Despite being more concerned with moving to big school when the first wave of acid house washed over a suspicious Britain in the late 80s and early 90s, today’s clubbers are all too familiar with the roll of drum and bass and the clatter of rave. No one bats an eye when the distinctive rhythms and bass lines of Britain’s homegrown dance culture are dropped in clubs these days, and even indie bands are cadging the tricks that the likes of Metalheadz and Roni Size used to pack a dancefloor with and keep it sweating back in the day. For old scene heads 4hero, however, it’s been a long journey from illegal shows in north London warehouses to being radio staples and Mercury Music Prize nominated doyens of the dinner party soundtrack.
The group began as a quartet on the fringes of UK hip-hop in the mid-80s, but quickly gravitated towards the hardcore scene that was coming up towards the end of the decade. A small revolution in music was quietly taking place in the fields of the Home Counties. Illegal rave scenes and pirate radio stations were popularising tunes made by grubby hands in small DIY studios rather than shiny pop nuggets plucked from Simon Cowell’s arse.
When rave finally caught the attention of the general public, its blend of acid-fried psychedelia and tight drum patterns that drew on both the swing of Latin and African percussion and the metronomic intensity of Detroit techno came as something of a shock. Mark ‘Marc Mac’ Clair, who splits 4hero’s production duties with Dennis ‘Dego’ McFarlane, remembers the shock of the new: “When DJ Hype incorporated house and UK hip-hop into his music and dropped Rising Son, nothing else sounded like that. It was a new fusion.”
I got married, I’ve got a kid; I’m chilling. It’s the grown-up side to 4hero.
4hero were among the first to embrace the change in dance music culture. Originally a breaks and techno act, the Dollis Hill production team began to meld the breakbeat structures of hip hop and reggae’s African diaspora with the rigid four-to-the-floor of a European production style still heavily influenced by Kraftwerk’s robotic beats. Moving away from the bass-heavy bleepcore of their peers, 4hero were instrumental in rolling the spirit of the 1988 Summer of Love into the next decade with warehouse party favourites like the ‘Combat Dance’ EP and ‘Mr Kirk’s Nightmare’.
While the post-punk and New Romantic bands reacted to the harsh economic and social conditions of the early 80s with politicised aggression and theatrical denial respectively, the new crop of young musicians were looking for something more inclusive, finding it in the euphoric rush of a nascent club culture. “During the Summer of Love, barriers got broken down,” says Mark. “There was a racial divide; we’d just come out of the skinhead area. The National Front were on the TV, and we’d had the Brixton Riots and miners’ strikes. People wanted to say goodbye to all that.”
The mass parties and highs of the scene facilitated a rapprochement between the most unlikely of groups. For Mark, as a young black male, the decline in racial tension was one of the most noticeable trends. “I grew up round Wembley and Harrow, where I got chased home by skinheads. But you’d see proper football hooligans get into rave and drop their attitude. It was all getting mixed up.”
The uncharitable among us might say that ecstasy, the acid house scene’s biggest signifier, might have had a little something to do with the general atmosphere of peace, love and harmony: pills and rave are as closely linked in public perception as Robbie Williams and a crushing sense of despair. According to Mark, that’s something of a tabloid fallacy: “At raves of 10,000 to 15,000 people, only 10 or 15 per cent were on E. People assume that the whole scene was on drugs, but most people were uplifted by the music.”
He’s also quick to dispel any thoughts Clash readers might have about his group being wild-eyed pill monkeys shaking fistfuls of MDMA at an uncaring sky. “4hero weren’t into drugs. In fact, ‘Mr Kirk’s Nightmare’ was anti drugs.” Ironically, the 1990 single’s bleak vocal refrain of “Mr Kirk, your son is dead; he died of an overdose…” was taken to be a sarcastic statement about the moral panic surrounding the use of E. It even provoked an unprecedented number of calls to Kiss FM, who were rinsing the track at the time, demanding that the pro-drugs propaganda being released by the nasty ravers be banned from Britain’s airwaves.
Aware of the round of disbelieving scoffing that denying the link between substances and dance music is likely to elicit from the chattering classes, Mark does concede that the chemicals the crowd were shovelling down their throats or ramming up their noses was important to the culture of the music. “E appeared to be a lovey, happy drug, but when harder drugs came in, the beats got harder, more angry. The drug that was in the scene dictated the rave.” Cocaine, speed and other darker uppers made also made an impact. “E and LSD were trippy. With coke, I saw the difference between the Rasta culture of smoking and chilling and taking a drug that makes you want to go out and shoot someone.”
