The beat doesn't come much harder than from this respected London funk outfit. In the wake of their debut LP Tim Goodyer gets the hard facts about rhythm from a box.
It may not yet have taken the charts by storm, but Black Britain's particular brand of funk has won them a devoted following. Will the release of their first album liberate them from the gig circuit?
POLITICS AND MUSIC, a volatile mixture at best, and one which will continue to bring equal measures of inspiration and criticism to those who dabble for as long as popular music is made. Sporting a name like Black Britain and releasing a debut single entitled 'Ain't No Rockin' (In a Police State)' is one sure way of attracting some of the flack, as five London lads found out when they did just that.
In the course of landing a recording contract, a promotional gig at London's Wag club attracted certain music biz executives more eager to see if they were victims of a prank than listen to the band's music. A wind-up it was not, and Black Britain's brutal funk landed them a contract with 10 Records. Cornered at his home, percussionist Mick A'Court is keen to put the politics into perspective.
"There are no songs that have been written to a political end. If you're singing something it might as well be something that people can relate to rather than just 'get down and party' and because we do that, people call us political. We're not trying to be super-serious, you can dance to the stuff and have a good time too."
Whatever the place of politics in music, there's no denying that Black Britain have cut some of the year's meanest dance grooves on their album Obvious. A stylish collection of soul and funk, Obvious threatens to take Black Britain from relative obscurity to mainstream popularity. While the lyrics cover everything from oppression to depression, the heat covers the floor wall-to-wall. And to do it, it mixes Chic guitar chops with driving basses and grand slam drums... But hold on a minute, because the band don't actually seem to have a drummer. A'court has some explaining to do.
"On the album it's all drum machines", he reveals, indicating a Roland TR909 and battered Oberheim DX with a casual wave of his hand. "We did want to use live drums but it didn't happen this time 'round."
But the story doesn't end there either, as it's obvious Obvious makes extensive use of modern sampling technology too. An Akai S900 sitting beneath the TR909 bears witness to this. Keyboardsman Kevin Elliston enters the conversation.
"We got the Akai around the middle of February and had three weeks to get some sounds in it for the live work. I was doing five hours a night to get it ready. Now we sample all sorts of different drum sounds - most people do these days."
Alongside A'Court and Elliston, Black Britain are made up of singer Ron Elliston, Kevin's elder brother, guitarist Michael Jones, and bass player Rod Hart. For live work they are joined by a guest drummer and additional keyboard player. Live, Elliston's DX7, JX8P and Poly 800 are kept company by a guesting DX7, Juno 60 and an Akai S700. A'Court uses an assortment of acoustic percussion instruments but is looking forward to introducing triggered samples to his arsenal. A Simmons kit already plays an important part in creating Black Britain's live rhythms, but the writing and recording processes have relied on the drum machines and samplers.
"It's so much easier, especially for demos, to work with a drum machine", explains Elliston. "The TR909's not bad but it's a bit old now so we've used the TR505 and TR707 more. And with the 505 you can trigger other drum sounds through MIDI, you can't do that with the 909.
"The old Roland machines are getting more popular again now; for house music it's the 909 and for hip hop it's the 808."
A'Court: "The TR909's got analogue sounds in it, the DX's got old digital sounds in it and the TR505's got new digital sounds in it. So they all represent different stages of technology. I prefer the DX, that one's a bit old and knackered, but they're so easy to program. It's a shame that Oberheim haven't updated them to take MIDI information because that's their only drawback. I don't really like the factory sounds of any of the machines personally. Now we've got the Akai I prefer triggered sounds because they give you a whole new range."
But there's more to drum machines than their sounds - the rhythms are what count, and Black Britain's count. But even a rhythm is only part of a song. Take the thick synthesiser bass and solid rhythms of 'It's Not Material'.
"If you don't realise the song is the most important thing, it can be a trap - sounds only give a song an edge, they're just an embellishment."
"That started life on the 909", reveals bass player Hart, "so it was a softer, more woody sound; the producer built the final drum sound in the studio. But each drum machine gives you a different mood for a song; if you put the same pattern in two drum machines, then the song could go in two different directions."
A'Court and Elliston are eager to point out that their addiction to sampling goes far beyond drum sounds and rhythm patterns. They've adopted the usual approaches, taking sounds off records and adapting them to their own needs.
"Everyone guards their sounds with their life", A'Court observes - even, it seems, the people who contributed to the recording of Obvious.
"There's a great sound on 'Night People'", he continues, "but the guy whose sound it is wouldn't part with it for love or money. We're trying to get hold of our own multitrack masters so we can lift the sounds off them. We didn't want to copy the album exactly so we wrote new arrangements for some of the parts for live work."
But what of the ethics of sampling off records and CDs? Is it a form of musical theft or simply an extension of the accepted idea of taking other people's musical ideas and calling them 'influences'?
"It depends how you go about it", answers A'Court. "If you nick a line that's too distinct then that's not right. All the sounds I've sampled are small parts of keyboard sounds or effects or drum sounds. The drum sounds have mostly come from American 12-inch remixes and dubs. But a lot of producers now make sure there's a hi-hat running through everything so you can't get a clean sample.
"It's harder to sample a keyboard sound because they're never really on their own", observes the keyboard player. "It's mainly drum sounds that people are worried about. If you take drum sounds and put them in a different context or treat them a little bit, it's very rare that anyone will come along and say 'you got that from...' If you start nicking whole bars it's a lot more obvious what you're doing.
"If you nick a bar of something and make it into a tune, basically you're nicking someone's idea, no matter what else you do to it you're consciously copying that groove. That's happening more with hip hop where you get two bars of a James Brown drum beat looped or something. We're not really interested in that."
