House from home. Nicholas Rowland talks to a British house band who have developed their music from television advertising jingles to chart success.
Its roots are in Chicago, but that hasn't stopped British house music establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with.
IT WOULD BE fair to say that, after struggling for six or seven years, it's only now that British hip hop is starting to enjoy any real commercial success. In contrast, British house music is barely three years old and has had almost no trouble gaining either credibility or chart success.
Chicago house first broke the ground with last year's surprise success of Steve 'Silk' Hurley's 'Jack Your Body', but today British house is standing on its own feet, represented by such acts as Krush, Jack 'n Chill and Two Men, a Drum Machine and a Trumpet, though still more interesting things are happening at club level.
Another home-grown success is the Cookie Crew/Beatmasters combination, whose hip hop/rare groove single 'Females' is going great guns in the US clubs at present. On the home front, our Top Ten has just caught on to their first single, 'Rok Da House' which is by far the hardest house track in the charts at the moment. Perhaps that's not so surprising given that it's had a following in the clubs for well over six months.
On a global scale, it's also one of the most interesting, since with cheerful iconoclasm it mixes the elements which the house book says should be kept well apart: hardcore rapping, house rhythms and the discipline of a conventional song structure.
The brains behind this project belong to the three Beatmasters - Manda Glanfield, Paul Carter and Richard Walmsley. Tracking them down leads us to the heart of Soho and strained calf muscles as we ascend four flights of steep steps. At the top, we find ourselves opposite Glanfield and Carter, and a load of recording equipment. This is the studio of Commercial Music, a small company which deals in TV jingles. Beatmasters by night, Glanfield and Carter are actually Commercial Music codirectors by day, though the dividing line between work and play is quite arbitrary, since the company specialises in writing hip hop/electro style jingles anyway. (You may well have heard their recreation of the Batman theme for Mini Metro, or the hip hop track they've done for the Brook St Bureau temping agency.)
The first thing Carter does is explain the connection between the two entities: "Commercial Music was set up in November 1984, when that very hard-edged, Fairlight-type sound was just making its appearance. All the ad agencies were quite excited by it, but people who normally did jingles didn't really know how to produce it. They still don't know how. Like the classic example of how not to do hip hop music is that Duracell ad with the Beastie Boys in the garage, or the Heineken one with the boy spinning round.
"But we were all into hip hop and house music through the clubs and knew how it was made; we thought we'd be able to make a better job of it than everyone else. So we sold ourselves by saying 'If you want this aggressive music which is good for cutting pictures to, then we can do it'. It meant that we could break into that very difficult world of jingle-writing and also concentrate on making the sort of music we liked."
"Of course, we're a bit fed up with the limited parameters of advertising now", adds Glanfield, "but we always did see it as a way of getting to the point where we could start to do it 'properly'. At first, Paul and I weren't really involved in creating the actual music. We didn't have a studio as such, we just had the ideas and then we had to enlist musicians to come in and execute them for us. And most of them hadn't got a clue what we were talking about."
ONE MUSICIAN WHO did have a clue was Richard Walmsley, who is just one of several composers and players who come into the studio to work on specific adverts. The Beatmasters' career proper started in September '86, when the three of them reckoned that they had built up enough confidence and know-how to have a go at producing some "real" house.
Carter: "We were working on this thing - a rhythm, a bass and some piano parts - for a couple of weeks in our spare time and ended up with this seven-and-a-half-minute monster - a real hydra. We thought: if this needs anything, it needs a vocal of some kind. But at that time, house music vocals were very specific in their style and we didn't know anybody in this country who could even attempt that very American style, so we decided that since we like hip hop and rap so much we could just put the two together. We thought it was an interesting thing to do, though in fact, in terms of the two styles of music, it's outrageous. Oil and water, somebody called it." Enter at this point a couple of "spunky chicks" (Glanfield's phrase), more specifically Suzy Q and MC Remedee, aka The Cookie Crew. They listened to the track, quickly wrote a rap and recorded it virtually in one take.
"We only had one mic", Glanfield recalls, "and one set of headphones so monitoring was a bit of a problem."
