The year 2004 marks a rebirth of sort for Ming & FS -- perhaps the best group you've never heard. I put the modifying article "perhaps" in because there is a good chance you've heard them before, although you might not know it.
The New York-based production duo have one of the most in-demand and distinctive sounds on the scene. Their music has appeared in countless movies and TV shows. They've composed dozens of TV commercials, including a recent ad for the Nissan Altima that featured them actually performing music in front of the camera. They've remixed everyone from P-Diddy to Brandy to Aphrodite to Lynyrd Skynyrd -- and have even kept a hand in the realm of straight pop in the form of their music protégé Toby Lightman. In fact, their Madhattan Studios is such a popular place to be that they hardly have time to write and record their own material.
Unfortunately, given the overwhelming success they've had in every other facet of the electronic music biz, they just haven't had the best of luck as actual artists themselves. 1999 saw the release of their debut, the well received and fondly remembered Hell's Kitchen, on San Francisco's Om Records. The subsequent three years saw the release of two equally good albums, 2001's Human Condition and 2002's Subway Series... but for various and sundry reasons they failed to reach the artistic stratosphere that anyone familiar with their CV would expect.
Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly due to the fact that they are proudly multi-generic. They have dubbed their sound "junkyard", and by this they mean that they represent a proud melange of any number of genres in a mongrel stew, just like New York City itself. They have deep roots in the drum & bass and hip-hop scenes, but their music also contains heavy world elements, in addition to the type of "cinematic" hip-hop you'd expect from DJ Shadow, in addition to more standard house, breakbeat and UK garage elements you'd expect from most other electronic groups. Just writing that sentence it's easy to see why they'd be so hard to pigeonhole: they're both musical autodidacts with an endless stream of influences and stylistic adaptations.
So they ran into a wall. The jungle purists had no use for a group so steeped in hip-hop and conventional dance music, and the hip-hop crowd didn't even know they existed. To top it all off, they made the mistake of signing with a label that was well on it's way to becoming world renowned for smooth house -- which is just about the only genre in which they haven't dabbled.
So it's not hard to read a bit of subtext into the title of their fourth album. Back to One means back to square one, back to the straight hip-hop and jungle sounds that made their name, back with a New York-based label (the nascent Spun Records) and back in charge of their own careers. Back to One is a more focused effort than Subway Series, and it stands as much of a chance of making them household names in the electronic community as anything they've ever recorded.
My wife the DJ remembers Ming & FS from back in the day, when they were just another faceless group featured on the classic Jungle Sky compilations. The fifth edition of that epochal series featured a track called "Breathless" by the then-unknown duo (according to this discography they sent along in their promo pack it was only their third published track). Thankfully, there's some old-skool beats on Back to One, but characteristically, there's also a little bit of everything else. The first track, "Fish Eyes", begins with a straight-up hip-hop beat and a handful of strange swirling pseudo-Egyptian synth lines before transforming, about halfway through, into the type of jungle banger you didn't think they made anymore -- bouncy rim shots and ominous movie dialogue included.
The title track is the first of five tracks to feature the rapping of Napoleon Solo. The actual rapping has always been the weakest part of their past albums, and while Solo is a perfectly adequate MC he never really hits it off like you feel the tracks might deserve. "Back to One" is another of many tracks to shuffle between hip-hop and jungle tempos -- which might seem odd unless you know that most hip-hop is exactly half the speed of most drum and bass. This is a fact that Ming & FS exploit mercilessly. (I hope I don't get drummed out of the International Society of DJ Husbands for giving away such a vital trade secret.)
If there's one track on this album that could stand out on conventional hip-hop radio, I would nominate "Slang Verbs." It's got some off-kilter piano in the background, some sinister bass, and some pretty crunk beats to boot. If I was their label rep (not that I am but if I was!) I'd make a big push for some hip-hop radio play for this one. "Starts Somewhere", which immediately follows it, is perhaps Solo's best performance on the album, and also features such a dead-on approximation of the languid southern rap vibe that it's even got a Cee-Lo impersonator singing the chorus hook.
Anyone who doubts their old-skool cred should listen to "Draw", a short track built wholly from the ancient art of beatboxing. Before you get too comfortable in the hip-hop vibe, however, "Big Little Jeffrey" comes in with a hardcore jungle beat, some techno bass farts and even a death metal guitar bit near the end (where the hell did that come from?).
"Skills and Grace" starts as another hip-hop track but evolves into some sort of strange demonic African chant. "Chester Goes to Town" is perhaps the most straight-forward drum & bass track on the album, but it's still got a waw-waw funk guitar solo over it -- and when was the last time you heard a waw-waw funk guitar solo over a drum & bass track? The album ends with "Nadia", a funky closer with a pseudo-salsa beat and a sultry female vocal courtesy of DK.
It's a good album, with some downright brilliant moments peppered throughout and excellent production from beginning to end. But after listening to it a few times I am still left with pretty much the same problem I've had with Ming & FS since the get-go. They do too much. They are so unbelievably canny at investing their music with so many different ethnic identities that in the end the "junkyard" begins to blend into a big muddy swirl. On the basis of individual tracks it's not that big of a deal, and in the space of four or five minutes their music is wonderful -- dense, lucid and alliterative. But over the course of an entire album it's just numbing, because for all their excellent skills as producers they still don't have an ear for what makes an individual track stand out - they don't really have a sound other than the fact that they're eclectic.
Maybe I'm being vague. Maybe I'm being too harsh on what is clearly a very good album. But the honest truth is that as good as it is in small portions it just never seems to cohere into anything greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, when taken as a whole Back to One even seems to lose some of the cohesion that individual tracks may take for granted. What they need -- and this is just one man's opinion -- but what's holding them back from making the flat-out masterpiece of a genre-defining album I know they have in them is just one more stroke of genius. They've built an impressive list of skills and abilities but they're still searching for that one catalytic moment of clarity that could drive them over the top. Tall order, I know.
Maybe next time, fellas.