Sunday, September 5, 2010

September 5: Us3, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)"

Artist: Us3
Song: "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)"
Album: Hand On The Torch
Year: 1993

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Going against a musical norm is a difficult task at any time in an artists career.  However, when a performer attempts this before they have even established themselves, it is far more of a challenge, and the possibility of finding success becomes a very small percentage.  Furthermore, if one attempts such a feat in the midst of the explosion of another form of music, one can see such an effort as almost impossible, or futile, as there are almost no examples of artists finding success under these circumstances.  However, the early 1990's were a rather unique period in music, as new sounds and styles were emerging every day, and the general public were more than willing to give just about anything a chance.  As "gangsta rap" was becoming the most popular sound across the globe, there were a few artists that were attempting to push hip-hop music in new directions, and few took as unique an approach as the English hip-hop outfit, Us3.  Basing their music in jazz instead of funk or r&b, they were immediately in a class all their own, and the laid back vocals that matched the musical compositions created a catchy sound that simply could not be ignored.  Their entire 1993 debut, Hand On The Torch, remains today one of the most exciting and refreshing albums of the decade, and the record is powered by their unforgettable single, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)."

Defining "what" type of group Us3 is presents a bit of a chore in itself, as they fuse hip-hop and jazz so perfectly, that one can make the case that they are part of either genre.  Furthermore, the fact that the group released their music on the legendary Blue Note Records gives them even more credit as being a jazz act at their core.  In reality, after a few very unique singles, Blue Note Records signed the team of Geoff Wilkinson and Mel Simpson and gave them free reign over the entire catalog, letting them pull samples from anywhere they wished.  Truth be told, the memorable opening lines of "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," are actually taken from Art Blakey's A Night At Birdland, Volume 1.  Us3 pulled another classic sample, and perhaps the inspiration for the song title as well, as the core musical theme is lifted from Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island."  There are a number of repeated musical bits throughout the song, and many of them were taken from Lou Donaldson's, Everything I Do Gonna Be Funk (From Now On)."  The addition of a live trumpet from Gerard Presencer is absolutely perfect, and it serves as a fantastic finishing touch to the brilliant musical production on the song.  Clearly, the members of Us3 not only had a vast knowledge of jazz music, but also an uncanny ability to mix them sounds together, as the musical landscapes that they display throughout their songs have never been matched, and their jazz-fusion style served as the blueprint for a number of bands that followed.

Perfectly mirroring the overly "cool" mood that comes from the music, the vocal work of Rahsaan Kelly stands in stark contrast to a majority of the hip-hop being created at that time.  In many ways akin to the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest or even early Gang Starr songs, Kelly's vocal work is absolutely brilliant.  Not only does Kelly deliver his rhymes with fantastic precision, but the overall tone of his voice evokes the spirit of the heyday of the jazz era, and one can hear his vocals in an almost beat-poetry style.  While the mood of "cool" overwhelms his vocal performance, this is not to say that it lacks in energy or spirit, as Kelly never loses the listeners attention, even after hearing the sound many times.  This is largely due to the unique rhythms and inflections that Kelley deploys throughout "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," and it is the fact that his sound is so distant from that of his peers that makes the song remain fresh, even nearly two decades later.  Adding to the uniqueness of the song, the lyrics that Rahsaan Kelly brings to "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" were a far cry from nearly everything else going on in any genre at the time.  Keeping the strong connection to jazz going, Kelly is without question one of the most talented and creative emcees of his era, and his amazing abilities are highlighted by tongue-twisting rhymes like, "...feel the beat drop, jazz and hip-hop, drippin' in your dome makes you zone and bop, funk and fusion a fly illusion, keeps ya coastin' on the rhythm ya cruisin'..."  Though it was unlike anything else being made at the time, with its combination of amazing lyrics and flawless delivery, few songs have endured the decades in the same manner as Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)."

While many hip-hop groups pay the occasional tribute to their influences, a majority of the time, it sounds recycled, as most of them have followed the same path.  This can also be heard in the fact that an overwhelming majority of the musical structures over which they rhyme have many common themes, and they can nearly all be traced back to funk music.  It is with these ideas in mind that one can fully understand just how unique a group one finds in Us3, as virtually nothing about their brand of hip-hop is shared by other groups of their time.  Making many strong connections to the "golden age" of jazz music, it was their efforts that served as a major piece in the branching out of hip-hop music, proving that much could be achieved within the genre, if one looked beyond heaving bass and angry, aggressive lyrics.  The musical creations from the team of Wilkinson and Simpson remain some of the greatest in hip-hop history, and one can clearly see the influence of their style on many later and even current hip-hop acts.  Paired with the smooth, yet strong vocal work of Kelly, it is not surprising that "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" found its way to the top of the charts across the globe, as in many ways, the song epitomizes everything there is to love about a number of different musical styles.  Presenting a perfect fusion of jazz and hip-hop, or in many ways, old school and new school, few songs can be compared in terms of originality and lasting impact as one finds within Us3's unforgettable 1993 single, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)."

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