Friday, 3 June 2016

FRATTON PARK (PORTSMOUTH) AND HOME PARK (PLYMOUTH)





The Good Companion pub on Eastern Road, less than half a mile from Fratton Park, where many Plymouth Argyle fans have gathered before the game against Portsmouth. This assemblage cannot be offered as a cross-section of Plymothian society, but they are legion: the total attendance of away fans on the day will reach 2,405, way above average for League Two. Many of the older supporters look out-of-shape, unwell, lacking any concern for their appearance. The younger are more neatly dressed but have drunk too much, some of them spilled over tables next to barely touched pints, others behaving more boisterously. The bar is at least three deep, and this is not a small bar. The staff is doing its best to chronologise service, but it cannot be guaranteed. There is queue for the men’s toilet that leads well out of its door. Approximately 90% of those present are male, all are white. Unless you feel intimidated by this, there is nothing to fear; the partisan is reactive, moved to oppose only when opposed. The atmosphere is congenial, if unrefined. Pasties are being hawked in the car park. There’s not a prawn sandwich in sight.

The North–South divide is mythic, a dichotomy that supposedly hard northerners perpetuate when wishing to denigrate supposedly soft southerners. I determine so because whenever I've travelled somewhere in this respect considered 'north' – Edinburgh, Sedgefield, Leicester, Nottingham, Grantham, Cardiff, small towns and villages in Wales and Lincolnshire – I've found the manner and attitude to be comparable in tone to that found in places like Plymouth, Bristol, Exeter, Torquay, Southampton, Portsmouth, small towns and villages in Cornwall and Somerset. The implication is predictive by dint of geographical allusion: it is not a North–South divide at all but a South East–the rest of it divide.
This still doesn’t quite satisfy. Romford and Southend hint at trouble, Cambridgeshire is as bleak as hell, and I’ve heard the Medway towns are very rough also. Jonathan Meades talking to The Quietus:

"I don't think the South is a paradise, that's a complete nonsense. I have a friend who grew up in Liverpool 8 above a pub, and he went to university in Southampton and he said that Liverpool will kick you but then say, ‘Sorry, whack,' but Southampton will just kick you. We're talking about places that are hard, without any doubt, especially port towns – Plymouth and Portsmouth as well. Say if you go to the Medway towns, they're very hard and rough places."

My formative years spent in Plymouth give credence. Whenever I return from London I’m reminded of the variance in mood, the dissimilar mores. The city isn’t as violent or shabby or parochial as it was, yet there’s still something inured about many of the residents. Not a more pleasing quality necessarily, but probably more sincere (although no less affected).

Specks Lane around the back of the away (‘Milton’) end at Fratton Park, the sort of passageway you wouldn’t want to be caught walking along, having visited as an opposing spectator, by an active mob of Portsmouth fans coming the other way. The rear gardens of terraced houses look over it from behind breeze-blocked walls and incongruously large flat-roofed garages. Facing this are graffiti covered concrete slabs aligned vertically, like a portion of the Berlin Wall. This is by far the cared less for quarter of the ground. Signs assert “No Smoking”. Fag-butts, ubiquitously littering a weedy declination held in place by those concrete monoliths, suggest otherwise. This is what all inner-city football grounds were once like, built ad hoc, giving rise to strange wasted spaces with no access; buildings born of utility, it is the spectacle within that counts.
The view from the Milton End is maybe the best Fratton Park offers: the South Stand to the right, North Stand left, the Fratton End straight ahead, and just four spindly stanchions required to carry the corrugated iron roof above. If the goals go in here, you won’t miss a thing. The South Stand is by far the most interesting, dating back to 1925, designed by the great Archibald Leitch (responsible for the Johnny Haynes stand at Craven Cottage, Ibrox, much of Villa Park, etc.) and one of the few examples of his work that remains. The North Stand exhibits a certain charm too: its rectangular shape is compromised at one end, rather like Everton’s Goodison Road stand. (It is unclear why as behind lies simply a car park, as opposed to the residential housing that hampers at Goodison.) Both stands are double tiered but the South Stand more elegantly so. The Fratton End is an example of some of the single-tiered structures built over the last twenty-odd years where clubs have been unable to redevelop, or move away from, their existing ground – or there just isn't the weekly attendance to justify it. In and of themselves they’re rarely much to look at but are usually raked more steeply and their roofs cantilevered, which benefits sight-lines greatly.
            Portsmouth was competing in the Premiership as recently as 2010 and had intended to relocate and build a new stadium elsewhere in the city. Following the club’s calamitous decline these plans were shelved. Vague ideas concerning the redevelopment of Fratton Park have since been proposed but such schemes are unlikely to come to fruition whilst Portsmouth remains playing in League Two. Yet how many other clubs’ home fans get to enter their ground via a mock Tudor façade dating back to 1898? And despite the business parks to the west (a contemporary conglomeration of hotels, supermarkets, gyms and fast-food establishments) and north (red brick industrial units and warehouses), much of the surrounding area is still residential. There are parks nearby too.


[View from the Milton End. Archibald Leitch's stand is just visible to the left.]


Central Park, not New York but Plymouth. See it on a map, it’s no token recreational space. There is: a library; a clinic; pitch-and-put; 5-a-side; extensive leisure and sporting facilities in the form of the Plymouth Life Centre; allotments; a cemetery; a number of playgrounds; a bowling green; a baseball field; more allotments; ample seating; Home Park – residence of Plymouth Argyle Football Club.
Central Park is trust land, which is how it continues to exist – only leisure related facilities may be raised upon it. Like much of Plymouth, it undulates. Home Park occupies the western apex of the park adjacent to a large open car park that adjoins Outland Road (a component of the A386, which runs from Plymouth Centre all the way out to Dartmoor and ultimately as far as Appledore on Devon’s north coast). To the east, this verdant landscape falls away, meaning the stadium’s profile appears more elevated from its eastern aspect than from any other vantage point. When observed from the higher ground of the suburb of Hartley the impression is of a stadium almost twice its actual size.
In fact Home Park is of modest proportion, always has been. In 2001, the ground underwent redevelopment. The Lyndhurst Stand and Devonport and Barn Park Ends were knocked down and a continuous all-seated U-shaped structure built in its place. This reconstruction contributed little in terms of capacity and was focussed mainly on comfort and improving viewing angles, as well as complying with legislation that applied to the leagues Plymouth was rising toward at the time. Phase 2 of Home Park’s development was to involve replacing the existing Mayflower Stand with a new multi-tiered grandstand that would have granted an all-seated capacity of 18,500. However, funding hit a wall and the Mayflower as it was survives to this day, restricting the capacity to around 16,000.
Artists’ impressions tend to deceive so it’s hard to say whether Home Park has missed an opportunity or benefitted from a stay of execution. Clad in corrugated aluminium, the Mayflower may be outmoded but it simultaneously remains a far more arresting structure than the Devonport/Lyndhurst/Barn Park combo presently surrounding it. It looks like another Archibald Leitch job but was in fact built some ten years after the great man had passed, a testament to his influence. With a shallower rake, the grandstand rises only a little higher than the rest of the ground but its two tears impose a much more commanding disparity. Only from the air does it appear insubstantial.
Not to say that progress should be resisted. The old Home Park was a shabby, disjointed affair. None of the roofs stretched as far as the goal-lines; the Barn Park End didn’t even have one. The Devonport End was set at a funny angle and the uncovered junction separating it from the Lyndhurst – the Spion Kop – lacked cohesion. The Lyndhurst – rectilinear, fan-trussed – afforded a little more protection, and actual seats were installed toward the end of the 1980s. The crowd leapt out of them and jeered as Gascoigne’s reputation preceded him.
But for all that the general feeling was one of openness and of free movement (despite the perimeter fencing, which was still deemed reasonable back then). You could look towards the Barn Park End and see Hartley rising up above the dot matrix scoreboard (prone to malfunction) and the trees beyond. Like at Portsmouth – and at Fiorentina to a fanciful degree – there were separate sections you could move around in, with views towards the rest of the ground that were unique to where you stood. Light permeated almost throughout. There was shade if you preferred. Now, aside from your allocated seat, the only place to loiter is within the industrial interior of the stands themselves. Try to imagine what it might be like having a quick pint in your local B&Q’s store room.


