In 1999, Material released Intonarumori, a sprawling double-album sourced in the seedy underbelly of hip hop stretching from the Wu-Tang Clan and Company Flow all the way back to Schoolly D and the Death Comet Crew. The record was as ugly and twisted as you could hope for. Demented downbeat jams rubbed shoulders with asymmetrical big beat symphonies that owed as much to Tackhead as they did the RZA, while Killah Priest rapped over a beatless illbient soundscape of eerie flutes and droning tambura before a dusted beat drops in at the last minute.
With old skool legends like Rammellzee, Kool Keith, Flavor Flav and DXT (consequently all of which warrant further exploration today) trading verses with the grimiest voices in dead end underground hip hop (including a cadre of figures from the WordSound crew), it's a perfect culmination of the most abject and abrasive tendencies in New York hip hop.
Of course, by the end of the century Material bassist and ringleader Bill Laswell's involvement in rap music had already spanned the better part of twenty years. As covered in Terminal Vibration V, the original incarnation of Material was a downtown post punk group that specialized in bass-heavy punk funk records like Temporary Music 2 and Memory Serves. When they signed with Celluloid Records, the group were tapped to produce a series of rap records for the label.
Ultimately clocking in seven 12" singles (all released in 1982), ranging from electro-tinged slated like Grand Mixer D.St. & The Infinity Rappers' The Grand Mixer Cuts It, The Smurfs' Smurf For What It's Worth and Phase II's The Roxy to odyshape post-p-funk grooves like Fab Five Freddy's Change The Beat and Une Sale Histoire, Tribe 2's What I Like and Futura 2000's The Escapades Of Futura 2000 (which featured an electrofunk backing from The Clash!), these were records of varying quality that nevertheless managed to consistently offer up a left field take on rap (the original undie records?).
By the early 90s, Laswell was producing the sessions for what would become the Jungle Brothers' ill-fated third album, Crazy Wisdom Masters. The unreleased tapes — recently leaked on the web — reveal a druggy, abrasive sound very much in the vein of Intonarumori (albeit informed by a greater sense of demented humor).
The record that finally did surface in 1993, J. Beez Wit The Remedy, may have tightened up the edges and introduced a spoonful of sugar in the shape of downbeat summer jams like Good Lookin' Out and My Jimmy Weighs A Ton, but that only served to highlight the strangeness of the material that was preserved from the initial sessions. Tunes like Spittin' Wicked Randomness and For The Heads At Company Z were complemented brilliantly by the smoked-out, Gaussian blurred beats that the crew had come up with in the intervening years. In either form, it was clearly one of the most unique rap albums of the decade (and incidentally my #1 rap album ever).
In 1999, the same year that Material's Intonarumori hit the shops, the New York-based WordSound label put out a stunning four track EP of recordings from the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (this long before anyone had heard the untouched masters) on the Black Hoodz subsidiary imprint. Hinting at the rougher edges of the initial recordings, Battle Show and Ra Ra Kid were abrasive, asymmetrical slabs of left field big beat hip hop. Naturally, this fit the WordSound aesthetic perfectly, which was a grimy, staggering vision of hip hop informed by dub's bottom end gone lost in the wastelands of the big city. Releasing records by the likes of Spectre, The Bug and Dr. Israel, it was something of a stateside, gutter mirror image of James Lavelle's Mo Wax empire.
Crucially, WordSound was also linked with the Axiom imprint that Bill Laswell was running across town, with Laswell contributing substantial material to WordSound's output — including the Crooklyn Dub Consortium series — while various WordSound personnel would regularly appear on Axiom releases. One such figure was Sensational (aka Torture), an iconoclastic MC who had a profound impact on the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (and by extension J. Beez Wit The Remedy). The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Laswell introduced the JBs to Sensational while he was freestyling over a Stockhausen record as he was scratching it!
Although not all of his raps survived to the finished product, one can feel the spirit of his contributions in a continuum stretching from Gram Parsons' on The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo to J Dilla's on Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Whatever the case may be, he managed to release two excellent records of skewed hip hop as the 90s drew to a close. Loaded With Power, in particular, is a brilliantly claustrophobic slab of decomposed hip hop (think REQ's Frequency Jams) that descends into the same sense of hydroponic psychosis showcased on Tricky's contemporary records (especially The Hell EP, recorded in part with the Gravediggaz).
Meanwhile, across the city DJ Spooky was mirroring trip hop's modus operandi with his own vision of dub-soaked, abstract hip hop, a sound that he called illbient. Importantly, Spooky was not only a DJ and producer but an arch theorist, ruminating on hip hop's sampladelia with the most intricate detail since David Toop started checking the music in the early 80s. His own music stalked the outer rim of what would come to be called dark ambient, with low slung hip hop beats squeezing through the claustrophobia of bass pressure and slow-motion industrial sonix.
Nevertheless, with a keen ear for a hook, Spooky also excelled at the sort of block rockin' hip hop that would fit right in with the likes of EPMD and The Beatnuts (not to mention the jungle of Dillinja and Roni Size). Tunes like Object Unknown, Galactic Funk and Peace In Zaire would have been radio staples in a parallel world where figures like and Rammellzee became superstars and managed to reshape hip hop in their image.
