Innerviews, music without borders

Us3
Seamless blends
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2009 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

us3

There are few acts as eclectic as Us3 that have managed to enjoy major chart success. Led by British producer and composer Geoff Wilkinson, the band’s seamless blend of hip-hop and jazz first captured the imagination of listeners worldwide in 1993 with the release of the seminal Hand on the Torch album and its smash hit single “Cantaloop.” The disc brought together MCs with tremendous lyrical and vocal skills, a wealth of jazz samples mined from the Blue Note Records catalog, and irresistibly addictive song structures and arrangements that catapulted it to classic status. It also significantly influenced many jazz/hip-hop hybrids that followed—to this very day.

Fast forward to 2009. Us3 is still going strong and just released its seventh album, Stop. Think. Run. After years of being burdened by the major label machine, the act is an independent entity, which means Wilkinson is free to take his music in any direction he desires. For instance, nu-soul, Latin and other world music have surfaced in Us3’s music in recent years.

Wilkinson liberated himself from the sampling universe with the first independent Us3 disc Questions in 2004 and now focuses on combining engaging beats and electronica elements with contributions from some of Britain’s finest jazz musicians, as well as up-and-coming MCs. For Stop. Think. Run, Wilkinson brought two New York City rappers into the fold—23-year-old Sene and 20-year-old Brook Yung. The duo infuses Us3’s sound with an edgy, street vibe, as well as lyrics that examine the current global economic turmoil and its effects on urban communities. The album also features several top-tier instrumentalists, including saxophonist Ed Jones, trumpeters Bryan Corbett and Chris Storr, and pianist John Crawford. Venerable turntablist DJ First Rate rounds out the line-up.

The new album incorporates many of Us3’s sonic hallmarks, but also includes several songs in which the scales tip significantly towards the hip-hop side. Wilkinson wasn’t afraid to let his MCs vividly depict the gritty reality of the New York underclass and combined their observations with hard-hitting beats and a more minimalist production approach than on previous discs.

Wilkinson reflected on the perspectives explored in the new album, as well as his past triumphs in this expansive conversation.

Stop. Think. Run. is the most street-leaning, hip-hop-oriented record you’ve done. Tell me about the move in that direction.

I always try to do something different on each album and for the new one, I wanted to make something a bit harder, and definitely more hip-hop. I gave myself a lot of time to do the album. I didn’t release anything or tour last year with the band. I also moved my studio to within 15 minutes of my home. Previously, I had to travel an hour to get to my studio. That really changed the way I work. Now, it’s very easy to just nip down there when I have an idea. Also, I sold a lot of my analog equipment, including my Moogs and other old synths. I got rid of the lot and bought some shiny new small boxes that are a hundred times more powerful. I felt I needed to shake things up and do something different and Stop. Think. Run is what came out of the process. Part of pursuing a harder edge relates to the fact that I listened to loads of new stuff in between albums. When you’re an independent artist and putting together a band and a tour, you can get bogged down in the organizational element of it. But I didn’t have any of that last year, so I chilled out and checked out a lot of different hip-hop producers. Being a producer, I tend to follow producers more than individual artists. Some of the people I got into included Lil Jon, Timbaland and Just Blaze, who I really like in particular.

How did you find and hook up with Sene and Brook Yung, your new MCs?

I found both of them on MySpace. It’s a lot easier finding vocalists nowadays with it. Previously, I used to go through a network of people I know and have them recommend vocalists. They would then send demos over and it was a very long process from start to finish. There are two things I look for in a rapper—their lyrical content and flow. Through MySpace, I was able to see and hear what they were about, and then connect quickly and easily. The other important thing is to see if there’s something that sparks and can work with what I’m doing at the time and they both definitely had that.

Do you provide any lyrical direction to your MCs?

They write their own lyrics. I’m not a lyricist, but I may help shape things before they take the track and work on the words. I’ll often play them different tracks in the studio in varying stages of completion. Sometimes the tracks are completely finished, and sometimes they are a bare sketch that I go on to build a track around.