[Traces of the old Home Park are still apparent.]


Fratton Park and Home Park feel comfortable in their surroundings. So do many modern stadia, but when you consider that those surroundings are more usually out-of-town industrial estates then maybe that’s not so much comfort. It becomes not so much a question of architecture relating to its surroundings – although it is still that – but finding surroundings worth relating them to. In the case of Portsmouth and Plymouth, if undertaken with sufficient regard, their surroundings could have a positively mitigating effect. My fear is that, when it finally comes to pass, these grounds will be subject to either the cheapest tender or the deranged mind of some clueless burk of an architect determined to leave their mark where it’s not welcome.


Friday, 29 April 2016

STADIA: STADIO COMUNALE ARTEMIO FRANCHI, FLORENCE






Purple permeates the city – Florence in Tuscany – in tribute to the football team that represents it – ACF Fiorentina, aka La Viola. It is said that the colour has no actual connotation but came about fortuitously after the original red and white halved shirts of Fiorentina were washed and the colours ran. Most likely apocryphal, and cannot explain the switch from black to white shorts that followed. Conversely, the club's badge is informed by the city's heraldry. The roles are transposed, a fleur-de-lis does for both, typically in red mounted on a white background, certainly in the case of Fiorentina, and often for the metropolis too. An ordinary state of affairs, except Florence is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, has been since 1982, remarkable for a plethora of Renaissance art and architecture. Football is an irrelevance generally for those who visit here, and so few will make the connection, let alone be aware of it. But the effect is the same: purple seems to suit the environment, just as if some design agency had proposed it as an apposite hue (no doubt for an exorbitant fee).
The Stadio Comunale Artemio Franchi is placed well away from the older material that draws in the tourists, probably with intent – why locate something as utilitarian as a football stadium alongside buildings as venerable as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Palazzo Vecchio? Yet the Artemio Franchi offers more than mere function and was perhaps as progressive in its time as the Il Duomo di Firenze was in its. Pier Luigi Nervi was tasked with building it, a structural engineer and architect renowned for his pioneering appropriation of reinforced concrete, a progenitor of Italian Modernism. [Built some 25 years later, Nervi’s more impressive contribution to stadium architecture is actually the Stadio Flaminio in Rome, which the Italian Rugby Federation is supposedly in the process of bastardising whilst their rugby team play out their international fixtures at the capital’s aesthetically flawed Stadio Olimpico.]
The slightly out-of-town location of the Artemio Franchi works to its advantage. It is a very low-rise structure, save for its svelte tower, and would be utterly overwhelmed amongst the grandeur of central Florence. Instead, we have residential tenements to the west, the modest Stadio Luigi Ridolfi to the south (a municipal athletics facility), and unabridged views towards the mountains north and east: the Florentine hills of Fiesole and Settignano. Trees dot the perimeter and a road encircles it; the stadium’s concrete framework can be viewed from all around.
From above, the stadium’s footprint traces a rather awkward ‘D’ shape. This is because the Artemio Franchi used to accommodate a 220 metre sprint track – so long to cater for the completion of marathons. In preparation for the 1990 World Cup, the entire running track was removed to allow for a second, shallower tier, which necessitated the pitch be lowered by 2.4 metres. This in turn facilitated the extraction of the temporary stands set behind each goal, which stood in isolation and probably didn't hold that many spectators anyway, as well as freeing up the parterre to function once more as a parterre, rather than the secondary viewing platform it had ineffectually become. Other changes included the replacement of some pretty awful roof extensions with ones more sympathetic – although still far from ideal – and the installation of individual seats in place of the existing wooden benches. The seats of the new lower tier were initially green, which worked, the rest a tasteful shade of grey. Now almost all are grey save for those in the tribuna centrale (grandstand) and the lower tier facing it, which are purple – as is the club’s name spelled out in seats in the tier above; this also works. Since the 1990 renovations, the concrete has been refinished a second time and the stairways have been painted yellow.
Despite the increased capacity, pretty plastic chairs and removal of much of the clutter that inflicted the stadium prior to 1990, it is many of Artemio Franchi’s pre-existing features that make it interesting: three helicoid staircases that provide external access to the upper gallery; the tower, streamlined, glass-fronted, almost art-nouveau; the bare concrete underside of the terracing and their gentle curves; the outward facade of the tribuna centrale; the roof. The tower might be considered extraneous, the stairs merely salutary, but the roof is to be greatly admired. It is cantilevered – or not, depending how you interpret the stresses placed on the bifurcating structure supporting it: 24 corbels, the tier below serving as their counterweight. It is a shame the two (genuinely cantilevered) roof extensions were not done away with completely, but the original structure doesn't provide much coverage.
It’s all very pleasing, yet Fiorentina has plans to construct a new home. Perhaps this is why, contrary to the attention lavished on Artemio Franchi’s interior in recent years, the exterior – the underside of the exposed terraces – is spalled, shabby, and neglected. The ground of arch-rivals Juventus has been cited as an inspiration and probable template, a stadium that was built to replace the much maligned Stadio delle Alpi; it was too large, had a running track, lacked intimacy and atmosphere. Built anew in 1990, things didn't work out and Juventus ended up again sharing the Stadio Olimpico with Torino, before they knocked the Alpi down and put the Juventus Stadium in its place. Fiorentina does not share grounds, and theirs is listed, interesting, harmonised with its surroundings. Does it not seem absurd to move away from a unique and perfectly serviceable structure in Florence, only to then mimic a building contrived to address a predicament that had arisen in Turin? Could Il Duomo di Firenze have once been torn down and the Mole Antonelliana replicated in its place?






