Benny Maths of Black Beacon Sound got in touch with Children of Zeus to discuss Manchester's musical heritage, the group's origins and their love of soul music. If you want to check out their latest release, The Story So Far... launched on First Word Records, October the 6th, be sure to hit up their Bandcamp page.
It was interesting to see that FLOOR (a Manchester based company that hosts panel discussions, Q&As and workshops based around electronic music) was hosting an event entitled 'Has Manchester lost its musical identity?' with the focus being on why the city “can't seem to let go of the Hacienda and Oasis... and why we can't seem to forge a new identity for ourselves...”
It's a timely question to ask. For me, an outsider looking in, I'd say Manchester has most definitely forged itself a new identity; with a scene that has been thriving creatively for some time, it's as much its own thing and a part of the city's musical legacy now as the Hacienda and Oasis were, and is, slowly but surely, garnering the attention it deserves.
Whether it is from the incendiary and infectious LEVELZ, the urban jazz of IAMDBB, or the simmering soul of Children of Zeus, the new sound of Manchester should have reached your ears in some way by now. I recently caught up with Tyler Daly and Konny Kon, two men who make up the aforementioned C.O.Z. and who should rightly be recognised as being amongst the cornerstones on which the city's musical renaissance has been built upon.
From the songs they've released so far, and if you've seen them live, it seems obvious that there's a solid and effective creative partnership at work here. Meeting for the first time when they both had shows just outside Paris, they knew that they had to work on some music upon returning to Manchester: “At the time there wasn’t a huge amount of music from Manchester being heard outside of Manchester,” says Konny Kon. “I hadn’t even heard of Tyler when we met in France, but we got on and he stood out from his crew when they played live. When we got back, Tyler played me all his hardest beats and I sat there blank faced, like I always do, until he played me a beat that became, 'Coming Home to You'. It was really soulful and I think it surprised him I liked it. We then just talked about all the music we both grew up on, tuned into Mancunian Pirate radio stations, and we both liked the same stuff. We just carried on in that direction any time we linked up after that.”
“It was initially just to Collab,” adds Tyler. “It was whilst doing this collaboration we recognised the love for soul music. But it would be years later after completing many other journeys that we started making the music.”
Having both been immersed in the Manchester music scene for some time, C.O.Z. offered Tyler and Konny the chance to do something different from the other projects they'd previously been involved with. For Tyler, “it was a fresh start and just a chance to do it again, on our own terms. Make music we love without compromise,” a point Konny expands upon. “By the time we decided this was more than just a couple of tracks we were working on, my previous crew, Broke’N’English, had fizzled out and they were both smashing it on the drum & bass scene. Hiphop/Soul in Manchester was pretty much non-existent, as the magic formula of working with Dub Phizix was putting a lot of people on the map. We both had the opportunity to do that, and I was also in the original Levelz line-up, but we wanted to stick to our guns and make some soulful music that wasn’t at the time really popping at all.”
“Being in Broke’N’English was amazing,” Konny continues. “We went round the world, we supported every US rapper that came to Manchester and we got love outside Manchester when hardly anybody else was. But we argued a lot and it wasn’t fun towards the end. Working with Tyler is a bit different, because we started the group off as two guys who just respected each others music rather than being friends first, which makes it harder to fall out I think. Haha! So far so good!”
The track 'Crown' divulges some of the early frustrations experienced in trying to get C.O.Z. off the ground. It was made “in Tyler’s kitchen, both of us disheartened with music and stressed with life’s dramas,” with both MCs using it to “just let out all our frustrations,” something you can clearly tell from the lyrics. “I just got sick of trying to keep up with new trends or vibes that I just didn't belong to,” Tyler responds when I ask what had led to them both becoming as disillusioned as they were with the music scene before starting C.O.Z. “Paid a hell of a lot of dues, as they say. Put everything into it and was left with nothing in return. So we thought. But we also realised it’s all about the journey. And now we're grateful to get to do it again with the right mind frame.”
“Music was frustrating me, getting booked to do shows four hours away then being told we weren’t playing frustrated me, not getting paid frustrated me, watching Tyler getting asked to do 100 people’s choruses and no one asking him to MC on anything! That whole time was a struggle and nothing was paying off,” continues Konny. It's a lot of ups and downs, and when you feel like this might be your last crack at it, all time is precious. And people fucking us about is a pain, because I’m older and I won’t react the same way I might have when I was younger. We made that track to get it out of our systems and almost didn’t even put it out.” That last statement will seem strange to those who follow C.O.Z., as it has undoubtedly become a fan favourite, so much so that Tyler and Konny were pushed a little into trying it out live. “Seems to be a lot of people's favourite,” says Konny, “and they ask for it live, but we did it twice and it's weird as fuck. People were deadly silent and stood still then clapped when the verses finished. Even with a choir I don’t think we’ll do it live again!”
