Mott Black and Jonathan More have enjoyed success as DJs, record producers and artists in their own right. Simon Trask takes it from scratch.
From a bogus 12" American import that stormed clubland, to remixes that have stormed the charts, Coldcut have championed cutup music.
IN JANUARY 1987, some ten years after the punk uprising, a quiet revolution took place in the UK. A certain white-label import 12" record appeared in London's dance-music shops in limited quantities. The record was 'Say Kids, What Time is It?' by Coldcut. It was a mix record in the tradition of US cutup master Steinski which combined go go, funk and hip hop beats with music from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Jungle Book in one insane but exhilarating mix. The first and only run of 500 copies quickly sold out as the buzz went around London's underground music community.
For a record which is owned by only 500 people, 'Say Kids' has had a tremendous influence both on the UK dance music scene and the UK charts. The record turned out not to be American at all, but the product of two underground London DJs, Matt Black and Jonathan More. In little over 18 months, the pair have become dance-music producers of stature, and have ably demonstrated their versatility by scoring both commercial and underground successes. What's more, the multi-dimensional Coldcut look like ending the reign of the one-dimensional PWL empire. Recently, Livingston Studios (the pair's home-from-home) knocked PWL Studios off the number one studio spot, Yazz's Coldcut-produced 'The Only Way is Up' is the biggest-selling single of the year to date (keeping Kylie Minogue's SAW-produced 'Locomotion' from the No. 1 chart spot), and the Coldcut-owned record label Ahead of Our Time recently won the Mecca prize for services to the disco industry, a prize won by Stock Aitken and Waterman last year.
SITTING ALONGSIDE FELLOW DJ and partner Jonathan More in the pair's pokey programming-suite-cum-office at north London's Livingston Studios (they have ready access to Livingston's three studios, including use of an SSL desk, when they need it). Matt Black recalls that he was inspired to put together 'Say Kids' by "the fact that everyone else was too useless to actually do anything."
Black, Oxford science graduate and former computer programmer for Logica, is the intense one of the pair, while art graduate More is more easy-going. Both are veterans of the London underground club scene, while More was also a founder member of pirate radio station Kiss FM. Both still DJ on Kiss, playing a challenging range of music in keeping with their varied tastes and enquiring minds.
It was a shared admiration for Steinski which eventually brought More and Black together. As Black recalls with a grin: "We were the only two people in London who'd been mad enough to fork out £45 each for a copy of 'Lesson Three'." 'Lesson Three' is one of three classic Double D and Steinski cutup mixes known as 'History of Hip Hop, Lessons One, Two and Three'. Steinski went on to create the powerful cutup 'And the Motorcade Sped On', which was based around Walter Cronkite's commentary on the John F Kennedy assassination. None of these records have ever seen official release, instead circulating on the black market scene.
Coldcut have no qualms about acknowledging Steinski's influence, while being disparaging about the spate of sample records which followed on the success of their own Eric B 'Paid in Full' remix and M/A/R/R/S' 'Pump Up the Volume'.
Black: "Double D and Steinski were the teachers in the art of master-mixing, and Lessons One, Two and Three were the text. Unfortunately, some students learnt the text a little too literally. We said right from the beginning that if people treated the mix record as a formula then they were going to kill it. Unfortunately that's more or less what's happened."
'Say Kids' was recorded using two Technics SL1200 decks, a £200 Citronic disco mixer, Yamaha MT44 four-track, MTR 6:4 mixer and an old-style Sanyo cassette deck with mechanical pause-button.
"I got pause-button editing down to a fine art". Black recalls. "I edited the backing track together on the Sanyo with the pause buttton, recorded that onto the four-track, put stuff down on the other tracks, and mixed everything down through the Citronic onto the Sanyo.
"We toyed with the idea of doing the whole thing again in a 16-track studio, but decided the result we already had was good enough. You could spend your whole life making the perfect record; by the time it came out, it would be out of date - certainly in the field of dance music."
'Say Kids' was a landmark - and for more than purely musical reasons. With it Black and More instigated the much-imitated "import scam", which they developed from a mixture of lack of faith in traditional channels, awareness of "pro-import snobbery" of UK DJs, and uncertainty of the legal consequences of what they were doing.
"We felt that we were making a record that was legitimate by our definitions but probably not by a lot of other people's," says Black. "We fully expected that when we turned up at the pressing plant we'd be arrested by the MCPS, who'd be saying 'It's all Kurtis Blow's music and Walt Disney's music'."
