Big Audio Dynamite – Megatop Phoenix

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...

Big Audio Dynamite - Megatop Phoenix

(Columbia: 1989)

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 Loma Music 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...

Chapter 1
The Story Of The Clash

The Story Of The Clash (Epic: 1988)
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 Cacophany), 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, seems to betray the fact that 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 swansong Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...

Chapter 2
This Time I Bet You It's BAD

B.A.D. in full effect (from left to right): Greg Roberts, Don Letts, Mick Jones, Leo Williams and Dan Donovan.
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 signalled 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 (particularily 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-travelling 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 raggabeat 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 raggabeat 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 funhouse 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.

Chapter 3
On Death's Doorstep Born Again

Mick Jones in 1987 (background Paul Simonon's sleeve art for Tighten Up Vol. '88).
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.6 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.6 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 Strings Of Life 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.6 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...

Chapter 4
A Phoenix Rises

Megatop Phoenix promotional poster.
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. Todd Terry just might be the single most appropos 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 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, reggae 13 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'14 Pills '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?

Chapter 5
The Tracks

Megatop Phoenix promotional poster (back).
  1. Start
  2. 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...
  3. Rewind
  4. 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.
  5. All Mink & No Manners
  6. 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!
  7. Union, Jack
  8. 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...
    Contact
  9. Contact
  10. 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 seems to brilliantly conjure 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 seems to predict 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 song18, 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:
    Scenes from the Contact music video.
    You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band - in stark black and white - seems to play in cryo-sleep (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.
  11. Dragon Town
  12. 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 listen 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.
  13. Baby, Don't Apologise
  14. 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...
  15. Is Yours Working Yet?
  16. 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 vocoderized 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.
  17. Around The Girl In 80 Ways
  18. 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 the chorus seems to appear 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 Fraid - 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...
    James Brown
  19. James Brown
  20. 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, dialling 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 video and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
    Scenes from the James Brown music video.
    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!20 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
  21. Everybody Needs A Holiday
  22. 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 bassdrum/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!
  23. Mick's A Hippie Burning
  24. 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. 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...
  25. House Arrest
  26. 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 - thise 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:
    Smiley moves in for the kill.
    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 spiralling 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...
  27. The Green Lady
  28. 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.
  29. London Bridge
  30. 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.
  31. Stalag 123
  32. 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...
  33. End
  34. 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.

    Epilogue
    The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties

    Mick Jones in the nineties (from Planet BAD artwork).
    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 charts21 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 idiosynchratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.23 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!
    1. 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 Heartbreakers L.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.
    2. The Clash - The Clash At The Edge Of Forever (Compiled 2016 by Coqui & DJ Slye and released on Cheap Hotel Records: http://cheaphotelrecords.com/playlist.php?release=CHR-006)
    3. 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.
    4. No doubt inspired by the movie Back To The Future, the setting of Letts' music video managed strangely enough to pre-empt the old west framework of the third film!
    5. Interestingly enough, the tropical backdrop behind the group - also featured on the album's sleeve - was apparently inspired by the one in Frank Lopez's office from the movie Scarface.
    6. Dougherty, Steve and Russell, Linda. Back from the Brink of Death, Former Clash Rocker Mick Jones Is Reborn as the Man from B.a.d.. People. Jun. 1989. (http://people.com/archive/back-from-the-brink-of-death-former-clash-rocker-mick-jones-is-reborn-as-the-man-from-b-a-d-vol-32-no-21/)
    7. In fact, Jones thanks his doctors and the entire medical staff at the intensive care unit and Almoth-Wright Ward of St. Mary's Hospital, along with his speech therapist, in the album credits.
    8. Interestingly, The Band appear in the Universal Inspiration section of Megatop's liner notes.
    9. The Haçienda was actually run by Factory Records (FAC 51) and bankrolled largely on the back of New Order's record sales.
    10. 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 dystopioan 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 travellers throughout their long and winding existence.
    11. Both Prince and De La Soul feature prominently in Megatop's Universal Inspiration list...
    12. ...as does Mr. Todd Terry...
    13. ...along with Zapp, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aswad, Bob Marley...
    14. ...and Shaun Ryder's gallant gang of dandy rogues.
    15. The MDMA in its DNA, if you will...
    16. Sampled from the 1946 film Mrs. Miniver.
    17. 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!
    19. With Marshall Jefferson listed among the Universal Inspiration section of the liner notes, this very well may have been the band's intention.
    20. Check it out for yourself in this awesome performance of Please, Please, Please: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vruy2GRUsV8.
    21. Rush was B.A.D.'s highest chart placing, in fact.
    22. Which came full circle, bringing General Public's Ranking Roger into the fold.
    23. I remember reading a contemporary review by Norman Cook, who praised the record, drawing conections to The Clash's post-disco dancefloor moves.

