughs) I just seemed like an excellent opportunity coming my way and the fact Grippa just had this vast amount of backing tracks ready for me to choose from made me feel like a child in a candy store."
Nubiya Brandon (vocals): "As for me, at the time I didn't really have anywhere to live. I kind of ran away from when I was in my late teens. I started out doing jazz, but I'd always been into reggae and dancehall as well. To be honest I don't really remember us crossing paths at Glastonbury as I was really wasted that day! (laughs) One of my friends in the jazz scene told me this guy called Grippa had asked about me and was going to give me a call. When he rang me, the first thought going true my mind was: "This is the weirdest voice I've ever heard in my life!" (laughs) But he invited me to come down to London and since I wanted to attend Notting Hill Carnival anyway and didn't have the money to pay for the train… He picked me up at King's Cross Station and really didn't expect him to look the way he did, as because of his voice, for some reason, I was expecting a chubby twenty year old guy. Before we even recorded a note together, I spent an entire week at his house and it quickly became obvious that we're quite similar. He understood I need a place to develop my talent and grow as a person. On the very last day of that first week, we recorded 'So Good', and when I returned a week later he invited me to move in. For me it was an easy choice as I felt I'd found a musical soul mate in Grippa. I now consider him as part of my family. At one point he even drove all the way to my mum's house just to let her know I was safe. In the mean time we've only grown closer as his sun, Blue, is now my other half."
Nubiya, you having a jazz background, what does reggae offer you that jazz doesn't necessarily do?
Nubiya Brandon: "I started going to reggae dances when I was about fifteen years old. In Leeds we had this venue called SubDub, which was this Victorian place where they used to organize reggae and dancehall nights. Musically speaking I've never been in the now; I guess I'm what they call an old soul, so growing up I mostly listened to vintage music. A genre that really captivated me was dub. I just love how it's produced and engineered, so when the chance presented itself to work with someone who knew how to do that, I grabbed it with both hands. It's always astounded me that dub has never found its way to the commercial side of the music business, because it's so damn rhythmic. I really wanted to sing my jazz and soul stuff over reggae and dub rhythms; more or less how ska started as well (Jamaican interpretations of American rhythm & blues, red.)."
Grippa, apart from the work you did with Faithless, you also work with DJ Vadim.
Grippa: "Yeah, I've basically been his studio engineer for the past three years now. He gives me his tracks on Logic Pro and I then I spend hours on end getting the mix right! (laughs) Dandelion also performs with The Drop, a reggae-rock band from Reading, and I've just produced their latest album 'Last Stand'. They recorded it with Nick Manasseh and I mixed it. I still take on the odd thing that comes along, but my main focus is The Hempolics now."
The fact a debut album has yet to manifest was partly due to the fact you guys ended up in a troubled relationship with BBE Records. Has all of that been resolved now?
Grippa: "Yeah, fortunately that chapter is behind us and we've now signed with a label called Shark Free Records, based in Manchester. The thing is we're great at music, but we're absolute rubbish at business! (laughs) We're not quite "shark free" yet, but it's a step in the right direction. In the music business it's like every step you take, someone wants to take a chunk of what you're trying to do."
Grippa is known for being a perfectionist, so how has it been for the rest of you guys waiting this long for the album to be finished?
Nubiya Brandon: "I'm the same, so I didn't mind. I'd rather it come out in the way it deserves. As a singer with a jazz background, I can only say it's inspiring to be able to work with someone who pays as much attention to detail as Grippa does. In the end, if you want to be proud of the work you put out, you might as well put in the time and effort to make it the best it can be. For me it's been a huge learning curve as well, and I see my involvement with The Hempolics is like being able to help a close friend fulfill his lifelong dream."
Dandelion: "The other thing that has slowed down the release of our debut album, is the fact Grippa uses a lot of samples, and the legal side of clearing them all has taken longer then we'd have liked."
Grippa, I even read somewhere that you're really planning a set of three albums, each with its own color of vinyl.
Grippa: "Yeah, that's absolutely right. The first album is going to be the red album, volume 2 is going to be yellow and the last one will be green; and I'm still thinking of maybe adding a black one, which would be a dub album. I've been running around with this idea for about five or six years now."
Dandelion: "The simple fact is, we've got so much material ready that we can easily fill those three records!"
Grippa: "I'm also thinking of throwing an album in there filled with covers versions of great tracks we all love."
What does the title of the album, 'Kiss, Cuddle & Torture', stand for?
Grippa: "To me that title represents life and it also was a game we used to play in school where you needed to chase someone and when you caught them ask: "Kiss, cuddle or torture?". We basically like to pretend life is full of kisses and cuddles, but there's also a darker side to it!"
Why should people check out Hempolics?
Nubiya Brandon: "Well, I know that I can be a bit fascist about music, but I'd never tell somebody to listen to something. That being said, the music we do with The Hempolics tells our stories over really great riddims and beats, combining both the old and the new, and that results in a truly infectious blend. I'm super proud of what we've achieved, and believe me if it was crap, I would be the first to admit it! (laughs) There's not a lot of really inspiring stuff out there at the moment, but fortunately there's bands like The Skints and Resonators, who are, in their own way, more or less trying to do what we do and I hope that people will latch onto that!"