Rock the dancefloor? We built it
It may have been 15 years between 23 Skidoo albums, but that didn’t stop them laying the foundations of UK dance and hip hop. Just ask the Chemical Brothers
The Independent, Friday 30 June 2000
If you’ve read any one of the numerous dance-music histories published over recent years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, until the US gave us house music, the only dance we created was of the morris variety. Apparently, funk, disco and rare groove were genres that we consumed rather than produced. Even Northern Soul seemed to slip past the experts who were busy worshipping at the altars of Chicago and Detroit – the so-called birthplaces of house and techno respectively. According to these commentators, everything started with ecstasy, and year zero coincided with the opening of London’s legendary acid- house club Shoom in 1987.
But even the most rudimentary understanding of the creative tensions which forge new subcultures and musical styles would show how ludicrous a concept this is. Nothing can evolve in a vacuum and yet we are asked to believe that today’s dance culture has a definite moment of birth.
So what of the musicians pushing at the boundaries of funk and electronica prior to Shooom? Artists like 23 Skidoo, Clock DVA, A Certain Ratio, 400 Blows and Pop Group who, for the first half of the 1980s, applied the same anything-goes nihilism to the US funk of James Brown and the Afro-funk of Fela Kuti, as the punks had previously applied to rock music. Or others like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle and The Normal who attempted to harness Kraftwerk’s circuitry to the DIY aesthetic of the times.
It’s with these industrial funk bands that we can see much of the groundwork for the late-Eighties house aesthetic. The music was both conceptual and functional; it was free of the standardised pop-song format (The Beatles meant less to this generation than King Tubby) and it was mainly instrumental. Live, these bands performed heavily strobed multimedia events where projected films and slide shows took precedence over artists. Like the DJ culture that would follow, this was an anti-star scene.
Recently, the style magazine The Face ran an article celebrating the return of the sound that they’ve rechristened punk funk (industrial has come to represent the likes of US goth-rockers Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails).
The main inspiration is the re-emergence of 23 Skidoo with a new single, the gorgeous jazzy dub of “Dawning” (featuring Pharaoh Saunders) and an equally superb eponymous album. Both arrive some 15 years since their last release.
“We’re trying not to be too aware of any revivalism,” say the band “The fact is we never actually went away. We didn’t use the 23 Skidoo name, that’s all.”
23 Skidoo are Anglo-Singaporean Chinese brothers Alex and Johnny Turnbull, Fritz Catlin and Sketch (once a member of chart-topping British jazz-funk outfit Linx). Formed in 1979, the band soon came to the fore with their critically acclaimed debut single “The Gospel Comes to New Guinea”, which offered a startling amalgamation of percussive Afro rhythms, industrial ambience and heavily echoed guitars.
Over the course of the next six years, they released four albums (“7 Songs”, “Tearing Up the Plans”, “The Culling is Coming” and “Urban Gamelan”), although it’s for the celebrated 1984 single “Coup” that they are best remembered. Not least because its infectious bass line was lifted wholesale by The Chemical Brothers on their huge “Block Rocking Beats” hit.
Since 1985, 23 Skidoo appeared to have remained dormant. In reality, however, like many of their contemporaries, they never went away. Rather they withdrew into the studio where they became influential musical catalysts in the growth and development of acid house and post-acid house cultures. In 23 Skidoo’s case, they developed Ronin Records, a label through which they initially explored breakbeat house in the early Nineties (they unleashed the hugely popular rave anthem “Jailbreak” in 1990) before developing a love affair with hip hop. Ronin has subsequently been hugely instrumental in placing the UK firmly on the international hip hop stage. Among the artists they’ve championed are the globally acclaimed MCs Roots Manuva (who guest on the new album), Rodney P and DJ Skitz.
“People expected us to be heavily into dance music because of the trance element of our early stuff,” explains Alex from the cosy confines of the band’s north London studio. “But we were always more interested in funk and stuff like Fela [Kuti] and the Last Poets, y’know? When hip hop came along, we were immediately drawn to it. Hip hop’s been central to a lot of musical development. If you look at pop music now, it’s the same as what happened in R&B 10 years ago, which in itself drew on hip hop. Each development in hip hop eventually filters into the mainstream and really affects people.”
The notion of music in a constant state of evolution may be central to the band’s manifesto but, despite musical developments, their newer material is still instantly recognisable as 23 Skidoo. The moods are still dark and the rhythms still largely percussive. The only difference is that the standard of playing has improved, which raises the question of whether their original sound was partly due to their relative lack of ability.
“You can go up your backside with ability,” exclaims Alex. “It’s more about what it says to you than the technical virtuosity. A lot of dance music and experimental music might be technically perfect, but it is just so formulaic.” Which brings us back to the sampling formula as employed by the Chemical Brothers and their like. I wonder how they feel about that blatant lift from “Coup”?
“We’ve got mixed emotions about it, actually. It’s kind of ironic that people are questioning our relevance when one of the biggest dance acts in the world have lifted from us. We’ve also been sampled by Future Sound of London and Ice T, so the Chemicals aren’t alone.”
23 Skidoo. Not forgotten after all.