Monday, 18 April 2016

STADIA: WEMBLEY AND EMIRATES, LONDON





It has been suggested that by the time Wembley Stadium had been rebuilt its design was obsolete, aesthetically at least. The conceit is that it was the last of a generation of stadia constructed in the mid-1990s through to the early 2000s that might be said to include grounds such as the Amsterdam Arena (opened in 1996), Stade de France (1998), Cardiff's Millennium Stadium (1999), Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz (2003), and many of the British grounds rebuilt over the same period; for example, the Stadium of Light in Sunderland (1997), Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium (1995), and the redevelopments of Old Trafford and St. James' Park. The supplanting of the original Wembley Stadium (and whether or not its iconic twin towers could be incorporated into any new design) was conceived in the late 1990s, scheduled to begin in the year 2000 – ground was eventually broken in September 2002 – and completed in 2007, by which time it was one of the most expensive projects of its kind.
The economics, politics and general shambles of the whole affair aside, the new Wembley Stadium, with its new iconic arch, appeared to go down rather well. I suspect that those who applauded it didn't bother too much appraising its exterior but were pleased with the scale and uniformity of its interior, which wouldn't look out of place hosting American Football (which it does from time to time). In comparison to its predecessor, the thing is luxuriant.
And what of its exterior? It is inoffensive enough, and from the air the roof imparts a certain fragmentary appeal. The arch, which can be illuminated, seems less of a gimmick now than when it was first proposed as some sort of conciliatory exchange for those famous twin towers. Overlooking the decision to install bright red seats, it is a decent enough stadium, albeit, in an architectural sense, a very predictable one. It presents as a rotunda of glass, steel and plastic, just like any other inner-city edifice.
It was perhaps Munich’s Allianz Arena that underlined the fact that stadium presentation had moved beyond more familiar modes of urban planning. From within, the Allianz Arena doesn’t appear to break any moulds, although the seats are a pleasing shade of grey, which in itself is refreshing. From outside the stadium’s ambition is immediately apparent. Shrouded completely in Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene – a fluorine-based plastic – when illuminated the effect has been compared to that of a paper lantern, or lampshade. You get the feeling the whole structure could at any moment float upward like some benign zeppelin. Moreover, the roof can be scrolled backward in places to let in light and aerate the interior as required. Wembley’s roof can move about a bit too, but more laterally and with a greater sense of burden.
Wembley’s lack of imagination is not confined to its sense of inertia or its garish seating. The matter is not one merely of materials, or that it could so easily be mistaken for something else; the removal of the twin towers, and the arch in its place, is forgiven. What disappoints is that the design for Wembley Stadium was so obviously derivative. It looked around at what other cities were building and elected to do blandly the same, just on a slightly larger scale.
The Emirates, home to Arsenal FC, doesn’t suffer from the same deficiencies. By embracing its financial limitations, and making a virtue of them, an idea relating to its specific purpose is embraced. Ostensibly, this ground is as conservative as Wembley: oval, the seats are red again, oscillating top tier, plenty of glass and steel. But these constituents have been arranged differently, with more thought. The almost perfectly elliptical perimeter of the building is broken up into alternating sections of glass, then concrete, glass, then concrete. The fashion for cladding has been resisted, nothing is hidden, utility defines it. There are pleasing touches, such as vertical slits cut out in the concrete sections that reveal the stairwells behind them; the glass fronted portions of the building are canted and protrude slightly, overlapping over the joins with the concrete; the underside of the roof is smooth, reflective, and supported by steel trusses painted in white. Overall, the structure is not as cumbersome, more airy, and doesn't impose so evidently upon the surrounding (and less industrial) environment. It conveys that what goes on here is something out the in open. I stare at Wembley Stadium and imagine a thousand office workers sat at their desks.

And then some burk comes up with this thing called the ‘Arsenalisation Project’, and shabby murals now cover the formerly exposed concrete of the stadium’s façade.






Thursday, 14 April 2016

STADIA: ESTADIO LA ROSALEDA, MALAGA





If 25-odd years ago you’d asked what my favourite book was, with complete sincerity I would have told you this: The Football Grounds of Europe by Simon Inglis. My reading then was more usually a means to an end – school work, which bored me – but this book was something else: it satisfied both my appetite for sport (football in the main) and a passing interest in architecture. A substantial hard-backed tome, it covers in great detail the stadia selected, built or modified for the 1990 World Cup, held in Italy, and many more besides (but not British football grounds – Mr Ingles had written a separate book on that subject a few years before). No mere glossary, the history, architectural detail, and cultural and social relevance – where it applies – are all explored, and there is substantial photographic coverage too. It really is a wonderful thing, and its author invoked great jealously in me. As research I do believe Mr Inglis toured Europe extensively, making notes, taking pictures, asking questions. He would go on to write a column for World Soccer magazine, and now stewards a website called Played in Britain that concerns itself with chronicling, and where possible preserving, sporting sites of historical and cultural significance and interest – these aren't the sort of jobs you’ll find advertised anywhere much.
            My interest in stadium architecture persists and I make a point of journeying to them when I travel abroad: am often thwarted by geographical limitations, time constraints, and the lack of interest on the part of whoever has accompanied me. I should try harder, but many a ground can be found on the periphery of its host, involving convoluted and time consuming journeys to reach them, although I have travelled farther for less. Other, more normative and diminutive stadia have been chanced upon: the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Siena, and Prague’s FK Viktoria Stadion for instance. Where I have made the effort I’ve only sometimes gained entrance, normally at football grounds deemed worthy of being granted entrance: Barcelona’s Nou Camp, Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu, Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla. (Does this say more about the nature of Spanish football or my personal touristic habits?). With others, I’ve had to make do with inspecting their exterior, with varying degrees of satisfaction: Bulgaria’s Vasil Levski National Stadium is barely discernible as being such; the San Siro in Milan could be little else; Istanbul’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium appears like an industrial building of the sort found near motorways and airports. The fact of the matter is that a lot of football grounds aren't very pretty, were never intended to be. That is not to say they don’t have character or charm, but sometimes it can be hard to tell from the outside. Like I said, I've not often gained entrance to find out either way.




The Estadio La Rosaleda, home of Málaga CF. I recollect the football ground from Inglis’ great work, but it is much altered since that was published. You might come at it from a southerly direction, along either side of the Rio Guadalmedina. If it is summer this river will be dry, dusty, dormant. The area around the stadium itself is residential in nature, but the watercourse allows a clear view of the mountains to the north. La Rosaleda occupies its own space, contrary to the dense and moderately high-rise surroundings; because of its riparian setting, you may regard it from a variety of angles.
            The structure itself is fairly typical of many a Spanish stadium (although this may not hold true for those constructed over the past decade). It possesses a Modernist aesthetic: the rectilinear concrete struts attached to the two main stands support the roofs in the same way many mid-twentieth century buildings employ a series of reinforced concrete columns to bear their loads. Such a retrospective approach towards architecture – if you choose to see it that way – has precedence elsewhere. I am considering in particular Valencia's Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, a concrete extravaganza, albeit one mantled in white paint. Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences is considered something of an architectural indulgence. Conceived of and built in the 1990s it should not be tied too neatly to the strain of thinking that elected to work so prominently with reinforced concrete in Malaga: José Segui Pérez, if it was indeed him who was responsible, did not opt to have La Rosaleda painted white – or painted at all.
It must be emphasised that these concrete abutments are primarily functional – they support the roofs and partition the executive boxes that run along underneath. We know this because prior to them being built between 2000 and 2005 the upper tiers adjacent to the touch-lines were set lower than those fronting the goal-lines. Initially they weren't. Instead, the curves of the second tier rose upward away from the main stands only to stop abruptly at the point where they might be expected to join the lower, shallower rake of the upper tiers overlooking the goal-lines. Were the curves culminating in anticipation that these banked terraces would be steepened later, thus completing the bowl effect that eventually became it? The ground was developed in tranches so we cannot be sure of what long-term vision the architects had in mind. In any case, they were. The upper tiers of the main stands could not be raised to the same height because of the road behind one of them and the river to the rear of the other. This is where these more solid concrete columns come in. The roofs could have been set at the lower height of these opposing tiers but would have then been subordinate in aspect to the rest of the stadium – you should be able to imagine why this was undesirable. To allow, then, for the height of the new roofs to correspond with the uncovered upper tiers behind each goal, the struts were angled outward to overcome the spatial restraints on the ground. Furthermore, this permitted the inclusion of the executive boxes in the newly created space between.
You sense these days that architects are a little bit funny about exposed concrete, embarrassed even. Perhaps they think it looks cheap – cheaper than the rough paint or cladding commonly used to cover over it. The point can be taken on board within a climate harsh upon the patina of this material, but Spain generally doesn't have to worry about such precipitous scarring. The 38 concrete columns – 19 either side – at Estadio La Rosaleda have been left proudly exposed. The opportunity has been taken to build a concourse around the stadium using similar techniques, although the concrete supports in this instance have no reason to be anything other than perpendicular and are much more slender, conveying a sort of lattice-like quality to the surrounding colonnade.
I looked for a way in along Camino la Palmilla, couldn't find one. I tried again along the towpath that traces the river but turned back on account of a vagrant with a large dog that saw me approaching. Málaga CF doesn't offer tours. I might have been more disappointed were it not for my conviction that the parallel lines of Estadio La Rosaleda’s exterior are probably the most impressive thing about it. I had also found a pretty good view from Malaga’s Castillo de Gibralfaro a few days earlier.





