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Thursday, January 27, 2022

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Arts + CultureMusicAcid jazz through a neoteric prism: Get to know...

Acid jazz through a neoteric prism: Get to know MF Robots

The British group's latest album 'Break the Wall' shows funk prowess.

Before we dive into a review of MF Robots’ new album Break The Wall, here’s a little context. A topical story with global ramifications keeps popping in and out of music publications; After the world endured an uneasy 2020 lockdown, vinyl sales increased significantly this year, hitting a gross $467 million. Trends during quar were driven by collectors and first-time buyers, who purchased time-traveling genres: rock, disco, funk, jazz, electro, and hip-hop (from the era previous to Lil’s taking it over)—anything that moonshot brains, hearts, and ears into a different cycle of artistic expression.

Certainly, ’90s idealism worked well towards this end.

Sandwiched between Nirvana and ATCQ (both Smells Like Teen Spirit and Low End Theory turned 30 this year, sheesh), the so-called acid jazz revolution prospered. Progenitor UK acid jazz group The Brand New Heavies fostered this funky colorful sound, which dragged ’70s attitude, and soul’s cues and fashion into a burgeoning ’90s fascination with disco, improvisational rhythm, and funk. There were quite a bit of British acid jazz bands and jazz-funk groups who try to cop to being the prototype, but c’mon mang, it was The Heavies bringing the vibe. Their heat drove a time-tripping swirl of culture that a new generation was thirsty to hop on to.

The BNH formula directly inspired The Soulquarians and then Mark Ronson, Jamiroquai, and so many artists who came after. ’90s emcees first put the word out; Q-Tip, MC Search, Gang Starr, Pharcyde. Many more were inspired to co-sign the movement, transfixed by the beats.

Much of this magic can be attributed to The Brand New Heavies’ drummer, co-founder, composer, and arranger Jan Kincaid. His style of playing is trademarked by a casual sophistication expressed through hitting those off-beats. A Charlie Watts of the funk set, if you will.

Accents. Style points. Fun taps. When used properly in a cipher, or an emcee battle, Kincaid’s Windrush of the off-time hits adds jet-fuel-creativity to off-the-dome flows, providing fertile ground over which rappers body the opposition.

Jan kept that stew bubbling.

Then, after a long stretch of internal conflict within the Heavies, Kincaid and vocalist Dawn Joseph decided to leave.

Their time in the band had run its course—plus all the dysfunction caused by not having a manager had disrupted the creative process. So, high on optimism, sensing it was time for something a bit more true and expansive, Kincaid and Joseph foresaw a new vehicle that could house their kismet songwriting and arrangement chemistry.

It was then that MF Robots came into existence. What does MF stand for? They claim it’s “Music For Robots.”

But on the group’s second album, Break The Wall, a full exercise in big band R&B arrangements, sticky wicked jam vamps, and sun-kissed gliding disco soul with an uplifting groove, “Multiple Functions” could fit just as easily. 

Fans of the Heavies can push their chips onto the Robots. Like, right now. This train is moving people—full-throttle, straight hustling with that grown folk, look good-smell better essence. We’re talking Prince & The Revolution-type drip circa ’86-’88. When the Purple One had Madhouse in the group. 

Yes, it’s that type of party. Good feeling, great vibes, positive lyrics are what immediately take hold upon listening. Add to it, then drop it on a dime—funk machine prowess.

At over 14 songs—about an hour and small change—Break The Wall straddles that “follow the flow of the band”-type ethos. But it starts with Jan and Dawn. From the LP’s opening “Interlude (Somewhere in South London),” a brief mid-session workout, we have Jan driving the tempo, surely making some emcee out there reach for his booth mic and say “turn me up.” Trademark keyboard stabs waft over the beat. Then come the honeyed vocals of Dawn, enunciating over the top of everything, making these free-flowing arrangements legit and official. 

If they want to be.

One minute in, we already know what it is. When you bring in pros, it gets professional. Accompanying Jan and Dawn are Alex Montaque (keys), Naz Adamson (bass), Mark Beaney (guitar), Jack Birchwood (trumpet), Ben Treacher (sax.) They play, rehearse, vibe, vamp, jam, and execute the concepts placed before them. In return, these pros submit a bend-but-don’t-break freedom, which you don’t find in contemporary R&B these days. Doubling down on that type of production, you have bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, who’s collaborated with Lenny Kravitz and David Bowie, guitarist Cory Wong, a member of the unique funk Vulfpeck collective.

All contribute to an omnidirectional, comprehensive take on this Black music, passing through an ever-evolving, neoteric prism that the Robots have assembled.

Buy MF Robots’ album Break The Wall here.

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John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.
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