MORE THAN TEN YEARS AGO, US3 TAUGHT US A VALUABLE LESSON: THERE'S A HIGHLY DANCEABLE TREASURE TROVE IN THE RICH JAZZ VAULTS OF BLUE NOTE RECORDS. THEIR MID-NINETIES MEGA-HIT RECORD, HAND ON THE TORCH, PRESENTED CLASSIC JAZZ MUSIC TO NEW YOUNG AUDIENCES. NOW, YEARS LATER, US3 MASTERMIND GEOFF WILKINSON AND COMPANY ARE BACK TO TEACH US ANOTHER VALUABLE LESSON: THERE'S SOMETHING MAJORLY WRONG WITH MAJOR LABELS. VINNIE BAGGADONUTS CHATTED WITH THE BASTION OF BOOM-BAP ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED, HOW HE DEALT WITH IT, AND A BRAND-NEW ALBUM CALLED QUESTIONS.
Vinnie Baggadonuts: First of all, two congratulations are in order. One for your new album, and, two, for having Wendy [Weisberg] handling your PR.
Geoff Wilkinson: (laughs)
VB: Sheís awesome-- one of my favorite people to work with.
GW: Thank you. I was lucky I found a good one there. Itís kind of funny that sheís in a relationship with an English guy, because she comes out with some real English colloquialisms, which really makes me laugh.
VB: Makes you start to wonder if sheís really an American or not.
GW: (laughs) I know!
VB: When she told me she was representing you, Iíll admit, I was a bit surprised, because I hadnít heard anything from Us3 in a while, and wondered what had happened.
GW: Well, Iím still here.
VB: I read the bio and saw all that you went through, and I felt so bad!
GW: Well, I wanted to put in some details there to tell people why Iíve only done four albums in 13 years. I get accused of not being very prolific, but, believe me, itís not been my fault.
VB: Was there ever a point in all that where you just wanted to give up?
GW: Hell yeah!
GW: The Sony thing was a really bad experience-- when Sony decided to dismantle the WORKgroup. That happened when I was mixing the third album. That led to me having 18 months of legal bullshit. It was a lot of going backwards and forwards between my lawyer and Sonyís business affairs people, who were a nightmare to deal with. And it was only because I had a two-album firm deal that they eventually let me go-- when we basically threatened to sit down and collect the money for the next album, saying, "We donít care if you donít put it out. You still have to pay us for the next one."
GW: They realized what they were in, so they let me go and gave me back the album. But by the time I found a label to put it out-- through Universal over here [Europe]-- it was two years old when it came out.
VB: So, while youíre dealing with all these insane business issues, did you have clarity of mind enough to keep creating music?
GW: Um... no. Not all the time, no. I was too bloody angry, really. It was hugely off-putting. And I didnít even know if I wanted to stay in the business. I think I was completely unmanageable at the time because I was so angry. I was turning into a foul-mouthed individual.
GW: It might have gone away quicker if Iíd have just gotten on a plane, gone to the Sony building, and just punched somebody.
GW: Probably would have made me feel a lot better.
VB: Probably would have made a lot of people feel a lot better.
GW: Someone called me on my mobile a few years after that and told me Tommy Mottola had been sacked as president of Sony. I had a little jig in the street. That made me very happy.
VB: Did you ever talk to any of the other groups that were dropped?
GW: No. But I know one was Ben Taylor, because David-- my A&R guy... you know, the guy who signed me up to Sony was the same guy who originally signed me to the Capitol/Blue Note deal. So, he was absolutely gutted by what happened. In fact, heís now working at BMG over here. And with the merger of Sony and BMG, heís been sacked again!
GW: I shouldnít laugh, but itís ridiculous. The major labels are wholly responsible for the shit that they are in, I think.
VB: In the past couple years, Iíve seen and read things and heard stories from people, and it seems like the people who run these bigger labels have no idea what people who listen to music really want.
GW: They have no idea, full stop.
VB: So what are they making their decisions based on?
GW: I know what happened between Sony and the WORKgroup, but my own take on it was that two of the guys there had just signed Jennifer Lopez, and there was a big ego clash there between them and Mottola. It was fairly obvious she was going to be massive, and Mottola wanted a credit, I think, which is very sad. Itís not good for the industry as a whole when things of that nature happen.
GW: I also think the whole downloading thing became an issue, because the major labels didnít react quick enough to the Internet. They could have chopped that problem off right at the beginning by getting themselves organized from the start instead of playing catch-up, which is what they always do. I think itís really interesting what is happening there, that their power is getting reduced.
VB: I was gonna ask you about that, too. How do you feel about that?
GW: Deliriously happy.
VB: Did that have anything to do with how you released Questions? The label for the U.S. release of it is your website, correct?
GW: Yeah. Itís my own label. Iím putting it out myself, paying for the promotion and marketing and everything. Itís been a lot harder this route, because Iíve literally had to find distribution deals for it all over the world. Itís inevitably meant the release of it has been staggered, because Iím a one man band, and there are so many hours in the day.
