For some time, it seemed UK hip-hop of individuality and distinction had begun with [a]Tricky[/a]’s ascent then crashed to a halt with his drift into outright unfathomable territory. Yet now, sauntering out of the grey void of south London, comes a convincing argument to the contrary.
Apparently, [a]Roots Manuva[/a] makes a fine contribution to [a]Leftfield[/a]’s new album but, seeing as that band’s improper grasp of timekeeping means it probably won’t appear until some time between late this year and never, here’s where our appreciation of his indelible rap skills begins.
There’s a plaintive groove, a peerless bass wobble and Manuva “spinning a ball of confusion”, prowling through a song about ugly men on his TV, global economic collapse and being a superstar everywhere from Peckham to Box Hill – which sells his expertise extraordinarily short, frankly.
As befits his name, the balmy growl of ragga and reggae makes itself felt, with a dense, pulsating texture reminiscent of Busta Rhymes, several of Wu-Tang Clan and Buju Banton working in accomplished union. If this is how [a]Roots Manuva[/a] ‘juggles tings’ we look forward to him breathing fire, riding the trapeze and pulling bunnies from a hat before long.
THE FOUR STOREYS
“Four handsome young men with guitars,” the press release explains, before apologising for this being affectionate, reflective, less than immediate and, in many respects, wedged in an early-’70s timewarp. They needn’t worry, however, as Oxford’s The Four Storeys divulge their tale of spurned love, despair and heavy boozing with a tender touch, celestial air and fine grasp of how to be gently, wonderfully strange. [I]”I’m falling into trouble”[/I], the singer laments and you want to go there with him, as at various points on ‘Castaway’ and ‘Take Another Turn’ he resembles a young Robert Wyatt and an upbeat Bob Dylan, with his band shaping a spectral ballad on the former and a rollicking folk-rock strum on the latter. Four Storeys high and, judging by this, definitely rising.
You Got Me
Rarely do Philadelphia’s The Roots last a week without someone proclaiming them the best live hip-hop band in the solar system. This really means they are more of a funk band which, in turn, means they’re scarcely declared hip-hop greats in any other respect. ‘You Got Me’ is a case in point, with an overbearing surfeit of twangy ‘real music’ hogging the stage, while gutsier accoutrements like scattershot sampling and people shouting crazy things at top volume rarely get a look in. This would be a blander missive still if it weren’t for the presence of Erykah Badu. The only serious rival to Lauryn Hill for the title of First Lady Of Soul, she isn’t allowed to get as irrepressibly poetic and poignant as on her superlative ‘Baduizm’ album but nevertheless does stop you from falling completely asleep.
Look, I know you’re not going to believe this, but Whitney released a decent album late last year. Hardened members of the R&B fraternity were expecting the worst, more Bodyguard-shaped dross, when, yo and behold, ‘My Love Is Your Love’ emerged as a convincing bond of street-smart tunes and state-of-the-art rhythms, with Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill among those checking in to lend their support.
For those who haven’t yet exploded with incredulity, this is one of that album’s high points. R&B wunderkind producer Rodney Jerkins whisks up a backdrop of crystalline chimes and natty rhythms and though Whitney won’t quite allow herself to get down and dirty in the urban sprawl like, say, Lil’ Kim or Faith Evans, she nevertheless equals the track’s artfully funky mood. Next week: God’s honest truth news of Celine Dion‘s unrecognised brilliance.
Having tendered a cleverly kinky remix of Pulp‘s ‘Party Hard’, Vienna’s favourite robo-voiced techno-sleaze returns with the track which lifted him to prominence in the first place. Now on a bigger label, with serious chart action hopefully within reach, ‘I’m A Disco Dancer’ is a rugged, elasticated club destroyer burnished with all the flair we’ve come to expect from our Euro chums. Then, for the remix, it’s over to Norman Cook to do what Norman does best: slice out the quiet bits, pump up the loud ones, add a few of his own design, then stand back to cherish the smashingly messy view.
Mixed Blood (Mambo Roc)
Anyone can sample the past. What’s trickier, requiring savvy rather than just shiny technology, is doing so in a manner which amounts to more than a mildly engaging rewind down someone else’s memory lane. And, on this showing, Bronx Dogs have that gift in abundance.
The title pertains to the oft disregarded mix of culture that influenced hip-hop’s embryonic stage, the intro advises we time-travel back to New York circa 1979, to a time when the mean streets were at their meanest but hope still sprung eternal. Then, before proceedings become too worthy and melancholy, the Dogs administer a swift, funky jamboree pack of samples which hold great truck in slipping from disco to Latin to electro to a wacky brass refrain with little concern for whether the listener is fit enough to keep up. That Richard Sen and Paul Eve are DJs counts for much, as this properly rocks dancefloors whereas much old-skool fare only believes it does. Sufficiently detailed in its vivid perusal of bygone days, that buying this means you won’t have to watch that rubbish Wild Style movie, either.
You’re The Same
Small-town torment put to good use for once, as Kettering’s The Junket parade a fireball of rasping guitars, succinct tunesmithery and sneakily accomplished dynamics. There’s a knack for brittle intensity and being ear-scorchingly loud without being mind-numbingly prosaic on both ‘You’re The Same’ and ‘Cargo‘. Like a pithier, more rough-cut Idlewild, through avoiding being flash The Junket craft their own honest, unkempt form of flash. Their home town can be proud of them, if not of much else.
