When Us3 snagged everyone’s attention in 1993 with their hit song “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”, it might have been difficult to predict any longevity in an act that blended hip-hop, DJ scratching and the sampling of recognizable (re: “classic”) jazz motifs. Just how long would people permit the use of melodies by Herbie Hancock, Grant Green and Horace Silver to be used in such a way? To their credit, Blue Note was very courageous in encouraging acts like Madlib in this territory. But Us3 main man Geoff Wilkinson’s manner of sustaining his career is twofold. For one thing, the sampling of the old masters has gradually been pushed out of the mix over the last 15 years of so. The horn and piano lines you now hear are original Wilkinson charts played by present-day jazz musicians. Secondly, things have become less fun.
I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism. After all, the language of hip-hop comes from a place where the human condition is not exactly rosy, and Latin and jazz music are not too far behind in the way they capture urban troubles. Us3’s new album Lie, Cheat and Steal is downright cynical, that’s just a fact. Should you jump backwards to Wilkinson and departed co-founder Mel Simpson’s debut album Hand on Torch, you can scientifically prove that things are just not as fun as they used to be. And why should they be? The economy keeps hitting new lows while the people in power, day after day, continue to avoid judgment. No one can accuse Wilkinson of being overly bitter when he rhetorically asks “Is this what a democracy should look like, where it’s ok to lie, cheat and steal your way to the top?”
Even since Us3 hit it big, Wilkinson has made it clear that he wanted a revolving door of lead vocalists. This time around he is joined by Oveous Maximus and Akala, two rappers with a knack for either telling it like it is or harshing your mellow, depending on your attitude. Musically speaking, Lie, Cheat and Steal is absolutely stacked with personnel including two guitarists, sax, two trumpeters, bass, scratching, background vocals and six different keyboard players. The overall mix (or compression?) belies such a roster and the political message of the songs pretty much steals the show. Lie, Cheat and Steal is a mobile for the young, pissed-off have-nots. Under those circumstances, it can be hard to bring in the funk, but you can’t blame them for not trying.
If you wanted to experience some musical variance, the diversity lies in the rhythm tracks. When Akala preaches of the circle of life on “The Ring,” the beat to which he does it is challenging to say the least, constructing the drum and piano tracks into fits and starts conducive to what one might get away with calling a rap rubato. “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide,” another one of Akala’s numbers, throws you for a loop courtesy of DJ First Rate’s scratching. Just when you think he’s going to round out the sample of Irene Serra singing the title, he sneaks it away from you – again and again. Oveous Maximus’ ode to Washington Heights has that south-of-the-border lime twist to it that brings a small sense of joy to the album; “Welcome to the place that made me a star!” That same Latin flavor also backs up one of the album’s significant downers, “(You Are) So Corrupt,” though it does come in handy as a platform for Ed Jones’ tenor sax solo.
It isn’t until after you spin Lie, Cheat and Steal several times with a deliberate attempt to hear the subtleties that you will detect the things that set one track from another. The blues-tinged guitar line of “Wild West,” the lamenting, descending trumpet that matches the loneliness of “I Feel You,” and the way that the tense sound of the London riot-inspired “Pressure Bursts Pipes” accurately symbolizes the way things dwell just below a boiling point, all become clear when you set out to find them. All told, this is another fine addition to the Us3 tradition even if it doesn’t transcend the two genres Geoff Wilkinson set out to fuse all those years ago. As per usual, an album like Lie, Cheat and Steal is an indicator that things can get so much more interesting if an act like Us3 were to really, you know, totally plunge to the other side. But when you have a song like the title track, complete with phat beats and a catchy refrain, who needs to discover a new dimension anyways?