They Hate Change are shaking up hip-hop from Tampa Bay to Peckham

They Hate Change are shaking up hip-hop from Tampa Bay to Peckham

Tracy Kawalik meets the Floridian duo connecting the dots between hyper-local music scenes in the US and UK to create a borderless, future-facing sound.

“We like to experiment a lot and ask ourselves: why not?’” says Dre, one half of the Floridian avant-garde hip-hop duo They Hate Change. “Some of our lyrics consist of these ‘codes’ that might be for another enthusiast who’s into the same stuff that we are – we just want to take time to speak to them and bring them into our world.”

“I think some people read about our influences and how we’re bending everything and expect to hear the craziest, most difficult shit ever,” adds Vonne. “But when you listen, it’s probably the furthest thing from somebody’s idea of ‘experimental rap’ – it just sounds like a really good song. The mixed elements won’t stick out unless you’re hip to the reference points.”

As They Hate Change, the duo beam hard rap through a kaleidoscope of sounds, from their home state’s electronic subgenres to the far-flung corners of drum ’n’ bass, Chicago footwork, post-punk, prog, grime, krautrock and emo. In their ever-expanding sonic universe, anything is fair game. Their critically hyped 2018 album Now, And Never Again pulls influence from Clipse, the B-52s, the Beatles and a spectrum of UK club sounds. On 2022’s Finally, New, Vonne and Dre flex their skillset at maximal levels, delivering profoundly personal and braggadocious bars with pulse-racing flow over Tampa jook, Miami bass and the more surprising sounds of breakbeat and jungle.

"Weirdly, we first heard jungle in 2012 via Ethereal," Vonne laughs, referencing the elusive Atlanta producer's project Car Therapy. “We saw that his genre tag on Bandcamp said 'jungle', but we thought he'd made it up." Their interest ramped up when Dre’s brother-in-law blessed them with a crate of records packed with everything from ShyFX to DJ Zinc and Ram Raiders compilations. "There was a bunch of break records in there etched from scratching,” says Dre. “Hella white labels, dubs and shit. As we dug deeper it was like, ‘oh okay, this is jungle.’" 

From there they began diving into Dillinger, Goldie and underground sounds that powered the UK’s pirate radio stations in the 90s. As they got to grips with jungle’s origins, Vonne suggested rapping over it. “At first I thought 'We can't do this?! It's too fast!’” Dre remembers. “But we sat and wrote verses, and somehow it worked."

Vonne and Dre met at the age of 14 at their apartment complex in Tampa. Vonne was selling Dre bad weed and keeping the last existing neighbourhood youth together via basketball. Dre had recently moved from upstate New York, where he was raised on a diet of mainstream rappers like Jay-Z and Jadakiss, and the city's chief mixtape-makers like DJ Clue, Green Lantern and DJ Envy. Both self-professed “musical omnivores,” they immediately bonded over a shared inexhaustible curiosity and penchant for obscurity. Even now, their friendship is so close it verges on telepathic. They simultaneously burst into laughter telling me how they school each other on the road with Trivia Warfare podcasts and still live for unearthing music the other doesn't know.

"We used to play ball and just talk hella music, sneakers and culture in general," says Vonne, who introduced Dre to underground Florida rappers like Tampa Tony and Tom G.

"We'd find all these little niches and test each other. Like, 'Have you heard the sizzle on this record? Ahh, you heard that, too, huh? Okay, wow, you get it',” Dre adds. “It was cool to meet someone in the south who knew a lot, and Vonne damn near knew more than I did about East Coast music.”

Vonne was already rapping and recording in the studio by the time they met. At the age of 13 he was in with a local collective driven by futuristic swag that eventually ballooned to about 20 rappers across the city. By 15, though, he was ready to sink his teeth into his own sound – and he knew Dre was a next-level tastemaker. "Vonne would come to me asking, ‘This guy online is randomly sending me beats. Check 'em out,” Dre remembers. “So I'm listening like, 'Okay, skip. Okay, this is good. Okay, this is good'. It wasn’t until months later that Vonne told me he was the one making those beats!”

"I told Dre they were somebody else's because I knew some were trash,” Vonne laughs. “But after a bunch of input from him, it became clear that we should be making tracks together.”

They played their first show as They Hate Change in 2015 at the Sunny Fluff Skate Shop in Tampa. From the jump, they gained a reputation and underground clout as the scene’s "hardest live act" – their immaculate flow and synchronised dance steps echoing early Big Daddy Kane, with their style paying homage to Outkast or Tribe Called Quest. “If you look good you play good,” says Vonne, who frames their attention to stylistic detail as a progression of their first conversations geeking about sneakers and fashion history, from the French BCBG era to the Mods to Drake’s on Savile Row. “We’ve always wanted to have some sort of coordination. We think about showmanship, lighting and which colours might pop best on stage. We watch clips from our live shows the same way an athlete reviews film. We look at our placements, how we sound and crowd reactions. We always want to put on our best and give a great show. You can’t expect for people to groove with you if you aren’t moving.”

