Though a few traditional voices from the jazz scene cringe at the thought of hip-hop artists delving into the jazz catalog for material, the British duo of Geoff Wilkinson and Mel Simpson managed to prove that the two can be smartly arranged. The Londoners form the nucleus of jazz/hip-hop collective US3, whose 1993 release, Hand on the Torch, went platinum largely on the strength of the club hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).” While US3 is not alone in bringing jazz and hip-hop together, some argue that their sonic concoctions are the best of the bunch. US3 succeeds in retaining jazz’s syncopation and meter fluctuations rather than burying them beneath ground-shaking bass beats, much to the delight of the jazz artists whose works surface in US3 material.
Combined with releases from Digable Planets, Incognito, and Brand New Heavies, a genre loosely known as acid-jazz made significant strides in 1994. Acid jazz is now emerging from the dancehalls of London and clubs around the world, bringing its blend of hip-hop rhythms and jazz samples to more and more listeners. Neil Conner, a music industry figure in San Francisco, told Billboard: “Acid-jazz has enough of a raw, street feel to attract kids who are into hip-hop. It’s a fresh change of pace for all of us—and it’s schooling these kids on musical history, whether they know it or not.”
Wilkinson and Simpson came together in 1991 with the shared notion of mating jazz and hip-hop. “My partner and I,” Simpson told Rolling Stone, “spoke of this idea as a way of making jazz more accessible to people who would otherwise give the music a wide berth or consider it inappropriate to them.” Wilkinson had been a journalist and member of London’s jazz scene while Simpson was a keyboardist with a knack for music production. They had collaborated in staging club events with jazz artists and rappers and then decided the results were worth recording. Once Simspon completed constuction of his London studio, Flame, the pair issued “Where Will We Be in the 21 st Century?” Though the record sold only 250 copies, successful gigs at London jazz clubs gave them reason to continue.
US3 could very easily have never been, due to their illicit use of copyrighted material. When the two released their second effort, “The Band Played the Boogie,” in 1991, the single was so laden with takes from Blue Note artists that Columbia Records, Blue Note’s proprietors, came looking for them. “We thought it was curtains for us. We thought we were going to be sued out of existence,” Simpson told Request Instead of serving them a summons, Columbia offered them a deal. They hit a recording studio after the 1992 meeting and worked out a demo that secured them a contract. “I’d have to say it was the best crime I’ve ever committed,” Wilkinson told the Sacramento Bee. As part of the arrangement, Wilkinson and Simpson were given access, this time legitimately, to Blue Note’s legendary archives. The pair drew from Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Jancock, Lou Donaldson, and others for their Blue Note debut.
Wilkinson and Simpson originally conceived of US3 as a studio project and the Blue Note record as a one-time effort. Relying on their sampling and sequencing skills honed as DJs in London clubs, the duo planned to piece together hip-hop beats with bits from the legends of jazz. With Simpson playing keyboards and managing samples and Wilkinson producing, the duo relied on rappers TukkaYoot, Kobie Powell, and Rashaan Kelly to provide the lyrical content. The two also contracted a horn section comprised of London jazz artists and it is this conglomerate of rappers and musicians that comprise the third pillar in the US3triumvirate. Going into the project, Wilkinson and Simpson had definite ideas for the record. “We were trying to fuse the two musics together in a way that hadn’t been done … We wanted 50 percent of each, a real fusion,” Wilkinson explained to the Sacramento Bee.
For the Record…
Members include producers Geoff Wilkinson (born in Britain, c. 1956) and Mel Simpson (born in Britain, c. 1963); rappers Tukka Yoot (born in Jamaica, c. 1973), Rashaan Kelly, and Kobie Powell .
Group formed in 1991 with a jazz-hip hop single titled “Where Will We Be in the 21st Century?”; released “The Band Played the Boogie,” 1991, which used samples from the Blue Note archives; released Hand on the Torch, Blue Note, 1993. Musicians appearing on the album include Ed Jones, saxophone and flute; Dennis Rollins, trombone; Tony Remy, guitar; Matthew Cooper, piano; Roberto Pia, percussion; Gerard Presencer, trum-pet; and Mike Smith, saxophone. Single “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” rose on European and Japanese charts prompting tours of those regions; tour band included Cheryl Alleyne, drums; Geoggrey Gascoyne, bass; Timothy Vine, keyboards; Dominick Glover, trumpet; and Tony Cofie, saxophone; toured with UB40 in England and United States, 1994; “Cantaloop” broke into Billboards Top Ten and helped make Hand on the Torch the most successful Blue Note release ever.
