Embrace: A Personal Connection with Hip-Hop

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, I find myself reflecting on its profound impact on my life. As a culture, it has become an inseparable part of my identity and extended beyond a mere musical genre. It represents a movement, a language, and a community that has guided me, transcended cultural boundaries and forged personal connections with each of us.

Back in 2000, I vividly remember sitting beside a small, black television in my godfather’s apartment on the corner of Gathorne Street, Leeds. He was deeply engrossed in playing his games console, with comic books scattered across the floor around me—a light distraction from his vast collection of black civil rights readings on the shelves above. As I look back, it was a comforting atmosphere that, as a mixed-race child, was shielding me from a deeply unresolved yet transitional era for the Black British.

It was five years on from his graduation from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, the very place where he, my father, and mother had met. It paralleled an era of Hip-Hop’s Golden age—thriving in the UK—and provided an outlet for self-expression through the fusion of hip-hop, jazz, soul, and contemporary movement. Undoubtedly, it was an era that hallmarked my family’s passion for expression through movement, music, and art.

At the time, my father, a British man of West Indian heritage, had a deep connection with Soul II Soul. He and my godfather had come together to form a music group known as ‘Architect’ and often drove around Yorkshire and Manchester to dish out their demo tapes. At their home, the cassettes—deep in rhythm and ambient recordings —were buried under recordings of Afrika Bambaataa, The Roots, Parliament Funkadelic, among others. It was a diverse musical exposure that soon ignited a spark within me for off-kilter, beat-driven music.

By 2003, my parents took the decision to move permanently to Bath in Somerset. My father’s passion for dance remained, and he continued to make a living through hosting street dance workshops at local youth centers. One day, he brought home a VHS tape entitled ‘Embrace.’ I watched in awe as he choreographed a group of people that looked like me.

To maintain communication with my family, my Godfather would often post letters to our home, one of which included a self-made breakdance compilation DVD entitled ‘Stevies Magic Moments.’ The DVD featured segments of Hip Hop Planet 2004— heated breakdance battles between dancers from Europe to as far as Korea. After watching the tape, and despite my age, I remember leaving the room feeling increasingly aware of the cultural differences between myself and my new surroundings.

Two years later, my parents made the decision to separate. My father briefly returned to his family in Birmingham, where my siblings and I would eagerly hop on the train every school holiday to meet him at New Street Station. Despite having little money, he used those short moments as an opportunity to take us to art galleries and a small music production store, then known as Sound Control. He wanted to make sure we stayed entertained and connected to our culture during our visits—something that I remain eternally grateful for.

One particular day, I recall walking into the store and noticed an instrument that intrigued me. Despite having no idea what it was, I felt a connection to the way it looked. As I look back, I realise the technology was an MPC—an instrument that played a significant role in Hip-Hop production and the most pivotal moments of it’s evolution.

On visits we would spend time with our extended family — cousins and our uncles — David and Theo, who, like most teenagers, weren’t often home. Whenever they were, they would bring a loaded Divx player packed with near pristine recordings of US Hip-Hop; East and West Coast, among classic UK heaters at the time. I was captivated by the music, and quickly developed an obsession with understanding how artists created the beats that I was listening to. The process of transforming ideas into a tangible reality was fascinating.

During a high school lesson, I met a close friend, Josh, who shared a similar taste in music. Our conversations inspired me to purchase my first MIDI controller — an entry level emulation of the MPC that allowed me to program samples on my laptop. For personal reasons, I wasn’t able to focus on lessons, so Instead, I spent my evenings at home dedicated to learning how to make Hip-Hop with a trial version of FL Studio.

It was a realisation of a powerful mode of communication—a way to express my feelings and thoughts about my circumstances then, and the society I felt thrown into. It was a journey into music that became far more than a pastime; an essential outlet for me to convey how I felt, beyond words, and helped me to maintain a vulnerable identity.

In the year of leaving school, I was fortunate to begin my journey as a beatmaker during a time when online collaboration emerged. In 2013, I had the privilege of working with fellow producers from around the globe, with some artists operating from studios as far as the USA, Taiwan, and Australia. Then known locally as Auxx, I became a UK affiliate of The Soul Dojo, a beat collective based in California, and later signed to the North American Hip-Hop record label URBNET. Among those I collaborated with were Jusoul, Kidkanevil, Scott Xylo, Conehead (昱升曾), and RU, then associated with the renowned Street Dance Crew, Jabbawockeez. It was a time when the world of Hip-Hop fostered a strong sense of community and support among artists, labels, collectives, and radio shows, which I feel has (to some degree) seemingly disbanded but continues to thrive through new iterations of the movement lived by a new generation.

In October 2020, after my years of study and travel, I made my way back to Leeds to reconnect with my dad, and would often listen to J Dilla, Madlib, and MF Doom to keep my mind distracted from the COVID noise. I was in Harehills at the time, which to be honest, was a difficult area to find solace. Though culturally speaking, I felt even more connected after all those years away.

More recently, I learned that MF Doom had passed away in the hospital just around the corner from where I was staying. I had no idea he was even in the UK at the time. The word had it that he was living near Shadwell with his wife, Jasmine, on return from the US—an unusual but magical discovery that I’ll always look back on as a metaphor for my connection to the genre.

It’s safe to say that the art of sampling, looping, and the pursuit of musical experimentation has been one that continues to breathe life into my existence. When I am asked about my work, I often mention my journey with entities such as BBC Radio 1 and Channel 4. But the truth is, my passion lies in Hip-Hop culture. I am a beatsmith, that still resonates with the same spirit of the 16-year-old, donning baggy jeans, stoned from the night before and diligently sampling Jazz records into my Roland SP404 sampler.

“When you think of “beat” music the immediate connotations that spring to mind include L.A, Flying Lotus, Dabrye, Brainfeeder, HW&W, J Dilla etc etc. – anything associated with the US, basically. So when Louis Sterling aka Auxx got in contact with us, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a UK artist with such a heavy US theme run through his music – something highlighted by his off-beat and experimental tracks – and something immediately brought home by his work with his LA counterparts. I think we were more surprised that Sterling is producing the kind of music he is at his age….” – Thomas Delap, Rhythmist Magazine

Tune in to Louis Sterling’s “50th Anniversary of Hip Hop” Radio Mix