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Manifest Beats: Back in the '80s, Jack Dangers wondered if anyone would get his sonic experiments.

Meat Beat Manifesto's Jack Dangers mixes hip-hop and electronic innovations with wild, organic funk

By Michelle Goldberg

PITY MEAT BEAT MANIFESTO'S record company. It has had to watch as artists as diverse as Tricky, Goldie and Prodigy have gotten rich on audio innovations that Meat Beat Manifesto made years ago without critical or commercial notice. Meat Beat Manifesto was mixing deep, throbbing bass lines, Kraftwerk-style synths, film and TV samples, breakbeats, jazz loops and found sound before genres like drum 'n' bass, trip-hop or illbiant were even invented.

The band revolves around one man--Jack Dangers--a San Francisco-based expat from the poor British industrial town of Swindon. It was in Swindon in the '70s that Dangers started playing around with tape manipulation. In 1987, he left the pop band Perennial Divide to form Meat Beat Manifesto.

The band's dark, dystopian lyrics and politically satirical sampling often led critics to lump it with groups like Ministry and KMFDM. But in retrospect, Dangers' music was really the blueprint for the bombastic rave 'n' roll of the Chemical Brothers and the experimental drum 'n' bass assaults of the much-lauded Squarepusher, whose music Dangers admires.

In 1990, Meat Beat Manifesto released "Radio Babylon," a track whose rapid breakbeats have since led critics to call it the first jungle track. Then, in 1991, the band released the haunting "Paradise Now." With its loping low-rider bass, complex webs of distorted beats and creepy vocals low in the mix, "Paradise Now" prefigured the hip-hop noir that would make Tricky a poster boy for urban angst. But there wasn't a name for what Dangers was doing, so the media called it industrial.

Dangers is reluctant to anoint himself the father of anything. "No one starts a style," he says modestly. "I might have had some ideas which triggered others--"Radio Babylon" kicked off ideas in that direction. But when we made that, we got slammed in with industrial music. Not that that was ever a bad thing, because I've never had anything against that kind of music, but we don't sound like Ministry or KMFDM or Nine Inch Nails. My favorite music at that point was hip-hop. I've never been taken seriously from the hip-hop side as well. Back then you had to be pure, not experimental. That's caught up as well."

It's now largely taken for granted that the combination of European electronic music and hip-hop is what spawned the rave scene. But back in the '80s, those styles seemed to be worlds apart. "Between 1987 and 1995, I was wondering if anyone was ever going to get it," Dangers says.

"The reason I started doing music in the first place," Dangers continues, "was because I was inspired by Can and Cabaret Voltaire. Cabaret Voltaire and Public Enemy are two of the most important electronic bands of all time. That they were both reasonably successful is rare. You usually have to go to the lowest common denominator to be commercial."

But Dangers insists he's not bitter about the mainstream's failure to appreciate his band. "We've never been part of a scene," he says, "and we'll never cross over to be a big commercial arena band. That's the story for this band. We've been working since 1987, and I've seen a lot of bands come and go. What I get pissed off about is when people don't believe that we were doing this kind of music all along.

"I've done interviews with people who don't know our music, and they will sort of question me about whether I was influenced by someone that came along four years after I did. I say, all right, whatever, write what you want."

It's not a matter of trying to be ahead of the game, Dangers says. "It's just a byproduct of all the music I listen to. We don't sell a lot of records, never have, never will. I don't think about it that much. I think it's harder for my record label; they keep thinking there's a really good chance that this music is going to break through. You have to be true to yourself and not get swayed. I'm just very pleased to be doing music. Jesus Christ, I used to clean toilets out for a living. On the new album, I got to work with Pat Gleason from the Headhunters!"

PLAYING BASS clarinet and saxophone, Headhunters' musicians Gleason and Benny Maupin (who also played on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew) add a dimension of warm, wild, organic funk to Meat Beat Manifesto's latest album, Actual Sounds and Voices. Spiraling, pulsating horns dominate on the first part of "The Thumb," a nearly 11-minute-long epic. The song begins as an infectious, groovy piece of digitally gilded jazz before morphing into an abstract white-noise soundscape, then resuming with a more futuristic, abstract interpretation of the beginning.

"The Thumb" can be interpreted as a template for electronic musical evolution: start with the classics, break them down into total abstraction, then rebuild them into something that retains some of the original soul even as it surges into new sonic territory.

Perhaps ironically for a musician so much at the forefront of sampling and studio wizardry, Dangers has always used live musicians--actual sounds and voices--so that his music retains a human spontaneity.

"It's been half and half from the very first album," he says. "I like working with drummers and other musicians. I've always worked with humans in studios. It gives it an element that you can't really control. If you're working on your own in the studio all the time, that can give you too much control."

That doesn't mean, though, that Dangers is retreating from machines. Elsewhere on Actual Sounds and Voices, intricate layers of beats swirl and stomp around snatches of voices, foreboding waves of vibrating, distorted noise and eerie speaking samples. "Prime Audio Soup" is supremely danceable, with a booming, shake-it bass line made interesting by strata of staccato, ricocheting beats, scratches, slinky movie music and even a few odd snatches of haunting melody.

It's true that Actual Sounds and Voices doesn't sound quite as innovative as Meat Beat Manifesto's past work, because so many more musicians are now working in Dangers' groove. But the fact that there's now a greater pop cultural context for Meat Beat Manifesto's music also means that more ears will be primed for the gurgling, echoing, percussive complexity of a track like "Prime Audio Soup."

Dangers has no designs on fame. "I'm on cruise control, I've got no master plan," he says. But now that the zeitgeist has collided with him, he may not be able to avoid the limelight for much longer.

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From the November 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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