Champagne And Grits

Little Axe, 2004

In 2004 Skip and his team found a new home at Real World Records and created 'Champagne & Grits' (featuring Shara Nelson and Chris Difford Of Squeeze).

This new album was, according to producer Adrian Sherwood, "a far more song-based album by comparison to Hard Grind. It's warm but it's got a lot of minor keys in it, which I like and keep the music connected to the blues." But the methodology remains unchanged - though hugely facilitated by the exponential growth over the past decade of studio technology better suited to the sonic harvesting of the blues' past.

How does it work? What are the so-called "dub-blues" made of? How are they made?

"What I do is cheat," says McDonald, laughing. "No. Not really. But before I begin work on an album I listen to a lot of old music - and I mean a lot. I might focus on one person and try to get into as much stuff as they've done. I concentrate so hard I get heavy vibes, so the hairs on my neck stand up. And when I'm in there, I'll take a sample - it can be a vocal sample or an orchestral one, a piece of Mozart or a field recording of a chain gang - and I'll time-stretch 'em and tune 'em and get everything fitting together, and that process gives me a few ideas what what to do with a bassline, a beat and a guitar part. But it's the vibe that counts: the vibe coming from the original recording, the feeling of the individual, whether it's Leadbelly, Son House, the Wolf or whoever, and the intensity of what they're trying to say..."

This is the art of time-surfing, Little Axe-style. It's a process that begins in the deep past in the unfettered self-expression of an individual soul, finds new animation in the emotions of Skip McDonald and then achieves a state of formal realisation in the hands of "the crew": music so massive and of the moment that you could touch it.

As to Champagne and Grits, it was a piece of work that took three years. On this album if it feels as if there is less sampling than before, then it's because there was more writing.

Chris Difford, of Squeeze, turned up to pen lyrics for and sing "All in the Same Boat". Shara Nelson co-wrote and sings on "Say My Name." There are striking vocal performances by Bernard Fowler, Ghetto Priest and Junior Delgado. Underpinning everything is the Little Axe rhythm unit - and deep echoes from the past. As Sherwood puts it: "You spend a long time going into yourself trying to get it right, to capture the air of field recordings in our own space."

"Well," sighs Skip, "it's been a progression, I've gotta say that. I'm an endangered species - I come from the era when people had to play; it wasn't enough just to look good then: you had to play. And now I've learned all about hard-disc recording, Pro-Tools, Logic and this and that and I'm progressing, like a good old ship - Battleship Skip."

Reviews

  • Skip McDonald paid his dues long ago. The Sugarhill Gang guitarist helped define hip-hop on classics like "The Message" and "Rapper's Delight". A decade back he headed to the blues, linking with On-U producer extraordinaire Adrian Sherwood to explore the dub side of soul. His fourth such project, Champagne & Grits, is the least Jamaicanized, most song-based record yet. Guests Junior Delgado and Ghetto Priest add a a bit of island life to McDonald's emotive guitar, but when Massive Attack vocalist Shara Nelson begs you to "Say My Name", you'll truly know what longing is all about. XLR8R (USA)
  • Little Axe album in Rolling Stone Top Ten Albums list for 2004 Featuring in critic Chris Rubin's Top Ten Albums of 2004 list in Rolling Stone: Little Axe, Champagne and Grits (Real World): Just your average blues album -- if the band was from Mars. Very spacey stuff. Rolling Stone (USA)
  • album review Skip McDonald's on-going 21st Century Blues project releases its fourth album in ten years, the first for what appears to be On-U's new temporary home, the Real World label. Featuring a masterfully light Sherwood touch, reminiscent of his deft work on Bim Sherman's 'Miracle' album, and striking vocal contributions from the familiar (Shara Nelson, Junior Delgado, Ghetto Priest and Bernard Fowler) and the unexpected (Squeeze's Chris Difford), this is unmistakably a Skip McDonald/Little Axe record: full of integrity and dirt under the nails, not pieced together in an antiseptic studio. This ain't no lame Moby-style interpretation of the blues - this is the real deal! Straight No Chaser (UK)
  • Hues of the Blues - Globally The Chicago Sun Times lists Little Axe's "Champagne And Grits" in its Top Ten Blues albums of the year: Little Axe, "Champagne & Grits" (Real World): Think mixing blues with hip-hop would make you as sick as, say, champagne and grits? Well, Chris Thomas King proved it can be done successfully, and Grandmaster Flash alum Skip McDonald and his musical partners perfect the recipe here. Chicago Sun Times (USA)
  • This has been out for a while now but as it isn’t clogging up the charts we felt we should give you all a nudge and point you at one of this years - soon to be lost if everyone doesn’t get their bloody finger out – little gems. The recipe is simple, take the blues, courtesy of Sugarhill/Tackhead mainstay Skip McDonald, dub, tweak, sample and process them (courtesy of On-U dub legend Adrian Sherwood) sprinkle on a little Keith LeBlanc and Doug Wimbish, add guest vocals from Junior Delgado, Shara Nelson and Chris Difford and bobs yer uncle. Top smart. www.totalmusicmagazine.com (internet)
  • album review Who is Little Axe? Followers of producer Adrian Sherwood will know that Little Axe is actually Bernard Alexander. Who is Bernard Alexander? Why, he's Skip McDonald, guitarist in the original rap house band, The Sugarhill Gang, and co-conspirator on Sherwood's On-U label experiments (African Headcharge, Tackhead , Bim Sherman et al.). Confused? Well if you consider that this is a blues album made by people connected with the roots of hip hop, dub reggae and techno funk you proably should be confused. But have no fear, just one listen and everything will become clear.    McDonald and Sherwood's strategy is simple and totally within keeping of their previous work. These are people who always instinctively knew that there was common ground in all roots music, from King Tubby to Howlin' Wolf. With this in mind they blend the basic forms of the delta blues and, using Sherwood's technological savvy, put all the extras that the 21st Century has to offer under a rudimentary framework of acoustic guitar and plaintive vocals. Like supercharging a Model T... McDonald states how his methodology included listening to early blues music until one sample or phrase sparked his muse. Thus we get little snatches of chain gang work songs ("Go Away Devil") and ancient scratchy hollers woven into the mix, while depth charges of dub bass and drums pour fire into the belly of each song. Meanwhile, collaborators such as Junior Delgado or Shara Nelson ("Say My Name") add elements of reggae or trip hop in their doomiest incarnations. What's most impressive about Champagne and Grits is the way it finds the common link between the ancient and modern,  making the blues a viable form of musical protest for the 21st century. This is real American folk music, alive and very much kicking. Reviewer: Chris Jones BBC.co.uk (internet)
  • album review Skip McDonald and Adrian Sherwood released their first LP as Little Axe nearly ten years ago. The mixture of old blues samples and mellow dub techniques and beats has served them well. Favourites include the seriously heavy Delta-reggae of 'Go Away Devil' and the shape-shifting ambient-blues majesty of 'Will I Ever Get Back Home Again'. What's On (UK)
  • album review Little Axe is essentially Skip McDonald, one-time stalwart of the Sugarhill Gang house band, aided and abetted by the legendary Keith LeBlanc and Doug Wimbish with Adrian Sherwood on production duties. This excursion into the heart of dub blues is, as always, immensely listenable. Music Week (UK)