Manchester is the Madonna of music towns -- brilliant, mercurial, by turns trend-chasing and trend-setting, but always managing to come up with something startling and relevant enough to silence the doubters. The Smiths, the Happy Mondays, Badly Drawn Boy -- what is it about this rainy northern English burg that has made it so musically fruitful over the last 20 years? Maybe the rain is precisely what does it -- as in Seattle, there's nothing to do on all those endless gray days except sit indoors and play guitars. Or, in the case of hip-hop duo Rae & Christian, keyboards, samplers, and turntables.
Did I say hip-hop duo? Technically that's accurate, but Mark Rae and Steve Christian are about as far from, say, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as residents of the same musical universe can be. Like most Mancunian musicians, they're both skinny, pasty-complexioned white guys, and they probably never freaked a microphone in their lives. But in just a few short years they've established themselves as one of the most important acts in the burgeoning UK hip-hop underground scene, and with good reason -- these guys throw down beats so fat they practically have their own gravitational field. Their first two albums, Northern Sulphuric Soul and Sleepwalking, were dazzling hodgepodges of old-school funk and cutting-edge breakbeats in which both old soul man Bobby Womack and L.A. rappers the Pharcyde sounded equally at home. A lot of people took notice, including red-hot British dance music label Kinetic Records, and now the Manchester lads have contributed the latest installment to Kinetic's Anotherlatenight series.
Anotherlatenight is basically Kinetic's answer to rival label Ultra Records' wildly successful Back to Mine series. Both feature hot dance and electronica artists throwing together downtempo mixes of their favorite songs, which allow fans to bask in all sorts of fantasy scenarios -- you can pretend you're listening to a high-school-crush mix tape made especially for you by Everything But the Girl's Ben Watt, or that the guys from Groove Armada invited you back to their flat after the club to smoke a spliff and spin some tunes. As aural wish fulfillment goes, it's pretty hard to beat.
Rae & Christian seem especially well-suited to this format. Like most hip-hop artists, they keep their influences very close to the surface, so this collection of mostly other people's tunes still sounds a lot like a Rae & Christian album. It also doesn't hurt that Mark Rae is a killer DJ, and knows how to construct and pace the disc in a way that takes the listener on a very satisfying journey -- unlike a lot of the Back to Mine discs, which really do sound like high school mix tapes. But most importantly, Rae & Christian simply have great taste in music, and a fantastic collection of records you'll rarely hear anywhere else, especially stateside, making this an essential collection of underground hip-hop marred only by a few corny mainstream choices that are, thankfully, left till the end.
You know you're in for a wild ride right from the get-go -- the opening tune, "Copenhagen Claimin' Respect", is a blend of an acappella track from English rapper Kriminul and a collaboration between DJ Babu of the Beat Junkies and a Danish rap crew called the Boulevard Connection. There's even some exotic Bollywood strings and a Sarah Vaughn vocal sample thrown in to the mix. And this is only the first two minutes, mind you. From there things settle down a little, as Joshua's dubby electro jam "Come On" clocks in at a leisurely 3:03, but track for track the mix remains boldy eclectic. The common denominator is groove -- for 14 tracks there's not one song that won't have you swaying. It's nearly all outstanding, but especially noteworthy are contributions from R&C's Grand Central Records labelmate Riton, whose piano-loop driven "Put That on My Momma" is an ethereal, Moby-like groove meditation; Mr. Scruff's electro-funk remix of Capoeira Twins' irresistible "Four (4x3)"; and Fumi's "Straight No Filter", which as remixed by yet another Grand Central artist, Only Child, has the funky urgency of a great blaxploitation soundtrack.
Not content just to work the decks, Rae & Christian weigh in with a few musical contributions of their own. Their reinvention of the P-Funk classic "Flashlight" is a throwaway goof, all squawking early eighties keyboards propelled by a looped Bootsy bassline, but what the hell, let the boys have their fun -- it's entertaining stuff, and fits here a lot better than the original would have (for proof, just look to the next track, Rick James' "Mary Jane", which sounds hopelessly campy and outdated bobbing in the wake of all these flashy new sounds). The R&C remix of Faze Action's "Samba", on the other hand, is essential slab of Latin funk, with Spanish guitars, flutes and jazzy horns resting comfortably atop a propulsive hip-hop beat. And their melding of Pharcyde's rap from "It Ain't Nothing Like", off their own Sleepwalking CD, with a start-stop loop from Russell Nash's "100 Million Ways" is just fucking genius, an exhilarating marriage "North London guitar frenzy" (as Rae's liner notes put it) with SoCal b-boy attitude that should by rights be kicking Nelly and Busta Rhymes off the charts right now.
Apart from Rick James' funk balladry, the only other misstep is Jose Feliciano's typically overwrought cover of "California Dreamin'", which closes the mix. You get the feeling that Rae & Christian threw it on here mainly as a curiosity piece, and you wish they'd picked something a little less curious and a little more groovy to close out this grooviest of mixes. But old chesnuts aside, Rae & Christian's contribution to the Anotherlatenight series is a triumph, and sounds less like the boys taking a break from the studio and more like them firing themselves up for their next discload of beat-laden, mind-blowing originals. Let's hope Manchester gets a lot of rain this year.