|Filter: The Classic Album: 808 State Ninety|
|Future Music, Issue 200
808 State's Graham Massey talks about the innovative Dance act's most iconic album and the secrets behind that saxophone solo.
UK Techno pioneers 808 State's third album Ninety changed the face of modern Dance music. It brought in a level of sophistication and virtuoso musical performance more akin to an accomplished Jazz record, than what was the pretty formulaic House music format of the day. It single-handily evolved the Ambient-led grooves movement that would soothe the gangling nerves of many a Raver across the globe, and provided the template for acts like Autechre and Aphex Twin to carry the slow burning torch of layered and Soulful 4/4 music, and experimental Electronica throughout clubs for the next couple of decades.
808 State started out life as loose collection of Rap groups who'd go out to perform together. As their minibuses took them from gig to gig. a bond grew between Gtaham Massey, Martin Price and Gerald Simpson, and a mutual love of the burgeoning Acid House scene became apparent.
Simpson left to become A Guy Called Gerald, and the remaining two brought in DJs Andrew Barker and Darren Partington into the fold. "The group at that point had become like a four piece, and we just knew we had to make music together." says Massey. "The roles were pretty undefined at that point. We'd all come in with ideas, and music from that era does sound like a lot of people with a lot of ideas, it's very crammed. I think that's the result of four people, and four very loud people - hardly retiring wallflowers - bringing ideas to the table."
Ninety's biggest idea was subtlety. For instance, if you listen to most of the tracks on this album, the subtle panning of hi-hats makes for a delicate motif. One would be in the left speaker and another in the right. It makes for a very layered groove. which was quite uncommon in House music at that point.
"House music then was really about the simplicity," says guitarist, keyboardist and saxophonist Graham Massey. "We were definitely making a departure from that, it was something a bit more sophisticated."
Massey's background as a Jazz musician meant that complicated time signature techniques, and the use of dense levels of interweaving and interacting sounds crept in as an influence on the group as a whole. "I was always trying to get the pseudo-Jazz music in," says Massey. "It was hard to get anything like that into the music in that group, because on the one hand we knew we were addressing Dance culture, and there are rules there we were playing with. So to actually put a saxophone on a House track [as on Ninety's high point Pacific 202] in the first place is quite controversial. because we couldn't think of anyone else that had."
Massey admits that the studio atmosphere could become quite heated as arguments raged over the band's awareness that they were verging on the self-indulgent side. "There was that tension there when we did the noodling things." he says. But it is precisely their braveness to make House musical that makes Ninety such an expressive record, and a timeless favourite with the global Dance music community.
Massey has lust finished mastering the bonus discs for all four re-issues of their back-catalogue, so it looks like they're still set for the 08.08.08 release date, not to mention some high profile gigs around the same time.
Track by track with Graham Massey
"The girl singing was Vanessa. She was a rapper in the Spin Masters, which was Darren and Andrew's group. They had a rapper called MC Shine who was part of group as well, Darren wrote the words to that, and brought her in to perform. She had a kind of innocence, she was pretty young when she was doing it, and had a non-singery approach. which was what it required. It wasn't something for a big belting voice. We were against diva tracks back then.
We were such a proto level at that time, we were trying all kinds of ways to be a group. We didn't function like a normal group and I don't think we saw ourselves as a normal group. It was only later when we had to keep going on [UK chart show] Top of the Pops that we had to start functioning vaguely like one. We were just interested in putting tunes together. It was roundabout 1990 when we started getting some consistency. Even when you look at Ninety, you can see certain directions that we were starting to go into, from the cut and paste type tracks, like someone like [cut and paste Hip Hop pioneer] Steinski was making, to the more Electro influences, which Darren and Andrew were bringing in."
"I can't talk about samples - my mind will go blank. We had just got hold of a sampler, and we were stuffing it full of things that we shouldn't have been.
When we were recording as different groups, as a production unit, this was originally a Spin Masters backing track for a rapper. Using Andy's drum machine, which was a Sequential Circuits DrumTrax, we gave it a really clunking drum sound. When we took the rap out of it, I got to work with quite a lot of melodies on top. In fact, it's got layer upon layer upon layer. And it was one of those tracks we did a little bit of work on over a long period of time.
We kept adding layer upon layer of different stuff and it was a bit of a nightmare to mix, really. Most of it's constructed out of edits, and my favourite trick at the time was stopping the 24-track with a big clunk and putting the brakes on the 4-track machine, and then using that in the edits."