VB: As difficult as it is, do you feel that technology has made it even a little bit easier?
GW: Yeah, absolutely. I couldnít have done this without the Internet. Iíve been sitting here in my little office at home, emailing people all around the world today, and thatís my normal day now! I spend far too much time in here. I should be in the studio!
GW: Thatís the downside of it. But if it does well, I should be able to hire myself a little office worker to help me out.
VB: You know, when I read all this drama, then heard the new album, I didnít feel like you missed a beat at all. It feels like a huge step forward, actually.
GW: Thank you. In what way, actually? Can you explain it, please?
VB: Well, I never feel like your sound has gotten stuck. Itís always moved forward slightly. But if you listen to Questions, then go back and listen to Hand On The Torch, thereís a huge difference.
GW: Yeah, I was just going to say....
VB: But even in comparison to the second and third albums, this one has found its own groove, in a way.
GW: I think if you listen to them all in chronological order, it makes sense. Thereís a decreasing reliance on samples, and an increasing reliance on live playing as you go. Thatís what led to Questions being completely sample-free. Iíll probably make the next one all samples, just to be contrary.
GW: I was in Warsaw, Poland a couple weeks ago doing some press, and a journalist there said something to me that completely threw me. He said, "You seem to react against your previous album with whatever album youíre doing." And I thought, "Iíve been caught!" I never actually thought about it like that, but I think there is an element of that to it.
VB: The one thing that always reminds me Iím listening to an Us3 album is the piano. The piano sound on all your albums reminds me of how the piano sounds on Ray Barretto records. The presence of the piano sounds like it does on a lot of the Latin albums Iíve listened to.
GW: Cool! With this one, the two things that influenced me more than anything was, first, I was listening to an awful lot of Timbalandís stuff. I was kind of intrigued with the idea of putting his kind of beats to my kind of stuff. Also, I was listening to a lot of Sixties Latin piano stuff, like the Palmieri Brothers. I was thinking, "Is there a way to mix this together?"
VB: Itís funny you mention Timbaland. I hear a lot of contemporary R&B singers and MCs he works with, and wonder what theyíd sound like over your production.
GW: If thereís one thing that I regret in the past 15 years of this incredible journey, itís that, after the success I had in the States the first time around, I didnít really capitalize on it. I should have packed a very large bag and took the first flight over to New York, because it would have been exciting and challenging to do stuff like that. But I think the success of it took us all by such a surprise. And because it was world-wide, as well, there was a phenomenal demand on my time. You end up getting pushed and pulled all over the place, and getting bullied into a lot of things you donít want to do, really.
GW: Yeah. Iím a studio animal, really. I think I would have been happier to stay in the studio and work with other people. I think if the opportunity rose again, I would definitely jump at the chance to produce other people.
VB: Youíve always had a good ear for good hip-hop. I noticed you had J. Rawls produce a remix for you.
GW: Yeah. Iíve always been a big fan of his.
VB: J. Rawls is one of the most underrated producers around.
VB: Have you thought about trying to ask some of the people youíve worked with to return the favor?
GW: Well, heís a producer. That wouldnít work with him, really.
VB: Maybe it could be a guest spot, or they could have you come in and remix a Lone Catalysts track.
GW: You know, I think the reason more people havenít asked me to do stuff like that is they think Iím going to be too expensive. Iíve turned down a lot of remixes, because I donít like doing them, really. A remix is a bit of a strange concept, isnít it? I mean, you donít find remixes of paintings, do you?
GW: Working with other people... itís curious you should say that. Iíll let you in on a little secret. Iím putting together a compilation of underground jazzy hip-hop stuff, of people who I think are the next wave, you know? Iím putting it together with this woman named Nicci Cheeks, who did a compilation called Hip Hop Love Soul. She had people like J. Rawls, J. Sands, and Little Brother on it. This was, like, a year ago, and a lot of these people have gone on to do a lot of stuff since then. So, me and Nicci have been putting together a compilation. Hopefully it will be out before the end of the year.
VB: What was the inspiration to start a project like that?
GW: Well, Iíve started my own label, which is called Kwerk. That was meant for my quirky, left-field stuff. The first album on it comes out over here next Monday, the 28th. Itís a collaboration between myself and Ed Jones, the sax player in the band. Itís a marriage of Big Band jazz and beats. We were trying to drag the Big Band thing kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Weíve actually been working on this for years, and itís been quite expensive to make, and difficult to do live.
GW: Weíve done it live twice, actually. But it was good fun.
VB: Whatís it like to hear the things you make in a studio performed live?
GW: Amazing! I think itís even more amazing to hear it in a club and see people dancing to it, because at the end of the day, itís dance music, I think. I donít think Iím able to speak if Iím in a club and the DJ is playing something of mine really loud and people are dancing to it. Thatís phenomenally exciting, really, and itís why I do it.
VB: Was using Big Band music intimidating at all? Thatís sort of along the lines of when you were let into the Blue Note vaults, and were using a music that a lot of people hold very sacred.
