Broken Beats of the Underground Days of Future Past
Published Feb 01, 2000What's old is new again. It's a phrase often used to reference emerging music, but rarely does it imply more than a marketing-friendly revival. Almost never is it meant to suggest true evolution. It does here. This is a story of growth and change, of artists learning from quality music of the past in order to challenge themselves and one other. This is a story about an ever-expanding community of producers whose fresh, forward-thinking sounds are slowly but steadily having a significant impact on global underground dance music. They ain't no superheroes, but they sure do stand out from the crowd.
"Broken beat" and "West London sound" are the tags most often applied to the music pouring from the studios of producers such as I.G. Culture, Dego McFarlane, and Alex Attias. Like most of their musically-related brethren, they have all been creating for more than a decade, absorbing the influence of artists such as Sun Ra, Roy Ayers, Don Blackman, Lonnie Liston Smith, Pete Rock and Carl Craig to create diverse, highly musical and challenging new forms. Their music looks back to look forward, sharing a sense of history while encouraging listeners to feel the future.
This music and that of likeminded colleagues such as Orin Walters, Dominic Stanton, Paul Dolby, Phil Asher and Kaidi Tatham has been warmly received by a growing and dedicated fan base. The telltale sign? New sections are being created in record shops across the globe, with obscure jazz stores being just as interested as those stocking house, techno and drum & bass. Germany and Japan are the biggest markets, but North America is warming to the sound, with specialised radio shows and club nights popping up in cities as diverse as Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Phoenix, New York, Calgary and Toronto. A global music community is hearing, feeling and creating the links, with similarly minded producers including Jazzanova, King Britt, Vikter Duplaix, Kyoto Jazz Massive, Recloose, and Moonstarr. Italy's Enrico Crivellaro, aka Volcov, runs things at Archive and Neroli, two of the scene's long-time labels. Clearly, this isn't just about West London any more, if it ever was; nor is it about one specific sound.
Alex Attias, the Swiss-born French-speaking West London resident, prefers to think of the music as a fusion. "But broken beat is maybe a good term because, at the end of the day, it's true that the rhythms are broken," he says. "To me though, it's not another genre it's basically a concentration of a few like-minded producers who have been working in the underground for the past ten years, making, in their own scenes, different music. Dego and 4Hero were making drum & bass, but different than all the drum & bass community. Phil Asher was making house, but different than the normal house. I.G. was making hip-hop, but different. I was making a kind of jazz, but different. We just like music with a big M and, for some reason, we all hooked up in 97. Because we're all based in the West London area, that created the kind of West London sound.'"
He pauses and adds, "We're not all trying to do broken beat' it's just that in our music we experiment with anything that is not straight. We have no rules; it's making challenging music in total freedom."
It's also making challenging music within the context of community and collaboration: Attias, I.G. and Dego all work in studios in the same building. They also all work together at times, giving input into one another's individual projects, coming together as duos (I.G. and Dego as Da One Away, Dego and Alex as Plutonia), doing remixes, and frequently releasing each other's music. Two things you learn quickly about this broken beat scene: everybody works with everybody, leading to more pseudonyms and project names than fathomable, and it seems like every other producer or crew runs a label of their own. A flow chart is almost necessary to follow the action, with plenty of fans dedicating quality time to tracing who is behind what, and hunting down the many independent releases found mainly on vinyl.
Broken beat is a dance music geek's wet dream, so it's not surprising that the internet houses a flurry of discussion, debate and information. One of the main sources of accurate release and project info is the web site of Goya Music (www.goyamusic.com), the key distributor for labels such as Archive and Neroli, Dego's 2000 Black, Attias's Visions, and Bugz in the Attic's Bitasweet. Formed in 1998 by Spencer Weekes and Mike Slocombe, also the founders of key labels People Records and Main Squeeze (the latter with I.G. Culture), Goya acts like the scene's central nervous system, supporting and distributing music from 20-plus indie labels. It's a scene founded in friendships, trust, and a shared spirit of musical intrepidity.
It's little wonder that many heads draw parallels to Detroit-based kindred spirit Mad Mike and his Underground Resistance label and distribution network. In both cases, underground scenes with a sense of urgency and purpose. Both have contributed to minor paradigm shifts in dance music and should more ears and hearts have access to the music, we might be looking at off the Richter scale-sized disturbances.
