Shivers Inside
Main Source – Breaking Atoms

Once upon a time I was accused of disappearing into my world of books and films where darkness came too soon.  Total nonsense of course.  There was music too.  But the suggestion was that I was missing out.  Total nonsense too.  Products have so much to teach us.  So many stories to tell …

Okay, that was If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, which is from about 1992, and I thought, yeah, that would work as a title for this compilation.  It is a great track isn’t it?  Really funky, and it captures that whole let’s throw everything in the pot and see if it works vibe, which I’m very much for.  It’s been a real labour of love this compilation, and I have to admit there were times when I became convinced it was never going to happen, but here we are, and it’s in the shops next week.

It is a bit of a vanity project I have to confess, but it’s my label and a bit of indulgence once in a while is no bad thing.  Like why shouldn’t Mick Hucknall, whatever we think of him, have his own personal selection of reggae cuts out on Blood and Fire when he’s bankrolled them for so long?  But the real reason was that I am by no stretch of the imagination a hip hop expert.  I know what I like, and I’ve been listening for a long time on and off, but in no way am I a purist or walking encyclopaedia but these are tracks from what I consider to be hip hop’s golden age which I love to death, and I want other people to hear them outside of hip hop circles.

I have absolutely no idea how to define this era or compilation.  It’s just hip hop cuts from the early ‘90s.  Loosely I suppose it’s an era which is bookended by De La Soul and the Wu Tang Clan, when because the spotlight wasn’t really on the hip hop scene in the intense way it is now because of incessant TV exposure I think there was an incredible burst of creativity.  I think underground hip hop or alternative rap sounds really lame, so I’ve steered clear of those, and anyway a large proportion of these tracks were on major labels.

I hate the collectors’ mentality which says hip hop on independent labels is somehow inherently better than the more high profile releases.  That’s just inverted snobbery, and it happens everywhere.  It’s like we’re seeing these Messthetics compilations of losers who were making music in the punk era, when if you stop and think the really revolutionary music was being made by people like the Banshees, PiL, Wire, Magazine and so on who were on major labels. 

It’s funny but hip hop is a music that has been incredibly bad at looking after its own heritage, which is kind of ironic.  It has to be said that’s partly the media’s fault.  Walk into WH Smiths or Borders and look at the displays of magazines, and there’s practically nothing dealing with the back pages of hip hop.  There’s Wax Poetics, which is brilliant, but the MOJOs and Uncuts of this parish just don’t seem to touch this area.  And that’s wrong.

A lot of hip hop people cite Main Source’s breaking Atoms as the greatest LP the genre’s produced, but you stop people in the street and ask about it you are going to get some pretty blank looks aren’t you?  And you don’t see it listed along Astral Weeks or Pet Sounds in the best of lists do you?  I’ve included Looking At The Back Door on this set because it’s got it all.  The obscure soul or jazzy sample or loop which seems to characterise the music from this time, before people got too heavy about getting clearance, and the DJ Shadow crowd got too precious about where these source sounds came from.  And okay I admit it also makes me think of Creedence too.

And the funny thing is back in the early ‘90s I was living on this strange diet of new hip hop 12”s and old country music.  Hearing Guy Clark’s Desperados Waiting For A Train was as much of a revelation back then as hearing A Tribe Called Quest.  I think there are a lot of similarities between country and hip hop in terms of story telling and preservation.  Anyway some of the tracks here like the Fu-Schnickens’ La Schmoove which is a huge favourite that harks back to those days, and buying things on trust from a basement in Covent Garden.  And definitely the UMC’s, though I went for something from Unleashed, their underrated second LP.  But a lot of this stuff I didn’t get to hear until much later, like KMD and Organized Konfusion. 

Right, well the track you’ve got cued up now is Hot Potato by Freestyle Fellowship from their Inner City Griots LP, and it’s got everything I wanted to get across on this set.  Witty, wise, tough and not afraid to party.  Those are elements I think have been lost to some extent now that hip hop is such a huge industry. 

Sure, it was a real nightmare licensing these tracks, and naturally I didn’t get everything I wanted but I’m really pleased at the way it’s turned out.  At one time it looked like it might turn out to be a Wild Pitch compilation, which would have been fine.  I grew up loving labels like Factory and Postcard, but Wild Pitch seems to be up there with the best of them.  Again I had no real sense of that at the time, but you learn as you go along, and it was wonderful to get contributions from Main Source, UMC’s, Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth, and The Coup.  I completely missed out on The Coup until relatively recently, but it’s been really great playing catch up.  In the UK we get Stereolab, but the US does Marxism with rather more brio.  It also belies the myth that hip hop hasn’t got a brain.  Just listen to the Souls Of Mischief’s 93 ‘til Infinity or Brand Nubian’s One For All.  If my compilation persuades even one person to track down these LPs then it’s all been worthwhile.

The funny thing is that one of my lines of arguments when I was pitching this compilation to the labels and groups was that if they said no and got too difficult then we’d just do things illegally, and use the internet to get the music across, and they kind of got wise to that, and figured they could tap into a whole new audience that hitherto hadn’t been available, and a lot of them were into the mix tape party soundtrack vibe, which is something they could really identify with.  And so we really tried to get that across in the artwork and presentation.  I keep saying this but it was important to convey the sense that this is not a collection for the head nodding backpackers, but the kid in the street with maybe a vague sense that there’s life beyond A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy…

© 2007 John Carney