A rap group who play folk clubs, THE AUSTIN FRANCIS CONNECTION are one of the most unusual aggregations in the whole hip-hop underground. Tony Cummings spoke to the madcap masters.
At an Austin Francis Connection concert you can always tell those in the crowd who have never been to one of their gigs before. They're the audience members staring open-mouthed at the three band members preparing to start their set. AFC are one of the most critically acclaimed groups from the UK's hip-hop underground. But there they stand (or in chief rapper Edi's case, sit); one chap clutching an acoustic guitar and Edi dressed in the nerdish jacket and bow tie and sporting a pair of horn rim glasses (though without glass within the frames). Their songs too are as far from the stereotypes of bling, girls and gang culture as it's possible to get, instead they wittily and wilfully lampoon the excesses of the hip-hop oeuvre while demonstrating in beat box virtuoso Hobbit and rapper extraordinaire Edi that they have hip-hop talent in abundance.
At the conclusion of their wildly appreciated set at Yeovil's Nth Festival I caught up with Hobbit (also known as Jack), Mark (acoustic guitar) and Edi to talk about this most unlikely of rap aggregations. Explains Edi, once the rapper with the fondly remembered Psalmistry, "We've been together two years or so and we're gradually getting to the stage where it's gone beyond a joke. It started off as just being a bit of a giggle with the three of us. We were all involved in the hip-hop nights at Greenbelt. I was hosting them, Mark was behind the scenes and Hobbit was coming up as a guest beat boxer who I'd found and kind of invited up to do stuff. And I'd been doing Psalmistry for what seemed like ages and one of the guys I worked with was a guy called Piers Williamson, Vivid Prophet, who rang me up as soon as he found Psalmistry were breaking up and asked me if I wanted to do a solo project. To which I replied, 'I don't play any instruments.' He said, 'Don't worry about it, we'll sort it out.' I had every intention of doing a little studio project with me making some songs so I can play them to my friends and maybe around the place. Then Greenbelt came along and I'd seen a band called Chaos who did this thing with an MC, an acoustic guitarist and a tabla player. I thought nice, chilled hip-hop, I can do that kind of thing. Cos I'm getting on a bit, no room for jumping around and busting my ankles anymore. So then I kind of came up with this idea. I knew that Mark was a guitarist and Hobbit was kind of interested when I mentioned it to him. So that's the three of us. I think we even just sat down outside one of the tents and started messing around with some ideas and Mark played around with some guitars. I was based in Bristol and they were in Gloucester. But over the next six months or so we pieced some songs together and played a couple of times. We did this gig at the beat box thing in Bristol - Make Some Noise - which went down okay. And we did some little acoustic nights. It was great. It's gradually just grown from there. There's been a stage where people now actually want to give us some money, to buy our CD and all our ramblings. And that's about where it's gone so far. We play some little acoustic gigs and play things like Nth Fest which is really nice."
I ask Mark how an acoustic guitarist got into hip-hop music. Weren't acoustic guitarists meant to sing songs in their bedrooms about teenage angst? "Yeah," he agrees. "I can do that as well. But I got a bit bored with the whole thing. I've always loved hip-hop music but I never thought I'd be involved in it. I just basically sit in the back and play four chords over and over again while they steal the glory. But I can cope with that. . ." Mark waits for dramatic effect before continuing. "So today I revel in the role as one of the world's premier hip-hop acoustic guitarists."
Hobbit is equally forthcoming about his mouth percussion talents. "I've been beat boxing for about four years now." I ask this extraordinary exponent of vocal rhythms whether he's unpopular for spitting over everyone. "You kind of hold your saliva in," he explains.
Like a record company publicist, Edi bursts into my quizzing of Hobbit to plug his friend. "There's a thing called humanbeat box.com which is an amazing website, really good resource for beat boxers, and Hobbit's involved in the actual running of that. It's run by a guy called Gavin. He was at Greenbelt nights with us and he's an amazing beat boxer too, an awesome guy. He's really well respected within the beat box community and the only beat boxing curate in the world."