LA14

This is the first of a four part series that I'll be unveiling over the next few months, each focusing on a different aspect of L.A. rap's sweep. As I noted earlier, an excellent DJ Quik show last week inspired me to put this together (to give credit where it's due). I'm no expert on the subject, but I've lived with this music since it was first coming out and it has continued to inform my listening habits in myriad ways through the years. After all, coming up in this era, with this music and parallel sounds from near and far providing the sonic atmosphere of the day, can have a profound effect on somebody...
As early as the late '70s, Uncle Jamm's Army and The Egyptian Lover were developing the earliest foundations of a distinct West Coast style that would culminate in prime L.A. electro like Egypt, Egypt and Dial-A-Freak in the early 80s. Within a few years, pioneers like Ice-T and Oakland's Too $hort began carving out a harder, street-level aesthetic that gradually began to supplant electro's popularity. Then, a crew called N.W.A. entered the Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, CA and started putting out records on their own Ruthless Records imprint, culminating in the seismic impact of their debut album Straight Outta Compton. The five years between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic were probably the most important stretch in the development of a distinctive West Coast sound, spanning the transition from N.W.A.'s hard, skeletal beats to Dr. Dre's fluid g-funk. This period was marked by extraordinary innovation, with a monumental soundclash of ideas and influences that would gradually be synthesized into a whole new thing. The following 14 records were all released within this timeframe, are undeniably classic material and trace this rough path of progression from Compton to The Chronic.

N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton

(Ruthless: 1988)

Ground zero. The earlier N.W.A. And The Posse record was but a preview of things to come, pulling early singles and some hastily recorded material into one package. This is the true arrival. I was in elementary school when this record dropped, and by the end of the year everyone seemed to be talking about it. That's the level it got to. The influence of this record cannot be overstated (just compare the first Geto Boys album with the second, for one obvious example). It kicked open the door for everything that follows in this list. The opening three tracks - Straight Outta Compton, Fuck Tha Police and Gangsta Gangsta - form one of the great opening salvos of all time, a pump-action barrage of street-level imagery delivered with a brutal intensity. For the purposes of this discussion, Gangsta Gangsta seems to be Dre's first stab at what would one day be called g-funk (check that rude Funky Worm synth whine coming in after the Way back... part). It's still too raw, the beats too rugged, to be considered g-funk proper, but the ingredients are all there just waiting to marinate a little longer. There seems to be a bit of historical revisionism at the moment about this record, claiming that the opening three tracks are the only real substance it has to offer. Not true. The Dopeman (Remix) is an incisive look at the drug trade with a barely concealed rage bubbling beneath the surface, matching the fury of that opening rush, while tracks like 8 Ball (Remix), Parental Discretion Iz Advised and MC Ren's Quiet On Tha Set serve to further flesh out the world that this record inhabits. Express Yourself (Dre's solo shot) and I Ain't Tha 1 (Cube's requisite battle of the sexes rumble) both offer moments of levity, while Something Like That is a pure old school throwback showcase. Something 2 Dance 2 even closes things down with an electrofunk workout featuring the legendary Arabian Prince. They really did think of everything!

