Interview: DJ Format & Abdominal at Stereo

DJ Format and Abdominal
DJ Format and Abdominal

For fourteen years, DJ Format and rapper Abdominal have been entertaining crowds from Toronto to the UK. Now the hip-hop stars are back at it in 2017 with their new album Still Hungry. The latest release was kickstarted by a November 2015 UK tour that commemorated ten years since their last time performing together in the UK.

DJ Format & Abdominal wanted to ride this momentum to create their first full-length album together. While they both have collaborated on each other’s solo records, Still Hungry marks their first joint album.

Now, they are heading out on tour, which will take them to Stereo on Renfield Lane on 4th May.

DJ Format, aka Matt Ford, won over hip-hop fans in 2003 with his slow-burning hit album Music for the Mature B-Boy, featuring the standout track We Know Something You Don’t Know starring the vocals of Chali 2na and Akil of Jurassic 5. He was born in Southampton and lives in Brighton.

Abdominal, aka Andy Bernstein, has been involved in Toronto’s music scene for nearly 25 years, performing at the Harbourfront Center for the Arts, Manifesto Festival, the SOCAN Awards, Pop Montreal Showcase and the Cavalcade of Lights.

We hooked up a call to both sides of the Atlantic and had a chat while they were getting ready for the tour.

How did you two start working together?

DJ Format: I’m a bit of a enthusiastic record collector and beat digger. I was out in Toronto, Canada, in I think it was 1999. And I just happened to meet this particular record dealer who had some incredible records, and he’d also just released a record of some local artists called “Abdominal and DJ Phase”.

So he gave me a copy of their first record, The Vinyl Frontier, and literally that was my introduction to Abdominal. And then our mutual friend Aaron hooked us up and we started exchanging phone calls, exchanging cassette demo tapes. That’s literally how it all began.

So does it make collaboration a lot easier now in the modern age, where you don’t have to post a cassette tape to each other?

Abdominal: Yeah, I would say so for sure. I mean, the first song we did together was “Ill Culinary Behaviour”, which was on Matt’s first record, “Music for the Mature B-Boy”. So, to do that one, as Matt said, he sent me a cassette, literally, with the beat in the mail and I wrote to that. And then when it came time to record Matt flew all the way back to Toronto and we did the traditional recording session at a music studio. Whereas these days, obviously things have changed. So it’s more just swapping of MP3 files and I can record all this stuff in my little home studio. So yeah, things are much easier now.

I suppose it kind of opens things up as well. There’s a lot of challenges with the music industry but at the same time people can record stuff at home and just put it right out there.

DJ Format: I think it’s incredible. It just means that almost anyone can work with anyone. I’ve worked with people that I’ve never even met to this day. I’ve done an entire album with Phill Most Chill and I’ve never met the guy. So it’s incredible what you can do.

You know, technology has just completely changed everything. Obviously you’ve got the argument that it’s not all positive. It just means that people who maybe haven’t paid their dues and got to a certain standard can get in a studio situation they might not deserve.

I don’t know if that sounds a little bit bitchy. I feel like we paid our dues and did it the hard way and now people can just go ‘Boom’! And they’ve got a hit with someone in two minutes.

Abdominal: All aspects of the music business are just way more accessible these days. The actual making the music, there’s just so much you can do on a computer, even just on your phone, whereas I was saying even as recently as ten years ago, fifteen years ago, you’d need to go into this huge super expensive studio with all kinds of gear to accomplish the same thing.

I suppose in terms of cutting through the noise, that’s one of the advantages of getting out and meeting people directly, when you go out on tour. So is that one of the reasons that you guys see that as an important part of your music?

Abdominal: I would say personally, even with all that technology, nothing beats just being live in a room person to person. That connection, nothing can beat that. And I think Matt and I have the advantage because we’ve been doing this for a long time and are kind of old school, we have those chops, you know. We’ve done hundreds of shows, spent countless hours on stage. So I think that’s a risk for some of these newer artists where everything, or almost everything, is online.

They can build up huge legions of fans just on the strength of viral YouTube videos and that kind of thing, so then when it comes time to translate that – okay, so now you have your first tour, your first show, it’s like deer-in-headlights time because they’re used to just being in their living room with a little computer camera.

I think it’s still really important to have those old school chops and actually be able to translate live all the stuff that you’re doing online.