More of a problem, though, was turning the seven-minute monster into a coherent song.
Glanfield continues: "As recorded, the rap was fairly sporadic: breaks of 20 bars, breaks of 53 bars."
The song structure was imposed after the event mainly through tape editing. The process began with a transfer of the original 16 tracks (15 vocal/instrument tracks plus timecode for the drum machine) to 24 track, during the course of which the synced-up drums were added.
"We specifically wanted to mix it on an SSL desk", says Carter. "It's not that we feel you can't do a good job unless you have that sort of equipment, it's just that it's easier."
From this they produced over 10 hours' worth of different mixes on ¼" two-track. Making up the 12" single was then a simple matter of splicing sections together. Or maybe it wasn't quite that simple...
Carter: "It can be a bit unsatisfactory because you never really get a mix up-and-running from end to end. You've just got these 30-second sections where you haven't time to get into the groove and do those mutes off the top of your head which work out really well."
"People forget that house is primarily a dance music, it's not for sticking on the CD player and being listened to from the armchair with your eyes shut."
Glanfield: "You have to react spontaneously to what you've got so far. You have to edit a few bits together that sound good going into each other and just keep playing back and try and imagine what would sound good next, find it from all your mixing, then stick it in and go on from there."
Carter again: "What you do get from this tape editing process are some lovely sounds. Like reverb 'tails' hanging over from the last bar, where there's reverb but no signal.
"It's great, but", he adds after a moment's thought, "we'll never make another record like that again. I think we'd think much more about why we were putting a part down in the first place and how that would work against the other parts. I always think that the best bet with any piece of music is to start with a good song structure before recording. Then you can do all your fine editing to improve upon things rather than as a way of imposing structure after the event."
The Cookie Crew may well agree with him. They were far from happy with what the Beatmasters had done with 'Rok Da House', arguing that by bringing in elements of house it had compromised their hardcore rap image. In fact, ever since the chart success of 'Rok Da House' the Cookies have all but disassociated themselves from the record.
"Personally", says Carter, "I thought it didn't sound as funky as it ought to, because at the time we hadn't quite got the hang of it. Without being racist it's quite a white-sounding record. The bassline is not as good as it should be, though it's memorable enough."
Despite the self-effacing comment, the Beatmasters' association with the Cookie Crew has led to a number of other British house and hip hop acts beating a path to their door. Most recently they've been involved with MC Merlin on a track called 'Born Free', and a Huddersfield duo called Hotline. WEA want them to remix the Brook Street Bureau temps ad theme as a full-length single, and there's even talk of a hip hop single based on the Batman theme.
Meanwhile the Beatmasters have got a couple of ideas of their own, including 'House of the Lord', an attempt at "Acid house" which they hope might yield an underground hit.
"It's too blasphemous to get Radio 1 airplay", explains Glanfield.
As far as one could tell, what's blasphemous about it is the use of sequenced Gregorian chant samples, plus a couple of epic religious quotations from Charlton Heston...
"Don't tell them they're Charlton Heston", Glanfield interrupts, "We'll be sued!"
"Actually they're not," says Carter. "We wanted to use Charlton Heston, but there was too much music in the background."
Of course, if anything has encouraged media interest in house and hip hop it's the paperchase of lawsuits arising from the "unauthorised" lifting of samples from other people's works. While the Beatmasters believe that performance sampling is implicit in the house style, they're anxious to avoid the kind of legal trouble which accompanied the success of 'Pump Up The Volume' for M/A/R/R/S.
Carter takes up the story of the second Cookie Crew single, 'Females', which at demo stage used a sampled and looped section from Lyn Collins' cover of James Brown's 'Think'. You can actually hear the same section on Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's 'It Takes Two' and Roxanne Shante's as-yet-unreleased 'Go On Girl', though it never made it on to 'Females'.
"This was last summer, when there was all this stuff feeding back about James Brown having 40 lawsuits piling up. We got cold feet, the record company got cold feet, so we had to rewrite the track.