Eazy-E - Eazy-Duz-It

(Ruthless: 1988)

Released nearly simultaneously with Straight Outta Compton, and at the time taken more or less as a companion piece to that record. They'd usually be listened to side by side. Releasing the follow up so quickly on the heels of Compton was a shrewd move in retrospect. People were hungry for more. This LP picks up where 8 Ball left off. A reckless ride through the wild side of the Ruthless funhouse, this party careens drunkenly through through the streets of L.A. with audacious Eazy-E acting as your unhinged tour guide. The Prelude recalls the sort of conceptual interlude Parliament specialized in, setting the tone for a particular sort of skit that would become an integral part of the landscape on West Coast records. Where Compton had its share of hard, skeletal beats, the production feels slightly more fleshed out this time around (the Boyz-N-The Hood (Remix) notwithstanding). DJ Yella even gets in his first appearance behind the drumkit on 2 Hard Mutha's, an engaging sound that the group would engage in sporadically to fine effect. Even if Eazy-Duz-It doesn't hit with quite the same force as Straight Outta Compton, its incrementally looser rhythms and balanced sequencing do point the way toward the nineties.

Low Profile - We're In This Together

(Priority: 1990)

The first record in this list to come from outside the N.W.A. organization, this is a collaboration between West Coast stalwart W.C. and DJ Aladdin. Low Profile made their first appearance on the previous year's Rhyme Syndicate Comin' Through compilation with the show-stealing Think You Can Hang?. That track isn't here, but this phenomenal record expands on its foundation. From W.C.'s deft, conscious microphone delivery to DJ Aladdin's loose, fleshed out production and devastating turntable skills, this is truly advanced technology for '89. This is something of a conscious flipside of the coin to a lot of the game related platters listed here. I've often felt that this is something of a West Coast counterpart to Gang Starr's Step In The Arena. An off the wall comparison, perhaps, but I couldn't resist making it! Keep Em Flowin' even sounds like a Jazzmatazz beat! Just listen to How Ya Livin' back to back with Step In The Arena (the track) and tell me I'm crazy. Of course, We're In This Together came out a whole year earlier... None of the records here are obscure, but for the longest time this one was incredibly hard to come by. You'd hear it whispered about by people in the know (it had a fearsome reputation as a lost classic), but you'd never see it in the shops. It was actually easier to track down on wax, along with the accompanying 12" singles. Well, Universal Japan has just stepped in with their Classic Hip Hop Best Collection 1000 reissue program, featuring this record among their first brace of releases. Don't sleep!

The D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better

(Ruthless: 1989)

The D.O.C. was N.W.A.'s secret weapon. Starting out as a member of the Ruthless-affiliated Fila Fresh Crew, the Dallas native set out for L.A. where he ghost-wrote some of N.W.A.'s rhymes behind the scenes. Here, he gets his chance to shine. Portrait Of A Master Piece is a literally breathtaking fast-forward deluge showcasing the state-of-the-art flow of one of the great uptempo lyrical stylists. Through the entirety of this sterling LP, The D.O.C.'s mic skills are top notch. This album catches Dr. Dre treating Audio Achievements as his own personal laboratory, further elaborating the sound of the previous records into a high-octane formula that he would continue to tweak over the next couple years. With a few exceptions, the drums are tighter and more compact (as opposed to the booming big beat of the earlier records), while the production has become more crisp and the rhythms increasingly fluid, with a greater emphasis on live musicians (not to mention further welcome appearances by Yella behind the kit). The Formula, Let The Bass Go and the title track are the first attempts at chilling out the Ruthless sound, slowing the tempos and cooling out the atmosphere in the process: an important step on the road to g-funk's genesis. These tracks themselves aren't g-funk per se, but the production is certainly starting to move further in that direction. The closing track, The Grande Finalé is a stunning posse cut, featuring the entirety of the original N.W.A. rhyming over a tremendous build up (pinned down by another ace breakbeat from Yella). If I'm not mistaken, this is the last time the original group would all be heard together on record.

Arabian Prince - Brother Arab

(Orpheus: 1989)

Oldskool renegade from the N.W.A. posse strikes out solo. The Arabian Prince actually had a history stretching back much further than the rest of the group, operating as a contemporary of The Egyptian Lover in the era of Uncle Jamm's Army, and consequently, much of this record is built on a heavy electro undercarriage. That's no bad thing, since Brother Arab is right at home in the form. This is a fascinating sound that he cooks up here, existing midway between his earlier records like Strange Life, It Ain't Tough and the sounds Dre essayed on The D.O.C. album. Gettin' Down even locks a loping blues guitar loop into a hypnotic groove with planet rocking 808 beats. However, the exceptions to the rule might be even even more compelling. Let The Good Times Roll (Nickel Bag), a murky downbeat number built on an ever-tumbling breakbeat, is a fabulous bit of hip hop noir, while She's Got A Big Posse, the album's biggest single, rides a Zapp-esque bounce that totally prefigures the classic g-funk sound. To my mind, one of the crucial elements of g-funk is the linear quality of its groove, stretching horizontally into infinity (as opposed to hip hop's usual vertically arranged change-ups). What's missing here is the greater emphasis on live musicianship and those whining sinewave synths, but the groove is definitely in the same ballpark. Still not textbook g-funk, but certainly strong enough shades in evidence to warrant a proto- prefix.

