IT’S A humid, late-summer day in 1997. In a ramshackle northwest London recording studio, a soft breeze kisses the skin: not some cooling breath of suburban air, but a magical vibration that swirls and eddies round the room until the walls start to pulse. It’s the sound of 4 Hero’s ‘Loveless’: the undisputed highlight of Talkin Loud’s excellent 21st Century Soul compilation, now standing on its own as the lead track on the pioneering breakbeat duo’s first EP for the label.
Think Goldie’s ‘State Of Mind’, Roy Ayers’ ‘We live In Brooklyn, Baby’, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s ‘Theme De Yo-Yo’, and then add a pinch of something extra. Imperious string-swathes, the pitter-patter of tiny hi-hats, a double bass that pushes the red lights up the line and then the icing on the sandwich – an extraordinary and disturbing vocal from Ursula Rucker, the Philadelphia diva/poetess also featured on the Roots’ Illadelphia Halflife album. “My wounds are deep, gaping, unhealing – can’t believe, refuse to believe, my children have no feelings…”.
What on earth is going on here? It all started with Dego Macfarlane – the taller, skinnier 50% of 4 Hero. “I just wrote a couple of things down – told Ursula what I wanted the subject of the song to be”. And what was that, exactly? “I basically said, ‘Imagine there’s a mother and her kids are abusing her – kicking her, punching her and stabbing her and then show the whole thing getting kind of darker: not just physically, but in their minds’. And that’s exactly how it turned out, because that’s what Ursula does – she’s deep”.
Deep is second nature to 4 Hero. In fact, from unexpected pop remixes – Pulp’s ‘This Is Hardcore’, NuYorican Soul’s ‘Black Gold Of The Sun’ – to long-established links with techno pioneers Josh Wink and Juan Atkins, to bewildered tributes in The Wire magazine from Goldie (“Mark and Dego never did drugs”) and Courtney Pine (who loves their fluid Fender Rhodes sound), their subterranean influence underscores contemporary British music like a storm drain beneath a building project.
Dego first hooked up with Mark Mac – 4 Hero’s other half – as DJ’s on Strong Island in 1989, one of the flotilla of pirate stations which smuggled the precious cargo of Acid, Techno, Rare Groove and Hardcore Hip-hop out onto the North London airwaves. It was a natural progression from spinning discs to recording them. They released a series of EPs on their own Reinforced label, including the immortal Star Trek-sampling anti-drug anthem ‘Kirk’s Nightmare’ (“Mr Kirk… your son is dead”) and a prophetic proto-jungle Nostradamus tribute, ‘The Golden Age’.
By 1994, 4 Hero’s ambitions had outgrown the four track EP format, so they released a double album, Parallel Universe, which not only paved the way but also set the standard for later, higher-profile, drum and bass long players. It also established an intriguing balance between science fiction concerns and a traditionally soul agenda. On the one hand there was the futuristic technique of Timestretching (stretching a sample over a series of different beats per minute ranges without distorting its pitch) showcased on ‘Wrinkles In Time’. On the other there were the unrepentantly human vocals of Carol Crosby on ‘Universal Love’ – “Every star in the sky tells us how and shows us why…” not to mention the mighty old school trumpets of the immaculately named Niles Hailstones.
While Reinforced provided a supportive home for burgeoning talents such as their shy and retiring friend Goldie, Dego and Mark branched out into the broader market-place: recording prolifically in a kaleidoscope of different incarnations for numerous labels including Belgium’s renowned R&S and France’s SSR imprints. Albums and singles released under the multifarious guises of Jacob’s Optical Stairway, Tom & Jerry, Manix, Nu Era, and Tek 9, Dego and Mark have covered the entire waterfront of experimental techno and drum and bass. So why so many disguises? “It used to be that you couldn’t do loads of different things under one name”, Dego explains, “because you’d get a very narrow-minded response. But it’s getting better now: I think people are bored of only hearing one thing”.
There are three more full-length tracks on the Earth Pioneers EP. One – ‘Planetaria’ – moves in the same direction: towards a richly-textured, new, organic sound of strings and live drums. The other two, ‘Hal’s Children’ and ‘Dauntless’ keep up the time-honoured Tomorrow Person quickstep of 4 Hero’s earlier releases. This perfect balance of ancient and modern is a microcosm of the album, Two Pages,which was about to drop.
As its title suggests, Two Pages blows up the duality of 4 Hero’s approach onto an epic canvas. The perennial machine age quest for what Dego calls “the sound of futuristic whatever” exists side-by-side with the other, a daring excursion back into the jazz-string sounds that have started to obsess them – the Chicago Chess/Cadet label productions of Charles Stepney. “Everybody talks about Philly strings,” Dego sighs, “but Chicago was the one…”. A man plainly gripped by the shock of the old, he goes on to drop such eminently non-techno names as Ramsey Lewis, Terry Callier, Dorothy Ashbee and Leroy Hutson.
“Me and Mark are living ten minutes ahead of everyone else,” Dego once told Muzik magazine, “and we’re just trying to get back”. “It’s got to the stage,” he now explains cheerfully, “where there’s nothing you can do that’s new. There are jazz tracks that sound like drum’n’bass, ambient tracks that sound like Miles Davis, D’Angelo comes out and he sounds like Marvin Gaye… That’s why I don’t think we’re really interested in being the sound of now any more – those days are over”.
No wonder ‘Loveless’ was a sound that crept all the way around the back of you and then tapped you on the shoulder. But this is no retro cop-out: the fact that the mechanical clank of ‘We Who Are Not Of Others’ and ‘Greys’ could be the work of the same people as the ‘Starchasers’ and ‘Wishful Thinking’ is an incitement and a challenge to all.
Would 4 Hero like to be seen as having the same way of thinking as their ‘70s inspirations, just with different machines? “You basically have to make the track twice: work out all the string parts on keyboards in the studio and then print them out and give them to the string section to play. We normally use a quartet because that’s all we can fit in the room, and then double them up,” Dego laughs. “Sometimes we mute the drums on the playback,” adds Mark, “‘because otherwise it fucks with their heads”.
© Ben Thompson, Seven Years Of Plenty, 1998