Indeed, Rammellzee is surely one of the key figures in the development of an abstract, avant garde strain of hip hop. Appearing on stage clad in a trench coat with Shockdell during the climactic show at the end of the film Wild Style, he provided one of the most memorable moments of the film, rhyming rapid-fire over an awesome synth sequence with a mic in one hand and a toy machine gun(!) in the other. This sense of the strange carried over into his collaboration with K-Rob and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the epochal Beat Bop (a record that Peter Shapiro once declared the Rosetta Stone of trip hop1), a record that in retrospect sounds about a decade ahead of its time.
The Death Comet Crew record followed swiftly afterwards. A collaboration with Ike Yard's Stuart Argabright and Michael Diekmann (along with Shinichi Shimokawa), the Death Comet Crew realized perhaps the most uncompromising fusion of rap attack and angular post punk sonix yet essayed with Rammellzee rapping over uptempo electroshock beats cooked up by the remainder of the group. These tropes were further explored a couple years later on the Death Command/Lecture 12" collaboration with Shockdell, which culminated in the excellent Missionaries Moving LP by the Gettovetts.
In many ways, Kool Keith was the figure in rap's next generation who picked up the baton of rap's mad scientist. Starting out as the scatological court jester of the Ultramagnetic MC's, he also happened to be by far the greatest MC in the crew, spitting his surreal wordplay (informed by mathematics, non sequiturs and bizarre insults) in singularly nasal fashion.
The Ultramagnetics turned out a trio of excellent LPs — the utterly essential Critical Beatdown, the deeply unpopular (though I've never understood the hate for it) Funk Your Head Up (which nevertheless turned up the epochal Poppa Large) and the bleak hip hop noir of The Four Horsemen — before Keith struck out on a long and singularly weird solo career.
His first move was the Dr. Octagon record (recorded with Dan The Automator), a surreal slab of perverted hip hop whose eerie downbeat atmosphere boasted a startling détente with the contemporary trip hop of Tricky and DJ Shadow (indeed, the record was even licensed by hip downbeat institution Mo Wax).
Similarly, Mo Wax also put out a record by abstract hip hop pioneer Divine Styler. Wordpower 2: Directrix featured Styler rhyming abstract-to-the-max over ice cold breakbeat geometry, which found the MC entering the slipstream of the burgeoning hip hop underground. Of course, he'd laid some of the foundational architecture for that underground in the first place with the first Word Power record (check Tongue Of Labyrinth) in 1989 when he was still aligned with Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate.
In between those two records lies the enigma of Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that would strain at the confines of any generic definition, let alone rap. Grey Matter, the one moment of more-or-less straight up hip hop, shares space with extended spoken word pieces like Heaven Don't Want Me And Hell's Afraid I'll Take Over and spacious post-Hendrix psychedelia like In A World Of U and Walk Of Exodus. This album is one of the most unexpected moments in rap's winding history, and remains essential listening for curious minds.
Divine Styler's dalliance with rock mirrors Ice-T's controversial thrash metal output with his band Body Count, as well as T's embrace of noise on the recordings that bear his own name. Early records like Rhyme Pays mirror Code Money's crashing productions for Schoolly D, while O.G. Original Gangster runs parallel to the dense noise-collages that The Bomb Squad unleashed behind Public Enemy and Ice Cube (with a hint of Dr. Dre's contemporary productions with N.W.A.).
Public Enemy and N.W.A. both flirted with elements of metal in their music at times (see Public Enemy's She Watch Channel Zero?! and The D.O.C.'s Beautiful But Deadly), a tradition that dated at least back to Run-DMC with Rock Box, King Of Rock and Rock This Way). Def Jam-co-founder Rick Rubin (that notorious heavy metal head) is the other great conduit of rock dynamics into hip hop, a primary example of which is his production of Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill (which also turned untold hordes of rockers onto the sounds of rap).
Moving beyond literal rock 'n roll sonics, the crucial element in this strand of hard-edged hip hop to surface in the 80s was in their harnessing of noise: looped snatches of atonal sound, heavy on-the-one stabs, and huge, skyscraper-crumbling beats. Upon their emergence, Run-DMC's beats hit harder than just about anyone else's and ushered in what would become rap's second era.
The stark minimalism of Rick Rubin's drum machine matrix in productions for the likes of T La Rock, the aforementioned Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and especially LL Cool J honed hip hop down a stripped-down essence of an shouting over block rockin' beats, defining the dominant sound in rap for the next couple years (with Jewel-T's I Like It Loud a particular highlight). Schoolly D and Code Money amplified the sound to a preposterous degree (see P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"), inadvertently spawning gangster rap in the process.
Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate, who had their own significant strains of hard edged hip hop, produced by the great DJ Aladdin, seemed to pick up where Schoolly D left off. Along with that other forefather of West Coat rap, Too $hort, they laid the foundation for the twin poles of L.A.'s rough/smooth dialectic, with Ice-T's hard-edged beats playing the bad cop to Too $hort's low-slung street funk.
