With their debut album just released and a single high in the charts, these are busy times for the Beatmasters. Tim Goodyer braves a tube strike to find out what technology has done for them (and what they'd like to do to technology).
A string of charting singles has put the Beatmasters well and truly on the house map; successful they are, but their attitudes to music and technology remain brutally realistic.
THERE'S ONLY ONE thing worse than waking up to the inane ravings of Radio 1's Simon Mayo first thing in the morning, and that's hearing his pet newsreader announce that there's a tube strike on. Why today - one of the only two days the Beatmasters are available for interview?
Fortunately the Strongroom, the studio at which the Beatmasters currently have their own 16-track pre-production suite, is within walking distance of London's Liverpool Street (British Rail) station, and my 12 o'clock appointment is safe. In fact I'm early, and have to kill a little time reading The 15th Blue Peter Annual and reflecting on the Beatmasters' album debut, Anywayawanna due for release in 13 days time.
The ten tracks on the pre-release cassette I've been listening to for a week showcase the clean, energetic house style that put the Beatmasters/Cookie Crew collaboration, 'Rock Da House', high in the singles charts last year. It also demonstrates something of the Beatmasters versatility through the hip house of 'Who's In The house', the ska of 'Ska Train' and the rock base of 'Sarayet-Sayam Sembtaé'. Sitting in the Strongroom, it's the last track that's giving me trouble as lm sure that I recognise the drum break that opens it. But an evening spent searching through my record collection has failed to help me identify it.
The first Beatmaster to put in an appearance is Paul Carter. As he attempts to prepare the studio for business I ask him about the offending break.
"Where did you start looking?", he enquires.
"Through my Deep Purple albums", I reply.
"Well, you're in the right ballpark. In fact, you're in the right tennis court - it's 'Fireball'. But it's not a sample.'
Carter seems surprised that anyone should come so close to identifying the break, and is happy to announce that they had reprogrammed and modified (to avoid copyright problems) the drum pattern played by Ian Paice 18 years earlier - a fact borne out by the difference in recording quality of 'Sarayet-Sayem Sembtaé' and the Deep Purple recordings I'd been listening to the night before.
When a second Beatmaster, Richard Walmsley, appears, he seems less happy to discuss the origin of the break. Instead we talk about other artists sampling the Beatmasters themselves - a situation both Walmsley and Carter are happy with.
"On the album remix of 'Rock Da House' there's some scratching that came off the radio", reveals Carter. "I turned the radio on one day and this record came on with 'Rock Da House' sampled and scratched into it. I turned the tape recorder on, and we later sampled four bars of it and looped it. We've no idea who did it, it was just a pirate radio broadcast."
"Most of our breaks are sampled from other people", continues Walmsley, "so if anyone samples us they're only sampling somebody else for the third or fourth time. We could ring them up and say '"why didn't you get the original record, it would have been better quality?'."
"They might not know the original", points out Carter, "also, by the time you've put your programming over the top of a drum break, you've changed the feel of it anyway."
THE BEATMASTERS ARE not two, but three talents: the missing Beatmaster is Manda Glanfield who is taking a break after the hectic recording schedule of Anywayawanna. In keeping with many current songwriting/programming/production teams, the trio have called upon the talents of a variety of singers to complete the cuts on their LP - MC Merlin, PP Arnold and Betty Boop guest on 'Who's In The House', 'Burn It Up' and 'Hey DJ/I Can't Dance to that Music You're Playing'. Jum Jum, Claudia Fontaine and Eric Robinson (vocalist on S' Xpress' 'Hey Music Lover') have also played their part, as has MC Triple 0 (the One Original Orator) on 'Don't Stop the Beat'. But all is not necessarily what it seems. Robinson's vocal on 'Midnight Girl' is actually a demo recording (as his record company withdrew his services before the recording was complete), and MC Triple 0, it seems, doesn't actually exist at all.
"It's off the B-side of an American record", announces Carter. "I'm not going to tell you what it was, but it was an a cappella version of the song on the A-side. What we did was cut up all the individual words from different sentences, sample them and put them together to make the vocal. It was an extremely time-consuming piece of work. especially to get all the inflection right."
"It's amazing what you have to do when you can't sing", muses Walmsley.