"This track started off because we needed a B-side to the 12-inch of Pacific. There's a well noodly synth solo at the end where it goes a bit ['80's keyboard wizard] Jan Hammer [laughs]. That was controversial. And there wasn't a 4/4 thing going on. There's a 7/8 thing going off on it - it's got funny time signatures. The brass thing gives it an identity. When we first did Cobra Bora for a B-side, it was only a 45 second track, and then we realised in the studio that it had much more in it, and came to record it as a longer thing. It's one of my favourites on the album. I love the way the time signatures go against each other, and it doesn't sound like any other House record at that point in time. I remember it occasionally got played at the [legendary Manchester club] Hacienda, but there was always a state of confusion on the dance floor when it was dropped. It was a twister. Over the years we kept bringing back into the live set, and it still has the 'punching the air' quality that you need in a live tune. It's got great breakdowns and it's become a favourite. But at the time it was considered a bit of a bender."
"When we were doing Pacific we did many mixes of it. We had the original Quadrastate mix that had already been out. But our label ZTT really wanted us to include it as a track on the album, because it had already been a club hit. What we were attempting to do by doing the mix that we did on Ninety, was to make it more of a 7" thing, which would sound good on the radio. It was a lot more radio friendly, due to the almost middle eight section and saxophone solo, which you won't find in the club version. And the drums are a bit more layered. I think if you listen to it, it has more of a story to it, compared to the 12" version that was on (second album) Quadrastate, which is quite a stomper. We didn't intent to do 202, as it's known, as a club stomper. We were definitely trying to broaden its appeal, and it's come out a lot more Jazzy, especially with the bass and that. It's got more swing to it, and swing was something we were always trying to experiment with."
"It sounds very Electro. It's got a very square, stomping beat. The texture of the drum machines on it is a combination of a (Roland) 606, which was a crisp and dry drum machine. The 606 appears quite a lot on Ninety. It's got that biscuit tin quality in the snare. But the kick drums are a [Oberheim] DMX as opposed to 909, so it's got that hard, low bit quality, which makes it feel Electro. All the lines sound quite anthemic. I see New Order as an influence on that track, we listened a lot to Technique around that time, and chose the melody lines to those tracks to get a New 0rder feel. We're using the [Roland] D50 for a lot for melody lines, just because it had this glassy quality that would float over the dense rhythm stuff. I think quite a lot of the synths could be Pro l's, which is a synth we were using a lot back then. The [Roland] Juno 106 is practically on every track. It was our workhorse when we came to the bass on every track. You can hear it really well on Sunrise, on that classic [early House producer) Mr Fingers sound, which we're constantly referring to on the bass. We would leave the two main oscillators off and use the sub oscillator on the Juno 106 with Chorus Number 2 on. Then lock it into mono. If you do that you get that empty sub sound, which makes it sound bulbous. Pacific comes back in this track, like a motif. But then it takes off in a completely different direction."
"Mostly it's a 303 put through a [Yamaha] SPX-90 pitch changer so that it sounds really ugly. We're using a lot of Pro 1 on that track. You can hear, it's got a much more dirty filter bite to it. It was our attempt to do something quite aggressive, but by today's standards it doesn't sound as harsh. We'd always put a contrast to aggressiveness in our tracks by using those kind of, what we would refer to as Techno chords, which was where you sample a chord from one keyboard into the sampler and then play the chord as a line. If we were doing something tough, we'd have to throw in something nice as a contrast. We were still dealing with side A and side B back then. We thought in terms of set, and building it up."
"There was a very big Rave in the hills around Manchester which was called Sunrise. Music at Raves at that time, which was about blessed-out sounds rather than raging about. Marshall Jefferson's Open Your Eyes, is probably the best example of what you could drop at that time in the morning. A lot of the sounds were from a Pearl Syncussion unit, which is an instrument that goes right through our early stuff, It's actually a Disco drum, and it was most popular on Disco tracks, but it actually does lots of other things too. It's two synthesizer units has a trigger in, and you can get deep 808 bass sounds all the way to very 'sample and hold' ring modulator sounds. I think Sunrise shows that off. Again, the Juno is doing a lot of the chords on it. Anything that needed warm pads. we'd go with the Juno, and the melodies came from the D50. We were rinsing what equipment we had at that point. By the next album we had bought a lot more kit in, and people were selling us stuff. We did hire a Minimoog at the beginning of this album, but it wasn't MIDI, and we ended up sampling it, and you can hardly hear it. So, there's bits of Moog on Donkey and 808080808, but by the time we reached next album we went Moog mad, 'cause [legendary UK producer] Trevor Horn gave us his Moog by that point."
