To anyone familiar with the history of British indie music, Coldcut and On-U Sound are legendary names.
On-U Sound, the brainchild of producer Adrian Sherwood, spent several decades innovating hip-hop, dub, and industrial music, often mixing the genres together. Sherwood and Coldcut’s Jon More were mates at technical college. Largely inspired by On-U Sound, More and Matt Black founded Coldcut in the mid-’80s and pioneered the use of sampling in pop and dance music. One of their early sample-heavy tracks was itself sampled by M/A/R/R/S on their groundbreaking 1987 single “Pump Up the Volume”. Black and XXX went on to found the Ninja Tune label, effectively inventing “trip-hop” and “sampledelic” styles. Furthermore, Coldcut and On-U Sound created classic remixes for everyone from Eric B. & Rakim to Depeche Mode.
Both have been relatively quiet of late, but that does not make the prospect of a collaborative album any less exciting. And, in sort, Outside the Echo Chamber delivers the goods. It draws on Coldcut’s and Sherwood’s strengths, compounding them and adding a modern touch. If it isn’t groundbreaking itself, it is a fun, eclectic reminder of just how much these artists influenced so much of the music you hear on the radio and in the clubs these days.
In keeping with their long-established traditions, for Outside the Echo Chamber, Coldcut and Sherwood have brought in an international slate of guests, many of them familiar faces. Reggae legends Junior Reid and Lee “Scratch” Perry make appearances, as does veteran British rapper Roots Manuva. Jamaican singers Chezidek and Ce ‘Cile, Indian singer Hamsika Iyer, American singer Elan Atias, British producer Toddla T, and Jamaican rapper Rholin X all contribute. And holding down the entire rhythm-driven affair are original On-U Sound bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald.
What is impressive is this cast of musicians collectively spans nearly 60 years of music history, from Perry’s reggae and dub productions to Wimbish and McDonald’s work with the pioneering hip-hop label Sugarhill to Ninja Tune to Toddla T’s remixes for Hot Chip and Armand Van Helden. A pedigree like this sets expectations high, though, and none of it would matter if the music were less-than-exceptional.
No worry, though. Outside the Echo Chamber takes reggae, dub, dancehall, hip-hop, pop, and more and mixes it into a beat-driven, never-dull experience. On opener “Livid”, Manuva delivers a typically ominous state-of-the-word address over a twisted dubstep beat full of the zinging, zanging sound effects you would expect from Sherwood. Reid croons and Perry delivers his trademark non-sequiturs over the apocalyptic dub of “Divide and Rule”. More pop-friendly moments come in the form of the rocksteady 2016 single “Everyday Another Sanction”, featuring Chezidek, and the melancholic dancehall of “Make Up Your Mind”, delivered in hers ‘n’ his versions with Ce’ Cile and Atias respectively.
There is plenty of exotic strangeness, too, in the form of a trio of instrumentals. Full of syncopated rhythms, quirky melodic snippets, and dissonant industrial effects, they allow Coldcut and Sherwood to cut loose and indulge their whims, especially on the twisted dancehall of “Aztec Riddim”. Another relative surprise is “Kajra Mohobbat Walla”, featuring Iyer. Opening with a clever Liberace sample, it turns into a trancelike Indian number complete with traditional instruments. Of course, the producers add some zany electronic effects, too.
At ten songs, Outside the Echo Chamber favors efficient quality over sprawling indulgence. None of them fall flat, with only the Rholin X-led “Robbery” struggling a bit with a trap hip-hop feel. Also, there are echoing, thundering dub versions of half a dozen tracks. Not surprisingly, they are stellar and tastefully done.
For many, Outside the Echo Chamber should serve as a timely invitation to the pioneering work of its producers. For others, it represents yet another high point in a pair of legendary careers. In any case, it’s an irie time for all.