"If you ask us about the evolution of that live show from the beginning until now, it's more like a revolution. We've come full circle," says Dre. "From that first gig, we were coming out like ‘we gotta show them.’ We had three synthesisers, foot pedals and a Roland SP 404. We were wearing suits and knocking it out!”

“We watch clips from our live shows the same way an athlete reviews film. We look at our placements, how we sound and crowd reactions. We always want to put on our best and give a great show. You can’t expect for people to groove with you if you aren’t moving.”
Vonne, They Hate Change

Over time they added more synth and drum machines to their arsenal, from the Korg MS-20 synthesiser to Akai racks – samplers 90's jungle, drum ’n’ bass and hip-hop producers used. "Everything sounded loud. We just wanted to wash everyone away in synths, and we performed that way too,” Vonne reflects. They played literally anywhere they could to cut their teeth – “at every venue, every fake venue, house party, skate shop, and art gallery.”

Everything changed with a DJ gig on a friend’s patio in 2016. They packed the wildest and deepest cuts from their sprawling collections into one set and blew people's minds, setting They Hate Change on the path towards the singular sound they own today. “Up until that point, we had joints, but those were just sitting on our computer,” Vonne explains. “We've never been the studio rats. We were just so geek'd off performing live and making songs without putting them out, but seeing the peoples reaction at that DJ set hit like, maybe we do have to actually record them.”

Harnessing the energy of that DJ set, they set about perfecting it on stage and in the studio. After years of hitting up music publications and indie labels and hearing nothing back, they eventually kicked the walls down. In 2021 they inked a deal with lauded indie label Jagjaguwar, popped up on ‘ones to watch’ lists, and their eclecticism has since seen them support acts as varied as Doom collaborators The Avalanches, experimental Arizona hip-hop group Injury Reserve and South London post-punks Shame. Woven together by banter and vocal screeching from years of playing shows alongside deeply personal references, Finally, New is a magnum opus of Vonne and Dre's talents as wordsmiths, producers and shapeshifters – full of synth-laden sound storms, rib-rattling drum ‘n’ bass and lush 80s keys.

"Whether it's the first time people are hearing us or the last, we had to stamp it on Finally, New in the purest form so people understand what we've been doing," Dre lights up. "We didn't want to be rapping your head off for the whole album. If you can do that in reggae or prog-rock, why can't we do that in hip-hop? We wanted listeners to take a minute and listen for a second; they might hear something.”

On “Somedays I Hate My Voice”, a speaker-knocking ode to androgynous gender euphoria, Vonne (who is genderfluid) namedrops punk icon Poly Styrene and pays homage to Jackie Shane and 100 gecs whilst articulating their queerness in 3D, seeking neither pity nor praise. Meanwhile, Dre pens a humble ode to his come up on “Little Brother” – a track he also credits to being his proudest and most personal, for helping open up his connection to his family. So far, both songs have only been performed live once.

“Writing those songs definitely has an element of cathartic release. Sometimes stuff is so deep that you can’t say it, so as an artist you find another medium to express it,” Dre explains. “It also helped even the two of us connect more. When I heard Vonne’s tracks it was like, ‘Yo man, my friend was feeling that way, or going through that?’ – and hopefully people going through similar things in their life that are difficult to express can see themselves in the music.”

Elsewhere, there are strings of tributes in their music for fellow heads to unravel. MC SARGE (responsible for teaching Vonne to rap) features on “1000 Horses”, “Coded Language (Interlude)” and “From the Floor” nod to techno giants Carl Craig and Theo Parrish, and Pitchfork lauded their five-minute instrumental “Perm” as “their version of a Schematic record.” "We started making tracks back in 2010. Not to make things sound less impressive or whatever, but the reason you hear Finally, New and are like, ‘Wow, this is good,’ is because it's not the first time we’ve done this,” says Vonne, adding, with a wink: “With the next one, we can really go crazy."

“We didn't want to be rapping your head off for the whole album. If you can do that in reggae or prog-rock, why can't we do that in hip-hop? We wanted listeners to take a minute and listen for a second; they might hear something.”
Dre, They Hate Change

Half a year on from their first UK headline at Peckham Audio in March, Dre and Vonne are back in the UK gearing up for an intimate basement gig at Third Man Records in London and a DJ set at Spiritland packed with special guests before rounding off with a set at End of the Road. In typical They Hate Change fashion, they’re coming in hot at the end of a busy summer. They’ve torn festival stages apart, become “New Class Members” of the Recording Academy/Grammy’s voters committee, and released “stunt (when I see u)” – a glitching, woozy beat equipped with spitfire verses and shoutouts to Lucy Dacus and Boy Better Know, and their first release since Finally, New.

“This track is our mantra in a way. A reminder to ourselves to show what we are capable of when others seem to doubt or discredit things we’ve done,” Dre and Vonne say defiantly. “We had this hair-brain scheme to mix all the sounds we love together, and it worked. We’re going to continue to do what we do and that’s CHANGE!”

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