Saturday, 10 October 2015

BIKE GENERATIONS







I have a new road bike, my fourth in as many years. I first bought a Raleigh Record Ace, probably manufactured towards the end of the 1970s, maybe the early '80s. It cost me something like £140 and I sold it for about the same within mere months of acquiring it; needed too much work, the wheels were an unusual size, which limited the choice of tyres, and I was very much fumbling in the dark with the whole thing.
Next I purchased a rather charming, heavily chromed velocipede with a funny name – called Carlos – whose components were a little tired, but the general condition of the frame was reasonably good; I'm guessing it was about 30-odd years old. I rode that for about 6 months before suddenly deciding to sell up and look for something else. It didn't take me long and I inspected a number of solutions before committing myself to a metallic blue Romani with Shimano 105 group-set, Wolber rims, Campagnolo brakes, in pretty good shape all-round with just a few scratches but no actual rust. The look of the frame and its various components suggested the bike was put together in the very late 1980s. It was upon this bike that I would ride three consecutive London-Brightons – 2013, 2014 and 2015. I made the decision to replace it in late 2014 but couldn't find the appropriate bicycle, so by default it partook in three of these charity rides instead of the intended two.
In the spring of 2014, I added a carbon Look 566 to my stable. The nature of this bike, the material it is made from, how much it cost me and the sort of cycling I undertake on it, excludes it from being meditated on alongside the rest. There is no danger of it being supplanted, just as it wasn't bought to supplant anything else. It is its own thing.






For the moment I still have the Romani, but I have also its successor, a yellow Fondriest with 130 mm spacing between the rear drop-outs, which allows for 8 sprockets and the potential for more should I ever want to augment its capability. Eminently modifiable. This vehicle is probably little more than 20 years old and this is obvious from looking at it: the yellow paint job with black and pink spray painted geometric detail is typical of the period. What is also clear is that this bike represents a move on from the Romani, just as the Romani exemplified the progress made since the Carlos, and the Carlos in turn from the Raleigh. In other words, I have bought my bikes chronologically and they can be used to measure certain developments in the field over time. Considering the gears alone, I have moved from five at the back, to six, then seven, and now eight. The actual gear ratios have steepened too, were friction-shifting on the first two bikes, indexed on the third, and integrated (with the brakes) now with this fourth. Wheels seem lighter, appear more modern, may have fewer spokes.
This is a natural, if unwitting, progression. When I acquired the Raleigh I was already riding a single-speed bike that was attractive in its simplicity, coloured a pale green olive. Aesthetics were at the forefront of my mind when I bought that bike, continued to be so, but more practical concerns have gradually come to the fore. If I could afford a mint-condition metallic blue Rossin dating back to 1982 (such as the one I saw selling on eBay a while back) then the look of the thing might take precedence. I can’t, so I have come to approach my subject from more pragmatic angles. The Fondriest in not unattractive but what drew me towards it was the vintage, the integrated gear shifters, its dimensions and overall condition, which is immaculate. The fact that it is yellow – although I do like yellow – is neither here nor there. I would prefer if it was sprayed a metallic pale blue, as the Romani is, but that now lies much lower on my list of priorities.
The sequence implies a fifth bike, probably with a 10-speed rear cassette, in at least 3 years time, the duration of ownership having risen exponentially. But I don’t intend on this being the case. For one, buying and selling bikes is quite a drag (as are the improvements one makes: new tyres, inner tubes, bar-tape and hoods; exchanging the saddle, pedals and handlebars; attaching a bottle cage; calibrating gears). Second, I would have happily persisted with the Romani had it not been slightly too small for me as well as incompatible with modern componentry. Finally, the Fondriest represents a sort of apogee in cycling design. Thereafter aluminium and carbon began to dominate, and the steel-framed bikes that have been made since have followed more contemporary geometries and technical advancements. I will draw the line somewhere and that line coincides with about the time that top-tubes began to slope, rear derailleurs became long in gauge, stems moved to being threadless, rims became very deep. Unless I want something bespoke – and I have considered building a bike from bought parts – then there is nowhere I can go from here.



Monday, 22 June 2015

LONDON-BRIGHTON 2015







Team Carlos-Weltschmerz registered seven riders for 2015’s London-Brighton, but the field was quickly reduced to six after Mommersteeg's last minute withdrawal. (Talk of increased haematocrit levels spread through the peloton, but at the time of writing these reports remain unsubstantiated.) In addition, Gowland and Ross-Gower were delayed in their attempts to reach Clapham Common for the scheduled start, and so were given special dispensation to join the race at Mitcham but allocated fifth and sixth place accordingly, despite arriving at Turner’s Hill ahead of everyone but Wenborn. (Indeed, Wenborn ripped through the field, reaching Turner’s Hill approximately 25 minutes ahead of the next placed rider, team débutant James Somerfield.)
The second leg was a close run thing between Wenborn and Somerfield, some 20 metres separating them up the climb to Ditchling Beacon. A bizarre turn of events then unfolded. Wenborn reached the summit first and pulled over - as is customary - but Somerfield failed to stop, rode straight on through to Brighton and was penalised for doing so; he was allocated last place, despite recording a time that may well have won him the final stage. Evans and Easterbrook contested second place in his absence, with Evans winning out by little more than a wheel’s length in a reverse of last year’s sprint finish between these two riders.