Instead, the success of 'Say Kids' inspired them to produce their next mix, 'Beats and Pieces'. In typical eclectic style, the underlying beat was one bar of a Led Zeppelin break, 'Kashmir', sped up to 45rpm and spread over six minutes courtesy of Black's pause-button editing. This time they created a massive tape loop which went around the entire room "hanging off pencils and mike stands".
From such low-tech means the duo progressed to a Casio RZ1 drum machine, which they used for their next mixes, 'The Music Maker' and 'That Greedy Beat'. Here they used the RZ1 to provide a basic beat over which they could cut in other rhythms off records.
While all these mixes created a buzz around the Coldcut name, it was their (official) remix of Eric B and Rakim's 'Paid in Full' which really broke the Coldcut name.
"I think with 'Paid in Full' we contributed to a substantial change in attitude towards remixing", Black claims. "From then on, a remix could be very different from the original, could be creative and take things a step further in its own right. People who could do those kind of remixes were in demand.
"It was from about that time that remixers started to be in a position to ask for points on a remix. We didn't get any points on 'Paid in Full', we got £750. Yet I think we can say that we made that record. It was a hit all over the world."
Eric B and Rakim subsequently signed to MCA for a reported advance of eight hundred grand; no wonder Black and More subsequently released a 'Not Paid Enough' mix. However, the money from 'Paid in Full' did help them to acquire a Casio FZ1 sampler. Still without a sequencer, they used the RZ1 via MIDI to trigger looped one-bar breaks sampled into the FZ1 - a hi-tech equivalent of the pause-button technique. Whereas previously they had used the SL1200's pitch-slider to manually get rhythms on record to sync up with the RZ1, they now had to fine-tune the pitch of their samples on the FZ1. Where they were using a pitched sample as opposed to a rhythm, and needed to keep the sample in key, they passed it to tape via the pitch-shifting facility of a Yamaha SPX90II and then resampled it. Ah, there's nothing to beat ingenuity.
TODAY THE COLDCUT programming suite sports, alongside the inevitable two Technics decks, disco mixer and racks of records (a small part of the Coldcut collection) an interesting mixture of old and new musical technology. In addition to Casio's RZ1 drum machine and FZ1 sampler, the new is represented by a Yamaha DD5 Electronic Percussion Set (which, at under £100, Black calls "a budget alternative to the Octapad"), Nomad SMPTE/MIDI synchroniser, and Atari 1040ST running C-Lab's Creator sequencing software (now the heart of the duo's programming system). The old, meanwhile, is represented by Korg MS10 and MS20 synths, Moog Minimoog and Roland MC202 synths running off Creator via Roland's MPU101 MIDI/CV box, and the inescapable Roland TB303 Bassline - which, it transpires, doesn't get as much use as its currently hip status suggest.
"The bassline on 'Doctorin' the House', which was an early acid-type bassline, was programmed on an MC202," Black reveals. "We do most of our bass sounds on the MC202 - although we've also used the Minimoog - and the bass on 'Stop This Crazy Thing' is a sample off the MS10. In fact we've hardly used the TB303; almost all our acid stuff has been done on the 202. The joke is that you can still get 202s really cheap, but we had to pay £120 for the 303 and we were lucky to find it.
"Years ago I had the choice of buying a 303 or a 202, and I got the 202 because you could do a lot more with it. Also, I don't think the filter on the Bassline is all that good, but the 202's filter is excellent."
Nonetheless, Groove Electronics are producing a custom version of their MIDI2CV box for Coldcut which, in addition to allowing them to hook their Korg synths into the world of MIDI, will include a DIN sync output for the 303. It seems that old synths are definitely In as far as Black and More are concerned, not only for the quality of their sounds hut for their ability to allow real-time timbral manipulation - an in-vogue feature thanks to acid house.
The Bassline was used on Phuture's 'Acid Trax', the seminal acid house record, and in many people's minds it has become synonymous with the acid sound. However, Black maintains "acid isn't really just the Bassline. Acid is any house which is weird. I think we'll be hearing more cheap and cheesy old synthesiser sounds - there are other machines just waiting to be fucked up in some way so that people can get weird sounds out of them."
For 'Doctorin' the House' Coldcut took their next step up the technological ladder, buying their Atari 1040ST and C-Lab Creator the day before going into the studio, and learning how to use the system in an evening.
"At that time all the drum programs were in the RZ1", Black recalls, "so I played them from the RZ1 into the individual sequences on Creator, and used the sequencer's Arrange mode to recreate the drum track."
