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.
"When we first made Hell's Kitchen, we were like, 'Nobody's going to like this shit. It's way too complicated for people, but we don't care. We want to do it anyway.'" He laughs. "Seriously, we didn't think anyone would even remotely be able to understand it. I remember us sitting in our living room saying, 'This is crazy-people music. We've really made a record just for ourselves.' But then it came out, and it was well-received. And we were like, 'Fuck. It wasn't supposed to be this way.'"
This experience inspired Ming and FS to take additional risks on The Human Condition. "When we were making that record, I knew, being a hip-hopper, that these 130 beats-per-minute tracks were going to offend a lot of people," FS says. "We knew that the whole time, but it was music we wanted to do, and that was it. It wasn't meant to piss people off. It was more like, 'Dude, we sucked you in on the first record. Now there's something more in this music you should listen to.' But for some people, it was a little too much. We were kind of their babies, and when their baby grew up, they didn't know what to do about it."
This backlash is understandable, since the dance touches that were frequently relegated to the background on Hell's Kitchen wound up at center stage of its successor. "Intro to Life" is a high-adrenaline scorcher, and "Head Case" moves at supersonic speed; in contrast, "Some Die (Some Come Up)" and "Uncle Bubble" are cooler and more soulful, thanks to the diva-ready pipes of guest star Ada Dyer. These offerings and others like them help turn The Human Condition into a first-rate house album -- something that's finally being acknowledged a year after the fact.
"As we get further away from The Human Condition, I have a lot of people coming up to me saying they like it better than Hell's Kitchen," FS asserts. "Which just goes to show that the initial knee-jerk isn't always the final answer. We found out it appealed to a lot of people who were into other music, but it didn't appeal to hip-hoppers who didn't understand that this other music had been there all along. They took the album as not just a fuck-you, but a double fuck-you, when it wasn't about that at all."
Even so, Ming and FS aren't interested in alienating the hip-hop crowd any more than it already is, which is why future house recordings will emerge from under the Uncle Bubble umbrella. "That'll add clarity," FS says. "It's like, hey, if people are going to freak out so much over this, let's make separate outlets for things."
The packaging of Subway Series, which features illustrations of Ming and FS wearing backward baseball caps, is a clear invitation to rap aficionados, and so is most of the music on the platter. A few house efforts remain, including the charmingly schizophrenic "One for the Treble," but they're overshadowed by a broad menu of hip-hop approaches. "Steady Shot" showcases the toasting skills of Dr. Israel; "Misdirected" provides a brassy, atmospheric soundscape for co-stars DK and Aref Durvesh; "World Wide," featuring B-Boy Speedy of the New York City Breakers, finds the boys enrolling in old school; and "Nevada" allows FS's synthesizer to engage in a little g-funk. "Hip-hoppers will love that," FS predicts. "They're going to come back for this one."
Whether Ming & FS will return to Om Records, which has released all their CDs, is harder to predict. Their contract with Om expires with Subway Series, and they're considering their options, one of which is to hook up with a larger imprint.
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"We would want to keep a fair amount of the creative control, but at this point, we don't mind being challenged," FS says. "If somebody comes to us and says, 'We've got an idea,' we'd listen as long as it's not 'Ming & FS turn polka' or something like that. And we've met a fair amount of cool A&R people. You get treated differently if you're a pop artist and you don't know what the fuck you're doing; you get treated like a piece of shit and get told what to do. But if they know you have some kind of musical sensibility and an artistic vision, you'd be surprised at how understanding some of these people who might seem very cutthroat can be."
If they choose the major-label path, FS knows there is no shortage of potential pitfalls. "Those companies don't know how not to spend too much money. It's just innate; it's what they do, so you have to watch out for that. But hopefully we wouldn't have to suck a dick too much, as the rappers would say. We're probably going to have to bend over a little bit. But I think we're ready to have someone say, 'If you do this song with Method Man, it's really going to take you places.' Some people from the underground will say, 'What the fuck are you doing working with Method Man? He's doing fucking deodorant commercials.' But that's a little small-minded, and we won't let it bother us."
Besides, any concessions Ming and FS make in one band can be avoided in another. According to FS, "It's all about us continuing to push and not being afraid, even though some people want you to stay in the box they put you in. And who the fuck wants to do that?"