I.G. Culture, Dego McFarlane, and Alex Attias are amongst the most likely candidates to start the quake. In addition to their many releases for various independents within the scene, each has a brand new album out on labels with broader distribution. I.G.'s New Sector Movements project has recently seen the release of Download This on Virgin Records. With long-time production partner Mark Mac, McFarlane has given us Creating Patterns , the fifth 4Hero album since 1991 and third for Talkin Loud/Mercury. As for Attias, he found a production partner in Talkin Loud's Paul Martin. Together they are Beatless, and their debut album, Life Mirrors, is freshly released on California's Ubiquity label. All three albums are stunning, and show the many directions these accomplished producers can travel in.
"I.G. is unbelievably talented, as a producer and as a DJ," says Goya's Spencer Weekes. "Just to spend 20 minutes in the studio with him is an education."
"He's on some next thing anyway; he's doing some weird things sometimes so you think he's gotta be bonkers," shares Dego in an admiring tone. "He can be very, very soulful while being crazy at the same time. He's bad as hell."
Both point to I.G. when asked about broken beat originators; Dego points to "The All New Ummm" by Likwid Biskit (I.G. with Kaidi Tatham) as "What I would call the definitive broken beat."
Weekes expands on the thought. "Definitely I.G. Culture is the one person that started broken beat in that form. He used to bring his hip-hop in and we were like We love it, but British hip-hop, we can't really do much with. Try and speed it up a bit, try and give it a different slant.' The next time he came back in, he brought us My History' and a couple of other things that were house speed, but not house. It was great, musical, and drawing on good and different little influences."
Reggae is I.G.'s first love, with the Scientist particularly inspiring the man who came up through the DJ ranks as part of a late 80s sound system. He first made music as part of hip-hop act Dodge City, leaving the project behind in 1991 to concentrate on solo production. He formed a label called One Drop Inter Outer and began releasing more abstract hip-hop, working with various MCs and musicians to create four albums and a number of singles.
"I went back to basics, working on my production and trying to run my label," he says of the time. I.G. was searching for his own sound, learning to sequence properly and play percussion and keys while gathering vintage keyboards along the way. Quincy Jones, prolific and incredibly versatile producer that he is, was a strong influence. I.G. learned his lessons well, going on to create incredibly deep and original music under the monikers of New Sector Movements, Likwid Biskit, and Murky Waters (with Eric Appapoulay). He has absorbed sounds from many a decade and completely reconfigured music to make it his own. Like the best of producers before him, I.G. has an incredible gift for working with vocalists and musicians. New Sector Movements' Download This truly sees him shine and soar, working with core collaborators such as keyboardist Kaidi Tatham, musician and vocalist Appapoulay, and vocalists including Bembe Segue, Julie Dexter and Eska. This is music that commands a concentrated listen. Not all about the dance floor, this is a challenging romp through jazz-funk, soul and house. And yes, many of the beats are broken as hell.
"When people hear it, they probably won't get it at first, or at all," admits I.G. "But gradually, if you give it a chance, you will get into it because there's nothing not to like about it." He laughs, adding "Okay, I'm making something what's going to shake people up a bit, but I'm not making something for them to hate, because when you're giving energy and giving love, why would you expect someone to hate it? Let's hope, if there's any hype around New Sector Movements, that it will con people into getting into it and then they really will get into it."
He says this knowing that the release of New Sector Movements on a major label could build a more broad-based interest in what he and his comrades are creating. The day I spoke with him alone, he was "juggling" between multiple projects in the studio. Watch for new releases by Bembe Segue, Eska, Murky Waters, Demus and two new compilations on Main Squeeze: The Rinse Album and Family Planning 2.
Dego McFarlane knows how to juggle projects, releases and labels only too well. As one of the founders of pioneering drum & bass label Reinforced, he is largely responsible for the more experimental and progressive elements of the genre. For years, Reinforced was one of the only d&b labels releasing music by artists who blurred the definitions, incorporating Detroit techno influences, strings and lush instrumentation, as well as hardcore break beats. In fact, releases by Reinforced artists such as Alpha Omega, Seiji, Nubian Minds and Nu Era (another of McFarlane's collaborations with Mark Mac), in some senses foreshadowed what was to come with "broken beat."
