One Size Fits All Into Techno

Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

'It was like somebody threw a boomerang and hit me on the back of the head, do ya know what I mean?"

Roni Size is trying to describe what it felt like to pull off one of the biggest and most improbable upsets in the history of the Mercury Prize, the prestigious British award that is given annually to the best album of the year.

In winning the Mercury prize, which is voted upon by a panel of critics and musicians as opposed to the wider industry balloting that chooses the rival Brit Awards, Size fended off such formidable competitors as critical darlings Radiohead's "OK Computer" and such mega-sellers as the Spice Girls' "Spice."

"My old friends from Bristol were watching it on TV, and they started running into the streets with their socks on," says the 29-year-old musician. "It was just unbelievable. It's every kid's dream to be caught off guard in that way."

While it's highly unusual for an album that traffics in the truncated melodic jolts and caffeinated rhythms of electronic music to win the Mercury, closer inspection reveals that Size's debut collection is not just another empty exercise in high-octane techno.

Drawing on a vast array of styles including jazz, hip-hop, old-school R & B and reggae, Size and his eight-musician collective known as Reprazent re-imagine electronic music by opening it up to outside influences, crafting a unique hybrid that combines the relentless thrust of "jungle" music with subtler instrumental undercurrents.

"What I wanted to do with the album was make it a reflection of all these genres that have touched me, like reggae, soul, punk, ska, jungle--I could go on and on," says Size, whose two-night L.A. debut engagement concludes tonight at the Roxy. "People have told me that the album's ambitious, but I didn't realize what I was doing until people starting pointing it out to me. I was just doing what I felt inside."

Unlike countless other techno artists who camouflage derivative musical notions beneath layers of squawking circuitry and monolithic beats, Size and his crew--which includes rapper MC Dynamite, singer Onallee and producers Crust, Die and Suv--are never wanting for ideas, which is remarkable considering that "New Forms" contains 23 tracks.

The two discs are full of startling juxtapositions: A trilling acoustic guitar and rubbery bass line reminiscent of Weather Report's Jaco Pastorious glide through "Brown Paper Bag"; Onallee's sensual vocal turns "Heroes" into an R & B torch song for the digital age, while "Watching Windows" is an elegant slice of fatback funk that could be mistaken for the Brand New Heavies.

The upshot of all this graceful shape-shifting is that Size has now supplanted previous critics' darling Goldie as the techno standard-bearer who is expected to lead the genre into the next millennium. It's a mantle that Size is more than willing to bear.

"People say to me, 'Roni, do you feel like you're under pressure?' " says Size. "But I feel like we're the ones that are applying the pressure. Under pressure is when you're living in Bristol with no one backing you, and you have no outlet for your music, and you don't know where your next meal is coming from. I just see all this as a great opportunity."

For Size, dance music has been both a source of refuge and salvation. A high school dropout, he was dead-set on making music his life, but had no idea how to channel that desire into something productive.

"In school, they tried to make me learn how to play violin, which I had no interest in," he says. Everything changed after Size was introduced to his first drum machine at age 15. "I used to just sit in the corner tapping on all the buttons and seeing what came out. I wasn't even making music, just learning the language of technology. It really gave me something to focus on."

A few years later, Size formed the core of Reprazent by recruiting local deejays Dynamite, Die and Suv. "Die and Suv and I just started putting together tracks, then going to this place in London called House Sounds that allowed us to make dub plates, which we then used to deejay with," says Size. "We were getting really good reactions, so that encouraged us to start deejaying more."

Size and Crust eventually segued from the deejay booth to the studio, recording a single called "Music Box" for the indie label V in 1992 before forming their own label, Full Cycle, to release both their records and the work of other Bristol artists.

It was these early sides that grabbed the attention of taste-making British dance music label Talkin' Loud; the label, which has a distribution deal with Mercury Records, signed Size and Reprazent in 1995.

"I see Roni possibly doing for electronic music what Nine Inch Nails did for industrial music," says Rachel Mintz, manager of product development at Mercury. "Trent Reznor broke an underground sound into the mainstream by making it a little more accessible, and that's what Roni's doing. He's trying to bring different sounds to people, new riffs and song structures. That's why he named the album 'New Forms.' "

The album is partly an homage to those early deejay days, when Size and his crew would mix and match styles without fear or favor. "I remember when we used to go out and play soul next to hip-hop. Now, they have theme nights, where it's all hip-hop or all house music. I'm waiting for the day when all those styles come together again."

Not everyone has looked on "New Forms' " stylistic miscegenation favorably; there have been a few vocal techno purists who decry Size for tainting their beloved music with things like vocals and listener-friendly hooks. No matter, says Size: Ideological debates are beside the point.

"What is techno, or jungle? It's all music. One of my big problems with techno right now is the musical language that some people associate us and the music with. I don't associate with words like sellout, 'cause they mean nothing to me. I'm just trying to take this to another level and figure out new ways of communicating, 'cause I think we're on to something."

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