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Rap meets Techno, with a short history of Electro
By Tim Haslett1995 has seen the decisive return of the lost narratives and hidden histories of one of hip hop's most overlooked moments, namely electro funk. From the recent path-breaking work of the Burden Brothers at Detroit's 430 West and Direct Beat labels, to the innovative Clear and Evolution labels in England, as well as the music of Ann Arbor's Ectomorph, the Kingsize Crew from Connecticut, and even Leftfield's "Original" which samples chunks of "Stick 'Em" by the Fat Boys, the brilliant yet often despised electro years of hip hop are coming home to roost. The search for a unitary moment of origin for electro would probably be fruitless. Nevertheless, the work of Afrika Bambaataa in his formative "Planet Rock" years provides a good point of entry. What followed from the cavernous 808 pulses of "Planet Rock" is, however, less well documented.
The basslines of "Planet Rock" have come to provide the underpinning for countless Florida freestyle records, and we all know that records such as Tag Team's "Whoot! There It Is" would not have been possible without Afrika Bambaataa's transformation of Kraftwerk's star German electronics into the most ecstatic and contemplative mind and body music ever made. And this should come as no surprise because in virtually all narratives of modern electronic music, the expressive techniques mastered and then reinvented by the population of the African diaspora assume a position of central and incalculable influence.At this point, it seems necessary to look at how the extraordinary innovations in the production of electronic music made during the mid '80s opened up vistas of possibility for the electromusic of the '90s.
When visionary Queens producer Marley Marl was recording in his sister's bedroom in late 1984, he accidentally caught a drum machine snare hit in the sampler, and thus drum machine sampling was born. The significance of this discovery is impossible to gauge. Marley Marl went on to create some of the most deranged, avant garde electro music ever recorded. On such gems as MC Craig G's "Shout" (Pop Art, 1986) and "The Tragedy" by Super Kids (NIA, 1985), Marley Marl broke down brag raps and crisp analog kick drums into scratching chasms of noise, laying the groundwork for everyone from the Roots to the Jedi Knights. Techno's lineage is frequently traced to Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and George Clinton, but rarely is hip hop's profound influence recognized.
At the same time as Marley Marl was redefining the drum machine in the Queensbridge projects, the formidable team of Duke Bootee & The Latin Rascals was pushing the boundaries of electro funk for Bootee's seminal Beauty & The Beat label in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On such groundbreaking platters as "Triple Threat" by the Z-3 MCs, "Coast To Coast" by Word of Mouth with the innovative DJ Cheese, Bootee & The Latin Rascals created vaulting electronic drum symphonies that have yet to be equaled; records so precisely executed there wasn't an inch of breathing space to be had. Breakdancers created seas of movement in their epic breakdowns. Just throw on the dub of "Lies, Lies" by Rap-O-Matic (Profile, 1985) and you'll hear the smacking waves of reverbed handclaps and kick drums that characterize such overpowering modern electro tracks as Link's "Antacid" (Warp, 1995). Both of these records play with the outer limits of possibility within analog drum sounds, stretching, attenuating and reversing every sound, almost into a fourth dimension.
Vincent Davis' Vintertainment label became the home for some of the most radically minimal electro hip hop to emerge from the streets of New York in 1983 and '84. The series of three "Hip Hop On Wax" records, produced by DJs Chuck Chill Out, Red Alert, and Born Supreme Allah, were some of the most brutal cut-and-scratch electro tracks ever recorded. Underpinned by scraping 808 drum patterns, these records virtually defined New York electro. Subsequent releases included "2,3, Break" and "Rock The House" by the B-Boys, which continued the same hammering drum ballistics as the label's previous outings. Now in demand by contemporary electro producers, the early Vintertainment releases represent some of the most disorienting, brilliant moments in hip hop.
If you want to hear how early gangsta rap left its mark on electro's complex historico, listen to Schoolly-D from Philly, whose low slung braggadocio tracks "P.S.K." and "Gucci Time" redefined minimalist hip hop. Canadian expatriate Curtis Jaleel moved from Vancouver to New York in the mid '80s. Under the name Mantronix, Jaleel retooled the instruments of electro to an almost surreal extent. With early singles for the Sleeping Bag label such as "Bassline" and "Needle To The Groove", Mantronix added sweltering, trampoline-wide basslines to bouncing 808 patterns to create electro-funk.
Quite distinct from the minimal, stark kinetics of Run-DMC and Kurtis Blow's stripped-down beatbox work for the Fat Boys and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Mantronix's points of reference included such prescient electro tracks as Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce". Mantronix's inspirational production on T LA Rock's "Breaking Bells" (Fresh, 1986) and "Back To Burn" (Fresh, 1986) sounds as fresh and striking as it did ten years ago. And his versatility became evident in his work on such staccato electro sample anthems as Hanson & Davis' "Hungry For Love" (Fresh, 1987).
As electro's enormous influence gains recognition, a Mantronix revival cannot be far behind. Aldo Marin's still active Cutting label provided some extremely influential music in the mid-'80s, including "We Come To Rock" by the Imperial Brothers, Hashim's "Al Naayfish (The Soul)" (with the reverbed "it's time" vocoder slide engraved in everyone's mind), and Nitro Deluxe's "Let's Get Brutal". The latter two monsters have recently been remixed to devastating effect through Network (UK) who, thankfully, included the original versions of these two groundbreaking tracks.
