Slick operation that it is these days, I miss the days of surprises at the BRIT Awards. There probably won’t be any assaults, sweary speeches or mooning at next Wednesday night’s ceremony, but it would be wonderful if Rudimental, a grinning gaggle of ex-pirate radio DJs from Hackney, could scramble past Coldplay, Adele, Robbie Williams and X Factor winner James Arthur to take the Best Single prize.
“We’ve never even stepped on a red carpet before,” says the band’s Kesi Dryden. Yet they had my vote out of a 15-strong shortlist for their fantastic song Feel the Love, a thrilling rush of churchy organ, soul vocals and drum and bass that captured 2012’s summer-long flash of British positivity when it went to number one last June. It was the sound of athletes winning, Jubilee cake being scoffed and, in its indelible, inspiring video, the underprivileged kids of Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club galloping horses through the tired streets of north Philadelphia.
The four full-time members of the group — keyboard player Dryden, 27, DJ Leon Rolle, 26, producer Piers Aggett, 25, and guitarist Amir Amor, 27 — have been slow to capitalise on that first hit. The release of Rudimental’s debut album was recently pushed back from this month to April. They’re still tweaking it on a laptop when I meet them in their dressing room prior to a support slot with Plan B in Brighton.
“We definitely are perfectionists, but in a good way,” says Aggett. “The label keeps asking if it’s done yet, and we’re eager to get out and promote it, but we won’t let anything go that we’re not happy with.”
It’s understandable that it would take them a while to come down from the high of last summer. Their June appearance in front of 50,000 people at Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend was only their second ever live show — quite some homecoming. “I can see Hackney Marshes from my window. We’ve been playing football there since we were kids,” says Dryden. “The last time I’d played piano to an audience was at secondary school.”
Hackney’s melting pot is perfectly represented by Rudimental. Line them up, especially with their additional live members, singers Tom Jules and Ella Eyre and trumpeter Mark Crown, and they’re only missing a lesbian in a wheelchair to be a classic advert for the power of diversity.
That mix comes across on a wide-ranging, as yet untitled, album. My 13-track preview stream (not the finished selection) ranges from the late night hip hop of Hell Could Freeze, featuring hyped female rapper Angel Haze, and the blissful deep house of their early single Spoons, to the slinky garage of Hide, and Not Giving In’s rousing mix of soul trumpets and racing beats. “People who heard Spoons and then Feel the Love didn’t even realise it was the same band,” says Amor.
In the unlikely event the masses still aren’t convinced by all that, there are also two songs featuring the mighty pipes of last year’s biggest-selling British singer, Emeli Sandé. “She lives in Hackney. We met her at a gig in Brixton and asked her into the studio. We had a song that was just guitar, kick drum and piano. She’s such a great writer, all these lyrics and melodies came out really quickly.”
It seems the welcome mat is permanently out at their studio. They mention the late-Eighties dance-pop collective Soul II Soul as an inspiration. “It’s all about good vibes in the studio and on stage, everyone getting on and having fun,” says Aggett. In concert, they switch instruments as different singers come and go, Crown wandering around adding bright trumpet licks to the synth-heavy sound while Rolle, a hype man built like a heavyweight boxer, shouts and pouts. They look like they’re having a brilliant time.
“If someone’s got the right voice, we’ll use them,” adds Dryden. “We found John [Newman, the big voice of Feel the Love and Not Giving In] playing a set in a pub.”
That open-armed attitude began when they were teenagers in Hackney. Rolle and Aggett grew up on the same street. “You could walk down that one road and hear so many different things. There was a rock band, a reggae band, us doing our garage-slash-grime thing with 21 MCs in my bedroom. There was an Irish traveller family blaring out Van Morrison. That place was the biggest influence on me,” says Rolle.
Rolle’s mother bought him his first set of DJ decks when he was 12. Aggett’s father, who played around the local pubs in a blues and rock ’n’ roll band, bought some basic computer production software for himself, which his son quickly took over when he couldn’t work out how to use it. “I basically invaded it with all my mates, and it turned into a kind of community studio,” says Aggett. “I was in about five different grime crews at once, calling myself DJ Darker.
“I used to go and knock for Piers and there’d be a queue of 10 people outside,” adds Dryden, a pianist since the age of six who met the other two in sixth form college. Amor, who grew up in Somers Town, south of Camden, joined the band two years ago.
The quartet are a great argument for giving teenagers access to music equipment when they aren’t inspired elsewhere at school. “The only outlet for me was the youth club. That was where I realised it was possible to be a musician,” says Amor, who met a pre-fame Plan B at a Chalk Farm community centre and ended up working with him on an early mixtape.
Rolle turned an unremarkable education into a job as a behavioural manager in a secondary school. “They’d send the naughty kids to this naughty guy to get sorted out,” he says. “I noticed that you need a key to get into the minds of kids. Music is a great way to do that. We had a studio inside the school and would take the difficult students there. We would get through to them that way.”
Now pop stardom has got in the way of more noble work but they haven’t forgotten the mentors that set them on this path. “I’d love us to get to the stage, two or three albums in, when we can take a step back and start giving back,” Rolle continues. For now, it looks like anyone could end up on a Rudimental record if they’re good enough. This particular community studio is heading worldwide.
Rudimental play Village Underground, EC2 (020 7422 7505, villageunderground.co.uk) on February 22.