Though he also records occasionally as Tek 9, Jacob's Optical Stairway (with Mark), Pavel Kostiuk, Da One Away (with I.G. Culture), and Plutonia (with Alex Attias), Dego is best known as one half of 4Hero. As 4Hero, McFarlane and long-time friend and production partner Mark Mac have created groundbreaking dance music, full stop.
"When you've listened to certain records, and they've kind of blown you away properly, then when you make a tune, you want to make stuff that gives you that feeling as well," he shares. "It's not just about nodding your head to a piece of music, it's so much more than that. I'm talking about the kind of tracks that make you contort your face, you know? That's the shit. We just want to make records that make us do that."
4Hero have given us records that do exactly that, all while travelling adventurous terrain. Though their roots are in drum & bass, the duo's sound evolved naturally to incorporate many elements with increasingly organic instrumentation. 1998's gorgeous, double-CD opus Two Pages earned them a Mercury Music Award nomination. If there is any justice in the music business, their brand new Creating Patterns release will win them the world. Featuring guest vocalists including Terry Callier, Jill Scott, Bembe Segue, Ursula Rucker, and Corrina Anderson who contributes to an astounding rendition of Minnie Riperton's "Les Fleur" the album is one of the most mature releases to ever come from producers who emerged from the world of dance music.
"I think we're getting closer to the standard where we want to be in making music," says Dego thoughtfully. "This album is another step towards our goal. We're getting to the stage where I think I'm capable of doing almost anything. That's where I want to be not be overconfident, but not to be worried or scared to approach anything. If we're making some mad time signature, weirdo track, I want to consistently be making the baddest mad time signature track. If I'm making a more soulful track with vocals, I want to make sure that each time, it's going to be wicked and have that energy and freshness about it. We've been striving for this for a long time."
Fearlessness combined with a musically open spirit is a powerful thing; McFarlane embodies it. In 1998, he became a silent partner in Reinforced and started a new label, 2000 Black, named after a Roy Ayers song and dedicated to releasing "good music" of any sound. Artists such as Domu, Seiji, Nubian Minds, Parriss, and Da One Away have led things off, with The Good Good compilation providing musical insight into a tight-knit community. And community is front and centre in Dego's mind.
"When Afronaught came out, to me, that's partly my album. When the New Sector Movements album came out, that's partly my album. When Kaidi's album comes out, that's gonna be my album. When the 4Hero album comes out, that's gonna be the Bugz's and Alex's album as well cause all these things, I believe, help each other and help anybody whose trying to do some forward-thinking, good music. They're just all flags for the whole thing. With this common goal in mind, it's easy for us to all work together and push it along."
Though he is originally from Switzerland, lived in Paris for a few years, and only arrived in London in 1997, Alex Attias is very much part of this same community. Speaking from his basement studio, found in the same building as I.G. and Dego's studios as well as Goya distribution, the man is warm, passionate and giving in conversation. A DJ since 1988, he is also a huge music fan who's long been collecting and playing house, funk, rare groove, soul and jazz and cites influences as diverse as Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Freddie Hubbard, Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, Andrew Hill, Curtis Mayfield and soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone.
His early productions came as part of duos Funkanova and Bel-Air Project, the latter of which scored amongst British underground scene-makers like Gilles Peterson with tracks such as 1996's "Dark Jazzor" and "Jazz With Altitude." Over the years, he left those projects behind and developed many others: the soundtrack-y Mustang; his Catalyst collaboration with various musicians; Plutonia, an "out there project with Dego"; and the River Plate collaboration with brother Stephane Attias. Though he's released countless singles under these names and more, Alex has only just completed his debut album as Beatless and it's a corker.
Beatless was more of an occasional thing, producing music only when Attias and Talkin Loud's Paul Martin were able to come together. They'd put out three singles, including "Latinaires," a Ubiquity release that set underground dance floors alight. When Attias moved to London in 1997, Ubiquity's Andrew Jervis immediately suggested a Beatless full-length.
"I was kind of surprised because I thought my main project was Mustang and I would have expected someone to propose me to do an album with my main project," laughs Attias. "We said yes, and decided that we wanted to do more of a soul, gospel-y, modern electronic album."
