Unknown Pleasures Chapter 20: Playing With Fire

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

L to R: Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Bill Laswell
L to R: Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Bill Laswell

Material – The Third Power [Axion/Island 1991]

Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare were justifiably pissed. They’d worked with Producer/Bassist/Visionary Bill Laswell enough to expect he’d know when enough was enough.  They were cool with the way he’d funkified their reggae riddims, giving their work an edgy, Downtown sound and even getting them some airplay on US urban radio.  They’d even gotten a spot for the song “Bass & Trouble” on an episode of Miami Vice, which was a nice piece of extra cash.  Still, this record didn’t sound anything like that stuff.  They couldn’t even hear themselves in the final mix. That crazy New York bald head had totally screwed this record up, and a pair of reggae legends like Sly and Robbie weren’t gonna have their names on a record where you couldn’t hear the Sly and Robbie.

It’s likely Bill Laswell figured he and the Riddim Twins were tight enough that he could do more of his thing on their new record.  After all, he’d made them enough money and raised their profile not only in the States but on the continent as well.  Sure, sure, they might have been big fish in a small pond like Kingston, but Bill Laswell was they critic’s’ darling with a golden touch.  He’d rescued Herbie Hancock from obscurity while helping launch the hip hop revolution that would eventually kill rock music as the dominant pop form on Earth.  Oh well, if they didn’t want the record to come out as a Sly & Robbie disc, he’d just put it out as the new Material album; it would fit right in with the discography of a band that had never really been a band as much as a magnetic north for musicians from multiple disciplines to find common, creative, ground [under Laswell’s careful supervision of course].  

Formed in 1978 by Laswell, keyboardist Michael Beinhorn, soundman Martin Bisi and drummer Fred Maher, Material started out as a prog-jazz band at the behest of Russian impresario Giorgio Gomelsky, who signed them to his Zu label.  After one recording for Zu, they moved to [the even trendier] Celluloid label for the Temporary Music 1 Ep.  Partly because of the Gomelsky connection and partly because of their talent, Material began to attract some of the coolest names in jazz, prog, art rock and even punk.  Their first full album Memory Serves sported contributions from Sonny Sharrock, Olu Dara, Fred Frith and Henry Threadgill, while still retaining the hard art-funk bent of the core group.  Later albums would find the group reduced to Laswell and Beinhorn shepherding a shifting array of singers and players, including Nona Hendryx, Archie Shepp, Nile Rodgers and a budding young vocalist named Whitney. 1983 would prove a high point for the duo when they produced Herbie Hancock’s breakthrough album Future Shock which featured the iconic single “Rockit.”  In 1985 Beinhorn left for a successful production career while Laswell kept pushing and expanding the concept of Material.

MI0001404573It’s easy to believe Laswell didn’t really want to make another Sly & Robbie album when sessions for The Third Power began.  Even if he did, it was way too easy to keep bringing new people with different voices to the project:  Shabba Ranks, The Jungle Brothers, Bootsy Collins, Herbie Hancock, Bernie Worrell…Essentially Laswell had the coolest rolodex in New York, so just call everyone.  With a less focused and creative producer, this would lead to either stylistic chaos or the sort of boring “jam out” they used to put on at the end of Grammy broadcasts.  With Laswell at the controls, the result is a genuine fusion of jazz, funk, reggae, hip hop and world music into what could have been a game-changing new urban sound…If the world had actually heard it.  It’s also easy to understand why Sly & Robbie, legends in their own right, would object to becoming sidemen on their own record [despite their well-earned rep as ace hired guns]. While
the Riddim Twins remain the pulse of the record, The Third Power quickly branches out in multiple directions. The album opens with “Reality,” a tough slice of dancehall funk with a no-bullshit Shabba Ranks toast.  Dancehall had just gotten huge and Laswell re-invents it, stripping away the cookie-cutter aspect that turned off many hard-core reggae fans.  Laswell proteges The Jungle Brothers come up next with “Playing With Fire” – a searing first-person report from the streets that could stand toe to toe with “The Message” or anything else hip hop had to offer at the time.  Laswell would produce the Brothers’ greatest [and never officially released] work, Crazy Wisdom Masters the next year, and you can feel the inspiration building on this track.  

A cover of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” feels almost perfunctory at first, but Laswell, brings in the [sadly underrated] Reggae Philharmonic who blow through the harrowing tune like a dry and mournful wind as Sly & Robbie push the song with a near marching rhythm giving it a post-punk hangover they must have loved in the UK clubs.  Founding Last Poet Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin takes center stage next for a terse indictment of American Style Capitalism “E Pluribus Unum” – a tense rocksteady lecture that still holds up.  While Sly & Robbie likely had something else in mind for this track, it makes you wonder what would have happened if Laswell had hooked up with Linton Kwesi Johnson or Black Uhuru.  “Drive By” kicks off the second half of the record with sinister style; how it never got used in a film soundtrack is beyond me.  Nuriddin returns for “Power of Soul [Black Chant]” a call for unity that probably felt necessary as social and commercial forces were fighting for control of hip hop [guess who won].  “Mellow Mood” is probably Bob Marley’s most underrated love song and Laswell paints it as a lush oasis in a rough urban jungle with the Reggae Philharmonic supplying cool string breezes.  “Glory” closes out The Third Power, which at just 37 minutes should feel skimpy, but every track is so dense with ideas we still feel satisfied.  

The Third Power hit the streets at a point where hip hop was beginning to flex it’s commercial muscle, but at the cost of it’s own diversity.  Public outcry, political posturing, industry marginalization and even MTV’s artificial color barrier only seemed to strengthen it as a musical, cultural and commercial force.  Unfortunately, this meant codifying and simplifying its message, which would leave bold experiments like The Third Power out of the loop.  Laswell would try to make the Jungle Brothers the focus of his next project, but record label interference would scuttle those efforts. From then on Material/Laswell would leave hip hop experiments to the Beastie Boys and become a critically lauded magnet for world music fusion.  Most of the best ideas put forth on The Third Power have become standard language in 21st century, but that doesn’t mean Sly and Robbie shouldn’t have been pissed off.
NEXT:  Halloween Havoc!


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