Nightmares On Wax – A Word Of Science

Nightmares On Wax - A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter

(Warp: 1991)

Tucked away in the shadowy early years of Warp Records' long and winding history, you'll find the debut album by trip hop stalwarts Nightmares On Wax. Originally a duo of George Evelyn and Kevin Harper (aka EASE and Boy Wonder), NOW emerged from the rough-n-ready world of the late-eighties U.K. rave scene, where they made waves spinning at Leeds venues like the Warehouse and Downbeat (the latter of which the duo actually ran themselves). They played a mix of dance music, jazz, soul, hip hop and electro, in keeping with the gloriously omnivorous spirit of the times. EASE quips No segregation in music back then, anything goes!.1

A Word Of Science is suffused with that same anything goes spirit. It's an utterly original record that blends the post-disco sounds of electro, house and hip hop into the sonic equivalent of wildstyle graffiti, its fifteen skeletal tunes belie their spartan nature as they deliriously careen through dazzling, kaleidoscopic terrain. In his breakbeat primer Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide, Peter Shapiro rightly singles this record out for praise, calling it the kind of album we'll probably never hear again as it's so full of the innocent joy everyone's scared to show in this age of ludicrous image-consciousness and po-faced taste-makers2... and that was written nearly twenty years ago.

Certainly straight hip hop tracks like Mega Donutz and How Ya Doin' stand out as hopelessly charming romps, overflowing with a youthful enthusiasm and the optimistic spirit of the times. The rolling Mega Donutz finds MC Tozz 180 recounting the group's history, while How Ya Doin' is essentially a signing-off track, its loping jazz funk beats filled with shout outs to the likes of LFO and Zulu Nation. Both tunes are quintessential U.K. hip hop - coming on like a blunted Shut Up And Dance in rap mode - offering an open-hearted counterpoint to the remainder of the record, which is an unabashedly minimal and moody affair.

The thoroughly smoked-out vibes of Nights Interlude kick the record off with a laidback downbeat rumination sourced in Quincy Jones' Summer In The City3, laying the blueprint for a decade of languid downbeat splendor in the process (and also commencing NOW's own series of Nights excursions). A significant portion of the album trades in downtempo beat collage just as Massive Attack were laying down the gauntlet with their epoch-defining Blue Lines, with the x-ray hip hop of Back Into Time and Playtime sounding like New York beats stretched out in skeletal slow motion. Elsewhere, E.A.S.E. rides a baroque keyboard arrangement over click-clacking typewriter beats. These tracks are crucial early incursions of what would come to be labelled trip hop, even if they would be improved on sharply by NOW with later records like Smoker's Delight and Carboot Soul.

However, A Word Of Science has something those later albums do not: the maddening electronic grooves of its remaining nine tracks, which stretch the pulse of contemporary bleep 'n bass into unexpected shapes and curious rhythms. Crudely put, bleep 'n bass was the British rave sound that immediately preceded ardkore: sourced in U.S. (particularily New York) house and techno, but with an added bass pressure informed by U.K. soundsystem culture. You'd typically get these great brittle, treble-tweaking shards of sound cutting across a booming bottom end, these blank-eyed droning rhythms dished out by crews like Unique 3, Ital Rockers and the Forgemasters.

Warp Records, now a giant in the world of electronic music - particularily of the ambient, experimental variety - got its start caning this sound, with records like Sweet Exorcist's Testone, the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and LFO's LFO. Warp released the epoch-defining debut album by bleep 'n bass luminaries LFO - who enjoy a reputation as something like the Kraftwerk of British techno - in the summer of 1991, with NOW's debut hot on its heels a couple months later.4 Interestingly, these two LPs were the first single-artist, full-length albums to come out on Warp.5, 6

In the austere company of the rest of the early Warp stable, A Word Of Science stands out by virtue of its blunted, hip hop-inflected edges shot through with a rough-hewn, homespun charm. Once again, Peter Shapiro nails it when he says Nightmares On Wax saw Techno as an outgrowth of the funk and hip-hop scenes and approached it with a herbalist's mindset.7 The rolling discoid groove of A Case Of Funk, with that massive geometric bassline riding up against the sides of its percussion loops like a tire on the curb, betrays the duos love of vintage funk with its strikingly organic take on New York house music. In soon-to-be familiar British twist, you can hear the x-factor of that implied breakbeat snaking its way through the rhythm.

