Scratch & Snatch
tasty tips from britain's cut-up kings - if it moves, sample it!
FROM A BOGUS 12" AMERICAN IMPORT THAT STORMED CLUBLAND TO REMIXES THAT HAVE STORMED THE CHARTS, COLDCUT HAVE BECOME THE UNCROWNED KINGS OF THE CUT-UP MIX. FOR THIS DUO, THE ONLY WAY IS UP.
ON 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 cut-up 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 massive, insane, and totally exhilarating mix.
The first and only run of 500 copies quickly sold out, as the buzz went around London's underground music community. And 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 immense 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' 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 number one chart spot), and the Coldcut-owned record label Ahead Of Our Time recently won the Mecca prize for services to the disco industry - the same prize won by Stock Aitken & Waterman last year.
For people who make records that are unquestionably "street", Coldcut's background is surprisingly academic. Black is an Oxford science graduate and former computer programmer (he's the intense one), while More is an art graduate (the easy-going one). Yet 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 the two 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 & Steinski cut-up mixes known as 'History of Hip-Hop, Lessons One, Two and Three'. Steinski went on to create the powerful cut-up 'And the Motorcade Sped On', 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.
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, a Yamaha MT44 four-track, an 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 button, 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'."
But they weren't. Instead, the success of 'Say Kids' inspired Coldcut 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".
"WE JUSTIFY WHAT WE DO BY SAYING IT'S CREATIVE. THATS THE BOTTOM LINE. IF SOMETHING'S CREATIVE THEN IT'S GOOD."
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'. The RZ1 provided 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 & Rakim's 'Paid in Full' which made the pair headline news.
"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 & 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 Coldcut acquire something really hi-tech: a Casio FZ1 sampler. Still without a sequencer, they used the RZ1 to trigger looped one-bar breaks sampled into the FZ1 - a sophisticated equivalent of the pause-button technique. Whereas previously they'd used the SL1200's pitch-slider to 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 used 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 effects unit, and then resampled it. Proof that there's no substitute for 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 and an Atari computer running C-Lab's Creator sequencing software - now the heart of the duo's system. The old, meanwhile, is represented by a bunch of dusty old synthesizers: a Korg MS10 and MS20, a MiniMoog, a Roland MC202, and a Roland TB303 BassLine - currently the machine to use for "acid" bass sounds. Coldcut aren't that crazy about it, though.
"The bassline on 'Doctorin' the House', which was an early acid-type bassline, was programmed on the 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.
"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 synthesizer sounds - there are other machines just waiting to be fucked up in some way so that people can get weird sounds out of them."
It's possible, also, that many musicians - acid freaks included - are going back to old machines because the newer gear is too complicated. Certainly, Coldcut's experiences with computers have been pretty mixed.
"This sort of technology is supposed to give the musician total freedom and creativity", says Matt Black. "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.
"But at the end of the day I'd rather have computers than not have them. 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."
"IT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD TO GO STORMING UP THE CHARTS AGAIN, BUT WE DONT WANT TO DOMINATE MUSIC."
For their most recent hit 'Stop This Crazy Thing', Coldcut crafted a rhythm that 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 in the UK. Now is the time for them to account for their actions.
"The easy way to answer this is to dis Stock Aitken & 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. 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."
As well as being creators of new forms of dance music, Coldcut are observers of all the current trends. They reckon that melody rap will be massive, that acid house's crossover into the charts will continue, and that the "spacyness" of acid could pave the way for dub techniques to enter the dance scene in a big way. Above all, they admire the hip-hop, house and soul concoction of producers like Todd Terry, and consider that style to be the pointer to the future. But if all the new dance music is just a mixture of other styles, will it start to become monotonous. Matt 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 & 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.
For sure, this duo want to keep an underground sound, and the recent double-album Coldcut sampler 'Out to Lunch with Ahead of Our Time' is proof that they're succeeding.
"It would've been the easiest thing in the world after 'Doctorin' the House' to come out with some joke bass-bomber, house-tempo track and go storming up the charts again", says Black. "But we don't want to dominate music or the charts. 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."
So far, then, Coldcut have managed to combine commercial success with continued respect from the underground music scene which nourished them. This 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. Ahead Of Their Time, definitely.
Interview by Simon Trask
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