The Mitchell Brothers, British rap’s forgotten duo

The Mitchell Brothers, British rap’s forgotten duo

Geezers with skills — In the early noughties, Owura “Tony” Nyanin and Kofi “Teddy” Hanson were signed to Mike Skinner’s label and two of the UK’s most influential MCs – then they disappeared. Now reunited over a decade later, the pair say the world wasn’t ready for them.

The story borders on urban myth. And not all of it is true. The Mitchell Brothers, aka the ‘Geezers with skills’: two British-Ghanaian cousins (not brothers), who went by the names of Teddy and Tony Mitchell, and carried themselves with all the cockney swagger of their Eastenders namesakes. 

Teddy and Tony – real names Kofi Hanson and Owura Nyani – began rolling with The Streets in the mid-noughties after the former spotted Mike Skinner in a bank and gave him a CD. In 2005, they made ‘Routine Check’, the best critique of racist policing in Britain since Smiley Culture’s ‘Police Officer’. For a short period, they mixed with celebrity class of that era, even gracing the podium at the Brits. Then they disappeared. 

Today, they’re here to discuss what happened. Our conversation comes with the release of new music – their first in years – in the form of ‘Routine Check 2.0’, produced by UK funky pioneers iLL BLU and featuring Brixton MC Sneakbo. There’s also a documentary featuring interviews with a range of Black Brits who recount experiences described in the original song. 

But to tell the full story, you have to start at the beginning. Before ‘Routine Check’, before they’d met Mike Skinner and long before they’d tasted fame, Teddy and Tony grew up together in Essex. The two were born nine days apart and remained largely inseparable. At 21, they recorded some music in the bedroom of their friend Michael Asante (aka Mikey J), who would go on to produce several records for Kano. They made Sorted, a mixtape of hip-hop jams, ingenious skits, and British takes on American hip hop anthems such as Clipse’s ‘Grindin’’ and OutKast’s ‘Ms Jackson’ (“This goes out to all my geezers… and all my geezers’ geezers…”). 

It was brilliant, but no more than a hobby, something to keep them busy while their friends were “running the streets, getting up to mischief”. They pressed a thousand CDs and handed them out at clubs. It never made it onto streaming sites, but reached fans all over Britain via MySpace. “It was when 50 Cent was on his whole ascension, taking people’s songs and doing his own versions,” Teddy says. “So we did the same thing.” 

But their admiration for American rap only went so far. “People weren’t necessarily pushing the… Britishness,” says Tony. There was one notable exception, an album they’d heard on rotation in another cousin’s car, a collection of blokey musings over post-garage bedroom production: Original Pirate Material, The Streets’ debut. “It was probably the best UK album I had listened to,” says Tony. “People were rapping, but he did it differently. I was like, ‘We need to meet him.’” 

Then they did. Teddy was in a bank, depositing some cash for his mum, when he spotted a familiar face. According to legend (and several newspaper interviews from the time), his next move was to slip their mixtape into Skinner’s bag without him noticing. “People have heard it was a reverse pickpocket,” Teddy says. “But it wasn’t that. I literally gave Mike the CD. That was probably PR spin.” They didn’t make it up themselves? “Nah, nah, nah,” they both protest, giggling. 

Of the two, Tony talks more, answering questions in winding Cockney diatribes, with Teddy interrupting to correct his cousin’s inaccuracies or laugh at his choice of words. Our conversations lasts for an hour and a half, the two of them bickering over the finer details of their glory days for what sounds like the first time in years. 

Those glory days began like this. Skinner called Teddy back. He loved their music. They made plans to link up, but then Teddy lost his phone, leaving him with no way of contacting the Streets man. Absurdly, two weeks later he bumped into him again, on a train. Skinner confessed he’d lost Teddy’s number too. This time it stuck. 

Skinner signed the Mitchells to The Beats, his short-lived record label. Teddy provided the raucous chorus to The Streets’ ‘Fit But You Know It’, an anthemic single about sharking for women on a lads’ holiday. In 2005 they went to the Brits. Sharon Osbourne pinched Tony’s bum, while the tabloids reported seeing him with someone from the Sugababes, or All Saints (or “some girl that was in that Popworld thing”). Skinner won Best Male Solo Artist, but was unable to accept the award. In his autobiography he says he’d gone home early. 

“Nah, he never went home, mate,” says Teddy with a snigger. “He was… doing his makeup in a cubicle and er… ha! It went a bit wrong, so yeah, he couldn’t come out.” The Mitchells accepted the award in Skinner’s place. 

Then came ‘Routine Check’, featuring Skinner and Kano. Over Skinner’s grimey production, Teddy and Tony rapped with piercing humour about being pulled over by police: “It seems like you routinely check any yutes in jeans and creps,” went the hook. It went to number 42 on the UK chart.

Back then, it was exactly what the UK scene was missing. “That was Channel U days, it stood out to me as I could relate,” remembers Sneakbo. “‘It was relevant 16 years ago and is still relevant now.” iLL BLU’s James and Darius were finishing college when it came out. “By this point I had been stopped by police,” says James. “I was like this is true. This happens.” 

The Mitchells’ debut album A Breath of Fresh Attire followed, full of social critique and Streets beats. They started getting recognised in public. “It was the flat caps,” Teddy says. “And our voices,” adds Tony. Then, with a second LP in the works, Warner announced plans to stop funding The Beats, effectively meaning the Mitchells would be dropped. “That was pretty a hard thing to take,” says Tony. “So I went into hustle mode. I was on MySpace, I said, ‘Eff it, let me just message Calvin Harris.’” 