This thread was picked up most infamously by N.W.A., who took Ice-T's hard-hitting beats to a whole new level, spiked with a generous helping of intricate funk programming dished up by Dr. Dre. Starting out in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, sequined purveyors of West Coast electro par excellence (see 1984's Surgery), Dre moved into this heavier style to complement the heavier subject matter being explored by MCs like Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren, along with the rest of the posse.
Interestingly, early N.W.A. member Arabian Prince had similarly strong roots in electro before hooking up with the crew, ultimately splitting in 1989 to put out the excellent Brother Arab, a shadowy fusion of computer beats and proto-g-funk.
The D.O.C. turned out possibly the greatest negotiation of Dre's hard-edged production style on Straight Outta Compton and his later g-funk sound with the aptly titled No One Can Do It Better, featuring a dense sonic concrete jungle that found Dre expanding his earlier innovations into the sound that would inform the rest of his career. N.W.A. upped the ante with 100 Miles And Runnin' EP, alongside up-and-coming L.A. crews like Compton's Most Wanted and Above The Law, nearly managing to outdo everything that came before with their final LP, Efil4zaggin.
Efil4zaggin is a production tour de force, featuring Dre's most fully-realized productions ever, it only suffers from a descent into puerile humor and less inspired detours in its second half. It seemed the crew needed Ice Cube around to keep things focused (see AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and the Kill At Will EP), although one wonders what might have gone down if The D.O.C. had never had his car accident and folded into the group to take Cube's place...
Of course, at the center of any talk of hip hop's noisescapes will always be Public Enemy and their production masterminds The Bomb Squad, who tore up the fabric of sound a stitched it all back together again into a dense collage of confrontation. This sound, which utilized hard breakbeats, guitar stabs, vocal exhortations and illogical snatches of sound was the perfect complement to the stentorian vocals of Chuck D and Flava Flav's wise guy antics (who fulfilled a role similar to Kool Keith and Eazy-E in their respective crews). The turntable skills of Terminator X provided that certain x-factor of scratchadelic noise, so crucial to the era, rounding out Public Enemy's unique sonic attack.
The Bomb Squad's approach had a crucial influence on not only the next wave of hard-hitting hip hop but also the feedback-drenched, distorted breakbeat sound taking shape across the Atlantic, a sound that would come to be called big beat. Bomb The Bass were out the gate early with records like Into The Dragon, even continuing to have hard moments (the big beat perfection of Bug Powder Dust) even as they sprawled out into a sort of post-hip hop blues.
However, if there was one crew that shaped this sound (and they don't get nearly enough credit for it), it was Meat Beat Manifesto. The group's mastermind was Jack Dangers, who gradually took their sound from a sort of heavy industrial-inflected, post-Bomb Squad rap (imagine a dystopian, J.G. Ballard-damaged Beastie Boys) into a densely populated breakbeat sound that split the difference between big beat and trip hop (with a healthy dose of dub thrown in for good measure). There was a paranoid aspect to the music, bordering on psychosis, that only became more unhinged as the group pared down to the central figure of Dangers. In 1998 — the same year as Actual Sounds + Voices — Dangers even collaborated with Public Enemy, producing Go Cat Go (along with Danny Saber) for the He Got Game OST.
A lot of big beat leaned heavily on the classic rock side (Fatboy Slim springs to mind), which is not relevant to this discussion, but a lot of it was heavily indebted to the hard beats Bomb Squad-era hip hop. The Prodigy, for one, betrayed Liam Howlett's roots in UK hip hop after their ardkore era had run its course with Music For The Jilted Generation, even collaborating with Kool Keith on the album to follow (1997's Fat Of The Land). Howlett's mix adventure The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One encapsulates this drift perfectly, featuring Public Enemy acolytes Hijack's awesome Doomsday Of Rap. There's that whole lineage of UK rap that fits squarely into this continuum, crews like London Posse, Hi-jack and Ruthless Rap Assassins.
The Chemical Brothers offered the best of both sides of the big beat coin, indulging in blissed out reveries like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively) and Tomorrow Never Knows-inspired sixties psychedelia worship with Setting Sun even as they unfurled feedback-drenched beats like Loops Of Fury, Song To The Siren and Block Rockin' Beats.
Records like Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole seemed to exist in the tradition of instrumental hip hop landmarks like The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel and The 45 King's 45 Kingdom (not to mention Frankie Bones' series of Bonesbreaks records).
Representing this phenomenon at its darkest, although he did have moments that predicted the Brothers (see Shaolin Buddha Finger), is one Jon Saul Kane. As Depth Charge, he combined the hard beats that were big beat's calling card with the oppressive atmosphere and dragging tempos that would come to define trip hop. Combining a pervading sense of sleazy darkness with copious martial arts samples, Depth Charge created a unique sonic vernacular all his own out of whole cloth. Notably, Kane also released the Beat Classic compilation on his own D.C. Recordings imprint, which made scarce hip hop grails available once more (often in instrumental form).
