Universal Music asked me to contribute a few words for the sleeve notes of their compilation of an interesting period in music, titled Clubbed to Death, when – first in the UK and then elsewhere – hip-hop music collided with punk, R&B, reggae, and more resulting in something new.
A confession: I was working in a jeans store on the King’s Road in the early 1990s. Before that I was a dishwasher (sacked), a waiter (sacked) and a bakery cashier (sacked). So I first heard a lot of these pieces not only as an admirer, but as someone who was trying to break into the music industry (and probably needed to). But most of the music at the start of the 90s left me cold. The plod of indie rock and the oppressively fast pace of rave music seemed like dead ends. Across the Atlantic, hip-hop was in its golden age. Nothing in London seemed to match that excitement. What’s worse, the city, like the country itself, was in the midst of a recession. It was hard not to succumb to a feeling that music’s centre of gravity might have moved elsewhere.
The first glimmer of hope I chanced on had its origins not in London, but in Bristol. That source was The Wild Bunch Collective, who, along with Smith & Mighty, were mixing punk, R&B, reggae and hip-hop into something new. It was like a European addition to hip-hop music. From this city came names that beguiled: Nellee Hopper, Messrs. Smith & Mighty, Tricky and 3D, and collaborators such as Neneh Cherry and Jonny Dollar (whose brilliant production work defined the seminal Massive Attack album, Blue Lines).
Later, in 1994, came Portishead, who further shaped what was called the ‘Bristol sound’. A sound that writer Pete Webb described as “possessing a darkness that is uplifting, a joyful melancholy”.
At the same time, London had come alive. Giles Peterson’s label Talkin’ Loud, Paul Bradshaw’s Straight No Chaser magazine, and Eddie Piller and the Acid Jazz label took the rare groove movement of London’s clubs in the mid-80s and made it global. The mid-90s saw the huge success of the big beat genre and acts like The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, and the Propellerheads, powered by labels such as Skint records, Wall of Sound and XL Recordings.
In fact, so much of the most creative music of the 90s came from individuals who had set up small labels with a clear ethos and direction: Coldcut’s Ninja Tune, Sheffield’s Warp Records, William Orbit’s Guerilla Records, Andy Weatherall’s Junior Boy’s Own label and Howie B’s Pussyfoot Records, to name a few. Other labels included Mute records (Moby) and One Little Indian (Sneaker Pimps, Björk).
And if any artist epitomises the creativity and genre-bending nature of the 90s, it would be Björk. Hers was a music that broke the mould. Music with a sense of adventure and experimentation. Music that harnessed everything from orchestras to machines.
By 1995, I’d moved into a sort of wood and glass shack constructed on the rooftop of 6 Hoxton Square. The whole area was empty of people on the weekend, a desert. At the time the only sign of life was on Sunday nights, when a vast and terrifying boom would resound around the square after dark. This was Goldie’s and Kemistry & Storm’s Metalheadz night at the Blue Note club. Gradually, artists such as Joshua Compston, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and Alexander McQueen started working and living in the area. Suddenly it was London, and the UK, that had a boldness, a belief that you could do anything.
It was around this time I came across MoWax and James Lavelle. For me, Mowax has to be one of the greatest labels of all time, and James Lavelle the most inspiring and inspired of label bosses. He was only twenty or so, and would fire out hand-scrawled faxes, day and night, to the great and good, the obscure and the overlooked, pushing on. His office was filled with toys, artwork, clothes and records, and he ran everything creative with the same modus operandi: a mind, a marker pen, a piece of paper and a fax machine.
MoWax introduced to the world the music artists DJs Krush & Shadow, Dr Octagon and UNKLE, with inspired visuals by creators such as Futura 2000, 3D, Ian Swift and Ben Drury. Another great group first released by Mowax was Air. I remember James Lavelle asking me to remix their first single, Modulor Mix (I couldn’t). And some of the most exciting music over the period came from Paris, with groups such as Air, Daft Punk and Cassius.
For me, the final decade of the last millennium was a period when music in the UK, then elsewhere, skipped the stale and the bland, and reconnected with the great music of the past. Hip-hop dominates the world now, the most listened to music genre on the globe, but the artists and labels above changed hip-hop’s progress, and their influence can be heard in the sound of the most inspired artists of today.
A good reminder that when things seem on the slide, and opportunities feel like they’re happening on the other side of the world, then that’s the time to start something new.
Universal Music’s compilation Clubbed to Death is now available.