Pop: The bones of hip hop bleached white
Tuesday 12 January 1999
WHEN 'S Psyence Fiction album was released last summer, it was received with fawning praise in all quarters of the press. However, behind the hyperbole could be sensed a hint of suspicion. The accusatory finger pointed directly at Mo Wax head honcho and self-elected Unkle figurehead, James Lavelle. The charge: what exactly does he do?
The sleeve-notes are clear in the fact that the songs were all written by Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow. All vocals and lyrics are handled by an array of premier league guests, while James Lavelle is only attributed as co-producer. The suggestion seemed to be that Unkle was merely a folly for Lavelle, a chance for the 24-year-old to rope in a few heroes and indulge himself.
Whether or not this is true is, frankly, irrelevant. The fact is that the music behind the packaging is largely dull. With the exception of three tracks, it's a collection that poses as the sound of the future, yet harks back to the days of pomp rock. There are echoes of Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer throughout - hardly surprising when you consider DJ Shadow's own far more enjoyable album Endtroducing had occasional leanings towards Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds. More significantly, there is also a sense that, beneath the layers of strings, noises and obvious references, there is a funky heart, all but suffocated. If trip hop came to skin hip hop's groove, then Unkle have bleached the bones sickly white.
With this in mind, Sunday's show could have been a disaster, an opportunity for Unkle to overblow with a live band of faceless session musicians and a cosmic light show. Thankfully, Lavelle opted for the potentially more radical option of employing a team of turntablists to scratch-mix the album on stage. Thus, the UK's scratch champions, The Scratch Perverts, flanked Lavelle behind the decks as between them they turned Psyence Fiction on its head.
The cut and flow of the scratch style reignited the funk factor in tracks like "The Knock" and "Guns Blazing", while Ashcroft's "Lonely Soul" was delivered from rock hell and turned into a turntablist classic.
Talking to The Independent recently, DJ Shadow suggested that most scratch mix shows display little more than "highly evolved wrist action". There are, no doubt, some who will describe this live unit simply as Lavelle's highly evolved ego-mania. But the fact is that Unkle live offers turntablism at its best: not overbearingly clever; funky enough for the rammed crowd to dance to.
And Lavelle? Who cares if The Scratch Perverts are just the latest additions to his collection of talented friends. He is, after all, known to be someone who obsessively collects the accoutrements of hip culture. Unkle then, are just his latest toy models. Damn funky they are too. Live at least.
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