It's about time...
I guess it must be ten years ago now. It was at a Primal Scream show, around the time they were on their MC5 trip, and Jeff was asking me what I was doing there and I was trying to convince him that he should come along and see some of the groups I was putting on in strange function rooms in London's West End side streets.
And he said something very wise. He said that he was sure I was right, and that there was something special happening, but he had no need of a group. He might buy a couple of Italian 12s or something out of Detroit, and that was all he needed each week for now.
It's a very cool dismissal, and of course does not invalidate something of importance. It also raises all kinds of interesting questions. Does it matter when you discover or immerse yourself in an act of creative genius? If you do not need that special something in your life at the time of its release, does it matter if you then pick up and run with it later, when you really do need it? I am only asking because my two favourite records of the moment have been around for a while, and I was aware of them when they first came out and they are hardly lost treasures anyway, but I did not feel I need them in my life on their release. Then, I had plenty to keep me going.
Unleashed at the start of this year, Pole 2 has been widely and rightly feted, and it will take some doing for it to be dislodged as record of the year. You may know better than me that Pole is Stefan Betke, erstwhile engineer at Chain Reaction and keeper of the Basic Channel faith. You may already have found out that it has been accurately reported how Pole takes the late '70s dub template and twists and sculpts it into a very evocative soundscape conjuring up all sorts of strange images of ghostly rastas and George Smileys emerging from Cold War subterranean hideouts in deserted quarters of Berlin with eerie clicks, crackles and echoes to make you feel a delightful unease. At six tracks long, it sustains this mood and correctly does not outstay its welcome and very definitely adds to the romantic appeal of the Basic Channel conception. It's a dream that I'm only a part time subscriber to, but there is evidence enough that Basic Channel and all of its tributaries will be one of the enduring and important musical steps forward of the late 20th Century.
I feel sure that I went on record this time last year outlining the importance of the Vainquer and Various Artists CDs on Chain Reaction, enchanting packaging in those very impractical metal tins. I should have gone on record eulogising over the summer releases of the Rhythm & Sound showcase, where the dub/roots reggae flavours, which so permeated the Basic Channel/Chain Reaction techno explorations, became very explicit and precise. Best of all were the version excursions, where dub techniques and new technology were perhaps more effectively than ever used to create a new sound form. Much as I like, say, The Disciples, so much digidub is just covering old ground too respectfully. At least Rhythm & Sound, Pole and others have used their dub obsession to create something new.
Yet, it is strange how Berlin came to be so obsessed with, shall we say, the late '70s reggae world. I mean, I can understand it, and I go through phases myself. Recently I've been listening specifically to Creation Rebel's Starship To Africa dub symphony, which 20 years ago was awash in electronics and found sound, and the pressure Sounds re-release of Prince Far-I's Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Vol 1. The sleeve of the latter has a beautiful photo of Adrian Sherwood in the late '70s, and if ever anyone asks me what Punk Rock was all about than I'd say "look at that photo!"
Getting back to Jeff, I remember being with him one afternoon when we went into a Covent Garden basement and he spent around £60 in one throw on a selection of import Hip Hop 12s. I guess that was around the time when the first Goats LP came out, the first Pharcyde, Alphabet Soup, Young Black Teenagers, Beatnuts, Souls of Mischief, UMCs. Anyway, that splurge seems to sum up my own relationship with Hip Hop. It all goes like the tides, and I went through all of '98 without getting even my big toe dipped in the sea of Hip Hop. I did hear the occasional track which caught my attention, and certainly the Indelible MCs and Company Flow made my ears prick up when I heard them on Ross Allen or Patrick Forge. It didn't go any further than that though, and you can blame it on all the bigbeat and r'n'b syrup and suet which drowned those who should be crowned.
It was on Ross Allen a few weeks back that I heard Black Star's new single, 'Respiration', and my ears did more than prick up. They very pointedly tapped me on the shoulder and made me vow to buy the Black Star LP at the earliest opportunity. And who am I to argue with my ears, for I owe them so much even if, as the very sweet optometrist claims, they are lopsided.
Fortunately, Hip Hop's pretty widely available in my part of South London, and I found a copy of Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star without difficulty. I vaguely remember seeing favourable reviews last year, and I am being open about my ignorance here, but I know nothing about Mosef and Kweli's past form yet if their present sounds this good it's probably worth investigating. Similarly, I know little of their label, Rawkus, but was pleased to note Company Flow and the Indelible MCs are from the same stable, so I guess I have some catching up to do which could be fun.
It's a great LP, Black Star, particularly by Hip Hop's infuriating inconsistent LP standards. The words flow, hit some nails smartly on the head, thoughtful rhymes ride beats that are a long way from being past their use-by date, and with Spring in the air it's ideal to discover it now. 'The Respiration' is particularly strong as a single cut, but 'Hater Players' and 'Thieves In The Night' are the ones I keep coming back to, and I salute Black Star's fierce independence.
So, you may say, about time too and where have I been, but I didn't need these records before and I have not got a problem with that. Have you?
© Kevin Pearce March 1999.