Charlie Williams knows about roots, humility, and fame. Ask him about it, and Williams -- aka Charlie Dark, who coproduces British dance trio Attica Blues and lands in San Francisco this weekend for a long-awaited solo DJ gig -- will point you to Attica's tune "Look at Yourself." From the 2000 album Test. Don't Test, "Look" offers these finger-wagging lyrics: "You're the flyest in the neighborhood/ but nothing lasts for long, and you can't take it with you."
"It's about the period between leaving Mo' Wax and signing to Sony," Williams relates over the phone from England, describing the group's unhappy split from the label. "We all had to move back to our parents' houses in South London. We'd previously had a 2,000-square-foot loft in the center of town, and we had to go back to our original neighborhoods. We looked out our bedroom windows, watched the drug dealers and other characters, and realized we'd gone from being 'a face' to being no one; you're [now] just another kid. You're not Charlie Dark from Attica Blues who's sold X amount of records or the DJ who flies here or there. You're Charlie Williams again.... It was frustrating, but really good, because when you finally emerge from it and get another chance, you're a lot more ready to make it work."
As British downtempo groups began offering funky alternatives to the hyper club music of the early '90s, Attica brought an edgy flavor to the new grooves, based in early-'70s soul and funk. Williams, Roba El-Essawy, and coproducer Tony Nwachukwu released the eponymous debut in '97, and the band had the distinction of being the only group in the fledgling Mo' Wax roster that played live. Both in the studio and onstage, they see themselves as taking the genre one step further. "At the moment, a lot of black music is centered around partying and entertaining, and I don't think much of it presents other sides to life. As you get older, although you enjoy that stuff, it becomes less relevant to your life. We may listen to a lot of party stuff, but when we record, we tend towards deeper stuff that'll stand the test of time."
A blueprint for some of the offbeat R&B and hip-hop now common on urban radio, the debut album garnered critical success despite little promotion from the label. Artists like Brazilian jazz chanteuse Flora Purim, saxophonist Courtney Pine, and '70s funk trumpeter Tom Brown soon signed on to have Attica remix their music, and Williams showcased the group's eclectic flavor via extensive DJ gigs across Europe and America.
Released last September, Test. Don't Test saw Attica expand the yearning tone of its debut with more complex beats and a more confessional lyricism. Melancholy relationship ballads like "Deeper" and "It's Not Enough" play counterpoint to the defiant funk aria "The Man" and house-flavored "The Quest," which features spoken-word artist Roger Robinson's critical hymn to the hip-hop generation. "We did more storytelling with this album," says Williams. "It represents our state of mind at the time. It's a real emotional flush-out. I think we're a lot happier now."
Some of Test's arrangements reflect two current London flavors: the punchy uptempo funk of two-step garage, and the multifaceted "broken beat" hybrid, which fuses '70s jazz-funk and Afrobeat with aspects of dance subgenres. According to Williams, Attica approaches these trends on its own terms. "We've always tried to contribute to genres, not merely be part of them. We could've easily done an album with the latest hot American rappers on it, y'know, gone the whole guesting route. But it's not enough just to be a fan now. You need to take the music somewhere, to add your own personality to it."
It's an idea that makes sense, though apparently not to Sony UK, who dropped the group soon after Test came out. Attica's recently set up its own label, Surplus, which Williams plans to highlight in his DJ sets. It's what he calls "quality black music," and it's a task he doesn't take lightly. "When you're given the opportunity to record or play any form of music or speak into the microphone, you have to use that platform. There's a real gap now between the haves and have-nots [in the UK]. I have to represent the people who don't have, because that's what I know. You can go to all the jiggy parties you want, but the reality of your day-to-day life isn't really like that. And I've gotta make music that reflects reality."
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