Archive for August 2012
The London Underground adverts for the Total Recall remake are pretty cool. A photo of two bikini-clad ladies on a yacht is accompanied by the caption: “Tell us your dream. We’ll make it real.”
Being a sci-fi film, such promises aren’t going to be delivered quite as stated and so the adverts carry a faux health warning: “Side effects may include sleeplessness, headaches, memory loss, paranoia, delusions, schizophrenia, and possible death.”
But wait a moment; this all seems alarmingly familiar. No, I’m not going to compare this to all of the real products that may well cause such health issues, because last year’s Limitless was advertised in the exact same fashion.
At first glance, the Limitless advert had no obvious connection to the product it was promoting. Even at second glance you might not have spotted Bradley Cooper. But when it finally grabbed your attention enough to read the text, you would’ve realised it was a film.
“Accessing 100% of your brain is now possible with The Clear Pill,” it boasted in a bland typeface. “Unlock your potential. Become the perfect version of yourself.” And it too contained its own fake health warning: “Side effects will include paralysis, psychosis, amnesia, extreme sexual appetite, brain damage, irreversible coma, homicidal blackouts and sudden death. Ask your doctor if the clear pill is right for you.”
Designed to look like a standard advert for a health product, and both wittier and more extremely worded, I make this a clear win for Limitless.
Their work with the likes of Lily Allen, Nicole Scherzinger, Olly Murs, Professor Green and Shakira has seen them contribute to over 25 million record sales, three UK #1 hits and a further eleven international chart-toppers. Meet the production team of Future Cut – Tunde Babalola and Darren Lewis – two men whose musical journey has taken them from kings of the underground drum ‘n’ bass scene to curators of some of the pop world’s biggest hits. “The general public don’t know who we are,” says Lewis. “But they’ve definitely heard us.”
As promoters on Manchester’s drum ‘n’ bass community of the mid-nineties, it was inevitable that that the duo would meet. After Lewis distributed some flyers for one of Babalola’s nights, his new friend suggested that he could join him in the studio to work on some music together. ““That’s what he used to say to everyone to get them to do him favours,” smiles Lewis. “But he didn’t count on me turning up at the studio.”
Soon, this casual arrangement turned into something more substantial. Babalola had been working on his own production for the previous two years, but never had found a regular collaborator. “It was a really exciting time because we had all these dreams and ambitions,” he grins at the memory. “Even though I loved drum ‘n’ bass and that was my passion, I wanted to do other music too. A lot of the time, all people wanted to do was to make a tune to put on a white label and play in a club. Darren wanted to work for Metalheadz and produce Michael Jackson.”
The first two Future Cut productions, Fresh Step’ and ‘The Chase’, were signed by Clayton Hines at Renegade Records in 1998 and sold a credible 1700 copies. The follow-up didn’t come easy. Over the course of the next four months, the duo did whatever they could to fund their studio work – DJing, programming and remixing backed by a discount diet of micro noodles and Cresta lemonade – before they hit upon their first classic with ‘Whiplash’. Released on Renegade Hardware, ‘Whiplash’ became infamous when Andy C rewound the track four times at London’s Movement at Bar Rumba, despite the track contradicting the techy route that the genre was heading towards. As Babalola emphasises, “We’ve always thought that if everyone else is going left and we head right, we’ll be onto something. We’ve always had success doing that.”
Future Cut ran with that initial moment of success and embarked upon the touring life of superstar DJs. It took them to Iceland, Puerto Rico, Transylvania and beyond. They soundtracked the millennium in France and inadvertently got caught up in a terrifying FBI raid in New Orleans. “It was wild from the second you got off the plane. There was a lot of partying and a lot of getting up to no good, as you’d expect from two young DJs,” states Lewis with a mischievous expression. Babalola concurs: “I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. If I was still doing it, I’d probably look twenty years older even if I had made it to 2012. Sometimes I think I could just dust off those headphones one more time…”
Back in the relative sanity of Manchester, Future Cut’s ambitions turned towards making an album which made the discovery of the talented young vocalist Jenna G somewhat fortuitous. Together they created the cult hit ‘Midnight’. Played as the closing track at a DJ set at The End, and released on their own label, ‘Midnight’ was soon picked up by Marcus Intalex and Fabio and went on to sell 15,000 copies. No mean achievement considering that Future Cut had refused Radio 1’s request for a radio edit. “We said no, it is what it is,” says Lewis, part exasperated by his prior naivety, part satisfied with the strength of his convictions.
