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Oblique strategies


Article from The Mix, November 1994

Acid jazz of the counter-culture

Always on the fringes of the acid jazz scene, Izit have been through a lot of changes. Now they're back with a new line-up and an imaginative marketing strategy. Guitarist and MD of Tongue & Groove Records Tony Coleman talks to Magnus Schofield, and reveals how the offbeat collective never miss a trick...

There are some species of Americana which never go out of style. Strip 'em down and repackage them often enough, and their reappearances will be so frequent as to seem continuous. And as with celluloid, when each of those snapshots is subtly different, there will be the impression of forward motion.

Throughout the 60s and early 70s Black America was on the march, and a new breed of self-governing black label was there to harness that pride and passion. With only a handful of pirate radio stations, the circulation of these records in Britain was truly underground.

Radio 1 emerged in 1967 from the BBC 'Light Programme', with a playlist which continued to filter blues and soul through Mersey-tinted spectacles. At the same time white American artists like Little Feat and Steely Dan had absorbed and appropriated funk and soul before the British public had a chance to catch up.

From one talk box to another: the technology and the poetry

Just as they were about to, spandex boob-tubes and the Bee Gees engulfed the dancefloors. It was a decadent and effete culture which left ghetto youth out in the cold as much as their spotty British cousins, and a generation deserted the club scene.

Britain's answer was punk, an eruption of teen frustration around which a spectrum of marginalised music coalesced. Others rode its coat-tails to success. And so excavations of the R&B goldmine were further postponed, in Britain at least. But punk had spawned tangents, and in its aftermath the collectors' shops of Camden Town proliferated, rekindling the interest of one generation in black music, and whetting the appetites of another.

If Acid jazz has been a slow burner, it's because it has emerged from London's 'rare groove' and jazz-dance dubs by a process of natural evolution. By the mid-80s jazz-funk had become the province of hair salons and wine bars, and the London clubs were looking for something raw. The James Taylor Quartet played the novelty card, with Hammond-driven covers of detective and 'blaxploitation' themes, while Izit's 'Stories' borrowed the Chakachas' anthem of 70's funk to create a quirky, dubby excursion enlivened by Pathe News Gazette-style dance instructions and Catherine Shrubshall's rasping baritone sax. It was a crossover of sufficiently disparate elements to excite widespread club interest. Acid Jazz, the bastard son of 70's funk was born, with its half-dozen exponents the focus of enormous press and record company interest.

Izit Sisley or is it a CD single? Styling and profiling with Nicola and her chums

Eddie Pillar's fledgling Acid Jazz label poached The Brand New Heavies from Cooltempo, for whom the languid 'Got To Give' had not set the dancefloors alight. But Izit were not so easily wooed, agreeing only a tentative licensing arrangement for 'Stories', and a distribution deal for their own-label follow-up, 'Make Way For The Originals'. Even this minor flirtation with record companies proved bruising for the band, with Optimism Records folding, and the studio where the band were putting the finishing touches to their LP seizing the tapes in lieu of payment. Only recently has German label Yo Mama managed to negotiate the tapes' release, and four years later the album has emerged under the sobriquet of The Main Street People.

Continental Europe continues to prize the band's music as highly as its sense of style. And their high profile in Italy has afforded a further opportunity to cock a snook at record companies and their marketing budgets. At present, Izit are to be seen eight times a day on MTV, in an advertising campaign for Sisley clothing, part of the Benetton empire. It's a unique and imaginative partnership, with a mutual exchange of style and street cred. Sisley give away a promo copy of the new single 'Izit Everywhere' with the matching T-shirt, while the band bestow their kudos on the Autumn/Winter collection, with which they're already handsomely kitted out.

Izit have also donated the services (and teenage diaries) of lead vocalist Nicola Bright-Thomas, who finds herself re-modelled in Sisley style for the Autumn/Winter catalogue. It's more than the usual glossy promotional bumph, Nicola's breathless tones narrating a checklist of chic watering holes and happening clubs. Guitarist Tony Coleman, the band's torchbearer since the early days, explains how he hatched this subversive deal in the surreal surroundings of Benetton headquarters:

Hot Izit cookies chill out in the Tongue & Groove fridge (pic: Sally Anne Lowe)

"It just kind of happened really. We were on tour in Italy, and Sisley's advertising agency, who are all big Izit fans anyway, had us play at their office party. They were on the lookout for a band anyway, for the '94/'95 campaign. And we were in London, we were underground, and we liked the clothes, otherwise we wouldn't do it. Benetton itself is a fairly bizarre company anyway. I went up to the headquarters, and it's like going onto the set of The Prisoner, it's like you're not on this planet."

Tony continues to resist the blandishments of record companies, including six-figure offers from Japan where the band regularly tour. Since his experiences with Optimism he's returned to own-label recording, assembling an eclectic family of musicians for the Tongue & Groove label, whom he shuffles about for dub and ambient experiments. The rave and jazz scenes are cross-fertilising as never before, with acts like The Sandals, and Izit offshoots The Powdered Rhino Horns upping their BPMs and trading in their Hammonds for sequencers.

