Monday, May 15 2006 | 15:44

Us3’s fifth album “Schizophonic” sees producer Geoff Wilkinson’s rolling cast of rappers and musicians returning to the task of fitting the pieces of the jazz and hip hop puzzle into one kaleidoscopic whole.

Building on the group’s mammoth 50-date/14-country European tour last year, the sound of “Schizophonic” is a lively, raucous and uptempo affair with a heavy emphasis on live playing married to crunchy hip hop beats. The album features two new rappers, Akil Dasan and Gaston, both of whom Geoff found at New York’s legendary underground hangout the Nuyorican Poets Café. Akil’s rhythmical mastery is put to the test on a variety of beats ranging from straight-up hip hop to Brazilian sambas to straight-ahead jazz breaks. Gaston specialises in an intricate twisting wordplay that’s guaranteed to have you laughing hard, scratching your head, and snapping your neck all in the same breath.

All members of the Us3 live band are also featured, including the blistering trumpet of Chris Storr, the soaring saxophone stylings of Ed Jones, the funky muscle of double bass player ‘Level’ Neville Malcolm, and the unique turntable mastery of DJ First Rate. Mike Gorman, Sean Hargreaves and John Crawford take turns at the pianist’s chair, while (60 year-old!) newcomer Ernie Cranenburgh lays down some truly beautiful jazz guitar.

“Schizophonic” bounces from the Brazilian samba school sampling “Kick This”, to the lyrical hip hop sarcasm of “Huff & Puff”, through the 60s soul-jazz vibe of “Girls U Like”, to the furious jazz drums and Monk-like piano of “Get Busy”. Gaston recounts a desperate tale of child abuse in “Don’t Even Ask” complimented by the delicate brushes, moody piano and brooding horns.

Akil Dasan describes himself as an African-Judaic blend of multiple ethnicities and cultures, citing Stevie Wonder, The Roots, D’Angelo and Mos Def as major influences. An accomplished freestyler and musician (he plays guitar, keyboards and drums), Akil studied music and creative writing at Columbia University. Born and raised in Philadelphia he now resides in NYC. Eagle-eyed TV viewers will have spotted him last year on Missy Elliott’s “Road To Stardom” talent competition. Remember his name.

Gaston (alongside his twin brother Wiseguy) hosts the words showcase and open mic sessions at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York. A veteran of NYC’s underground hip hop circuit, he has flexed his verbal dexterity alongside an entire who-is-who of rap, exercising his razor sharp freestyle wit on many radio shows.

The 8-piece live Us3 band will be touring again throughout 2006. Don’t miss them.

Biography:

Us3 is the brainchild of London-based producer Geoff Wilkinson. Formed in 1992, alongside production partner Mel Simpson, Us3 rose from the ashes of 2 previous incarnations. The first was a limited edition white label 12″ release in 1990 called “Where Will We Be In The 21st Century” featuring rapper MC Honey B and jazz pianist Jessica Lauren. This brought the attention of a (then) fledgling indie label, Ninjatune, and the result was NW1’s 1991 12″ “The Band Played The Boogie”. By sampling one of the biggest dancefloor tunes of the burgeoning jazz dance scene, Geoff had unknowingly started a chain reaction. The tune he sampled was Grant Green’s “Sookie Sookie”, originally released on Blue Note Records.

London’s Kiss FM playlisted “The Band Played The Boogie” and Geoff received a call summoning him to EMI’s offices in London. Knowing the sample had not been cleared Geoff was nervous, but somehow talked himself out of being sued and into the Blue Note vaults. By allowing complete access to their legendary back catalogue, Blue Note went back to the future. “It was a brave decision by Bruce Lundvall (Blue Note President)”, says Geoff, “but he made me record some demos first, to prove I could do it”. One of those demos, recorded in March 1992, was “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”. Exactly two years later it was sitting pretty in the US top ten. By then the resulting album, “Hand on the Torch” had become a global phenomenon, collecting plaudits and Gold & Silver discs in equal measures. It was the first Blue Note album to achieve Platinum status (1,000,000 sales) in the USA.

The worldwide success of Us3 took everyone by surprise, and proved a point to Geoff. “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.”

