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BRISTOL - MUSIC & CULTURE

 
 

SMITH & MIGHTY: Bristol Rising (1990)

John McCready, The Face, 1990
Coming from the same sound system roots as Soul II Soul, dance producers Smith And Mighty are at the centre of a thriving West Country scene that fuses hip hop beats, reggae basslines and classic pop melodies. Now, after three years independent activity, the Bristol sound is ready to go overground.
IT'S BEEN a mad day, one of those days when you know you're speed-walking through something special. A blur of faces, names, handshakes and information make it hard to focus. With the amiable Charlie as our guide and go between, we've been to back bedrooms, front rooms, and flats full of records and recording equipment. My ribcage still rattling from bassic vibration, I ask the question: "What's it all about, Charlie?"

Charlie, a member of Bristol's Three Stripe posse, put; his key in the front door and we head back to the living room studio where producers Rob Smith and Ray Mighty cook up inspired combinations of the old and the new. But Charlie doesn't have to answer. In the building on Ashley Road, St Paul's, someone downstairs is mixing records. Dionne Warwick's wistful ‘Trains And Boats And Planes’ floats across a brick hard hip hop beat. Everything falls into place.

This eerie combination of opposites says more about Rob Smith and Ray Mighty and the output of their Three Stripe label than anything. The sound of Bacharach and David, gifted tin pan composers of the Sixties, colliding with the raw power of scratchy breakbeats and bass-heavy reggae rhythms is really the key to an age-old underground sound. This sound has recently been translated for mass consumption through Norman Cook's Beats International, Soul II Soul Sybil and a whole posse of others, like Kicking Back With Taxman and Innocence.

Clubland is moving slowly away from the hyper-groove of house and towards the mellow subsonics of new age steppers. As house is absorbed into the mainstream and legal checkmates threaten this summer's rave scene, the club underground takes two steps back. Smith and Mighty's breathtaking translations of Bacharach and David's ‘Walk On By’ and ‘Anyone’ predate any of these new groups aside from Soul II Soul, whose underground history — from house parties to clubs, from sound systems to records — parallels their own.

BUT THIS YEAR’S UNDERGROUND is next year's overground. Soul II Soul have already stated the case for London with platinum plus sales of their Club Classics LP both here and in America. The success of Smith and Mighty and their Three Stripe stable of artists will soon make the case for Bristol and show the city's undeniable influence on the strangely subdued sounds taking over your radio.

But on radio, you won't hear it properly. On radio, you'll never get the point. This is a music of treble highs and oceanic lows, a deeply sexual slow groove best experienced at a smokey blues party. This is a music made in the giant shadow of Jamaica's melodic but rootsy Studio One sound, a music where Dionne Warwick's ‘The Look Of Love’ is pitched against the subsonic heartbeat pulse of a microchip kick drum. It's hard to articulate the tension created between the robotic pulse of a beatbox cranked up to ten and the sweet flow of a human voice tackling a melody your mum and dad would appreciate. But it's no good asking Rob Smith and Ray Mighty about it. They can't see what all the fuss is about, they just live it.

Smith and Mighty, or Rob and Ray as they are affectionately known to Bristol bass heads (the inference is musical, not chemical), have just joined the circus with ffrr Records. For almost three years now, they've propelled their creations into the world through their own Three Stripe label. Ray was part of the city's Three Stripe sound system, which lives on through the label and through the surviving giant bass speakers most Smith and Mighty tracks are mixed on.

"We know when it sounds right on them then it's right," says Ray. Rob Smith is a product of Bristol's once healthy live scene. The pair met playing in a band called Sweat in 1985. Rob believes the group was "well ahead of its time. A lot of what we do now was there then. A lot of what we were trying to do then we can do now because the technology is cheap and available."

They began recording together almost three years ago, making wanted to hear themselves. "We still work like that: we'll come from a party or a rave fired up, ready to do something. When we do remixes, the only aim is to build something that will rock the places we go to," says Ray. Such remixes are raw to the core and strictly for the underground. From Neneh Cherry to Fine Young Cannibals, a Smith and Mighty treatment puts the rhythm upfront and the bass in your face. Rapper Krissy Kris has watched them work and describes their methods as "weird". "But what they come up with is really special. It just has a flow. They give you the right spaces and drops. They just know."