But they ran into problems when it came to using SMPTE. They'd asked the studio for a SMPTE unit which used song position pointers, and what they got was an SRC Friendchip, one of the earliest SMPTE/MIDI synchronisers, which used a system of cue points but not song pointers.
"The manual was probably the worst I've ever seen" Black says grimly. "We vaguely got the SRC working, but we'd get problems like it would be half a bar out when it picked up the tape position, or it would go out of time when it got to one of the cue points, so we'd have to try nudging that cue point up. I reckon it cost us three days of 24-track studio time, not to mention all the stress."
Trouble struck again when they were recording 'The Only Way Is Up'. This time they were using the Nomad SMPTE/MIDI synchroniser, and finding that their patterns were being corrupted in subtle ways and giving them timing errors.
"Eventually we determined that if you're running in MIDI sync with the Nomad, and you go into Creator's edit page and stop the sequencer, the Nomad sends some kind of crap right into Creator's heart," Black recalls. "It's obviously saying something completely pathetic like 'This is what time it is', but what it really means is 'This is me again, shitting all over your program, but I won't tell you that I'm doing it, so you can discover it later when you've laid more stuff down to tape and you have to waste another half day doing it again'.
"This sort of technology is supposed to give the musician total freedom and creativity. We've wasted so much time and money, and exhausted ourselves when we should have been getting on with producing the music. In the end we invariably come up with a result, but it's a hard birth, I tell you. There was an excellent advert for Steinberg's sync unit which said 'Stress, mayhem, panic, tension, expense; is this what SMPTE means to you?', and I have to say 'Yes, it does'."
"For me it's amazing", More says, "because I'd had no experience of computers until I met Matt. Sometimes I just sit there aghast, wondering 'Why won't it do this?' when it seems such a simple request."
Nonetheless, the duo remain undaunted by their experiences.
"At the end of the day I'd rather have computers than not have them", Black admits. "When I discovered that MIDI had been invented, I really couldn't believe it actually worked until I tried it for myself. As a computer programmer, I'm still amazed that it works at all as a standard. So technology's not all bad."
In fact, the history of Coldcut's musical development is closely tied up with the technology at their disposal.
Black again: "We've progressed now to trying to get finer resolution over the components which make up our music, whereas before we were dealing with much bigger chunks of sound. Also, in the course of a day we listen to probably over a hundred records, and just snatch and scratch any noise which grabs our attention." With their latest track, the go go-based 'Stop This Crazy Thing', the rhythm was a joint effort between Creator and FZ1 for the basic beat, and live percussion from top Latin percussionist Snowboy. For the programmed kick, snare and hi-hat, Black and More delved deep into the sequencer and fine-tuned both the position and the volume of individual notes.
"In the end we came up with a programmed pattern which is quite a reasonable facsimile of a human drummer, and has feel to it", Black says. "It doesn't change during the course of the track, but it does have a swing to it. I think it's quite interesting to have a mixture of the human musician and the programmed sampled sounds."
WHILE THEY WEREN'T the first to make records entirely out of other people's music, Coldcut were responsible for kicking off the whole sample-inspired scene, and thus indirectly the cause of heated debate in the pages of MT. Now is the time for them to account for their actions.
"The easy way to answer this is to dis Stock Aitken and Waterman", Black begins. "What they do is just as wrong, plagiarising people's work and style, tarting it up and shitting it out at the other end for mass consumption.
"We justify what we do by saying that it's creative. That's the bottom line. If something's creative then it's good, if something's not creative then it's bad.
"In our work we've been as creative as we knew how, with some degree of success. We started off with a good attitude, that we shouldn't just rip off, that things should be done creatively, and I think this has come back to us with people like Ofra Haza. We didn't rip her off. At the end of the day she has done extremely well out of it, and we're sincerely happy about that. She's had a number one in Germany and a lot of interest, which is brilliant. You see, the question people should ask is: 'are the artists going to lose by it, or are they conceivably going to gain by it?'. I don't think we've ever done a steal where someone has lost out.
"You have to draw a distinction between what we do and the bootlegging of whole Springsteen records or rare-groove records just to make a quick buck. We've got no time for that sort of thing. And we've got no time for things which masquerade as being creative but are, in fact, just a cynical theft of other people's work. I don't think we're cynical in what we do. You can steal with feeling, and that's our justification; we do it with an attitude of respect."