Though the New York area provided founding moments in electro's growth, the influence of music emerging from Boston, Miami and LA during the same period is of considerable importance. When Boston-based recording engineer Arthur Baker teamed with New Yorker John Robie, the pair helped produce two stone-cold electro-funk classics, Planet Patrol's heart-stopping "Play At Your Own Risk" (Tommy Boy, 1984), "Space Is The Place" by the Jonzun Crew (Tommy Boy, 1984), and a spate of Smurf and PacMan sampled records.
-You can hear echoes of Freestyle's "Don't Stop The Rock" (Pandisc, 1985) in virtually every electro revival record out there. This pre-bass music Miami track from 1985 was released at a time when vocoder vocals and fat 808 beats were in vogue, and its thunderous bass pulses have cropped up in numerous places recently, including RAC's Tangents EP (Warp, 1994). Another formative and influential Miami bass track is the spooky "Give The DJ A Break" by Dynamix II (Sun City, 1987), an eight-minute plunge into oceans of sensation.The early LA electro movement, centered around such labels as Techno Hop and Macola (Ice T's original label), is gaining currency in the UK particularly. When such luminaries as the Dust Brothers (um, Chemical Brothers) listed their top ten in a recent chart, near the top was "8 Volts" by DJ Battery Brian and Vicious C, an 808 cut-and-scratcher from '87 that smokes like a forest fire.
Tracks such as "Beatronic" by the Unknown DJ & 3D (Techno Hop, 1987) and the legendary "Egypt, Egypt", by the Egyptian Lover are fast becoming staples at large parties from Maine to California. The record which seems to have prefigured the electro revival by a full year was the underrated "Aux Magnetic" by Aux 88, arriving by way of Detroit's Direct Beat label in early '94. Packed to the walls with fat wide 808 strikes, electric vocoder breaks and thick analog basslines, this set of tracks seemed to come out of nowhere, a real shock to the jaded techno purists. With influences from Mantronix, Dynamix II, Kraftwerk, Cybotron, and others, this set of tracks had a ceaseless momentum which stopped for nothing.
The latest outing from Direct Beat is the stunning "Cosmic Drive-by" by Will Web, a deeply kick-drummed electro clampdown.London's Clear and Evolution labels have, in the past year, released some of the most challenging new school electro to be found. Founded by ex-Rephlex (home to Richard James) label owner, Claire, the music from the Clear label has blown into the techno world like a cold shock of mountain air. It's the return of techno that is fun to listen to.
The narrative of contemporary electro would be incomplete without "Bantha Trax" by the Jedi Knights, a tour de force of analog and digital electronics pushed to their boundaries and beyond. Link's "Antacid", remixed by the Jedi Knights, builds to the point where you think it'll explode, and then, of course, it does. Wax Trax!/TVT have just issued the wonderful "Theory Of Evolution" compilation in the US, which contains superb electro techno by Reload, E621, the Jedi Knights, and a host of others. The growing Oxygen Music Works label in NY recently released four hands-in-the-air electro jams, namely the Bass Kittens EP, produced by San Francisco's John Druckman.
Packed with enough energy to heat the island of Manhattan in mid-winter, this set of tracks makes standing still an impossibility. Even Britain's highly regarded mix deck pranksters LuvDup put their electro-fied minds to work on the Spyderman Get Fresh mix of Parliament's recent cover of Eric B & Rakim's "Follow The Leader".
The renewed interest in electro, though influenced to a great degree by Detroit and New York music, is primarily taking hold elsewhere. DJs such as San Diego's Taylor, Orlando's highly regarded DJ Icee (whose contribution to the electro revival through records on his Zone label is large indeed), and Toronto's Jon-E, are playing full-on electro. Each city seems to have at least one DJ championing the electro sound; someone fortunate enough to have obtained the electro classics on first release and worked them into new school electro sets.
With the rise of interest in this overlooked period of hip hop, the history of electro's development and its indisputable power to move the body will resurface again and again. As hip hop moves farther away from its origins as a DJ-centered art form, the revival of electro among techno enthusiasts will bring the DJ back to the center of the action.
12 Electro Classics
1. Bassline/ Needle To The Groove Mantronix (Sleeping Bag)
2. 808 Beats The Unknown DJ (Techno Hop)
3. Stick 'Em The Fat Boys (Sutra)
4. The Tragedy (Don't Do It) The Super Kids (NIA)
5. 2,3 Break DJ Born Supreme Allah (Vintertainment)
6. Don't Stop The Rock Freestyle (Pandisc)
7. Give the DJ A Break Dynamix II (Sun City)
8. Al-Naayfish (The Soul) Hashim (Cutting)
9. We Dub To Scratch The Imperial Brothers (Cutting)
10. Techno Scratch Knights Of The Turntables (JDC)
11. Why Is It Fresh DST (Celluloid)
12. Back To Burn (dub) T LA Rock (Fresh)
Recommended New School Electro 10
1. Bass Magnetic Aux 88 (Direct Beat)
2. Antacid (Jedi Knights rmx) Link (Warp)
3. Subsonic Vibrations EP Ectomorph (Interdimensional Transmissions)
4. Bantha Trax The Tuscan Raiders (Clear)
5. Bass Kittens EP Bass Kittens (Oxygen Music Works)
6. Follow The Leader (Spyderman Get Fresh rmx) Parliament (Hot Hands)
7. There's Only One Thing (Kingsize Electro Dub) Laura O (Dig It)
8. Al-Naayfish (The Soul [rmx] Hashim (Network)
9. May The Funk Be With You The Jedi Knights (Clear)
10. Cosmic Drive By Will Web (Direct Beat)
streetsound magazine, © 1995
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