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Us3: The Struggle Continues

Frederick Bernas By

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Us3 albums have always been about marrying the technology that
Geoff Wilkinson / Us3 In 1992 Geoff Wilkinson produced the groundbreaking jazz/hip-hop crossover track "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," gaining international recognition with his Us3 project. Fourteen years and six albums down the line he's still going strong, but it could all have been very different. Here he tells AAJ contributor Frederick Bernas about the highs and lows of his long and convoluted musical journey.

For a man whose achievements are so widely respected, Wilkinson comes across as a genuine, open person—not at all pretentious or arrogant. I met him at London's Jazz Café, where Us3 played two nights, launching a European tour through September and October 2007. We started at the very beginning, discussing how he first got into producing. "I was actually managing a studio called The Ark, Wilkinson recalls, "which was owned by Rick Buckler, drummer for The Jam, in the late '80s. It was one of the first studios to have an Apple Mac, and whenever there was any downtime I started playing around with it. I was always intrigued by sampling and programming.

That kind of situation is hard to imagine now, so how does he think technology has changed the way producers work? "The first Us3 album was made with an Atari computer running an Akai S900 [laughs], Wilkinson responds, "but that was state of the art in 1992. It's ridiculous what you can do now with all the plug-ins available in Logic—my laptop is probably ten times as powerful as the whole studio that made the first album. Has it helped him expand creatively? "Us3 albums have always been about marrying the technology that's available with live playing. With all the modern developments, it's become one of those things where you're only limited by your own imagination.

During the 1980s Wilkinson was on a mission to "demystify jazz, and drew inspiration from working with a DJ named Baz The Jazz: "This guy was the best jazz DJ I've ever heard; he had a totally new attitude, really into breaking down barriers. The pair were heavily involved in the jazz-dance craze of the time in London, but Wilkinson was equally interested in the growing hip-hop scene—"I was discovering the two things at the same time and sooner or later I was going to put them together.

Sure enough, in 1990 he produced a 12-inch white label featuring Jessica Lauren on piano and MC Honey B, called "Where will we be in the 21st Century?" and took copies to every record shop in the West End. Wilkinson had already "been in just about every A&R man's office there was to visit in London with previous material, but this time he attracted the attention of a new independent label called Ninja Tune. Following the invitation to record a track for them, he produced "The Band Played The Boogie, sampling Grant Green's "Sookie Sookie. It was playlisted on KISS FM and that was the start of something big.

"I got a call from EMI Records, Wilkinson explains. "They'd heard it on the radio and recognized the Blue Note sample. I went to the first meeting knowing full well the sample hadn't been cleared, so I didn't know whether they were going to sue me or whether they liked it. The A&R guy was called David Field, and when he opened the office door he was smiling, so I had a good feeling. We discussed the whole jazz and hip-hop thing and I had one of those 'seize the day' moments—I asked to have the entire Blue Note back catalogue as a sampling resource. I said it would be a radical thing to do, but very in keeping with the Blue Note spirit.


The President of Blue Note, Bruce Lundvall, had also received a copy of the white label release and cautiously gave Wilkinson the chance to record a couple of demos in March 1992. "One of the demos I recorded was 'Cantaloop,' Wilkinson continues, "the other song didn't even make it to the first album—that's how close it was! That was what got me the deal, but it was still only for three singles and one album. In October 1992 Hand on the Torch came out in Japan and parts of Europe, going on to be the first Blue Note record to sell over a million copies—"That's when the three single deal suddenly turned into an eight album deal, Wilkinson explains.

Perhaps this all seemed too good to be true. It was. Before the second album—entitled Broadway & 52nd—came out in 1997, David Field lost his job, and this left Bruce Lundvall to oversee the release: "It was great talking to him every week, but it was less than ideal having a sixty year-old working on what was really a rap record, says Wilkinson. This turned out to be the least of Wilkinson's worries. "I split with my manager and got a new one, who took one look at the recording contract and said I was actually out of contract because they'd missed the option date. The record company was supposed to take up the option for the third album by a certain date, but it hadn't been done. So I was never actually dropped from Capital/Blue Note. It was ridiculous.


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