The slice 'n' dice beatnology of Coldcut.
By Chris Tweney
JANUARY 5, 1998: You may never have put an actual Coldcut disc in your CD player, but the odds are pretty good you've already heard some of their music. Or rather, other people's music that's been given the patented Coldcut processed-cheese treatment, which entails fortifying a tune with everything from disco, funk, electro, hip-hop, and a splash of dub, to samples of the Peter and the Wolf theme or Wilma Flintstone. This is abstract funk that takes the environmental logic of recycling one step further -- to the point where turntable sampling samples itself. It's a mad, mad world where every recorded surface is a candidate for a fresh mix. And in Coldcut's pun-filled lexicon, it's called "beatnology."
Jonathan More and Matt Black are the two Londoners behind the Coldcut moniker. They made names for themselves back in 1987 with their remix of Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full." Their long-running radio show on London's KISS FM, the Ninja Tune label that they helm, and their popular Stealth club nights in London (which feature DJs from the Ninja Tune stable) have kept More and Black secure as the reigning nerd-kings of Britain's mutant-hip-hop/downtempo funk scene.
On their latest album, Let Us Play, the sneaky Ninjas continue to build new sounds out of ancient beats. As the liner notes say, "old skooly, nu toolz." The disc's shining gem is the "Daddy Rips It Up Mix" of "More Beats & Pieces" (previously released as an EP with remixes by Tortoise's John McEntire, DJ Kid Koala, and others). The track's dense, lightning-fast sampling and scratching was performed live in the studio. More and Black spent days selecting samples, then pressed them onto a special LP. Spinning copies of that LP on standard-issue turntables through a standard-issue mixing deck, they turned out a six-minute boogiefest that's simultaneously philosophical manifesto, shameless self-promotion, and musical history-lesson. It's as if they're trying to out-spin, out-sample, out-quote, and out-sexy everyone else -- as one sample boasts, "Honey, I've got rhythms I haven't used yet!"
"More Beats & Pieces" is also an exercise in short attention span. As Jonathan More explains from his London flat, the mix "only took a couple of days, because any more than that and we'd get bored to tears." But More and Black are far from apathetic casualties of the sound-bitten '90s. They're constantly fronting for political causes. The retro flavor of the analog synths on "Atomic Moog 2000" provides the backdrop for a sustained no-nukes protest. And the video for "Timber" (on the bonus CD filled with multimedia and toys) uses chainsaws and crosscut saws as synchronized beat sources for spliced-up nature-documentary footage. The film imagery, much of it taken from Greenpeace documentaries, meshes with the phat beats to make an experience aimed, so they say, at "remixing human consciousness."
Philosophically, More and Black's world of digital cheese draws heavily on the concept of the "post-human," an idea dreamed up by Ninja collaborator and multimedia wiz Rob Pepperell: it postulates a sci-fi realm of genetic splicing, cyborg musicians, electronic surveillance, and ever-present multimedia extravaganzas. More is quick to point out that Coldcut's mission is to keep the fascist tendencies of the "post-human" in check. Whether reprogrammed funk can succeed or not remains to be seen. More is well aware of this question. "You can talk about being post-human," he says, "but when one rat can chew through some cables and bring the whole system crashing down. . ."
Total system crash is something the beatniks in Coldcut seem to welcome on tracks such as "Every Home a Prison," featuring the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra, and "Noah's Toilet," a ranting anti-club-culture poem by Salena Saliva. But More and Black are equally determined to make sly end-runs around genre pigeonholing. "Rubaiyat" features a Vocoder-processed reading of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam layered over a lyrical bass, drum, and keyboard jam from the jazz-fusion heads Jimpster. Cheyne Towers's melodic, squiggly bass playing rises straight out of the noodling waters of progressive rock's heyday -- not something you'd necessarily expect from a band that describes itself as "punk funk with a bit of Zappa thrown in." This cheery defiance of expectations is Coldcut's homage to the robot god of turntables, a character from the "More Beats & Pieces" video. "He can be benevolent sometimes, but other times he can be a right pain in the ass!"
Overall, Let Us Play amounts to England's answer to Beck's
Odelay -- meandering, quirky, occasionally outright annoying, but always
brilliant in its peculiar stoned way. Beck's "two turntables and a microphone"
announced his Dust Brothers-assisted funkification of familiar hard-rock and
folk territory as well as a bold new wave in pop music. Coldcut's encyclopedic
knowledge of hip-hop, funk, and disco is deep enough to reward the obsessive,
trainspotting fan, but, like Odelay, it's also accessible enough to
appeal to the casual listener. As Beck helpfully informed us over a year ago,
phat beats and boogie are where it's at.
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