Watching this week’s chemically assisted meeting of minds between Jackmaster, Eats Everything, Seth Troxler and Skream on Boiler Room got us thinking. Ostensibly an excuse to ‘party’, this newly formed quartet are entertaining, but not nearly the sum of their parts. Casting our minds back to when other musical heavyweights of the past have collided we fell on some more creatively fruitful partnerships. Read on for our list of five of the most exciting groupings to ever step in the studio together…
The Ummah (J Dilla, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed)
When looking back on the sprawling reaches of the late James Yancey’s oeuvre, the three year period in the late 90’s spent working alongside A Tribe Called Quest’s two main beatsmiths is often given rather short shrift. Introduced to Dilla by all round Detroit legend Amp Fiddler towards the tail end of ’95, Q-Tip was sufficiently impressed by the young producer’s skills that he felt compelled to invite him to join Tribe’s production team. The first results of this creative union came in the form of the group’s underrated fourth LP ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life’ – a good record that drew derision at the time for deviating from the winning formula of the classic opening trilogy of albums.
United under the name The Ummah (Arabic for ‘Brotherhood’ or ‘Community’), the trio sonically carried strong semblances of the sound that would go on to define Dilla’s later career, with sleek jazzy chords, fulsome sub and of course the patented unquantized drums. Also picking up the credit for Tribe’s fifth disc, the group also went on to work on remixes and beats for the likes of Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, Jamiroquai and Whitney Houston amongst others – with their distinctive sound highly audible on every one of these productions. Occasionally joined by D’Angelo and Raphael Saadiq, The Ummah would eventually disband in 1999 due to a variety of reasons.
Given the legendary status posthomously lavished on Dilla and his clear contribution to the group, its rather strange to reflect that The Ummah was often mistakenly assumed to be an alias of just Q-Tip – much to the frustration of all those involved. This misunderstanding along with a few other gripes some fans had about various facets of their work together has ultimately led to The Ummah being retrospectively underlooked – although listening to the velvety smooth touch they applied over so many Pop, RnB and Hip Hop tunes from the late 90’s, this appears unfair.
Augustus Pablo and King Tubby
Two of the most accomplished artists in Dub Reggae, the work between King Tubby and Augustus Pablo is as close to perfect as anything else you can find in the genre.
Whilst cutting discs for producer Duke Reid in Jamaica during the late 60’s, Tubby was tasked with producing ‘versions’ of popular riddims for deejays to chat over and in the process found that manipulation of the various instrumental parts of a track could create entirely new pieces of music, or ‘dubs’. Eventually mastering the use of effects such as delay, reverb and phase, Tubby would rightfully earn his status as ‘King’ of this hazy, otherworldly artform. A subsequent practitioner of the style, Augustus Pablo began recording in the early 70’s and distinguished himself through his unique use of the melodica – an instrument that had previously been thought of primarily as a children’s toy. His early track ‘East of the River Nile’ was emblematic of the style that would define his career – with its hazy blend of Rastafarian mysticism with syncopated Reggae structures and exotic East Asian sounds.
First teaming up on 1975’s ‘Ital Dub’, the definitive release from the pair came the following year with ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’. Featuring an all star cast of musicians including brothers Carlton and Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (drummer and bassist with The Wailers and The Upsetters), bassist Robbie Shakespeare (of Sly & Robbie fame) and legendarily prolific guitarist, Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith – the record is arguably one of the finest to ever come out of Jamaica. Underpinned by devastatingly simplistic bass work, the album is mixed to perfection with instruments slipping in out of focus to create a supremely heady blend of sounds that transport the listener to a stiflingly hot evening in downtown Kingston.
With the title track still likely to top any list of best Dub Reggae tunes, the influence of the record as a whole – and both artists involved, has resonated throughout the decades since its release and both of their untimely deaths. Aphex Twin sampled ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’ for ‘Take Control’ off 2001’s ‘Drukgs’, whilst late 70’s and early 80’s producers creating edits such as Francois Kevorkian and Shep Pettibone were profoundly inspired by the methods on show. Dubstep and the whole of what we now refer to as Bass music meanwhile, would likely not exist had Tubby and Pablo never commited their intoxicating and mysterious sonic magic to wax all those years ago.
