Us3 is the brainchild of London-based producer Geoff Wilkinson. Formed in 1992, alongside production partner Mel Simpson, Us3 rose from the ashes of 2 previous incarnations. The first was a limited edition white label 12” release in 1990 called “Where Will We Be In The 21st Century” featuring rapper MC Honey B and jazz pianist Jessica Lauren. This brought the attention of a (then) fledgling indie label, Ninjatune, and the result was NW1’s 1991 12” “The Band Played The Boogie”. By sampling one of the biggest dancefloor tunes of the burgeoning jazz dance scene, Geoff had unknowingly started a chain reaction. The tune he sampled was Grant Green’s “Sookie Sookie”, originally released on Blue Note Records.
London’s Kiss FM playlisted “The Band Played The Boogie” and Geoff received a call summoning him to EMI’s offices in London. Knowing the sample had not been cleared Geoff was nervous, but somehow talked himself out of being sued and into the Blue Note vaults. By allowing complete access to their legendary back catalogue, Blue Note went back to the future. “It was a brave decision by Bruce Lundvall (Blue Note President)”, says Geoff, “but he made me record some demos first, to prove I could do it”. One of those demos, recorded in March 1992, was “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”. Exactly two years later it was sitting in the US top ten. The resulting album “Hand on the Torch” subsequently become a global phenomenon. It was the first Blue Note album ever to achieve Platinum status (1,000,000 sales) in the USA.
The worldwide success of Us3 took everyone by surprise, and proved a point to Geoff. “I always thought there was a huge potential audience for jazz amongst younger people, and I wanted Us3 to be a point of access for them. By sampling classic jazz tracks, mixing them with beats and raps, and having younger jazz cats playing on top I was acknowledging the past, staying rooted in the present, and looking forward to the future, all at the same time.”
After several world tours with the Us3 band, Mel left for pastures new, and in 1996 Geoff set about making the follow-up. “It was always my intention to change the vocalists with each Us3 album” says Geoff, “it keeps things fresh and exciting for me too.” NY rappers KCB and Shabaam Sahdeeq came in to replace Rahsaan Kelly, Kobie Powell & Tukka Yoot, and the resulting 1997 album was “Broadway & 52nd”. The Blue Note samples became more embedded in the grooves and experimental tracks like “Snakes” (in 5/4) and “Sheep” (a spoken word poem) broke new ground, drawing great performances from K and Shabaam.
A frustrating period signed to Sony in NY was eventually brought to an end and the third Us3 album “An Ordinary Day In An Unusual Place” was released in 2001 by Toshiba EMI in Japan, and Universal in Europe. The album itself represented a quantum leap in the Us3 sound. Alison’s vocals oozed soul and musically Geoff had incorporated elements of drum’n’bass, Latin, and Indian music into the mix. “I’ve always had a very wide ranging taste in music and this was my chance to show it”, explains Geoff. “I also wanted to do something more overtly political, and Alison & Mich have both written some great socio-economic observations”. Several European and Japanese tours took place throughout 2002, and the crowd reactions were incredible.
The 4th Us3 album “Questions” was released in Japan in 2003. This time Geoff ditched the samples completely and made an album heavily influenced by both his love of Latin music and the neo-soul movement. Brooklyn rapper Reggi Wyns and London-based (South Africa-born) female singer Mpho Skeef were the featured vocalists. Says Geoff, “there’s been a decreasing reliance on samples with each Us3 album, and “Questions” is the culmination of that. And it was nice working with some live musicians rather than dead ones!”. “Questions” was also the first Us3 album to be released independently (outside Japan). Two tours of Europe throughout 2005 saw the Us3 live band perform 50 gigs in 14 countries, serving as a huge inspiration for Geoff.
