The North At Its Heights.
One of the UK s earliest Hip Hop albums is being rereleased in Japan this month.
Recorded in early 1990, It captures another side of the urban music explosion that became known as Madchester.
Hip Hop purist balk at it but it’s true to the D.I.Y ethos of its origins.
‘North” is a lurid lysergic collage with a Tasmanian Devil bounding about in its landscape,I hated the cover when I first saw it ,but now I think its spot on.
original release 24/9/90
The North At Its Heights ZTT
If you go way back in the 808 State story you will find the group’s origins in Manchester’s very small Hip Hop scene of the mid 80 s. There was a “ US Street “culture of Electro music, Break Dance and Rap and it was just taking root in Manchester’s youth clubs ,parties and then tenuously in Manchester’s club scene.(Greg Wilson at Legends,Stu Allen’s Radio Show )
(808 States Andrew and Darren as The Spinmasters ,mid 80s electro/hip hop DJ s .)
There is a really good documentary called “And It Wasn’t A Dream” narrated by Tony Wilson about that scene and Manchester’s most successful Rap act of the time “The Ruthless Rap Assassins” who played along side the Hitsquad
Record stores such as Spin Inn and Martin Price’s Eastern Bloc became a social hub for rappers and beat makers, The Eastern Bloc store had started out as a small stall in Afflecks Palace Arcade and then had formed as a Co -Op to help get government business funding .
(Martin Price behind the counter at Eastern Bloc in 1988)
Martin’s idea of Hit Squad MCR was a collective of Hip Hop and Electro beat makers that
might also get similar funding to start making records. So each week we would meet up at WIMPY burger in Manchester or in Eastern Bloc’ s Basement to talk about the project.
We organized a few club events or ‘Jams” to show case Manchester Hip Hop .
Hitsquad MCR soundcheck at The Boardwalk Club 1988)
A few people immediately stood out as “Stars”,No one could ignore the shear swagger and presence of the 18 year old MC Tunes and his DJ /Musician Gerald Simpson.( A Guy Called Gerald). Tunes already was giving out cassettes that sported a picture of himself at the DMC mix championships from which he was disqualified from for wielding a Samurai sword as part of his act. He and Gerald had also done some recording as Scratch Beat Masters (SBM) at a studio called The Kitchen , A track called ‘Back To Attack”.
As a collective of as many of 14 people , Hitsquad MCR did not wait for the government money but borrowed it from one of the Eastern Bloc guy’s Savings account (thanks Clive)to make their 1st EP. “Wax on The Melt” .
Side one was an early attempt at a “Steinski “type sample record ,where everyone threw ideas at the new sampler technology but had little clue about sequencing resulting in a clumsy but charming overstuffed collage with an elliptical groove..The most successful piece on the EP was SBM’s rerecording of ‘Back To Attack” M.C.Tunes was studio ready.
UK Rap was a hard sell back then and had no precedent save for may be The Cookie Crew & Derek B and only one from our city the aforementioned Ruthless Rap Assassins.
Eventually a faction of the Hitsquad were having unlimited amounts of fun with the 808 Drum Machine and the 303 Baseline machine and the 101 synthesizers with their simple sequencers making a version of the new Acid House sound.
Improvising at the end of the Hip Hop Jams, these acid Jams resulted in the newly named 808 State
There were plenty of parties and events for an Acid band to play as there were no other acid bands around and it had become a popular form of dance music especially on local radio and friday nights at the Hacienda club in town.
MC Tunes often use to integrate with the acid sound at parties by free styling at 808 `Gigs
in the early days. 28 /7 /1989 we made a recording with Nicky called ‘Dance Your Self To Death” I think there were a few Hip House records being dropped at the Hacienda such as Young MC ‘s Know How andI guess that was in our thinking. A week later we were asked to be on a TV show called Snub TV and we decided to perform that track. ZTT saw that track on BBC 2 and got quite excited .
So not only did 808 State settle on a deal with ZTT but MC Tunes signed his own deal .
One of the first tracks we set out to produce with MC Tunes was “ The Only Rhyme that Bites” in January 1990 .
We had come up with the Big Country idea (A sample from the Western Film The Big Country) for a techno track and Nicky had come into Spirit Studios to get out of the rain and see what we were up to.I think if we had started it as a Rap track it would have been way more minimal.
(Track Sheet for early Only Rhyme That Bites at Spirit Studio,working title Dome ,referencing The Thunderdome)
I know he had written the rhyme back in November 89 as there is a recording I had engineered with Phil Kirby with the same rap on.
(Graham & Martin Spirit Studio 1989)
The Big Country break brought it to life ,its like a rodeo gate opening and Nicky riding a wild bull when it hits the chorus, we knew we had an exciting record but it was hard to imagine it as a radio or club hit,there was just nothing to compare it to. We then took it to various other studios to polish it up including SARM East ,Trevor Horns original studio an SSL equipped rat infested basement under a hair dressers shop in the east end of London where they mixed Bohemian Rhapsody amongst other classics.I distinctly remember emerging from a mixing session at dawn and making our way to the Bagel Shop on Brick Lane. I think we then mixed it again at Sarm West .George Michael was always in the canteen wearing a shell suite with cowboy boots around that time (Listen with out Prejudice).
Once we had T.O.R.T.B. in the bag we set about building an album around it.
