Under the Scope: Us3
Us3 is, essentially, the project of London based producer Geoff Wilkinson who originally founded the group in London in 1992 with then production partner Mel Simpson. Their story basically began back in 1992 when the track "The Band That Played the Boogie" (released on then upstart label Ninjatune), which featured samples of Grant Green's "Sookie Sookie", caught the ear of Capitol Records, owner of the prominent Blue Note label, who then gave Us3 free reign to sample anything from the label's collection.
Us3 then made a name for themselves sampling classic recordings from the Blue Note catalogue. They signed to the label giving it its first-ever platinum album in the form of their 1993 debut Hand on the Torch. Britain's The Independent then named Us3 Jazz Musicians of the Year while Japan's Swing Journal named Hand on the Torch Album of the Year. When the album's track "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" garnered a major hit with MTV audiences in 1994 they quickly (although temporarily) became a household name. The song was recognized across the board for it's sampling of Blue Note recording artist Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island". Wilkinsin has said of his use of classic jazz recordings, "I always thought there was a huge potential audience for jazz amongst younger people, and I wanted Us3 to be a point of access for them. By sampling classic jazz tracks, mixing them with beats and raps, and having younger jazz cats playing on top, I was acknowledging the past, staying rooted in the present, and looking forward to the future, all at the same time."
The last Us3 album, 2001's An Ordinary Day in an Unusual Place, was never officially released in North America and was only available as an import. Originally intended to be put out by Sony, the label giant experienced a major upheaval around the time of the album's release making Us3 one of its victims. Wilkinsin was finally able to get the album rights back after a two year legal battle. The album was eventually released, however only in Japan and Europe.
With the original Us3 duo of Wilkinsin and Simpson having disbanded after the first album, Wilkinson is now the collective's sole driving force and is releasing music on his own independent label, Us3.com. Of the band's transformation, Wilkinsin says, "It's important to keep evolving. There's been a decreasing reliance on samples with each Us3 album, and Questions is the culmination of that. And it was kinda nice working with some live musicians rather than dead ones!" Released April 26th in the U.S., Questions is not only the group's first sample free release but is also the first for the label.
The album was influenced by both Latin funk and nu-soul but also features Cuban rhythms, rap, and bossanova. It also features the Fela Kuti inspired track "The Healer" as well as two affection look backs in the form of the remix tracks "Cantaloop 2004: Bossa Mix" and "Soul Mix". Continuing in his established tradition, Wilkinsin changes vocalists each time around. For Questions he brought in Brooklyn rapper and member of the New York rap crew LIB Reggi Wyns as well as the London based South African singer and songwriter Mpho Skeef. Also featured on the album is Nigerian guitarist Femi Temowo.
Hand on the Torch, 1993 (Blue Note)
Broadway & 52nd, 1997 (Blue Note)
An Ordinary Day in an Unusual Place, 2001 (Toshiba)
Questions, 2005 (Us3.com)
- Steph Haselman | 2005-05-16
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