Nonetheless, ‘Midnight’ sparked Un-Cut, a band project uniting Future Cut on a full-time basis with Jenna G. After a triumphant, Normski-introduced gig at London’s Cargo, Un-Cut inked a recording deal with Warner Bros. Records. The freedom afforded to them was a blessing in disguise, according to Lewis: “Our delusions of grandeur were out of control. So we starting hiring orchestras and huge studios; all the stereotypical things you’d do if with all these funds and no-one saying no. The plus side was that we learned how to make records. We just sat there and absorbed everything; how to record on tape, how to relate to musicians and how to mix. That turned us from being beat makers to record producers.”
While the finished album, ‘The Un-Calculated Some’, earned positive reviews for its fearless hybrid of genres, it failed to make much of an impact commercially. “We didn’t want to be pop stars, we just wanted to make tunes,” admits Babalola in hindsight. With Un-Cut over, and drum ‘n’ bass evolving in their absence, what would be their next step? Production work for Conner Reeves aroused their interest in exploring other genres and also helped to refine their own songwriting talents, but the future was uncertain. And then they were introduced to a young singer-songwriter by the name of Lily Allen.
“It was one of those brilliant stories!” exclaims Lewis. “She was unsigned, so we got together in a basement studio in Manchester. The first song we wrote together was ‘Smile’ and the other hits we did soon after. We set Lily up with a MySpace. She took the concept and ran with it, and the rest is history.” Future Cut produced and co-wrote half of her 3-million selling debut album ‘Alright, Still’ and the album’s biggest two hits ‘Smile’ and ‘LDN’.
Eager to capitalise on their moment in the spotlight, Future Cut’s new priority was to make progress in America and they soon did exactly that, landing high profile production work for the likes of Nicole Scherzinger, Shakira and Melanie Fiona. They also established their own recording studio in London which allowed them to helm a consistent stream of hits for Wretch 32, Professor Green, Devlin and Dizzee Rascal. As Lewis says, still almost surprised, “We never thought we were part of the UK hip hop scene, but we went to Tinie Tempah’s launch party and realised that half of the artists there we’d worked with.”
Perhaps their poppiest project to date has been their work with Olly Murs. After delivering the first two singles from his debut album, ‘Please Don’t Let Me Go’ (#1) and ‘Thinking Of Me’ (#4) in less than a week, they also worked on ‘Dance With Me Tonight’, a #1 single taken from his second album ‘In Case You Didn’t Know Me’. Not that Babalola believes that such a project pushes Future Cut away from their roots: “From the poppiest to the most avant-garde things that we do, I can still see where we’ve come from – it’s about amplifying what the artist has to say, so you’re just putting on a different pair of shoes. Olly’s appeal is that people like a great pop record delivered by someone who’s personable and fun.”
2011 saw Future Cut launch their own production company by signing electronically-based neo-noir duo Paper Crows, and they’ve also embarked upon a label deal with Warner Bros. Records in which they’re responsible for the A&R (and indeed the production and much of the writing of the music) for boisterous girl group Stooshe who rocketed to #5 with their first full single ‘Love Me’. “We’ve been using all of the experience that we’ve built up,” explains Lewis. “We’ve always been very hands on with the artist’s career development. We’ve never been scared of giving marketing ideas, or having ideas for the live plan. This has been our first official capacity in which we can express all those ideas and see them through.”
Adept at adapting to all manner of genres, Future Cut agree that the key to their success is to be able to maximise an artist’s potential while allowing them to maintain their individuality. “I think the reason people come back to us is that they know we can take glimmers of hope and make stars of people,” concludes Lewis. “We’ve been really consistent with that.”