I wanted the new album to be more serious and reflect the times we live in, including the whole economic upheaval. I spoke to both MCs about that and they each wrote some really interesting lyrics. I’m also really interested in the tradition of new music being influenced by what’s gone before. Brook is very much a spoken word artist. It’s what he’s best known for in the States. So I played him Branford Marsalis’ version of Charles Mingus’ “Scenes in the City,” a spoken word track in which Mingus talked about living in an oppressive urban environment. The original track was done in 1958. Then I played Brook the backing track for “Gotta Get Out of Here” and asked him to update the “Scenes in the City” vibe and write about the similar pressures, but in a 2009 setting. I think he wrote really well to that. He really got into it.

There’s another track called “The Future Ain’t What It Once Was” which also relates to the whole economic situation we’re in. I got into a big conversation with Sene one night in a bar. We talked about how it’s going to take at least 10 years for all the financial institutions to get onto any sort of level footing again. We also discussed the fact that many people don’t have that much to look forward to. Typically, most people look forward to the future with the hope that things in general will improve, but suddenly, it seemed like the future changed because of the debt so many people got into. That’s another example of providing some direction.

Another example is “The Love of My Life." The backing track felt romantic to me, so I asked Brook to write the lyric. He was only 19 when he wrote it. I asked him to write about the most beautiful woman he’d ever been with or been in a relationship with. I wasn’t sure what he’d come up with as a 19 year-old, but he wrote something really beautiful and tender that surprised me. I think both Sene and Brook really rose to the challenges I presented them with.

Was there a generation gap to transcend in order to make the collaboration work?

Admittedly, I’m old enough to be their father. But I think there’s an inherent respect because they know what I’ve done in the past and understand that I really know my stuff. I’ve been into hip-hop longer than both of them have been alive and have a deep history with the music. I think maybe they were a bit surprised that some older white guy from England knows so much about their culture. I’ve had that with 90 percent of the rappers I’ve worked with. They typically don’t expect me to be so knowledgeable, but I think that’s one of the main ways I’m able to win them over.

Describe your overall philosophy as a bandleader.

I used to have a saying from Helen Keller written down that said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” I try not to have expectations. I go into situations with low expectations and see what comes out of them, and then start shaping things once I see the possibilities. Having said that, it’s a lot easier working with the musicians I use now because I’ve been using them for a long time. I’ve used some different keyboard players on the new album, but most of the people on the disc have been with me for quite awhile. I have an extended family of musicians who know what I want. In fact, I try to push them into doing things a bit more out of the box. I think that sums up my whole philosophy as a leader and producer. My goal as a producer is to get a musician or vocalist comfortable with me and then move the walls out without telling them what’s happening. Doing that helps them go in different areas they might not normally go into. I’ve used that analogy to describe how I work with the rappers, particularly when I want to get them to rap over different time signatures or bossa nova rhythms—things they wouldn’t typically do in New York City. It’s easier to bring them out here, out of their environment, in order to get them to experiment more.

A similar thing happened when I brought DJ First Rate into the band in 2001. The musicians in Us3 had been touring together for many years before that without a DJ. When I told them I was bringing in a DJ, they looked at me as if to say “To do what?” They were all skeptical, but once they saw what he does, they were lining up to get him to teach them scratching and turntable trickery. He immediately won them over with his phenomenal musicality, which was great.

I caught the Stop. Think. Run tour in Barcelona a few weeks ago and was tremendously impressed. Describe the Us3 live performance philosophy.

I’ve been presenting the group in a live band context since 2001. The line-up has largely stayed the same in terms of instrumentation and some of the individuals have stayed through then too. I’m running beats from my laptop; on double bass we have Chris Dodd; on keyboards we have Mike Gorman who’s been with Us3 since 2001 and played on the last few albums; and DJ First Rate on turntables, who is one of the best DJs I’ve ever witnessed in my life and a member of The Scratch Perverts, who won the 1999 World DMC Team Championship—the first time anyone outside of America won it. We also have my long-time collaborator Ed Jones on sax and Brian Corbett, a phenomenal young trumpet player from Birmingham. Of course, we have the two new rappers Sene and Brook as well.