"Dance music as a genre has always been self-referential", states More. "As a DJ, I've seen through my history of buying dance music that there's a series of references all the way through, from the time the music was first put on record. We're just using a modern equivalent of that.
"There's also that hoary old argument that people have always stolen other people's music, like Led Zeppelin stole the blues. If you go right back to when people first made music, it was public property, a means of communicating information."
Black takes up the argument that placing something in a new context makes it different: "The moment you take two pieces of music and put them together, they become a hybrid. They can either work in a conventional way, for instance when two different drum beats complement one another, or in a surreal way, such as a siren noise complementing some piano notes in a discordant but extremely effective way, where the result can be completely different to what you might expect. Hip hop especially is about using that kind of discordant noise to grab your attention. Some people can't take that surreal approach at all; they hate it."
Dance music in 1988 is bearing witness to a remarkable cross-fertilisation of musical styles and traditions with, for instance, the Jungle Brothers rapping over Todd Terry's house anthem 'Can You Party?' on 'I'll House You' and incorporating African music into hip hop on their recent debut album. Latifah's 'Wrath of My Madness' also integrates African-style chants into hip-hop, while Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock mix up breaks from the Jackson Five's rare groove 'Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)' and Black Riot's house-styled 'A Day in the Life'.
The meeting of acid and rap can be found on the acid remix of Brandon Cooke's 'Sharp as a Knife', which features Roxanne Shante rapping over an acid track (in true remix fashion, a combination which didn't happen in real life), and on the Moody Boyz' 'Acid Rappin' (which also mixes in African vocal chants). Bhangra music is forging a relationship between Punjabi folk music and house, while New York DJ Mark Ramins is doing his best to mix house with almost any kind of music you can think of, including Islamic and Scottish music.
Coldcut are observers of all these trends. They reckon that melody rap will be massive, acid house will cross over into the charts as people start to add vocal hooks to what has been a starkly instrumental musical form. And the spaciness of acid may be paving the way for dub-music techniques to enter the dance-music scene in a big way.
Among current producers, Coldcut profess admiration for Todd Terry, the producer behind Royal House, Black Riot, Masters at Work and the Todd Terry Project, and current favourite on the more discerning dancefloors.
"Todd Terry's production work is going to have a massive effect on the charts". More predicts. "He'll probably never have a chart hit himself, though I hope he does. His production is probably going to be bootlegged soon, but then his production is a bootleg anyway."
In fact, Terry's mixture of house, hip-hop and soul is very much in tune with current dance-music developments. But is the diversity of dance music being threatened by these developments? Black thinks not.
"Just because hip-hop/house records are being made, it doesn't mean the music is amalgamating into one. It's like a third direction has been found, and the music can go out from all three directions at the same time. That third direction is basically what we're into: hybrids of old and new sounds, of different genres of music, of different music from different times."
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the pair are united in not wanting to take the easy path to lasting chart success and financial security.
"After 'Paid in Full' we got asked to remix people like Bros and Krush", More reveals. "We were even asked to remix Siouxsie and the Banshees' 'Peekaboo', but that's a great track and I can't see why it needs anything done to it. Sometimes record companies just panic."
"They just want us to tart things up", Black adds vehemently.
The duo have managed to keep an underground sound (the recent double-album Coldcut sampler Out to Lunch with Ahead of Our Time provides ample testimony to this), a fact of which they are proud.
"It would've been the easiest thing in the world after 'Doctorin' the House'", Black states, "to come out with some joke bass-bomber, house-tempo track and go storming up the charts again. But we didn't want to do that."
Instead they waited until they could come out with 'Stop This Crazy Thing', which they consider to be their best work since 'Say Kids'. It might not have rushed the No. 1 spot, but at least Coldcut are taking on the charts on their own terms. Future plans include a Coldcut album, and remix chores on a track by the reformed German masters of improvisational rock, Can. Can we expect to see the pair doing a PWL and establishing a Coldcut stranglehold on the charts, then?
"I can't really see that happening," Black replies with conviction. "We don't want to dominate music or the charts, but we do want to be paid in full for our work so that money isn't a problem for us - which frankly it is at the moment. And we want to be able to do our own thing. I can't see our music taking over the charts to the alarming extent that PWL's has, because before that time we'll have made enough money to go off for a year or so and get seriously weird!"
So far, Coldcut have managed to combine commercial success with continued respect from the underground music scene which nourished them. This very diversity, together with their depth of musical understanding and readiness to experiment, should ensure that Coldcut remain a creative force in dance music for some while to come.
Interview by Simon Trask
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