If the equation of bleak soundscapes, heavy drums and martial arts samples sounds familiar, it's probably because a certain East Coast crew happened to be taking a similar approach into the charts around the same time. Master producer the RZA wove desolately downbeat sonic tundras for his cadre of MCs to haunt. Figures like the GZA, Method Man and Ghostface Killah provided the perfect counterpoint to the RZA's visions of doom.
The early Wu-Tang records — records like Liquid Swords, Tical and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — might be as close as rap ever got to post punk sonix within the mainstream drift of 90s hip hop. Strange, decomposed moments like Sub Crazy and 4th Chamber rubbed shoulders with hits like Bring The Pain and C.R.E.A.M., while peripheral Wu-Tang records like Soldiers Of Darkness/Five Arch Angels by Sunz Of Man took this sound to its outer limits. Collaborations with figures like Tricky and Genaside II were scattered amongst the crew's extended discography, while Method Man's Release Yo Delf was even remixed by Liam Howlett of The Prodigy!
One thing that Wu-Tang seemed to lay the foundation for was what would become the modern hip hop underground. I once read an interview with El-P where he explained that when he started out, the underground was merely the seedy underbelly of hip hop culture, whereas it would ultimately break off into its own world that bore less and less resemblance to the body hip hop. The Company Flow and Cannibal Ox projects that he masterminded certainly bear this out, during an era when rap was becoming increasingly electronic.
This the era that southern rap was on the ascendant, and empires like Cash Money and No Limit were firmly established. Records like Lil Wayne's Tha Block Is Hot and Juvenile's 400 Degreez seemed to recreate the density of sampladelia with digital materials, harking back to Mantronix even as they often bore striking resemblance to the atmosphere conjured up by The Prodigy circa Music For The Jilted Generation. There would be an interesting echo of this in Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury half a decade later.
It's rather appropriate that these twin wings of rap would eventually meet in the middle — no matter how unlikely — with Run The Jewels, featuring an elaboration on El-P's production for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music that resulted in a full-scale collaboration for three albums (and counting). Which takes us right up to the present day, where Kanye West puts out Yeezus — a stark slab of an album featuring EBM/grime/Code Money-inflected hip hop — on Def Jam (the original home of hard beats). Likewise, Vince Staples' Hell Can Wait was also released on the label, sounding like something Terranova might have produced at the turn of the century.
It all ties back to those base materials, the idea of rap conjured up by Material's Intonarumori, a grimy cyberpunk vision of hip hop, where droppin' science is meant to be taken literally. This is the realm of Rammellzee, Dr. Octagon and Hank Shocklee, where mad scientists split the atom again and again, refracting rap's beat matrix through the bleak prism of Metal Box, Liaisons Dangereuses and Front 242. A place where breakbeats collide with guitar stabs, found sounds, rude electronics and pure noise, as MCs unfurl tangled mathematical phrases over the surface. This is the sound of rap at the edge of no control...
TV007: Edge Of No Control
Killer MikeBun B, T.I. & TroubleBig BeastWilliams Street
Meat Beat ManifestoGod O.D. Part 1Mute
Jungle BrothersBattle ShowBlack Hoodz
Public EnemyShe Watch Channel Zero?!Def Jam
Schoolly DP.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"Schoolly D
Kanye WestOn SightDef Jam
Method ManRelease Yo Delf Prodigy MixDef Jam
Ultramagnetic MC'sPoppa Large East Coast MixMercury
Ice-TNew Jack HustlerSire
Ice CubeThe ProductPriority
MaterialAhlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" BraileyFreestyle JourneyAxiom
Lil WayneRemember MeCash Money
Public EnemyGo Cat GoDef Jam
Vince StaplesFireDef Jam
DJ SpookyPrince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized KonfusionRekonstructionOutpost
Hey man, I'm back from the bodega. Nothing like a snack, deep fried, to give you a second wind. Here you go my friend. So you like new wave, right? Sure you do... after all, everybody likes new wave. For the moment, let us focus on the dubbed-out dancefloor sides perpetrated by The Clash in that period just after London Calling, which puts us at 1980 A.D.
I'm talking about the triple(!)-LP trawl of Sandinista! and its orbital 12" singles, records like The Magnificent Seven and This Is Radio Clash, the latter of which features four versions spread across its twelve inch surface, each one sequentially more twisted and dubbed to pieces than the last. Outside Broadcast (the third version), is one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalog, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight.
The Magnificent Seven — which must be heard in its spacious, sprawling album version to experience its true sparkling third-eye-tactile black magic — finds, as mentioned in their last episode, this band of outlaws messing around with the Good Times bassline and twisting it to their own swashbuckling purposes. In other words, it's Disco Not Disco at its absolute finest.
Interesting to hear it as Joe Strummer's take on contemporary rap (note The Clash's turn as backing band for graffiti artist Futura 2000 on The Escapades Of Futura 2000, one of the infamous Celluloid rap records), like Blondie's Rapture but even more so. Think killer disco rap like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's Superappin', Kurtis Blow's The Breaks and Monster Jam by Spoonie Gee meets The Sequence (not to mention The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight if you want to get literal).