SO HOW DO you turn a beat, a melody and a collection of samples into a song?
"People just don't like change, they're used to something that's simple on the ear that they don't have to think about - muzak, it's just muzak."
A'Court: "If you start off with a basic drum sound you can get an idea of the mood you want for the rest of the song. Once you've got the basis you can start working out arrangements and sounds - you already know the atmosphere you're creating. We'll try anything to make a song work."
"We've only actually written one song using the S900 so far and that's the first time we've actually started off with a tasty drum sound. Up until now we've had to do all the writing with a pretty basic machine. The only other time we started out with a good sound was when I was messing around with a Portastudio and suddenly found I'd got these amazing drum sounds. As soon as the drum sounds came up we'd got the ideas because the sounds were there.
And so we're back to the old chicken and egg situation: does a sound make the song or does a song dictate its own sound?
Ellison: "A song has to have the right sound, it's no good having a ballad with a snare crashing through it, that would destroy it. The sampler is just another drum machine really but if we're trying to write something on the 909 and the drums aren't big enough we can try another set of sounds. Because we've been writing stuff from basic sounds for so long I don't think we'll fall into any traps there. You can still add more to a sample, it's never a finished sound until you want it to be."
Hart: "If you don't realise the song is the most important thing, it can be a trap. Sounds only give a song an edge, they're just an embellishment. It's just a different way of finding inspiration."
Inspiration is one thing Black Britain seem to have in the same quantity they had when they first got together some four years ago. Could the secret of their songwriting be some formula refined over the years?
"We don't have any one way of writing", says A'Court, quickly dispelling the illusion. "We all have different ways and I think that's why the album sounds the way it does. Before we got all this gear we used to do a lot of writing together - the five of us jamming. It's only as the gear's built up that we've been able to work this way."
Elliston picks up the point: "In those days the song had to shine through because if one of us didn't like it, we wouldn't do it; if it had potential we went for it, if it didn't then we dropped it.
"Because we were limited in what we could do, we had to be more resourceful. But maybe now, with so much technology, people are going to get trapped. It is so easy now for someone who's not musical to write a song. All you need is a little Casio, you press the button and the song's there. In a way it's good because you get fresh ideas coming from young kids - hip hop is pure instinct, they come up with beats without knowing what they're doing. If you can mash all these different things together, then you've cracked it, but you've got to do your apprenticeship first, you've got to know how to write a song from basics, then you can go into a room full of gear, throw in your beats, press a button on a Fairlight and get the best out of it."
The satisfactory fusion of a powerful groove and a catchy melody - the two most important ingredients in popular music - can be one of the hardest things to achieve. More often than not a band will have one but not the other, or both but never in the same song. With more music relying on the age-old language of rhythm, are we hearing the death throes of melody?
"To follow up the records you make you've got to go out live and sound as good, if not better, and the only way you can do that is with technology."
"Hip hop and house are grooves", agrees A'Court, "but it's all fresh. Those people aren't bothered about chords and melodies, they're putting anything down and it's taking off because it's fresh and different. Once people have got used to that we'll be back to people writing songs."
Elliston continues: "The pop charts at the moment have a lot more soul in them, it's soul rhythms and new sounds which should be good but it's only the bad stuff that gets into the charts. There are so many good records around that don't get into the charts and, I don't care what you say, dance music is not for the radio, it's for the clubs. That's a fact.
"The record companies dictate an album has to have a 'hit' or they're not interested. And to get that hit everybody's playing so safe - artist, record company, radio station - they only want to hear certain things. Record companies put all this stuff out, radio stations play it and eventually people get used to hearing it. If you then come along with something different you find people just don't like change. They're used to something that's simple on the ear and they don't have to think about - muzak, it's just muzak."
So where does the '80s soul and funk of Black Britain fit in, playlist muzak or neglected songs?
A'Court: "We're just trying to be a bit original, not jumping on any bandwagons or consciously copying things. Obviously we've got our influences but it's taking those influences and putting our own interpretation on them to create something new. Then, if people start getting into our stuff, it may open the door for other bands to start doing their own things too. It's not going to happen overnight but we can but try."
INSIDE THE STUDIO Obvious has been guided through its recording by producers Pete Wilson and Ted Currier in London and New York respectively. The problems of reproducing their balance of polish and roughness live have been foremost in the band's mind.
"The days of guitars and drums have gone", states Elliston, "it's all production now. To follow up the records you make, you've got to go out live and sound as good, if not better. And the only way you can do that is with technology. I'm afraid. There are a lot of bands that can't come up with the goods and they either mime or they don't go out at all. People are saying that the producers are getting bigger than the artists, well maybe they are, and that's a very sad state of affairs, but eventually you're going to get people who can't afford name producers that will put their own records out. When we were in America the Boogie Boys were mastering on eight tracks because that's what the kids out there are buying. The kids there are doing it in their garages and putting it out on the street - those guys are really into using technology for what it is."
A'Court: "If you go into a studio that's got 48 tracks you'll use them - that's human nature. If you're used to working on 16-track and something's sounding really wicked on that, then you got the chance to do it on 48-track you'll have that temptation to put more and more stuff down, and that's where it falls flat. It's knowing when to stop; you've got to be able to say 'this is sounding good, if we do any more it's going to ruin it'."
To follow Obvious Black Britain are hard at work preparing for a second album. With their last UK single, a cover of the Beginning of the End's 'Funky Nassau' (incidentally, a live show-stopper), currently doing well in America a promotional tour over there is also a possibility.
"At the moment our music seems more accessible to the American market than it is to the British market", explains Elliston. "It's American-style production with a British groove and they think that's cool."
But then aren't we back to music whose politics has no meaning to its listeners?