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Electronic music appears to be headed for a creative and commercial slump just as dire as the technology market's. The Village Voice recently wrote that prominent European DJs aren't filling Manhattan clubs any longer; across the pond, British institutional raves "Cream" and "Gatecrasher" are reportedly close to folding. Recently, the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, and Fatboy Slim -- handmaidens of the dance world's late-'90s money shot, "big beat" -- all released albums that stiffed. And the jungle movement, perhaps the most original invention to emerge from last decade's breakbeat bubble, is struggling to sustain weekly slots in San Francisco's nightlife bazaar.
All of these electronic subgenres owe a huge debt to Meat Beat Manifesto, Jack Dangers' 15-year-old musical collective. Some consider Meat Beat's 1990 cut "Radio Babylon" to be the first manifestation of jungle, with the song's agitated funk-beats straining to rip free from the loping bass line. Many critics also point to Dangers' multilayered, forward-looking albums as the direct precursor to the block-rocking beats of recent times. (For example, the percussion from "Helter Skelter," the "Radio Babylon" flip side, was pilfered by the Prodigy for its sole enduring song, "Charly.") So you could say that Dangers is indirectly responsible for the current electronic swoon. But in the artist's typical ahead-of-the-times fashion, his first new album in four years, RUOK?, sounds vastly different from his past works and those of his followers.
For the past two decades Dangers has kept the musical fads he helped found at arm's length -- Meat Beat's never been accused of actually being a big beat or jungle outfit, for instance -- while his back catalog has remained unmarred by the implosion of specific scenes.
Indeed, Dangers' cozy, low-slung home, perched on a Mill Valley ridge amid pine trees and his neighbors' luxury cars, brings to mind notions of prudence. But as he tells it, his longevity is more the result of missed opportunities and his label's marketing impotence than any game plan. "The label I was stuck on never had its shit together enough to get any sort of commercial success," he says. "I never had any big money deals in my life, and I think when you get that pressure, you're sort of obliged to follow the trends -- I never had that." Now, as certain trends fizzle, his reputation doesn't have to go down with the ship. "So it was all the wrong things -- my failure -- that has kept me OK in the long run," he chuckles.
Originally, Dangers was based in Swindon, England, and signed to the Belgian independent Play It Again Sam. Beginning in 1989, Meat Beat enjoyed a four-year creative spurt that resulted in an equal number of albums. Put into their historical context today, 1989's Storm the Studio and 1990's Armed Audio Warfare were the British sonic equivalents of records by U.S. hip hop provocateurs Public Enemy, unleashing similar maelstroms of samples and noise. (Chuck D, a noted discophobe, later short-listed Meat Beat as one of his favorite groups.) This halcyon period culminated in 1992 with Satyricon, a fully formed, leftist treatise set to reconfigured funk breaks, with Dangers chant-ranting in verse/chorus/verse pop structures.
For the next four years, Dangers was embroiled in a lawsuit against his label that brought his output to a standstill. In the middle of the quagmire, he moved to San Francisco to get married and live closer to Consolidated and Michael Franti's Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, groups with whom he was collaborating and touring. Privately, Dangers was gnashing his teeth as his buzz waned -- his contractual wranglings kept his career in suspended animation just as audiences were beginning to appreciate the notion of the producer-driven breakbeat full-length, a format he essentially created.
Dangers finally snapped his dry spell by personally funding the release of the double album Subliminal Sandwichin 1996, although due to legal obligations the effort still came out on Play It Again Sam. The label execs (who were unavailable for comment for this article) were most likely just as frustrated with Dangers as he was with them, seeing as how he strongly resisted being marketed. ("I'm an A&R man's worst nightmare" was his most often-quoted soundbite from this period.)
Play It Again Sam tried to pitch Meat Beat to the club and industrial scenes, putting Dangers and his rotating cast of supporting players on tour with the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy and licensing his albums in the U.S. to Wax Trax! and Trent Reznor's Nothing imprint. But Dangers didn't feel particularly at home in those worlds. He had grown up in Swindon as a closeted b-boy, and if he'd had his druthers, he would have wriggled his way into the hip hop fraternity. But, he explains, "If you were in Britain, you were white, and you were doing hip hop in '87, you were fucking ripped to shreds [by the critics]. We got one review of 'Radio Babylon' when it came out, and it was a bad one -- it was a London magazine saying we were white people doing black music."