Stage 1
Stage 2
Stage 3
Final Standings





1st
20 - Wenborn
20 - Wenborn
20 - Wenborn
60 - Wenborn
2nd
16 - Somerfield
16 - Somerfield
16 - Evans
44 - Evans
3rd
14 - Evans
14 - Evans
14 - Easterbrook
41 - Somerfield
4th
12 - Easterbrook
12 - Easterbrook
12 - Gowland
38 - Easterbrook
5th
10 - Gowland †
10 - Gowland
10 - Ross-Gower
32 - Gowland
6th
  9 - Ross-Gower †
  9 - Ross-Gower
  9 - Somerfield *
28 - Ross-Gower











† Joined race at Mitcham

* Somerfield allocated last place for not stopping after Stage 2




Sunday, 17 May 2015

THE GOLDEN AGE OF HIP HOP



Prompted by a friend’s interest in a specific aspect of my musical oeuvre, I recently compiled an anthology so he might share in its wonder. In fact, I’d put together a similar playlist many years ago, for posterity and to collate lost fragments. I had wanted to impart a sense of cohesion and create a framework within which I could relate to the attitude I held towards this music the first time around, and my existing compendiums existed only on tapes, without the means to play them.
            The music is Hip-Hop/Rap, specifically the Hip-Hop/Rap I listened to from the moment I began attending to it in earnest – 1988 – until such time my interest began to wane – 1992 – the reason being that hip hop was beginning to get a little too uncouth for my liking.
This span was a prolific and innovative period for the genre, but not so fecund commercially. Although a fair few acts undoubtedly met with success – Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, etc. – Hip Hop was a minority interest generally. [It’s hard to imagine now, but Hip Hop never truly proliferated until it became almost completely thug-like: let’s say with the release of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in late ’93.] This more various phase of the genre is referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Hip-Hop’ in certain circles, and it left an approximate five year legacy of music that not too many people have been privy to (relatively), that can be hard to get hold of (legitimately), and is of a standard equal to anything that’s ever been committed to vinyl (or ‘wax’) before or since.
I was very much part of it, listening to the stuff on the radio between 9 and 10 every Friday night with an almost sublime fervour, and buying of it what I could. It was to Bristol I would often turn (Replay Records was an invaluable source), for my hometown, Plymouth, was rather backward in this respect. [I once visited Our Price record store on New George Street to enquire after Gangstarr’s latest release: “We’ve got Gang of Four and Gang Green, but no Gang Starr.” Incidentally, I'm now quite into Gang of Four.]
My fandom had been based initially on the fact that a lot of this stuff was actually fairly popular amongst my peer group, but prevailed merrily once the cool kids dropped Hip-Hop for House, leaving me rather perplexed that a liking for a particular sort of music could be repudiated on an apparent whim. Indeed, some of these cooler kids, who maintained a lesser interest in parallel, would often come to me to borrow whatever album I was rocking at the time.
An appreciation of the ‘black arts’ stood me in good stead when I began moving in more ‘Indie’ focused circles during my late teens; my knowledge of Hip Hop sort of excused an ignorance of Indie that might have otherwise been perceived as an irritatingly naïve keenness. And when, come the mid-1990s, musical barriers began fragmenting, it exempted me from the charge of jumping onto bandwagons. I couldn't be accused of listening to Orbital or Goldie merely because the NME or Melody Maker were taking note, or even because of some urge to be different, for I had an original imported copy of Cypress Hill’s eponymous début album in my collection, an album that most owners of Black Sunday didn't even know existed.
I make reference to all of this not because I wish to convey the idea that I was somehow ahead of the game: I allude to my familiarity with the Golden Age of Hip-Hop simply because I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to appreciate it as it occurred – my own personal happening.


This digital format hip-hop playlist is 70-odd songs long and too protracted to be shared easily. What I have done, therefore, is broken it down into four units, and the splits have made inadvertently for smashing chapters. It’s not entirely indicative of its time for there are tracks and albums that I've never been able to get hold of, as well as artists conspicuous by their absence whom I simply didn't take to very much. What I have tried to do is create a kind of ode to the medium that provided the substance with which I developed my taste: Jeff Young’s Big Beat Show/National Fresh initially and Pete Tong’s The Rap Selection later. I know for a fact that almost every song I have collated here was played by either one of these DJs during their stint hosting their respective shows, and the ones that I cannot honestly say were still may very well have been. In any case, this music is fairly representative of what they played and in the order mostly of when they would have played it. Check it out:






VOLUME 1:

1. THE NEW STYLE – BEASTIE BOYS
2. PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 – PUBLIC ENEMY
3. IT TAKES TWO – ROB BASE AND DJ EZ ROCK
4. STRONG ISLAND – J.V.C.F.O.R.C.E.
5. STRICTLY BUSINESS – EPMD
6. TERMINATOR X TO THE EDGE OF PANIC – PUBLIC ENEMY
7. I'M NOT GOING OUT LIKE THAT – RUN-DMC
8. STYLE WARS – HIJACK
9. FREE – MC DUKE
10. NORTHSIDE – DEMON BOYZ
11. EYE KNOW – DE LA SOUL
12. WHAT U WAITIN' 4 (JUNGLE FEVER MIX) – JUNGLE BROTHERS
13. FADE TO BLACK – L.A. STAR
14. BACK BY DOPE DEMAND – KING BEE
15. UNDERWATER RIMES – DIGITAL UNDERGROUND
16. I COME OFF (SOUTHERN COMFORT MIX) – YOUNG MC


The Beastie Boys introduced me to hip-hop, figuratively speaking, so although I circumnavigate a whole host of rap artistes by introducing my canon with them, it is evidently appropriate. Moreover, The New Style kicks off The Beastie Boy’s debut album, Licensed to Ill, and it’s a great opener in any context.
            Public Enemy No. 1 is a track that pretty much passed me by the first time around – it was PE’s second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, that seized my interest – but this tune is so strange, so abstract, that I am incapable now of overlooking it – the track becomes part of the myth almost in retrospect, a case of history being rewritten. That’s not to say I was unaware of it: Public Enemy demanded my attention with their military posturing, Blank Panther attitude, and the fact they conspired to write a tune entitled My Uzi Weighs a Ton. They also had Flavor Flav in their midst, whose clowning around provided a striking and savvy contrast to Chuck D’s weighty delivery. We take this for granted now but how well would Public Enemy have been received back then without this jocular counterpoint?
            The next three tracks were all garnered from two Street Sounds compilations I owned at the time: Hip Hop 20 and Hip Hop 22, both released in 1988. Strong Island by JVC Force is considered something of a classic, EPMD’s Strictly Business also, and It Takes Two is well known to anyone who was alive at the time (and many more who weren't). I found the graffiti clad covers to these compilations mesmerising, for it wasn't just the music that drew me towards this scene but also the clothes and the subculture that accompanied it.
            Terminator X to the Edge of Panic is taken from the aforementioned Public Enemy album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, a body of work that Adam Domyslawski copied for me and which I played incessantly. Terminator X to the Edge of Panic is a strange minimal fusion of staccato horn samples, sparse beats and looped ambient crowd noise. The more you listen to it the odder it seems, but it becomes no less impressive.
            Run-DMC’s Tougher than Leather was the first genuine hip-hop recording I actually owned, rather than had copied, but by the time I acquired it the general consensus in my class was that Run-DMC were passed it, it was all about The Enemy. (Chuck D begged to differ and rated Run DMC’s fourth album highly.)
            The following three British hip-hop tracks were taken from a wonderful Music of Life compilation (which I was to find a white label vinyl copy of more than 10 years later whilst wandering about Spitalfields Market with a monstrous hangover) entitled Hard as Hell Volume 3. It’s a good collection all round but Hijack’s Style Wars is probably the stand-out track. The production is murky and the lyrics are atypically abstruse. It sounded hugely sophisticated;to my ears – and is – but musically they weren't doing anything that PE hadn't done already. Style Wars even mines exactly the same sample as Public Enemy No. 1: Fred Wesley and The J.B.'s' Blow Your Head.
            De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers represented an emerging strain of hip-hop that would begin to predicate itself towards the end of 1989 and into 1990, paving the way for groups like A Tribe Called Quest and a whole sub-genre of Hip Hop off-handedly referred to as Jazz Rap – affiliated works would come to permeate my record collection. Indeed, hip-hop was granted something of a reprieve for a while, and The Native Tongues (a collective featuring all three groups just mentioned here) had a lot to do with that.
            Fade to Black by L.A. Star is an overlooked rap classic.
King Bee was something of an oddity in that they/he hailed from The Netherlands. A lot of people have probably heard this tune without even knowing who it’s by or anything about the scene that spawned it.
Digital Underground were mired in a different sort of funk to Public Enemy – P Funk, which means anything associated with George Clinton and his twin acts, Parliament and Funkadelic (although Public Enemy certainly borrowed from this genre too). Digital Underground was an amusing, slightly saucy group that helped launch the career of Tupac Shakur (for which I remain indifferent). Ostensibly, they were a substantial collective. However, Shock G, the group’s de facto leader, would adopt a miscellany of personas, Humpty Hump being the most readily identifiable (due to the comedy Groucho nose-and-glasses set and the accompanying nasal delivery). Underwater Rimes features another Shock G alter-ego, the underutilised MC Blowfish.
Young MC’s original version of I Come Off was nothing remarkable, CJ Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell’s Southern Comfort Remix was, utilising the bass line from Aaron Neville’s Hercules to potent effect.