The Fat Shadow ('Pointyhead Mix')
"Back then we had the multi-track tape, and we'd try to fit an album on one roll. We had a bit of tape left at the end of recording this album, so we multi-tracked a load of [Roland] R8 drum machines, where you can use the pitch slider, and basically did 24-tracks of pitch sliding the R8 on a load of random sounds- and that's what this track is.
We just didn't want to waste two minutes of multi-track tape at the end. It was a bit of pissing about really. It sounds like something of a [experimental. non-melodic composer] John Cage track. We were always being accused by ZTT of being pointy-headed, and we didn't really know what that meant - it probably meant awkward and Northern [laughs]. So that's why it's called the 'Pointyhead Mix'." FM
Graham Massy talks about the US version of Ninety - United State 90
"When we signed to ZTT we also had the parallel deal with Tommy Boy in America. For that version they used a lot more tracks, stuff off our Quadrastate album. I don't know if they wanted all the extra tracks for the American market, or to have more stuff to sell back to the UK. It's quite odd when you think of it now. Tommy Boy to us was like arriving, so we listened to their advice because we thought they knew what they were doing. When we first went to New York to promote Ninety, it was quite an eye opener to us, to see how the NY Dance scene worked on all these fractions. People would say to us "Right now, we're going to take you to see the Italians" and we'd get taken round all these warehouses, radio shows and record shops. It was quite a shock for some people there that we were from the UK and white, because we were marketed on black radio by Tommy Boy. It was weird how it was separated. The UK Dance scene was a bit more fluid and ahead, particularly when we went the first time to Chicago and Detroit, and saw the guys we thought of as heroes, undervalued in their own situation. Ninety did really well in the States. And funnily enough it was Cubic that broke us in America and it's on United State 90. I think our career with Tommy Boy was essential in the end. I think (1993 album) Gorgeous was the biggest in a way, but that's because we went over and toured quite a few times and did a lot of work to build it up. But Ninety was a really good introduction."
In the studio with... Graham Massey
"We had a definite set of kit- I think one of the things about Ninety is the consistency of the equipment- We weren't at the stage of buying tonnes of equipment at that point- That came more with the next album, when we got a bit of money- We were still coming out of that Roland era for us, we were still using the 101's a lot, and 303's and 909's. There's hardly any 808's on it, it's all 909's. And the new drum machine that had come out at the time, the R8 drum machine, which is pretty evident here. The R8 is all over it because we thought it was fabulous when it came out. In retrospect it's a bit of an odd one. At that time there was a lot of D50 over everything - the Roland D50 - which we were quite in love with at the time. It hasn't weathered particularly well for a classic synth, but we loved it at the time, 'cause it was new. And of course it was the first time we started getting into the Atari computer as well as the sequencer.
The programme we were using was a bit of an odd one called Hybrid Arts SMPTE track. It was before Cubase and [Atari sequencer) C-Lab, and really early programmes. But it was one of the few programmes that used time code - or locked to tape - and it had a special piece of hardware that spat out stuff and locked it to tape, so it allowed us to do a lot of multi-tracking, which is the backbone of the album.
NEED TO KNOW: Five essential facts about... 808 State
1 The group were inspired by the some of the wild tape edit compositions of '70s Jazz jams that made it to record. "Ancodia is a good example of that," says Massey.
2 The album was all originally on one-inch 16-track tape. Then when they got the deal with ZTT they upped it to 24-track in a place called Square One Studios in Bury.
3 Often the tracks were named to identify them amongst the multi-tracks that were littering the studio. Donkey Doctor was from a sample which was cut up.
4 Most of the compositions involved a lot of different and classic techniques such as desk muting, with a completely hands-on approach on the mixing desk.
5 "We were just interested in making the music," says Massey."We didn't get bogged down in the ins and outs of the computer - as long as we could get it to sequence."
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WANT TO KNOW MORE?
For tour dates, releases and news on 808 State, check out: 808state.com