Aftermath, a 12" smash from the year prior, famously set this equation in stone, looping a sample of Cuba Gooding Sr. to maddening heights against a backdrop of droning vocals, speaker-shredding hihats, rolling percussion, the occasional electronic flourish and a bassline rising up deep from within. Similar magic is wrought from Biofeedback, with the N.Y.C. Peech Boys sample intoning the track's title over a loping bassline, stop-start percussion loops and a nagging refrain seemingly played on an out-of-tune keyboard.

Dextrous - taken from a 12" released way back in 1989 - represents this sound at its most minimal, riding some detuned synth tones over a spartan rhythm matrix as eerie chords loom on the horizon. It's all so artlessly constructed, yet it truly gets to the heart of the whole machine music enterprise, as if Kraftwerk had surfaced, delirious, at a Leeds warehouse party. The brittle textures of Fun are cut from the same cloth, recalling eighties electro at its most dessicated, while Coming Down (a personal favorite) rides an ultra-repetitive, stop-start and rewind groove that captures the feeling of a helicopter hovering on the horizon as it rises and falls on currents of air. Sal Batardes is yet another crisp, electro-inflected endeavor, with ringing percussion figures that seem to recall the atmosphere of The Imperial Brothers' We Come To Dub. The two-minute sketch B.W.T.M. splits the difference between both sides of the record, running its trilling electro percussion and looped vocal snatches at a downtempo pace.

This is just the sort of record that would have been described as dated in the trend-conscious climate of the late-nineties (when I first heard it), but - like much of my favorite slightly-older music that I scooped up at the time (think Bobby Konders and Todd Terry) - it sounds fresher than ever in the present day. Where most of the big room anthems of that era have by now lost their luster - the overblown sheen rendered absurd by the passage of time - this tough little record really gets down to the heart of the matter, its skeletal rhythm matrix haunted by hieroglyphic ghosts of Sheffield, Detroit and The Bronx, drifting in and out of focus all the time. To borrow the title of their next album, it's a true Smoker's Delight!


1. Nightmares On Wax - DJ-Kicks (Liner Notes)
2. Peter Shapiro, Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide (Penguin, 1999), 322.
3. Quite possibly before anyone else thought to (see also The Pharcyde's Passin' Me By and Peanut Butter Wolf's Run The Line).
4. Bringing to mind SST's issuing of two stone-tablet double albums, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickles On The Dime mere months from one another in a blitzkrieg of overwhelming talent and ambition, two massively talented groups egging each other on.
5. All of this just before Warp redrew the parameters with their Artificial Intelligence series and began to focus on ambient electronica at the album level.
6. Also interesting to note that Nightmares On Wax are the longest serving artist on Warp's roster.
7. Peter Shapiro, Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide (Penguin, 1999), 320.

Soul Machine

I recall wandering the vast corridors on an indoor mall only to find a record shop nestled in one of its murky corners. Two separate instances swell from the ocean of memory to overlap: the first was some time ago in the tropics of Camuy on the north side of Puerto Rico, while the second came more recently in the sun-baked heat of Palm Desert. 12" disco dubs in the mall's casual spaces, Jark Prongo records and Dimitri From Paris way back when and Ronnie Laws and Bowie's David Live nestled in the stacks. It brings to mind summer of '98 up in the Bay Area, nights at Mushroom Jazz and long afternoons on the pier. Beginnings at an errant house party, Chicago and The Bucketheads - Street sounds swirling though my mind - with the steaming percussion of Fela Kuti in the mix.

Cut adrift in the dog days after disco had died, in retrospect a golden age when the dancefloor was suffused with the deep dubbed-out flavor of island sounds. It turned out that you couldn't kill it after all, no matter how hard you tried, it lived on in the electroid boogie of D-Train's You're The One For Me and the tropical slow-burning post-disco mirage that had begun to take shape. Wild shapes permeated Larry Levan's lush sonics at The Paradise Garage, the gulf stream drift of Eddy Grant and Grace Jones setting the stage, with Compass Point and the All Stars fleshing it out into four dimensions. The masterful fourth world Juju Music of King Sunny Adé & His African Beats and Tony Allen's Afrobeat 2000 excursion rubbing shoulders with Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts launched it all into the outerrim.

Wally Badarou's shimmering synths flow through it all at low tide, from Echoes in 1985 through Jamie Principle and Larry Heard's early sides on into Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and beyond - the Nu Groove flavor (Here Comes That Sound Again). Scores of moody 12" records blur the lines between deep house, downbeat hip hop, rave and dub reggae, while a secluded path drops out into Bristol, stretching from Carlton to Massive Attack and a whole new decade on the rise.