Even a chance encounter with the Smith and Mighty sound is likely to convince you that all this is worth worrying about. They mix spooked out electronics with breaks dropped into space; disappearing before you've noticed. There's a melancholic feel to their melodies that Burt Bacharach and Hal David would understand; dub gymnastics Lee Perry would understand; a bass your body will understand.

TO THOSE WHO GO TO THE RIGHT CLUBS and the right record shops they are almost heroes. But Rob and Ray have had no real money to speak of and. most heartbreaking of all, their equipment is falling to bits. "Whatever happens, we'll always make music, but we need money to build a studio to get the sounds we want. We've made music for three years now on nothing." This is the reason they've signed a major record deal which gives them the freedom to create when, where and with who they want. It's a deal that, this year, will enable them to release three albums of their choice out of Bristol and into the mainstream, the first being an album by sweet-voiced singer Carlton.

Charlie, who collaborates with the pair on some of their music and works as part of the rap unit TCP, reveals that they're recording junkies — only really happy when sitting in front of a mixing desk. "Recording is just a day to day thing," he says. "Some days we'll get up and it'll be a Studio One day. Other times we'll get up and it'll be a house groove we get into. Whatever happens, there's always music around."

This I can't argue with. Everywhere we go, during the course of interviews in various locations, people experiment with sound while they talk. It's like they think they'll die if the rhythm stops. At a house bordering the moneyed Clifton area of the city, I talk to the Fresh 4 (who turn out to be six, but who's counting?). Their ‘Wishing On A Star’, a top five hit produced by Smith and Mighty, typifies the real sound of the underground, a mix of mellow soul and funky beats. As he listens to me, Fresh 4 member Flynn can't stop cutting between two copies of a Stezo tune. This man has a musical problem. "You just wake up in the morning and you hit the drum machine. And if it's a slow beat, it's a slow beat, and if it's a fast beat, it's a fast beat."

Rob and Ray are equally obsessed, Having joined the circus they are expected to jump through verbal hoops for the benefit of intruders tike me. Polite as they are, it's clear they'd much rather be messing around with a mix than talking to me or anyone else. This day excursion to their St Paul's base they see as part of the price of moving to the next stage. "No offence," says Rob quite genuinely, as he refuses to have his picture taken. "But we don't see the point Who wants to know what we look like? You're either into the tune or you're not into the tune. Nobody cares what Jah Wobble looks like now, they just buy his records if they like them. We don't want to be recognized."

Rob then proceeds to play through some recent, unfinished tracks as Ray skins up, inhales and closes his eyes as the room reverberates. Rob listens preoccupied, obviously putting things right silently. He looks almost sad, as well he might. The music sparks with originality and an instinctive rhythmic understanding which connects effortlessly. Eugene Manzi, press officer for ffrr Records, nods along in the knowledge that his employers have bought into a West Country goldmine.

Smith and Mighty have no chance of remaining backroom mystery men — a romantic notion they seem to have set their hearts on. When this gets out, the world and his wife will want to know everything. Already Smith and Mighty are the Stock, Aitken & Waterman of the Two Step scene, producing music that is ideal for all-night house parties, blues dances and underground sound system raves. When the sound goes overground with the release of Carlton's first single, ‘Do You Dream?’, Rob won't even be able to go out for a Rizlas packet without being chased by autograph hunters.

Of course, there's a history to all of this. A sound this strong doesn't appear from nowhere. Bristol, with a culturally-aware black community, has always been a reggae stronghold. Even when the sound fell from favour, St Paul's was still pulsing to the beat of Kingston's drum. When hip hop arrived, it seemed a natural progression. Instead of moving from one to the other, Bristol's sound systems mashed it all up.

The Wild Bunch operated from the early Eighties, a multiracial posse of DJs and rappers who earned a reputation through their eclectic mixes of rap, reggae and smooth soul. Their ‘Look Of Love’, inspired by the version mania of reggae, was the first Bacharach/David cover. Rob Smith admits it was the inspiration behind their own reworkings of ‘Walk On By’ and ‘Anyone’. Created as a one-off dub plate for their own use, The Wild Bunch would blast this as the centrepiece of their sets. Ray Mighty remembers first hearing it and thinking, "'What the fuck is that?' It blew me away." This was released as a B side two years later by Fourth And Broadway.

