CHRIS ROBERTS raps to Morgan Khan about the Streetwave sensation.
OVER THE LAST two years, rap music’s predominance in the hip hop lifestyle has been redirected by electro, or electro-funk. The scratching and basic rhythms are still there (and how) but the instrumentation has advanced from the primitive to the futuristic. It’s become studio-orientated music, often put together by just a couple of people, with such monstrous machines as polysequencers, Multimoogs, and emulators.
Morgan Khan is managing director of Streetsounds and Streetwave Records, a small British company which has pioneered and popularised the electro sound on our reactionary island. I meet him at a studio where the commercial for the awesome Crucial Electro album is being recorded. He is shrewd and straightforward, taking only a second to assemble an answer to the rather sweeping question, what is electro?
“Basically, it’s synthesised, wholly electronic, very percussive, high energy music with a certain uptempo beat and the right dance quality. In their own way, people like Kraftwerk have been doing it for years, but when records like Tyrone Branson’s ‘The Smurf’ and ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ by Planet Patrol came along, no-one could believe what they were hearing! The clubs, the DJs, producers and mixers in the States had become aware that soul was stagnating. The sounds coming out of America were slick, over-produced, lethargic, mellow, over-refined, and still R&B-based. Everyone was looking for a new medium of dance. rather than the usual Stylistics/Three Degrees formations and routines.”
They found the perfect beat.
“Among the innovators of the new sound there were many New York East Coast labels, particularly Tommy Boy.”
Tom Silverman, head of Tommy Boy Records, whose acts range from the vibrant Afrika Bambaataa to the silly Jonzun Crew, was the man who first gave producer Arthur Baker studio time. Out of his first session (with synth player John Robie, who recently made some brilliant sounds on Jenny Burton’s [import] album Black And White) came ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, and ‘Play At Your Own Risk’. In the States they sold a million between them.
Baker felt he had created a sound which could thrive in both the black and the new wave clubs. “I felt we had done what Talking Heads had tried to do all those years,” he claimed. From then on, his services have been required by everyone from New Edition to New Order, and he’s often worked closely with Funhouse DJ turned producer/mixer, John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez.
Morgan smiles wryly. “Baker and Benitez? Influential people yes, electro artists no. Jellybean is a post-op nurse. He takes the product and puts his seal of approval on it. Neither is Arthur Baker a part of the hard and heavy mainstream of New York electro. His grooves and rhythms can’t be compared to, say, Captain Rock. He’s of the old school, and he was trained over to the new school.”
WHAT OF unique lunatic and funk master George Clinton? From the first time he topped the black music charts in 1967 with Parliament’s ‘(I Wanna) Testify’ to his highly contemporary ‘Atomic Dog’ smash in ’83, he’s subverted the soul subculture and spawned numerous imitators. Electro is surely indebted to his experiments in the land of Funk?
“He’s been at it for years!” says Morgan. “He’s had so many offshoots, from Funkadelic to Bootsy’s Rubber Band, from Zapp to The Brides Of Funkenstein; electro had to be one of them. He’s a cult here in Europe, but in the States all his albums go gold or platinum. He’s a viable force, creatively and commercially.
“But the real originators of electro are the punters and the DJs. And the independent producers — people you rarely hear of, like the Alleem brothers. The only pedigree an electro record has is how it sounds now. In the import store, on the dancefloor.”
New values. Could this be what we’ve all been looking for?
Records such as ‘Rockit’ and ‘Buffalo Gals’ did capitalise on the new music form but also helped introduce it to a much wider, and whiter, audience. Certainly in McLaren’s case it was used in a creative rather than patronising way, and Herbie Hancock gained credibility by working with Material and Grandmixer DST.
Of his musical hybrid with the World’s Famous Supreme Team, the Sex Pistols’ svengali once said, “I found the DJs and rappers very powerful in the way they were using technology as simple as taking a record and making their own music from it. Rather than buying instruments and working it out… they didn’t need to do that. They found the simplest, most refined, and in a way, most sophisticated way of making their own music.”
He also described Afrika Bambaataa as the Elvis Presley of the 80s, adding, “this music has a magical air about it because it’s not trapped by the preconditioning and evaluation of what a pop record has to be.”
“There are two types of electro artist,” says Morgan Khan. “There’s the artist of yesteryear who always cuts what’s happening — if it’s funk they’ll cut funk, soul — soul, electro — electro; the prime case being Herbie Hancock with his Future Shock album and ‘Rockit’, or Tom Browne moving from ‘Funkin’ For Jamaica’ to ‘Rockin’ ‘Radio’.