Nicky had most of his Raps together in his exercise book , but we did nt have any music worked out so did a few days in a demo studio in Cheadle Hulme ,South Manchester to work out some ideas .
Martin & Darren Day one at Square One 1990
(Filofax April 1990)
April 1990 we booked into Square One Studios in Bury (North of Manchester) and set to work for a couple of weeks mostly on the North album but we also were working on an 808 track called “Olympic”.
also doing a remix for American Trumpet Player Jon Hassel at the same time.
The equipment we were using back then was centered around an ATARI 1040 computer running Hybrid Arts SMPTE Track software
We recorded to 2 inch 24 track tape and hooked the computer to time code so we could add synchronized layers to the tape recording.We generally left the drum machines running live rather than recording them to tape that way we could react to the arrangement .
We had a TR 909 drum machine for the thick bottom end and a new drum machine called a Roland R8 which we were very into.
Our main instrument would be the Casio FZ 1 sampler keyboard,A Roland Jupiter 8 synth that was new for us that month.then other synths such as Roland Juno 106 ,101 s and 303, A Pearl syncussion machine and a Crummar Bit 99 synth.
In the Square One Sessions we came out with “The North At It Heights”, “Mancunion Blues”,”This Aint no Fantasy”,and a version of “Tunes Splits The Atom” featuring a bass line sampled from the Stone Roses “I am The Resurrection” which If I remember correctly involved a phone call to Manni as a matter of politeness to see if they would let us use the sample , (we settled on a writing credit split)., Manni lived 4 doors up from me in Rusholme Nicky & Gerald also live in Rusholme Its known as The Curry Mile because of its dozens of restaurants, Its was also the home of Manchester City Football Club I remember some surreal saturdays when people walking to the match carried inflatable bananas for a year or so ,not sure what that was about?
,Rusholme also had a great club called “The International” that was a social center for music lovers .http://www.mdmarchive.co.uk/archive/showartefact.php?aid=7972&vid=197
Tunes and Raagman
(Phil Kirby of Yargo,Biting Tongues)
I think we ear marked “Atom” as a single and went and recorded Live drums
with fellow Rusholmian Phil Kirby .Strawberry Studios was chosen probably just out of availability though it did have the best “live” room. ( Stockport,East Manchester), Phil also drums on Primary Rhyming so may be we did drums for that at the same time.Primary Rhyming was tracked at Mirage Studio in Oldham when we 1st started working with Canadian Engineer Mike Haas.This track was almost an after thought but I think Nicky was very keen to give a platform to some of his younger neighbours so features the 7 year old De Wizz and the 12 year old Microphone S.
Community arts in effect, Nicky’s house was like a drop in center where he would hold court whilst doing bench presses and imparting an impressive knowledge of Kung Fu and Horror VHS culture .
To Finish off the album we grabbed some spare days at “Out of The Blue” Studios in Ancoats (Central MCR)
to do a new version of“Dance Your Self To Death” Im not sure when the track “My Own Worst Enemy” was done as it had no 808 State involvement it was was done in London using a Synclavier system under Trevor Horns supervision.
May 4 ,5 , 6 th 1990 my diary says “editing” All music was recorded to 1/4 analogue tape and often sections of the mixes were then pieced together with razor blades and sticky tape. My Diary then says 8th May “ Holiday”
while I was away ,Dub at Its Heights was a Mad Professor style mix of Primary Rhyming undertaken to complete the album .
TORTB was released May 21st and got to number 10 in the charts after a Top Of The Pops appearance on BBC TV. The Album Charted at number 26 In the album Chart
Tunes & 808 State Astoria London 1990
The Extra Tracks.
The Only Rhyme That Bites (Ugly as Sin Mix)
is a remix done by Nicky’s new crew ‘The Ugly” in 2008 when we first set out on the reissue project.
Dance Your Self To Death (Dust Brothers Club Mix)
The Dust Brothers being the American duo who produced Paul s Boutique for the Beastie Boys , There is often some confusion as the Chemical Brothers also started out with this name and had to change it. This mix dates from 1990 and was commissioned by Tommy Boy for the U.S release.
Pump -dates from the late Don Solaris period 1996 recorded at Fon Studios and Jacobs studio Aldershot
More – recorded at same sessions as Pump.
Both Pump and More were regularly performed live by MC Tunes and 808 State in the summer of 1996 .Pump had a release on Thermo Kings , A Japanese collection of Mixes from 808 States Don Solaris period.This version has some edit corrections
The Only Rhyme That Bites -808 Instrumental – dates from Sarm sessions 1990
Dance Your Self To Death Original 909 mix- Recorded 28th July 1989
Tunes Splits the Atom Creamatomic Instrumental -5 &6th july 1990
part of a 4 track remix 12 inch all by 808 State ,I think the info on the label is wrong
and is referring to the original recording . Cool Atom x 2and Creamatomic x 2 both being remixed at Sarm West London with Ren Swan as engineer.
The Only Rhyme That Bites -Optical mix
Drum & Bass remix commissioned by ZTT for the
1999 remix package of The Only Rhyme That Bites /808 88 98 greatest hits release.
Tunes Norwich Waterfront 1990
2011 saw the completion of a documentary on MC Tunes and his further adventures since ‘The North At Its Heights”
Made over the coarse of 20 years by filmmaker Howard Walmsley
its a fascinating view of whats came next ,Including Nicky’s brilliant rock band ‘The Dust Junkies”.
Graham Massey November 2011
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