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If there's anything that irritates Fred Sargolini, half of the forward-looking hip-hop/electro duo Ming & FS, it's artists who think they have to color inside the lines.
"A lot of them don't realize they're doing it," he believes. "They say they're open-minded, but they're really puritans. And people in drum and bass and all kinds of other stuff do it. It's like they're doing this underground art form, but at the same time, they've taken Britney Spears rules and all these other rules of pop and just applied it differently to another form of music. And to me, it's fucking the most idiotic thing I've ever heard. That's some silly shit to be doing independent music -- struggling, busting your ass to make a living -- and then putting all these rules on yourself."
Ming (born Aaron Albano) and FS can't be accused of committing this sin; they shift gears more often than a Grand Prix driver on the circuit's most serpentine course. After putting out an album -- 1999's Hell's Kitchen -- that was embraced by the hip-hop intelligentsia, they followed up two years later with The Human Condition, which downplayed rap in favor of house and other electronic noises that completely mystified a sizable percentage of their constituency. And while their latest CD, Subway Series, blends hip-hop and house so irresistibly it should placate fans of both genres, they're working up two additional projects that move in other directions. The first is Uncle Bubble, a house-music group named for a song on The Human Condition; the second, Freddy Churchill, is a rock band with mass-audience aspirations.
"It's straight-up Pixies, old Red Hot Chili Peppers, with some Rage thrown in," FS says. "I'm doing all the vocals, Aaron's playing all the guitar, and there may be some other power hitters in there; we haven't totally decided on the lineup yet. But we've done a lot of recording already, and they're songs, you know? There's no weird electronics, no shit for the sake of shit. It's rock -- not just radio rock, but it's definitely our most commercial thing."
The average person would find it impossible to keep so many balls in the air, but not Ming and FS, who know a little something about juggling. In concert, the two not only man four turntables simultaneously, but they also toss in sounds that they generate using actual instruments rather than the previously sampled kind. Pulling off this stunt night after night takes careful planning.
"We work on tracks in the studio, but we also work on live stuff so we can figure out who's taking what on -- what needs to be changed in the computers, what needs to be exported," FS says. "Like one of us will go, 'I'm going to play the bass line on this track, so you've got to cut everything out. But I'm going to drop out and then come back and scratch in this one certain part, so the bass line needs to come back in.' We've got to work all that stuff out and have it pre-recorded before we can play it live."
On the surface, having extra cohorts to handle some of these chores would make life easier for the headliners. "But sometimes other musicians don't do what you want them to do," FS says. "And the overhead in that situation, especially the way the economy is -- just fucking forget it. Unless you're eating sandwiches and everybody else is eating crackers, it could get ugly going out on the road with a four-piece band right now. I think we'd like to progress to that, but this is a medium step, and people just freaked out over it on our last tour. When we came around the turntables and played, people lost their shit, because they didn't expect it."
The Ming & FS story to date has been just as unpredictable. The twosome first got together in 1996 after meeting at a Manhattan party and soon began churning out groove opuses under the name Lead Foot. By 1998, when they signed with Om Records, a small San Francisco-based firm, they'd shifted monikers and were becoming known as remixers par excellence. Among the performers whose ditties have been given the Ming & FS treatment over the years are Craig David, Brandy, Puff Daddy and even Lynyrd Skynyrd. Many indie types steer clear of mainstream collaborations like these because they fear for their street credibility. Still, FS is confident enough about his reputation to not worry.
"I wouldn't want the Backstreet Boys on my record, but I'd produce them," he says. "I think if you start to lose your integrity or really start going for the bucks, that's a problem. But if you do things in the right way, to make something better, I think it's okay to split the medium."
Hell's Kitchen represents a split of a different sort. The music that serves as the foundation of numbers such as "Unison" welcomes listeners to jungle and other breakbeat-heavy styles, but there's plenty of energetic rhyming atop it. At their best, the results suggest the early electro-rap of hip-hop pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force updated for the post-rave generation -- although FS didn't realize it at the time.