The zany humour which is now part and parcel of The Austin Francis Connection persona began to evolve, Edi shares, during the rapper's days with Psalmistry. "Some people who came to see us play used to come up to me afterwards and say, 'I really enjoyed it. I especially liked the bits when you weren't playing any music.' The bits in between the songs were really more me. The stuff that was actually on stage during the songs - there's a part of me in all of those songs. But the links where I just used to try to engage the audience and get them on our side, that was always part of me. So when we did this it was very much a case of - I'm getting on a bit, I'm not going to jump around, I'm going to take things easy but at the same time I'm just going to be myself. So, my sense of humour I think just comes over into everything. I can't help but be stupid really. It's just silliness that comes out and people seem to like it so it's part of my lyrics. So now it's in the actual songs themselves."
It may be surreal humour but it's well targeted. As possibly the first hip-hop act in the world ever to rhyme "hip-hop" with "chip shop" their song "Drop The Beat" skilfully scores points off those who insist that only those form black America's mean streets should be making hip-hop. Says Edi, "I'm not going to apologise for being a white middle class guy from Yorkshire. That's who I am. I'm not even going to pretend, I'm not going to put a silly cap on at the wrong angle, I'm going to make sure that my laces are done up properly. If I've got a hood I'll wear it if it's raining but I don't at any other time. You know what I mean? There are things that are me, that belong to me and thankfully belong to pretty much all of us. We all love hip-hop but we also realise how stupid it can be and how seriously some people take the cultural trappings. But if hip-hop's a part of you and if it's what you love and all the rest of it, you don't need to have all the excess stuff, the bling, that you think you need to have."
The band's debut CD, a six-song offering 'A Bit Of A Shambles' brought forth a rave review from Cross Rhythms. "With the trustworthy programming skills of Piers Williamson (Vivid Prophet) on the production, this EP is a joy to listen to. AFC are set for big things and this quality slice of the cake will leave you begging for more." was how David Bain described it. The band play a lot of gigs in, of all places, folk clubs. Explains Edi, "Folk clubs have these open mic nights and we go along. With these acoustic nights people expect it to be one style of music. Acoustic just means that you haven't got a load of electric so we fit very nicely into that one. We play a lot round Coventry because it's in the middle of where we live. The people in the clubs absolutely love what we do."
But amidst all the beat box virtuosity and rapid-syllable hilarity does the guys' Christian faith still get a look-in, I ask. "It is certainly in some of the lyrics and if you listen deeply to 'Black Day' and 'Revelation Praise' there's stuff that's in there. What we're doing a lot of is we're playing these non-Christian places and we're just meeting people where they're at and just trying to be ourselves and make friends with people. And if they like us and get the chance to talk to us and find out what we're doing and all the rest of it then that's the way we kind of take things, our spirituality actually going alongside what we're doing as a band."
It's time to wrap up our interview so as a final question I ask Edi to explain the origins of the name The Austin Francis Connection. He responds, "We originally were called Shambles but somebody else had that name so we had to come up with another name. Looking into it we tried going through various bits and pieces but then found out about this guy Austin Francis who was an 18th century milliner from Scotland. Austin had this kind of system that he found that really worked with the people working in his mill. They worked better at certain repetitions per minute and so he kind of had these two beats which he called hip-hop. It was the first time I'd ever heard of the word being used. . ."
My fascinated attention to this absorbing piece of history is brought to an abrupt halt by Hobbit's loud snigger. Like, I suppose, other interviewers before me, I'd been momentarily taken in by Edi's surreal flight of fancy. As I pack up my portable recorder I have to admit that I'm rather disappointed that there isn't an 18th century originator of the words hip-hop. But then, there's always the first, yet to be filmed Austin Francis video to look forward to. "It will feature a fully clothed girl in an overcoat and a woolly hat. Innovators. . . that's us."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.