Album Reviews

Various Artists – UK Fresh: Definitive Electro / Hip-Hop Collection

( UK release date: 9 August 2004

Electro can be a dirty word to a lot of people. Cheap tinny effects, lo-fi production, ‘no songs’, lame and innocent bragging and as dated as yuppies and Rubik’s Cubes. But without it modern music could have taken a terrifying wrong turn. Far back in the anals of time, during a particularly ugly era (the eighties) music was stuck in a mire of stodgy genres; the last death throes of prog, stadium rock and punk both turning into piss poor parodies of themselves, disco turning into the syrupy gloop found on dancefloors after a long night and the crowning horror of Live Aid, where coked-up rock idiots tried to care. Something new was needed.

Who could have predicted that the future lay in the combination of four clipped Germanic robots producing glacial soundscapes and ‘the godfather of the Zulu nation’? This was gonna be a huge, strange baby. The group were Kraftwerk, the man was Afrika Bambaataa. The song is Planet Rock.

Taking a slab of Kraftwerk set to a backdrop of edgy drum machines, croaking backing vocals and a crowd of voices pushing in from all sides with party hooks to good times. Fizzing and popping to the beats and stabs of sound, this took music down a new street full of neon strangeness and futureshocks. The beats were boxfresh, taking music back to the streets and away from the stadium and guitars of previous generations. These early electro beats and looped breaks capture the heady days of the birth of hip hop when it burst on to the world music scene from a head spinning, turntable twisting, ghetto blasting, graffiti spraying 1980’s New York City. Urban soul? Damn right!

This compilation is like listening to a musical history book. All the groovy teachers are here, and not a leather elbow patch in sight. As the old adage goes ‘To know where you’re going you must know where you’ve been… ‘, it reads like a who’s-who of Electro/Hip Hop from original old schoolers like Public Enemy with Rebel Without A Pause, Kurtis Blow with The Bronx and the first hardcore rap outfit Run DMC with It’s Like That. Other more recent acts include LL Cool J‘s musclebound Rock The Bells and frat boys Beastie Boys causing mayhem on Hold It Now Hit It. The hit rate is as high as Grandmaster Flash‘s White Lines, and serves up the creamiest innovators that have grown into legendary influences on contemporary urban music. This was a time of optimism and battling with only beats, breaks and moves before the guns, drugs and boasting threatened to turn things sour.

Every glitch stab of Fairlight horns, jerky sampling, tag-team rhymes, breaks and beats are here in their original settings but are mixed seamlessly by DJ Swerve, flowing in some semblance of chronological order. The primitive beats of the 808 drum machine and the squelchy bass of the 303 machine made the world a boombastic one where records were ‘reduced’ rather than produced. Nothing was sacred, everything was up for grabs. James Brown was as ripe for sampling as Israeli diva Ofra Haza (Eric B & Rakim‘s Paid In Full) if it created a mood or dynamite hook.

Disc 2 brings things up to date from Herbie Hancock‘s jazzy re-appropriating of the Kraftwerk sound with the massive Rockit, to the political might of Public Enemy waking up racial issues with some much-missed street smarts. New Order are included due to the still fresh-sounding Confusion which proved white boys can do it too, fusing melody with the new technology to thrilling effect. But the collection suffers by the inclusion of too wide ranging remit taking onboard fluff such as Harold Faltermeyer‘s awful Axel F, and the comedy stylings of Doug E Fresh, the Fresh Prince and Whistle (Just Buggin). Which undenaibly bring a smile to the ears like day-glo dungarees, fat gold ropes and phat trainers, that went with the territory, but weren’t really representative of the power and inventiveness at work here. Also the reminder of how awful The Rock Steady Crew were is quite sobering.

As collections go this is as near to essential as you can get, despite the occasional dips in quality control. Prepare to be educated all over again. Break out the lino and prepare for your head to spin.

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