Brian Eno and Bill Gates
Eno’s most heard collaboration (in the loosest sense of the word) is his shortest piece of work to date, and one that many have no idea he was responsible for: the Windows 95 start up sound. Commissioned by Bill Gates‘ international tech powerhouse, Eno created the piece in his studio following a long stint working on his own materia – later admitting that Microsoft’s brief had asked for him to “write something that was ‘inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,’ this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said ‘and it must be 3.25 seconds long.'”
In the process of completing the ‘The Windows Sound’ Eno actually recorded 84 pieces of music and states that the time spent working on tiny pieces of sound and being sensitive to microseconds of composition actually helped him to overcome some hurdles he was experiencing within his own work.
It’s interesting to note that a suspicious YouTube user had an inkling about this piece of work and decided to speed it up by 23x (listen here). When stretched to 2.30 mins it happens to sound a lot like the familiar, beautiful and ethereal ambience that Eno is known for. However, I have no idea what they are trying to suggest with this evidence. Another amusing fact: he made the piece on Mac – “I’ve never used a PC in my life; I don’t like them.”
Roy Ayers and Fela Kuti
Roy Ayers is a composer with a profound love for the vibes. His breaks have self-proclaimedly been sampled more times than any other artist. That makes him one of the most influential recording artists of all time & at 73 years old, he’s still performing today.
A collision of genius minds in the truest sense of the word occured when American grandaddy of funk, soul & jazz with a profound love for the vibes Roy Ayers first met the revolutionary Afro-funk pioneer Fela Kuti in Nigeria in 79’ where they recorded their classic collaborative album, ‘Music Of Many Colours’ in Kuti’s studio.
The record, like much of Kuti’s work, is essentially a large jam session that flows with Ayers’ septet and Kuti’s fourteen-piece orchestra on hand along with seven of his 27 wives. Each artist took the lead on one of the two tracks, ‘2000 Blacks got to be free’ is a 19 minute soulful, borderline Disco-jam led by the Ayers party. Roy croons softly about change, righteousness, unity for the future and never forgetting the past while Kuti’s orchestra overdrive things into a melee of straight-up Afro-funkism. Things are switched up on Fela’s ‘Africa The Centre Of The World’ which starts off slow with his trademark tenor chants, Ayers keeps the pace right where he wants it throughout, performing epic vibe solos alongside his masterful saxaphonist Harold Land and Kuti’s tremendous brass section.
This once-off pairing is a true cornerstone in musical heritage. You could listen to the record on loop for hours and never get bored. Ayers still talks of it as one of the most interesting encounters he’s ever had. If Kuti were still alive, who know’s what they might have come out if they met again today…
Kieran Hebden and Steven Reid
Keiran Hebden is one of the most prolific producers of contemporary electronic music today. Churning out precision-perfect albums that are nothing short of beautiful on what seems like an annual basis under his Four Tet moniker, he’s certainly not short on inspiration. An avid collaborator he’s keen on doubling up to make things all the more interesting having worked with Caribou, Burial, Thom Yorke and rocket-number-nine in recent years to stellar results.
One of his most involved collaborations was with late Jazz drummer Steve Reid. Seasoned and charismatic, Reid worked as a session drummer for Motown and played with iconoclasts such as Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman James Brown and eventually Hebden on his fruitful career path.
The artists first teamed up in 2006 to release the ‘Exchange Session Vol. 1’ and they enjoyed each other’s company and musical styles so much that they continued to work together up until 2010 when Reid passed away following a struggle with throat cancer. They produced four albums together in total, a myriad of sonorous blips, bells and beatscapes sequenced alongside rhythmic live drumming sessions which make for hours upon hours of lazy ethereal listening. In 2008 Reid referred to Hebden as his “New found musical soul-mate.” Check out the above documentary about the production of ‘Tounges’, their third work which also serves as a memoir to the final days of Reid’s career still doing the thing that brought him the most joy…