Beats International are a pop group of their time... an indie star turned dance
guru, a soap star turned singer, and a motley crew of British rappers, singers,
musicians, graffiti artists and dancers passing through.
Take the whole package to Japan. and it all gets distinctly surreal.
John McCready, The Face, 1990
Beats International are a pop group of their time... an indie star turned dance guru, a soap star turned singer, and a motley crew of British rappers, singers, musicians, graffiti artists and dancers passing through. Take the whole package to Japan. and it all gets distinctly surreal.
SOMETIMES Japan is more than a Western mind can take. You begin to wonder if you've left the Earth's atmosphere for another world after a day on the planet Tokyo. The 14-hour plane journey only confirms this. The jet lag induces a mild form of hallucination. Soon your mind is asking your body, where am I? The answer won't reassure you. You're in a world where lamp-posts inset with small Sony TV sets show high hills and rolling waves, while new age piano music plays. You're in a world where everyone is beautifully perfect, like dummies in some giant shop window. A world where every Western youth culture since the dawn of teenage has been assimilated so completely that Tokyo has become a sociological Disneyland. The real Disneyland is ten miles outside the city, but we were told that nobody goes there. Instead they're all here, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in their Union Jack T-shirts. They're all being so ridiculously polite that you begin to consider the option of using 'fuck off' as your opening line to these people who nod and bow and smile at you despite the fact that they are merely passing by. Instead, Tokyo gets you in the end. You discover a long lost pocket of goodness in your soul and end up with a sore neck after adopting a passable imitation of a toy dog on the back shelf of a car.
Norman Cook keeps looking at me. I keep looking at Norman Cook. Neither of us is making much sense of this right now. Arriving the night before to play a series of shows in Japan, Beats International are a fresh example of Western pop to be studied, consumed and assimilated. It's 10.30 in the morning and Norman Cook DJ is taping a radio mix for 81.3 FM J Wave. There are at least eight people in this tiny studio. They smile constantly at him, making mental notes of each scratch, each movement. His records are removed from their metal box and examined like moon rock. They are passed around and undecipherable comments are made about Deee-Lite, En Vogue and J.C. Lodge. It's like those alien stories where hapless travellers are beamed up by future scientists from other worlds. These J Wave scientists are investigating Britain's dub culture at close hand, and Norman Cook is the nearest thing they have to a perfect specimen.
Perhaps he'll be sitting at home in Brighton next month not remembering a thing about it, perhaps in a year or two Sony or Akai will be marketing a small black box the size of a cigarette packet that cuts and scratches at the touch of a button. Norman Cook is a little unnerved by all this interest. Two days later he tells me: "It's like they want to copy everything down to the smallest detail. Yesterday I did another radio mix, just the kind of dodgy old thing you'd do in your bedroom, and they were videoing it. If we come back next year, the whole of Tokyo will be scratching itself to death."
And then the fun starts. The complete Beats International entourage is booked to do a live radio interview for Tokyo Pop Arena. They are waiting in the studio reception where the presenter appears, a human typhoon with glasses that could burn holes in paper on a sunny day and the kind of clothes you can't even find in C&A any more. He is the first frightening indication of Tokyo's apparent infatuation with rap. He shouts "Beats International!" with the kind of enthusiasm most sane people save for a winning goal or a multiple birth, and then he breaks into rhyme. It sounds like the Sugarhill Gang must still be big in Tokyo.
He leads us to the studio, where an interpreter relays another strange question to rapper and part-time Internationalist Wildski. While he tries to answer, the presenter whispers in his ear. "Motherfucker," he hisses. Wildski can hardly believe it. Welcome to planet Tokyo, New York without the noise, the dirt and the violence, where saying 'motherfucker' is just another way of denying an indigenous culture that's slowly being buried; just another way of saying, 'I love Johnny Rotten and Ronald McDonald.'
I talk to Norman and to Beats International member Lester Noel in the hotel restaurant. We're hiding in a comer to give our necks a rest, the logic being that if you don't make eye contact you don't have to bow. Norman and Lester are the only two official members of the group. The two rappers, Wildski and DJ, the graffiti artist Req One and even Lindy Layton, the angelic voice of ‘Dub Be Good’, are all just passing through. Norman met Lester on a Housemartins tour: Lester was the vocalist with support band North Of Cornwallis, an out-and-out indie group that expired before James Brown's ‘Funky Drums’ became the backbone to every white dance record. Norman and Lester seem to get on well. They make a good team — Lester a black man who thinks James are the greatest, Norman a white man whose life was changed when he heard James Brown.
"We have a lot in common." says Lester. "We were both inspired by punk. It's just that he went one way and I went another. I followed the indie trail through 2 Tone to Postcard Records and the Stone Roses. Now I teach him about indie music and he teaches me about dance. We're aware of the ironies. The Stones Roses were interested in him remixing 'Fools Gold'. Norman didn't really know much about them. I had to fill him in."
Norman got more and more lost in black music when he was a member of The Housemartins. Using the name DJ Ox he would play anywhere and everywhere, inspired by Grandmaster Flash's ground-breaking 'Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel' (1980). "I couldn't believe that record. I went out and bought the best turntables I could afford. They were £60 each. They were crap, but you could scratch with them if you put 10p pieces on the heads. By the time it was obvious that the band were splitting up, I was already totally hypnotised by rap and dance music."
Housemartins fans — whipped into an anti-dance frenzy by the "Hang The DJ" dribblings of Morrissey — often expressed a desire to fill Norman Cook in, seeing him as a traitor. At the time NME's letters page was full of hysterical prose from students concerned about the spectre of dance music. "Sometimes it was difficult to defend," says Norman, "because at the time rap was all dicks and gold. It was politically unsound, and that was the band's main argument against it." It was Norman's fellow band members who insisted on the pseudonym.
