What is Little Axe? It’s what you get when you take the blues and subject them to the 21st century. It’s not a complicated thing. The blues is a feeling, not a technique. And feelings don’t change as much as we’d like to think. In fact, it’s entirely feasible to imagine that were Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James alive and kicking today, they’d recognise Little Axe as a continuation of their own work by other means. Little Axe is the blues, the deep blues channeled through time, dubbed, tweaked, sampled, processed, explored, refreshed – surfing the present, from the past, into the future.
The story goes like this. Some time around the start of the Eighties, the guitarist and bluesman’s son Skip McDonald, finds himself operating as an element in the most important rhythm section on the planet, the Sugarhill Gang house band. He and his partners in groove, drummer Keith Le Blanc and bassist Doug Wimbish, are the guys putting the booty into “Rapper’s Delight”, “White Lines” and “The Message” – the rap records that changed music forever.
Soon, Le Blanc introduces McDonald to an interesting Englishman in New York. Adrian Sherwood is a pioneer of a different sort, a “mixologist” responsible for putting together the never-ending dub/roots/soundsystem project known to all hip Brits as On-U Sound. Sherwood is in the US making connections, as is his wont. They convene in London and Sherwood, Le Blanc, Wimbish and McDonald, plus vocalists Gary Clail and Bernard Fowler, release a sequence of brilliant recordings under the Tackhead ident. A new sound is born that somehow conflates the principles of hip-hop, funk, dub and techno. The connecting factor? The belief, says Sherwood, that there is common ground shared in “the music of Captain Beefheart and Prince Far I, King Tubby and Jimi Hendrix”. All you have to do is find it.
This was the thinking and subtle practise that led to such all-time classics of On-U mixology as Bim Sherman’s Miracle – in the making of which McDonald played a significant part; to Skip’s production and technical work with artists as diverse as African Headcharge, Junior Delgado and Sinead O’Connor; and to the first Little Axe album in 1994 (for the defunct Wired label), The Wolf That House Built.
A decade on, The Wolf still sounds warm, dark, fresh and deep. It’s all of those things because it came from the heart of a real bluesman. “I want to write, record and perform music,” he says, “that connects with people – something they can touch.”
Touch? Well, yes. The music on The Wolf that House Built and its two successors, Slow Fuse (1996) and Hard Grind (2002), is so dense, weighty and rich in texture you feel that you can touch it, even as it touches you. This is not music you’d want to drop on your foot.
How does it work? What are the so-called “dub-blues” made of? How are they made?
The new album Champagne and Grits is, according to Adrian Sherwood, “a more song-based album by comparison to Hard Grind, which was much darker and harder. It’s warm but it’s got a lot of minor keys in it, which I like and keep the music connected to the blues.” But the methodology remains unchanged – though hugely facilitated by the exponential growth over the past decade of studio technology better suited to the sonic harvesting of the blues’ past.
“What I do is cheat,” says McDonald, laughing. “No. Not really. But before I begin work on an album I listen to a lot of old music – and I mean a lot. I might focus on one person and try to get into as much stuff as they’ve done. I concentrate so hard I get heavy vibes, so the hairs on my neck stand up. And when I’m in there, I’ll take a sample – it can be a vocal sample or an orchestral one, a piece of Mozart or a field recording of a chain gang – and I’ll time-stretch ’em and tune ’em and get everything fitting together, and that process gives me a few ideas what what to do with a bassline, a beat and a guitar part. But it’s the vibe that counts: the vibe coming from the original recording, the feeling of the individual, whether it’s Leadbelly, Son House, the Wolf or whoever, and the intensity of what they’re trying to say…”
This is the art of time-surfing, Little Axe-style. It’s a process that begins in the deep past in the unfettered self-expression of an individual soul, finds new animation in the emotions of Skip McDonald and then achieves a state of formal realisation in the hands of “the crew”: music so massive and of the moment that you could touch it.
As to Champagne and Grits, it’s been a work in progress for three years. If it feels on this album as if there is less sampling than before, then it’s because there’s been more writing.
Chris Difford, of Squeeze, turns up to pen lyrics for and sing “All in the Same Boat”. Shara Nelson co-wrote and sings on “Say My Name.” There are striking vocal performances by Bernard Fowler, Ghetto Priest and Junior Delgado. Underpinning everything is the Little Axe rhythm unit – and deep echoes from the past. As Sherwood puts it: “You spend a long time going into yourself trying to get it right, to capture the air of field recordings in our own space.”
“Well,” sighs Skip, “it’s been a progression, I’ve gotta say that. I’m an endangered species – I come from the era when people had to play; it wasn’t enough just to look good then: you had to play. And now I’ve learned all about hard-disc recording, Pro-Tools, Logic and this and that and I’m progressing, like a good old ship – Battleship Skip.”
These are the 21st-century blues.
NICK COLEMAN - JUNE 2004