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Little Axe's Dub/Blues Hybrid Maps a New Path for an Old Form

By Tony Green | Posted 6/26/2002

It seems late in the game to be talking about the blues. For the longest time it was possible to reference the genre as the ultimate wellspring for modernist ideas, but that was back when the Rolling Stones still mattered. If you want to find the contemporary-music Rosetta stone, the best places to start are Sly Stone, James Brown, and George Clinton, the Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf of the hip-hop/electro-pop era.

Besides, everybody knows how the story of the blues ends: The wrong side won. Much of the post-'60 blues crowd learned about African-American culture from British cats with an armful of old Chess vinyl. The upshot was decades of mindless boogie, bombastically pointless guitar solos, those awful Bruce Willis wine-cooler commercials, and wedding-band Gary Moore covers.

Think about this, though: Since bad conclusions follow bad premises, one can conceivably blame a lot of lame-ass soul, cheesy funk, and Zoog Disney-fied hip-hop on a tradition that started out pointed in the wrong direction. With this in mind, refocusing the definition of "the blues" may be late, but still right on time.

In a perfect world we could send a liquid-metal Terminator back in time with several thousand copies of Samuel Floyd's book The Power of Black Music to re-educate--or annihilate--the culprits before they send the blues down the wrong fork in the road. Minus that, we'll have to settle for Little Axe's dub-blues masterpiece Hard Grind. Deeper and funkier than the average ambient outing and more modernist than the average blues disc, Grind sucks any number of Afro-musical spheres into a spine-tingling, relentlessly hypnotic dub-funk wormhole.

Despite the annoying essentialism of boomer purists, "the blues" was always a modernist, synthesized form, incorporating everything from country to jazz, Afro-Latin to gospel. Hard Grind shares this fusion sensibility, making it more "blues" than anything from the neo-revisionist section. After a while, the disc highlights unexpected connections and forces unusual conclusions. For example: If this is a blues album, and it bears such stylistic resemblance to early Funkadelic tunes, doesn't that make Funkadelic a blues group? (P-Funk guitarist Tal Ross has said as much in interviews.) And if Funkadelic fits, who else could be shelved in "blues" that is as least as deserving of the title as, say, Tab Benoit or Johnny Lang? James Blood Ulmer? OutKast?

The list of the Little Axe project's principals speaks volumes. The group's name is the artistic sobriquet of guitarist Skip MacDonald, reunited here with bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Keith LeBlanc, his mates in the legendary Sugar Hill Records house band. Wimbish also brings his experience with Living Colour and the avant-funk trio Jungle Funk to the Grind table. Dub maestro Adrian Sherwood (African Head Charge, Creation Rebel, and Dub Syndicate, as well as Nine Inch Nails, Tackhead, and Primal Scream) handles the production.

The result is a much looser environment than traditional blues in which pungent percussion, creepy guitar, keyboard loops, thick ambience, and pithy vocal samples move freely, nodding to one another as they move through Sherwood's hallucinogenic soundscapes. Some tunes, such as "Run Here Boy" and "All Night Party," lope along to Delta waltzes. Others, such as "Blues Story 2" and "One Drop Blues," slither into your brain like digital king snakes. Still others--"Tight Like That" and "Down to the Valley"--roll with a gospel-delic flavor, lending lines such as "Good Lord show me the way" a deeply affecting supernatural resonance

It's too much to expect any one album to make one rethink the blues entirely, even one as good as this. Only the deepest insiders got hip to Little Axe's first album, The Wolf That House Built, even though it was released to critical acclaim on major-label Epic in 1994. (Axe's second album, Slow Fuse, was released overseas two years later.) But Wolf did have some effect. Not only did the album catch on with the electro-dub-ambient community (think of that guy a while back who yawned when you told him about the hip new practice of sampling folk music); it also helped make the world safe for albums like Fat Possum's hip-hop/blues collaboration/compilation New Beats From the Delta (2000), which established a cross-era conversation between the laptop studio and the front porch. (Some white grave-robber named Moby got in on the act too, mining pop gold by digging the soul out of old blues and gospel records and fixing them into 24-carat DJ beats on 1999's Play.)

So maybe the world is ready for a restructured, refocused look at the blues. At the very least, there've got to be a few more brave souls willing to follow MacDonald, Sherwood, and company, down their digital backwoods road.

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