It isn’t easy to gain appreciation for a Dutch-rapping hip hop outfit in a predominantly French-speaking city. Still, after the modest success of their sophomore album ‘02’, Brussels based collective STIKSTOF established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Belgian scene. With an identifying sense of social critique, this city poet quartet always holds a magnifying glass on their lives, their generation, their environment and also their beloved hometown as a microcosm.
After laying low and focusing on other projects, STIKSTOF has slowly but steady resurfaced. The run up to their third album featured milestones such as a well-received gig at Pukkelpop and first single ‘Frontal’, which received ubiquitous praise.
Now, STIKSTOF released its third album ‘Overlast’, meaning trouble or disturbance. An excellent occasion to meet up with Astrofisiks, Jazz and Zwangere Guy who always keep a finger on Brussels’ pulse.
Zwangere Guy: “Before we start, I want to give a shout out to DJ Vega, also part of the collective, who couldn’t make it.”
Duly noted! Obligatory first question: What has been the motivation to name your album ‘Overlast’, meaning trouble or disturbance in Dutch?
Jazz: “We’ve been using the term for a while now. About a year ago we launched our own merchandise with the iconic ‘Everlast’ logo spelled as ‘Overlast’. Our previous albums never really were entitled, which we did want for this one. At the end of the recording process, we were in a bit of a time shortage, so we chose ‘Overlast’ - but it did fit the album.“
Zwangere Guy: “Young people in the city are quickly labeled as trouble or seen as causing a disturbance. It’s a very current theme when you look at the recent troubles with locations such as Recyclart, Barlok, Place Saint-Catherine. But to us, a police officer can just as well be a disturbance. It’s a play on words, but also very fit for the album. “
It’s quite a remarkable album cover.
Z.G.: “We did have an idea for the cover, but we didn’t find a match until three days before our deadline. When we saw it, we immediately knew we had the right visual. We wanted to use a powerful image, which can create a controversy. For all we knew it could blow up in our face. But we all stand behind it, and together with ‘Overlast’ it just made sense.“
How did the album come about? Did you use a defined concept?
Jazz: “Not really, to be honest. We just started to work on tracks we felt right about, and the collection of those tracks became an album. We do think about what theme matches an instrumental in terms of vibe though, but there wasn’t any forethought concept involved.“
Z. G.: “The album might be only 45 minutes long, but we did put a lot of time in this record, and it also required us to reform our DNA. For example, it was the first album we wrote after Maxim, aka Rosko left the group. Another important factor was changing our recording studio. We used to work in Astrofisiks’ basement, but two years ago he moved, and we weren’t able to find the same creative drive in his way too small bedroom (laughs). We tried working on new material at each other’s home, but we noticed our work ethic wasn’t equally as successful as it used to be. So, we just absorbed everything in our hometown, to let it all out on a different location. And so, we wrote the largest part of the album in Charleroi and Limburg.“
Jazz: “We made our own bubble where we worked, slept, ate and drank. You go sleeping and you wake up with the same beat you’ve been working on. At these locations it was possible to fully focus and to avoid the usual distractions in Brussels. A way of working that paid off."
In terms of production, you seem to have chosen a more laidback vibe. The aggression and threat are rather subtle than what they used to be. Is that a conscious choice?
Astrofisiks (STIKSTOF’s regular beatmaker, ed.): “I don’t think its conscious, but all of our three records do have their own sound and energy. It’s also linked to our way of working. We start out with a bunch of beats and ideas and afterwards we write on it, which results in the first version. And, let’s not forget, we are a bit older and wiser now. I do prefer to work on albums, because they can contain more memories. Every album is a specific chapter. A snapshot of places, people, working methods. From frustrations to the most beautiful moments in one's life. It’s not noticeable to everyone, but it’s something that sticks with me and I cherish that. It keeps me going.“
Jazz: “It’s right that this albums contains less aggressive, hard tracks than the previous one. It’s also our first record that we wrote while all of us are in a relationship (laughs). So maybe we’re more laidback ourselves.”
Together with Gogolplex you’ve produced some strong conceptual videos. The latest video for ‘Gele Blokken’ also fits that approach. What was the inspiration for that track and video?
Z.G.: “We wrote the track in a shady Airbnb, which apparently was operated by an even shadier, coked-up cop. On top of that, he showed us his cannabis plantation, and we found dime bags with suspicious powder around his house. A very f*cked up situation, but we were there to work, so we did.“
Jazz: “‘Gele Blokken’ originated in that place. It was the second track we released in advance, so it asked for something special. It’s an atypical STIKSTOF track, because it features my lyrics only. After ‘Frontal’ we wanted to release a laidback track. For the video we wanted to work with footage shot by security camera’s, to pursue that vibe. Even though there’s a lot happening in the video, it’s what you don’t see that’s the real threat.”
We would say you are more linked to an old-school hip hop approach, which addresses social themes. Not an obvious choice in a time where hip hop often sounds more empty and materialistic.
Jazz: ”I’ve always been influenced by old-school hip hop. I like that ‘observe/address/complain’ approach, which I also found in a lot of French rap. It’s that vibe that contributes to my love for hip hop. Brussels also perfectly lends itself to that kind of method.“
Z.G.: “We are critical guys ourselves. We like to reproduce our opinion and experiences on music. Whether we get radio airplay or not is of minor importance.”
Alternative music and nightlife in Brussels is taking a pounding at the moment. Suitable locations are becoming increasingly scarce. What lies at the basis of this phenomenon?
Jazz: “Gentrification. In Recyclart’s case it couldn’t be clearer. They build a new residential block for wealthy people across the street and suddenly Recyclart has to leave under a false pretext of safety.“
Z.G.: ”They try to banish everything with a young and cultural character from the city center. If it yields little money, they don’t really care about it. It’s a shame we don’t take an example from cities like Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona or even Antwerp. Maybe we should focus on the outskirts, maybe the canal district can be promising. But it’s sure there is a lack of vision and debate. We need to have a conversation with the people who make the laws and decisions.“
Jazz: ”You know, someone who becomes a minister or cop, isn’t someone who was partying in Recyclart till six in the morning. Those who make the decisions are out of touch with our sector. I could march on the streets, make a record or scream out loud, but what does it all matter if policymakers with a different mindset are in charge? And we see the same problems in the justice or education system.“
Z.G.: “Even though I’m not sure our album can make a difference, I would be proud if it could provide some people other insights. There’s always music.”