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Loud Speaker

MC Conrad gave a voice to the instrumental U.K. dance scene. Now that voice is carrying to U.S. clubs.

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LTJ Bukem works the turntables while MC Conrad - works the crowd.
  • LTJ Bukem works the turntables while MC Conrad works the crowd.

When hip-hop emerged in the '80s, the MC stood at center stage, while the producer took to the sidelines. But as sample-based music morphed into house, drum 'n' bass, downtempo, electronica, and ambient, the producer carved out his own domain in the underground DJ movement. And while instrumentals and sampled vocals allowed producers to define and articulate their creative vision, DJs bred a faceless industry that dumped the live MC and the character, theme, and voice that the vocalist often brings to music.

Not many had the vision of Conrad Thompson, who from the beginning snatched up the mic as MC Conrad and delivered deep vocals and complex rhymes to a genre that's mostly instrumental. Thompson, along with producer and Good Looking Records owner LTJ Bukem (Danny Williamson), brought the multidimensional characteristics of vocals to the computerized, two-step break drum samples and rolling bass that defined drum 'n' bass before the industry even existed.

"Vocals allow people to get another dimension on music," Thompson says in defense of his profession. "That's not necessarily saying instrumental music doesn't have as many dimensions as vocals, but just through the power of the medium you can allow people to see. And it's kind of a touchy-feely scenario, where you go, I can understand those words. I can understand what that piece of music is about now. I can visualize it. I can see their expression when they're saying those words or singing those words. So you get a bit closer, and that allows you to start going down some different avenues."

While Thompson's voice brought a better kinship between the listener and the music, Bukem humanized the method of production by taking the mechanical gloom and doom of drum 'n' bass and applying jazz fusion, ambient key riffs, and cinematic strings to the emotionless, electronic hiss of the futuristic style. The two artists first hooked up in 1990, at a birthday party in Slough, England, where Bukem had been slated to spin. After being introduced by friend DJ Trance, Conrad and Bukem proceeded to tear up the stage together at the local farm party. A few weeks later, they solidified their entertainment partnership at Dreamscape, a massive U.K. warehouse party.

"It was an exciting time for early drum 'n' bass," Thompson recalls. "There was a very strong kind of scene in regards to the parties, independent record labels, and DJs. There was just a whole thing going on where you could go out every weekend and find at least three or four parties going on up and down the U.K. that were playing something you wanted and the music you wanted to hear in various capacities -- a party in the middle of a field, totally illegal, various club nights, big raves."

In the late '80s, before his move to the rave scene, Thompson brought his vocals to a hip-hop group called Triple Element. But because he was only 15 at the time, he was unable to sign the record contract when the group, which also spawned the career of rapper Silver Bullet, was approached by the British hip-hop label Tum Tum Records. It was only a matter of time before the English kids who were into hip-hop left it behind and took DJ-based music into the burgeoning rave scene.

"They brought their hip-hop kind of tools and attitudes towards music with them and started destructing and reconstructing the beats and sounds," Thompson explains. "And when I started hearing that, I started to gain an attraction toward it. And I could totally relate to the way the music was being kind of morphed from the hip-hop aspect. It was basically throwing the rules out the window and doing what you liked. If it rubbed up against you and you liked it, then go with it."

Although Thompson first appeared on Adam-F's remix "F-Jam," he didn't really emerge until he added his vocals to "The Western," a track on Logical Progression 1 that was produced by PFM. With his work on a DJ mix by Blame on Logical Progression 2, Thompson's deep vocals were beginning to emerge as the recognizable mouthpiece of the genre. The Logical Progression series became the major vehicle for the label's sound, and this summer, Thompson and Bukem will release Logical Progression Level 4. Thompson produces nine songs on the first of two discs and raps and sings over live instrumentals performed by the four-piece band Fuze. Most recently, Thompson released Vocalists 01, a compilation of live songs that were rerecorded in the studio by Thompson with the help of the Words 2 B Heard Collective, a creative group that he fronts in the effort to emphasize vocalists' role in dance music.

"It's like what I was saying about what Danny [Williamson] does -- the ultimate rough with the ultimate smooth," Thompson says. "I like that kind of rubbing against the grain with the grain in what I do. I like a certain amount of ruggedness. You can try and paint a picture of the most beautiful scenic view. But in order to get that picture looking real, you've got to put a few telegraph poles in there, some electricity lines in there, you know? A little piece of rubbish by the curbside in order to bring that piece of reality to someone."

Thompson and his crew have set their sights on bringing that piece of reality to America, which has yet to fully embrace drum 'n' bass, despite the fact that British DJs regularly come to the U.S.

"I've been playing in America for five years now," Thompson says. "I remember playing in D.C. in a warehouse for like 20 people. It's amazing to see kids get into it and respond to it in such a way. It's a universal music that hits all ages, all creeds, all colors, and all cultures. And America is a big melting pot for culture and creed, races and class, and it's sticking. It's going to be something that kids are going to be getting into for a long time here -- writing it, producing it, promoting it, basing their Internet companies around it. It's going mad. It's going properly mad."

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