Little Axe: Blues for the 21st century

Little Axe marry the music of Robert Johnson with the technology of hip hop. Andy Gill meets the guitarist Skip MacDonald
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The Independent Culture

Ever since the blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll, this most durable of musical genres has been a touchstone for rock musicians. Even if they've never heard of Son House or Robert Johnson, the sneeriest and most contemptuous of young rockers will invariably be employing the rules set down the best part of a century ago by such seminal bluesman - rules which underpin virtually the entire body of Anglo-American pop.

Ever since the blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll, this most durable of musical genres has been a touchstone for rock musicians. Even if they've never heard of Son House or Robert Johnson, the sneeriest and most contemptuous of young rockers will invariably be employing the rules set down the best part of a century ago by such seminal bluesman - rules which underpin virtually the entire body of Anglo-American pop.

"The blues were, are, and are always gonna be here," reckons Skip MacDonald. "You know how you have fashions and fads for this and that, but you always come back to the realness of something: any art-form, you're going to get to a certain point and say, OK, that's enough of that thing, now let's get back to the source."

Skip MacDonald is the driving force behind Little Axe, the "group" that over the last decade has done more than any other to bring a modern perspective to the blues. With his long-term compadre, the producer Adrian Sherwood, MacDonald has released four albums as Little Axe, albums which blend blues, dub, soul and reggae. The latest of these, Champagne & Grits, takes the process a stage further, by adding gospel and a number of diverse collaborators, including guest vocalists Chris Difford of Squeeze, Shara Nelson , Ghetto Priest, Junior Delgado and the longtime Rolling Stones tour-mate Bernard Fowler. It's a dark, heavy, miasmic kind of music, with the samples that underpin the Axe's musical explorations sometimes stretched and treated until they're little more than an oozing, treacly presence. According to Sherwood, it's a matter of "trying to capture the air of field recordings in our own space", and which MacDonald characterises as a process of emotional education.

"I think it has to do with studying something that works, like Howlin' Wolf or Leadbelly or Son House," he explains. "When you listen to them, there are certain things that emotionally move you, and that's what you're trying to capture - that flavour, that mood. In music, there are so many different things you have to take into account. Sometimes something is created just for that moment, it's for the 'now'; and hopefully that 'now' can be always now."

MacDonald is speaking in New York, where he's about to play the latest of a series of shows featuring the reformed Tackhead, the omni-talented ensemble behind most of the On-U Sound label's output - including the African Head Charge and the New Age Steppers albums that have recently been reissued - and, delving further back into the late 1970s, many of the pioneering Sugarhill records from the earliest days of rap. MacDonald's band at the time provided backings for the likes of The Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and, of course, The Sugarhill Gang, whose "Rapper's Delight" was the genre's first commercial success. Along with his friends the bassist Doug Wimbish and the drummer Keith LeBlanc, the versatile guitarist found himself playing on some of the era's biggest-selling records, as well as providing backing for soul legends such as Wilson Pickett, Candi Staton, James Brown and George Clinton. Although the Sugarhill era provided plenty of work for MacDonald and his band, they found themselves increasingly sidelined as hip-hop became sample-based.

"Musicians were sentenced to death for a long period," he recalls. "DJs could cut records without a band, and it cut costs, so record companies loved it. I can remember a time when Tackhead's drummer, Keith LeBlanc, would walk round with a pitcher of water so he could pour it on the drum machine and the computer, because the drum machine was actually taking his gig!"

The result was a gradual erosion of the notion of a player's instrumental "signature", the distinctive style and sound that sets one musician apart from another. "If you go back to, like, the1960s, if you heard a record on the radio, you would know who it was within four bars," agrees MacDonald. "It was only after the advent of the first sequen-cers and drum machines, when people were just trying to get their heads around the new technology, that everybody started imitating everybody else.

"But there are pockets of resistance, musical rebels that still like the music. I think the way forward is to get live playing with some of the old vibes sampled in: to try to create a situation where all the technology is available, along with the individual talents of the musicians."

Hence the creation of Little Axe, which puts this theory into practice. MacDonald's memories of the blues go right back to his childhood. His father, a part-time blues guitarist, would arrive home from work at around 10 or 11 in the evening, and young Skip would bring out his dad's guitar, so dad could play for him.

"I grew up listening to many of the original bluesmen, like Blind Boy Fuller and Muddy Waters," he recalls, "and then later on I started finding some of the earlier heroes, like Charley Patton and Skip James." This early exposure to the blues provided the seeds of a career which would see him move from gospel to soul to funk to rap to dub, and ultimately back to the blues. The inspiration for this came when he was recording with Tackhead.

"With Tackhead we did some reggae, some funk, some rock, we were all over the place," he explains. "The key factor was an album Tackhead did called Strange Things, on which we did a blues track called 'Let's Take a Stroll', and it was so exciting doing it that upon the demise of Tackhead, it was like, maybe we should investigate this a bit more."

The result was The Wolf That House Built, an album he and Sherwood hawked around record labels for ages before they found one prepared to release it. It originally appeared on a Japanese label, Alpha, two years before its European release, by which time Alpha was bankrupt.

"Adrian and I walked around for over a year, playing it to record companies, but nobody wanted to hear," he recalls. "One company would say it was too radical, another that it wasn't radical enough; another had 12 artists and didn't want to have 13! Adrian and I thought we had something good, but nobody wanted to know - but at the same time, we were going to keep our guns up, it wasn't like we were going to give up on it."

Ten years and four albums on, MacDonald and Sherwood have got Little Axe down to a fine art, combining samples and new instrumental parts in ways that are never condescending or demeaning to the original sources. Some tracks start from a specific sample, while on others samples are sought to fit a riff. "It kinda goes both ways," he says. "Like on 'Run Sinners', we found two versions of the same song, a blues version and a reggae version. One day we were in the house, playing the blues version on one boom-box, and the reggae version on the other boom-box, and in a weird sort of way they linked up, two different tunes at the same time. No matter where you started it, it was like these two men from two different places were talking to each other. So we took the verses from one and the hooks from the other."

This kind of happy accident bears out MacDonald's contention that the distance between the blues and reggae is not as wide as is often thought. "I think a lot of the reggae guys listen to the blues, and a lot of the blues guys listen to reggae, but there was never a bridge to bring them together," he believes. "But if you think about it, they're sort of the same thing, with different characterisations."

Along with the shared sense of hardship that underpins both forms, there's also a more menacing connection between them that's based in the latent violence of their respective lifestyles. Both reggae performers and bluesmen alike are outlaws.

"A lot of those guys were so heavy, inside and outside of music," reckons MacDonald. "You would never cross them. Like the story of Leadbelly - he sang his way out of jail! It's funny when you look back at it, because that was a hardcore scene, and a lot of the Jamaican reggae scene is hardcore. It goes way back."

'Champagne & Grits' is out now on Real World

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