As for the philosophy, the songs need structure on stage, but I also like to have an element of danger too. I’m a huge fan of live music. I go out and see a lot of concerts. I think live music should have some unpredictability to it and because we do, a lot of the musicians have stuck with me for a long time. They are, after all, jazz musicians, and that’s a core element of their thinking. The other thing about my approach is that I like everyone to be a star in the band. That’s why everyone has their own solo spots to show off what they can do. They’re all fantastic players. Ultimately, I want the musicians to enjoy themselves and have fun interacting with one another. I think you definitely get that at an Us3 show.

The one perpetual problem I have on stage is trying to stop the rappers from talking over the solos. It’s unusual for most of the rappers I’ve worked with to be in a band of such great musicians. Sometimes when the focus isn’t on them, it’s hard for them to move the mic away from their mouth and let someone else have the limelight. It’s a constant battle that I’ve had with all of the rappers that have ever been in the band. I have to keep drilling it into them that they shouldn’t talk over the solos. But it’s not just me. The musicians aren’t shy. They’ll have a word with them if they get talked over. [laughs]

Schizophonic from 2006 is one of the highlights of Us3’s back catalog. Provide some insight into the making of that record.

That disc was made really quickly. When we toured the Questions album which came out in October 2004, we managed to put together quite a big tour for 2005 to support it, comprising about 50 gigs. We had a really good band then. There were only two people who were different in that band from the line-up we have now. When you’ve done that many gigs as a unit, things start to automatically click. In addition, everybody got on really well, which is critically important when you’re on the road, living in each other’s pockets. It was a really great touring experience.

With the Questions album, I tried to do something nu soul-oriented, which I don’t think was a huge success for me. From an audience perspective, I could see that the more up-tempo tracks were what they were reacting to more. So it was a conscious decision to make the next album more live sounding and up-tempo. Literally, as soon as we got back from the tour, I pulled the musicians into the studio one by one and set out making Schizophonic. I wanted to keep it fun and upbeat. It’s also one of the most experimental albums I’ve done, rhythmically speaking. There’s a lot of variation in that regard.

Then I found Akil Dasan and Gaston, the two rappers on the record. I heard about them from a guy called Rocky who organized events at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. He sent me some stuff by them and I thought they had quite different styles, but would also complement each other very well. They also knew each other, which was a bonus. I brought them over here at the same time and they wrote some things together like “Girls U Like.” They both had a great sense of humor, fit in really well, and just clicked.

You went on to use Akil and Gaston again on 2007’s Say What!?—a rarity given that you like using new vocalists on successive Us3 releases.

We did that because the Schizophonic tour wasn’t nearly as extensive as the 2005 tour. That’s because it’s difficult to go back and play the same places every year when there are so many other bands touring. So we didn’t get out as much as we wanted. During the gigs we did do, there was an increasing interaction between Akil and Gaston than I had previously captured, so I decided to keep using them for the next recording. For Say What!?, I asked them if they wanted to do it and they said they were really up for it. But I also felt the need to change things slightly as well. I had been listening to a lot of R&B stuff which was going in a more gritty funk direction—stuff like Rich Harrison’s productions for people like Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera. I was quite intrigued to do something like that as well, so I talked to Akil and Gaston and asked if they knew any singers in New York that could work. Akil recommended Adeline, a girl from Paris. She had done some stuff in New York too. Being relatively close to Paris, it was quite an easy thing to bring her across the channel into London and see if it would work, and it did immediately, so we ended up having three vocalists on Say What!?.

Many have tried to blend hip-hop and jazz and few have succeeded. What enables you to do it so well with Us3?

The difference between the way I do it and a way a lot of the hip-hop producers have done it is they are mostly coming from a pop perspective and are trying to integrate it from a jazz-funk angle. The angles I’m coming at it from are hard bop and soul jazz—that classic early-to-mid ‘60s Blue Note sound. That’s what I wanted to fuse with hip-hop, rather than try to blend some kind of Roy Ayers-type sound into hip-hop. Whether or not I am more successful at it than other people is for others to judge, but I do think I try to do things differently.

When did you first start going down this path?