Noteworthy in the Parallax sense is also the fact that the intros to both The Magnificent Dance (the x-ray dub version of The Magnificent Seven) and Mensforth Hill form the basis of Reese's You're Mine (the b-side to Rock To The Beat), which suggests that Mr. Saunderson was working with both the album and 12" when vibing out in the studio to create that killer cut.
At moments like this, I'm reminded of Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim's review of Big Audio Dynamite's Sunday Best, in which he offhandedly placed The Clash at the genesis of indie dance. Which sounds about right to me, with New Order and Big Audio Dynamite arriving as fully formed ambassadors of the genre before it would go on to become a way of life.
Ah yes, that's right: Big Audio Dynamite! B.A.D. is, of course, a whole other can of worms. Now it's damn near painfully obvious to point out how that crew's merciless caning of the sampler and rewired approach to the dancefloor anticipated whole swathes of music in the nineties and beyond, but records like the proto-house madness of Hollywood Boulevard and Megatop Phoenix (which has nestled comfortably into Sgt. Pepper-status around these parts) serve to drive the point home and then some.
Their debut full-length This Is Big Audio Dynamite boasts not only obvious radio bounty like The Bottom Line, E=MC² and the sublime cool of Medicine Show (recently featured in Woebot's excellent 101-2001 — and for the record I agree wholeheartedly with the man's glowing assessment of the tune), but also a wealth of strange dancefloor material on its under-explored b-side (particularly Sudden Impact's phenomenal short-circuiting electroid groove and the proto-ragga dancehall of A Party).
Sudden Impact is particularly interesting in this context, with its strange spaghetti-western-by-way-of-Lee "Scratch" Perry guitar figure riding wicked rails of straight up electro, the track seeming to exist right at the very nexus of a number of contemporary sonic currents. For one, you've got electro boogie along the lines of Aleem's Get Loose, D-Train's You're The One For Me and C.O.D.'s cover of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's In The Bottle, all of which predict Sudden Impact's own nimble touch in their wiry, skeletal rhythmic structure.
But why stop there? It doesn't take much effort to draw a short line from Sudden Impact! to honest-to-goodness minimalistic electro missives like Hashim's We're Rocking The Planet, the Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock and World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, all of which had been tearing up dancefloors for the better part of a year. Of course there's also the flipside of the coin: straight up electrofunk shearing into electro territory, records like Cameo's She's Strange (along with its proto-rap 12" club mix), Whodini's Escape and about a thousand other rap records.
Japan (the band) had their own incursions in this arena, where even amongst their most well-known new pop-era hits like the crepuscular fragile beauty of Ghosts and the supremely funky Visions Of China2 you'd find records like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and The Art Of Parties riding a malfunktioning electroid framework of their own.
Yet it's just before the group's widely-hailed peak that you'll find my favorite music they made, from that period when David Sylvian and co. were still slumming it as twilight era glam rockers operating in a weird interzone between new wave and funk that just shades this side of the (totally imaginary) post punk divide, with not only their blinding Adolescent Sex debut album (which featured in the Parallax 200 just the other day), but also the Quiet Life LP (and it's precursor, the Life In Tokyo 12" warning shot — produced by Giorgio Moroder for those keeping track).
Adolescent Sex in particular is the sleaziest rock 'n funk grind this side of The Stones' Fingerprint File, with real red light district velvet curtain bizzness in tracks like Performance (named after the Nick Roeg film, I wonder?) and the slinky cinematic slow burn of Suburban Love. This is funk the way The Isley Brothers played it. By which I mean turn on a dime rhythmic panache, smeared synth stylings — as if every texture were washed out in sun-glazed daylight somehow in the dead of night — and searing guitar lines rising from the murky depths.
There's shades too of Steely Dan at their Royal Scam grimiest — bringing to mind The Fez and The Royal Scam itself in particular — on tunes like Wish You Were Black and the marathon nine-minute album-closing Television. This sort of half-lit bedroom funk is a personal favorite sound of mine (see Prince's debut For You for another example), and should if there's any sense in the world at all spawn a feature of its own sometime in the future.
If there's a neon-tinged eighties analog to the sound I'm getting at here, then it must be Mtume circa Juicy Fruit. The album's centerpiece is the title track, no doubt, but there's a wealth of sterling rubberband funk in evidence throughout. The high top blacktop moonwalk of Green Light is emblematic of the whole affair in its casual loose-limbed bounce, with the more explicitly electronic grooves of Hips and Hip Dip Skippedabeat shearing into prime electrofunk territory. The production throughout is just perfect, with none of the overly-harmonized, booming drums that you'd often wind up with during in the era.3 It's the flipside of all the canonical new wave records here and a stone cold classic.
And while we're on the flipside, Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is another unmissable slice of new wave electrofunk — from a crew that's arguably the progenitor of the form — and the flipside to PIL's Metal Box (the founder of this feast). The deconstructed start-stop groove of Funk Gets Stronger — featuring Sly Stone in full effect — is practically straight up new wave and never fails to make me flash on Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox4 (particularly the distinctive guitar tone).
