For the pair of English DJs, who evolved into big-beat electronica purveyors known as the Propellerheads, merging late nineties British dance music with the funk of early eighties American hip-hop and James Bond movie music, yielded critical accolades and transatlantic success. The band’s 1998 debut, decksanddrumsandrockandroll, featured witty film dialogue samples buried under rapid-fire bass rhythms and a barrage of guitars, organ, and synthesized washes of chords. The Propellerheads also won praise for their unusual and intense live performances. Billboard’s Larry Flick summed the duo’s music as, “a synergistic union that results in richly cinematic electronic soundscapes that are steeped in rugged hip-hop and funk—with a healthy sense of humor.”
The Propellerheads are Alex Gifford, born in the mid-1960s, and Will White, a decade Gifford’s junior. Gifford spent his formative years steeped in the music of James Brown, Parliament, and Booker T and the MGs, and as an adult became a session musician, engineer and producer. For a time, he worked at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, England as a songwriter and producer. Gifford began writing and setting down his own tracks in the early 1990s while working as a DJ in Bath dance clubs. One night he passed one of his tapes on to White, another local DJ.
White, who loved the Eighties rap acts like UTFO and KRS-One during his formative years, was also an accomplished drummer. He was stunned by Gifford’s mix of samples and heavy-duty, rap-sampled beats. The two soon began working together in White’s basement to see if adding live drums, a bass line and various digital elements to the mix of song samples would work. As Gifford said in the DreamWorks biography, “Will’s drumming is all about grooves.… He’ll just sit on the groove, and then he’ll play the beat backwards. It’s like you’ve got two copies of the groove, and he’ll just stick one a half beat out, like you would if you were DJing hip-hop style. It’s wicked.”
The sonic impact of their configurations would earn the duo immense praise, initially on the local level. They began releasing singles on their own under the name Propellerheads—borrowing the Silicon Valley term for computer nerds—and friends in Bath began pestering them to move out of the basement and into the live arena. At first, Gifford and White were not enthusiastic about doing so, butaclub-ownerfriendputtheirnameonsome flyers announcing a gig, which forced them to create a live act.
The Propellerheads performances evolved into a barrage of sound that utilized four turntables with Gifford alternating between a bass and his Hammond organ, and White on drums with both spinning their songs on a homemade vinyl format known as an acetate. “Our show has developed this way because we felt there was no point in taking a bunch of studio equipment on the road,” Gifford explained in the biography. “It’s boring and it’s not particularly visual. We figured if we put all the studio sounds on acetates, and called them up whenever we needed them, we could treat the show like a DJ set and make it more interactive.”
Appropriately, the Propellerheads were soon signed to the independent British label Wall of Sound. Their first record, the EP Dive!, was issued in 1996, and they realized they’d hit upon a solid groove when the title song was purchased by Adidas for an ad campaign. Take California and Spybreak!, both EPs, followed featuring biting, oddball samples of film dialogue and galloping bass lines modeled after the 1960s spy-film music that Gifford had always loved.
The soundtrack composers from that era—Lalo Schif rin, John Barry, Henry Mancini, and Michele Legrand are some of the best known names in the genre—combined traditional orchestral arrangements with more contemporary pop and R&B-based rhythms. “It’s the title sequences that move me most,” Gifford explained in the press biography. “Like in a French film from the ’60s that opens with a couple walking on a beach. Suddenly, a helicopter is flying around them and they’re being shot at.
Members include Alex Gifford (born c. 1964), turntables, bass, Hammond organ; Will White (born c. 1974), drums.
Gifford was a session musician, engineer, and producer; White was a DJ in Bath, England, and drummer for a band called Junkwaffle; band formed, 1994, in Bath, England; signed to DreamWorks Records, 1997; released first LP, decksanddrumsandrockandroll, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —DreamWorks Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
I love the sort of music that would accompany that scene. We’re just trying to do soundtracks without the films.”
One of the latter-day Bond movie composers, David Arnold, was so taken by the Propellerheads’ spin on the form that he invited them to create a track for the 1997 album, Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold 007 Project. Arnold also included one of their songs in a chase sequence in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Forthe album, Gifford and White wrote the song “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” a classic Bond-esque number that became a massive radio hit in England. The song also attracted the attention of the American record label DreamWorks, owned in part by Hollywood movie mogul Steven Spielberg. Signed to the label, Gifford and White decided to remix several of the tracks that had been released on their first Propellerheads LP for the U.K., decksanddrumsandrockandroll, adding more of a hip-hop flavor and a few new tracks.
Decksanddrumsandrockandroll— whose title paid homage to a 1978 Ian song, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” —debuted in the U.S. in early 1998 not long after Gifford and White impressed music industry insiders at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. The American version included “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as well as another of the band’s European hits, “History Repeating,” which featured Shirley Bas-sey, the glamorous torch singer from Wales who sang the title songs to several Bond films, including Goldfin-ger. “It was a total fluke,” Gifford told Billboard writer Larry Flick. “We never in a million years thought she’d actually show up and record with us.”
The Propellerheads’ American debut also featured collaborative tracks done with De La Soul, “360 Degrees (Oh Yeah?),” and Jungle Brothers. Critical reception was somewhat wary, but generally favorable. Gina Arnold, writing in the on-line magazine Salon, called the Shirley Bassey collaboration “thus far the most mainstreamsounding techno recording on the market.… it may well become the ‘Walk This Way’ of electronica.” People reviewer Steve Dougherty described decksanddrumsandrockandrollas “13 hyperkinetic, hypnotic sound collages and dance tracks.” Writing in the Village Voice, R.J. Smith described the Propellerheads’ sound as “not precisely funky, but it moves the body with an accretion of beat overkill, volume, and wit that is impeccably on-time.”
Dive!, EP, Wall of Sound, 1996.
Take California, Wall of Sound, 1996.
Spybreak!, EP, Wall of Sound, 1997.
(contributor) Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold 007 Project, Sire, 1997.
Propellerheads, DreamWorks, 1997.
decksanddrumsandrockandroll, DreamWorks, 1998.
Billboard, March 21, 1998; April 4, 1998.
New Musical Express, January 24, 1998;l April 30, 1998.
People, May 4, 1998.
Rolling Stone, April 16, 1998.
Village Voice, March 31, 1998.
“Decksanddrumsandrockandroll,” Salon, http://www.salon.com, (April 7, 1998).
Additional information for this profile was provided by Wall of Sound and DreamWorks Records, publicity materials, 1999.
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