I had been struggling away with it for quite awhile before I met the Blue Note people. I was working with some English rappers, as well as the sax player Ed Jones, who is still in Us3 today. He’s played on every Us3 album and does the horn arrangements. He’s my right-hand man. We did some stuff around 1989, which is when Ed and I first recorded together. I took cassettes of that early work to every A&R man in London without getting anywhere. I decided to press up my own white label of the track “Where Will We Be in the 21st Century?” and released it under the name MC Honey Bee, the English rapper on it. I did that to get things moving. At the time it came out in 1990, it was highly unusual to press up your own 12” and then sell it yourself. Hardly anyone was doing that back then. Perhaps my proactive stance paid off.

I literally carried around a box of that first white label to record specialists and record shops and they took them on a consignment basis. Most of them thankfully sold. And that’s how Ninja Tune learned of me. At that time it was a very small label. Back then, I used to work at a record store with a guy named Duncan who knew Matt Black, one of the Coldcut guys that owned Ninja Tune. I’d also met him before, as well as Jon More, the other guy behind the label. Jon was quite a big DJ in the London underground warehouse scene, playing funk and jazzy stuff. So Ninja Tune offered me a deal. I’ve still got the contract. It’s one page and says “If it does well, we’ll do another.” [laughs] There are no figures on it at all. I think they gave me 200 pounds to record the single “The Band Played the Boogie,” released under the name NW1, which is the postcode for Camden Town in London, where I used to live.

I sampled Grant Green’s version of “Sookie, Sookie” for it. There was a jazz-dance scene going on for awhile at that period in London. Dropping that track was the equivalent of dropping James Brown’s “Sex Machine” in New York City. Within that jazz-dance scene, “Sookie, Sookie” was really well known, but I knew outside of that pocket, it wouldn’t be. So I put an English rapper on top, Ed Jones played some blistering sax on it and Ninja Tune put it out. They managed to get it playlisted on Kiss FM, a pirate radio station in London that had just turned legal at the time, so it was blasting out everywhere and became a hit. It was good timing for me.

I soon got a call from the assistant of an A&R guy at EMI named David Field. They summoned me for a meeting and I went along. I had spoken to Matt and Jon at Ninja Tune beforehand and they said “Just go and see what he wants to talk about.” I know they hadn’t cleared the “Sookie, Sookie” sample. At that time in the early ‘90s, sample clearance wasn’t something most people were doing. But I suspected that might be what the meeting was about. So I went to the guy’s office, knocked on his door and he was smiling, so I knew we were off to a positive start. During that first meeting, he said he bought three copies of the single and sent one to Capitol Records’ A&R office in Los Angeles and another to Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note, in New York. And he kept one for himself.

He recognized the sample, obviously, but Blue Note wasn’t planning on suing me. They just wanted to talk about the track and hear the story of how it came together and became a hit. I had a carpe diem moment at that point and said to him during that first meeting “If you let me use the Blue Note back catalog as a sampling resource, this could be the ultimate fusion of hip-hop and jazz.” At the time, there were other people doing it. I wasn’t the first person to think about this by a long shot. Prince Paul did “Talkin’ All That Jazz” with Stetsasonic and Gang Starr was doing a jazz thing too. It was a hot trend and I was in the right place at the right time.

David understood that I knew what I was talking about in terms of hip-hop and the Blue Note catalog. I was a huge fan of the label and owned hundreds of Blue Note albums. So he was up for the idea straightaway but said “I can’t give you permission to do this without talking to Bruce.” He called me up a couple of days later and said they would give me 2,000 pounds to do some demos, which I did and submitted in March 1992. We submitted two tracks: “Cantaloop,” which was largely the same as the version everyone knows, and another track that didn’t make it onto the album. I got one right and one wrong. And that got us a deal. But Blue Note played it safe by only giving us a three-single deal. Nobody anticipated what “Cantaloop” was going to do at that time. It was only when it first came out six months later in Japan in October 1992 that they understood the potential. The track started going bananas in Japan. That was where I first went to do some promotion, back in December 1992. The Japanese were screaming for a full album, so the record label withdrew the single and the three-single deal suddenly turned into an eight-album deal. We set about frantically making Hand on the Torch before they reissued “Cantaloop” because they wanted an album to back up the single.

I didn’t realize Hand on the Torch was made in a mad rush.

