With intricate, aggressive lyrics and a distinctive underground sound, Swollen Members have been a model of consistency on the Canadian hip-hop scene over the past 15 years. After 11 EPs, a greatest hits compilation, and a number of side-projects by founding members Madchild and Prevail, the group is set to release its 12th album, Brand New Day, later this year. They’ll be kicking off a worldwide tour to promote the album in Vancouver on April 23rd at Venue.
Although Swollen Members are easily one of Canada’s most successful hip-hop groups of all time, too many fans still associate them with their hits from the early-2000s like “Fuel Injected”, “Watch This”, and “Bring It Home”. Sure, it’s been a while since they hit platinum with Bad Dreams (2001), and Madchild’s recent struggles with substance abuse have been well documented. But the boys are back in town, and they’re as ferocious as ever.
Vancouver Weekly caught up with Madchild recently to get the scoop on the new record and his reinvigorated state of mind.
Vancouver Weekly: Swollen Members’ new record, Brand New Day, is set to come out some time in the next couple months. What can we expect from this release?
Madchild: A lot of artists count on having a bunch of featured rappers on their albums. We sort of went the other way with this record. Not that we don’t like making music with our friends and other rappers we admire, which we’ve done in the past, but we decided it was a statement on its own to not feature anyone on this record. It stands strong on its own. I think that’s saying something about how confident we are with the album. For long-time loyal fans that loved our classic albums like Balance, Bad Dreams, and Black Magic, this is going to be right up their alley. It’s very much our classic signature sound. There are no curveballs. No experimentation. It’s just real, underground, experienced hip-hop.
VW: You guys are one of Canada’s most successful hip-hop groups of all time, yet at the same time you come with an underground sound. What does “underground” mean to you?
M: “Underground” to me means real art, first of all. True art. Not being concerned with what’s popular. Not being concerned with whether or not the music will translate to a mass, mainstream audience. Not necessarily being anti-successful, because you can be successful and be underground, but definitely anti-pop culture, mainstream, fabricating, or emulating sounds that are popular for financial business success. I think it just comes down to being real true artists. “Underground” has, over the last twenty years, gone in different directions as far as what people’s interpretations of it are, but I am an original underground rap artist. I come from the backpack era. We were one of the original true rap/hip-hop groups, period. So I still feel strongly about the statement that it basically means reaching from within, creating your own art, your own self-expression, being true to the actual culture of hip-hop, where we come from, and not trying to be something you’re not. Just making music for yourself, and hopefully the fans will appreciate it afterwards.
VW: So when you guys went back into the studio to record the new album, did you have some sort of overall vision, or was it something that developed in bits and pieces?
M: We just basically sat down and said, “Let’s just do us.” We don’t usually pre-plan things. We find it’s best to just come together as a triangle and say, “Let’s just be us and do what we do best.” I think we make the best music when we don’t put too much thought into it.
VW: What most often drives your creative process: the way words sound and fit together or an idea or central message that you’re trying to express?
M: It’s a combination of both. We’ve always sort of been poets. I call it “Abstract Expressionism.” That, to me, is our original style. There’s meaning in every line that we say, but you might have to decipher it and read between the lines. I kind of snatch words out of the air, especially from movies, whereas Prevail’s big with reading and know[ing] a bunch of big words that I don’t even know the meaning of. He’s a walking encyclopedia/dictionary/thesaurus, and I’m a big movie buff. I probably could do a little more straightforward rapping where it’s one particular thing from the beginning to the end of that song or verse, and I get a message across. I’m trying to do that a little bit more. The only reason I haven’t up until this point is that I find it extremely easy. It’s never been a challenge to me. To me, lyrical complexity – where I put words and where I don’t, how I pronounce words, and the strength of an individual word or a phrase – those are the things that have gotten my fire going. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good and that I shouldn’t be as well-rounded as possible.
VW: Swollen’s coming up on its 15 year anniversary. What are some of the things that have allowed you to stay together as a group for that long?
M: Allowing each other to have our own social lives. We don’t hang out on a personal level anymore. Respecting each other, knowing how to be with each other. If we feel that someone is tense or something, we don’t sit there and poke at him. We walk away. It’s this whole family bond that’s tough for anybody else that’s not in a group that long to understand. And it takes work, just like any other relationship. The best thing is space. Always complimenting each other’s work. Still being there as real true friends, but we’re not going to hang out five nights a week and then go on tour. It’s just not going to work.