“Then there’s the young kids like The B-Boys making their first venture into the land of music. They’re cutting their teeth on this new music form called electro. The old artists are converting and the new artists know nothing else — their dads are saying, ‘Hey son, that electro shit’s got no melody; when we were young we danced to Teddy Pendergrass…’
“I FEEL sorry for the real electro artists if I they get passed over in commercial terms. That’s what happened in Britain to many of the raw original punks — showbiz came along and said, ‘Thanks, we’re taking over now’. Hip hop is already ‘acceptable’, ‘legitimate’. The McLarens and Hancocks made it more melodic and palatable. It’s always happened! From the Beatles and Stones ripping off R&B to the Police ripping off reggae.
“But there is a certain beauty in knowing that a couple of years from now the mainstream white artists will be doing it. Wouldn’t it be great to hear an electro track on Sheena Easton’s next album? You’re laughing now, but it could well happen. Five years ago, who’d have dared to suggest that Bowie might cut an album with Nile Rogers?”
Me actually, at a Chic concert. But I was young then…
“It’s all trends — black probably sets the trends because black basically has a much harder time. In the States they need, and are the innovators of, popular dance. They create as a reaction.
“I might be generalising a bit, because Tom Silverman is white; but it’s all down to environment. The pace in New York bred electro. The lifestyle and the clubs inbred it before it caught on outside.”
As long as there are pop groups, there will always be pop groups who beg steal or borrow the influences of real black music.
Through Streetsounds’ Electro series has streamed a pulsating torrent of black musical expression by artists as arresting as the B-Boys, Two Sisters, Xena, Hasim, Divine Sounds, and Newcleus.
“Streetsounds’ role was a fundamental one in making electro commercially viable to the masses,” says Morgan, with realism rather than condescension. “We take eight or ten of the hottest and hippest current electro tracks, all mixed to New York standards, and put them in a package that’s affordable to the kids who are darting to the clubs but can’t afford the 12″ singles, at £4.50 each, in import stores. We gave electro real street credibility.”
What do you think these ‘kids’ are like?
“Fifteen or sixteen year olds who get into discos ‘cos they look eighteen. Energetic, youthful — that’s what’s so nice about electro.”
I don’t think nice is the word I would have used.
A link could be seen between the rap scene’s evolution and the toasting of reggae DJs.
“It’s a good cross-reference. Reggae DJs created excitement over what was getting boring by rapping over popular rhythm tracks. Yes, it’s the same thing.”
HOW ARE imports, er… imported?
“There are three or four major, and several small importers and exporters of records, who will buy X amounts of an American release and pile them on the back of vans for UK distribution. They’ll do a call-round, saying ‘I’ve got the new so-and-so single’, and the stores will usually play safe, taking only one or two copies. Unless it’s Herbie Hancock!
“If it’s released in the States on a Friday, a record can be in the UK shops on a Monday and on the DJs turntables in the clubs Monday night. It’s that simple.
“Unfortunately at the moment, with the dollar being very strong and the pound so weak, imports are being heavily stung. Quantities are minimal now. I know this sounds like an economics class, but it’s a part of why what we’re doing with Streetsounds is so valid.”
Play Crucial Electro, or Electro 2, or side one of Electro 3, at top volume. Noise don’t come more valid. If you’re not at worst infuriated, at best aurally raped, you’re not breathing.
If Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ ‘Dancing In The Street’ ever made you tap your foot, this too will mean something to you. •
THE BARE ESSENTIALS:
The Powerhouse, Birmingham.
Rock City, Nottingham.
Camden Palace, London
Camden Electric Ballroom, London.
Groove Records, Greek St.
City Sounds, Proctor St.
Bluebird Records, Church St, off Edgware Rd.
Record & Tape Centre, Rayners Lane.
Streetsounds’ Crucial Electro, Electro 2, Electro 3.
Rapped Uptight — Sungarhill compilation.
The Perfect Beat — Polydor 21 compilation.
Whodini — Jive LP
‘Crazy Cuts’ — Grandmixer DST —Island 12″.
‘Keep On Pushing’ — Colour Box — Beggars Banquet 12″.
And many many more. Get hip to the music of the black city kids.
© Chris Roberts, Sounds, 14 April 1984