Little Axe: Bought For A Dollar, Sold For A Dime

Little Axe's Skip McDonald

Technology allows for infinite possibilities where music’s concerned, except it still takes master practitioners to create truly groundbreaking explorations of different styles, and that bare an artist’s soul for all to see or hear. This special kind of alchemy is generally reserved for gifted musicians who’ve bonded with their instruments, and served their dues playing gigs and sessions with other like-minded individuals for years on end. Most of what they do then becomes instinctive and takes on a timeless quality, regardless of prevailing trends.

Little Axe, revolving around the axis of guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Keith Leblanc, embody this approach to perfection. Listening to their fusion of blues, gospel and dub reggae can be a revelation as ancient forms become interwoven with electronic innovation. Their first album, The Wolf That House Built, appeared in 1994. The band then followed it with Slow Fuse before taking a lengthy hiatus. When they re-emerged it was with Hard Grind and Champagne And Grits, by which time they’d inspired Moby’s Play and signed to Peter Gabriel’s label, Real World. Their fifth album, Stone Cold Ohio, was another mesmerising collection of modern-day spirituals and lonesome blues except this time it paid tribute to Skip’s own roots in Dayton, Ohio, where he learnt blues guitar from his father, and then soaked up country, gospel, rock & roll and soul before heading for the bright lights of New York City.

For a time, his only regular gig was with the Entertainers, who toured the eastern seaboard throughout the early seventies, playing Top 40 hits. From there he moved to Hartford, Connecticut where he met Doug, who played in a jazz funk band called Wood, Brass & Steel. In 1976, this group recorded a self-titled album for All Platinum Records, ran by Joe and Sylvia Robinson. Three years after that, Skip and Doug teamed up with Keith and they became the house band for the Robinsons’ new label, Sugar Hill Records. The trio subsequently played on seminal early rap hits such as The Message and White Lines (Don’t Do It) with Grandmaster Flash, together with other gems now found on the Universal box set, A Complete Introduction To Sugar Hill Records.

“Basically Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug because she remembered them from before and knew she needed a band,” Keith explains. “We’d been playing at this club called Leo’s Welfare Disco in New Haven which was open all night and it was right next door to the welfare office. You could get in with food stamps, and the DJ usually rapped over the beats so when I heard Rapper’s Delight, it wasn’t anything new. The DJs in those kinds of places were always doing that but anyway Doug recognised the sound of the studio, which was pretty amazing. He said, ‘That’s an All-Platinum record.’ It actually said ‘Sugar Hill’ on it and so we went up there, thinking there might be some money in it for us and recorded that very first night.”

Keith had played drums from the age of three or four. He was so hyperactive it was a case of him either taking medication or playing an instrument and the drums won out, fortunately. That said, his parents made him take lessons for a year before buying him a drum kit in stages.

“I really learned how to play that way,” he says. “I was lucky, because it was all I wanted to do. No one had to tell me to practise. I’d stay in summer days all day because I loved to play. I’d just turn on the radio and play along to all the hits of the day, which at that time included Motown, Muscle Shoals, James Brown and all of that, and then along came Hendrix – I heard Mitch Mitchell and that just took my head off! Then I started getting into Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Chick Corea… There was so much good stuff being recorded live back then, before machines took over. Everything had a heartbeat, and there were all these small imperfections going on that brought real magic to the music.”

Skip and Doug were a fraction more battle-hardened than Keith, who still brimmed with enthusiasm.

“At the time I was young and learning my craft,” he concurs. “All I wanted was to be a session musician and I knew I was in a situation that was groundbreaking. No one else was doing it and really talented people were coming through there all the time. I had enough money to eat and I got paid for playing, so what more could I want? I knew there was a lot of skulduggery going on but being in the house band, we didn’t get involved in that. We were just trying to learn the studio and do the best we could. That was always my motivation and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. I learned a lot about recording and also people because I was pretty naïve at the time, and I think that’s what saved me…”

Sugar Hill finally collapsed under a welter of lawsuits at the end of the decade. By then, the three friends had played on many of the best-known, early rap hits of all time and toured extensively with the likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Treacherous Three, Funky Four, Spoonie Gee and Sugar Hill Gang. Essentially, they were the last great rhythm section of the seventies but rather than resting on their laurels, they continued to seek out new challenges and when Skip came to live in England during the early eighties, they found ample scope for experimentation with Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label. This was a period that saw them recording under the name of Fats Comet, Dub Syndicate, African Head Charge, Barmy Army, Tackhead and the Strange Parcels. Their sound has been variously described as “industrial,” “creepy” and even “hallucinogenic,” but by the time Little Axe formed [and with Adrian in the producer’s chair], other adjectives such as “soulful,” “haunting” and “deeply spiritual” had come into play. The band has since expanded to include backing singers Kevin Gibbs and Saranella Bell, harmonica player Alan Glenn and lead vocalist Bernard Fowler, who divides his time between touring with the Rolling Stones and recording as Bad Dog. In addition, each of the core members continue to play sessions and spend time on their own projects. Doug plays with Living Colour, whilst Keith sits in with Noah Ground and runs his own label. Skip meanwhile, remains the driving force behind Little Axe, although he did share an album with Daby Toure last year, entitled Call My Name.