Harris was then a bubbling producer and singer with one album and two top-10 singles to his name. To Tony’s surprise, he replied, keen to collaborate on a poppy, unreleased Mitchells song called ‘Michael Jackson’. Next thing, Harris was playing it while standing in on Pete Tong’s Radio 1 show. “I wish I could dance like Michael Jackson,” went the chorus. Annie Mac said it could be a number one. 

But, in what was then a potential death sentence for a pop single, it never made it onto Radio 1’s playlist. “All it had to be was listed,” says Tony. “We’re all sitting there waiting. We’ve got a song with Calvin Harris, called Michael Jackson! And I don’t care what anyone says: if there was anyone you wanted to dance like when you were that age, Michael Jackson hands down is that man. Not erm… what’s that song that American group came out with? Dance like Jagger?” 

He’s not done: “I’ll be honest with you, I was livid. For that song not to receive support from Radio 1 made me feel like something’s happened there. Someone behind the scenes didn’t want this to-” 

“- I know but,” Teddy interrupts, laughing. “That’s neither here nor there bruv.”  

“Nah bro, I’m just keeping it real,” Tony again. “That time was nuts to me.”

“Spilt milk and all that.” 

“Nah come on, it’s not about spilt milk. I could care less! I’m just saying: sometimes you look at things like, ‘Are the boxes ticked?’ I’m like, ‘Okay, they’re ticked now. Now can you give us the listing that we truly deserve?’ And they didn’t give it to us. But let’s just say… that could have been anyone. I’m gonna leave it at that. That could have been an-y-one. You read into that as much as you can.” 

An anti-Mitchells agenda?

“I wouldn’t say that,” Teddy answers. “I wouldn’t anyway, because-”

Tony cuts in: “You know what, yeah, I wouldn’t say there was, because there’s people we met within the industry that liked what we was doing. But at the same time I don’t think we received the same type of support that, let’s say, another artist did.” 

He may not mean anyone in particular, but it’s hard not to compare the Mitchell Brothers to the two other rappers who signed to The Beats: Professor Green and Example, who both became platinum-selling pop stars. Mike Skinner has cited “socioeconomic reasons” for the differing fortunes of his two white signees and the Mitchells. Do they agree?

“At that time yeah,” says Teddy. “There was a lot of gatekeepers and red tape. Now it’s people literally rolling out of bed, making songs, uploading it and it’s going crazy. Back then you had to tick all the boxes, get it sent over to this person, go through the panel for playlist…”

“Had Mike signed us three years ago, it would have been amazing,” says Tony. “But if I’m gonna be honest, people weren’t ready. People weren’t ready for our style of music.” 

However, the following summer, Dizzee Rascal released ‘Dance Wiv Me’, a collaboration with Calvin Harris and the rapper’s first number one. In an interview last year, Dizzee remembered seeing Harris’ ‘Acceptable in the 80s’ on TV and wondering if it would work with an MC. “Then he made another song with the Mitchell Brothers,” Dizzee said. “That’s when I said ‘Yeah, you can rap on these songs.’”

British rap entered a new era, with just about everyone making electro-pop singles like ‘Michael Jackson’. The Mitchells released their second album Dressed for the Occasion, but Warner soon lost interest and they effectively split. Tony went solo. He and Teddy stopped talking. He was occasionally asked to perform Mitchell Brothers songs on his own, but always refused. Teddy, meanwhile, left music altogether, spending four years studying the Knowledge and becoming a black cab driver. Throughout the 2010s the cousins rarely saw each other outside family events. 

There were always half-hearted whispers of a reunion. Teddy bumped into grime pioneer Jammer, who asked if they might consider a ‘Routine Check’ remix. Nothing came of it. Then, in May of last year, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. “And then it just happened,” says Tony. “Like the whole situation, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor… it struck a chord all over the world.”

Finally, the pair hashed out their differences and got back in the studio together. A mutual friend contacted iLL BLU, who agreed instantly. They produced a dark, chilling drill beat. “We wanted it to sound like a protest,” says Darius. James adds: “We were putting our frustration in the instrumental and they were putting their frustration in the verses.” Sneakbo, whose own issues with police are well documented, raps in his verse: “Put us in cuffs, knee on my neck / RIP George, tell me who’s next.

They say they’re back for good now, with an EP to come and maybe more after that. Is racism in Britain better or worse now than when the first ‘Routine Check’ came out? “To be honest I think it’s probably worse,” says Teddy, noting increasing tension between the police and Black communities. But they both agree that the Black Lives Matters protests that followed George Floyd’s murder jave left them with a sense of pride. Tony was there at the marches in London last summer. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN ROUTINE CHECK?” read his sign. 

Why the Mitchell Brothers never reached national treasure status is hard to say. Maybe they were victims of an industry plagued by the prejudice they themselves railed against, where countless talented Black musicians were forced to compete for a few limited spaces. Or maybe they were simply ahead of their time. Returning in a vastly different era, ‘Routine Check 2.0’ is a reminder of how little progress has been made since the 2000s. But with Teddy and Tony still bickering, still cracking each other up, and still as British as the Queen Vic, the culture is better with them back together. 

Follow Sam Davies on Twitter.

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