As a raw form of human expression, traditional blues is unparalleled. As desolate background music for beer commercials, or as a genre du jour for upscale fortysomethings, classic blues is exploited. But, thanks to Little Axe, now old-style blues can meet the modern world with its soul and standards intact.
Led by Skip McDonald, the group, which includes Doug Wimbish, Keith LeBlanc and Adrian Sherwood (all former members of avant-garde studio experiment Tackhead), likes to call itself the first ambient-dub-blues project. On its debut album, "The Wolf That House Built," Little Axe samples the music of blues legends Howlin' Wolf and Leadbelly over its own grooves and processed beats, leaving enough room for the original artists' intent while creating an entirely different style of music. Rather than new, improved blues, it's an aurally shimmering extension on the style.
"I think when you talk old or new music, you're categorizing," says guitarist McDonald, who along with Wimbish and LeBlanc anchored the house band for the early-'80s rap label Sugar Hill, playing with Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang. "What's in now is usually what everybody's looking for, but, by doing that, a lot of times you pass up things that are really, really good. That's why I don't look at the blues as old, I look at it as timeless."
With that in mind, Little Axe is patient when sampling dusty blues tunes. The "Wolf" album, on the revived blues label Okeh, often features long, smooth samples of blues and gospel numbers rather than fleeting snippets, sometimes manipulating the late bluesmen's groans to sound even eerier or more pained. The fusions are seamless, making it impossible to tell exactly what is old or new. McDonald, who also sings on the album, says he'll never tell.
"You have to work that out yourself," he says. "The album has some live and some programmed things that aren't normal to what Howlin' Wolf would have done. I think in that way, we do bring it into a frame of what's happening now. You're hearing it in a way that it hasn't been presented in up to this time. It's something you don't expect, but it still goes together really, really nice."
The members of the London-based Little Axe are no strangers to fusing disparate elements and finding new sonic frontiers: Sherwood runs the eclectic On-U label and with McDonald has worked with the synthesized reggae and dance mutations of artists such as Dub Syndicate and Gary Clail. The two have also remixed tracks for such bands as Nine Inch Nails and Living Colour.
McDonald himself is no stranger to the blues. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1949, he grew up listening to his father play blues guitar with friends on the weekends, and he later played with local blues outfits. He started his own band, Wood/Brass & Steel, in 1974 and even played with disco trio Musique (remember "In the Bush"?), before hitting his stride with the more daring projects of Sugar Hill and On-U in the '80s.
But, regardless of the far-flung nature of his music, McDonald feels there's been a unifying thread through it all.
"I don't think Little Axe is a lot different from what I've done emotionally in other projects," he says. "I think it's a reiteration of the same old thoughts that have prevailed. We've always tried to do things that would inspire somebody to think on different levels. I've always tried to be involved in music that's more than just your basic love ballad. I think in all music, there needs to be a bit of spirituality and physicalness."