The low-slung flavor of The Brothers Palmieri and Harlem River Drive flows just below the surface all along, and the sampladelia laid out by Marley Marl, Prince Paul and The Dust Brothers brings it back into the foreground, mirroring those earlier incursions of low-slung, sun-baked riddims in the era of the breakbeat. Countless groups and their records heed the call, filling out the shoes of Nuggets for the nineties. Perhaps the likes of B.A.D. and Neneh Cherry were the bridge between the twin poles, along with myriad other elements thrown into the blend (as is so often the case).

At any rate it's been there all the time, surfing below the surface like the Vertigo Steel out in Lakeside, representing all the discos that could have been. Multi-colored lights flash against mahogany brown, mirrorball spins in slow-motion to the throbbing pulse of Moroder's tronik disco. The skeletal strains of Morgan Geist's Moves EP and the psychedelic filter disco of Kenny Dixon Jr.'s Silentintroduction bridge the gulf of twenty-odd years, and the raw chicago sonix of Steve Poindexter and DJ Skull get down and dirty with a hard-edged magic all their own. Old Reese records like The Sound and Just Want Another Chance lay the bedrock, Tronik House's Smooth Groove and E-Dancer's The Human Bond too, while Todd Terry's blinding 12" slabs of noise are never far from the turntables.

On the road again in the space between dances, rolling low to the pavement in a little brown Dodge Colt and bumping the sounds of Beck's Deadweight, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator and The Egyptian Lover's My Beat Goes Boom - 808 beats banging through the vehicle walls down into the steaming asphalt of Mission Gorge Rd. in the blazing heat. Modern Funk Beats soundclash featuring the blurred edges of If Mojo Was A.M. and Carl Craig's skewed take on hip hop. People Make The World Go Round. Nothing wrong with a little history in those grooves, passed down through the years and picking up 'nuff flavor along the way.

Between the proto-hip hop beats of The Meters and Chic's lush disco grooves lies a galaxy of sound; betwixt Gwen Guthrie's neon-spangled shapes and the dusted beats of Cypress Hill lies a lifetime. The blunted corners of those Soul Machine EPs seem to split the difference between the two, spooling out their various strands into a fatback beat before unfurling back again, out into the möbius of time... there's more to come when they inevitably return.

’45

It's 4/5. '45. Little slabs of sunlight cut on seven inches of wax. From rock 'n roll to roots reggae and post punk to soul, it was the great equalizer: the domain where the upstart musician could go toe to to with the stars. Of course some of the biggest names were masters of the form - look no further than The Beatles' and The Stones' killer run of singles through the sixties for just one example - tucking away stellar tracks on the flip that wouldn't show up anywhere else for years, but figures like The International Submarine Band and The Del-Vetts would come out of nowhere with records like Sum Up Broke and Last Time Around and drop heat of their own. Although it would increasingly lean on the LP format in years to come, rock 'n roll was born on the 7" single.

If there was one genre that dominated the form, then surely it must have been reggae. From the Wailing Souls' Without You to Augustus Pablo's East Of The River Nile and Zap Pow's River Stone, there was a practically endless stream of brilliant 7" singles flowing from Jamaica for decades on end.

The other obvious contender is the soul/funk continuum, boasting James Brown's run of People Records (not to mention his own records!) and Sly Stone's genre-defining rubbing shoulders with The Beginning Of The End's Funky Nassau and Dark Skin Woman by Sir Mack Rice. This isn't even taking into account the winding catalogs of Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International.

Post punk had it's own horde of stone tablets like the five-pronged attack of electronic records coming from the likes of The Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer, The Normal and Cabaret Voltaire. The flipside was twisted records like The Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good And Evil, PIL's Public Image and the Minutemen's Paranoid Time (indeed, this the era that you'd get loads of 7" records that were essentially micro-LPs, records like Minor Threat and the Meat Puppets' In A Car).

In the nineties you had things like Beck's Deadweight come out on 7" (and why couldn't White Gold have been the b-side to The Dandy Warhols' Get Off like it was on the CD?). There were loads of records that would have lent themselves to the format, even if they never did surface. Records like Roller Rinks & Chicks by Freddy Fresh, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator, The Orb's 7" Edit of Toxygene... practically any of the dusted records of the era would have lent themselves to the form.

In the digital era, a lot of exclusively 7" music finally found its way onto other formats, via expanded reissues or compilations like the Nuggets box sets. Labels like Strut and Soul Jazz chronicled entire genres/scenes around the 7" single, breathing new life into the form. And there's still nothing quite like a good b-sides collection...