“There’s a lot of raw diamonds out there and Skip McDonald is one of them,” says Doug. “He’s just like Yoda. He’s like a magic person. He’s not coming with all the flash. He doesn’t go to sleep with his stage clothes on. He’s real.”

Keith agrees, saying, “I’ve got two favourite guitarists and he’s one of them. Every time I’ve played with him, he’s never played the same thing and I love that because whatever he plays, it’s all feeling. When I first met him, Skip was playing a brand of funk I never heard anyone else play. It was off the chain funky. We had a name for it. We called it “Skip Funk.” If a track had to be livened up we’d say, ‘Hey Skip, put some “Skip Funk” on it.’ He’d lay down some licks and it’d be percolating. He’s funky as hell. I don’t know anyone else who can do that. I haven’t met them yet and he’s been around for ages but he’s so humble.”

By his own definition, Skip is “a time-traveller, a scientist and a mathematician.” He explains that Little Axe’s latest album, Bought For A Dollar, Sold For A Dime, is different from previous ones because it’s band-led, as opposed to studio-led.

“We went in and put all the rhythm tracks down together as a unit, rather than methodically putting down the guitar, the drums, the bass and background vocals, so this is as close as I’ve ever come to doing a live album. Also, it was the first time that the whole crew had actually been in the same place at the same time for over seven years, so it was like a homecoming really.”

Recorded at Real World’s studio in Wiltshire, the latest album traces a journey from the old world to an imaginary future – one made bleak by wise observations about the environment and corporate greed. Opening with an invocation, as if saying grace before a meal, it has a coherence and inner strength that belies its musical flights of fancy. Whereas Grinning reworks one of Son House’s pre-war blues hymns, Hands Off features bluegrass style picking; Hammerhead and Return could easily pass for rock whilst Tell Me Why – again co-starring Daby Toure – features delightful rhythmic patterns that suggest an African influence. Can’t Stop Walking Yet is another highlight. This track tells the story of a hard-headed woman and finds Bernard Fowler in such stirring form, you’d think it was Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding holding the mic.

“We call guys like Bernard “elephants,” because they’re so strong, and they know how to trumpet,” says Skip, in his laconic drawl. “But I feel really privileged because I’ve got Bernard Fowler, Daby Toure and Ken Boothe, all on one record.”
Reggae veteran Ken Boothe sings lead vocal on Can’t Sleep and it’s highly emotive, as you’d expect from Jamaica’s “Mr. Rocksteady.”

“Well, that’s a controversial track. A lot of people don’t like it,” says Skip, “because you know, I’ve always been Soul Of A Man or No More and then all of a sudden here comes this love song. Someone even said to me, ‘oh Skip, it makes me want to puke.’ That’s cool though. If you’re in that vibe you can understand it and if you’re not, well there you go… That’s the whole thing about music, because it’s all a matter of opinion.”

The fact is we’ve never heard Ken Boothe sing a slow blues before and yet he sounds so soulful…

“Yeah, he’s like Otis Redding or somebody but there’s no accounting for taste. I’ve actually done about fourteen tracks with Ken. I’m trying everything right now. I got a Jamaican connection going on. I’ve also got a Moroccan connection going on. I’ve got an Indian and Ghanaian connection going on… I’m also doing some stuff with a guy from Togo because what makes it all so much fun is putting together people who are good, and then seeing a circle develop until things going higher than you ever thought they could go. That’s me. I’m into doing different things, rather than this whole thing of imitating yourself for fifty years or something.”

I can imagine that artists like Ken probably long to step outside the box and try something different.

“Well that’s what he said to me because he told me, ‘I want to do anything except reggae.’ People are always looking to pigeonhole us by saying, ‘he’s a reggae artist; he’s a blues artist or he’s a rap artist,’ but what can I say? I really don’t want to listen to the same thing everyday, because that’s like eating the same food or wearing the same clothes everyday. I like variety, I really do. Sometimes I’d love the accolades of being a bluesman or something. It hurts sometimes because I’ve done so many other things, but it seems as if people have to categorise us as something in order for that to happen, which is a shame…”

Listen out for a new Tackhead album comprised entirely of cover songs due out later this year, on which the band do versions of hits by James Brown, Funkadelic, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, the Ohio Players and even Louis Armstrong, whose What A Wonderful World couldn’t be more different from the often gloomy subject matter found on Little Axe sets, but is sure to sound revolutionary in their hands. That’s because there’s nothing else like them in the entire music spectrum [and for which we’re profoundly grateful…]

John Masouri

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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