Album Reviews

Various – UK Fresh: The Definitive Electro Collection

(umtv) UK release date: 9 August 2004

Electro can be a dirty word to a lot of people meaning cheap tinny effects, lo-fi production, “no songs” plus lame and innocent bragging. Yet without it modern music could have taken a terrifying wrong turn.

Back in the annals of time (the ’80s), music was stuck in a mire of stodgy genres, with prog, stadium rock and punk turning into parodies of themselves and disco turning into the syrupy gloop found on dance-floors after a long night. The crowning horror was 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”? The group was Kraftwerk, the man was Afrika Bambaataa. The song was Planet Rock.

Fizzing and popping to the beats and stabs of sound, this took music down a new street full of neon strangeness and future shocks, away from the stadia 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 1980s New York City. Urban soul? Damn right!

This compilation is like listening to a musical history book. All the groovy teachers are here, and there’s not a leather elbow patch in sight, 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.

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 bombastic 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 Public Enemy awakening racial issues with some much-missed street smarts. New Order are included due to the still fresh-sounding Confusion which proved white boys could do it too, fusing melody with new technology to thrilling effect.

However the collection suffers by the inclusion of a too wide ranging remit, taking on board fluff such as Harold Faltermeyer‘s awful Axel F, and the comedy stylings of Doug E Fresh, the Fresh Prince and Whistle, none of which is really representative of the power and invention at work during the era.

Still, as collections go this is as near to essential as you can get. Prepare to be educated all over again. Break out the lino and prepare for your head to spin.

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