Tackhead's Heady Tacktics

bart plantenga -- zeilstraat 23 / II -- 1075 SB Amsterdam

Paris Free Voice, (June 1990) updated 1996
included in the anthology, REGGAE, RASTA, REVOLUTION: Jamaican Music From Ska to Dub, (Simon & Schuster) 1997

Keith LeBlanc, Tackhead's drum mobster, once boasted that Tackhead was to rap music what calculus is to arithmetic -- more like a Molotov cocktail compared to a firecracker... A radio exploding under my arm could never change the way I listen to music more than Tackhead (and by extension the entire On-U Sound conspiracy from London, "by way uh Noowuhk" as Doug Wimbish emphasized on a station ID he once did for WFMU -- and Jamaica, Africa, Japan...) As a radio dj, I've made On-U an almost weekly habit -- going on 11 years now!

While the West wallows in the smug counterfeit triumphs of capitalism, with its endless clips of tumbling busts of Lenin, re-edited collapses of the Berlin Wall by Pepsi and the bogus euphoria of the Wall being sold like grams of cocaine, we can sometimes spot the failure inside the triumph, the ghettoes inside the Crystal Palace. Out of this rubble, today's febrile context of undulating borders, fickle nationalisms and manufactured styles of rebellion, we see the emergence of new languages -- global music(s), musics that borrow, collaborate, hybridize, unite, and refuse to become mere hard copy, or property -- the art of the remix elaborates the notion of this perpetual flux which David Toop in Ocean of Sound describes as "this alternately disorientating and inspiring openness through which all that is solid melts into aether..." A zone where the contradictions of spirit (defiance and spiritual acquiescence, anger and joy, aether and metal, well-being and angst are blended as an unstable yet exhilirating cocktail. All produced in a bedouin encampment of sonic barter somewhere near an Interzone of shifting sound waves, Alhambra's filled with J.G. Ballard's "singing statues," along the neuronal trade routes, veins as phone lines, "across the vagaboundaries" (as Ron Sakolsky puts it in Gone To Croatan) between temporal and tympanic, a medina of megawatts, P.O. boxes, plain brown wrappers, B. Traven's elusiveness, campfire "bolos," Cedex, websites, white noise squat punks, ghosts in the wires, "Tunes From The Missing Channel," Breton's Nadja, allusion, absinthe, absence.

So how does Tackhead fit in? And what is Tackhead? Well, first, its New Jersey slang for homeboy, and well, we know what provocation is: the forcing of attention to arguments to establish conditions for discussion, and that they've done. They've never been flashy mega-fame boys seeking pop deification; instead they prefer to arouse discomfort, destabilize the received signs of the status quo, détourning their Luddite way up the media towers of power babel.

Putting heavy beats to intelligence is like putting joy inside menace -- imagine Dick Gregory and Phil Ochs in King Tubby's studios. Listen to Tackhead's "Mind At The End of a Tether," Wimbish' bass sounding like strummed hi-tension wires, the perfect coagulation of gloom and celebration -- samples at once declaring "Our time is now" and "there ain't no heaven on earth," reprocessed info-overload that speaks directly to our own post-modern malaise. Tackhead has pushed Bronx ghetto rap murder casualty, Scott T. La Rock's own extrapolations of how Hendrix' fused politics and transcendence into aural global politic. (Were Tackhead's covers of Hendrix' "Crosstown Traffic" and "Hey Joe" ever recorded?!)

Call it outlaw-hardcore-dub-ska-punk-funk-industrial-jazz-rap but also call it LOUD. "Beeping and a bopping" with the sonic boom of a B-52. The MC-5 + Fela, so you can dance, dance atop the abandoned bomb shelter, shards of shrapnel jutting from your hemp threads. Survival -- and the glory beyond mere survival. So how did 3 NY (and NJ) B-boys, responsible for the seminal (circa '80) Sugarhill sound of socially-conscious "modern rap," e.g., Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and Melle Mel's "White Lines," end up in London? LeBlanc was recruited by wizard of Oz-mological megamixing, Adrian Sherwood to come work in the On-U Sound studios. LeBlanc beckoned the rest of the trio, Doug "bass in your face" Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald. The alchemy begins: fat dubby beats for Fats Comet, lots of empty space to -- as Tackhead -- pour their post-modern cut-up-inspired (via Mark Stewart) sonic political mayhem into. All this spun around Sherwood's know-how (which he learned as a precocious young DJ from the likes of King Tubby, Prince Far I, Lee "Scratch" Perry -- check out "African Rubber Dub" on Bim Sherman's Century records). Prince Far I's (Kingston brutal murder casualty) ghostly gravely voice threading homage roots through almost everything Sherwood does: e.g., Singers & Players, Dub Syndicate, African Headcharge. While the rambunctious Perry influence on Sherwood is enormous; his mixing concoctions of all manner of kinks, loops, snippets, gunshots, mad laughter are duly reconfabulated as Perry is now produced by Sherwood to make Tackheady, provocative dissonant dub -- e.g., "S.D.I." -- "coordinate with verve" as the sampled, disembodied, and ominous voice of Andy Fairley explains the On-U strategy. With Sherwood (Phil Spector as anthropologist) at the knobs Tackhead has produced some of the deffest "Science Fiction Dancehall" whether it be backbone crunching to the mellifluous voice of Bim Sherman (himself a reggae singer vet of Roots Radics, Prince Far I, Sir Coxson, and 100s of other projects) or Gary Clail (confrontational street toaster; Billy Bragg in dub?) or soulful Bernard Fowler; or becoming the Maffia for Mark Stewart (intransigent, post-situationist cut-up dissonance manager, social critic, formerly with the legendarily elusive Pop Group.) The Pop Group pioneered political punk funk which evolved into Rip, Rig and Panic, Pigbag... Tackhead make of all this some of the most heavenly dissonant dub which, by 1996, had become one of the most borrowed and reconfigured sounds around.

