Us3 leapt out of the gate in 1993 with a confident, passionate and edgy vision that combined conscious hip-hop with performances by live jazz musicians, cemented together with a wealth of samples from Blue Note Records, its label at the time. The result was the group’s landmark debut album Hand on the Torch and its worldwide hit single “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).”
Twenty years later, Us3, led by co-founder and bandleader Geoff Wilkinson, are readying their 9th album release, The Third Way, set for a Oct 14 release. The latest disc harkens back to Hand on the Torch, explains Wilkinson, and represents a satisfying bookend to the first Us3 album. “I’ve used some classic jazz tracks as the basis for some of the songs – similar to what I did on Hand On The Torch (albeit this time with replayed “interpolations” rather than using samples). It’s the follow up album I never made at the time.” The album’s MC responsibilities are shared by a trio of rappers drawn from across Us3’s history, including Tukka, KCB and Akil Dasan.
Wilkinson recreates portions of classic jazz tracks, including Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” and Horace Silver’s “Nutville.” He chose this approach so he could integrate the essence of some of the jazz pieces with greater flexibility than he’d get using samples. By going with interpolations, Wilkinson was able to weave them into the fabric of the tracks in a more organic way, so more attention is focused on the song as a whole, rather than its constituent parts.
The album’s creative process follows Us3 tradition, shifting from exploratory, directional underpinnings into the universe of trial and error to determine each piece’s final shape. “I always make a lot more tracks than I actually need for an album, and often end up going back to previously-discarded tracks and revisiting them,” says Wilkinson. “’I Want One of Those’ and ‘I’m Goin’ (Come Along)’ were both tracks that started life several years ago and have been resurrected and reworked. My tracks tend to evolve from the rhythm up. I always try to maintain a variety of rhythms, tempos, arrangements, and instrumentation across an album. That can be a challenge for the rappers, but I think it inspires them to rise up to it.”
On the album’s three wordsmiths, they all share a drive to rise far above the bling and boasting of so many ultra-shallow MCs. “Tukka brought a unique energy to the first album,” says Wilkinson. “I knew it was unusual to have a reggae voice mixing it up with jazz and hip-hop. That was something I hadn’t done since the first album, so it was definitely overdue. KCB was featured on Broadway & 52nd, and toured extensively with the live band in the early ‘90s. Akil has been a rock in the Us3 band since 2006. He previously appeared on Schizophonic and Say What!?, and is a lyrical monster. These are all guys whose work with Us3 I admired. I had also travelled the world with all of them, experiencing many crazy things on tour together!”
On a more reflective note, “What Would You Do?” offers existentialist viewpoints from all three MCs. The song is rooted in Wilkinson’s grief over his mother’s passing in 2012. “Losing the woman that brought you into the world is a unique thing,” says Wilkinson. “It only happens once, and it has somehow made life more urgent for me. Other members of the live band have lost family, and it sparked a conversation with the rappers in which I asked the question, ‘If it was your last day on Earth, what would you do?’ All three wrote their verses separately and it was interesting to see the similarities in their rhymes.”
Us3 has evolved more and more towards a live musician-driven format over the years, incorporated an incredible diversity of MCs and lyrical content, and has toured extensively, enthralling audiences across the globe. It’s one of the few practitioners, and arguably the leading exponent, of the art of band-driven hip-hop performance.
But even with two decades of innovation behind it, there’s no escaping the fact that the original _Hand on the Torch_ album continues to represent a hip-hop touchstone for a generation. To mark the 20th anniversary of Us3’s platinum-certified 1993 album, Blue Note are reissuing the album with a 2CD remastered deluxe edition on September 17.
“One of the best things my mum used to say was ‘Life is a journey, not a destination,’” says Wilkinson. “I think that’s so relevant to the Us3 story. It has been a bumpy road at times business-wise, but my enthusiasm and inquisitive nature have led me along many rewarding musical paths—and I’m confident there are more to come.”