It was a bit, yeah. Then what happened is there was an enormous change in personnel at Capitol Records in Los Angeles around the time the album had come out in Europe and Japan in June 1993. The CEO changed and he sacked everyone underneath him and hired new people. But it took so long to happen. I had taken on a manager at that point and he insisted on pulling the album from the release schedule because there was no point in releasing it in America without the personnel being there to work the record. It drove me mad, because in Europe we got the album out before the first Digable Planets and Jazzmatazz albums. But in retrospect, those albums possibly softened up the market for us to come out with what was essentially a hip-hop record on a jazz label, and it worked. It was unusual, but it got a great deal of attention from a lot of people.

Since Hand on the Torch, many jazz artists have incorporated hip-hop into their work without apology. Do you feel you had a role in making that happen?

Obviously, it became a really hip thing to do, although I’m not sure to what extent most jazz musicians really understand hip-hop. A lot of them just put generic breakbeats behind the music, which is the worst way to do it. That really annoys me to be honest. A real blanding out of things occurred, and it was possibly responsible for a lot of the dreadful smooth jazz that emerged. I’m sure a lot of people see Hand on the Torch as some kind of coffee table album—a hip thing to have around. But obviously, when we made it, we didn’t know what we were doing really. I’ve never looked at it in that way. I always thought it was more edgy than most of the jazz/hip-hop hybrids that came after its release. I’ve always tried to make stuff that’s on the edgy side.

After “Cantaloop” was released, Herbie Hancock started performing his own hip-hop version of “Cantaloupe Island.” What was it like to know you influenced the artist whose work you originally sampled?

I thought it was cool. There’s no reason for why he shouldn’t do it, since “Cantaloop” was partly his tune. I think people should rework their own stuff and create new and interesting versions. It’s possibly more surprising that he didn’t do a hip-hop version first. I’ve met Herbie several times and seen him perform “Cantaloupe Island” with a trio—the straight-ahead version. Once, he introduced it as a song by Us3, which I thought was quite funny. He laughed and so did the audience. Whether he knew I was in the audience or not, I have no idea. He’s always been very complimentary about “Cantaloop.”

There haven’t been many Us3 remixes since you left the major label universe. Prior to going independent, there were reams of them.

Truthfully, I think remixes are a record company thing to try and sell product to a slightly wider audience. I’m not a fan of remixes. You don’t get remixes in any other form of artistry. Nobody would draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa and try to sell it as a remix. No-one would rewrite a book or redirect a film and call it something else. Remixes are slightly ridiculous things, really.

Having said that, you’ve had some very interesting people remix your work like Nitin Sawhney and Q-Burns Abstract Message.

When the labels asked me to do them, I got some input into who I wanted involved, so I tried to make the best of it. It’s funny, the first time they asked me who I wanted to remix “Cantaloop,” I said “Get Public Enemy.” [laughs] So, the Bomb Squad, their production team, remixed it. They put lots of loops together throughout the track and punched things in and out of it on the fly. It didn’t sound anything like an Us3 track. It had the trumpet and Rahsaan’s voice, but apart from that, it had the archetypal Bomb Squad sound. It was one of those things that never got released. The truth is, I’ve never really liked any remix of any Us3 track. When I started putting stuff out on my own, I thought “I’m not going to go down that route anymore.”

You revisited “Cantaloop” yourself on the Questions album, albeit in a re-recorded form. What made you want to have another go at it?

It’s common for major labels to put a clause in their contracts called “the re-recording restriction.” Blue Note did that for me, which meant I wasn’t allowed to re-record “Cantaloop” for 10 years. That’s restrictive to say the least. The way I looked at it was I wanted to carry on the jazz tradition which finds artists reinventing their work or other people’s works. I was itching to redo “Cantaloop,” but had to wait until 2004 to do it legally. Once it came around, I did loads of different versions of it and put it out as the Cantaloop 2004 EP. I slowed it down and did a soul version. I also did a version with flute as the lead instrument instead of trumpet.

Is it both a blessing and a curse to have “Cantaloop” permanently associated with you wherever you go?

