Co-founder of the Finders Keepers label, Andy Votel has spent three decades downplaying his obsession with hip hop. Reuniting with his original crew, the clandestine MC, beat-maker and sample head talks about the fear and friendship that made it all possible

It’s 1989, and 13-year-old Andrew Shallcross is in his dad’s workshop in Stockport, near Manchester, soldering the speed control from an old Hornby train set onto a pair of nine-inch turntables. The cables have been stripped and Sellotaped to old speakers salvaged from the local tip. He’s buzzing on blue Smarties and Run-DMC tapes. With money earned working at the butcher’s, he spends his weekends tracking down samples, mind blown by the sheer have-a-go audacity of making new music from old records.

“I couldn’t believe that if you found the snare and pressed pause after the beat, then did it again and again and again and then pressed play, it worked,” he enthuses. “After that, we just needed to find as many sounds as possible. It’s on the wrong speed? So what!”

The image Andy Votel conjures of his younger self is riotous. Sparks fly from anecdotes about mangled tape decks and maniacal school disco freestyles. Before Twisted Nerve, the label he co-founded with Badly Drawn Boy in 1997, and before Finders Keepers, which is now one of the country’s pre-eminent reissue labels, Votel wrote lyrics, made beats and hung with a crew of upstart dreamers on Manchester’s underground hip hop scene. It’s just taken him three decades to tell anyone else about it.

Nothing thrilled a young Votel quite like running his mouth over a junk shop beat of cut-and-paste soul records. But opportunities to do so for an only child in a city embracing house and indie were scarce. Instead, he dived head-first into the creative art of sampling, beginning a journey into the undergrowth of recorded music that would sustain him all the way through to his work with Finders Keepers. Yet, to begin with, preservation was not his priority.

“I was really more into the destruction of music,” he explains, recalling the madcap experiments that helped shape his fascination for music’s physical qualities. That hip hop was still being filed next to punk at Manchester’s Piccadilly Records made perfect sense to him, as did turning up to school with the lyrics of Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Move The Crowd’ scrawled all over his jeans.

One Sunday evening in April 1991, Votel found himself at Manchester’s Sunset Radio for Leaky Fresh’s ‘Out To Distress Rap Show’, hoping to listen in. Gang Starr were the guests, and while frontman Guru did his thing, an awestruck Votel was left to make small talk with DJ Premier about records, perform a few of his own verses, and receive advice on how to find the samples no one else was looking for. It’s the kind of formative experience you’re legitimately allowed to tell people about for the rest of your life.

Within a week he had a job taking shout-outs, and within two he had hooked up with a bespectacled MC named Boney Fresh, from a motley outfit who called themselves Violators Of The English Language. From one day to the next, Votel’s universe exploded. He had found his people.

“I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it wasn’t for meeting Premier at the radio and answering phones there when I was a kid,” he admits.

There is a book to be written concerning what happened next – about the local record shops, radio stations, block parties, rap battles and bedroom MCs that were the lifeblood of a community largely ignored by the outside world. A 2014 article in Vice magazine about Britcore, “the UK’s forgotten rap scene”, described the sound as one of “angst, chaos and urgency” that burned bright for a time but ultimately couldn’t compete with the allure of rave and jungle. Even now, Votel struggles to define quite where it all fits in.

“We thought that we had to be really true to our British roots, so overnight we all started rapping in Cockney accents, even though we were from Stockport,” he laughs. “But if nobody knows what you’re doing, then how could you be doing it wrong?”

As is often the case, the tighter the cast, the larger the characters loom. Votel rattles off names that have passed few lips in the intervening years – Hardnoise, Gunshot, Hijack, Black Radical. The likes of DJ Semtex and, latterly, Mr Scruff stick out like rocks in the stream of artists, producers and chancers who made the scene feel so intoxicating.

As for Violators Of The English Language… let’s just say Votel, Boney Fresh and co weren’t interested in posterity. Holding out for a deal that never arrived from London hip hop label Kold Sweat, they filled lyric books, cut demos, tagged banknotes, goofed around and stubbornly refused to make it big.

“It was so all-encompassing,” Votel remembers.

When close friend and co-conspirator Craig Todd (aka Smear) died from a nut allergy, the group reeled.

“It kicked us into overdrive, but it also exhausted us,” Votel says, recalling what was undoubtedly a difficult time. “It took a hell of a lot of friendship and trust to do all that. There’s no way I would have done this without the crew.”

Although a collection of instrumentals was eventually released on Grand Central Records in 1996, the closest Violators ever got to the mainstream came with the kind of caveat that would test most friendships. A major label had come knocking, but only wanted solo records. Votel baulked. There was nothing without the collective.

“My dad had always been really supportive but he didn’t speak to me for weeks,” he says. “But they had basically just dissed my crew. When you’re 18, it just feels crazy. You can’t do that!”

While you get the sense Votel finds his rap persona completely hilarious, his feelings about that time remain as real as they come. Because, in the end, nothing will ever matter more than a teenage escapade.

Most people would agree there are few more terrifying things than revealing yourself to be a closet MC a few years shy of your 50th birthday. But then again, maybe that’s the only way.

