Thursday, 1 May 2008

Cafe del Classics # 3 - Central Heating (Grand Central, 1996)

Post-Madchester, Manchester’s music and clubbing scene was in the doldrums. The party was over and a sense of despondency had set in, as happens whenever any city scene captures the imagination of the pop world; think Liverpool post-65, London post-68, San Francisco post-70 or New York post-82.

Into this void stepped Fat City, a loose collective of hip hop-centric musicians, record label owners, Djs and promoters with a mission to put a spring back into Manny’s worn-out step. Exiled ‘Geordie’ (the kind of Geordie who has a public school accent) Mark Rae was the catalyst for much of this, opening the The Fat City record shop and the Grand Central record label as well as promoting various nights in the city. OK, they were by and large suburban white middle-class kids but their love for black American music was sincere and at least something was happening.

I remember going to the label’s ‘No Half Steppin’ nights and, after almost a decade of house music dominance, it was refreshing to hear a variety of different musical genres under one roof, indeed in one DJ’s set. Hip hop, funk, soul, boogie, jazz, latin, drum n’ bass all coalescing into a unified groove that transcended racial and cultural barriers. The fact that our mates were break dancing (still NOT revived at that time) there also told its own story; hip hop and the original ethos of Peace Unity Love & Having Fun was back, Jack!

Released in 1996, Central Heating was a showcase for this new cabal of beat finders and groove makers. They’d already released the Frying The Fat compilation a year earlier featuring tracks from Aim, Funky Fresh Few, Tony D and Rae & Christian, but Central Heating managed to surpass that and almost anything else available in the UK at that time. It wasn’t just the crystal clear production and the diversity of material on show, it was the sleeve-art, the confidence, the abstract feeling that, at last Manchester and indeed British music was moving forwards again, not relying on or copying Americans.

In rock, Oasis and the so-called Britpop phenomenon was making headway against US grunge but all that was a diversion, it was obsolete music made by obsolete musicians for traditionalists and Luddites. In the digital ‘real world’ THIS was Manchester’s true contribution to 90s music.

Hip hop remained at the core of Central Heating but only as a raw ingredient, the basis for a myriad of flavours. Essentially it all boiled down to the drum machine and the layers of sound added to it. Whether it was the ‘northern sulphuric soul’ of Rae & Christian’s still spine-tingling ‘Spellbound’ or the Evel Knievel hillbilly cut n’ paste of Aim’s ‘Original Stuntmaster,’ the slo-mo jazzy patter of Only Child’s ’Rain’ or Andy Votel’s creepy ‘Hemlocka,’ the luscious slo-jam soul of Scruff‘s ‘Gotta Have Her’ or the straight ahead party jams of Tony D’s ’It’s Times Two’ or Funky Fresh Few’s ’You Mean Fantastic’ there’s not one bum track on the three slabs of heavy duty vinyl (even then CDs were anathema for diggers and divvies, bonus tracks or not).

Soon a whole host of inner-city British ‘beats’ labels would spring up, capitalising on the late-90s boom for shitty sampladelic Fat Boy Slim copycats. In truth it was a pretty dreadful time yet Central Heating remains as one of, if not the best example of truly modern British music and restored a little faith in Manchester as a centre for forward-thinking, self-confident creativity.

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