The curse is people still ask me about samples. Many still think I’m using them. I saw a recent review of the new album that said “Geoff Wilkinson has cooked up some tasty samples for Stop. Think. Run.” I haven’t used samples since the third album in 2001—that’s four albums without any samples on them. I got associated with releasing sample-based albums and now everyone thinks that’s all I do, which is not true. The blessing is “Cantaloop” made a lot of money and it’s kept us going. It’s the track that will never die. [laughs] You saw the massive audience reaction to “Cantaloop” at the Barcelona show. It’s the same wherever we go. We still play it every night and people go berserk for it, including those who must have literally been babies at the time it came out. I wish I knew why. If I did, I would have done it again. [laughs]

One of the lesser-known outfits you’ve been involved with is the instrumental Voodoo Funk Project. Describe its intent and your interest in going that route.

Voodoo Funk Project included me, the bass player Julian Crampton, who has done lots of gigs with Us3 in the past, Ed Jones, and Mike Gorman. We also had Tony Remy, a phenomenal guitarist, come and sit in on two tracks as well. It was a “Hey guys, do you fancy coming to the studio to make an instrumental record?” thing. We were trying to make an edgy smooth jazz album, or smooth jazz with sharp edges. [laughs] We just jammed on the music in the studio and once it was done, we looked for a label to release it. We signed with a label in the States called 215 to release Deep in the Cut and it went bankrupt. The whole situation turned into a complete nightmare. By this time, I was so sick of the American music business that I gave up on the States. So many bad things have happened to me on the American business side. I thought “I’ll continue with what I do in Europe. I’ll get on with what I know and not beat myself up over that stuff.” I always thought it was a shame Voodoo Funk Project never turned into a live thing. 

I’ve done quite a few projects outside of Us3. A really interesting one is ED/GE with Ed Jones. It came out of a conversation with Ed about big bands and how nobody was updating that sound. We both love big bands and decided to make an album called A View From The ED/GE that featured a modernized update. It’s a big band album with beats. It even includes a version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” All told, I’ve done four different albums on the label, all of which will be digitally available in America in the next couple of months. Anyone interested can also learn about them at kwerk.net.

It sounds like working at the independent level is a bit of a double-edged sword for you. It offers you complete artistic freedom, but creating awareness is more daunting.

That’s true. The obvious downside is operating at a much lower profile. Before, I used to be on the receiving end of a marketing campaign. When I began releasing things on my own, I had to devise the campaigns, which was a new experience for me. I think the live band is the best marketing tool I have, which is why I try to do as many gigs as possible. Given how big the band is, it doesn’t really make a profit. It’s more of a fun thing to do and it promotes the album. So, it’s a difficult and frustrating situation to be in. I think most artists feel this way, but I feel Us3 deserves a wider audience today. I think there’s still a potentially huge audience for my stuff, but getting the music across, publicity-wise, involves spending a lot of money with no guarantee of success. That’s the really scary part of releasing things independently. So you have to try and keep yourself in check and not get overly excited about what may or may not happen. I’ve always felt that if I just carried on putting out good quality stuff and kept the band touring, that sooner or later, I would be rediscovered in a larger way. Whether that’s a romantic notion or not, I don’t know, because there’s so much stuff coming out.

What further musical boundaries do you seek to explore with Us3 going forward?

I talked to David Field, the first A&R guy who signed me up, about making different albums, like those I experienced when I was a kid. I used to really admire people like David Bowie in the ‘70s. Every album he made in those days was completely different from the one before. Today, most artists couldn’t get away with that. Labels just don’t let people develop to that extent. You get dropped after one record if it doesn’t sell or if your second record doesn’t sell as much as the first. What David told me was “If you want to make a pure salsa album, followed by a pure hip-hip album, you should do it.” I really liked that idea, though it never came to fruition with the major labels. The idea of doing something that changes from album to album still really appeals to me though, and you do see that in the records I’ve been doing. However, changing radically from one Us3 album to another is a bit dangerous, especially when you’re releasing things independently. You could put people off who think you’ve turned into something completely different. You have to preserve an identifiable sound even while fusing new elements into it. Another thing I’d like to do is an all-star Us3 album that includes some very well-known guest musicians and rappers that I really like—people like Chuck D and Paris. There continue to be many possibilities for Us3 in the future and I look forward to exploring them. 

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