Hip-hop-powered vehicle for a new movie, and so not a novel idea. Stoned, salacious tracks from Case & Joe and Dru Hill provide support, but it’s the champion playa Jay-Z who best turns up the heat. ‘Can I Get A…’ is a highlight from his otherwise unenthralling ‘Hard Knock Life’ album, a modernist sheen of blips, pulses, sparse beats and concise funk, on which the Brooklyn prodigy [I]”flows futuristic”[/I] and goes [I]”Whoop! Whoop!”[/I] as if he were a happy little cartoon steam train. Don’t listen too close, mind, because for much of the time he seems preoccupied with that old chestnut of women always being on his case because he’s a multi-platinum star, not because they really love him or think he’s a funny, sweet kinda guy. Fresh sounds, rotten message, therefore.
Music about music, essentially, with Urban Species‘ Mintos name-checking Chuck D, Melle Mel and Marvin Gaye, before declaring that putting the needle on a record is much like sticking drugs in your arm. Singer Imogen Heap embellishes the incandescent funk mood with a deep-set quaver, yet still this doesn’t fully get into gear – partly because of a fiddly guitar line which Dire Straits would now like back, please, and, less specifically, a pervading sense that somehow it could have been considerably more emphatic and fulfilling.
Step forward remixer Four Tet (aka Fridge‘s Kieran Hebden) with a noteworthy alternative plan. An infinitely more hypnotic one, too, because while once people feared foreign agents were going to slip LSD into the water supply, said spies can now perform the dastardly task with this wildly undulating affair, rendering an entire nation wholly unfit to operate heavy machinery or indeed stand up without falling straight back over again. A majestic jazzoid-tripno-weirdo reworking, though such is its utter wooziness that those prone to seasickness might like to approach it with a handful of Kwells and a big bucket.
Pugnacious bulldog of a tune which began life when NME pressed up a copy and presented it to John Peel as a birthday prezzie. It opens with a telephone conversation between Smith and Inch, the garrulous Manc recommending they play the drums while sitting on a fookin’ table. Then, a cross between industria-hip-hop and art-punk hubris fires up, MC Smith, as ever, yelling like a drunkard with a megaphone, grimacing over things which have been getting on his wick of late. That table must be knackered by now and so are we, as the original version of ‘Inch’ never offers much charm amid the pandemonium. Turn to the DOSE mix to hear the tune cast in a brighter, bolder light, roaring towards both jungle and Digital Hardcore environs. Unlike the other versions, these six minutes fly by thrillingly.
Back Together (remix)
While the ever industrious Stephen Jones focuses on completing another album of deviant kicks, this, from his ‘There’s Something Going On’ long-player, finds itself unfairly deposited in the wrong hands. They belong to producer Steve Lironi, who, having previously played a part in Audioweb and Hanson, makes few amends by grafting a morass of orchestral gloop to what had been a perfectly lovable, slatternly and desolate ballad. Strings over-emphasise what was clear and precise before, stacking up frilly bombast that appears primed for the closing credits of a film which didn’t end altogether happily and, in doing so, sticks a 12″ knife in the song’s fragile heart. It’s rather like seeing a normally scruffy mate bedecked in ridiculous finery and as in that situation, you feel like telling the tune to go home and get back into some grubby jeans.
Van wears a big black hat and shades on the cover but, inside, effectively admits this is a tad foolish given his age. To a relentlessly skanking, rootsy reggae and brassy folk rhythm, he mourns the passing of time, the withering of beauty, rivers running dry and, perhaps, the blasted fact that he can’t run up stairs as fast as he used to. This would probably be fine if only he didn’t sound so damned chuffed about it all. Also if some unchecked muso wasn’t getting far too chirpy on a sax and if the inane chorus didn’t return as a prize irritant every 30 seconds, goading the listener to gnaw their tongue off. Really, their must be more distinguished, less gory ways to settle into your autumn years.
An entertaining scene is sure to go down when the Fugees next meet in the studio. There’ll be Lauryn Hill, exuding the richest soul music, Wyclef Jean, insisting on playing his acoustic guitar and this man, loading Spandau Ballet, Modern Romance and Lena Zavaroni in the sampler. The pop band co-opted for his latest outing is Culture Club, whose ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’ crops up in relatively subtle fashion by Pras‘ standards. However, while it might not have kept things particularly real, ‘Ghetto Supastar’ was vibrantly cheeky pop, whereas ‘What’cha Wanna Do’ is lacklustre, threadbare and a cinch to brush aside. Selling out is one thing, doing so this dully is another.
Astonishing. While British guitar music’s name is dragged through the mud like never before, Gene return as undercover agents for the opposition, proffering a torpid blare of jangle, whine and faux sentiments that, by a long way, are more hollow than an empty box. This means they’re picking up exactly where they left off, of course, except with an increased proclivity for political posturing added for desperate measure. For all we know Gene have impeccable beliefs in this field, but really, it’d be better for all concerned if they’d write them down in list form and hand them out on fliers. Moreover, doesn’t this single’s title just bode so phenomenally well for the upcoming album?