So, in terms of musical culture that you live in:, people that are really into the vinyl, into old records, samples. Is there a cross-over between what you are familiar with in Toronto or Brighton?

Abdominal: I think that’s a culture that’s worldwide. I see on his Instagram, his whole community on Instagram are like these very avid old-school vinyl digger types, and they’ll all sort of post up their latest finds with snippets of what they’ve found. So I think that’s not particular to the UK necessarily, there’s for sure guys like that here who do the exact same sort of thing, so.

DJ Format: It is a worldwide thing. And it’s really interesting, because if I’m on Twitter, for example, I’m speaking with a certain community, they’re more digital people. Maybe they’re the kind of people that are more likely just to check out our music online, whereas on Instagram it does tend to be, the people that I’m communicating with tend to be more fellow record enthusiasts and that’s just a universal scene that goes on everywhere.

But in terms of actual music scenes, I don’t know that I really feel part of any current scene. I feel like I just exist in my own little world, and I just take the bits that I like from here and the bits that I like from there, and I just kind of ignore or let the stuff that I don’t like just sort of wash over me.

What is the kind of tangible appeal of finding some obscure vinyl record as opposed to just downloading it? What is the difference?

DJ Format: Well, for me it’s just the b-boy mentality that has been instilled in me since I got into this in the 80s. It’s like, things were very different back then: you didn’t have the internet, you didn’t have this whole world of knowledge just out there at your fingertips on the internet.

You had to go out and do your homework, you had to get your fingers dirty and actually dig for records and make discoveries. And then when you made those discoveries, you know sometimes you’d scribble over the label or wash the label off the record so that other people couldn’t see what it was and steal your ideas.

And it’s just something that never left me, that mentality of just wanting to get that original record and make that original discovery. Because, I guess I’m overusing the word original, that’s what it comes down to. You want to be original with your use of samples, you know with your sample source. You want to be the first one to use a certain bite, a certain sample.

And although in this day in age it’s hard to do that because of the amount of knowledge that’s out there, like I say it’s still that sensibility that I have.

That’s something I haven’t thought about for a long time actually, how difficult it used to be just to actually find music.

DJ Format: Yeah, absolutely. Especially for me growing up in Southampton, for example, when I was a kid, even just being into hip hop, it’s going to sound ridiculous to anyone who has grown up in recent times, but we hardly had anywhere where we could go and buy hip hop records. And then we certainly didn’t have any clubs where you could go out and listen to hip hop music being played.

So, you know, for example, pirate radio station was like, a really important part of my musical education in finding out what certain records were or just being exposed to them in the first place. So, yeah, it’s very different now to how it was. It made you a student. Being into hip hop and the secrecy that was involved, it’s like you had to work damn hard to even make a start doing this sort of thing, like DJing and digging for beats. But it was exciting.

So tell me a little bit about your show. What do you bring to the table? What can we expect if we come along in Glasgow?

Abdominal: I think in general, we don’t like to just necessarily recreate the songs that are on our albums verbatim, ’cause then we sort of feel like what’s the point of people coming out. To a certain extent obviously people want to hear the music and that’s why they’re coming to the show, but we try to do little tweaks and sort of live remixes and mashups of songs, just to make it a specific live experience for the people who come.

But beyond that we just really adopt a very traditional old-school approach, which is one rapper, one microphone, one DJ with two turntables, and no major bells and whistles or pyrotechnics beyond that. We like to be able to just hold people’s attention with that. I think both for Matt and I that is the pure essence, the tradition of hip hop music that’s both how we kind of came up. The people that we idolise, that was their approach to stage show. So I think that’s how we like to approach it as well.

DJ Format & Abdominal UK Live Dates

May 3rd, Leeds / The Wardrobe
May 4th, Glasgow / Stereo
May 5th, Edinburgh / Voodoo Rooms
May 6th, Newcastle / Cluny
May 10th, Manchester / Gorilla
May 11th, Nottingham / Rescue Rooms
May 12th, Birmingham / Hare & Hounds
May 13th, Sheffield / O2 Academy
May 17th, Bristol / The Fleece
May 18th, Oxford / The Cellar
May 19th, Southampton / The Social Club
May 20th, Whitstable / Duke of Cumberland
May 23rd, Cambridge / J2 at The Junction
May 24th, London / Electric Ballroom
May 25th, Brighton / Patterns
May 26th, Norwich / The Arts Centre

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