The whole record plays like a roadmap of eighties funk possibilities and beyond, and is absolutely essential listening. It will likely sound patchy at first, but give it time: what you're hearing is the familiar One Nation Under A Groove/Flashlight magic formula being warped and mutated beyond the point of recognition. Its strangeness is its calling card. The band even turn out the Lodger-esque freaky cod-reggae of Shockwaves, which starts out like a joke track (with fake accent to boot) before dropping out into the divine ravishment of the chorus. Definite shades of Bowie and très post punk!
On a related note, I make no apologies whatsoever for the heavy representation of Parallax 200 records here, since the sonic neighborhood on the table today couldn't help but throw up some of my favorite records almost by default. Wrapping up that list definitely put this sound firmly in mind. In truth, it likely inspired the whole trip! No doubt many of the remaining records will make the 300 when the time comes...
Now where was I... Ah yes, Japan. Coming a year after Adolescent Sex, Quiet Life and the Life In Tokyo 12" both seem to predict Duran Duran's self-titled debut in their sleek, chrome-eyed surfaces. Speaking of which, don't sleep on Duran Duran's 1981 debut, a record that is well worth checking out in its own right. The ace new wave disco of Planet Earth stands out as a particular highlight, but really the whole record is golden. Don't listen to the hipster haters — Nick Rhodes is way cooler than any of them anyway. Listened to back to back to back, these three records (Life In Tokyo, Quiet Life and Duran Duran) play like a tour of Europe by high-speed rail.
And while we're still on the continent, it's fitting to round out this strange punk funk-by-way-of-new wave triumvirate with Simple Minds, whose early records belie their Scottish origins and seem to point toward the most shadowy recesses of the Eastern Bloc. From the grimy claustrophobic corridors of Real To Real Cacophony to the sleek steel surfaces of Empires And Dance and even the Steve Hillage-produced widescreen canvases of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, this is all prime real estate in the sprawling terrain of post punk/machine funk that just begs to be explored further. I've spent quite a bit of time here myself.
You've got the dead-eyed disco of Premonition, yawning gleefully with cavernous jaws and drip-dropping percussion, the slow-motion punk funk dirge of This Fear Of Gods and Today I Died Again's exquisitely swirling dread on one hand and the Kling Klang clanking funk of Sweat In Bullet (pointing the way to New Gold Dream) and the clockwork, backwards-crab-walking rhythm box black hole League Of Nations on the other. Taken as a whole, the four record run5 is a stellar excursion into post-Bowie In Berlin sonics.
So check them all out, the Simple Minds records and everything else here too. They won't do you wrong. I hear that the vendor across the street — yes, that gaunt gentleman in the robe — has them all on cassette, so don't sleep. Trust me... you need these records in your life. So fix up real quick. I'll be in the basement down the way grabbing some records from my homeboy Cornelius for the next chapter...
Actually, Prince's phenomenal Lady Cab Driver — from the glitzy 1999 double-LP — mines a very similar terrain. It's also got some crossover potential with The Clash's Outside Broadcast, come to think of it...
None can test. I'm on record as preferring the U.S. Version for its inclusion of the Zerox/Whip In My Valise, but only grudgingly so: I hate to give up the killer punk funk mekanik rush of not only Cartrouble Part 1 (which is doubly salient in the current context) but also Day I Met God and Catholic Day. Life's full of tough choices...
Real To Real Cacophony, Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call are actually preceded by Life In A Day, a solid new wave record in its own right that's well worth checking out too (especially for fans of early Ultravox and XTC. The ingredients just needed to marinate a little longer before morphing into the fractured splendor of Real To Real and beyond.
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix — the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each — Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly — almost symmetrically so — into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 — and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash — perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was — along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 — one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophony), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!).
Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors — stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage — attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album — Combat Rock — the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, betrays the fact that the reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swan song Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself — capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white — perfectly signaled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularly of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-traveling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic ragga beat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images — with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan — over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" — which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes — even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial ragga beat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic fun house psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones — who had never had chickenpox as a youth — took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital — where he was promptly hooked up to respirators — and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6a
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6b Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes — recorded with what would become The Band8 — that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world.
House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Beyond The Dance would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later.
Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone — from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers — were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music — in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor — it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed:
We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.
Steve Dougherty and Linda Russell (Back from the Brink of Death)6c
With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the Gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony.
Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself. The production — handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price — is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs.
Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears — attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time — with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. You can hear echoes of Gerald Simpson's acid-era recordings like Voodoo Ray, Hot Lemonade and Automanikk in Megatop's loose-fitting, ramshackle riddims.
Todd Terry just might be the single most apropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12 Don't forget that Todd's rough-edged sampladelia — perched midway between house and hip hop — ran in parallel with what B.A.D. had been up to in the late eighties. With Megatop, the band embraced Terry's cut-and-paste aesthetic wholeheartedly as the charged headlong into the rave.
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies — which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up — from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged.
Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations — filled to the brim with ideas — even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix: The Tracks
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness.
This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise — no doubt from some soccer arena — rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling — seemingly on loop — emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns — playing at the correct speed this time — ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which brilliantly conjures up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need?
Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before — at the three-minute mark — a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that predicts Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song,18 which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band — in stark black and white — seems to play in cryosleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain.
