Richard Curtis's latest rom-com, Love, Actually, portrays England, and especially London, as a twee village of kindly, introverted souls. At a time when mass protests and closed streets welcome President Bush to the UK, the film makes for a romanticdistraction from fraught reality. It needn't be like this: Ominous, the début album from the dance collective Border Crossing, provides a different, more real, kind of positivity, despite its title.
Border Crossing are a posse of hip-hop idealists who have fused the best of UK rap - think Roots Manuva - with a wide-screen vision last seen in the urban soundtracks of Massive Attack and Portishead. The core trio are the turntablist AJ (Alex Angol), engineer Paul Mulvey and the guy with the vision, Seorais - the Scottish version of George - Graham, who, having DJed for 10 years, was desperate to make his own music. "Border Crossing is a journey to question what hip hop is in this country. A lot of people are alienated by hip hop, and I wanted to change the way people think about it," he says. AJ adds: "We're opening doors and pushing envelopes, but we don't want to be seen as spokesmen for hip hop."
If you had a checklist of genres of British black music, Ominous ticks almost of the boxes. The album encompasses party anthems, moody raps about dangerous streets, orchestrated instrumentals, soul and reggae. Graham denies this happened by design. "The motivation behind the music is to unify people. Our name comes from the concept that compassion is the tool that links people from all the tribes and cultures. How that manifests itself on the record is somewhat secondary."
Graham started out on his own, but soon found his music was narrow and one-dimensional. "It was starting to sound a bit coffee table, a bit Zero 7. The music was informed by DJing, so it had to work in that environment."
With the first raw demos in the hands of record labels, Graham asked Mulvey to help, while AJ was starting to hang around, first offering tentative suggestions, then becoming part of the team. Mulvey's dad was a session keyboardist for many Sixties groups, including The Rolling Stones, though Mulvey's first loves were hardcore techno and heavy metal. "I just rebelled against everything my dad was into. It was only later that I started going through his collection and realised he was right all the long." Graham adds, "Now we go round to his dad's house for jam sessions."
When the pair first met, Mulvey was part of a techno group that put on their own raves, while a 15-year-old Graham would pester him for a slot. "The first night he played was totally dull until he came on. Then the whole place just erupted," Mulvey reminisces.
Hailing from Shepherd's Bush and Ladbroke Grove respectively, Mulvey and Graham met in west London's free-party scene, where they came under the spell of AJ, a DJ on pirate radio and sound systems. "In those early days, there was more outdoor stuff than clubs, and it was still freestyle," he remembers. "We'd play hip hop, house, jazzy things, all kinds of stuff."
AJ's creativity was soon acquired by Renegade Soundwave, the band who, from the mid-Eighties, have influenced some of the biggest names in UK dance: The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Underworld. Mulvey and Graham were also big fans. "Tunes like 'Probably A Robbery' and 'The Phantom' were our anthems," says Graham. Renegade Soundwave mixed guitars and turntables, just as another west London band onced fused reggae and rock'n'roll, something AJ is proud to point out. "Renegade Soundwave sampled The Clash; now with me working with them and these guys, it's a new sound of west London, but it's all connected."
While Mulvey and Graham both copied AJ's DJing style, they started making their own music in a very different way. "We started making music 10 years ago in a very naive fashion - just drum machines and squelchy noises," Mulvey explains. "AJ used to come down and say: 'One day you're gonna grow up. When you do, come and talk to me.' " Graham adds, "Now it's like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, except we're doing it the right way."
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For Graham, it's all part of his masterplan. "Ominous isn't necessarily referring to a dark thing, it could be something positive. It's really poignant now with all the talk about identity cards, nationalism and strict controls on human transit. People are forgetting that we can bridge those differences."
'Ominous' is out now on RG Records
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