While this strand of Tongue & Groove's operations becomes more trancey, the jazz poetry of the One Hell Of A Storm album is altogether more avant-garde and adventurous. Bringing together musicians and producers with London's leading black poets, the album creates a montage of contemporary urban agitprop which recalls The Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron. Inspired by his work with New York poetess Dana Bryant, Tony and partner Chris Goss trawled London's underground poetry jams, enlisting the services of MC Mell'O' and Lemn Sissay amongst others. It's an auspicious departure for so young a label, mapping out territory neglected by its rivals, and well placed to profit from the U.S. success of 'The Jackal', Dana's collaboration with Ronny Jordan. Once again Tony and Chris were resourceful in their pursuit of finance, with editorial and advertising coverage from Straight No Chaser magazine, and grant funding from the London Arts Board. Due for release shortly is a various artists remix compilation, 'Tongue Sandwich', and there's a new Izit album to look forward to in the New Year. Acid jazz is exploding across Europe and the U.S., where the Brand New Heavies have softened up the R&B charts. And their new U.S. management has Izit tracks shortlisted for Prêt à Porter, the new film by Robert Altman, a director stylish enough to rehabilitate scat-chanteuse Annie Ross for his last film, Short Cuts. Tony & Chris are as discriminating about promotion as they are about product, but it all goes to preserve the Tongue & Groove mystique. If as the song promises, 1995 sees Izit "here, there and everywhere", you can bet your life it'll be on their own terms.

Izit kit list

Mackie 8-buss 24:8:2
Alesis ADAT (x 3)
Atari ST running Cubase
Korg Wavestation
Cheetah MS16
Roland Juno 106
Roland D110
Yamaha KX88
Akai S1000
Casio FZ10M
Yamaha SPX90
Alesis Quadraverb
Digitech Digital Delay
Yamaha TX802
Talk Box
Boss Autowah

Tongue & Groovography

Izit The Rhyme Of The Ancient Groover
The Powdered Rhino Horns Break The Equation EP
Izit Don't Give Up Now
Izit One By One
Byron Wallen's Sound Advice Progress
Sidewinder Crack The Crackers/Together
The Powdered Rhino Horns Blow Job EP
Izit Say Yeah (Remixes)
The Mighty Truth Heavy Knowledge
K-Creative Shopkeeper
Fumi Better Way
Izit Izit Everywhere

Izit The Whole Affair
Various Artists Planet London
The Powdered Rhino Horns Blow Job
Various Artists One Hell Of A Storm
Various Artists Tongue Sandwich (Nov 94)
Izit Undiscovered Land (Jan 95)
The Mighty Truth Debut LP (Feb 95)

Recipe for a tongue sandwich

The tiny Tottenham terrace which is Tongue & Groove Towers accommodates not only their office but a 24-track mixing suite, otherwise known as Vibragroove. Shrewdly resisting the temptation to sink money into their own facilities, Tongue & Groove prefer to choose from a wide range of congenial and competitively-priced London studios. Protocol, Hear No Evil and Boogie Back, are among their favourites. Boogie Back in Muswell Hill is Tony's sort of wholefood, spit'n'sawdust joint, from which a less-than-organic 24-track timecoded ADAT is borne home for tweaking and overdubbing at Vibragroove. Ever the digital apologist, Tony explains, "it's the only way we're able to interface with the larger studios".

Tongue & Groove is a cottage industry in which low budgets are never permitted to compromise standards. The quality of recording and packaging which the label maintains is as much testimony to advances in technology as it is to Tony & Chris's taste and style. Back at Vibragroove tracks are overdubbed, not just with Atari-generated sequencing, but also vocals and guitar parts, in an environment which is far from acoustically ideal. These are the overdubs which Tony modestly suggests "lift the songs out of sounding like Steely Dan".

In fact there are just three stipulations to Tongue & Groove's production values: A good mixing desk, "an exceedingly good microphone", and an ADAT machine or two. Tony's only reservation about ADATs: "Your vocals can end up sounding like Prince".

Izit are the kind of band whose live vibe is impossible to transmit to disc, at least not in full technicolor. It's a community of auto-erotic bohemian troubadours co-existing in a spirit of egocentric mutual respect, intermittently cross-fertilising hermaphroditically (Oh God, he's been down the pub at lunchtime again - Ed).

As such, they are bound to put technology to unorthodox uses, the latest of which is Tony's Talk Box. It's their secret weapon for the new LP, but Tony has bigger plans for it than Joe Walsh or Peter Frampton, who simply shackled it to his mike for 'Show Me The Way'. This primitive unit bounces the output of a plastic hose off an integral speaker, but its freaky harmonics have so excited Tony he intends to "put everything through it."

The Yamaha TX81Z is indispensable for dub and ambient basslines, and is prized for its pure tone and ease of use. A 'cruddy old' Digitech digital delay is valued in contrast for its crudity. For all their inverted snobbery, Tony & Chris embrace technology as much as the rest of us - in an oblique sort of way.

Previous Article in this issue

Fifty feet high and rising

Next article in this issue

Gamelan a ding dong

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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The Mix - Nov 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

In Session





Interview by Magnus Schofield

Previous article in this issue:

> Fifty feet high and rising

Next article in this issue:

> Gamelan a ding dong

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