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Pushing the Squares.

In the world of modern music, the toe-tapping, head-bobbing, girl-fainting songs of Ricky Martin are tops on the charts. It's OK, really--even expected. Every generation has an overly hyped pop idol to lose sleep over. For me, it was Duran Duran. In the seventies, who could forget the gritty reality-based thoughts of Andy Gibb? Or Leif Garrett? Or Shaun Cassidy? And for every Ricky Martin yang, there is a yin. So, here's Square-pusher.

No giddy, fashion-conscious denizen of diehard corporate pop, Brit Tom Jenkinson--the "Squarepusher"--will probably never be a household name. Indeed, he's just the sort of fringe performer who remains the idol of fans who would slit their throats rather than read Rolling Stone and would abandon Squarepusher as a sellout if the rest of the world ever caught on to his groove (note REM).

Before this excursion into the underground, you need to know that Jenkinson is part of the British jungle/drum and bass scene, with its heavy, bone-rattling bass mixed with rapid-fire, high-hat drums, bathed in electronics and sampling beats from other records. It's quite an intoxicating concoction, but the big beef is that it's too repetitive. The assault on your senses is too brutal.

Squarepusher has moved from throwing down stellar jungle mixes to producing sound masterpieces that seem to be too complex for any of us to really understand. In short, he's a smarty and he knows it, but he isn't resting on his laurels.

In the spring, Jenkinson released a seven-song mini-CD, Budakhan Mindphone (Nothing Records). Even if you don't understand or, for that matter, want to understand electronica, the drum and bass movement, and its ties to jazz, go and get the CD. Pop it in. Be amazed. Spread the word.

I was fortunate enough to hear Budakhan Mindphone for the first time while driving home from the south side of Chicago along 47th, heading for the Dan Ryan Expressway. "Iambic 5 Poetry" was the first song on the CD. I have no idea what his thoughts were while creating this magical piece, but the song captured the mood of inner-city blight and economic depression, of shaky buildings and shaken people, of Chicago and London, of jazz and jungle and musical extremes. Jenkinson's mix of "real" instruments--ironically, drums and bass electronics--and DJ technique created one of the more haunting melodies in recent memory.

For all the reality-based melodrama in "gangster" rap, very few of those songs have come close to creating this sort of resonance.

There are no lyrics in "Iambic 5 Poetry."

No posturing or fronting.

No bullshit.

The rest of the CD is one astonishing, well-produced track after another.

Who is Squarepusher? Well, he's way out on the edge of music, literally doing his own thing. Here's the best description of his music that I've heard: Put Aphex Twin and Charlie Parker in one room, hand them a joint, and this is what you get. When asked to sum up his musical inclinations, Jenkinson told British magazine NME: "I like music that alters your brain in some sort of way, a music that's mindful of the history of jazz, music that takes you somewhere."

I first heard this new legend of music in 1997, when a friend in Madison, Wisconsin, sat me down in his living room and told me to shut up and listen to something that was going to change my life. I did. I freaked. We both agreed that while most junglists were cobbling together interesting tracks from disparate sources, Squarepusher had managed to create entire movements. He surpassed his peers, and gee, he was only twenty-two.

But we weren't the only ones taking a shine to Jenkinson. In 1996, Calvin Bush, writing for Muzik, penned another apt description of Jenkinson that still applies three years later. Squarepusher had said that he was trying to make jazz that breaks with tradition rather than continue the traditions of jungle.

"Translated to vinyl, that means no coffee-table sax solos and no brass constructions," Bush wrote. "Like Carl Craig and Miles Davis before him, Jenkinson opts for madcap fusions, where real drum solos and abstract electronica rub each other raw in a freestyle of technicolor."

And when you listen to Budakhan Mindphone, you realize that Jenkinson twists and turns the jungle genre like a Rubik's Cube. Jenkinson could have created cutting-edge dance music for the masses, just the sort of forgettable crap that is barely distinguishable from all the other beats being thrown down.

Oh, Ricky, Mariah, Puffy, and all your pop gods kissed by People magazine and MTV, you've got a lot of catching up to do. Actually, we all have a lot of catching up to do.

If you consider yourself a jazz purist, this is probably not your bag. But you might want to take a look at Jenkinson's background. His father passed on his love of jazz and reggae dub to his preteen son.

"I started out playing the bass when I was twelve," Jenkinson said in a 1996 interview with Rene Passet. "Playing the bass and getting better at that instrument took my interests more towards jazz. I started getting into stuff like Stanley Clark, Weather Report, Chick Corea. From there I moved on to seventies pop rock and fusion. Those were my early musical days; I was only fourteen."

But what excites Jenkinson about the jazz movement is what excites his fans about the jungle movement. "I want music to go somewhere, to have some kind of evolution within it," he said in an interview published on www.drumandbass. "The movement of jazz is one of the things that excited me--it's so kinetic. There's a lot of pace around the musicians. In techno, it sometimes feels like the music is this think section instead of a big area. Musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were writing new forms of music as they were going along."

What turned him on to electronic music was the album LFO by LFO. Jenkinson says the leap from jazz to electronic music was a logical progression. But rather than abandon one for the other, Jenkinson managed to meld the two forms, and he continues to press on and develop an even more sophisticated sound.

While "Iambic 5 Poetry" hooked me, the rest of the music on Budakhan Mindphone shows what happens when you take a talented young man, set him in his studio, and tell him to get busy. Forget about the should-be-one-hit-wonders. This is music that grows.

Fred McKissack, based in Chicago, writes monthly about pop culture for The Progressive.
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Author:McKissack, Fred
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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