featured interview

Geoff Wilkinson, front man Us3: 'Bambaata's 'Jazzy Sensation' legitimized my thinking.' 'Feel the beat drop, jazz and hip-hop'. Twenty years ago, Us3 released 'Cantaloop', a track that rushed the billboards and made the album 'Hand On The Torch' the first Blue Note record to go platinum. To celebrate, the legendary label reissues the album with a 2CD remastered deluxe edition. What's more: Geoff Wilkinson, bandleader and creative brain, gathered three emcees from previous Us3 albums to release 'The Third Way: Hand On The Torch vol. II'. We don't like missing out on a party, so we sat down with the master of jazz and hip-hop fusion...

Were you first into hip-hop or into jazz?

It was probably hip-hop first. I like a lot of funk and jazz-funk too. It was a relatively short step back to discover more straight-ahead jazz. 1982 was a seminal year for hip-hop. 'The Message', 'Planet Rock', 'Looking For The Perfect Beat', 'ET Boogie', 'Hip Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)', T-Ski Valley's 'Catch The Beat', etc. were all huge tunes for me at the time. It was all a bit electro! Mix it in with some Slave, Donald Byrd, etc. That's where my head was at. This was the same time I was going backwards into Donald Byrd's back catalog, discovering various sidemen on other albums. I guess that's when my crate digging really took off.

You used to DJ a lot. Do you remember your first gig?

My first gig was in 1982 at a club called 'Charlie's' in Huddersfield in the North of England, where I was a student.

Then you started making music. How did the idea grew to blend jazz with hip-hop?

I think it was always there. Afrika Bambaata did 'Jazzy Sensation' at the time. That kind of legitimized my thinking. I've never claimed to be the first one to mix jazz and hip-hop together though. A few producers and artists were increasingly flirting with it. My favourite earliest fusion of the two forms is definitely LL Cool J's 'Going Back To Cali' that's got everything: a screaming trumpet, scratching, booming 808 drums, big band horn stabs, a sax solo and LL too! Holy shit! I thought I was gonna explode when I first heard that! That really opened me up to what could be done.

Flash forward to 1993/94 when 'Cantaloop' became a worldwide hit. That must've been the craziest time of your life. It's been twenty years...

It is pretty bizarre to think that 'Cantaloop' came out 20 years ago. You're right: the world seemed to go a bit crazy for about 18 months. As it hit right around the globe, we did an awful lot of travelling then. To be honest I have bittersweet memories of that time. The fact that we were being pulled from pillar to post, took it's toll in terms of personal relationships. At the end of '94 I had split from my production partner Mel Simpson, and my personal relationship had broken down too. There was a lot of pressure that came with the commercial success.

So is there still a bittersweet taste with the renewed attention?

Before I remastered it earlier this year I hadn't listened to it for a long time. It actually felt really good hearing it really loud in a mastering studio again. I think it sounds a lot more beefy now! There was a time when I couldn't listen to 'Cantaloop', but we're friends again!

You got the chance to sample the whole Blue Note catalogue. A dream! But...how did you choose?

That was the easy part! Because I was a huge Blue Note fan already, I pretty much knew where the breaks were that I wanted to use. So I didn't really have to do much research. I think the label was impressed because I knew the catalog. It was clear I knew what I was talking about. I think it was more of a risk for them. In retrospect, it was a really brave thing for the label to do: in keeping with the pioneering Blue Note spirit, they embraced the age of the sampler, when it was still a bit controversial for some people.

The new album is called 'Hand On The Torch vol. II.' The first album had the same title...

It was last year when I realized that it would be the 20th anniversary coming up. That made me think about what I had done throughout those 20 years. The full title of the new album is 'The Third Way (Hand On The Torch Vol. II)'. This is the ninth Us3 album. I still think we sound pretty unique. I always tried to fuse the two types of music 50/50. It's not just a beat, a rap and a solo on top. If you scratch the surface there's a lot more going on.'The Third Way' is meant to represent that, it's a different way of doing things.

I subtitled it 'Vol II' because I don't think I ever really made a proper follow up to 'Hand On The Torch'. I haven't used any samples on the new album, but there are a number of 'interpolations' of classic jazz tracks; some Blue Note related, most not. I also used three MCs that I've featured on various albums before: Akil Dasan was on 'Schizophonic' and 'Say What!'', KCB was on 'Broadway & 52nd, and Tukka was on 'Hand On The Torch'! There's definitely a bit of a family vibe going on here.

It has an exotic touch to it.

There are some latin influences musically. Obviously Tukka has a Jamaican background, so it's a bit of a mash-up at times.

Maybe from travelling a lot the last few years?

I think the only place we haven't been to with the band recently is the USA. There are 9 people on stage at the live gigs, so the flight costs from London can get scary. Although I'm a bit baffled that we can get gigs in China & Russia, but not the USA.

You only work with instruments the last years. Do you miss samples?

Not really no! Working with live musicians is better than working with dead ones!

So how does it work with a band?

Over the years I've developed a core of musicians that I've worked with both on stage and in the studio. 'The Third Way' has the least amount of musicians I've ever used on an album. It really is the Us3 band. I program most of it up in my studio, then get them in when I need them. Playing out live with the band is not only great fun, but it really allows you to connect with the audience, to see what they react to, what makes them dance and scream. Some tracks that I didn't think would work as well live, have become set list staples purely because of the audience reaction, which goes to prove it's still a learning experience.

With Tukka on it, the album has reggae influences. Explain why you wanted to have that on the record...

It was great working with Tukka again after such a long time. I haven't had that reggae influence on an Us3 album since the first one, so that was well overdue. Tukka actually came into the equation for 'Hand On The Torch' near the end of the recording, which is why he's only on 2 tracks. This time I was able to feature him more, and I've gotta say I think he sounds even better now!

The first vinyl you made, had the title: 'Where Will We Be In The 21st Century'' Does the answer now looks a lot like the answer you imagined then?

I guess the biggest thing we didn't foresee was the internet and the way that has changed communication on a global scale.

Besides Us3 of course, who are the artists that combined hip-hop and jazz the best?

I've gotta say respect to Gang Starr and Stetsasonic, who were both doing it before me. I still think we're the best though! What is interesting now is that there is a new generation of jazz artists that are very influenced by hip-hop, rather than hip-hop acts influenced by jazz. Blue Note has Robert Glasper and Jos' James on their roster, but my favourite is the trumpet player Christian Scott. His 2007 album 'Anthem' really blew my head off, it has a very dark brooding hip-hop influence to my ears.

All in all, despite the influences and the excellent match between the two genres, there have been not that many collabs between jazz and hip-hop artists. How come?

One of the problems that I've experienced is that jazz radio seems to have some weird Apartheid-like stance towards rapping. I don't understand that. Do they think their audience is scared by it' I would guess that 99% of people who listen to jazz radio own at least one hip-hop album. That situation needs to change. And if it does, I think you will find a lot more collaborations going on.

What do you do when you're not in the studio?

Listening to music! I'm also a big movie buff. I like thrillers and movies with a non-linear narrative, films where you have to think to work out what's going on!


POSTED 10|10|2013
conducted by cpf

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