VOLUME 2:

17. BROTHERS GONNA WORK IT OUT – PUBLIC ENEMY
18. VERBS OF POWER – X CLAN
19. FOOTPRINTS – A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
20. ROCK DIS FUNKY JOINT – POOR RIGHTEOUS TEACHERS
21. BLACK AND PROUD – INTELLIGENT HOODLUM
22. ONE TIME GAFFLED ‘EM UP – COMPTON’S MOST WANTED
23. UNTOUCHABLE – ABOVE THE LAW
24. COME ON LET’S MOVE IT – SPECIAL ED
25. UNTITLED – HARDNOISE
26. UNTOUCHABLES – ERIC B & RAKIM
27. LA RAZA – KID FROST
28. CRUMBS ON THE TABLE – D-NICE
29. MUSIC MAN– MASTA ACE
30. MR SANDMAN– THREE TIMES DOPE
31. STREETS OF NEW YORK – KOOL G RAP & POLO
32. BLACK MAN IN EFFECT – BDP
33. WE GO SUBSONIC (UNDERWATER MIX) – SUBSONIC 2
34. WISDOM – THE SINDECUT


More Public Enemy: Brothers Gonna Work it Out, the first tune proper off their third album, Fear of a Black Planet. The guitar instrumental outro to Let’s Go Crazy by Prince is sampled way down in the mix, looped throughout, descending into a crescendo of white noise at the end of every bar. There’s a bit of George Clinton, James Brown and Otis Redding to be found in there too. Fantastic stuff.
X-Clan was interested in the more mystical (5%) elements of Islam and musically anchored in jazz, funk and clipped lyrical delivery. They wore African tribal dress, liked to mention ‘the red, the black, and the green’ (the colours of Pan-Africanism) and made cryptic allusions to keys and crossroads.
Any of the first four tracks from a People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm could justify a place amongst this collection. Where Public Enemy formed sound collages out of disparate snatches of funk, A Tribe Called Quest borrowed more melodious, often jazz-based phrases, which lent itself to a warmer and more direct listening experience.
The Poor Righteous Teachers were another group who dug the Nation of Islam but, unlike the X Clan, they were more playful with it. File alongside A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Gangstarr.
Black & Proud by the Intelligent Hoodlum relies heavily on UFO by New York post-punk group ESG. The sheer weight of artists who have sampled this song is heavy, but I'm not sure if it’s ever been as pronounced as it is here.
Moving west, Compton’s Most Wanted probably sought to align themselves with N.W.A and the rest of the hard-bitten L.A. scene, from which they hailed. To my ears, they sound more like EPMD – no bad thing. One Time Gaffled Them Up is notable (or at least the Radio Edit is) for incorporating censorial beeps into the actual rhythm of the track. This means MC Eiht would have to have timed his curses accordingly without disturbing the metre of his rhyme, maintaining the flow of the thing.
Above the Law is another West-Coast act, produced by Dr. Dre, and they appear to take themselves quite seriously – no Flavor Flav providing light relief here. I sometimes struggle to take this level of earnestness seriously in rap music but the music’s first-rate in any case, the sample of Young-Holt Unlimited’s version of Light my Fire providing its foundation.
Special Ed hailed from Brooklyn but the track I've chosen has a jagged edge to the rhythm that could have come straight out of Compton. (Perhaps Special Ed and Compton’s Most Wanted were swapping notes?)
Hardnoise was a British act in a similar vein to Hijack - aloof, slightly sinister, very British - but they split up after only two singles. Certain members then reformed as Son of Noise but by that time the sun had started to set on the Golden Age and I’d pretty much stopped listening.
For some reason Eric B and Rakim almost passed me by completely. Rakim’s rapping was seen as something of a revelation, taking MCing to another, heavier, level. Follow the Leader is considered their seminal work but I ended up digging Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em, which had a smoother feel to its predecessor.
Ex-BDP man D-Nice brings us Crumbs on the Table, a solid tune and a solid rap that exemplifies my leanings at the time: punchy, strong of bass, off-set with a left-of-field staccato sample of indeterminable origin. It’s hardly surprising that BDP’s almost Levantine sounding Black Man in Effect follows a similar formula. Masta Ace’s The Music Man typified my taste too: descending guitar riffs, various stringed instruments, atonal organs, stuff like that.
            Mr Sandman, by Philadelphian act Three Times Dope, conforms to such type, but Kool G Rap & Polo take a darker turn – East-coast doing a doing West-coast thang: “A little kid says yo, I've got a colour TV, CD player and car stereo. All I want is a castle. I've also got .38, don’t give me no hassle.”
            I finish this second instalment with two obscure British tunes very different to the offerings of Hijack and Hardnoise that featured earlier. Subsonic 2’s We go Subsonic is pure groove, and I recall Jeff Young describing it as one of the better "seven inches" that he’d received that week, “in their thousands.” This was the mix he played and it’s a more focussed endeavour than the version found on their album, and almost impossible to get hold of.
            The Sindecut wasn't a purely hip-hop focussed act – Soul to Soul would be a half-decent reference point – but Wisdom is very much a rap orientated track, and an underrated one.