The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates — now in full color — wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listened to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs — most likely sampled from somewhere or another — trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body The House Music Anthem but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement — complete with a French horn simulation — before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder — another one of those slowdown sound effects — with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocodered sing-song — which seems to represent the audience — replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?).
The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and even the chorus appears with little fanfare as well — over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano — before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns — in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road — which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fred — which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea — side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialing up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner — with their sleek, muscular European techno — would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only Hi-NRG was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline — cycling up and down the keyboard — doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs — bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway Theme From Fastlane — and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although — as far as I know — only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video20 and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!21 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes — this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere — we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group — and a return of the sampled whistling — for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bass drum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms — this time on the electrofunk tip — it's loathe to stay in one place for very long. Which brings to mind not only big beat's perversely omnivorous sampladelia, but also latterly the The Avalanches' oeuvre.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote — this time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven — into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect — with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops — brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiraling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop — lasting about thirty seconds — that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit.
At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent — but alas, unreleased — Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts23 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosyncratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.24
Eventually — around the turn of the century — the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot — an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture — Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged — as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video — in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music — spanning myriad genres and points of origin — mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopian visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travelers throughout their long and winding existence.
Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!
During what's turned out to be an exceptionally busy week, I've been vibing out practically non-stop to Woebot's latest mix: Bands a make her dance.1 The mix's general brief is rapping with instruments inna live band stylee — stretching back through time all the way to the fifties — and it's an absolute burner, packed with incredible music spanning from old school hip hop to killer deejay reggae cuts and beyond: into the nexus of street verse and rough cut funk. Put simply, this is Rap Attack music. Truth be told, it's something of a sweet spot for me, so I couldn't help but dive in with a little off-the-dome commentary... please forgive me.
The mix kicks off with Tone And Poke's lavish production for Jay-Z in 2001's Jigga, from that period when hip hop was routinely interfacing with the machine funk blueprint laid out by Timbaland and The Neptunes. Consequently, the next two tracks are N*E*R*D's man-machine hybrid Lapdance and Timbaland & Magoo's Up Jumps Da' Boogie, featuring Tim's typically lush take on machine soul (with the signature touch of Jimmy Douglass at the controls in fine style).
You could trace a line through material like Supa Dupa Fly and the early Kelis records back into much of the prime late-period swingbeat: things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s awesome Sons Of Soul record — featuring Raphael Saadiq's fluid basslines and rolling live breakbeats knocked out by Tim Riley — naturally, but also the rugged flexing grooves of Jodeci's sophomore album Diary Of A Mad Band.
Indeed, this is where Timbaland's crew Da Bassment hooked up in the first place, with DeVante Swing and Mr. Dalvin linking up with figures like Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott (still with Sista at this point), Jimmy Douglass and Tim himself, who would all go on to map out the future of r&b through the balance of the decade.
Subsequently, this is the context from which all the great Soulquarian material sprung up: records like Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and D'Angelo's Voodoo, functioning at the nexus of programmed rhythm and live-played instrumentation. These records didn't appear in a vacuum! In many ways they were an extension of and reaction to the crisp, modern blueprint laid out by producers like Timbaland, even as they sometimes pushed against it and dug deeper into the progressive soul roots of the seventies and beyond.
Questlove — key figure and strange attractor in this terrain that he is — was deeply involved in both records, pulling together personnel, offering historical perspective and of course laying down his trademark offhand rhythms at Electric Lady Studios. Indeed The Roots' Things Fall Apart — another peak-era Soulquarian production — is represented in this mix with the next track, Double Trouble, featuring Black Thought and Mos Def trading verses as they run through the classic Wild Style routine.
Appropriately, that other storied hip hop band, the inimitable Stetsasonic make an appearance next with Pen And Paper (from their classic sophomore set, In Full Gear). I've always loved the sort of shambolic, loose-limbed interface between machine music and live funk that Stet traded in. A lot of L.A. records switch into a similar mode from time to time, like The D.O.C.'s The Grande Finalé (one of the great posse cuts, an N.W.A. track in all but name) and The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia (with live drumming from Jay Dee on All Live).
Beat Bop — the mix's next selection and another Woebot fave — must be the Ur-text for this whole sound. The sinewy live instrumentation gets filtered through a futuristic beat matrix, courtesy of Jean-Michel Basquiat's forward-thinking production, over which Rammellzee and K-Rob trade verses in what I've often described as a hip hop update of Sly & The Family Stone's Africa Talks To You/The Asphalt Jungle. It's about as next-level as hip hop got in the early eighties, which is no small feat.
Woe sets the scene within an old school context, drawing deep from the pool of Sugar Hill Records, with selections like The Furious Five's Step Off Remix, Funky 4 + 1's That's The Joint and Trouble Funk's aptly titled Drop The Bomb. All three of which feature MCs doing their thing over live band backing, and right there at the center of rap's evolution (providing further evidence in favor of Woe's central thesis).