Above The Law - Livin' Like Hustlers

(Ruthless: 1990)

This one's a giant step forward. Dr. Dre had a hand in producing this LP for these Ruthless proteges. Above The Law introduce a rolling, cinematic sweep to this music, evoking OSTs like Shaft and Truck Turner in its widescreen sensibility. Menace To Society is essentially a gangster film in miniature, while Murder Rap samples Quincy Jones' Ironside theme, establishing an intense, maddening atmosphere. Another key development is the fact that ATL often operates on a laidback tip, as on Flow On (Move Me No Mountain) and Another Execution. Even on the uptempo numbers, they bring a nonchalant gangster lean to this material that would become a crucial element of the g-funk equation. N.W.A. even makes a cameo on The Last Song, certainly the most leisurely beat they'd yet been involved with. ATL's Cold 187um and LayLaw later claimed to have invented the g-funk sound (developing it further on the following year's Vocally Pimpin' EP), influencing Dre in the process. Whatever the veracity of those claims, it's clear that this is the next step in the evolution, whether instigated by Above The Law or Dr. Dre (or both). The crew continued to hit hard on their second LP, Black Mafia Life, an excellent follow up that exists just outside the timeframe of this list: although it was completed before The Chronic, it wasn't released until early '93.

N.W.A. - 100 Miles And Runnin'

(Ruthless: 1990)

I've included three major N.W.A. records here, so crucial are they to the L.A. story. There's just no getting around their centrality. This EP was released on the heels of Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and the title track seems to take on aspects of that record's monster production by The Bomb Squad. A widescreen epic running at a breakneck pace, it finds Dre splitting the difference between those uptempo D.O.C. tracks and Above The Law's cinematic sweep. This EP also marks the beginning of the group's descent into pure nastiness, with Just Don't Bite It's lush production backing the sort of off-color humor that would really come to the fore on the following record. Still, Dre's production finesse is continuing to develop at a staggering rate. The intricate breakbeat rhythm of Real Niggaz and Sa Prize (Part 2)'s liquid groove both demonstrate the new forms that were materializing at Audio Achievements. If there were a symbolic midpoint between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic, then this must be it.

WC And The Maad Circle - Ain't A Damn Thang Changed

(Orpheus: 1990)

WC again! Another Texan transplant (a bit of a pattern here), WC was always on his own level with a sort of street-level consciousness that always managed to sidestep preachiness and never failed to carry a fatal sting. This record finds The Maad Circle in its prime, with Coolio still in the fold (Fantastic Voyage and Gangsta's Paradise still a few years off), a steadfast Big Gee in evidence and kaleidoscopic production from Crazy Toones, Sir Jinx and WC himself. It's tempting to read this LP as a bracingly aggressive, West Coast gangsta take on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, so all-encompassing is its scope. With eagle eye observation and insight, tracks such as Fuck My Daddy (a rumination on the destructive impact of an abusive, no good, two-timing father) and Behind Closed Doors (a scathing indictment of police brutality - especially relevant in light of current events) tackle societal troubles head on and fill the corners of this LP with a richly detailed chronicle of life in south central L.A. WC would later hook up with Ice Cube and Mack 10 in supergroup Westside Connection, finally receiving widespread recognition and going double-platinum in the process. However, this and the Low Profile record remain absolutely essential listening, together offering a crucial glimpse into the man's unique breadth of vision. Both LPs certainly belong in any serious conversation about the best albums (hip hop or otherwise) to come out of L.A.