VOLUME 3:

35. JUMP AROUND (NOMAD SOUL REMIX) – LONDON POSSE
36. 100 MILES AND RUNNING – N.W.A
37. THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT – PARIS
38. ALL FOR ONE – BRAND NUBIAN
39. CHECK THE TECHNIQUE – GANGSTARR
40. WELCOME TO THE STORY (PEACE GO WITH YOU MIX) – GALLIANO
41. STEP RIGHT ON  (VOCAL DUB MIX) – YOUNG DISCIPLES
42. GREEN GRASS – CASH CREW
43. I GOT TO HAVE IT – ED O.G. & DA BULLDOGS
44. SLOW DOWN (PETE ROCK REMIX) – BRAND NUBIAN
45. PASS THE PLUGS – DE LA SOUL
46. MR HOOD AT PIOCALLES JEWELRY/CRACKPOT – K.M.D.
47. N-41– SON OF BAZERK
48. DERELICTS OF DIALECT – 3rd BASS
49. GOOD LIFE – PETE ROCK & CL SMOOTH
50. LOOKING AT THE FRONT DOOR – MAIN SOURCE
51. FLAVOR OF THE MONTH – BLACK SHEEP


London Posse’s album Gangster Chronicle is regarded by some as the finest, most complete British album of its kind. It is not an unreasonable position, although I've gone for the Nomad Soul Remix of Jump Around which, again, did not feature on the album itself. It is this single version that garnered the most airplay and thus I am obliged to include in keeping with the criterion I have set myself.
            N.W.A weren't accorded the airplay they probably deserved (depending on how you rate them) on account of the curses that swamped their records. There must have been a censored version of 100 Miles and Running sanitary enough to pass muster, or maybe Ice Cube’s departure from the group ushered in a more commercial outlook, I don’t know. [Note: 100 Miles and Running was actually the title track of an EP, and was co-written with Above the Law’s Cold 187 um. The version I've included isn't censored, but for the track to have ever been played on BBC Radio 1 it either must have been or Jeff Young/Pete Tong would have employed a technique whereby the offending word was distorted as to make it unidentifiable – although one could often guess.]
            In terms of delivery, Paris took his cue from Rakim. I like the minor chord organ sample here that haunts the chorus; the general sense of menace works towards that. The Planet of the Apes sample is a nice touch too.
            Brand Nubian was one of my favourite acts of the time, and their début album, One for All, remains one of my favourite albums from any epoch or genre. The title track features here if only for the line, “… and I give Trev a call, coz he works in the barbershop just behind the mall.” Not satisfied with that, I've worked a compromise wherein I've also included the Pete Rock remix of Brand Nubian’s Slow Down. This features the equally satisfying, “Now Woolie Willie’s got a pair of my sneakers, wonder where he got 'em 'cause I hid 'em behind my speakers.”
If I didn't know better (and I don’t) I’d say that Check the Technique took its lead from Fit and Working Again by The Fall. The notion that Gangstarr’s DJ Premier was a big Fall fan – and a Slates era Fall fan at that – is a delicious one, albeit shrouded in dubiety. Still, the similarity is striking in that both tunes utilise echo and delay to great effect, with a guitar stab in The Fall's case and a single steelpan bash in Gangstarr's.
Are the Young Disciples and Galliano really hip-hop? The UK gave birth to a strange slant of rap: part hip-hop, part soul, part Acid Jazz – it was no coincidence that New York rap artistes dug the Brand New Heavies. Galliano, Young Disciples and the Sindicut are all exemplars of this, but once again I turn to non-album remixes that, for me, search out for a cooler, more hip-hop orientated kind of sound than the one found on either of these groups’ albums.
Ladbroke Grove’s Cash Crew was more straight-forward in this respect - straight up rap. The genius of the track Green Grass is not that they sampled Gwen McCrae’s 90% of Me is You but how they sampled it: like it’s being played through a set of headphones on a cheap 1980s Walkman, and just as you think the tape’s being chewed up the sound levels out again.
            I picked up my vinyl copy of Life of a Kid in the Ghetto for £3 in an HMV sale, a rare and strange opportunity in Plymouth. I Got to Have It is the stand-out track on an album fairly typical of its time: plenty of sampled horns, a few keys, mostly jazz based.
            Brand Nubian I've alluded to already but I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I don’t consider Pete Rock’s remix to be an improvement on the original necessarily – but I do love that tambourine!
            De La Soul’s second album didn't sell quite like the first, which gave owning and liking it a satisfyingly seditious edge. The received wisdom is that it is actually the better album, although I'm not sure I would agree with that entirely. I recall Pete Tong playing both A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturday and Pass the Peas on his show. I preferred the latter.
            1991 – which is where we’re at here – probably represented the zenith of what might be called ‘Jazz Rap’. Only Gangstarr and A Tribe Called Quest ever really sampled jazz extensively (but never exclusively), the rest sampled soul, funk, rhythm & blues, and rock & roll in equal measure. KMD could have been considered a Jazz Rap act regardless (Brand Nubian, Black Sheep and Main Source too), but Mr. Hood at Piocalles Jewelry / Crackpot is built around Eddie Floyd and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson samples, guys that played 1960s soul and 1970s blues respectively. What these acts probably more accurately shared was a more euphonic (‘mellow’ would be overstating it) approach to vocal delivery. A sense of humour also pervades.
The piece de résistance: N-41 by the archly delectable Son of Bazerk. Built around nothing more than a simple drum beat and synthesised bassline (is it even sampled?) with the crew bickering in the background – much commotion – it’s not as sinister as it could have been. It’s rather humorous in fact, and a tune that demonstrates how little this music has dated, if it has at all; N-41 could have been recorded yesterday.
            3rd Bass's offering is a lovely rare-groove infused number, illustrating how the musical ambiguity of rare-groove lent itself to sampling as readily as either funk or jazz.
            Pete Rock & CL Smooth made waves with their EP All Souled Out, although Pete Rock had been producing and remixing other acts for a while. Their début album, Mecca and the Soul Brother would follow and it’s now considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.
            As is Breaking Atoms by Main Source. I could've gone for Live at the Barbeque, Peace Is Not the Word to Play, Just Hangin' Out, but I settled for Looking at the Front Door and still can’t decide whether that was the right call.
            Act 3 finishes with Flavor of the Month by Black Sheep, which utilises the intro to Herb Alpert’s In a Little Spanish Town to startling effect. It’s a fitting climax to this chapter because to my mind 1992 was to be Golden Age Hip Hop’s final, creatively disparate fling.





VOLUME 4:

52. GUNS OF MIND ALONE – SILVER BULLET
53. RISE ‘N’ SHINE – KOOL MOE DEE FEATURING KRS-ONE AND CHUCK D
54. HOW I COULD JUST KILL A MAN – CYPRESS HILL
55. I HAD TO SERVE YOU – HIJACK
56. DRESS CODE – WC & THE MAAD CIRCLE
57. BUGGIN’ OUT – A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
58. IT’S GONNA LAST – UMC’S
59. SHUT ‘EM DOWN – PUBLIC ENEMY
60. THE CHOICE IS YOURS (REVISITED) – BLACK SHEEP
61. MISTADOBALINA – DEL THA FUNKEE HOMOSAPIEN
62. THE PHUNKY FEEL ONE – CYPRESS HILL
63. MAKE IT HAPPEN – ULTRAMAGNETIC MC’S
64. GENERALS – FU-SCHNICKENS
65. IT’S LIKE THAT – PETE ROCK & CL SMOOTH
66. THE PLACE WHERE WE DWELL – GANGSTARR
67. FLIP THE SCRIPT – GANGSTARR
68. YA MAMA – THE PHARCYDE
69. JIMMY JAMES (ORIGINAL VERSION) – BEASTIE BOYS