Awards: Hand on the Torch named best jazz album of the year by Japan’s Swing Journal, 1993; group named jazz musicians of the year by Britain’s Independent, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —Blue Note, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104.
Sensing that they had a potential chart-topper on their hands, Blue Note contacted parent-label Columbia to request support in promoting the record. Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall told Billboard, “We realized we wouldn’t have enough resources on our own to take this as far as it could go.” With Columbia’s industry muscle raising support among urban and alternative radio, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” steadily climbed through the charts. The song relies on a riff from Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” a popular 1960s jazz tune, and hit Billboard’s Top Ten in the Spring of 1994. The “Cantaloop” video landed in MTV’s Buzz Bin, a rotation normally reserved for emerging alternative bands. John Cannelli, Vice President of music and talent at MTV, told Billboard, “Certainly its jazz influence helps with the older demo, while the rap brings it to relevance in the 1990s with a younger demo.”
Capitalizing on support from different market segments, the record became the biggest selling Blue Note release ever and helped spark the label to its best sales year in its history. Lundvall told Down Beat, “Their music respectf uly transforms the classic of the past into urgent and viable music that speaks to today’s listeners.” While the sales meant a great deal to US3, the members share a great deal of respect for the musicians who made the Blue Note label synonymous with the best jazz had to offer. “We have mixed feelings about the album being the biggest-selling Blue Note album. It’s great to have a hit record, but the other side of it is that not even someone like Herbie [Hancock] sold that many. That’s a shame,” Tukka Yoot, US3’s Jamaican-born rapper, told Down Beat
As the band recorded Hand on the Torch, the project moved beyond its original bounds. The group felt the music come together in unanticipated harmony. “Through a couple generations of the band, it became totally live. We realized we didn’t really need the samples, since the horn guys knew this stuff and played it in little jazz clubs on the weekends,” Simpson told Request. In fact, neither Wilkinson nor Simpson tour with the band. The live show, while bearing their mark with its fresh blend of rap and hip-hop, is dominated by the trio of rappers, a drummer, and the horn section. Tukka Yoot is the prime vocalist, rapping with the music rather than over it and using his voice an instrument in the layered whole. Successful American, European, and Japanese tours following Hand on the Torch generally showed Root to be the focal point, and the 21-year old has proved himself a quick study in working in jazz. Previously unfamiliar with the genre, Root is the perfect example of the band’s goal. “The aim of US3 was to get jazz nonbelievers into jazz, and jazz purists into hip-hop,” he told Entertainment Weekly.
While the live band took to the road for most of 1993 and 1994, Wilkinson and Simpson remained in London, working on the musical future of US3. Projects such as a collaboration with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman and an all-out jazz record for Blue Note keep the two busy, while each of the band’s three rappers have solo deals with projects in the works. Intended as a rotating collaboration guided by Wilkinson and Simpson, US3 are expected to release their second Blue Note album in 1996. “In the name US3, two are me and Geoff, The third is like the third side of the triangle waiting to be completed. It can be a rapper, singer, maybe a whole orchestra. Who knows what will happen next time,” Simpson told Request.
“The Band Played the Boogie” (12-inch), Ninja Tune Records, 1991.
“Where Will We Be in the 21 st Century?,” Ninja Tune Records, 1991.
Hand on the Torch (contains “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia), “Blue Note, 1993.
Billboard, January 22, 1994; April 30, 1994; July 2, 1994; July 16, 1994.
Down Beat, August 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, March 18, 1994.
Metro Times (Detroit), August 3, 1994.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland), April 15, 1994.
Providence Jounal-Bulletin, August 4, 1994.
Request, May 1994.
Rolling Stone, March 10, 1994; June 16, 1994.
Sacramento Bee, August 21, 1994.
Salt Lake Tribune, August 19, 1994.
Spin, April 1994.
Time, January 24, 1994.
Vibe, December 1993.
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