Ice Cube - Kill At Will

(Priority: 1990)

Ice Cube blazed a fierce trail through the early nineties, starting with his Bomb Squad produced debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and running through Death Certificate and The Predator at a blistering pace of one album every year - BAM BAM BAM! - and all within the timeframe of this list. The Kill At Will EP, released just after his debut, is my absolute favorite record of his. As a matter of fact, this just missed inclusion in The Parallax 100 (a decision that still keeps me up at night). Building on the sonic foundation of The Bomb Squad's work, this EP's masterful beat construction - by Sir Jinx, Chilly Chill and Ice Cube himself behind the boards - result in some of his absolute finest moments. The Product is a searing avalanche of fury, and one of the hardest hip hop tracks ever conceived (in both form and content). Cube weaves like a boxer through this densely-populated sonic matrix, chronicling the unforgiving circumstances that conspire to drag a young brother under, all while riding a jagged, amped up breakbeat. Jackin' For Beats showcases a rotating selection of hype rhythm tracks, switching them up rapid fire beneath one of the fiercest flows in the business. Dead Homiez is the flipside of the coin, with Cube reflecting on the mortality of himself and everyone around him over his own moody, half-lit downbeat production. There's a barely concealed desperation that creeps in through the cracks here, adding further context to the record's hardest moments. In just over twenty minutes, this EP runs the spectrum from rage to sorrow in an uncompromising vision of the world.

Ice-T - O.G. Original Gangster

(Sire: 1991)

As mentioned earlier, Ice-T looms large over L.A. hip hop, seemingly coming out of nowhere improbably early to lay the groundwork for the whole operation. Despite his comfortable niche with Law And Order nowadays, he deserves non-stop props for his trailblazing work as an innovator on the West Coast. His first three LPs are all crucial records, each providing an evolutionary step forward in development. O.G. Original Gangster finds him taking this sound into the nineties, moving with the times into an ever-funkier direction. This is a sprawling double-LP that paradoxically finds Ice-T tightening his game. It sits comfortably with the surrounding records in this list, taking in some of their aspects even as it expands on them with a nearly unmatched breadth of vision. DJ Aladdin produces a handful of tracks here, including the awesome New Jack Hustler (originally appearing - along with Ice-T himself - in the excellent film New Jack City). The production is some of the loosest around, beats swerving and diving with a nimble touch, and often running at lightning speed. Ice-T is razor sharp on the mic, as usual, dropping gems left and right (I'm raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro). Even the interludes are unforgettable.

N.W.A. - Efil4zaggin

(Ruthless: 1991)

The final N.W.A. album is a production tour de force. The beats on this record are simply phenomenal, taking the developments of 100 Miles And Runnin' to their logical conclusion. Dre's production arguably reaches its pinnacle of elegance here, weaving intricate tapestries of lush texture through sticky funk basslines and crisply executed breakbeats, resulting in one of the most compelling sounds in rap music (or any other, for that matter). Rock hard tracks like Approach To Danger and Real Niggaz Don't Die recall Compton even as they transcend it, improbably revealing a turn-on-a-dime agility beneath their monumental heaviness. Both tracks are shot through with an unresolved tension that reaches its apex in the frenetic roll of Appetite For Destruction. Stretching even further toward the future, Alwayz Into Somethin' - laidback, cooled out and boasting those whining sinewave synths - is generally considered to be the first true g-funk tune to hit the shops. Despite sagging into a mid-record sequence where the blue humor gets out of hand and veers into the intentionally offensive, the production remains top-notch throughout the entirety of this LP. In fact, it would easily stand on its own as an instrumental record. Dr. Dre would leave N.W.A. within the year, the group dissolving shortly after into solo careers, concluding one of the most impressive winning streaks in hip hop and quitting at the top of their game. For further reading, this excellent L.A. Times article is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the N.W.A. story.