While the roster of vocalists involved in recording Anywayawanna is fairly long, the roster of equipment used in its writing and recording is modest. Lavishly-equipped MIDI programming suites are not for the Beatmasters. ("We wouldn't even know how to switch an Atari on", claims Carter.) Instead they each work at home on small setups and bring their ideas into the Strongroom suite for demoing. From there, the demos are transferred to 24-track in the Strongroom's main studio, the vocals are added
and the tracks are ready for cutting. At home Carter can be found working with an E-mu Systems 5P1200 sampling drum machine, Walmsley with a Sequential Studio 440 sampling drum machine and Glanfield with a new Ensoniq EPS sampling keyboard.
"Nearly all of our tracks are done on two or three instruments", explains Walmsley, "whatever the drum source is, another keyboard and a bit of S900. In some ways technology is a pain in the arse because it can take you hours to do what a band can go into the studio and do in the length of time it takes to play the track."
Although the pre-production suite has been disrupted to accommodate the hired AMS AudiofiIe used to edit the album tracks to album length, the equipment around us - with the exception of the Studio 440 - definitely constitutes the budget side of a pro studio. Yet it has obviously been chosen with care; no money has been wasted, and no unnecessary complication has been introduced into the Beatmasters' working habits. A TAC Scorpion desk and a pair of Yamaha NS10M monitors occupy one end of the room. An Akai S900 sampler, Yamaha SPX90, Alesis Microverb, Sony TCD D10 DAT recorder, Roland TR808 drum machine, TB303 Bassline and SH101 and Juno 6 synths and Carter's SP1200 are scattered around the other three walls.
"Our inspiration is all black dance music from America, which is very low-tech, so if we were to start putting elaborate production on our music it would be ridiculous", comments Walmsley.
"We try really hard to restrain ourselves", continues Carter. "We never use that much gear. We never sit down with a Wakeman-style setup. 'Who's in the House' was all done on the SP1200 and the EPS. The EPS was used as an eight-track sequencer and the whole track was done in two passes of the tape off those two instruments. It was done in Manda's bedroom and took about four hours and one keyboard."
The heart of the Beatmasters approach to making music seems to come down to how quickly they can work. What they're searching for seems to be a "live" approach to making "studio" music - not live in the sense of fooling you into believing you're listening to a human drummer instead of a drum machine, but live in the way the inspiration and excitement behind a song gets past the technology to the ears of the public.
"The difference between playing and sequencing something", begins Walmsley, "is that, generally when you're playing something there's certain level of enjoyment in it, and that kind of keeps you at the core of what it's all about. When you get a machine in, you work on it, then you switch the machine off and go away and think about it a bit and then come back and do something much more complicated. But you're not really thinking about the music, you're thinking about the technology. We did a couple of remixes on the album that took a day each - when I say remixes, I mean they're totally different - I'm talking about 'Rock Da House' and 'Burn It Up' and they're like different tracks now really. For 'Burn It Up' we were using the 440 and we weren't even stopping it - it's quite good like that, you can do all your sequencing without even stopping the machine. So we were just keeping on grooving with the track, and that's something I want to do a lot more of now. I don't want to start thinking about things too much and getting into strange conceptual ideas that take lots of fiddling about. It's like trying to get a live relationship with a sequencer - you're not making live music but you're working in a live manner.
"I've been thinking a lot about how you use sequencers, not in the sense of what they sound like but in the sense of how you use them. If you get into a big cerebral thing, stopping a lot and thinking on a machine level too much, then I think you're in trouble. I think the stuff we've done on the album has really benefited from the fact that we've been grooving and enjoying the music more - which is what you do when you play an instrument.
"Music should sound inspired, and that comes from you. Things can have a live feel from the concept, from the idea at the word go."
"We're not knocking all that gear", interjects Carter, "but we've never had it and never used it and we're still doing what we do best."
"People are still using the TR808", continues Walmsley, "because it's so simple to use and the vibe you get - not a live vibe in terms of the synchronisation of the sounds - is a live vibe because of the fact that you're getting a spontaneous result. You can wake up in the morning with a brilliant idea for a tune and as soon as you start to hum it into something, it's like trying to nail a raindrop. The quicker you get things down, the more spontaneity you get out of them - even if they're not live in the way a drummer or a guitarist would play."
How. then, does all this reflect on the gear that's currently being produced by the hi-tech equipment manufacturers?
"If a manufacturer somewhere could take our approach to the technology, I think they'd be onto a winner - the Studio 440 approach but cheaper", replies Carter.