That they did. Timeless and beautiful, Beatless's brand new Life Mirrors is soul music at once both classic and futuristic. It gathers disparate and wonderful collaborators such as abstract hip-hop MC Quasimoto, West London keyboardist Jessica Lauren, and multi-talented British musician and vocalist Colonel Red. Seventies soul-funk vocalists the Daughters of Light also contributed, adding their considerable talent to the Beatless rendition of the Roy Ayers/Dee Dee Bridgewater classic "Love From the Sun."
Having made one full-length, Attias intends to focus on becoming more of an album-based artist, even while continuing to record as part of different projects. Next up will be River Plate, but in the meantime, he continues to run Visions Inc., a label he started to release "some probably difficult stuff that no one would take the risk to release." While it's not his main priority, he's managed to release a handful of high-quality singles by Domu, Mustang, Plutonia and a gorgeous, jazz-infused quirky EP featuring himself, brother Stephane, and Jessica Lauren. He intends to expand the sounds to include techno, reggae, and artists from varying parts of the globe.
"For me, it's not all about making music in a little scene here," he says. "I've been making and listening to music from loads of different countries; I'm not going to stop now."
Much is riding on the albums of 4Hero, New Sector Movements and Beatless. The hope is obviously that their broader distribution and press resources can help spread the music to new ears and audiences, bringing attention to the more underground and independent "broken beat scene" as a whole. After all, it has already broken out against many odds and obstacles. Radio play is limited, even on the UK pirate stations, given that this is more of a producer than DJ-led sound. Most releases have been limited in quantity and distribution, and available on vinyl only not the most consumer-friendly scenario. The artists are doing the bulk of the work and financing themselves, in between projects and other priorities. Even club DJ support has been limited, including in the UK and Europe, generally hotbeds for emerging new sounds.
But despite all of this, things are changing. I.G. and Dego, alongside Phil Asher, Demus and a rotating cast of guests from the scene, began a biweekly club night called the Co-op Club, which has caught on like wildfire. Focussing exclusively on new sounds and making the links between the West Londoners and international artists like Recloose, Theo Parrish, Kyoto Jazz Massive and respected hip-hop producer Jay Dee, the Co-op turns the principles of unity into reality. Massive turnouts and increasingly international press coverage has been the result, and related club nights are popping up everywhere, a significant sign in the underground.
There are other positive signs as well: increasing radio play on BBC speciality shows and on community stations everywhere; pressings and distribution are increasing; and there is a wave of highly anticipated albums by artists such as SK Radicals, Domu and Demus about to flow in. Orin Walters, aka Afronaught, has lit a fire with his new, debut album Shapin' Fluid, out on Belgium's respected Apollo/R&S label. The vibe is becoming increasingly international.
"Bembe Segue and me used to have a phrase," shares I.G. Culture. "We'd say The groove is changing' and it is. We're basically hearing a lot of things that sound like they've taken influences from stuff what's come out over the past two, three years. That's all good cause everyone's got a different slant on what they see as broken beat."
Speaking from more than a decade of experiences and frustrations, an exasperated Dego says, "I think we're all just going to disappear soon and that's it. We'll never really have been noticed and we'll get found out about in ten, 15 years time. You can fight so much, to a point where if you can't get through, then you go and do something else. I think, unfortunately, unless something dramatic happens, that's how it's gonna be. I haven't got much faith in people's tastes. There's an old saying in football: There's no room for skill in this game' but what's the most beautiful thing about football is having skill. I'm seeing that happen in music now."
I.G. has the last word. "We're creating ourselves and we're just trying to go along with it and see where it takes us. It's not something you sit down, talk about and plan, you just let it happen. As long as the rent's paid, we'll keep it going."