The Wild Bunch would play records before and after sets by local reggae band Restriction, and Rob and Charlie were both members of the group. Nellee Hooper of The Wild Bunch would look after the sound at Restriction gigs. Nellee later went to London with his bag of tricks and joined the Soul II Soul posse, who'd been working along similar lines in the capital — a sound system with an attitude and vinyl ambitions.

Though the Three Stripe crew may be pissed off with Sybil's recent top ten version of ‘Walk On By’, an idea obviously stolen from Rob and Ray's idiosyncratic treatment of the classic tune, they have no bone to pick with Jazzie. "They were doing the same thing at the same time. It's just an underground vibe. It's probably happening in most cities in Britain. But the Sybil thing was annoying. I know we don't own the tune, but the treatment was a bit close, to say the least."

Rob and Ray are used to having people dip into their bag of magic tricks. It's only the fact that they seem to have so many more ideas to work on that stops them getting really upset. That the producers of Sybil's ‘Walk On By’ did nothing new with the record is of more concern to Smith and Mighty. "The appeal of 'The Look Of Love' was that it was a real stripped down version of the tune. When we tackled 'Walk On By', it was natural to us to play around with the structure of it." Similar dub tactics are employed on most tracks they produce, a sound that also appeals to the house crowd and was popular at last summer's raves, "It's mind-fuck music." says Rob. "It's all about ridiculous treble and massive, massive bass. That's the one thing we have in common with all the people we work with. They're all into bass."

SO WE PACK INTO THEIR NEWLY ACQUIRED Citröen Familial, a big estate car bought too late for last year's summer raves. We meet most of the Three Stripe artists, bass addicts all. From the young True Funk Posse — a rapper aged twelve and a DJ aged 16 with a combined talent which makes them more than an ageist novelty — to a Fresh 4 shirty with success, everyone is keen to tell you what Rob and Ray have done for them.

It's clear that Bristol is a village. Rapper Krissy Kris tells me, "If you're doing the same thing, you end up bumping into like-minded people." The more people we talk to the clearer it becomes that Three Stripe is a self-supporting family. A London connection for Smith and Mighty means that everybody else gets a piece of the pie. "We know what it's like to be ripped off because it's happened to us," says Charlie. "We want to try and help these people so they don't have to deal with the fuckers we've come up against."

At the end of our day of interviews, an after hours party is organised so we can chill till the dawn. So the press contingent books into the Bristol Hilton to return to St Paul's later. We order a cab after midnight to get back there, but the cab driver tells us he doesn't go to that area and we're stuck inside our £81 a night pristine paradise. On the other side of town, the underground rocks regardless.

The True Funk Posse, whose single ‘Break The Beat’ came out on Three Stripe last year. Supporting the Jungle Brothers in London, Sam — then eleven — stood on a chair to rap. The crowd went wild, but they left before the gig ended because they had to be up for school the next day. "They are the new generation," says Ray Mighty. "We struggled to get to grips with technology. They just lock into it." Why the name? "Because our funk is true," says 16-year-old DJ Jodie.

Rapper Krissy Kris has worked with Smith and Mighty on several occasions, including the rap version of ‘Anyone’, their first single. "What they do is unique," he says. "It's a dream for me to rap to." The producers are more modest. "We found we could get a record out, chose 'Anyone', and sent a few copies out. We weren't prepared for what happened." Two years later, it remains one of Britain's most influential underground releases.

Flynn of the Fresh 4, whose ‘Wishing On A Star’, produced by Smith and Mighty, made Top Of The Pops. The secret of success? "It's all about crusty samples and basslines, man." A new single, ‘Release Yourself’, comes out on 10 Records later this month, with an album to follow. The single's B-side, ‘Cuts, Scratches, Samples And All That Stuff’, demands that you "listen to the sound of the 0272" — Bristol's telephone code.

Jackie Jackson, the voice of Smith and Mighty's own singles, ‘Walk On By’ and ‘Anyone’. Rob first heard her performing backing vocals in a local musical production. She was so shy she refused to appear onstage. Other Bristol voices include schoolteacher turned reluctant pop star Lizz E, who sang ‘Wishing On A Star’, and new Fresh 4 singer Sister Reds.
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