From the current issue of Clash.
Ron Scalpello’s new prison drama Offender is presented in an unusual manner. Its early scenes focus on the London riots as it follows the back story which explains how its characters end up in a young offenders’ institute. Like other productions from Gunslinger (Sket, Shank), the action on the streets is a haze of high octane camerawork and stylised slow-motion effects set to a rumbling soundtrack of dubstep. When the prison doors boom shut, however, the reality is very different: a greying, disturbingly confined environment in which even the toughest inmates crack.
The film’s greatest asset is former Skins actor Joe Cole who takes the lead role of Tommy. While the social circumstances of most of the other offenders create a chain petty theft and pointless assaults, Tommy’s incarceration is about survival and then revenge.
“The film is about Tommy’s journey and what he goes through,” says Cole, whose role in Offender calls for a more intimidating image than we saw in Skins. “There are very few parts like that going around for actors at my age, they’re few and far between and it really jumped out at me.”
Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet represents the best of the contemporary prison drama, and it’s notable that our nation’s recent pedigree with the genre isn’t exceptionally strong. Yet Offender brings to mind another British borstal highlight.
“It’s like a modern day Scum,” agrees Cole in reference to Alan Clark’s famously grim 1979 film. “Offender represents London and all things to do with London youth. That really felt exciting to me and I wanted to be at the forefront of that.”
To prepare for the role, Cole spoke to various ex-offenders (including one of the film’s script consultants and, he notes, “there are quite a few in the film”) and discovered that a common trait emerged: “The feeling that you aren’t part of society.” That’s reflected throughout the movie. Characters are eclectic – see the contrast between Tommy’s studious cellmate (an impressive Malachi Kirby) and the psychotic Jake (played by rapper English Frank) – but they’re bound together as outsiders.
It’s Cole electrifying performance that makes Offender memorable; he’s clearly an actor able to articulate the intimate vulnerabilities that make a tough character a person rather than a persona. As he concludes: “What I think is important is that if you’re going to be playing violent characters, it has to stem from the heart and within. As an actor, there has to be things that drive you.”
Review from the current issue of Clash.
If you’d given a director upwards of $50 million to make a film, you’d hope for a more immediate commercial proposition than Ted, a film in which Mark Wahlberg plays John, a thirty-something slacker whose friendship with his teddy bear is threatening his relationship with girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). But given that the director in question is Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (who also voices Ted), your budget is in the hands of someone with their own substantial audience.
Ted’s plot – two old buddies, an angry girlfriend and a kidnapping – is hackneyed in the extreme, being as predictable as day following night and providing little more than a framework from which to hang a collection of jokes from. Yet the central premise of a foulmouthed hard-livin’ stuffed toy is brilliant and elevates the dumb story to satire, which allows MacFarlane and his co-writers to highlight the humour in John and Ted’s dysfunctional friendship.
Essentially for Family Guy fans only, the film is often hilarious but bound to date incredibly quickly due to its borderline indulgent pop culture references. This is a comedy to savour in the moment and to enjoy immensely, but, like many of its celebrity targets, will be long forgotten about come 2014.
From last month’s Clash.
If you examined the record collection of any suburban middle-class home in mid-Seventies South Africa you’d expect to find three albums: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact by Rodriguez. Of course, everyone knew the story behind those first two artists. The same wasn’t true of Rodriguez. Considered by many South African music fans as the equal of Bob Dylan – in terms of both success and artistic accomplishment – even by the mid-Nineties, Rodriguez’s fate was unknown. The most common story suggested a grotesque suicide in which the Mexican-American musician’s final performance ended when he set himself on fire.
Two fans, journalist Craig Bartholomew and record store owner Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, decided to see if they could uncover the truth behind their almost mythological hero. The story is told in full in Malik Bendjelloul’s superlative documentary Searching For Sugar Man, which is how the happily unscathed Rodriguez comes to be sitting here in central London.