GW: To be handling the Blue Note archives?
VB: Well, that, or even the Big Band stuff. People have an idea of what that music is supposed to be.
GW: Well, after youíve been chopping up Thelonious Monk songs and Art Blakey songs, you have no fear, man!
GW: You know, I had a pretty good idea what I was doing with Hand On The Torch, and was already a massive jazz fan. On the one hand, maybe they were lucky that they met me, because I knew what to do with it... thatís probably the most arrogant thing Iíve said in about ten years.
GW: We did get accused in the States, by jazz purists, of doing something to what they held sacred. And we did get accused of tearing pages out of the Bible, so to speak. But I developed a stock-in-trade answer. I said, "If weíre tearing pages out of the Bible, weíve been sanctioned by God."
GW: Itís what they [Blue Note] gave us permission to do. I was very careful to make sure all the artists we sampled, and all the writers, got paid for their publishing. It was all done with respect to what we were using. I always thought it was disrespectful of people who sample things because they "respect" the artists, but donít pay for it. Itís like, if youíre going to infringe on their copyright, the least you could do is pay them for it.
VB: Do you remember the first time you ever heard jazz and fell in love with it?
GW: I remember the first time I heard it I didn't like it.
GW: Yeah. I heard it from my older brother. I have an older brother, Chris, whoís three years older than me. He was into all sorts of different music. I think I took a lot from him. I remember hearing the most phenomenal racket coming out of his room when I was 13 or 14.
GW: It was an Art Blakey album, actually. I canít actually remember, though, how I got into it, or when, or why. I mean, it was definitely going backwards from jazz-funk stuff, from Donald Byrdís funkier stuff. If you like any funky dance music, youíre eventually going to find Donald Byrd and Roy Ayersí Seventies stuff. And when you get to Places And Spaces, and you find the Blue Note label, then itís a relatively short step back.
VB: The way that you reacted to hearing jazz, did you react that way to listening to hip-hop?
GW: Well, I first started DJing in 1982. At that time, I was playing most of the stuff I was just talking about. Then, all of a sudden, we had things like "The Message" and "Planet Rock", so I was kind of discovering both things at the same time. I was going forward with hip-hop as it went forward, and backward with jazz.
VB: Who are you a big fan of musically nowadays?
GW: Whoís doing something new? Thereís a phenomenal English drummer that you probably wonít have heard of named Sebastian Rochford, whoís got a group called Polar Bear. They just have one album out, but he plays with a lot of different groups. The UK isnít known for its brilliant drummers, really, but this guyís something special. You know, itís funny. I became known for my use of samples, but Iím actually a huge fan of live music. And this week at the jazz club in England, which is kind of close to where I live, Handsome Boy Modeling School is playing live. I cannot imagine what thatís going to be like. I have to go and see that. I mean, the first question is, who are they going to have on stage with them?!?
VB: Can I ask you a question about the last track on the album, "The Healer"?
GW: Yeah, sure.
VB: Wendy had a really nice tear sheet for the album explaining what some of the songs were. And before I read that, I just recognized that the song was very much an Afrobeat song. I wondered if that was a sign of things to come on the next album?
GW: Well, I havenít got a clue as to what Iím going to do on the next album.
GW: There is a story behind that song, though. Itís basically about my daughter. She was six weeks premature when she was born, and picked up a very nasty infection when she was two years old. We almost lost her. She had to have several operations, and the surgeon actually stood in front of us before the first one and said-- his actual words were, which will haunt me 'til the day I die-- he said, "I have to tell you that she might die." I wouldnít wish that on anybody to hear those words. Thankfully, she didnít, and sheís totally 100% recovered now.
VB: Thatís great.
GW: Her name is Asa. We decided on that before we knew if it was going to be a boy or a girl. We just really liked the name. After things had calmed down a bit, and weíd gotten her home, we looked on the Internet to see what the name meant. It actually means "the healer".
GW: And Angela-- my partner-- her parents are Nigerian, so Asaís a mixed-race child-- part Nigerian. So, I had to do something that sounded like Fela. That was for her. It was going to be called "Song For Asa", but when I found out what her name meant....
VB: Did you choose the Afrobeat rhythms because of the invincibility that music possesses?
GW: Well, when I met Angela, I was more into Felaís stuff than King Sunny Ade. I had a few albums and compilations of Nigerian stuff, and found myself making compilations for Angelaís dad! Then, when weíd go around there, heíd play stuff he had for me, which was all on cassette, so we had no idea who was on the tapes. But it was amazing! And thatís the stuff that they normally play in their house. But youíre right: especially Felaís stuff, itís always had a forthrightness about it.
VB: So, whatís next for you?
GW: Well, Iíd like to have an office where I canít touch both walls at the same time. My desk is actually touching both side walls!
GW: Thatís my ambition: to have a big office.
GW: Iíve always wanted to have my own record label, and now thatís becoming a reality. An organizational nightmare, but a reality.