“One energy I never tapped into was fear, and that’s what probably held a lot of this back,” Votel explains.

“That stage fright, if you bottle it, just gets stronger and stronger. When you’ve been through feelings like excitement and competition in your life, eventually it’s like, where’s your energy source coming from now? And fear, believe it or not, seems to be one of the most profound energy sources that I’ve ever worked with.”

The decision to revisit those early years has been gradual but somewhat inevitable. Over pints at The Golden Lion in Todmorden, Yorkshire, Votel and the gang got back together, not so much to reminisce as to keep the fire burning. More often than not, they found themselves returning to the topic of local hip hop.

“I was like, ‘We can’t just keep bitching about this unless we’re going to rap… let’s just do it’,” says Votel.

Digging out the notebooks and reconvening in the same old shed behind his granddad’s shop – intermittently also the Twisted Nerve and Finders Keepers stockroom – Violators Of The English Language made their return.

So, step forward Andy Votel, formerly Pigstyles, now Adverb; Mark Rathbone, aka Boney Fresh; Derek Edwards, formerly Taste, now Figure Of Speech; Steven Cunningham, formerly Yogi, now Community; Eduoard Lyons, formerly Chien Fou, now Lyons & Tigers; and Rick Myers, the group’s longstanding scratch DJ.

“Lyrically, a lot of the concepts are based on teenage ideas and some old samples we used in the mixtapes,” Votel says, describing a process that feels frighteningly like reading your old diaries. Completing half-finished projects is one thing, but reanimating them with the hindsight of a life lived is something else altogether.

“Everybody just had to go for it straight away and do their full 16-bars without stopping. The pressure was crazy, but we were all totally supportive of each other’s fears and whims.”

The Native Tongues of Northern Contemporary Britcore. Maturing mad villains of their own Peak locale. Rapping alter egos and kamikaze MC lifers, ready at last to bring their timely Mancunian flow to the world.

“We’re a seven-headed, 14-legged beast,” Votel laughs. “But one thing I never realised is that at this age you get out of breath…”

In November 2022, Violators Of The English Language dropped a self-titled album of tracks “written sporadically between 1991 and 2021”. Working with The Golden Lion, Votel also released a second 12-inch by Magnets – featuring Adverb (himself), Benjamin (Hatton, formerly of Mongrels), Jenny Chan (aka Penny Chew) and Demdike Stare’s Sean Canty – and Pro-Verbs, featuring Adverb, Figure Of Speech and Rick Myers.

If that’s a lot to take in, it’s because they all still have a lot to say.

Across all three of the projects, Votel is credited as beat-maker, finding an outlet at last for all that bootstrap tinkering and the countless hours spent scouring the fade-ins and outros of obscure records in the flea markets of northern England.

“I’ve still got thousands and thousands of records I bought for just one bar of music,” he laughs. “And it’s like, ‘You bought these for a reason back then, so you’ve got to see it through’.”

Or, as he rhymes on ‘Rewind’, “Now let me get this shit straight / So now I’m 28 years late / It was ’93 until infinity / But hold on wait, now it’s 2021 / Where’s the bastard time gone? / Decades on the run / What the hell is going on?”

The nuances of ageing are not standard hip hop tropes, but they’re sentiments to which many will relate. The sense of urgency is profound.

“We’re not stopping,” he exclaims. “It can’t stay buried any longer.”

The stories Votel tells of his lost rap years read like a set of liner notes for a Finders Keepers reissue. Thelocal scene, the hair-brained schemes, the friendships, setbacks, dissolutions and reunions. That Finders Keepers have released records sampled by the likes of Jay-Z and Madlib only adds to the sense of coming full circle. It’s tempting to read the whole thing as a case of Andy Votel bringing himself back from obscurity.

But maybe that’s oversimplifying or even over-romanticising something altogether less nostalgic.

“I’ve never stopped rapping,” Votel admits. “I’ve always been writing for the stages of my life. With me, it comes as part and parcel of buying records.”

Although perhaps a little at odds with his image as the arch-druid of cult ephemera cultivated through Finders Keepers, he is unconcerned about what the “mod fraternity or the dyed-in-the-wool psych heads” might say about this flagrant display of vulnerability.

“Do I care what other people think?” he asks. One suspects not.

What is striking, however, is just how far the roots of his work in reissues extend back to the sense of collective purpose that he was initiated into in the early 90s.

“For Finders Keepers, I’ve spent time meeting family or visiting people who are going through really rough times or revisiting eras in life when their dreams were shattered, and I’ve got to dig this up. You have to treat it with the utmost sensitivity. It isn’t a joke – it’s someone’s life you’re meddling with.”

In this case, however, it sounds like the original crew didn’t exactly need a huge amount of persuading.

“Seeing their fear turn to excitement, hearing it back and going, ‘Oh my God, it works!’ – that is a human thing, and it’s massively genuine,” Votel enthuses.

It’s a nod of approval for their 17-year-old selves. Andy VOTEL, aka Violator Of The English Language, has been hiding in plain sight all along.

‘Violators Of The English Language’ is out on Hypocritical Beatdown. ‘Magnetic Prophecies’ by Magnets & Pro-Verbs is out on Golden Lion Sounds

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