Whale – Four Big Speakers (12″ Promo)

The last of the three “bargain bin 12"s”, and possibly my favorite, an apposite example of this whole “dusted” thing I've been mapping out the contours to lately (we're still riding that roller coaster). Existing in those same shadowy chambers as Original Fire and Becoming X, this 12" brings together the two best tracks from Whale’s second (and final) album All Disco Dance Must End In Broken Bones. Both tunes get pulled to pieces and scattered like fiber optic light through spirals of inter-city circuitry, pulsing through the system to leave nodes gleaming in the ultraviolet glow of the moonlight.

Whale All Disco Dance Must End In Broken Bones Hut

So what's the story with Whale, you ask? In the critical consensus of the day, Whale were seen as also-rans, another torch song unit picking up the thread left by trip hop pioneers Massive Attack, Tricky, and Portishead. Think Sneaker Pimps. Now, with the benefit of hindsight (and truth be told, even without it), it's fairly clear that both acts were on to something else entirely, closer to the alt-damaged sounds of Garbage, Curve, or even Luscious Jackson than the Bristol blues as defined by Smith & Mighty. How much either of these acts actually borrowed from their antecedents is up for debate, but the laziness of music journalists certainly isn't.

A rare promo shot of Whale, encapsulating the casual meta-cool of their time.
Whale chill out at the axis of the '90s.

Indeed, I'd argue there's far more Flying Lizards in Whale’s music than Tosca or Cypress Hill, with an undeniable sense of post-modern deconstruction brought to bear on their mash up of big beats and radio-ready alt rock. Whale emerged from mid-decade Sweden, where they'd been plying their sound since the early nineties, releasing Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe in 1993 and then their debut full-length We Care two years later (notably, Tricky appears on no less than three tracks). The sophomore All Disco Dance Must End In Broken Bones followed three years later, largely continuing the themes they'd explored on the debut. Truth be told, these albums are solid enough pop in the '90s vein, but neither one hits the decks very often... but this little promo is as close to my heart as nearly anything from the era.

Whale featuring Bus75 Four Big Speakers (12" Promo)

(Virgin: 1998)

The key to this record — as with countless 12"s since the form emerged in the mid-seventies — is the remix, and the assemblage of parties involved is where the magic happens. Like the scene in the movie where the crew is first assembled, the figures file into the room to the strains of carefully-curated feedback and a rolling breakbeat: the big beat purveyor from Brighton Cut La Roc), the hot new underground rapper and producer pair from Brooklyn Mos Def and Shawn J Period, respectively), the weird British bedroom electronica auteur (Mike Paradinas aka µ-Ziq), respectively), the weathered veteran who'd by now seen it all (Perfecto man Steve Osborne), and even a couple fellow Swedes along for the ride (DnB producer Friend plus Cream of hip hop duo Bus75).

Cut La Roc La Roc Rocs Skint

The album version of “Four Big Speakers” was already an action-sequence-ready uptempo number, with that “Spybreak!”-style bassline threaded through rolling breakbeats and atmospheric guitar shading, but Cut La Roc strips it down like a rough-and-ready street racer, ripping out the last traces of Achtung Baby-style modern rock flourishes to bring the focus back to the interplay of feedback and rolling breaks against the summer breezy vocals of Cia Berg. With its crashing breaks representing for the whole Skint crew, it strikes a perfect balance between block rockin' beats and vintage rock dynamics, never succumbing to the retro-rock tendencies that came to bedevil big beat (I mean, one Fatboy Slim was enough!).

Meat Beat Manifesto Original Fire Nothing

The way it kicks off the disc and sets up the rest of the 12" to play out always makes me flash on Meat Beat Manifesto’s Original Fire, with its timely cluster of new tracks, old tracks, reworkings and remixes put together by Trent Reznor for the American market. This tune in particular aligns perfectly with things like “I Am Organic” and “I Got The Fear (Part 5)”, that same sense of post-industrial sampladelic funk. Upon reflection, Meat Beat’s Jack Dangers was the king of striking that sort of big beat balance in the first place, stretching all the way back to things like Storm The Studio and Armed Audio Warfare in the 1980s up to the same year's Actual Sounds + Voices. The “Cut La Roc Remix” sits firmly in the same rough territory, Terminal Vibration living large in the datapanik slipstream of the 1990s.

Cream of Bus75 sits for a promo shot in a plush 1990s hip hop room.
Cream of Bus75

As on the album, the tune is elevated by the presence of rapper Cream (of Swedish hip hoppers Bus75), switching gears on the mic between double-time ragga flow and half-speed slow-motion murmur, deflty weaving through The Chemical Brothers-style breakbeat feedback and lending credence my longstanding wish that more of the big beat crew had gotten down with rappers in the studio (see also Mekon and Schoolly D’s “Skool's Out”, Bomb The Bass and Justin Warfield’s “Bug Powder Dust”, and The Prodigy and Kool Keith’s “Diesel Power”). It's worth noting that this promo actually pairs the two tracks on the album that feature Cream, and if both tracks are undeniable highlights of the album, they're only enhanced in present company.

Early promo shot of Mike Paradinas, looking mysterious in shades and proggy shadows
Mike Paradinas: The µ-Ziq Man

Of course, Mike Paradinas comes hard from left field, all but removing the original vocals altogether. Swapping them out for Trans Am-esque vocoderized computer sing-song, his TRON-inflected vision brings to mind hints of Into The Gap. After the robot lullaby drops into videogame sonics, “µ-ziq Mix” kicks into gear with mashed up breaks, chopped to oblivion and squeezed through the IDM cheese grater. At first you think “oh no, now he's gonna go all zany on us!”, but suddenly he bangs it all into back shape with a phenomenal strangled descending bassline and even some electronic quasi-flutes!