Broken Beat Who's Who
Broken beat is far from a singular, easy-to-describe new genre. As with jazz, the rhythms tend to be syncopated or broken, but the overall vibe can range from soulful and smooth to downright challenging. Some broken beats are dance floor friendly, others seep more slowly into a listener's consciousness. More than anything, broken beat is an increasingly global community of producers and DJs working to push themselves, each other, and dance music as a whole into the future.1
Toronto's Kevin Moon, aka Moonstarr, has earned his reputation one beat at a time. Making music and DJing since the mid-90s, Moon is heavily influenced by the likes of Mad Mike, Juan Atkins, DJ Premier, 4hero and seemingly the entire Reinforced roster. "I'm the grandkids," he says seriously. "Mark and Dego are my parents and Mad Mike is the grandfather. I'm at the bottom." Releasing his own flavours of drum & bass, techno and hip-hop on various labels since 1997, he's managed to refine his sound while still maintaining his "big dirty break beats." In 1998, he formed Public Transit Recordings, putting out music by many artists, including his own new Dupont EP. Compost Records will feature his "Dust" on their forthcoming, Future Sound of Jazz 8 , and Reinforced Records has just licensed "Baby Girl," his hip-hop collaboration with sharp-witted female MC Voice. There's also international label interest in the music of Workshop, Moon's new project with Movement DJ John Kong. "Moonstarr seems to be fully into what we're doing," says Spencer Weekes of Goya Music. "We've got high hopes for the Canadian. He's flying the flag, albeit with a maple leaf."
Kirk Degiorgio aka As One
Degiorgio once hosted a radio show with the 4Hero boys; his main musical influences are Blue Note, P-funk, Motown, early hip-hop, and Detroit techno, and it shows. Project names include New Religion, Esoterik, and the Off World Ensemble, though As One is his best known moniker. Check 1997's Planetary Folklore (Mo Wax) if you can, and don't sleep on As One's brilliant 21st Century Soul, out this month on Ubiquity. An Offworld album for Far Out Recordings soon follows. www.kirkdegiorgio.com is also a great resource for Sun Ra and Blue Note info.
Bugz In the Attic Crew
Founded in 1997, Bugz in the Attic is "number one crew," for Dego McFarlane of 4Hero. "They've been going at it a long time and can do anything. They make house, they make hip-hop everything I like is what they do." Gathered together by core members Orin Walters, Kaidi Tatham and Scott Clifford, and Seiji, the Bugz also count folks like Domu, Mark de Clive-Lowe and Nathan Haines as crew. Together, they run Bitasweet Records; check their Futuristic Dancing Vol. 1 compilation for an overview.
"Genius. Absolute musical genius," says Spencer Weekes of Tatham. "There isn't an instrument worth mentioning that he doesn't have a grip on." "Kaidi Tatham is an exceptional talent," agrees Dego. "If he was releasing records maybe 15 years ago or so, he'd be heralded as the Second Coming. He's the complete, perfect producer-songwriter." Tatham contributes heavily to the sounds labelled broken beat, with his name in many a songwriting credit. He's recorded as part of Likwid Biskit (with I.G.), Everyday People, Misa Negra, Soul Tuition (with Orin), played keyboards and flute on the New Sector Movements album, and is establishing his own name with brilliant tracks like "Betcha (Did)."
Orin Walters aka Afronaught
Best known for his solo Afronaught project and debut album Shapin' Fluid (Apollo/R&S), Walters has travelled a long road to now take the underground by storm. He started making music and DJing in 1991, setting up and later dissolving two labels, Mousetrap and Suckers Need Bass, between 92 and 97. Along the way, he produced with collaborators such as Phil Asher, Daz-I-Kue, and Seiji. With people banding together a little more formally as the Bugz crew in 97, Orin formed projects such as Afronaught, Soul Tuition, Everyday People, Orange Water and Loqate. With Kaidi Tatham and Alex Phountzi, Walters is also part of Neon Phusion, currently at work on a second album for Laws of Motion. Few can combine house, techno, reggae, and sick, twisted beats the way he can. "I think Afronaughts created one of the best dance-like albums to come out in the last ten years," says Dego.
Paul Dolby aka Seiji
Another seasoned Bugz member, Seiji is also a man of many aliases and projects. He can make anything, with Detroit-inspired synths meeting dark, chopped-up beats in much of his early work for Reinforced. Opaque is his other main project, with his remix of P'taah's "The Crossing" (Ubiquity) freaking many a mind and progressive dance floor earlier this year. An album is in the works. In the words of Dego, "You hear some of Seiji's tracks, that's just some raw, techno-y next shit. Seiji can twist it many ways."
Dominic Stanton aka Domu
Also recording as Sonar Circle, Stanton is "one of the best producers within the genre," according to Orin Walters. His recordings with Mark de Clive-Lowe and Seiji, under the name of Kudu, are sought after, but it's his hotly tipped, brand-new Domu album on Archive that currently has tongues wagging.