Walmsley goes on to give an example of how technological progress isn't always good news for the musician: "The Juno 6 isn't a brilliant keyboard but you can always get a good bass sound out of it really quickly. I've got a D50 and my favourite sound on it uses one oscillator, but it took me about five hours to switch everything else off. It's something you could have done in ten seconds on the Juno.
"Some advice for bands that go into studios and are in awe of the technology: when we're here we've got two reverbs, a little MIDIverb thing and an SPX90, and I find when we're recording in a 24-track the engineers try all these Lexicons and things and, if it's not sounding right and we want to bring in the cheap reverbs, some engineers will say 'oh, what do you want that for?'. But if you know what you want and it's right for your music there's no point in letting a situation like that intimidate you."
"As long as it sounds good cheap", adds Carter, "take everything with you. Otherwise you end up with the engineer trying to program the latest reverb unit with Preset 6 on a Microverb."
"Our inspiration is black dance music which is very low-tech, so if we were to start putting elaborate production on our music it would be ridiculous."
THE ORIGINAL SCHEDULE allowed just five weeks for recording and mixing the tracks that make up Anywayawanna. A tall order by anyone's standards, and one that was too tall for the Beatmasters - but only just. The recording actually took seven weeks, an achievement in itself, and included recording new versions of the tracks that had already been released as singles: 'Rock Da House', 'Burn It Up' and 'Who's In The House'. Carter explains why they felt it necessary to take on the extra work.
"First of all we thought anyone who was going to buy the album was almost certain to have the singles -'Rock Da House', for example, is a very old record - and we thought to put them on the album wasn't giving very good value for money, first and foremost. Most people put an album out and then take four or five singles from it. We are in the position of having had three of the tracks on the album released before the album comes out. It's not a marketing thing, I wouldn't he very happy about buying an album that I'd already bought three of the songs from."
Walmsley: "Also we wanted to be really excited about the album and we are now we've remixed those tracks. We needn't have done that, we could have said fuck it and left them, and the recording schedule was such that we had to rush it to get those tracks done. They didn't take a lot of time, but it was four days out of the recording schedule we could have used elsewhere."
The recording over, it was discovered that the tracks were above "album length".
"There's a certain attention span people have these days", explains Walmsley, "and we were going over it because we were more into the music than people who will be just listening to it. Having to edit tracks down is quite difficult. I don't think the public will notice, it's just bits that I like and Paul likes and Manda likes we've had to chop out just to make the structures coherent."
"'Don't Stop the Beat' has got a nice Lionel Hampton-style vibes solo in it that Richard played", volunteers Carter. "The solo went on for 60-odd bars and so we had a lot of trouble editing that because it was properly structured and flowed beautifully, so there wasn't really anywhere it could be edited. It was like trying to edit a Harry James trumpet solo."
It was on one of the recording days", elaborates Walmsley, "and we were ready to go on to another track the next day and we said 'what about that vibes solo then?'. So I got plastered at supper...
"You might have a long song and take out one bit to make it the right length but then it sounds wrong. We did all the editing on the AMS Audiofile, which was quite good; certainly better than doing it on tape - it took us two days instead of six weeks."
Returning to the re-recorded singles, let's take a closer look at what went into one of them.
"For 'Rock Da House' we had a particular sampled drum break we wanted to use", begins Carter. "The vocal is off the original master. We took the original 16-track master, dumped it onto 24-track and wiped off most of the material before we started. Even the timecode had to be regenerated because it was SP12 code and the SP1200 wouldn't read it. For one day's work it's pretty good."
Walmsley picks up the story: "Basically we started with the drum break, two samples and the vocal. We put them in and we had a new track.
"It started to get this slight '70s funk feel that we hadn't planned at all, and the last thing to go down were these big claps in the background which had a George Clinton feel to them. Again, that was done in a hurry and I think the mix could have been better. But the idea's there and, if you whack it up loud, it sounds great."
Not all the tracks have given the Beatmasters as little trouble as 'Rock Da House' - especially politically. 'Who's In The House' was released as a reply to Tyree and Kool Rock Steady's hip house anthem 'Turn Up The Bass' which claimed be the first hip house on vinyl. The Beatmasters know differently, as Carter explains.
"If you listen to the lyrics, they speak for themselves. It's about the fact that we did 'Rock Da House' and, although it wasn't a hit until January 1988, we recorded it in August 1986.
