Rewind: 4hero - Mr. Kirk's Nightmare

  • A breakbeat classic that came straight out of hip-hop and soundsystem culture.
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  • As raves mutated, evolved and eventually became festival-sized events dominated by techno, it would be easy to think the 4/4 rhythm had always been the dominant musical structure upon which modern dance culture was built. But the reality tells a different story. The late '80s orbital raves were an eclectic affair in comparison to today's clubbing soundtrack. The strict 4/4 of Chicago House circa '86 and '87 had been absorbed, but especially in the UK, other influences seeped into dance music as rave culture exploded across the nation in '88 and '89. Electra's "Jibaro," Frankie Bones' & Lenny Dee’s New York hip-hop-freestyle crossover "Another Place, Another Time," Miami electro bass hit "Security," proto-breakbeat oddities such as Silver Bullet's "Bring Forth The Guillotine" and Renegade Soundwave's "The Phantom" —these are just a few examples of the non-4/4 anthems at the time. At some venues, like Lee Bridge Road Ice Rink, Dungeons or Raindance in East London, 4/4 tracks were possibly even the minority of what was played. The Black culture influence of West London and the North East is an often overlooked powerhouse of innovation in the development of British rave culture. Sheffield's "Bleep" sound, the Detroit techno-influenced IDM and "intelligent techno" represented by ART, Likemind, Evolution and GPR and the scenes around labels like Ibiza and Junior Boy's Own have all received high-profile retrospective acknowledgment. Yet, as somebody who worked in a record store during the rave period, the overwhelmingly popular requests from young clubbers were for homegrown EPs by Black producers like Shut Up And Dance, Blapps Posse, Ragga Twins and Moody Boys. For several months in 1990 our store had an endless number of young kids in kicker boots and baggy attire asking for "Mr. Kirk." Mr. Kirk was, of course, "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare," a track on a UK EP by 4hero. 4hero had just one EP behind them when the "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" white-label dropped in the second half of 1990. The summer of that year had been huge for rave culture, with the larger outdoor events slowly being phased-out due to government clampdowns and a return to underground warehouse venues around North and South East London predominated. A promo white label of "Mr. Kirk" began to circulate around late August and caught the peak of this transition. Rising Son, 4hero's previous EP, piqued the attention of DJs with its rather bizarre mix of '70s wah-wah guitar and rave chord stabs, a mash-up of hip-hop sampling techniques and London hardcore. The EP that contained "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" continued this trend with the addition of a darkly comedic anti-drug spoken-word message that would be heard at every rave for months on end. The hip-hop-rave hybrid is not a surprise given 4hero members Marc Mac, Dego and Gus Lawrence's musical backgrounds leading up to "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare." "At the time we didn't rave much, as we generally were playing out with the soundsystem from 1986 through 1990. [They were at] house parties around North West London, Notting Hill carnival, youth local centres etc. Music wise, we were mainly playing soul, boogie, electro, house, 2-step soul," recalls Marc Mac. Gus continues: "I wasn't a clubber, so I never went raving much. I really only went to hip-hop jams and the occasional soul rave. Shenola's, Granaries, etc. I wasn't into rave whatsoever. I was a hip-hop producer and was all about the breaks and drum loops... my record collection consisted mostly of '80s soul and hip-hop, though my first records were pop—Madness, Stranglers, The Specials, The Jam, The Police, then electro like Jonzun Crew, Key-Matic, the Street Sounds electro series etc. My producer name was Reinforced G, a name given to me by Tim Westwood." Dego, meanwhile, was on board mainly as a rapper at this early stage. Marc explains how the rave elements merged with the members' backgrounds as hip-hop producers: "By the time 'Mr. Kirk's Nightmare' was made, I had started to experience rave music, mainly through our pirate radio station Strong Island Radio and through soundsystem member Ian ["Da Rebel" Bardouille] whose brother did security for some of the big raves. I was getting into Chicago house and hip-house like Tyree, Doug Lazy." "Marc brought the house and techno element into the mix and so when our styles blended our sound was created," Gus adds. "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" originally came out as part of a five-track EP called Combat Dancin, with "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" sandwiched in the middle of the A-side. It saw a re-release as a three-track EP with an entire side given over to "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare," a louder pressing which was a nice option for DJs. A few white labels made it around the London record stores and I had managed to get one of these early copies. I also heard it that weekend at Dungeons on Lea Bridge Road. By October it had become highly sought-after, even as a promo. I took it to a gig I was invited to play at in my adopted hometown of Ipswich around this time. Somewhat fittingly, the venue and rave had been organised by a traditional reggae soundsystem (Hammer Sound). Needless to say, "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" blew the place up. Many rewinds were had. The anti-drug message of the spoken-word section was part of its appeal. The irony of (possibly) pilled-up ravers dancing to an anti-drug song about a young man dying of an overdose seemed of a piece with the sometimes dark escapism of the London rave scene at this time. The days of lovey-dovey hugging in open-fields were giving way to rather sketchy, hastily arranged illegal venues, security takeovers and heavy drug dealing. Among the (at least) six samples being looped, chopped and reversed in "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare," electro fans will instantly be familiar with the intro from "ET Boogie," which creates palpable tension before the the massive breakbeat, taken from an Isley Brothers track, drops. Short breakdowns with a call back to the spoken word intro—"your son is dead"—and a bassline straight out of reggae soundsystem culture made for an immediate anthem. "I remember the session clearly," Marc recalls. "Picking out our favourite breaks, layering them and the 'ET Boogie' sample. One key memory that comes to mind was the bassline and how that came about. Gus was sat with the Yamaha SY22. His room was a box room with a mad resonant frequency and I said to Gus, 'Whatever notes make the room shake the most, use 'em.' Roland TR-626 was a big part of the drum programming. We used it to trigger and program, then transferred the MIDI info patterns to Emagic Creator.” Looking back, Marc remembers "Mr. Kirk's Nightmare" as "a hybrid, a real red herring at the time that sounded different from any other rave track." Gus concurs. "I feel pride because it was different from anything around at the time, which is the ethos of anyone who came up through hip-hop." "I'm proud of 'Mr. Kirk' too," says Marc. "It's a milestone and still sounds like nothing else. Even though we sold near 20,000 records and never got paid a penny. The distribution company went bust."