That song, alongside tracks taken from their two (sold-out on wax) EPs, feature on their latest release with First Word Records, 'The Story So Far...' EP. FWR is a fantastic label, pushing that real, soulful hip-hop vibe, so a perfect fit for C.O.Z. “I’d known First Word owner Aly from years back, when he was a promoter in Leeds and I used to be a screwface teenager wearing gloves inside the club, and had a couple of shows with him,” Konny tells us.” 'Still Standing' had been out with a few other tracks on Soundcloud and he shouted me to see if I was interested in pressing it up. I hadn’t really heard much on the label at that point, but we met up with Aly and he bought us dinner, so we signed right there. On the real, we got love for First Word and everyone who works with us. They all get it and get us.”
It's no surprise to hear that the group enjoy a harmonious partnership with the label, as the lyrics of their tracks seem really imbued with the raw soul that FWR has come to be known for. C.O.Z retain a sense of optimism and hope, even when tackling the stresses and struggles of life - something that comes across as being reflective of Konny and Tyler as a duo. “As a kid writing lyrics I wrote angry lyrics, but I look back and they were happy times,” explains Konny. “During the writing of most of this EP we were both in really fucked up places in life. Wasn’t a good time at all. So the mad shit about all those songs is they’re all positive and about being happy. It wasn’t intended to be like that and we always look back and wonder why it all turned out that way.”
With the tracks being so personal, it was intriguing to see which one they still gained the most satisfaction from when hearing it out or performing it live. “We performed a new version of No Sunshine Tomorrow the other weekend,” starts Tyler. “I love the fact on that track I found the balance of a message in the lyrics and made something that also sounds good. We always wanted to do it live but the original doesn’t work.” Konny's answer is a little more succinct, “Still Standing; one day I’ll get bored of it,” but anyone familiar with the laid back groove and heartfelt lyrics of that track will need no further explanation.
It feels like the recent success of C.O.Z. is also a part of a larger movement within Manchester. Acts like LEVELZ, Bugzy Malone and IAMDBB are finally gaining the attention, on both a national and international level, that the quality of their music deserves. This may have been bubbling away for some time now, but does it feel like more and more eyes and ears are finally turning back towards the city? “Yes definitely,” Tyler responds. “I thing the whole Bugzy thing sparked a fuse under us all at a time we all kind of felt defeated. IAMDDB is the newest addition an' a perfect example of where we are today; actually reaps the benefits of the whole journey.
Most Levelz guys have been around a bit, like us, and came together to create a super group with Rich (Reason) leading the way. That's family. Me an' Konny were members at the beginning; if we didn't have our Zeus thing, who knows? But also DRS, who always has to be mentioned. If he isn't, then it's all false. DRS is the glue that hold the city in place.”
On that road, they all seem to have got to where they are now by relentlessly sticking to what they believe in. This particular ethos seems important to Manchester flourishing in the way that it now is, something the lads agree with. “Definitely,” says Konny. “When we started C.O.Z. one of the main ideas behind it was exactly what you said there. When everyone went with D&B, Grime, Bass music, etc, we said we’d make a soul project made for hip-hop heads. I think that comes across, but it also got picked up by people from other scenes too.” Tyler continues; “We think we're the best city in the world. As far as art goes, it's just a perfect breeding ground for some reason.”
If this summer is anything to go by, it seems that this opinion is now being accepted far and wide. Manchester acts were all over festival line-ups; certain parts of Croatia were pretty much turned into satellite suburbs of the Warehouse City, and main stage and boat party takeovers filled the Mancunian calendar. “It’s beautiful seeing all these people you came up with making something of it all,” Konny tells us. “A plane full of Mancunian artists and DJs. Do you know how crazy that sounds when we came from a time there wasn’t enough people smashing it to fill a car!”
C.O.Z. are undoubtedly on the rise. With a gig supporting Black Star and Homeboy Sandman coming up in London on October 20th, it's a sign of their progress, that they find themselves regularly involved on bills like this. Whilst both have trod a similar path before, albiet separately, does it feel different doing it as C.O.Z.? “This time we know what it's all about,” Tyler states. “It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. And thank god we have the wisdom to recognise that. We just want to keep spreading the C.O.Z. word around the globe.”
The globe would do well to pay attention.