ROOTS MANUVA MEETS WRONGTOM
MARK RONSON & THE BUSINESS INTL
Maybe it’s all that dusty-fingered reverence for old vinyl, but when history repeats for hip hop artists it’s not as farce, but pastiche. So Roots Manuva’s latest reggae overhaul appears in a retro-futurist cartoon style by a celebrated ‘80s sleeve designer, while Californian Aloe Blacc slides into regulation Temptations supper-club suit and bowtie, even when the spirit he evokes most closely is that of Bill Withers’ smooth country soul. Like besuited Stones Throw label-mate Mayer Hawthorne, Plan B (another rapper profiting from his singing voice) and the sublime Raphael Saadiq, Aloe’s decided looking the part is as vital as sounding it. Brit-pop may have been born with one eye on the past, but even when they sounded like little more than Bootleg Beatles with their own songwriter, Oasis never quite clambered into the dayglo military jackets.
No one’s benefited from grafting the sound of young, black ’60s America onto modern pop more than Mark Ronson, who soundtracked Amy’s beehived reinvention, as a combination of ’60s soul, killer songs and carcrash infamy pushed her and her hairdo to global celebrity. Repeating the trick with his solo album, he reinvented indie anthems as horn-drenched soul standards, transforming himself from hip hop DJ/producer into genuine solo star (and nemesis to a generation of indie kids, who still haven’t forgiven him for messing with Morrissey and Radiohead).
But Ronson’s more interested in sound than schtick. Having won proper pop star status, he’s not about to go down with a ship that’s been boarded by the likes of Duffy, not in a world gone Gaga. For third album Record Collection – which I suspect went by the working title of No More Fucking Trumpets – he’s invested in a stack of old analogue synthesisers and brought in the rhythm section of funk revivalists supreme, The Dap-Kings, and a range of guest vocalists, including Boy George, Simon Le Bon and Rose Elinor Dougall of full-time revivalists The Pipettes. It maybe a ’70s/’80s hybrid on paper, but Record Collection couldn’t sound more at home on modern radio if it struck up light banter with a newsreader before delivering a blow-by-blow monologue about the crrrrazy weekend it’s just had.
With electronic riffs filling in where the brass section once stood, his new songs have all the immediacy of a bomb in a firework factory. Bang Bang Bang sounds like a collision between Lena Lovich and a Power Rangers soundtrack; The Bike Song could’ve been conceived in a School Disco nightclub. Chirpy rapper Q-Tip appears on both, but that’s nothing like as shocking as hearing original grimester Wiley jump in halfway through the title track, then dropping off as quickly as he came in to make way for Le Bon (whose voice still sounds like a wet blanket stretched to the size of a cricket pitch) and Ronson himself. It’s a pity two of the three vocalists here are so lousy, because it’s perhaps the most interesting song, with Ronson sending up his own sleb image while expressing his lust for stardom in the language of a love song. For a man who’s previously done little wrong Ronson engenders extraordinary loathing (one webzine recently invited readers to suggest suitable tortures, short of death – the most printable was “coat his bog-roll in cayenne pepper”). But ’80s pop, unlike indie and funk, isn’t protected by a Praetorian guard of the precious and purist. Irritating as it may be, I fear Record Collection will be massive.
If Record Collection sounds like a calculated stab at turning nostalgia into money, Duppy Writer, Good Things and Budos III are acts of indulgence. Duppy Writer is the third Roots Manuva remix album, but the first to place his career span in the hands of one single producer, Wrongtom. Best known for dubbing up Hard-Fi’s roots, he recasts the London rapper’s life work as ’80s dancehall, sticking rhythms from prime digital hits like Antony Red Rose’s timeless Tempo beneath Rodney Smith’s baritone noir. With a sleeve designed by Tony McDermott, the cartoonist who dressed King Tubby protégé Scientist’s albums 30 years ago, Duppy Writer is a timewarped treat.
As, for the most part, is Aloe Blacc’s Good Things. Spearheaded by the astonishing single I Need A Dollar, it’s a recession-era throwback to the days when blue-collar soul heroes serenaded their audience with everyday tales rather than heavily branded fantasies. Set to music crafted by flame-keepers Truth & Soul, it deftly recaptures the paranoia of Nixon’s reign (even a cover of Femme Fatale sounds like it’s there to make a point) and if Blacc can’t quite command a microphone like Curtis or Marvin, his songcraft has no modern peer. If retro funk can be said to have an originator, it’s the Daptone label, purveyors of just-so recreations of the early ’70s sound and look and home to the aforementioned Dap-Kings, from whom sprung Budos Band, the label’s Afro-jazz exponents. This is music that isn’t meant to change: numerical album titles, an all-instrumental brass-led formula repeated throughout, Budos III is for people who wish those blaxploitation soundtracks had never ended. They may be doing it over, but they’re undeniably doing it right.