Subject matter seems like one of those abstract terms critics use to turn a meaningful whole into a boring, bureaucratic set of technical categories. That is, until you hear albums that struggle to come up with any type of subject matter that doesn’t revolve around the main subject, the rapper. Agreed, rap’s finest moments have always been individualistic, and very often they came with some kind of promotional message, but there can definitely be too much self-congratulation – even in rap.
Showing off and telling off are a rapper’s first steps when learning to walk lyrically. Things they eventually might walk away from but always can come back to. On their 2008 collaborative effort “Scene Stealers,” MC’s Skrein and Dr Syntax lodge their basic credentials right at the beginning with the title track, trading boastful bars, Syntax stealing this particular scene maybe just a little bit from his partner in rhyme with his multisyllabic word cascades:
“It’s the scene stealers, unique speakers
Giving people with evil demeanors the features of eager beavers
You need to see us, before it’s easy to conceive of a team
with belief equalling priests speaking of Jesus”
Skrein is posted at the other end of the table in this spirited game of verbal ping-pong, rhyming, “Look how ill the team is / As for the scene, blood – we rob, jack and steal it / What a sack of eejits / It’s there for the taking, just seize it.” Dag Nabbit’s beat is the very definition of optimistic determination and the 4 minutes are perhaps best summed up by the featured Akil quote from Jurassic 5’s “What’s Golden”: “We entertain for a mutual gain.” They have fun, and so do we.
On the rap tag team spectrum Skrein and Syntax are, at least stylistically, at the end where opposites attract. Dr Syntax sometimes comes dangerously close to embodying his didactic moniker. Skrein – if that’s possible – plays the soulful street urchin. But the genius of Skreintax is that they go beyond staging a clash of the styles. They find common ground in subject matter, which is one of the marks of great rap duos.
They cross paths on “Express Train,” Brighton-based Syntax thinking about moving to the big city – whose hustle and bustle North Londoner Skrein longs to escape from. Newcastle’s Stig of the Dump joins them aboard producer Nutty P’s upbeat soul train by retracing his career moves with a healthy sense of realism. All argue with themselves in depth, Doc Synners for instance going from digging at his generation’s call center perspectives to looking at his plans realistically: “I wanna see the bright lights / Maybe in hindsight / I see it’s not the type of life that I’d like / But then I’d know that I tried.”
Skrein sets the bar high with acute observations about human nature on “T.E.T.M.D.” (‘The Evil That Men Do’), which features Stig of the Dump again and a plaintive organ-driven beat by Chemo that would fit Ill Bill’s repertoire. Kelakovski revisits an oft-sampled soul act for “Mothers,” a spiritual and musical kin to Dr. Dre’s “Lil Ghetto Boy” that sees them remember the motherly advice they once received and pass it on. Guest Sir Smurf Lil’ even defines their artform as a way of giving parental guidance: “Hip-Hop’ll tend to grab a hold of you / Rappers like me with a certain quality, we’ve been moulding you.”
Also typical for hip-hop is how quickly a playful album can turn into an almost existential affair. And turn back around to poke fun at one’s own impotence, like Syntax does on his solo track “Back Down,” which scrupulously details his misadventures with women. Female rejection may also have inspired “Venus,” a sweeping blow that paints the woman as the perpetrator. Guest Dubbledge sets the tone in the first verse and the hook with a soft-spoken, secretive whisper (“Find your weakness and take you out to the cleaners / The lowest of the low, that’s how low her scheme is”) and Syntax is quick to share the sentiments.
After Tom Caruana’s lean dub for “Back Down” and DJ Snips’ smooth flute expedition with “Venus,” Darren Paul adds his name to the competitive production credits with the fluidly bouncing “Breathe” that could have escaped from DJ Hi-Tek’s home equipment. Skrein surprises with an especially peaceful disposition, setting the pace on their varied musings on the breathing metaphor.
Tallying four singing slots in total, Graziella also accompagnies the guys on the two final vocal tracks. The following year the singer would end up a finalist on the X Factor TV show, here she is still a member of London’s Underground Alliance hip-hop collective. Part of the same crew, Ed Skrein pursued an acting career whose highlights so far include lead roles in ‘The Transporter: Refueled,’ ‘Deadpool’ and Plan B’s ‘Ill Manors’ as well as a brief stint on ‘Game of Thrones.’ Skrein’s acting talent is evident on Skreintax’ solemn “Sometimes,” as he voices his despair with conviction, but it is the uncompromisingly serious song that deserves attention (also featuring noteworthy input from Foreign Beggars member Metropolis) and ultimately raises the question why British hip-hop just couldn’t catch a break even with undeniably strong song material.
Momentary crossover star Plan B (assisting producer Kelakowski) brings his pop sensibility to the guitar-driven “Reach,” but it remains another anonymous tune on an obscure album. Skrein and ‘Tax are not without fault themselves. One needs a well-rounded understanding of rap and hip-hop to fully appreciate “Scene Stealers,” which in terms of cohesion suffers from too many different styles and moods. Danny Fresh’s instrumental “Outro” for instance, has little relation or relevance to the preceding tracks. As convincing as “Scene Stealers” is in its individual components, it struggles to escape its nature as a one-off collaboration.
And so “Scene Stealers” is as much a sleeper as it was slept on. The name Skreintax remained an insider reference to influential British artist Braintax and “Scene Stealers” had little impact on any scene. As so often in these circles, opportunities seem available aplenty, and Syntax, Skrein and veterans Farma G and Verb T word their ambitions fervently on “Mine For the Taking,” but the actual power move is hard to execute. When Skrein muses on “Mine For the Taking,” “Grime was original, but now look what’s happened,” “Scene Stealers” will have taught him that sadly originality doesn’t guarantee anything in any genre.