As the scene evolved with its audience’s taste in stimulant, 4hero turned away from the dancefloor. Although still playing raves, the group moved into the studio, releasing the album credited as the first drum and bass LP, ‘Parallel Universe’, in 1994. While jungle moved drum and bass towards a heavier, more violent sound, 4hero began introducing new elements to the genre. The jazzy instrumentation and soulful female vocals that came to typify the 4hero style moved past simple melodic hooks underpinned by organ-rearranging bass weight, broadening the group’s scope for musical expression and cementing their reputation as musical innovators.
For the band, drum and bass had become “a prison, and we had to break out. Drum and bass beats always had to be hard and up-tempo, at 100 beats per minute rather than 90.” Staying fresh was a struggle due to the rigid structural confines of the genre, and Mark began to find inspiration in artists who had grown out of another tightly defined musical scene: punk. The Clash and The Jam were particularly influential. “Paul Weller’s a good example in that lots of people threw him away when he changed into Style Council. He didn’t let the scene dictate his style.”
People assume that the whole scene was on drugs, but most people were uplifted by the music.
This might explain the lack of mainstream recognition afforded to them: while Roni Size and Goldie continued to plough their clearly defined stylistic furrows, Clair and McFarlane dabbled in various genres under a variety of aliases. In fact, the pair seem to have been almost put off by critical acclaim: despite being praised from all sides - ‘Parallel Universe’ was even voted best dance album in a 1995 NME poll - the duo didn’t resurface as 4hero until 1997. “We did have a negative reaction to the idea [of going overground] at first. But fans that we’d never have picked up wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t,” says Mark. “We needed to get out to more people.”
Their comeback single couldn’t have been better. A stunning remix of Nuyorican Soul’s classic ‘Black Gold Of The Sun’, it once again had critics cooing over the group’s sensitive reworking of funk and soul, and set the template for the style they’d become widely known for. “Soul’s been creeping in for a long time. It’s a logical progression: ever since ‘Parallel Universe’, there’s been continuity between albums. We’ve always used those Coltrane chords.” Mark chuckles, “Old jazz heads like Gilles Peterson could relate to it.”
‘Two Pages’, their debut for major label Talkin’ Loud, followed in 1998, picking up a Mercury nomination and introducing new fans to the pair’s work along the way. Their sound had also softened further, moving them further towards a pop audience. This didn’t come as a shock to 4hero. “You can’t be surprised these days. Pop’s completely changed. Things like 909s used to be undergound compared to what Stock, Aitken and Waterman were doing. Now there’s a much thinner line between what’s pop and what’s not.”
The crossover success of ‘Two Pages’ continued with 2001’s ‘Creating Patterns’, which boasted collaborations with soul luminaries old and new, and featured a popular reworking of Minnie Ripperton’s 1970’s gem ‘Les Fleurs’. Mark pegs the group’s continued mellowing on getting old. “Age creeps into it as well. When we were doing jungle and drum and bass, we were banging it all night long, sometimes playing until 10 in the morning. It was music for the dancefloor, it always had that dance angle.” Mark shrugs. “I suppose we don’t need to make it now we’re not on the dancefloor any more. I got married, I’ve got a kid; I’m chilling. It’s the grown-up side to 4hero.”
All of which bring us to the latest joint to drop from 4hero’s nimble fingers; the expansive, soulful ‘Play With The Changes’. Slated for release this January, it heralds yet another change in how Dego and Mark work. “We worked from two different towns and studios, then put the tracks together. There’s more individual production, but we’ve been working together so long it’s still got that whole 4hero sound.”
With over 40 musicians and engineers contributing to the album, it promises a broader sonic palette than ever before. Mark laughs at the suggestion that getting an orchestra to pick up the nuances of jungle would cause problems for plenty of other producers. “It’s easy for us to do now. 10 years ago they couldn’t get the rhythm right. Now they study Latin beat, African drums and drum and bass.”
With plans to tour the album using a 20-piece band, 2007 looks set to be a good year for 4hero. But what of the scene the band helped to give birth too? Does the continued drift of its figureheads towards less abrasive and more accessible new forms signal the death of cycle dancing as we know it? The stasis of the drum and bass scene does concern Mark slightly. “It’s hard to come across a new act. Good drum and bass to me is Photek and Goldie; the cats there from the old school.” When 4hero started up their independent label, Raw Canvas, they encouraged their artists to be adventurous. “It’s not a dig at anyone, but we told them to explore different tempos. It’s like writing a ballad in Techno; how do I do it?”
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. “You can still go to a drum and bass rave and it’ll be packed. The scene won’t disappear.” 4hero may have moved on, but heads up and down the country will continue to roll to the pressure drops they pioneered for quite some time to come.