I catch Mark on a break at a rehearsal session for a big gig with the Pharcyde the following week. There is some raucous mayhem going on in the background. "Right, I can't hear you, I'm gonna have to leave the room", he apologises, "They are making too much noise. Cheeky bastards!" he shouts. A moment later the peace has been restored and Mark is talking easily about where things are at.
"'Central Heating 2' has been released four years after the first one we did in 1996, which was the breakthrough album for our label. We did one before that called 'Frying the Fat', which was a similar kind of thing. It was easier for us to make high quality albums from the best work of the artists around us, rather than making solo artists albums to begin with. That is where the idea came from. There was a lot of fledgling talent in the city at the time, and we did it without any deals or contracts, it was just people beginning to make records, like Mr Scruff, Aim, Funky Fresh Few, Only Child and Andy Votel. Basically I just rounded them all up and gave them the concept. They all gave me their best work. Central Heating 2 is a re-statement of everything we have done since. You can see how peoples' music has developed from being very basic and full of energy to being a bit more complex. They both stand as a great example of what Grand Central is about."
The story goes that Rae spotted some of these artists in the now famous Fat City record store buying old records that could only be used for sampling. I ask him about his own musical background. "I'm not really a musician," he is quick to point out, "I write music using individual notes from records, as a Hip-Hop producer. Steve is a full musician, arranger, producer, mixer and engineer. I do more lyrics and ideas. I am totally informally trained. I started off as a DJ. We have been working together for five years now, since 1995. Its not that long. There is a long way to go with what we are doing, this is only our second album. It is just about finished, so we are going on tour, but I think that we are quite aware that we need to inject some new kind of techniques, for our own sanity. We need to be left to our own devices for a lot longer, instead of running the business!"
If you check out the Grand Central web site, you'll get an idea of how slick their operation is. There is definitely something to be learnt from their approach to what they do. "Our business was never set up by any kind of mad design," Mark offers, "You learn as you go along what is important and eventually try to provide systems to feed that. That is the key thing about London, it has always had that, and always will. Manchester doesn't really have a structure, but it is coming into place now for a lot of the labels here, and the fact that they are all staying in Manchester is the key difference."
Having seen them perform at the Scala in London before, I am interested to know what they make of the city. "London has no interest in anything outside of it, I think that sums up that whole question. We use, abuse and enjoy London at our own will, but we don't pander after it because, to be honest with you, we sell a lot of records in London, but our strongest fan-base is in the north. We are not a fashion-based label, but purely a music-based label, and I think Northerners appreciate that," he says quite frankly. Such insightful honesty is always refreshing.
Rae and Christian have built up a reputation for delivering the goods when it comes to live gigs, both indoors and on the UK summer festival circuit. "The live side of it is a very strong thing for us. It is something we have spent a lot of years developing, so it is a tight side of what we do. At festivals you have a ready made crowd of people who don't know you are, plus people who do. You have more scope to do things, its a bit more of a wild atmosphere, because people are outside of their natural elements. It can be great. Obviously gigs can sometimes contain atmosphere better than a tent."
Several collaborations with American MC's make Mark Rae a good man to ask about the key differences between the Hip-Hop scenes on either side of the Atlantic. "British Hip-Hop is perhaps done with a bit more of the original spirit, and when I say that I don't really include ourselves, because I think everyone is unique and the word is a global place now. We've used American MC's in the past, so those tunes may well have come from San Francisco. We haven't used British MC's yet, and we get some negative attitude about that, but we are just trying to make the best music possible. I would say in some ways that it is just Hip-Hop. To be honest with you, I think that true British Hip-Hop has got a British MC on it. Spirit-wise, British Hip-Hop is found just as much in UK garage and jungle. It's a tough one to shout. America is a messed up place, you just have to watch some of their TV over there to work that out. The music that is popular there is really pop, but hard, urban, aggressive, negative pop. Its just Hip-Hop evolving, I suppose, and trying to make money."
I can hear the band shouting in the background once again. The break is now over and the rehearsal is due to commence. Sensing that my time might be up, I ask him for his closing words. "Thanks to everyone who supports Grand Central and what we get up to, its appreciated!" You can't fault this man. Big shout out to one of Britains most respected and promising labels.