As Nightmares on Wax’s 1995 album Smokers Delight celebrates its 25th birthday, our latest Bleepography entry looks at their final Bleep-era release, the ‘A Case of Funk’ EP, and specifically oddball B-side ‘21st Kong’.
Today (April 3) is the official release date of Nightmares On Wax’s 25th anniversary edition of ‘Smokers Delight’, the album that established the Leeds act as sonic sorcerers with a passion for weed-fuelled downtempo beats.
That album remains a classic, and it holds a significant place in their discography. For starters, it was the first of their albums to be written and produced primarily by George ‘E.A.S.E’ Evelyn, who has continued the N.O.W journey alone ever since. But if you study the credits carefully, you’ll see that track two, ‘Dreddoverboard’, includes co-production credits for Kevin ‘Boy Wonder’ Harper, previously the other permanent member of Nightmares on Wax.
Evelyn and Harper never fell out and their friendship endures to this day, but his decision to walk away from the project – most likely sometime around 1993 (he was definitely involved in 1992 single ‘Happiness’) – changed the sound of Nightmares on Wax Records forever. Kevin was, and remains, a huge fan of house music, and while he shares George’s love of hip-hop, electro, reggae and soul (they met as teenage break-dancers in Bradford around 1985) it’s unlikely that N.O.W records would have been as downtempo as they ended up had he still been involved. (It should be pointed out here though that Evelyn has continued to offer-up occasional house and techno influenced tracks, with a number featuring on 2018 set ‘Shape The Future’).
There’s a whole chapter in Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music dedicated to Nightmares on Wax, with a partial focus on the local and regional rivalry that drove them, and George Evelyn in particular. With roots in hip-hop and reggae soundsystem culture, they entered the Bleep scene – via ‘Dextrous’ on their self-funded white label EP released in the summer of 1989 – with a battle-hardened mentality. If they saw former breakdance rivals or crew mates such as Unique 3 (who had been in the same Bradford breaking crew, Solar City Rockers) making forward-thinking dance music, they had to do it too. It was, as Evelyn says in the book, all about beating your rivals, even if that rivalry was largely friendly.
The story of ‘Dextrous’ will be told in a future Bleepography article but suffice to say that it was a big success. Their raw, ‘Voodoo Ray’ and ‘The Theme’-inspired original version earned them a contract with the newly formed Warp Records – a label Evelyn is still signed to today – and a chance to re-make it under the watchful eyes of Forgemasters members Sean Maher and Rob Gordon (much of the work was carried out at the latter’s house in the streets above Sheffield’s infamous Park Hill estate, where he also re-mastered the Join The Future compilation).
Further singles (see the gargantuan, breakbeat-fuelled brilliance of ‘Aftermath’) and a debut album followed in 1991. That was preceded by a fresh EP featuring a couple of cuts from the album, ‘A Case of Funk’. By this point in the Bleep & Bass story, the prevailing winds of British dance music had already changed direction; while some Bleep cuts continued to trickle out, breakbeat hardcore was becoming the dominant force. Nightmares on Wax had always led, not followed, so on its initial release ‘A Case of Funk’ – a set of tracks that Evelyn described to me as their most techno release to date – didn’t fare that well commercially. As Evelyn said to me in an interview a few years ago, ‘It went over people’s heads.’
Yet listening back now, it’s hard to see why. Opener ‘Biofeedback’ is a curious concoction – all thunderous kick-drums, wonky bleeps, deep sub-bass, shuffling breakbeat fills, female harmony vocals and metallic clonks – but undeniably weighty. The title track meanwhile is sweaty, loose-limbed and distorted, with jazzy flute solos (lifted from Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Africano’), loved-up samples from dewy-eyed soul cut and a driving, speaker-bothering bassline. Then there’s ‘Strange’, an aptly name weird-out that combines a foreboding, stabbing bassline with oddly-swung drums and more twisted noises than you can shake a stick at.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the EP’s other track, ‘21st Kong’, and it’s this oddball missive that appears on Join The Future: UK Bleep & Bass 1988-91. It’s the most cleanly sparse and sub-heavy cut on the release and another hard-to-pigeonhole affair. The beats sit somewhere between electro and hip-hop, the mangled vocal stabs sound like something that would appear in a dystopian freestyle record, and the 8-bit top-end melody naturally doffs a cap to early home video games (the ‘Kong’ in the title being a clue to their inspiration). Throw in some ‘clonks’ (metallic or woody-sounding electronic percussion sounds often created by messing with the marimba presets on synthesizers such as Roland’s SH-101) and a bold, dub style bassline that moves the action forwards throughout, and you have a hybrid cut that’s as druggy and mind-altering as they come.
The ‘A Case of Funk’ EP was, in hindsight, Nightmares on Wax’s last Bleep-related release, and certainly more ‘techno’ – albeit sometimes in a roundabout way – than anything they, or Evelyn specifically, has released since. When they returned with new singles a year later, they were much more informed by U.S garage and the piano-sporting house sounds that were beginning to dominate some British dancefloors.
Both ‘Set Me Free’ and ‘Happiness’ are funkier, soulful and more celebratory in tone – a first step towards the warm, sun-soaked downtempo beats that would dominate ‘Smokers Delight’ and 1999’s ‘Carboot Soul’. Just as Bleep & Bass had all but disappeared, its’ pioneers had moved on, never to return to the revolutionary style that made them.
To purchase a physical or digital copy of Matt Anniss’s book Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music, head to the Velocity Press website. To pre-order vinyl or digital copies of the Join The Future: UK Bleep & Bass 1988-91 compilation, head to Bandcamp or Bleep.com