DJ Quik - Quik Is The Name

(Profile: 1991)

This is an unabashed party record, featuring a handful of uptempo numbers (reaching their frenetic peak in Tear It Off) but generally easing back into a first-rate selection of West Coast bounce. DJ Quik had the linear g-funk thang down from the word go, spooling deep, funky grooves out into infinity. Part of Quik's appeal is the fact his sound seems to spring directly from the old school electrofunk sound of One Way and Kleeer, transforming that sound into something that could weather the '90s. Speaking of Kleeer, Quik Is The Name features an interpolation of their immortal Tonight in the rolling, endless Tonite, surely a textbook example of g-funk proper that prefigures the sound writ large on both The Chronic and Doggystyle. These moves continue in 8 Ball and permeate the entirety of this thoroughly loose LP. Quik's Groove, a gentle instrumental, lets the beats speak for themselves and betray Quik's love of pure electric funk. The closing Skanless is an engaging slice of slow-motion downbeat featuring AMG, Hi-C and 2nd II None, seemingly hewn from a longer marathon groove. In 1991, DJ Quik was also involved with Hi-C's Skanless and AMG's Bitch Betta Have My Money, the latter of which is an even looser, albeit less consistent, loony cousin to this record's non-stop party moves. The other day, I forgot to mention this video, an amusing interview with DJ Quik at Amoeba Records, and this seems as good a time as any to get in a mention.

Compton's Most Wanted - Straight Checkn 'Em

(Orpheus: 1991)

It's difficult to choose the best CMW record. The outfit's first three albums, released in quick succession - one a year - starting in 1990, all have their strong points to recommend them. I tend to go back and forth. This one - their second - stands out for its loping downbeat rhythms and desolate atmosphere, what Peter Shapiro brilliantly referred to as DJ Slip's dark jazz. MC Chill was sentenced to prison between the release of CMW's debut - It's A Compton Thang - and the sessions for Straight Checkn 'Em, leaving MC Eiht as the solitary vocal presence, further cementing the prevailing mood of downcast isolation in evidence throughout. With Slip and The Unknown DJ behind the mixing desk, the approach here seems to prefigure Dre's for the epochal Deep Cover (even if nothing here hits quite as hard as that tune). There's a casual fatalism to tracks like Def Wish and Growin' Up In The Hood that mark this LP out as a tour de force of gangsta-noir. Can I Kill It? even slips into the classic Footsteps In The Dark beat a whole year before Ice Cube would use it as the basis for his immortal It Was A Good Day. Indeed, whole sections of this record predict not only the sound of hip hop's eventual descent into darkness, but even seem to raise the spectre of trip hop's twisted methodology.

Dr. Dre - The Chronic

(Death Row: 1992)

Ready to leave N.W.A. and strike out on his own, Dr. Dre formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight and The D.O.C., kicking off the next chapter of the L.A. story. Dre's first solo record was Deep Cover (from the soundtrack to film of the same name), featuring vocals from a then-unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg. A Death Row release in all but name - it technically came out on Solar - Deep Cover was the first warning shot of things to come on Dre's full-length debut. Snoop's off the wall personality inhabits this record. Tracks like Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat and The Day The Niggaz Took Over continue to develop the dread atmosphere of Deep Cover, yet that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Chronic is where Dre nails down g-funk as a formula, utilizing live musicians to create rolling epics such as Fuck Wit Dre Day and Nuthin' But A "G" Thang. It's important to note the importance of Dre's earlier experiments with smoother, more r&b-based material on his productions for artists like Michel'Le and Jimmy Z in developing the clean, polished sounds of The Chronic. The sun-glazed vibes of a track like Let Me Ride seem to flow directly from those smooth sonics. Built on a sizeable chunk of Parliament's Mothership Connection, Let Me Ride is just one example of p-funk's totemic importance throughout this record. Indeed, George Clinton interpolations are the order of the day here, cropping up all over the place. Between L.A. and Detroit, Clinton's influence seemed to be everywhere in the nineties. If you were aiming for the dancefloor - be it hip hop, r&b or techno - p-funk loomed large over the decade's excursions into rhythm. Remaking hip hop in the image of earthshaking electric funk, The Chronic changed the face of West Coast rap and became its dominant sound for the foreseeable future. It's usually a stretch to put sea changes down to a single record, but this truly is a case where one record did provide that watershed moment. At the height of the sampladelic age, it opened rap up once again to the possibilities of both live playing and synthesized textures on the widest scale imaginable. As its sound quickly spread worldwide, reverberations began to be felt everywhere, and one could largely trace the direction hip hop has taken in the ensuing years back to this record. Much like Straight Outta Compton before it, The Chronic catalyzed a whole new thing into existence that had to be acknowledged one way or the other. The rest is history...