I didn't want to like Silver Bullet’s début album, but then I did. I can’t fully explain my reticence although it might have had something to with the singles 20 Seconds to Comply and Bring Forth the Guillotine, which were pretty hectic affairs, not to say overly melodramatic. The album, Bring Down the Walls No Limit Squad Returns, is a frenetic beast for sure, but it’s also a highly sophisticated piece of work: Raw Deal, Attitude Academy, Undercover Anarchist, Guns Of Mind Alone and Legions Of The Damned are all so distinct, so relentless in their sonic imposition, that one has to entertain the possibility that this may in fact be the best British Hip Hop album ever made.
            Kool Moe Dee was probably past it (no disrespect) when his pals, Chuck D and KRS-ONE, lent their vocal skills for this here tune, but it holds its own.
            How I Could Just Kill a Man was my introduction to Cypress Hill, and I was instantly smitten. Their first album lived up to my, by now, heightened expectations, and was very different to what followed (the overrated and bass heavy Black Sunday). Their eponymously titled début album teems with samples in the way It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back does: quick moving ambient noise and people talking buried in deep amongst horns and percussion. The first 10 seconds of The Phunky Feel One represents one of the most exciting introductions to any rap tune: it’s as if they've sought to use the most poorly recorded sounds – or to re-record them poorly – to create a mise-en-scène that evokes the sounds of 1960s/70s Los Angeles. Funk, Latin music and (almost Northern) soul seem to be the main ingredients, The Village Callers, the Bar-Kays and the J.B.’s the main protagonists in this instance.
            British Hip Hop gained very little exposure in the US but for a moment it looked like Hijack might make some sort of impact. Ice T signed them to his Rhyme Syndicate imprint, but then that went belly up and Hijack were stuck with Warners, a record label that didn't much like their sound. When Hijack finally released the The Horns of Jericho I felt they’d lost much of the mystique that made them so appealing in the first instance. I Had to Serve You, though, harked back to the impenetrable image I initially had of them (and The Badman is Robbin too). It’s an interesting track – not your usual verse-chorus type of thing, just Kamanchi Sly issuing forth a dense stanza followed by some slick turntable action, a testament to what could have been.
            When Anthony Cambridge – a guy at school – lent me WC & the Maad Circle I was left mostly underwhelmed – but the track Dress Code blew me away. It’s a typical West Coast sort of thing that hints at the minimalism that would soon force itself upon the genre of hip-hop generally, as the lawyers closed in and groups could no longer afford to sample with such abandon.
            A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, The Low End Theory, is equally pared down – when listened to alongside their more colourful début at least – although there’s still plenty of jazz to be found here: Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Cannonball Aderly, Grant Green (who Cypress Hill sampled to great effect on Stoned is the Way of the Walk), Jack McDuff, and so on. The album was very well received.
            The UMCs arrived too late in the day to establish themselves in the way Gangstarr did, but they made their mark. Their early singles did well, the second – One to Grow On – especially so. I owned a very bad recording of Fruits of Nature, but listened to it repeatedly anyway. I've featured what I considered its highlight here.
            Public Enemy’s fourth album, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, is under-rated. The sheer barrage of noise that announces it is as powerful as anything the group did before, and they haven’t really bettered it since. I actually prefer the tracks Lost at Birth and Night Train to Shut ‘Em Down, but they don’t work so well in isolation: the opening three or four tracks segue into each other to vigorous effect. I recall all of them being played on the radio one way or another.
            I took to the Black Sheep instantly. The Choice is Yours is such a good song they included it on their album twice. The more produced, bass heavy and in your face version features here.
            There were a few versions of Del the Funkee Homosapien’s Mistadobalina doing the rounds as well, although they were all more or less the same – edited for radio play maybe. The song almost charted, although the album it was taken from – I Wish My Brother George Was Here – was less commercial than this implies – Del was Ice Cube’s cousin (of NWA fame) after all.
            The Ultrumagnetic MCs were old hands but they’d been on something of a hiatus when Make it Happen was dropped in late ’91, although the single didn't even feature on the following year’s album. It’s an abrasive tune but Kool Keith’s rapping is something else, and the Funkadelic sample that hangs throughout is inspired.
The Fu-Schnickens was an interesting group. Ring the Alarm – a kind of reworking of the Tenor Saw Jamaican Dancehall tune of the same name – initially drew them attention, and La Schmoove after that. The album F.U. Don't Take It Personal was produced by a Tribe Called Quest and was worthy of their name. Generals is indicative of the approach; sparse beats, trebly samples, not so much bass, ragga vocals.
I made reference to Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s first album earlier; It’s Like That is my favourite track from it.
I've included the first two tracks from Gangstarr’s excellent third album, Daily Operation, because they’re pretty much conjoined and it would diminish their impact to separate them. Besides, I wouldn't know which to single out. Because it wasn't available to buy in Plymouth, I ordered my vinyl copy of this album mail-order (along with a pressing of Brand Nubian’s One For All, despite already owning it in its cassette form). I remember the morning it turned up, with about 15 minutes to spare before having to leave for school. I got as far as the end of Flip the Script and couldn't wait to get home to repeat the play. There’s not really much to these tracks: jazz drums, ambient crowd noise, and in the case of Flip the Script, two looped organ stabs lifted from the Grover Washington tune Lock it in The Pocket (the keys come courtesy of James “Sid” Simmons).
I didn't realise it at the time, but Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde would be the last Hip Hop album I purchased for three of four years. Ya Mama was another tune that benefited from a minimal and slightly mysterious sample: Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills’ version of Season of the Witch. But hip-hop like this was going out of style and more violently disposed artists – such as Da Lench Mob, Redman and the awful House of Pain – were a harbinger of things to come (Onyx, Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac and a radicalised Brand Nubian were just around the corner). The truth was, this sort stuff had been around for a while: thuggish, nihilistic and often misogynistic posturing that never really appealed to me. It’s just that it began to hold sway and the newer groups all seemed to be cut from the same rather unsophisticated cloth. Moreover, stricter laws on sampling encouraged a more minimal approach to the music, which in the hands of Gangstarr’s DJ Premier or Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad didn't seem to matter, but in others it just made for uninteresting, bass laden music.
I finish as I started with The Beastie Boys, a group that produced music to a consistently high standard. Their third album, Check Your Head passed me by the first time around, but during my second year at university I had it on heavy rotation (recorded off of my brother, who was also furnishing me with techno, and drum & bass) along with their fourth album, Ill Communication. So it could be suggested that mopping up with Jimmy James is slightly disingenuous, but for the sake of completism why not?

A lot of this music is actually better known now than I ever expected it would be – perhaps it’s been subject to some sort of musical revisionism? Or it could be that my own view was so insular – cosseted away in Plymouth – that it was more popular nationally than I ever realised? Whatever, it pleases me that it now seems to be afforded the respect it deserves, because around the time it looked to me that it was perceived as little more than a passing fad: “Do you still think you’ll be listening to this when your older?” and, “It’s just talking over other people’s music,” were common accusations. Neither holds true; rapping is obviously not just talking and actually requires an appreciation of metre and diction so that it can coalesce with the beat.
Furthermore, sampling is a complicated process. Groups like Public Enemy, Gangstarr and Cypress Hill would layer samples, manipulate them, sometimes play them backwards, and piece them together in a way that made for a genuine abstraction of sound. Listen to Gangstarr’s Flip the Script and then Grover Washington’s Lock it in The Pocket and identify the organ sample – two notes, 4 minutes and 55 seconds in – and you might appreciate that the point to sampling is about extricating portions of noise and then reconfiguring them within a completely new context.
On top of that, the production hasn't really dated at all, which is an amazing feat given that this stuff is at least 25 years old. It’s only ignorance that could possibly assert that Public Enemy, say, was any less talented, vital or experimental – or exciting – than the Beatles – or whatever other handed-down standard of excellence one chooses to gauge modern music by.