Us3: The Struggle Continues
Losing a lucrative and hard-earned contract on such a careless technicality was a crushing blow, but Wilkinson was rescued by David Field, who had moved to Sony Records and was working for a subsidiary label called The Work Group. "David signed me up straight away, Wilkinson explains. "Normally contracts are for one album at a time, with the options on the side of the record label, but he gave me a two album firm deal. This was very important bearing in mind what had happened at Blue Note.
Luck, however, was still refusing to work with him. "While I was mixing the third album there was an almighty blow-up within Sony and The Work Group was dismantled, Wilkinson recalls. Nineteen out of twenty-one acts on the label were dropped. But because I had a two album firm deal it became really complicated: I'd just finished an album and I wanted to take it somewhere else, but they wouldn't let me. So we ended up threatening that we'd just sit there and eventually they'd have to pay me an advance for what would be the fourth album, even if they hadn't released the third. This took eighteen months and twenty-five thousand pounds in legal fees, but eventually they let me have the album for free.
He then licensed the third album, An Ordinary Day In An Unusual Place, to Universal in Europe and Toshiba/EMI in Japan, and it was released in 2001. But, as if the story couldn't get any worse, personnel changes at Universal meant Us3 got dropped and it was back to square one for Wilkinson and his ambitious ideas. "I'd done three albums in ten years and I was fed up of the internal politics, he says with a sour note in his voice. "It wasn't my fault; it was like a merry-go-round of personnel within the companies. So I decided to use the money I'd made to just make an album and then see what to do with it afterwards.
The subsequent disc, Questions, was licensed to Toshiba/EMI in Japan and independently released in Europe in 2003. "Now I've done three albums in three years, which is more like the kind of output I need to have, emphasizes Wilkinson. "I had a burst of energy, a lot of ideas to get out. The frustration of all that time has come out in the last three years.
Musically speaking, the three albums have shown a significant evolution of Us3's sound. On Questions, Wilkinson abandoned the Blue Note samples which had become deeply embedded in An Ordinary Day, opting for Latin beats and some elements of the nu-soul movement in an adventurous fourteen-track set. Schizophonic (2006) and Say What!? (2007) bring out a lot more of the live sound Us3 had been developing in months of relentless touring"The live bands have had various incarnations, illustrates the producer, "It's quite ironic that the last two albums have been very influenced by the gigs we've been doing; it's kind of turned everything around, which I think is part of normal development and evolution.
Another new idea Wilkinson threw into the equation with Say What!? was the recent trend of R&B becoming "a lot grittier, like Rich Harrison's productions for Beyonce and the last Christina Aguilera album. He could detect certain similarities in their production with what he was doing, so on the suggestion of rapper Akil Dasan, who performed on the last two albums, he recruited the young Parisian singer Adeline.
Adeline features on the single, "Say You Belong To Me," and Wilkinson has an unfortunate tale about the track. "I hired a radio promoter, who took the song to Radio One, KISS, 1Xtra and places like that. A producer from 1Xtra actually told him that if the song was by an established R&B artist, or even a new artist, it would have gone straight onto the playlist. So why didn't that happen? "I think they've got an inbuilt attitude problem with Us3. Because 'Cantaloop' is what I'm known for, I'm bracketed as being hip-hop jazz or acid jazz or whatever. They put you in a bag and they don't let you get out of it, which is ridiculous because it doesn't allow you any scope to develop as an artist.
This story recalls the recent case of Soweto Kinch struggling to get his latest album, A Life In The Day of B19: Tales Of The Tower Block (Dune, 2006) (which also contains strong hip-hop elements), stocked in the urban music section of record stores as well as the jazz area. "Have you read his blog? Wilkinson asks; "When I read it I just laughed. It's exactly the same issue I had: imagine putting out a hip-hop record on Blue Note in America in 1993-94, which was absolutely unheard of. We had a major problem getting retailers to stock it in the hip-hop section rather than just the jazz section. Ultimately we won, but that was because it got a lot of radio play and they were forced to respond.
He goes on to talk about the fascinating wider point that "radio over here is becoming a bit more like radio in the USA, where it's compartmentalized, and I don't think that's healthy.