Finally, he decided that The Housemartins were contributing nothing to his life. "I was totally dissatisfied. Everyone had a problem with the band. I'd lost all interest in the music. It meant nothing to me then." By the time it was all over. Norman had done his first mix, a poppy version of Eric B and Rakim's ‘I Know You Got Soul’ which sampled The Jackson Five's ‘ABC’ with a typical lack of concern for cool. With an ability to take a hardcore hip hop track and make the curly-permed DJ at the local disco understand it, Cook became the pop rap remix king: an indispensible link in the chain that brought Brooklyn to Basildon and Basingstoke. He made a good living from his extensive knowledge of breakbeats and old funk records, and eventually Beats International evolved quite naturally out of his love of DJing. Norman began cutting and scratching the night away with Wildski MCing over the top. Other friends from the Brighton scene, like rapper DJ and spray assassin Req One, came later.
Performing at Tokyo's Club Quatro, Wildski is truly an over-the-top, larger-than-life man who bounded through the Japanese experience picking up enough words and phrases to cobble together an Oriental rap which had the crowd beaming from ear to ear. Wildski decided that Tokyo was the hat capital of the world and proceeded to buy 14 different Kangol varieties. One particular tartan hat was so large even Puss Abbot might have baulked at it. I talk to him walking through a packed mid-evening Tokyo, our interview interrupted as a fellow headcase passes by. "I've got that hat!" he shouts to nobody but himself.
We talk about the recent Kiss FM opening celebration in London's Highbury Fields, where Beats International were canned offstage. It was seen by many as a 'fuck off' message to Norman from hardcore hip hop fans. "I don't think it was as much that as people just waiting to see LL Cool J getting over-excited," says Wildski. Norman is willing to accept the criticism that he's a white man making a good living from black music. "What else can I do though? I love black music. But I understand that we weren't black enough for that crowd, despite the fact that of the three people on stage [Lester, DJ and Lindy — Norman wasn't on stage] only one was white." This kind of willingness to accept criticism about sampling ("I know we're killing live music"), or the group's often grey image ("I know that's a problem"), inevitably endears you to Norman Cook.
He's an archetypal nice bloke who is the first to get his round in at the Blighty Bar, an after-hours drinking club which we establish on the steps of the hotel after we discover that Tokyo shuts at 10.30. A machine in the hotel provides the beer. Beats International could be found there almost every night watching a strange world go by. Sometimes a car slows down and the inhabitants wave and shout what they believe to be a significant phrase. Something like ‘reggae’ or ‘motherfucker’. One night the Seven Samurai roar past on motorcycles. They have Mohican haircuts and look like they'd like to rip us limb from limb as we wave cheerfully to them. Thankfully, they don’t come back. Norman leads the conversation at the Blighty Bar, with subjects like the Housemartin with the biggest dick (can you guess?) and the London rap star whose real name is Bottom. During one of the many radio interviews he undertakes during the week, he is asked to name the first record he ever bought for a programme called Super DJ On Line. He turns to me and asks. "Do you think they'll have 'Mouldy Old Dough' by Lieutenant Pigeon?"
She's a little preoccupied at the moment, just an ordinary person finding it hard to deal with the madness that selling vast amounts of records brings. Yet she has sung and acted since childhood in everything from Annie to Grange Hill, from Bird's Eye commercials to a more recent — and more controversial — Army recruitment ad. "Success means you can spend more when you go shopping. I don't really enjoy it. I have been tempted to run away. I think about it a lot. The opportunities are there. I think about what would happen if I did it... I think I'd really like to fuck off and not come back."
Perhaps Lindy Layton is going to run away to Minneapolis to be with Prince. According to more than one disreputable daily, she is having a 'steamy' affair with him. "That's just ridiculous. How can you stop them making these things up? He's too small for me, anyway..." It's also been said that Prince, who writes songs for anyone and everyone from Sheena Easton to The Bangles, has written a song specifically for her called ‘Do Me Baby’. You may in fact remember that it appeared on one of his early LPs.
Lindy is to record this song as part of her solo LP. "I didn't say he'd written it for me. He sent it through, suggesting that I cover it. Those things get so twisted it just makes me look stupid." Bad experiences like these make Lindy Layton suspicious even with a gentle soul like me. In future she is going to be harder. "When the record company first asked me to talk to people, I just did. I couldn't be fucked to say 'no'. From now on I'm going to be more careful."
Back at the Blighty Bar, Japan has gone to bed and the British dance scene is the subject of discussion. "I think 'Blame It On The Bassline' is a sign that things are changing again," says Norman. "But England has always been more open-minded. We should be proud of that. It's the only thing that makes me proud about that country. The fact that we can have Deee-Lite at number one and they can't get anywhere in America." To Norman Cook the success of records like that and music such as En Vogue's ‘Lies’, music he plays at his 'Ted Free Zone' night in Brighton, signals the end of the uptempo madness that was house. "I hated that shit. I couldn't dance to it. Nothing else was given a chance when it was happening. It held a pillow to the face of every other kind of music."
‘Dub Be Good’ is to him a vindication of his belief in an eccentric mix of punk, politics, reggae, ragga, hip hop, pop and the most hardfaced sampling style since Mark 'the 45' King first laid hands on an Akai S900. Pop music is walking Norman Cook's way. Like Japan, the future belongs to him. However, for the moment there are more important things. "My round?" he asks, draining his can.
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