I think I’ll always remember meeting North Tyneside grime duo NE Dons for the first time. It wasn’t rare for rappers to come up the me at iconic open mic night ObSceNE and ask “where’s our SparkUpTheMic?” but it was rare for those rappers to show and prove that they deserved one minutes later.
NE-O and Castle impressed in live settings, shutting down open mics and building upon their reputation during 2018’s festival season with appearances at Meet The North, Evolution Emerging and Tower Fest. The one thing letting them down were the quality of their loose cuts released to Soundcloud. The flows were tight, the lyrics were sharp but the mixing wasn’t right – something they sought to change in order to reach the heights they were, and still are, determined to reach.
First impressions are important throughout life. In music, the rule is no different. An artist’s first release is a signal of intent, a hint of what audiences can expect going forward and although creative directions change – musicians are often compared to their initial output.
For NE Dons, their first official opus comes in the form of a six track extended play which shares the name of their debut single. NANG boasts heavy feature credits for those in the know regarding hip-hop and grime in the North East of England in addition to Welsh MC Mr Traumatik.
Unfortunately for the grime duo, first impressions of the NANG EP aren’t what they should be because of familiar issues with opening cut, Can’t Slip. While Dialed’s production is phenomenal, the beautifully chaotic beat leaves NE-O and Castle’s vocal drowning too low in the mix. Theres far too much going on sonically to really comprehend the duo – something highlighted further when hearing the track performed for a BBC Introducing in the North East session where their vocals aren’t lost in the beat.
Its a shame too because there’s some good content in there. While I’m not a fan of “lyrically samurai” and similar “lyrically…” bars which have been highlighted in some social media comments there is way more to the Dons’ penmanship that should be focused on. If only the vocals were a few decibels higher so we could make them out without straining our ears.
In contrast, Pick ‘N’ Mix is a perfect mix of everything. From Scottish Pretty’s binary beat switching tones between hook and verse to NE-O and Castle trading bars with Teesside’s Eyeconic. Its on Pick ‘N’ Mix where Castle shows off his best work on the NANG EP. The Psychosis/Psycho-spits bar is delivered to perfection and alongside the sections surrounding “wanna make bank, p’s, money…” and “use mics like mortars” means the MC is likely to get a few wheel ups on his own for the track.
NE-O isn’t completely outshone by his counterpart however, namedropping the featured MC with his government name and referencing H-Man (Hendaz) and the Stay Freezin’ artists’ HERE! ad-lib.
Speaking of Eyeconic, the Polish-born Middlesbrough-based rapper has cemented his place in North East grime folklore with cult-classic Spit One Lyric, and again more recently with Classic. As arguably the most consistent creator of grime bangers for the last two years, Eyeconic wasn’t about to let the side down. “Seen a couple guys spit 24s in 16s and still couldn’t catch a reload in a grime set” adds extra weight to “Go on then bro, grab the mic, I dare you to go back-to-back with this.”
The mid-section of the EP brings the title-track. Full disclosure, I worked PR for the single but that doesn’t really cause a conflict of interest because I did it unpaid on the strength of how much I believed NE-O and Castle deserved a break and the Dialed produced NANG could provide it. Where Castle brought his A game in Pick ‘N’ Mix, NE-O did the same with NANG especially in first verse. This song will forever be loved because of the shoutout for Wu-Tang Pam, the then-owner of the cafe which hosted ObSceNE where NE Dons introduced themselves to North East heads.
Something I’ve heard both NE Dons MCs say quite a bit is how much they appreciate the amount of people willing to work with them. Its one thing to acquire feature verses, but its another to know where to utilise them and that’s one of the NANG EP’s core strengths. Reali-T’s assistance on No Problem brings the project’s best showcase of musicality.
Ric Flair bars are the pinnacle of wrestling references in music and NE-O delivers a gem on the songs chorus after bragging about their quick progression in the sceNE on the opening verse. Following on, Castle gives warning to old heads (a recurring theme in North East music culture) rapping “Might have a problem if you’re 41, and trying to hold me back from glory son.”
For the most part NE-O and Castle hold their own on the EP compared to their collaborators. The biggest challenge to that comes on Reali-T’s verse for No Problem. Arguably down to his longer solo verse, Ya Boy From Hackney shines brightest on the song although T’s best bars come in a scheme referencing to NE-O’s family / surname.
Remember what I said about NE Dons’ features on the EP? Well, imagine a posse-cut which creates as much competitive debate for who killed it as A$AP Rocky’s 1 Train.
E-Mence’s signature skippy flows? Mav’s “see me on the cypher don’t go next” charismatic braggadocio? Zico MC’s “gotta keep life in the balance” commentary? Claymore’s calls for cross-city unity? Listaa’s “you can’t fuck with” roll call? 90BRO’s throwback to ‘Mr Kill-A-Collab’ quality? Kema Kay’s “Google My Name” swagger? H-Man’s “I’m lethal” eccentricity?
0191 is the best representation of the SceNE I could have dared ask for. Serves me right for questioning if we really needed yet another track titled after the regions dialling code.
The EP finishes with a UK collab featuring Teesside legend Blitz and Welsh favourite MR Traumatik. Levelz is a brilliant cut, with the young up-and-comers cutting teeth with two masters of their respective crafts. Castle’s sarcastic “HA! HA! HA!” laughter stabs sharp in the direction of lesser MCs. NE-O’s aggressive “body beats bullying the bass and treble” plosive flow isn’t much more flattering to those who pale in comparison.
Blitz comes with a mission statement citing expression of self-worth and “talking bad boy talk to a bad boy only gets bad boys g’d up” which also reflects the recipe for his brilliant Law Of Attraction mixtape.
Ending the EP, Mr Traumatik’s slower flow and complex lexicon lacks the obvious punch of the tracks preceding verses and appears to cut off too early but provides a nice parrallel to Blitz’s mission statement. Instead providing one packed with empathy and wanting more not for self, but the human race as a whole which epitomises the MC’s unique take to grime.
If first impressions are as important as this review’s introductory paragraphs indicate it puts NE Dons in a purgatory-like place going forwards. Its not a bad debut release by any means but I’d be lying if I wasn’t expecting more based on that first live impression at ObSceNE last year.
Overall, NE Dons deliver a decent EP. There are gems across the board and despite a disappointing start down to the mixing of Can’t Slip, the other five tracks are fine examples of the potential of these MCs. While an improvement to the Soundcloud selections, the NANG EP still doesn’t entirely reflect the quality NE-O and Castle capture live but then thats an issue that has been instilled in grime since the genres inception. After all grime is largely sound-system culture.
I’m looking forward to watching NE-O and Castle’s growth and progression, if they can continue with the good and iron out the imperfections they have a very bright future ahead of them.
More consistent quality of mixing while securing the same level of features and less “lyrically…” bars while retaining those tight flows should do the trick for starters.