The concept of a live hip-hop band isn’t entirely new. The Roots refined an early jazz-influenced hip-hop sound to startling success and resident MC Black Thought can still par with the best of them, though there’s been an inevitable watering down of their sound after twelve studio albums. Manchester-based nine-piece The Mouse Outfit differ in their lack of a dedicated MC, instead calling on a roster of up-and-comers to provide bars. That’s a total of eight guest rappers and nine session musicians; things do get dangerously busy across Escape Music, but the album functions as a kind of showcase for the band’s groove-led versatility, moving swiftly through funk, jazz and soul without losing their youthful spark and homegrown sensibilities.
The Mouse Outfit attack every song on its own terms; each track is catchy and refined, sporting grooves that have no doubt developed over the band’s four-plus years of live shows. Things often get contemplative, from the creeping strings on opener “Every Single Time” to the smooth shuffle of ‘Sit Back’ (the gleefully childish hook of which is delivered with most earnestness: “You need to sit back on this one/smoke a doob, watch cartoons”). Frequent guests Dr. Syntax and Sparkz come through with tongue-in-cheek swagger, delivering old-school step-to raps that are as threatening as the grooves they’re spitting over.
There’s much-needed energetic pick-ups in the form of ‘Who Gwan Test’, pairing synth stabs with a fly trumpet section, and ‘We Ain’t Goin Nowhere’, a cheekily over-the-top blast of every musician’s strength and some of Dr. Syntax finest moments. Most curious, though, is the inclusion dubstep track ‘Kickstart’; by no means a terrible song, it’s hampered by female backing vocals and often nonsensical bars, perhaps best left to a late night Rinse.fm showcase or a future mixtape of outtakes.
Then there’s, ‘Air Max’ would-be contender for highlight of the album with its devilishly cool groove underpinned by simple bass licks and a sublime trumpet-led intro, but Black Josh’s punchlines (“wasteman get left in the bin like Laden”) and ruminations on trainers grate after some listens. As Josh bows out to a horn solo and ‘Air Max’ sets itself up for smooth-as-butter outro, the whole thing is wrapped up before the groove is properly explored.
Perhaps The Mouse Outfit save their true experiments for their live shows. If the studio energy on display is anything to go by, these songs would be a real treat in a live setting. Despite clocking in at over an hour, Escape Music feels like a whirlwind tour on the band’s skills and their guest MC’s saved-up bars. More than anything, it’s refreshing to see such professionalism from a band sporting this homegrown sound, and their videos are testament to this: who else could evoke New York City from shots of disused Salford warehouses?