“It’s the best story I’ve heard in my life,” beams Benjelloul. “I found the story before I found the music. I didn’t want to listen to the music because I fell in love with the story so much and I thought I was going to be disappointed.” As David Holmes, Paolo Nutini and many others have discovered, Rodriguez’s music is a lost gem. As Benjelloul continues: “During editing, I listened to these songs thousands of times and never grew tired of listening to them.”
Rodriguez signed to Sussex Records, fronted by music industry veteran Clarence Avant, and his 1970 debut album Cold Fact was the label’s first album release. Covering the musical spectrum from gentle folk-pop infused by Bacharach-esque production embellishments to fiery, riff-orientated psychedelia, perhaps the album’s strongest trait is Rodriguez’s poetic lyrics which cover social issues, caustic personal insults (“I wonder how many times you had sex / And I wonder, do you know who’ll be next?”) and observations of degenerative city life which could’ve come directly from the mind of Travis Bickle.
“Angry?” he questions in his almost meditative voice. Rodriguez seems to be in a permanent beatific state in which perfectly refined manners and an extreme sense of modesty are permanent fixtures. It’s hard to imagine him ever describing someone as “the coldest bitch I know” as he does in Only Good For Conversation. “I’m sure that emotion was there, and you have a right to emotions. We all do. So if you feel a little tear coming out, go ahead and do it. It’s okay. Music is an expression.”
After Cold Fact and the following year’s Coming From Reality album emerged to minimal sales, Sussex Records encountered financial difficulties while Rodriguez soon realised that he needed to make a living through other means. “And that’s where my career ended…” he says, with a lengthy, knowing pause. “So to speak.”
Rodriguez’s musical story is essentially then blank until 1979, when late night airplay and subsequent record sales persuaded promoters to book him for an Australian tour which included four sold-out shows at Sydney’s Regent Theatre. He returned again in 1981 for a tour with Midnight Oil and a major festival (“Men At Work were there,” he notes. “Before they got their haircuts!”). From thereon in, the narrative again goes quiet. He gained a degree in philosophy and worked in demolition. The mention that a philosophising demolition man is an odd dichotomy amuses him greatly.
In 1996, Seagerman and Bartholemew finally found their man with the help of Rodriguez’s daughter Eva and the Internet. Rodriguez discovered the whole truth: Cold Fact had become a favourite of the nation’s white liberal middle-class during South Africa’s apartheid era and had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Home in Detroit, Rodriguez was surely a character but, aside from some dalliances in politics, he didn’t have a public profile. In South Africa, he was a legend. “I didn’t believe it,” he states, still almost stuttering in disbelief. “I didn’t believe any part of it. I didn’t believe anything was happening there at all. How could I?”
The film shows the moment when Rodriguez played his first South African show in 1998. As the rolling bassline of I Wonder echoes around the Bellville Velodrome in Cape Town, Rodriguez steps on stage to a roar of appreciation and is instantly struck silent. “How was that?” he repeats. “It was almost a frozen moment in a sense, but there it is right there on screen. The band was rehearsed and ready, but that interruption was great.”
It also became apparent that Rodriguez hadn’t earned anything from all those years of South African album sales. Bendjelloul states that it’s a complicated case involving a multitude of companies which one music lawyer suggested would take three years to address. Noting previous legal issues faced by the likes of The Rolling Stones and John Fogerty, Rodriguez is fully aware that it will be a long journey. “I’m certainly up to the challenge,” he affirms. “I’m not going to dismiss it as just one of those things.” He also reserves special praise for Avant who he describes as a pharaoh: “He helped me when I was in dire straits.”
For now, though, Searching For Sugar Man is finally spreading word of Rodriguez’s talents to a mass audience having earned rapturous receptions at influential events such as Sundance and Sheffield’s Doc/Fest. He continues to tour and is often joined on his travels by members of his family. As for the possibility of a third Rodriguez studio album? Maybe in the future.
“Sure we do it for the recognition, the girls and a couple of bucks,” he concludes in reference to his unlikely career path. “But we also do it to be part of rock ‘n’ roll history. This is just the way it worked for me. It’s a different blueprint.”