Berkeley's Billy Jam, owner of the Hip Hop Slam label, remembers "playing 'Radio Babylon' on my show on KALX when it first came out, and people gave me shit for it, saying it wasn't hip hop. But I always thought it was more hip hop than almost anything that was coming out, since the music is really about pushing boundaries."
As soon as he was liberated from Play It Again Sam in 1999, Dangers broke into the hip hop scene by launching the Tino's Breaks record series with his Tino Corp. partners Mike Powell and Ben Stokes. Meant as a piss-take of the records offering beats for DJs, Tino Corp. provided an assortment of drum breaks and sound effects lifted from mambo, dub, Christmas, and Halloween recordings, all presided over by Tino, a fictitious Cuban drummer and action figure who appeared on the covers. (The next edition will be composed of drum passages taken from old 16mm films, which Dangers claims are the final frontier for unexploited breakbeats.)
Over time, Tino Corp. evolved into a live performance outfit that got regular bookings at such A-list scratch-music showcases as "Future Primitive Soundsession." (For gigs, the trio relies heavily on the innovative video-sampling techniques that Stokes pioneered in the early '90s, by which he manipulates film sources like a DJ does vinyl.) That the ensemble has found a home in the insular turntablist community is a source of relief for Dangers. "My dream was always to do things with American DJs," he says. "It took me 16 years to finally get there."
Dangers mothballed Meat Beat Manifesto for much of the past four years, concentrating on Tino Corp. and oddball projects under his own name, including a musique concrète10-inch called Tape Music and an exploration into modified Speak & Spells titled Variaciones Espectrales. Of course, it didn't help his MBM productivity that there weren't any label flacks "jabbing me in the ribs to release anything," as he puts it. Add in his newfound freedom, his approach of middle age (he's now 37), and his studio's pastoral view of Marin County hillsides, and you'd expect his seventh LP as Meat Beat, RUOK?, to be a more sedate, optimistic album. Instead, the release is a paranoia-wracked inner journey that, by its conclusion, turns the innocuous-seeming title into a self-administered reality check -- and a doubting one at that.
There are few familiar Meat Beat reference points on the LP. Dangers doesn't sing or use many drum samples, and a number of the songs were put together on an EMS Synthi 100, a titanic synthesizer from the '70s that looks like it was ripped from the control deck of the Star Trek Enterprise. Only 29 models were ever manufactured, and Dangers is fairly confident his is the only operational one being used. "A rocket scientist in Livermore has a working one too, but doesn't touch the thing," he says. According to Dangers, it's the most extensive synth ever conceived, with around 7,200 possible settings (the popular Moog, from the same era, has about 80).
The range of sounds he culls from the EMS isn't so much wide as it is weird. On "Yuri," the machine whirs and ticks away like a radiation detector in a Cold War movie, while on "Retrograde" it goes gastronomical, squirting fartlike between the drums. Throughout the album, Dangers piles on layers of textures, giving the sense of claustrophobic panic. What's most compelling about RUOK? is the way he uses the same tropes that electronic artists have been running into the ground lately -- old analog synths and programmed, syncopated beats -- in a way that's somehow not bottled by genre.
Like all Meat Beat outings, the album is very much Dangers' trip, alive with the feeling of a wide-eyed gearhead locked in a room. The tracks, though, are less about the beats than any past Meat Beat material; instead, they focus upon the friction between the various substrata of noise and melody. As always, numerous guests add to the tunes' variety. "Supersoul" is a live jam with locals Mark Pistel and Lynn Farmer, who rounded out the Meat Beat "band" on Actual Sounds + Voices. Z-Trip, the turntablist known for blending monsters of rock with hip hop, imbues "What Does It All Mean?" and "Hankerchief Head" with freaky twists and turns. The Orb's Alex Patterson, who like Dangers is a recovering veteran of the early '90s "sampledelia" movement, contributes to "Horn of Jerico," a sample-free squall of stomach-churning electric atmospheres. Listening to all 12 songs at once is like going on a walkabout through dark but oddly familiar lands, where you stumble around in a circle for the entire hour, bumping into the same obstacles over and over. This is not the strutting, forward march of dance-floor breakbeat.
"I think there's stuff on this record that will have people scratching their heads, and that's usually a good thing," Dangers muses. "Hopefully it means it's ahead of things, because you don't have anything to measure it against."
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