"We're trying to set up a continental landslide," Doug Wimbish once said, referring to their goal of shaking up the industry (a noble failure) and their ability to sample (appropriated sound snatches which, when used properly, can create complex and unique aural tapestries) and wend these snatches through other projects and songs like leitmotifs to "coordinate with verve" an even larger matrix of sound. Some of their (timely) samples include Andy Fairley (easily the "true" voice of War of the Worlds), Margaret Thatcher, various military talking heads and apparatchiks, Lenny Bruce, Einstein, Bishop Tutu, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Prince Far I, Burroughs, various televangelists, and dominatrixes. We take sampling for granted and forget how far Tackhead originally pushed the envelope to make it part of almost every musicians palette today. Throw in missiles, soccer fandemonium, and paranoid neswcasts, anchored to the "bass"-ic echo-inflected counterfrictional lassitude of their dub-hop and you have Funkadelic caught in a Beirut crossfire, a sound at the edge of 1996 way back in 1987. They are that unstable molecule, a recipe for mayhem that rearranged the infrastructure of our sound perception, resculpted our inner ear the way Charlie Parker, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, King Tubby, et al., did by sensing the music inside noise, "the crazy bulbous punchbag of sound" as Andy Fairley calls it. So much so that most contemporary (1991-1996) big sell, "indie" or "alternative" music sounds, if not anemic or nonresonant, then derivative, rehashed as if brazenly bootlegged right off the On-U sound boards. This is where Doris Lessing's notion of "divine discontent" has found its proper resonant pitch.

Very Selective Recommended Discography:

Roots to 'Head

1979 ... 1983: Doug Wimbish, Skip McDonald, and Keith LeBlanc lay down "streetwise" trax in New Jersey studio, effectively making jazz out of disco. Become Sugarhill Gang band, backbone to Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Funky 4+1, Spoony G...

1984 ... 1986: Trio moves to Tommy Boy, LeBlanc produces landmark (arguably) 1st sampling record "No Sell Out / Malcolm X." Trio co-write "Unity" for James Brown and Afrika Bambaata. Co-write / produce / perform Bambaata's "Beware the Funk is Everywhere." Work with Force MD's. LeBlanc at behest of Adrian Sherwood, upon suggestion of Mark Stewart, moves to London. Wimbish and McDonald follow. Form Fats Comet. Wimbish works with George Clinton, sessions with Carly Simon, Clarence Clemons. Wimbish and LeBlanc standout on "Artists Against Apartheid: Sun City." Tackhead "invented" in 1986, the trio plus Sherwood and a round robin of sampled voices and various singers/toasters such as Gary Clail, Bim Sherman. First disc "War." LeBlanc does "Major Malfunction" with Wimbish and McDonald. Become the Maffia behind Mark Stewart. Sherwood always close to the controls.

1987 ... 1991: Wimbish with Fats Comet. LeBlanc with Arthur Baker. Wimbish and LeBlanc on Little Steven's "Freedom, No Compromise" and Mick Jagger's "Primitive Cool." Tackhead produces "The Game" (4th & Broadway) and "Mind at the End of a Tether," "What's My Mission Now." On top of the game of sound. On "Friendly As A Hand Grenade" use soul singer Bernard Fowler (Peech Boys, Rolling Stones). Produce "Sound System," "Tackhead Tape Time," and "Mark Stewart." They, in various forms work on "Malcolm Mclaren," with Shriekback, Robbie Robertson, B.B. King, Nine Inch Nails, Godfathers. Meanwhile Sherwood becomes the trademark eminent remixer (to fund On-U projects). Everyone seems to want the Sherwood treatment. Add to this collaborations with ex-PiL Jah Wobble, Keith levene, Martin Atkins add Perry, Mikey Dread, Bonjo I, Style Scott, Bim Sherman, Sly & Robbie and you have a very potent mix.

1992 ... : Growth, dispersal, commercial disillusionment, cross-pollination: Wimbish becomes bassist in Vernon Reid's Living Color, Wimbish and McDonald help Annie Anxiety (ex-Crass) on her "Short & Sweet," McDonald explores Blues roots as Little Axe (1st ambient dub blues). LeBlanc works with Nenah Cherry, Bomb The Bass (highly influenced by On-U, check their Ninja Tunes productions.) DJ Spike. Gary Clail goes "solo" and on the road with his briefcase of Tackhead backing tapes. Strange Parcels, the hybridizations and sonic dialogs continue... After Mark Stewart's "Control Data" and appearance on Tricky Single "Aftermath" is there a collaboration in works?! And then on the On-U email list I read this: "Primal Scream release a new single with a guest appearance from Irvine Welsh and production by the On-U Sound System on 3rd June 1996. The single will only ever have one pressing and is available for one week only..."

bart plantenga
zeilstraat 23 / II
1075 SB Amsterdam
The Netherlands
fax: 020 427 75 37
email: bart@wfmu.org

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