Us3 :: The Third Way (Hand on the Torch Vol. II)
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
It's our annual tradition at RapReviews to declare October
"UK Month" and shine a spotlight on England's criminally slept
on rap scene - well slept on in the States at least but not
in Europe or the rest of the world. Of course it doesn't hurt
that a couple of our writers are "across the pond" nor that
I have more than a passing interest in BBC TV programs. A lot
of people who were introduced to Us3 in the early 1990's
though probably didn't realize it was a British export - the
brainchild of London-based super producer Geoff Wilkinson.
He wasn't the first and certainly not the last to successfully
fuse jazz and rap, but "Hand on the Torch" had the inside
track given the unfettered access Wilkinson was given to the
vaults of Blue Note Records. A classic was born, and thanks
to the rap lyrics of Rahsaan Kelly on their crossover hit
single "Cantaloop," it sounded thoroughly American.
Wilkinson has had a lot of collaborators on a lot of different
versions of Us3 in the years since, making him the only integral
and defining aspect of the group. It would even be fair to say that
Us3 is Wilkinson's alter ego. He's brought back some old friends
from the 1990's for "The Third Way" though, which isn't surprising
given the album's subtitle is "Hand on the Torch Vol. II." Kelly
is nowhere to be found though, and in fact the one reference
to the name in recent years is of a deranged man from Brooklyn
accosting bus passengers with a screwdriver. I want to think
the name is a coincidence, but I really can't say either way.
Instead the return collaborators here are the equally American
sounding KCB, and the distinctively London-via-Jamaican
stylings of Tukka Yoot. You can hear both on "Never Go Back."
KCB: "Uh-uh, nah, forget it, no way
Never goin back, fast forward
Call it what you must I call it a bust
[..] Passport hopping so Louis bags stay packed"
While the album may reference old times and old themes, we
can happily report there's no "Cantaloop Part II." Wilkinson
has also changed up his game from back in the day, preferring
to interpolate and recreate the jazz greats instead of sampling
them directly. For that reason you can hear everything from
Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That
Swing" to Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" on the album, but the
jazz flows as opposed to being constricted - artists working
in tandem with the emcees and vice versa. The results are
at times simply spectacular, as when rapper Akil Dasan spits
free form verses over the uptempo and aptly named "Be Bop Thing."
The late great Keith Elam would approve.
The line-up changes throughout the CD, but the only song
you can hear all three spitters on together is "What Would
You Do?" It rides a stand-up bass beautifully, horns
accenting the breaks but not taking the focus off the
snappy beat and crispy drums. Even though the song is about
your last day on Earth, it's anything BUT a mournful
tune - it's a celebratory exultation of pure joy. The
bass is a more aggressive and protestive note on "Keep
Your Head Right (Keep Your Fist Tight)" - while Akil Dasan
and KCB make you want to fight the powers that be. There
are very few times in the 60 minutes of the album that
I feel ambivalent about - each evokes a head-nodding or
face-smiling response. From Tukka Yoot's brash "If You've
Got It Flaunt It" to the futuristic funk and piano of
Akil Dasan's "Beautiful," it's safe to say Geoff Wilkinson
and "The Third Way" hit all the right notes.
Music Vibes: 9 of 10
Lyric Vibes: 7.5 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: October 1st, 2013