The Dream of the ’90s Is Alive in Rat Boy’s Punk Rock
CHELMSFORD, England — On a farm 15 minutes north of downtown Chelmsford, a smallish Essex commuter city 30 minutes by train from London, Jordan Cardy has begun turning his 1990s dreams into reality.
A couple of months ago, the 22-year-old musician who records as Rat Boy rented a huge empty warehouse a short walk to a lovely little stream and a slightly longer walk to a small black sign leaning against a decayed wall that reads FARM TOILET. Here, slowly, he, his father, and brother have been building out the raw space into a place — inspired by the Beastie Boys’ old G-Son Studios in Los Angeles — where he can work, and also play.
A few days before Christmas, it was mostly empty save for a roughly fashioned studio. On one wall was a Public Enemy “Fear of a Black Planet” poster. On a shelf was an autographed vinyl copy of the Beastie Boys’ “Hello Nasty.” On the center table, an old issue of the Beasties’ publication Grand Royal and some obscure graffiti magazines. Up against the wall, a small-scale screen printing rig and several of Cardy’s ghoulishly realistic illustrations. Sitting on a pallet under a blanket was an Amek Einstein console, the same kind that the Dust Brothers used to work on, that Cardy bought for about 6,000 pounds on the internet from Peru. It’s the most money he’s ever spent on anything, he said, but he still wasn’t sure it worked.
This month Cardy will release the second Rat Boy album, “Internationally Unknown,” a high-energy collision of punk convulsion and hip-hop storytelling full of raucously fun, sharp-tongued songs about slackerdom, resistance and disorderly joy. It’s shaped by late 1970s punk with flickers of dub, nods to 1990s hip-hop (and also the early 2000s English rapper the Streets), and embraces the musical exuberance of 2000s pop-punk.
Which is to say, it is an extremely of-the-moment amalgam, refusing to draw distinctions between genres. It’s also part of a long continuum of British punk that looks for kinship in black music and part of a wider re-engagement with the 1990s as source material.
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The 1990s are the leading touchstone for Cardy, who has studied the era with loving devotion and built a specific, refined aesthetic from it: “It’s a bunch of people that are around my age making something for themselves. I love the way stuff looks — making their own magazines, the music, being motivated to put stuff out,” he said, slumped in a chair wearing a Supreme bottle cap T-shirt, his hair pink and scraggly. “They did everything right, but did they know they were doing it right?”
“I kind of see Jordan as the nexus of what was happening in the ’90s when punk and hip-hop were blowing up,” said Brett Gurewitz, the founder and chief executive of Epitaph Records, which is releasing “Internationally Unknown” via its Hellcat imprint. “Rat Boy is the embodiment of that time.”
Similarly, Cardy, too, has been figuring things out by trial and error. For a young person gravitating toward art and music, Chelmsford — he grew up in this city of around 100,000, and hasn’t lived elsewhere — was an unremarkable place to be. Mostly, Cardy hung out with friends at the city’s lone skate park. When he became curious about music, YouTube was his university. “I used to watch thousands of videos,” he said.
Cardy’s natural artistic curiosity was buttressed by a creeping sense of outsiderness. “When I was in school when I was a kid, I did feel like there were not, like, people that were into the same stuff,” he said. “Everyone was into what was happening around here, and I’m just liking [expletive] that happened 20 years ago.”
He became increasingly inspired after seeing the early success of King Krule, the London singer and songwriter who, in the early 2010s, when he was still a teenager, broke through with a fascinating punk-jazz hybrid: “It really motivated me to see someone like that doing it at that age.”
When Cardy finally began posting his self-produced songs to SoundCloud, he began emailing the links as widely as he could. One of the first people in the music business he met was Drew McConnell, who plays bass in the British band Babyshambles (which is fronted by Pete Doherty) and was introduced to Cardy’s music by an intern at his publishing company. Before long, McConnell was setting up management and label meetings for Cardy, who was sleeping on his sofa.
“He had obviously listened to a lot of records,” McConnell said. “The way he would sing would remind me of Elvis Costello, or Robert Smith from the Cure. But at the same time he’s a huge hip-hop fan.”
