Geoff Wilkinson is good at trusting his instincts. The rest of the music industry should be so intuitive.
The leader of the jazz/hip-hop collective Us3 talked Blue Note Records President/CEO Bruce Lundvall into allowing him full access to classic recordings from the label’s back catalog to be sampled for the group’s debut album, “Hand on the Torch.”
Not only was it an unexpected smash in 1994, it proved Wilkinson’s theory that hip-hop fans would enjoy being exposed to jazz, and vice versa.
“Hand on the Torch” sold millions worldwide and became Blue Note’s first platinum album. It also garnered a gold-selling Top 10 hit, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” which sampled Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and the Art Blakey Quintet’s “A Night in Birdland, Vol. 1” and featured the rap stylings of Rahsaan Kelly.
“That was a unique thing they did, turning over their back catalog to one particular artist to create something that different just from remixing stuff,” Wilkinson said recently. “It’s a very jazz thing to do; it’s highly in keeping with the jazz tradition, and with Blue Note’s creative philosophy, I thought it was a very proactive thing to do.”
For “Questions,” the group’s fourth album (and first in four years), Wilkinson had another hunch: working with live musicians, sans samples.
The album, out on April 26, is being issued on Wilkinson’s own label, Us3, with a U.S. distribution deal through Megaforce/Ryko. (Hear here)
Inspired by the nu-soul movement and ’60s-era Latin jazz, “Questions” features Brooklyn rapper Reggi Wyns and London-based singer Mpho Skeef.
Us3 faithful will get a kick out of “Believe in Yourself,” “Can U Feel It” and “Get It Together,” as well as bonus soul and bossa-nova mixes of
“Our third album (2001’s ‘An Ordinary Day In an Unusual Place’), which was never released in the states, was interesting to me because it was the
first time I had worked with a singer, Alison Crockett,” Wilkinson said. “She was really more of a jazz singer. With this one, I was looking more with an R&B singer. At the time, there were two major influences on this album – one was Timbaland’s beats; he seemed to be changing the face of R&B; and I was also listening to a lot of late ’60s Latin jazz. Then I started wondering about incorporating the two things together.
“Exactly at the same time, right on cue, is when I met Mpho. I had actually heard only one demo song that she had done, and she was doing backing vocals for Ms. Dynamite at the time. She had exactly the right voice that I was looking for, even when I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. So a lot of the album was shaped around her, really.”
Wilkinson has an ear for talent. Over the years, he has discovered such rappers and singers as Kobie Powell, Tukka Yoot, KCB, Shabaam Sahdeeq and Michelob.
“I think people know that I change vocalists on each album, so I’ve got a kind of network of contacts both here and in the states,” Wilkinson said.
“The music industry’s quite small, really, so people know each other. That was the case with Mpho; she came out of nowhere, which was fantastic. Then I met Reggi as well, who equally fitted perfectly.
“I had brought in a rapper from L.A., because I had never worked with a West Coast rapper before. I thought it would be interesting to get a
different flow, but it just didn’t seem to work, I don’t know why. It didn’t sound right on my beats, so I went back to Brooklyn, which has worked so well for me in the past.”
All this begs the question: Is it harder to use samples, with its inherent copyright hassles, or live musicians?
“It’s probably harder to work with live musicians, although it depends on what you’re trying to do with the sample,” Wilkinson said. “If you’re just
going to use it as a break, for somebody to rap over, or you’re going to try to do something creative with it like starting on the offbeat, I’ll put it in a
different time signature or try to combine it with another sample in some way completely different. You can be creative as you want with both types.
“Working with live musicians, there’s inevitably a lot more people involved so there’s more egos involved, too. There’s probably a bit more
man management involved, rather than doing it on your own with a machine. On this one, there are no samples, so I worked with a lot of musicians
much more than I have in the past. I actually liked that interaction. I think this album kind of grew out of having the live band. I’ve gotten
into a weird situation where three years ago when we were touring, most of the band hadn’t played on any Us3 albums, which was odd. The band I’ve got now, nearly all of them have played on this album or the previous one.”
Wilkinson doesn’t miss the big-label game, but he has high praise for Lundvall and his gutsy decision to hand over the keys to the Blue Note vaults more than a decade ago.
” ‘Hand on the Torch’ obviously sold a lot of copies, and then Blue Note made more money to sign other acts,” he said. “I know for a fact, because Bruce told me, that he had signed Medeski, Martin & Wood on the back of the money they made from ‘Hand on the Torch.’ I thought that was great because I love Medeski, Martin & Wood. There’s a positive to it like that.
“I badgered them into letting me at their back catalog. But they trusted me. I had been involved in the jazz dance scene in the late ’80s in London; I was working as a DJ and played a lot of classic Blue Note stuff.
People would dance to it all night. I had a very intimate knowledge of the Blue Note back catalog by the time I had met them anyway, and I think they respected that. They realized I knew what I was talking about; they knew I wasn’t a bluffer.”
Wilkinson has no way of knowing how much of an impact his jazz/hip-hop marriage had on American consumers. He only knows what he hears in person every now and then.
“I’ve had a handful of people tell me that they discovered other things through listening to ‘Hand on the Torch’,’ but you never know to what
extent that’s happened,” he said. “I’d like to think it was pretty widespread, that people did expand their horizons a bit. That’s what it’s all about. You know how narrow radio is. I mean, are you going to hear Jimmy Smith on the radio today? I don’t think so.”
For certain, no one can take away his distinction of having Blue Note’s first platinum album.
“I’m amazingly proud of that,” he said, “and at the same time, I’m bewildered that none of the jazz artists (on Blue Note) before me hadn’t actually reached that plateau.”
ON THE WEB: us3.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Us3 album discography – “Hand on the Torch” (Blue Note, 1994); “Broadway
& 52nd” (1997); “An Ordinary Day in an Unusual Place” (Europe – Universal, 2001); “Questions” (Us3/Megaforce/Ryko, 2005).
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc