The Mitchell Brothers: How Two Geezers Flipped The Script On UK Rap

Words: Yemi Abiade

By 2004, way before Dave and Fredo stormed to the top of the charts with a streamlined, radio-ready version of UK rap, the genre was reaching a crossroads. Sure, Roots Manuva and The Streets did their bit three years prior with their respective seminal albums, Run Come Save Me and Original Pirate Material, but as grime was becoming a juggernaut on the streets, it was slowly eating up the ground British rap had paved. It was no longer the main source of expression for a generation of black kids who weren’t so keen on UK garage, and its younger brother was quickly making noise. How these acts would reimagine themselves was an interesting conundrum.

Seamlessly bridging the gap were one of UK rap’s most cherished acts, The Mitchell Brothers. The duo, comprised of brother-like cousins Tony and Teddy Mitchell, are an early example of how the rawness of grime and the more mellow, but equally potent contents of rap could be married in holy matrimony in a way that didn’t compromise their artistry. Very much the cheeky, lovable geezers of UK rap at a time where their peer (and later label boss) Mike Skinner had popularised the non-rap style, The Mitchells spat in hyper-localised slang mixed with old-British dandyism—words like “spiffing” that you’d be hard-pressed to find a black person from the ends say. This was crucial to their appeal; UK rap, by that point, was filled with rappers trying to sound like, and appeal to, America in a pre-social media era where this was the method to the madness of international success.

Charting rap music at the time failed to reflect the lifestyle that a lot of young black men were experiencing, making for a jaded landscape that was teetering as soon as grime came around, because that was relatable in areas where rap wasn’t. Hood politics, youth anger, and general alienation from mainstream British society—The Mitchell Brothers spurned that, presenting themselves as local conduits, speaking to the perspectives of people from their South London home of Stockwell and across the country. Essentially possessing a grime attitude and transferring it to UK rap, via their lackadaisical, breezy, Skinner-esque flows, this made their bars seem more like conversations than sermons. The presence of Skinner, who the Brothers referred to as “Jesus in boots” in a 2005 Guardian interview, no doubt made the act more attractive, but he served only to propel their messages to further consciousness.

Content-wise, Teddy and Tony were deeply rooted in relationships, family and the plight of the black man in the UK, but with a hint of humour that didn’t strip away from its seriousness—particularly on their 2005 debut album, A Breath of Fresh Attire. Arguably their most popular song, “Routine Check” (featuring Kano and The Streets) is an incendiary anthem that summaries the collective black outrage at being stopped and searched by the police for absolutely no reason other than being black; a refreshing approach at the time that still holds up. Or the forgotten gem “Harvey Nicks”, in which The Mitchells—known for their love of flat caps, trench coats and waistcoats—are constantly harangued by security in the aforementioned store. The old chestnut of “how can this young black person afford it?” hanging over this track no doubt serves as a head nod to the stereotype that we engage in criminal activity to earn money.

Teddy and Tony were also adept at turning inward and exploring the harm black people bring to each other via gun crime, on tracks like “Shots Echo”, acknowledging our own role in the demonisation of our race with composure and humility. This is to show that, while the establishment continues to victimise black people, we also engage in our own recklessness that paints such a disgusting picture of us and needs to change for the community to begin a process of healing.

Despite the latent anger, The Mitchells were always willing to exhibit a softer side, and Fresh Attire album cut “She’s Got It All Wrong” is an overlooked beauty of post-breakup introspection and poise. Meanwhile, “Don’t Try This At Home”, the sombre album closer, is a class in A-grade storytelling with a not-so-happy ending that offers up perspective on the seedier side of life in London for black men. The more tender cuts served to humanise them even further, to show that behind the geezer bravado were two young men trying to make sense of the life they lead, and not always succeeding. Ultimately, this duality to their music gained them more relatability than rappers bragging about their riches and bitches at every turn.

The duo’s approach earned praise from both the underground and the mainstream, which added yet more to their prestige. While a young Kano was spitting on “Routine Check” and Ghetts was still Ghetto on “Shots Echo”, indie darlings Franz Ferdinand and a precocious pre-DJ Calvin Harris were also up for the party, contributing to Teddy and Tony’s 2007 sophomore album, Dressed For The Occasion. And while the chances of stardom and commercial success were always going to be slim, The Mitchells undoubtedly became cult heroes (albeit briefly), speaking to their reality while keeping things funny. They were a breakaway, stylistically, from all—bar Mike Skinner—who had come before them, bringing relevancy back to UK rap when grime was threatening to swallow it whole. So much so that some of grime’s greats were comfortable enough to spar with them, making The Mitchells a conduit for these young stars to test themselves on more accessible sounds and, perhaps, positively altering their commercial appeal.

Mid-2000s UK rap was akin to choppy waters, but The Mitchell Brothers swam through them with effervescence, flair and bags of personality to mark their own imprint. It may have been short lived, but they made the genre exciting again simply by being themselves, which is all we could have asked for.

Posted on October 24, 2018