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In the world of hip hop, too many performers think that playing sampled funk grooves behind their own bad raps magically transforms them into composers. Mel Simpson, the producer and conceptualist behind the jazzy hip-hop project called Us3, disagrees. He feels that brand of rap is a rip.
"So many people who sample jazz or any other records, they do it without thinking that they are taking something," he says. "They didn't pay for it. Sure, they justify it by saying, `Well, I sample out of respect.' That's very well and all. But I don't think it's very respectful to steal from people. And that's what you're doing, really. As a musician, what you write and what you play is all you've got. Those are the tools of your trade. You should be paid for them."
Simpson, a jazzophile, keyboard player and owner/producer of his own north London recording facility, Flame Studio, knows firsthand about the dodgy ethics of sampling. In 1991 he teamed with jazz collector/journalist/nightclub DJ Geoff Wilkinson to produce a rap single, "The Band Played the Boogie," that included unauthorized samples lifted from jazz tunes released by the Blue Note label. "Boogie" did very well--so well, in fact, that it attracted the attention of Capitol/Blue Note's London-based executives.
Under most circumstances, the parties involved would have spent the next millennium getting acquainted in court. But no copyright infringement lawsuits emerged from "The Band Played the Boogie." Instead, Us3 was "given permission" to sample the entire back catalogue of Blue Note, which has recorded jazz history as it happened over the past 55 years. The combo subsequently became an overnight sensation, thanks to the success of the Blue Note-released album Hand on the Torch. The 1993 disc sported samples from Horace Silver's beautiful "Song for My Father," Donald Byrd's "Jeannine," Bobby Hutcherson's "Goin' Down South" and Thelonius Monk's "Straight No Chaser." The Us3 track that got the most attention, however, was the hit single "Cantaloop," which featured an introduction borrowed from a live recording of the late Art Blakey and samples from Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island."
While many jazz aficionados were outraged by "Cantaloop," few others saw this smash as a desecration. The public at large--particularly teen hip-hop fans--loved it; they bought it in large numbers. MTV played the video made for it.
Blue Note's bean counters were equally overjoyed. Never had a Blue Note album sold so well. Moreover, interest in the music heard on Hand on the Torch had an unexpected side effect: This past year alone, sales of albums in the Blue Note library have doubled.
Still, many observers continue to wonder how the members of Us3 gained access to the Blue Note treasure trove. Why them? Even Simpson isn't sure.
"I guess they could have decided that it was just too sacred to let anyone mess with," he notes. "But Blue Note is an adventurous label that has documented every change in jazz history. So if anyone was going to do it, it was going to be Blue Note."
By the same token, Simpson never expected Blue Note executives to be so forthcoming. "I guess it was very bold of us to suggest it to them," he admits. "But when they first called to see us, I don't think they really had an idea of where to go from there. They loved what we had done. But that first meeting wasn't just, `Oh, please come in, guys. We think this is great. Do you want the Blue Note catalogue?' It wasn't quite like that. I think we kind of pushed things at that time. We just bullied them into giving us some money, and we promised to try and do something they'd like.
"The first demo we did was `Cantaloop,'" he continues. "I think when we played that for them, that's what really clinched it. I think that's really what convinced them that the material was in safe hands."
Not that Us3 truly had carte blanche to run rampant through the Blue Note archives. "Because of the nature of what we do and because we're signed to Blue Note, that means that everything we do is completely above the line, above board," he insists. "But we don't get automatic clearance. Certainly, the record company won't give us a hard time over the samples that we use, but we still have to get permission from the original writers and artists. No one yet has objected. Of course, there's a rewarding aspect for them, too. They get paid. I think that's a nice thing, quite rewarding to feel that you are putting something back into the music as well as sort of taking something away."
Among the things Simpson and Wilkinson "took" was their project's name: Us Three is the title of a 1960 Blue Note album by bop pianist/former Charles Mingus sideman Horace Parlan. While Simpson hasn't heard if Parlan is pleased with this tribute to him, he says that Herbie Hancock likes "Cantaloop" and wishes he'd thought of transforming "Cantaloupe Island" first.
Just who did the transforming remains a matter of some confusion among fans. That's because Us3 doesn't actually exist as a band. Performers such as Steve Williamson, Tukka Yoot, Ed Jones and Gerard Presencer contributed to Hand on the Torch, but they were hired as sidemen for specific tracks. Today Simpson remains uncertain as to just how many of these musicians will appear on future Us3 recordings.
"Us3 was conceived really as a project--it is basically Geoff and myself," he notes. "We're really Us2. The third element at any one time would be a rapper or a musician or a group of people to make up a completion of the triangle, if you like. The idea is one of a revolving stage where we could feature people who were appropriate to a particular track. We could be selective and have the advantage of being able to work with a diverse, eclectic bunch. So the next album will certainly feature musicians that we have worked with and are working with--the guys in the band. We've got a whole new band, a live band, to feature on the next album, which is something we didn't have and has only been the result of going out and promoting the album."
What that means is that there is no Us3, but a group of musicians, many of whom contributed to Hand on the Torch, is touring as Us3--and they're performing all the songs on Us3's album. In addition, these artists are playing the songs live; rather than using samples or prerecorded material, they produce every sound themselves. As for Simpson and Wilkinson, they're not traveling with the troupe. They plan to remain in London and work on the next Us3 project--a live collection of jazz from the London underground scene.
For listeners who might have wanted to hear Tukka Yoot rap to a sampled "Song for My Father" or hear 22-year-old trumpeter Presencer play alongside a favorite sample, Simpson has this explanation: "We really did agonize over this, to be honest--whether we should use the samples or not. But [the musicians] can play it so very well, and when we did use the samples it seemed like everyone always had one ear to the monitors, checking to see if we were in time with the sample. I felt that it kind of took the fun and the spirit out of the playing. That is the important thing, you know, to get fun and excitement and the spirit out of playing to people. It works so well without the samples that we wouldn't dream of putting them back in it. This is jazz. It's meant to be played and improvised. That's what it's for."
Given that sentiment, you've got to wonder why Simpson got involved in sampling in the first place.