It was during the summer of 1994 during the USA World Cup. In between breaks I watched MTV, when MTV still played videos and good ones; seeing the video of Cantaloop aka Flip Fantasia by Us3. I remember the video catching my attention because it mixed old and new. In this exclusive interview Geoff Wilkinson, the founder of the group, talks about the 20 year anniversary of the first album and his work after it with the group.
Talk about the re-release of Hand on the Torch that coincides with the 20 year anniversary of the album?
GW: Well it wasn’t a coincidence!! I realized last year that 2013 would be the 20th anniversary so I got in touch with Don Was, the new President of Blue Note, and met him in London to talk about doing something in celebration. He agreed to let me remaster it & put together a double CD package which collates other remixes & instrumental versions with 4 new remixes of “Cantaloop”. There are new sleeve notes from the A&R guy that signed us, and some rare pics. They did a nice job with the whole package.
How did you get access to the Blue Note vaults and how was the experience going through those gems?
GW: I (& my production partner at the time, Mel Simpson) had released a track that sampled a Blue Note track (without permission) & I got called in to see them not knowing if they liked it or if they were going to sue us! Thankfully they liked it. It was amazing having carte blanche to sample anything from the best jazz back catalog on the planet.
How did Cantaloop come about and did Herbie Hancock ever approve of the sample; were you able to meet him?
GW: “Cantaloop” was actually first done as a demo that got us the deal. Of course Herbie heard it, way before anyone else did, and he gave it his blessing. We met him several times and he was always supercool.
How was it working with Shabam Shadeeq on the second Us3 album?
GW: Marcus was cool. I think it was the first time he had been to London. He was open to experimenting, which was good, and I think the best track we did together was the spoken word track “Sheep”. Unusual for him, but it works brilliantly.
Did what Guru was doing with Jazzmatazz and A Tribe Called Quest doing as far as sampling Jazz play an influence in the route that the first two albums of Us3 took? Explain why if so or not?
GW: Of course ATCQ were an influence, but Jazzmatazz definitely was not. To be honest neither were a huge influence on the first 2 Us3 albums, I think we were trying to fuse jazz and hip hop together in a different way. We were more influenced by 60s soul jazz and hard bop, rather than the 70s funky fusion that they were dealing with.
On the third & fourth albums “An Ordinary day in an Unusual Place” & “Questions” you stopped using Jazz samples and incorporated Drum & Bass… then Latin and Neo Soul respectively on each album; why did you decide to ditch the samples and make such a sharp left turn musically speaking?
GW: Who wants to do the same thing forever? The great thing about both jazz and hip hop is that both types of music liberally borrow from other types of music to adapt and change. Looking back now, I don’t think I had a plan at the time, I was just experimenting with different things. Some worked better than others!
Why do you change the cast of rappers in every album?
GW: Because I can! On the new album “The Third Way”, I’ve actually used 3 MCs from across the history of Us3. Akil Dasan was featured on the Us3 albums “Schizophonic” (2006) and “Say What!?” (2007), KCB was on the 2nd album “Broadway & 52nd”, and Tukka was on “Hand On The Torch”. I’ve never done that before, and it was cool working with them all again. It’s given the album more of a family vibe.
You’ve been in the music business since the early 90’s. You’ve seen firsthand the decline of vinyl, CDs… record labels aren’t what they used to be as far as having the big budgets for videos, studios etc. Everything is digital, and artists are more in touch with their fans through the artists’ websites or social media. Artists own their own labels or are independent, have their studios and share their music with their fans. Compared to back in the 90’s my only connection with Us3 was hearing you on the radio or watching your video on MTV. What are your thoughts on all the changes? Do you feel they are good or bad for the artists and fans?
GW: There are pluses and minuses for both sides. The biggest disappointment in the music biz as a whole was how the multinational-owned majors rolled over and let a computer company take over their business. Although the internet has democratized the business to an extent, the majors still have the marketing muscle simply because they have the most money. However, if the fans are prepared to dig a little deeper it can be pretty easy to find a lot of great music on the internet from artists that you’ll never hear on mainstream radio.
Since you came out many artists have been carrying the torch (no pun intended) such as The Roots, Soul Live, Madlib as far as mixing Jazz, live music, and Hip Hop. What are your thoughts on that and do you feel proud and a pioneer?
GW: The more the merrier! I always said that there are so many different styles of jazz (& so many different styles of hip hop now) that the possibilities of fusing them together are endless. Long may it continue, and if Us3 has inspired anyone else, they yes I’m happy with that.
What advice would you give to artists in 2013 trying to make into the music business?
GW: I’d probably say don’t do it! It is much harder now for new artists starting out. I’d say don’t stay in your bedroom – get out there and play live, build up your audience and do it yourself as much as you can. You also have to be incredibly thick skinned in this business. Everyone is a critic now, so believe in yourself and follow your own path.
Any last words and do you have website where the fans can contact you?