“The gigs in 2005 were awesome,” says Geoff, “and I decided to make a much more vibey, uptempo live-sounding album next”. The result was the multiple musical personalities of “Schizophonic”. All members of the Us3 live band were featured, including the blistering trumpet of Chris Storr, the soaring sax of Ed Jones, the funky muscle of double bass player “Level” Neville Malcolm, and the unique turntable mastery of DJ First Rate. “Schizophonic” also featured two new rappers, Akil Dasan and Gaston, both of whom Geoff found at New York’s legendary Nuyorican Poets Café. Akil’s rhythmical mastery was put to the test on a variety of beats ranging from straight-up hip-hop to Brazilian sambas to straight-ahead jazz breaks, while Gaston’s intricate twisting wordplay will have you laughing hard, scratching your head, and snapping your neck all in the same breath. 2006 also saw the Us3 band gigging in Russia for the first time.
The 2007 album “Say What!?” saw Geoff doing something he’s never done before. Rappers Akil Dasan & Gaston made a reappearance. “I normally like to change the vocalists on every Us3 album,” says Geoff, “but Akil & Gaston did such a great job on Schizophonic I wanted to develop our relationship further. I think they’ve both stepped up a gear on Say What!?”. With the addition of vocalist Adeline, the Us3 sound took on a contemporary R&B twist, typified by the powerful single “Say You Belong To Me”. Yet again the album had a huge palette of sounds ranging from the big crunchy drums & horns of “VIP” and “Intoxicated” to the synthesized string drenched jazz breaks of “Afrodisiac” to the seductive Brazilian grooves of “How ‘Bout It Baby”.
After taking a break in 2008, Us3 returned in 2009 with a new album “stop. think. run” featuring 2 new rappers, Sene and Brook Yung. From the gritty opener “Gotta Get Out Of Here” to the bossa nova club track “She’s With Me”, the album touches on tales of urban paranoia and desperation to the pursuit of true romance. Geoff sums up the album title: “In life sometimes you need to stop and think about what you are doing and what you really want to do. And when you’ve identified what that is, run towards it”. In promoting the album the live Us3 band performed 39 shows in 17 different countries. Reviews were all very positive and influential US hip hop website Rapreviews.com voted “stop. think. run” the 7th best hip hop album of 2009.
In 2011 Us3 released their 8th album "Lie, Cheat & Steal", featuring NY based Puerto Rican rapper/spoken word artist Oveous Maximus, and acclaimed UK rapper (& MOBO Award winner) Akala. On the musical side Geoff employed some familiar Us3 faces in the shape of saxophonist Ed Jones & trumpet player Bryan Corbett, along with a dazzling array of London's finest keyboard players. The turntable skills of DJ First Rate are also to the fore. Musically the album is a kaleidoscope of sounds moving effortlessly from latin & flamenco-inspired sounds to the funky afrobeat of "(You Are) So Corrupt" and the hard-hitting title track. Oveous showcases both his rap & poetry skills on the blues-inflected "Wild West" and Akala tells a modern day parable that relates to us all on the breakbeat-fuelled "Puppet Master".
2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of “Cantaloop” and “Hand On The Torch”, and Geoff remastered the album for Blue Note’s 20th Anniversary Edition of the album, a 27 track double CD package that includes 4 brand new remixes of “Cantaloop”, new sleeve notes and rare photos.
A new album “The Third Way” is also subtitled “Hand On The Torch Vol II”. Geoff explains:- “I never really made a follow up album to “Hand On The Torch” so I thought, with the 20th anniversary coming up, it would be a perfect opportunity to revisit some of the ideas I had whilst making the first album.” Although there are no samples on “The Third Way”, interpolations (ie replayed elements) of several famous jazz standards are woven into the tracks. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca”, Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”, and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” are all given the Us3 treatment. MC duties are taken by three rappers from across Us3’s history. Akil Dasan (“Schizophonic” & “Say What!?”), KCB (Broadway & 52nd”), and Tukka (“Hand On The Torch”) effortlessly weave their vocal spells over the beats.
The last word goes to Geoff: “If jazz is the first way, and hip hop is the second way, then Us3 is the third way!”.