Black Grass - One Man Funk Machine
Monday, 2 June 2008
If you think today's mainstream hip hop lacks heart, then the UK's Black Grass is offering an alternative. Ian ‘Mex’ Thompson could be the British DJ Premier - or an underground Mark Ronson. Black Grass has mostly flown under the radar at home, but not here in Australia, to which, as with Portishead's Andy Smith, Mex is a regular visitor.
Black Grass isn't about trendy music. Thompson's latest LP, Three, traverses hip hop, reggae, jazz, funk and soul. It's contemporary, vintage and eclectic.
Black Grass started as a duo, Thompson working with the younger Carl Faure.
Their name was taken from Mex's record store in Brighton, which catered to breaks lovers.
Prior to Black Grass, Mex DJd at Brighton's legendary Knowledge Of Self. He also aired music as The Mexican, his track Spunky Love Fun winning NME’s approval. Inspired by sound system culture, Black Grass debuted in 2003 with an eponymous album on the boutique Catskills Records, which also has Finland's Pepe Deluxe. Nevertheless, Faure quit soon after, the pair alluding to the old 'musical differences' excuse in interviews. Indeed, Carl always leant towards the electronica side.
In 2006 Thompson ventured out alone with A Hundred Days In One, which he later described as “more introspective”. The album encompassed his dauntless cover of Harold Melvin's Don't Leave Me This Way, a record made famous by Thelma Houston, with the ‘country noir’ singer Dominique Noiret.
With Three, Mex aimed to up the tempo - and the vibe.
Does he feel that the album is closer overall to what he DJs- “I think so,” Thompson responds. “You might wanna do something, but sometimes things just don't work out the way you planned them. Sometimes you can't force stuff to happen, they just happen the way things do. But, yeah, I got a few up-tempo bits on there this time.”
Mex has roped in an impressive cast of vocalists - among them New York MC J-Live. The ragga Benjammin' enlivens the single Bass Man. Some of the guests, such as Dionne Charles, are Brighton locals. Charles, a younger Sharon Jones, performs no less than three songs. “She's in a funk band over here called Baby Charles who have really blown up right now. They were set up by a friend of mine who's the guitarist in the band, so I got to know her through that connection.”
Mex believes that he's evolving with every album, relishing his freedom as a solo producer, post-Carl. “It's just gone along with me getting older. To be honest, I seem to be not so much concerned about what everyone else is doing and more just pleasing myself. That sounds a bit selfish, but that's what I've done.”
There's speculation about the future viability of the album, especially for DJ/producers like Thompson, in the digital age. Dimitri From Paris, who orchestrated the influential Sacrebleu, has no intention of releasing another. “I can get the reasoning behind it,” Mex ponders. “With the download thing, people can just cherry-pick the tracks they want. Albums don't get listened to as a whole very much anymore. These days everyone gets a compilation in 10 seconds on iTunes. You can just have what you want. You don't have to skip through album tracks you might not necessarily wanna hear. It's changed a lot.”
However, with a trilogy of albums in Black Grass' back-catalogue, Thompson is evidently committed to the format. Why- “I had a record deal!,” he blurts out, laughing. “They made me make three albums! No, seriously - I was part of it, obviously - but I like the album. I don't think it's got a very great future, but I do like it.
"Again, it's really different for me because there's so many other artists involved in [my album]. It's almost like a compilation album, in some ways. So, from my point of view, maybe it's different to how other people see it.
If it's just one artist on the whole album doing all the music and all the vocals, like a normal band, that's gonna have a different feel to what I do.”
In the past Thompson has licensed Black Grass material to a Playstation game (Football 2004), but he still hopes to find different outlets for his music. The main dilemma- His partiality for samples poses dilemmas. “There is a problem with some of the tracks I make in that they are sample-based. Depending on what sample it is, sometimes it gets cleared, sometimes it doesn't. Maybe if a TV company or whoever approached me, it might be a case of them wanting the track very quickly and not having enough time to clear a sample. That's happened before.”
“Toys - from the first album - was [used for] a European Adidas campaign quite recently, but I had to re-jig that a lot to get rid of a sample in there that wasn't cleared just in case someone picked up on it. It almost became a different track, but it had the same feel to it."
Mex admits that, at points, he's rethought his reliance on samples. At any rate, many of those he utilises are replayed by musos in order to achieve a higher sound quality. In a way, Black Grass is becoming more live.
Thompson is an ol' skool hip hop fan, too. Would he like to cut beats for other urban artists - perhaps even for J-Live- “I did promise him a beat, actually!” Mex enthuses. “[It's] not a contractual agreement, but it was something that was mentioned. He was just finishing off his album when I recorded with him, so it was kinda [too] late to do anything then, but, yeah, I'd love to do a beat for him. It'd be an absolute pleasure.”
Mex welcomes a challenge. He's developed something approximating a live show in the UK. But for this weekend's We Love Sounds festival, he'll be presenting “a sound systemy thing” as Black Grass. “I'll be bringing Koaste with me, [he's] an MC who's on the album - [and] he's gonna be doing some bits with me," Mex says. "I'd like to have brought some more people but, just financially, it's not really been possible. I'd still like to do a proper live thing in Oz, but we'll do our best to put on a good show and make it very entertaining.”
WHO: Black Grass
WHAT: Three through Inertia / plays the 3D Stage at We Love Sounds
WHEN: Out now / Sunday 8 June
MORE: black-grass.com / sounds.net.au