After several world tours with the Us3 band, Mel left for pastures new, and in 1996 Geoff set about making the follow-up. “It was always my intention to change the vocalists with each Us3 album” says Geoff, “it keeps things fresh and exciting for me too.” NY rappers KCB and Shabaam Sahdeeq came in to replace Rahsaan Kelly, Kobie Powell & Tukka Yoot, and the resulting 1997 album was “Broadway & 52nd”. The Blue Note samples became more embedded in the grooves and experimental tracks like “Snakes” (in 5/4) and “Sheep” (a spoken word poem) broke new ground, drawing great performances from K and Shabaam.

More touring followed, but personnel changes within Blue Note’s parent company (Capitol) left Geoff with the chance to leave and rejoin working with the A&R executive that initially signed him in 1992. The result was a deal with Sony in NY and a chance for Geoff to spread his wings. “I felt I had achieved my goals at Blue Note and was looking for a new challenge,” Geoff says. The Blue Note samples were ditched and in came 2 new vocalists, rapper Michelob, and singer Alison Crockett. But before the album was complete a major personnel upheaval at Sony left Us3 in limbo. “It wasn’t a great time and left a sour taste” admits Geoff. “It took nearly 2 years of legal argument before I got back the rights to my own album.”

Eventually the third Us3 album “An Ordinary Day In An Unusual Place” was released in 2001 by Toshiba EMI in Japan, and Universal in Europe. The album itself represented a quantum leap in the Us3 sound. Alison’s vocals oozed soul and musically Geoff had successfully incorporated elements of drum’n’bass, Latin, and Indian music into the mix. “I’ve always had a very wide ranging taste in music and this was my chance to show it”, explains Geoff. “I also wanted to do something more overtly political, and Alison & Mich have both written some great socio-economic observations”. Several European and Japanese tours took place throughout 2002, and the crowd reactions were incredible. It was, however, no surprise to Geoff when another round of major label personnel cuts at Universal left Us3 homeless.

Despite the major label merry-go-round in Europe & the US, virtually the same staff were still at Toshiba EMI in Japan. A deal was concluded and the 4th Us3 album “Questions” was released in Japan in 2003. This time Geoff ditched the samples completely and made an album heavily influenced by both his love of Latin music and the in-vogue nu-soul movement. Brooklyn rapper Reggi Wyns and London-based (South Africa-born) female singer Mpho Skeef were the featured vocalists. “It’s important to keep evolving” says Geoff, “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!”. “Questions” also represented a quantum leap in that it was the first Us3 album to be released independently (outside of Japan). Two huge tours of Europe throughout 2005 saw the Us3 live band perform 50 gigs in 14 countries, and served as a huge inspiration for Geoff.

“The gigs in 2005 were awesome” says Geoff, “I managed to keep the same band line-up through most of the shows, and decided to make a much more vibey, uptempo live-sounding album next”. The result is the multiple musical personalities of “Schizophonic”. All members of the Us3 live band are also featured, including the blistering trumpet of Chris Storr, the soaring saxophone stylings of Ed Jones, the funky muscle of double bass player “Level” Neville Malcolm, and the unique turntable mastery of DJ First Rate. Mike Gorman, Sean Hargreaves and John Crawford take turns at the pianists chair, while (60 year-old!) newcomer Ernie Cranenburgh lays down some truly beautiful jazz guitar.

“Schizophonic” also features two new rappers, Akil Dasan and Gaston, both of whom Geoff found at New York’s legendary underground hangout the Nuyorican Poets Café. Akil’s rhythmical mastery is put to the test on a variety of beats ranging from straight-up hip-hop to Brazilian sambas to straight-ahead jazz breaks. Gaston specialises in an intricate twisting wordplay that’s guaranteed to have you laughing hard, scratching your head, and snapping your neck all in the same breath.

“Schizophonic” marks a true return to form, with Geoff’s rolling cast of rappers and musicians returning to the task of fitting the pieces of the jazz and hip-hop puzzle into one gloriously kaleidoscopic whole. “With Hand on the Torch I was trying to make something that was 50% jazz and 50% hip-hop,” explains Geoff, “and with Schizophonic I feel like I achieved it”.

The album Us3Schizophonic” (Us 3) is going to be released May 26, 2006.

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