To walk the path from the Upsetta to Electronica, you must get Off The Beaten Track.
Think you haven't heard African Head Charge before? Think again. As is too often the case with lesser-known trailblazers whose iconoclastic work is later aped by opportunistic imitators, the product making the airwaves -- and the money -- is a derivative of that original vision filtered through more palatable mutations. (Think Elvis Presley.)
Today, for instance, it's not only unsurprising, but inevitable to hear pop-culture samplings and multimedia sound bites spliced into songs. The apotheosis of this formula -- at least in commercial terms -- was Moby's fin de siecle mega-smash Play. Before that, a host of deconstructionist whiz kids, led by DJ Spooky and DJ Shadow (and myriad well-intentioned acolytes with varying degrees of skill and diminishing returns), succeeded in making cerebral, hip-shaking electronic music. But in the halcyon days, the world in world music was created by real instruments in real time, and any honest producer would acknowledge that virtually all roads lead directly back to Lee "Scratch" Perry.
In the early '70s, Perry masterminded the use of mixing and overdub in his home studio, the Black Ark, and among his other innovations, most illbient aficionados point to Perry as the first big-time artist to incorporate samples into songs. A wavy line can be traced from Perry's Jamaican studio to the London underground, where in the early-to-mid-'80s, producer Adrian Sherwood cooked up some incendiary sonic experiments in his own studio for the On-U Sound Records label. It was at this time, in this place, that the still unheralded African Head Charge made history.
How out there is African Head Charge? Well, when über-oddball David Lynch wanted to score the already disturbing torture scene in Wild at Heart -- one of those inimitable sequences where Lynch rips back the covers of conventional reality to reveal primal, inscrutable urges and obsessions -- he chose "Far Away Chant" from African Head Charge's first album, the experimental and influential My Life in a Hole in the Ground. That album dropped in 1981, and while much had changed in the world (musically and otherwise), much remained the same when African Head Charge came together in 1986 to craft the seminal and spectacularly titled Off the Beaten Track. While their first album owed obvious debts to David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, it was also an insular project combining the talents of producer Sherwood and percussionist Bonjo Iyanbinghi Noah. By 1986, African Head Charge was a collective of crafty veterans such as Jah Wobble and Skip McDonald (both of whom have made incredible, if mostly unheralded contributions to music in the intervening years). The resulting album is the culmination of their discography to that point, a world music manifesto that spans the globe (literally) and provides a virtual blueprint for so many less triumphant imitations that would follow.
But what does it sound like? It sounds like anything and everything (or, to put it another way, it sounds like African Head Charge): funk-dub foundations with sticky rhythms and loops, sprinkled with sick samples that include animal cries, tribal chants, and shouts from both types of jungle -- untamed and concrete. Guest MC Albert Einstein even makes an appearance (as in, that Albert Einstein, courtesy of a masterfully sampled use of his recorded voice in "Language & Mentality"). The dog-bark beats in "Some Bizarre" give props to Perry, while making paydays possible for the lucky few who figured out how to water down this modus operandi. The album picks up steam as it goes, becoming increasingly eccentric yet somehow more familiar as it rumbles along. The melodica makes "Down Under Again" sound like a psychedelic walkabout with syncopated beats; in other words, nothing you should ever expect to hear at your local Outback restaurant. The album ends on an enduring and indelible note with "Over the Sky", a gorgeously deep groove with Middle Eastern music cut by a coolly urgent groove that could easily go on for hours. It has to be heard to be believed.
So, African Head Charge is not easy, and it is not for everyone. For anyone who finds much of what they hear today underwhelming, give Off the Beaten Track a spin and listen to our weird, wonderful world with new ears.
Postscript: One reason African Head Charge has remained more obscure than they should be is because their albums have been difficult -- or exceedingly expensive -- to acquire; a recent search at amazon.com shows a used copy of Off the Beaten Track going for $64.35. This recording is, arguably, worth it, but nobody should have to shell out that kind of money. Fortunately, Anthology Recordings has just launched a new website dedicated to making notoriously difficult-to-find records available digitally, and you can snatch a brand new copy of this classic for under 10 bucks. What are you waiting for?