The D.C. Go-Go of Trouble Funk sits righteously in this context, and tangentially brings to mind one of my absolute favorite records from the scene, The Word/Sardines by The Junkyard Band, with its mad squelching bass and pile-driving breakbeats.
Further old school adventures continue with the improbably early smooth perfection of The Younger Generation's We Rap More Mellow, appearing at the tail end of the seventies as one of the first rap records to hit the shops. There's also the pre-electronic Afrika Bambaataa hip hop tile Zulu Nation Throwdown, featuring raps from the Cosmic Force dancing over a loose-limbed funk jam kicked up by the Harlem Underground band.
More honest-to-goodness funk, this time from The Fatback Band (who were twelve albums deep into their career as a hard funk unit by this point), appears later in the mix with King Tim III Personality Jock, which (depending on who you ask) is often considered thee very first hip hop recording to appear on wax.
These early rap works bring to mind another one of my favorites records from the era, Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap, which almost sounds as if it could have been a stripped down backing track from the Remain In Light/My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts sessions. Similarly far-reaching and futuristic — and featured next in the mix — is The Treacherous Three's The Body Rock, offering up an evocative atmosphere in which a grinding synthetic bassline snakes through a circular guitar figure held down by Pumpkin's relaxed drum breaks, while Special K, L.A. Sunshine and Kool Moe Dee trade verses through carefully arranged reverb effects.
Everything here remarkably in sync with a lot of the era's post punk music: think The Magnificent Seven by The Clash, the Talking Heads's Once In A Lifetime and ESG's Moody.2 Many such figures were seduced by the burgeoning hip hop culture of the day, from Factory Records' whole dalliance with the East Coast3 to Chris Stein's (of new wave group Blondie) involvement with the backing tracks for the Wild Style soundtrack and The Clash bringing Futura 2000 on tour with them (while also backing him on the Celluloid rap 12" The Escapades Of Futura 2000).
Then there's the matter of Tackhead/Fat's Comet, featuring Doug Wimbish,4Skip McDonald and Keith LeBlanc of the Sugar Hill backing band. After leaving Sugar Hill, the group started out as East Coast post punk experimentalists, operating their own World Records imprint before running through Adrian Sherwood's cold dub machinery and backing Mark Stewart as the Maffia.
Sherwood's On-U Sound label a crucial conduit of left field dub recordings throughout the decade, stretching back into late seventies with material like Creation Rebel's early output and the Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series (which — spiritually, at least — seemed to pick up where Joe Gibbs' Africa Dub All-Mighty string of records left off).
Incidentally, the mix takes a left turn into reggae territory with a trio of discomix cover versions from the decade's turn masterminded by Gibbs, Xanadu & Sweet Lady's Rockers Choice (based on Rapper's Delight), Derrick Laro & Trinity's Don't Stop Till You Get Enough and Ruddy Thomas & Welton Irie's Shake Your Body Down To The Ground (the latter two Jacksons covers). Down mix a piece, Woe even gives the original MC music a look in with Big Youth's 1976 deejay cut Jim Squeachy and the impossibly early (1972) Festival Wise by U-Roy.
In between the Gibbs cuts and Big Youth, you get a pair of key jazz poetry cuts from Gil Scott-Heron (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) and The Last Poets (Related To What). Both artists retroactively recognized as forefathers of rap music, The Last Poets even washing up with an eighties record on Celluloid. There was even a record from Last PoetLightnin' Rod with backing from Jimi Hendrix that also came out on Celluloid around the same time. Hendrix himself touching on rap with Crosstown Traffic... perhaps the first rap-rock song ever? Well, certainly the best.
Lightnin' Rod's Sport comes in next, taken from his excellent Hustlers Convention LP and featuring Kool & The Gang providing a nimble funk backing (and a clear precursor to all the old school live hip hop records discussed above). The godfather of funk himself slips into the mix with Black President, another foundational piece of music in hip hop, not only by virtue of its breakbeats — adorning as they do scores of rap 12"s — but also James Brown's ad-libbed vocal asides, dropped into the beat matrix with a rhythmic precision.
From there, we move into the final stretch of the mix with Pigmeat Markham's Here Comes The Judge (as mentioned in David Toop's Rap Attack5) from 1968. Interestingly enough, this record seems to be the basis for the Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced deejay record Public Jestering, fronted by Judge Winchester! And finally, Bo Diddley closes out the set with his epochal self-titled number, bringing it all back to the square root of the blues.
Which drops us into the recent climate round these parts. Post punk, hip hop and the blues. Machine soul is that final ingredient — in its triad forms of techno, house and r&b — of what you might call my kind of music. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing I meant to broach last winter but for the encroachment of myriad real world commitments (what a drag). Yet with the late summer sun looming deep red on the horizon, it just might be the right time to go deep with it for real. At any rate, it's gonna be a wonderful fall.
Starting with A Certain Ratio recording their debut full-length To Each... at E.A.R.S. in New Jersey and continuing with New Order's work with Arthur Baker, John Robie and Jellybean Benitez (also at E.A.R.S.) on 1983's Confusion, with Factory even putting out an ESG record at one point in the interim. In a strange twist, New Order once played a tumultuous set at the Paradise Garage in 1983.