"First we took the drum part, which was very funky, and sampled each one of the drum notes individually. Then we programmed the part, so we ended up with all the original inflections that the drummer had played but none of the original plate reverb ambience. We also sampled a tambourine from another James Brown record and sequenced that up, which gave it a very live feel. Then we wrote a new bassline and sequenced that up using the Studio 440. The sound itself was one of the internal presets. Then we sampled some brass from another record of that period to give the authentic sound, though obviously we had to pitch and tune it. Then Richard added real guitar over the top. I'd also heard some record on the radio with the line 'Get on up' sung by a girl vocalist, so we got someone in to do that.
"Punk was characterised by people who couldn't play - it's like that for house where people who can work the gear can come up with something valid."
"In fact, the Cookie Crew weren't too pleased with that one either."
Talk of sampling and sequencing leads to a closer look at the rack to one side of the mixing desk. Here perch an Akai S900, E-mu SP1200 and Emulator II, and the aforementioned Studio 440 which, of all of them, looks as though it has taken the hardest hammering.
"Oh, that's Richard's machine", says Glanfield in a tone which implies she rarely goes near it.
Carter agrees: "It looks unfriendly and seems hideously complicated to me, though Richard loves it."
It's clear that they view it with some suspicion, with Glanfield describing it as similar to a camera which can take the best pictures in the world, but just happens to tear the film when you wind it on.
"It has a lot of difficulty reading and generating timecodes and even seems to drop frames now and then. Far example, we've used it on the stuff we've been doing with Frontline and ended up with all these bars where the timecodes are all slightly different lengths, like a bar plus or minus two or three frames. It means we can't sync up any other drum machine to that track now."
Kinder words are reserved for the E-mu SP1200 and its forerunner the SP12 (an example of which lies in the corner ready to be sold second-hand to the first comer). Where sequencers are concerned, the studio is just a broken disk drive away from getting the Atari-based Pro24 up and running. Meanwhile for Commercial Music work, Carter and Glanfield are happy to stick to the onboard sequencer of an Ensoniq ESQ1.
In the synth department, there's a Roland D50 and MT32 and an extremely dusty Kawai K5. Not, it seems, the studio's best buy.
When it comes to handling the equipment as The Beatmasters, the work divides fairly evenly with Carter on the mixing desk, Glanfield handling the drum machine programming and Walmsley doing the sequencing.
"In terms of ideas and actually writing the parts, all three of us hum them, though Richard is the thoroughly trained musician", explains Glanfield. "I can work out parts on a keyboard but I can't really play. Sequencers are the answer to people like us who're not really musicians." Naturally, there are those musical purists who say that this lack of musicianship is exactly why house will eventually come unstuck, that really it has no longevity.
Carter: "What people forget is that house is primarily a dance music, it's not for sticking on the CD player and being listened to from the armchair with your eyes shut. It's true that house tracks are formless, repetitive, hypnotic soundscapes which are characterised by their lack of structure. Most of them start and six minutes later they finish and in between you've got some very fancy mixing and people's weird exploration of ideas and their incredible programming abilities..."
Punk with computers, as it's been termed.
"That's absolutely right. Punk was characterised in a lot of cases by people who couldn't play. It's like that for house music. But people with an idea who can work the gear can come up with something that's as valid as a classically-trained musician."
So has British house got an assured future? The Beatmasters have mixed reactions.
Glanfield: "None of the house records getting into the charts at the moment are particularly representative. They've all been 'fiddled' in some way to make them more palatable. Also the charts are so much to do with personalities: stars that people can relate to and idolise. House music is a pure dance form. In a way it's encouraging because it means that people who listen to it on the radio are liking it for the music itself. They're not distracted by the imagery associated with the performers."
Carter: "But what worries me about all kinds of music that are 'categorised' is that people on radio or TV say, 'OK, that was house, or hip hop. Now let's get back to the real music: Bruce Springsteen or U2. Everything else is considered to be just a fad that'll come and go.
"Yet it isn't a fad, though perhaps in terms of media interest and chart success it will appear as such. It isn't a fad. It won't go away. If anything it will go back to the clubs where it's been growing for the last three years, and continue to develop of its own accord."