Back in the day, they would have called this sort of thing “drill 'n bass” (see also Squarepusher), essentially bedroom IDM kids getting down with jungle and throwing it around the nursery. It has the same relationship to its surroundings as the “Part 2 - Luke Vibert Mix” had with the rest of Original Fire: leaping out of the frame with a maniacal, it throws everything to the wall to see what sticks. Given its presence on what is a relatively mainstream record on a major label speaks volumes about the era it emerged from, when those last gasps of strangeness managed to slip through before the major labels all converged into 3 or 4 conglomerates... which brings us right up to the present day, unfortunately.

Friend Hot Rod Dot

But come back with me to the emerald parallax glow of 1998, when only the most forward-thinking among us could see the writing on the wall, and things like Photek’s The Hidden Camera had the creeping surveillance state in firm focus. The dark jazz of “Friend's Wigga No-No Remake” springs from this shadowy realm, offering a drum 'n bass descent into the beautiful darkness, a split image view of New Forms blurring into Modus Operandi that prefigured the aesthetic of not only Blade and π but even The Matrix (hinted at by the sleeve art's design). In a strange way, it's the most faithful of the remixes here, in that it basically takes all the original elements and reconstructs them, with that massive bassline running at clockwork half speed over surprisingly mashed up breaks, a moody re-calibration of post-jungle breakbeat science with its roots stretching back into the darkside.

Oakenfold & Osborne The Perfecto Album (Remixes by Oakenfold & Osborne) EastWest

In contrast, the “Steve Osborne Remix” seems at first to be just a minor reworking of the track, a radio version almost, but its bottom-heavy, analogue take on the original's already-deep bassline recasts it as different beast altogether. The geometric bassline warps into pulsing, downshifting bleeps, the whole thing steeped in filmic claustrophobia, all with a wholly different breakbeat architecture ticking away beneath it. Although he works here alone, it slots in comfortably with the work Osborne had been up to with partner-in-crime Paul Oakenfold for about a decade by this point, reworking everyone from U2 and The Stone Roses to Massive Attack and Neneh Cherry as Perfecto.

Black Star Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star Rawkus

However, the real perfection comes with the “Remix by Shawn J. Period”, my absolute favorite track on the record. Featuring a memorable cameo from Mos Def, at this point still a hungry up-and-comer riding high on his rise as half of underground sensation Black Star (alongside Talib Kweli) and still a year away from his solo splash Black On Both Sides. Like Mos Def, Shawn J Period was a key figure in the dawning days of Rawkus Records, working behind the boards on a brace of sessions for the label (including tracks on Black Star’s debut, as well as edge-of-underground crews like Artifacts, Heltah Skeltah, and the Boot Camp Clik.

Sneaker Pimps Becoming X Clean Up

Here, his mix kicks off with a ramshackle, rapid-fire drum tattoo and formula one stabs, before dropping into a beat that practically defines the term “low-slung”, its slow-motion bassline and guitar conjuring up images of some offbeat spaghetti western. For the record, I'd like to state that this track has one of my favorite snare drum sounds ever. Perfection, and in between the formula one stabs kicking the beat back into gear on the snare drum shuffle, that blunted bassline rises to the level of bleeps and back again, swimming in the ether. Cia Berg’s vocals rise in gentle, playful arcs against the downbeat thrust of the tune, all of it meshing together like a 50/50 split on blunted, downtempo hip hop and the chrome-plated RnB of Timbaland (see also the Sneaker Pimps’ “Becoming X”, albeit for slightly different reasons).

Classic promo shot of Mos Def crouching in a thoughtful stance.
A young Mos Def looks on to the future...

And then — as if the track were reloading to skip on the buffer — the stop start kicks in again and suddenly Mos Def enteres the picture. If memory serves, this is the first time I heard him and at the time his loose-limbed raps were a revelation, his sing-song delivery amplifying the playful tone of this version, flipping into patois on a dime and rendering the whole thing in a total different league from the original's implied Pre-Millennium Tension. This is summer music no doubt, capturing the white hot sensation of new sneakers on asphalt, spinning for a jump shot, and the last day of school. If the raps feel off the cuff then all the better: even if you took them tossed off as an afterthought (and some people have), they're absolutely brilliant in the context of the tune, keying into Wild Style vibes and squaring the circle between Sugar Hill and No Limit. And at the end of the day, it's probably my favorite thing he's ever done.

It rounds out the corners of this strange little promo quite perfectly, serving as the crown jewel of the whole affair. It's all of a piece with the era's breakbeat culture as it seeped into all corners of the pop landscape, locking into everything from abstract electronica to drum 'n bass even as it remains keenly aware of the machine soul innovations going down in contemporary RnB. It's got that half-lit glow about it, the Modus Operandi, New Forms, Becoming X, the breakbeat manalishi. Even as it splits the difference between the glamour of the good times and the pre-millennium tension — that creeping sense of dread that it was all going to come crashing down — it exemplifies the era's notions of pop being submerged in the strange, driving the glitter down into a dusted haze, dwelling in a place where the sunshine meets the shadows and the darkness mixes with the neon glow.

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