Us3 is the brainchild of London-based producer Geoff Wilkinson. Formed in 1992, alongside production partner Mel Simpson, Us3 rose from the ashes of 2 previous incarnations. The first was a limited edition white label 12” release in 1990 called “Where Will We Be In The 21st Century” featuring rapper MC Honey B and jazz pianist Jessica Lauren. This brought the attention of a (then) fledgling indie label, Ninjatune, and the result was NW1’s 1991 12” “The Band Played The Boogie”. By sampling one of the biggest dancefloor tunes of the burgeoning jazz dance scene, Geoff had unknowingly started a chain reaction. The tune he sampled was Grant Green’s “Sookie Sookie”, originally released on Blue Note Records.
London’s Kiss FM playlisted “The Band Played The Boogie” and Geoff received a call summoning him to EMI’s offices in London. Knowing the sample had not been cleared Geoff was nervous, but somehow talked himself out of being sued and into the Blue Note vaults. By allowing complete access to their legendary back catalogue, Blue Note went back to the future. “It was a brave decision by Bruce Lundvall (Blue Note President)”, says Geoff, “but he made me record some demos first, to prove I could do it”. One of those demos, recorded in March 1992, was “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”. Exactly two years later it was sitting pretty in the US top ten. By then the resulting album, “Hand on the Torch” had become a global phenomenon, collecting plaudits and Gold & Silver discs in equal measures. It was the first Blue Note album to achieve Platinum status (1,000,000 sales) in the USA.
The worldwide success of Us3 took everyone by surprise, and proved a point to Geoff. “I always thought there was a huge potential audience for jazz amongst younger people, and I wanted Us3 to be a point of access for them. By sampling classic jazz tracks, mixing them with beats and raps, and having younger jazz cats playing on top I was acknowledging the past, staying rooted in the present, and looking forward to the future, all at the same time.”
After several world tours with the Us3 band, Mel left for pastures new, and in 1996 Geoff set about making the follow-up. “It was always my intention to change the vocalists with each Us3 album” says Geoff, “it keeps things fresh and exciting for me too.” NY rappers KCB and Shabaam Sahdeeq came in to replace Rahsaan Kelly, Kobie Powell & Tukka Yoot, and the resulting 1997 album was “Broadway & 52nd”. The Blue Note samples became more embedded in the grooves and experimental tracks like “Snakes” (in 5/4) and “Sheep” (a spoken word poem) broke new ground, drawing great performances from K and Shabaam.
More touring followed, but personnel changes within Blue Note’s parent company (Capitol) left Geoff with the chance to leave and rejoin working with the A&R executive that initially signed him in 1992. The result was a deal with Sony in NY and a chance for Geoff to spread his wings. “I felt I had achieved my goals at Blue Note and was looking for a new challenge,” Geoff says. The Blue Note samples were ditched and in came 2 new vocalists, rapper Michelob, and singer Alison Crockett. But before the album was complete a major personnel upheaval at Sony left Us3 in limbo. “It wasn’t a great time and left a sour taste” admits Geoff. “It took nearly 2 years of legal argument before I got back the rights to my own album.”
Eventually the third Us3 album “An Ordinary Day In An Unusual Place” was released in 2001 by Toshiba EMI in Japan, and Universal in Europe. The album itself represented a quantum leap in the Us3 sound. Alison’s vocals oozed soul and musically Geoff had successfully incorporated elements of drum’n’bass, Latin, and Indian music into the mix. “I’ve always had a very wide ranging taste in music and this was my chance to show it”, explains Geoff. “I also wanted to do something more overtly political, and Alison & Mich have both written some great socio-economic observations”. Several European and Japanese tours took place throughout 2002, and the crowd reactions were incredible. It was, however, no surprise to Geoff when another round of major label personnel cuts at Universal left Us3 homeless.
Despite the major label merry-go-round in Europe & the US, virtually the same staff were still at Toshiba EMI in Japan. A deal was concluded and the 4th Us3 album “Questions” was released in Japan in 2003. This time Geoff ditched the samples completely and made an album heavily influenced by both his love of Latin music and the nu-soul movement. Brooklyn rapper Reggi Wyns and London-based (South Africa-born) female singer Mpho Skeef were the featured vocalists. “It’s important to keep evolving,” says Geoff, “there’s been a decreasing reliance on samples with each Us3 album, and “Questions” is the culmination of that. And it was kinda nice working with some live musicians rather than dead ones!”. “Questions” was also the first Us3 album to be released independently (outside Japan). Two huge tours of Europe throughout 2005 saw the Us3 live band perform 50 gigs in 14 countries, serving as a huge inspiration for Geoff.
“The gigs in 2005 were awesome,” says Geoff, “and I decided to make a much more vibey, uptempo live-sounding album next”. The result was the multiple musical personalities of “Schizophonic”. All members of the Us3 live band were featured, including the blistering trumpet of Chris Storr, the soaring sax of Ed Jones, the funky muscle of double bass player “Level” Neville Malcolm, and the unique turntable mastery of DJ First Rate. Mike Gorman, Sean Hargreaves and John Crawford took turns at the pianists chair, while (60 year-old!) Ernie Cranenburgh played some truly beautiful jazz guitar. “Schizophonic” also featured two new rappers, Akil Dasan and Gaston, both of whom Geoff found at New York’s legendary underground hangout the Nuyorican Poets Café. Akil’s rhythmical mastery was put to the test on a variety of beats ranging from straight-up hip-hop to Brazilian sambas to straight-ahead jazz breaks, while Gaston’s intricate twisting wordplay is guaranteed to have you laughing hard, scratching your head, and snapping your neck all in the same breath. 2006 also saw the Us3 band venturing into pastures new with gigs in Russia.
The new album “Say What!?” sees Geoff doing something he’s never done before. Rappers Akil Dasan & Gaston make a welcome reappearance. “I normally like to change the vocalists on every Us3 album,” says Geoff, “but Akil & Gaston did such a great job on Schizophonic I wanted to develop our relationship further. I think they’ve both stepped up a gear on Say What!?”. With the addition of 21 year old singing sensation Adeline, this time the Us3 sound has taken on a contemporary R&B twist, typified by the powerful single “Say You Belong To Me”. Yet again the album has a huge palette of sounds ranging from the big crunchy drums & horns of “VIP” and “Intoxicated” to the synthesized string drenched jazz breaks of “Afrodisiac” to the seductive Brazilian grooves of “How ‘Bout It Baby”. Listen carefully to the clever lyrical dexterity of Akil on “ABC” as he runs through the alphabet from A to Z (and back!) with his rap (ie Akil Boldly Calculates Dope Elegant Flows, etc). Genius.