Cardy signed to Parlophone — home to Babyshambles and also Coldplay — and began working on his first album, “Scum,” a loose and exciting collection of songs that range from punk to dub to hip-hop. (An early version of one of them was sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s “Lust,” from his 2017 album “DAMN.”)
“That’s what I thought a first record is, I thought like it’s all over the place,” Cardy said. “It was just guessing.” On the album’s deluxe version, the songs are interwoven with skits, in part because Cardy felt like the songs themselves didn’t tell a consistent story.
“When the record was done it was kind of like, ‘You need to have a single’ at the end,” he said. And while he obliged, “I released two songs as singles that are [expletive] in my opinion, trying to write a pop song.”
McConnell joked that a mainstream record label signing Cardy was like the government capturing a disruptive hacker “and being like, ‘you work for us now.’”
For his second album, Cardy knew he wanted to tell a more consistent story, and was introduced to Tim Armstrong, of the California street-punk legends Operation Ivy and Rancid and the punk-hip-hop hybrid pioneers Transplants, and also Gurewitz’s partner in Hellcat. When they first spoke on the phone, the first thing they agreed on was tempo: 170 bpm, fast enough for punk mayhem but also, at half time, a comfortable in-the-pocket pace for rapping.
Cardy went to Los Angeles and spent six weeks working with Armstrong at the Boat, once the studio of the Dust Brothers. (John King of the Dust Brothers also worked on the new album.) They recorded live takes, then chopped up and sampled the results. The guitars are hard-charging and dirty, and the rapping and singing is delivered with a blend of sneer and ennui: On “I Wanna Skate,” he’s yelling in the most casual manner, “You want it now? I wanna wait!/You want a Benz? I wanna skate!”
In person, Cardy is gentle and soft-edged. But on both his first and second records, his attitude is consistent: a permanently extended middle finger to authority, and a robust sense of working class agitation. His best songwriting is in a narrative style that he learned listening to hip-hop: Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” Prince Paul’s “A Prince Among Thieves,” Too Short.
AFTER TALKING FOR a while in his new studio, Cardy hopped in a van driven by his guitar tech, Tuck. (Chelmsford is a small enough city that it was Tuck who sold 12-year-old Cardy his first guitar.) They headed over to Cardy’s family’s house, where the yard overflowed with half-finished projects belonging to his dad, Brett, who does fabrication work on automobiles and other vehicles.
It was Brett who introduced a 6-year-old Cardy to the first Transplants album. And it was Brett’s example of making something from nothing that Cardy identifies as the germ of his own D.I.Y. instincts.
Until he was around 18, Cardy assumed he’d become a graphic designer, or maybe a tattoo artist. Some of his earliest art — inspired by the cars his father worked on, and the ones they raced on weekends — was in the style of Ed Roth, the hot rod artist. When he was young, art and music were always commingled; he’d have Myspace pages for bands with song art but no songs. He still does all the artwork for his projects — “I always thought you do everything yourself,” he said — films wild CKY-style videos with his friends, and also has a budding streetwear line, Scum.
His father wasn’t home, so Cardy arranged to meet him at the local garage where he was working for the day. On the way, he pointed out a lone Rat Boy graffiti tag on the back of a road sign near a roundabout. A few minutes later he found his father jawing away with a couple of car-customizer friends.
Brett is salty, profane, thick-skinned — a bruiser to Cardy’s anxious artist. But Brett also supports Cardy’s flights of creative fancy. The Burberry tartan-painted car from Cardy’s early music videos was done by Brett (and part of it is in Cardy’s warehouse, along with some other vehicles Brett chopped-and-remixed).
Their conversation was amiable, a little punchy. Cardy recalled how Brett never pushed him to pursue things he didn’t feel strongly about, like schoolwork: “It’s always been, like, do what you want to do.” They spoke about Cardy’s music and the unlikeliness of his performance intensity, joked about living in close quarters and celebrated hating authority. Recalling when Cardy was first learning to race cars, Brett explained his hands-off parenting philosophy, which felt like the foundation for all of Cardy’s subsequent life choices.
“Just let him crash,” Brett said. “He ain’t going to do it twice.”