Violinist, Rapper, Menace: Mike Dennis talks to Gwdihw

By November 2, 2017Blog
Ahead of his show here promoting the superb, fast-flown violinica of his new Junction 29 EP, we chatted to Mike Dennis about his craft, his classical & hip hop influences & much more!

Q: Musically, how do the classical elements of your writing sit on top of hip hop beats- how do you manage to combine two seemingly different ways of writing, specifically?
I don’t really think I write in any classical way, words at least, but I’m guessing you mean the music? I learnt to play baroque, classical and romantic music on the violin when I was learning to play it but I only really pay half a mind to this when I’m putting together songs now. When you have had to practise hours a day for classical grade exams, the techniques you learn on your instrument become just tools with which to compose and perform music. I never felt like I fitted in when I played in orchestras as a teenager and I never felt like I truly fitted in at hip hop nights in my twenties.

All that said, I LOVE playing Bach and I have deliberately stolen 4 bar sections of some of his music – his riffs, if you will – for tunes over the last few years.


Q: Did you ever have a ‘eureka’ moment discovering you could combine your violin talents with hip hop?
When I moved to Bristol and started playing open mics, I think, yeah. In Brighton, with Fidgital (we were a DJ/violinist duo playing big party tune covers with a bit of looping and beat-juggling thrown in), I felt like I was getting somewhere in terms of carving a niche but it was still 75% other people’s music which distressed me. Moving to Bristol though, I had a real fire in my belly for making something unique and original happen with my skills and loop pedals give you such scope if you can think of clever ways to work with them. I think the applause and reactions I got at the first few open mics I did in Bristol in early 2012 made me think I was on to something.

Q: Where so you think UK Hip Hop is at right now? 
Always find this kind of question difficult and I’m not ashamed to say that it’s mainly because I find so much hip hop really dull these days. There are always these violent, antisocial attitudes that I have no time for anymore and the “invisible enemy” tunes which I suppose MCs would describe as battle raps but they’re generally not directed at anyone in particular and you get a minute into the tune and think: this is just nasty.

I’ve got so much time for people speaking openly, brazenly and earnestly from the heart. I’m a real sentimental soul. I love Kate Tempest for her poetic touch, I love Normanton Street for their laidback musicality, I love Binbag Wisdom (furiously energetic acoustic rap group from Bristol – check them out), Mic Righteous for his passion. Now I think about it, there are a great deal of exciting British rappers around but there is so much rubbish to wade through to find them!


Q:  Live, how had your set and approach developed and what’s influenced it?
Beardyman has been a big influence loop-wise before he got massive and techy to the extent he is now. N.B. he’s still incredible but that’s not a direction I want to take. I’m always trying to find and use the absolute maximum potential activity of my limbs and mouth when performing because I don’t want to just sit there on a box singing to a backing track. In terms of my approach to sets specifically, I’ve got to a point over the past year and a half where I know now I can do a whole 30 minutes of bangers that the crowd will love (own-trumpet blowing alert…) but the art is in distributing them and trying to get a fresh appraisal of songs I might like more than those crowd-pleasers so I can go away and think “yeah, that one’s coming on.”

Q: What’s your favourite experimental hip hop albums?
Don’t know if you’d call it experimental but an album I’ve had in my head a lot lately is Arrested Development’s “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of..”. It’s potentially my favourite album ever. It’s more of a fringe hip hop album than in any way experimental. People used to try to get me into Boom Bip and that end of things but I always found it jarring and a bit sickening. Also still haven’t listened to any “Why”. I will, I promise. Is Sage Francis considered experimental?? If so – Personal Journals by Sage Francis!

Q: How is prep for this tour going- have you planned it any differently to before?
It’s all just mad! Even on the rare days, I think I have time to chill, I’m still constantly on my phone or computer having remembered I have to e-mail venues or bounce down new instrumental parts to use in the set for the new EP tunes.  In answer to your question: it is going well, I think – you learn to plan further ahead with each tour, so I hope it’ll be even better than the May Junction 29 tour!