And nobody was interested in putting it out except Rhythm King the following year.
"A lot of critics at that time were saying 'the Beatmasters have mixed oil and water; you can't mix rap with house...'. And, of course, the record was a huge hit. Then Tyree comes along with 'Turn Up The Bass' and everyone starts rabbiting on about this thing called hip house "isn't it marvellous, it's got rap and house on top of each other?" And the 'Think' sample that we'd also used yonks before on 'Females'. It was just irritating, so we said let's write this rap about how we invented this thing, not Tyree, and went round Manda's house and did it - but if it hadn't worked out we wouldn't have released it,
"The reason it was done at Manda's was that it was easiest to do it there that day and do it on the EPS. All the samples were done off Manda's stereo. So that whole Top Ten track was done in someone's bedroom. There was a gap when Merlin wasn't available, but had Merlin been available immediately we'd done the backing track, we'd have had it on vinyl in five days. We had an acetate the day after we'd finished recording and mixing it. Essentially it was recorded very, very cheaply. We could have done on 16-track, no trouble at all. We could have it on four-track, actually."
Another of Anywayawanna's tracks that may give the Beatmasters trouble in the future is 'Ska Train', in which Carter, Walmsley and Glanfield have mixed house with ska. But once again. an accusations of bandwagon riding are likely to be swiftly dealt with.
"'Ska Train' is an idea that's been going around since way before Christmas", says Carter. "I had a little track similar to that happening on the SP12 last summer, we just didn't have anything to hang it on. So I suppose when Longsy D brought out 'This Is Ska' it gave us the hook we needed. But the actual musical idea had been around for a long time. What are people going to think about it? I hope they like it."
"I think the music will speak for itself" suggests Walmsley. "If people just see it as the Beatmasters jumping on a bandwagon... Some people won't listen to the music, that's life, but, hopefully, most people listen to music because they enjoy it and don't analyse it all. I think it's a brilliant track, actually."
Carter again: "I can't remember where I saw it, but in a magazine somewhere it said 'one of the summer's biggest tracks is going to be 'Ska Train' by the Beatmasters.
"We're not putting it out as a single at the moment - although we might if it starts to go down really well in the clubs. But we don't want to be accused of jumping on a bandwagon we're not actually jumping on. If the Beatmasters have got a single fault it is that they like everything. There are so many good things that you want to be involved with, sometimes it's hard to keep your feet on the ground - every time I hear anything new I want to be involved in it."
Walmsley: "That's the whole thing about being English as opposed to being American. In America you're probably involved in a small scene in a small neighbourhood which is linked to a bigger scene, but it's very geographical and that's part of what you're about. In England it's a bit different."
Different enough for the Beatmasters to (quietly) believe they are doing more than making dance music - they're bringing black music to the attention of white Americans.
"People like us and people in England are putting an acceptable face on black dance music", comments Walmsley. "When I say that I don't mean acceptable to me. I mean acceptable to other people. London has a lot of influence musically: it gets everything, mixes it up, chews it up and then spits it out again and everybody looks at it in a new light.
"There's this American bloke we know who's really rich and lives in Los Angeles, but he comes over to England to buy records. He'll spend a thousand pounds on records that he can't get in America - well he probably could, but not in one shop; he'd have to go to all sorts of neighbourhoods where he wouldn't dare to get out of his car.
"The music we're inspired by is American black music, and the fact is that in America, the majority of white people aren't interested in black culture. So what happens, and it's quite alarming, is that people like us are putting an acceptable face on it for them. They're not getting the real McCoy; if they want the real McCoy it's already there in their own country - they should just go out and buy it."
"Historically Americans have never appreciated what they've got in their own back yard", continues Carter.
"It's completely inexcusable that white American culture ignores black music. But America is dominated by this huge crass culture - it's tied up. It's a geographical thing and it's a racial thing. It's pretty bad that people like Kevin Saunderson, who are absolutely huge over here, are pretty well unknown outside of their own back yards. They're starting to get recognition in New York now but they've had to come here to get it, some of them have even had to come and live here in order to earn a living."
These are the thoughts I'm left with as I leave two Beatmasters to prepare their studio for more music making. The tubes may not be running but Britain is the most healthy breeding ground for popular music and my train is only 27 seconds late leaving the station.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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