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Geoff Wilkinson may not have been the first producer to combine jazz and hip-hop, but he certainly was among the most successful. Based in London, Wilkinson had been experimenting with the genre hybrid in the early ’90s when he reached the ears of Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall. Lundvall signed Wilkinson’s band, Us3, and opened the vaults of the legendary label for sampling. The resulting 1993 release Hand on the Torch, with its hit single “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” sampling Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” gave Blue Note its first platinum record. Us3 would record one more album for the label before moving on, its style evolving over the course of another seven releases. Wilkinson spoke with JAZZIZ in 2011 on the release of the Us3 album Lie, Cheat & Steal. Following are unpublished excerpts from that conversation.What made Us3 a bit different was that the stuff that happened before us was mainly producers sampling ’70s jazz-funk, rather than going back to the classic ’60s hard-bop and soul-jazz that Blue Note was famous for. It was really perfect for Us3 to be with Blue Note because that’s the type of music that I really like. So when I met [Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall and other label reps] and talked to them about their music, they quickly realized that I knew what I was talking about. The idea of Us3 was to acknowledge the past, be rooted in the present but look forward to the future. The musicians I worked with were British jazzers — there was a booming jazz-dance scene in England at the time that was bringing a lot of jazz musicians to the fore — and I was always intrigued to see what they would do next.When I look back on it now, the tracks that I sampled for Hand on the Torch were a bit obvious. It wasn't exactly Blue Note’s greatest hits, but there were quite a few well-known tracks that I used — although I don’t think “Cantaloupe Island” was seen as a jazz standard at the time in the way that it is now.
I went a bit deeper [into the Blue Note catalogue] on the second album, and I’m not sure that’s exactly what they wanted me to do. So, after I left the label, I sampled all sorts of things on the third album, because I’d been let off the the leash a bit. It was probably a good thing for the longevity of Us3 not to be tied to just sampling Blue Note cuts. That would have become very restrictive very quickly. I still think sampling is an art when it’s done in the right way, but now the cost of clearing samples has made it prohibitive.Initially, we were met with a healthy degree of skepticism. We got accused of tearing pages from the Bible. But I developed a stock-in-trade answer: “Well, if we’re tearing pages out of the Bible, we’ve been sanctioned by God, because we’re on Blue Note.” I think the fact that we were on the label and that there was some great playing on there, as well as samples, deflected the criticism. Even jazz fans who didn’t like the music could see where we were coming from and what we were trying to do.
Us3 is maybe viewed in the U.S. as a ’90s band or a one-hit wonder, which is ironic, because Hand on the Torch sold more copies than the single [“Cantaloop”] did. Bruce actually had a space on the wall of his office before it had gone platinum, when it had gotten up to about 700,000-800,000 in sales. He said, “That’s going to be Blue Note’s first platinum album. I’ve made a space for it already.” That made me nervous, but we got there. When I started Us3, one of my driving forces was getting jazz across to a younger audience, because jazz had become a bit too high-brow, in terms of its image. People thought that it was an old man’s music, when obviously its roots were in dancing. Coming out of that dance scene in London, it was obvious to me that people could and would dance to jazz if they were exposed to it. And it’s worked both ways — there have been some older jazz fans that have been exposed to hip-hop, as well. I’m absolutely convinced that there’s a bigger audience still for jazz amongst younger people, but they’re just not exposed to enough of it.