"It's not what people want...
IN the street outside the Hammersmith Odeon two men sit watching the crowd file in. Even though they've been on Top Of The Pops with Yazz,
the headliner tonight, no one stops them for autographs or nudges their mate or mum and says, "Aren't they...?" And this suits them fine. One
of them used to programme computers, the other one used to teach 3D art, and they only started all this because they thought they could do
better than most of the crap out there. And it's worked.
But now Yazz's band of session musicians are launching into 'Doctorin' The House', the track that sent her into the charts, and the two men aren't smiling anymore. The band are playing every single sample in their song live and sampling the only part of it that was meant to be live: the scratching. And these two men - Matt Black and Jonathan More - realise two things. You can't play the pop game on the industry's terms and win. And that a lot of people just don't get Coldcut.
"IT was a bizarre kind of slap in the face," says More, the partnership's hat-wearing, genial half, recalling that moment eight years ago.
"We created this weird sort of thing with Yazz and then she turned it around into a standard record industry thing. Slowly we'd been partitioned
off from the whole thing and turned into interlopers at the party."
In the ten years since Coldcut heralded the British dance explosion with their sampladelic 'Say Kids, What Time Is It?' the industry's had to learn some new rules. The Prodigy's 'Fat Of The Land' has gone straight to Number One in the States, Orbital get bigger and bigger while remaining just two ordinary blokes making extraordinary music and Daft Punk, who were still scribbling band names on their pencil cases when 'Say Kids' came out, demand complete creative control from their record company. And get it. But it's taken a long time. Ahead Of Our Time is what Coldcut called the label they set up to release their first few singles. You wonder if they knew that this would be their curse as well as their blessing.
They were one of the first to realise the potential of sampling technology but ended up trapped by a record company that wanted to turn them into a hit factory. They applied the cut-ups and samplemania of hip hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and Double D & Steinski to Eric B and Rakim's 'Paid In Full', reinventing the art of the remix in the process. Then Eric B dismissed it as "girly disco music". They effectively invented trip hop and big beat with tracks like 'Beats & Pieces', but no one seemed to notice. Now that they've reinvented the mix CD (their '70 Minutes of Madness' effort for Journeys By DJ) and the club (the late, lamented Stealth) and could quite easily have produced one of the year's biggest dance albums, they've chosen to make a brave, difficult, funny, political, experimental, contrary album that will frustrate as many as it delights. Ahead of their time? Definitely. But it must be lonely out there.
"IT'S not what people want," says Black, Coldcut's intense, bespectacled other half, sitting in the Thames-side studio of the pair's Ninja
Tune label. "But it's what they need."
This, in case you didn't know, is the man who said, when last in these pages, stuff like, "It's not that we're brilliant, it's that everyone else is crap," and "[the album's] got to be so good that everyone else making music wants to kill themselves." "I'm always saying stuff like that," he shrugs. "I said the same thing about Journeys By DJ and I haven't noticed any suicides amongst high-ranking DJs." A wicked glint comes into his eye. "Unfortunately." 'Let Us Play', their fourth album, and the first to be recorded and released entirely independently, is a whole new "journey into sound". Dancefloor ballistics and soulful slo-mo beats spark off sinister ambience, protest samples and spoken word tracks with few concessions to giving the listener an easy ride. 'Let Us Play' has less to do with trip hop's easy (and often lazy) skunk funk than with the maverick spirit of Aphex Twin or Squarepusher - musicians as prepared to grate as to be great. At dance music's giant house party, away from the party animals and the easy-going headnodders, they're the ones sitting in the corner watching with amused detachment, half deadly serious and half taking the piss.
"It would have been very easy to loop a load of breakbeats, some funky basslines, some good scratching, blah blah blah, and make a trip hop album," says Black dismissively. "We could have churned that out and probably sold a lot of copies but we would have had to kill each other with boredom before the end. And that would have not have been a good thing." There's something about Matt Black you just have to like, even when he sounds like a Socialist Worker editorial, or a pushy technogeek or a cantankerous party pooper. It's partly because he's none of these things. It's partly because he flavours his ferociously intelligent monologues with enough sly humour to stay the right side of arrogant. It's partly because you suspect that most of the time he's right. And it's partly because, after Coldcut's major label nightmare, which they refer to as "the Arista mugging experience", you'd be mouthy and stubborn and angry as well.
COLDCUT were making dance music when the record industry still thought of it as a cute anomaly and a low-rent moneyspinner. Major labels
weren't about to let these upstarts choose their own singles, or sleeve designs or videos. Coldcut, unfortunately, expected something better.
They knew they were on to something good, something no one had ever heard before. While most DJs were still speaking between records, Black
was in Spain learning to weave together flamenco, Simple Minds and the first wave of house records from Chicago, and More was playing arts
centres in the London scene that grew out of punk's DIY attitude. 'Say Kids' was born on a tape Black had made for a Capital Radio mix
competition, but when he met More over the counter of Reckless Records the pair decided to polish it up and release it themselves. Four
strong-selling releases and the 'Paid In Full' remix later, Arista subsidiary Big Life offered them a deal.
The last thing Coldcut expected to be was chart regulars - they found pop success "an interesting nightmare". But surely there was
some kind of upside to hearing your records on the radio, to being nominated for a Brit award as best producers, to playing PAs to
ecstatic crowds at Shoom?
"Yeah," snorts Black. "It's called money." A pause. More thinks for a while, then brightens. "We met James Brown." Within a year of catapulting Yazz ('The Only Way Is Up') and Lisa Stansfield ('People Hold On') into the upper reaches of the charts, Coldcut were being told that they couldn't do things their own way anymore and if they didn't keep the hits coming they wouldn't be given any money. For the next two years the only way was down.
"We realised we'd been promised one thing and been effectively shafted," says More, still bitter at the memory. Two things kept them sane. One was the Solid Steel show they'd hosted on Kiss since its pirate days in 1987, splicing together every strand of their record collections to create, as one jingle boasted, "the broadest beats in London". The other was a trip to Japan in 1991 that gave them the idea, and the confidence, to set up Ninja Tune, its experimental technology arm Hex and a new identity as DJ Food. "That was our escape route," says More. "It became a little beacon in the haze of everything else. It supported us through what was a very difficult period with this guns at dawn negotiating style and a lot of fights and arguments. But I knew we were right and I was a stubborn bastard."
While Black was pushing his technology skills into uncharted territory with Hex, More was in the Arista boardroom, clawing back enough money to get Ninja to the next level. And slowly people began to collect around what More calls their "psychedelic pod" - people like Hex co-founder Robert Pepperell, and DJ Food members Patrick Carpenter and Kevin Foakes - and Coldcut were ready to do it themselves all over again.
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