Photo by Lorenz Giorgi
Interview: Love, laughs and LifeWhen it comes to trying out new styles of music, Skip Mcdonald is one of those musicians which has travel that road most often. The Ohio native got his musical start by moving to New York and joining funksters Wood Brass & Steel in the mid 70s. This turned out to be good timing as his label head Sylvia Robinson was transitioning into the just-emerging rap field and starting Sugarhill Records. McDonald, along with bassist Doug Wimbush and drummer Keith LeBlanc, became the label's house band, playing on historical sides by Grandmaster Flash (including "The Message") and others. The band wasn't satisfied with Sugarhill's operations though and through LeBlanc, they hooked up with UK dub producer Adrian Sherwood in the mid-'80's for a long-standing relationship that's still ongoing. Since then, McDonald has appeared on numerous On-U Sound albums that Sherwood has masterminded (including Tackhead, African Head Charge and many others). Since the early '90's, one of McDonald's prime focuses has been another project done under the auspices of On-U: Little Axe (an alias for himself), a very unique combination of blues and dub. By now, Axe has five albums out (the latest is '06's Stone Cold Ohio on Realworld) and raised his profile even higher with an '05 tour supporting Robert Plant.
by Alexander Mclean
Considering his background, McDonald's music is almost indescribable, having elements of Blues, Jazz, Poetry, Rock, Dub, Reggae, Punk and hip-hop just to name a few. Skip has manage to find a way to blend all these styles and make them coherent at least for those who are open to new music. The blues still appear to be the basis of much of his recent work but I thought I'd better ask him about that before making any conclusions.
PSF: How do you think people respond to your music?
Skip: You just do what you do and hopefully people like it. You know what? It's not the people who don't like the show which irritates me it the people who just lukewarm and just don't know what 's going on. You want a reaction from what you are doing- "I like it" or "I don't like it." It's funny but a lot people don't go out for the music, the music is a background for trying to pull a girl or a girl trying to get a guy and they want to be in with the in crowd. You could be at a great gig and there may only be a few people there and you can go to a bad gig and it will be packed with people because people don't seem to know the difference. They are not there for the music they go to gigs because of trends or some girlfriend wanted to go.
PSF: Or some new hit record?
Skip: Yeah, they say "that's the hottest band now so let's go there." Personally, I love music and that vibe where people enjoy what they are seeing and hearing.
PSF: Do you come to life when you're on stage?
Skip: I wake up, like "here we go!" I've been doing this a long time and I still love it, I think everyone should do things which they enjoy. The world is a bit messed up because people spend a lot of their time doing things they don't want to do.
I met a young guy the other day who finished studying law but he now realizes he doesn't want to do this for a living but his parents want him to do this as a career, but now he has broken with his family and moved to another city to find a career which he would be interested in. What happens to people many times is they get caught in situations and end up miserable.
PSF: Artists are very fortunate.
Skip: Well, as an artist you have an area of release- if I'm angry I just get on that stage and let that anger off and I come off the stage and I can forgive, many people don't have that opportunity and they carry that anger. In the U.S., you have families with feuds which are going on over generations.
It's funny when you look at life because it's like one big loop- we had the era of radio, the era of television and now we are in the Internet era where you have talking books which you can listen to just as we listened to the radio back in the thirties. But vinyl is the best, my dad collected records which my sister still plays.
PSF: How old are those records?
Skip: Many of them are from the 1920's and you put those things on and they play as good as a new CD. If one track gets a scratch, you can still play the other tracks but if a CD gets dust on it, it could happen that the whole CD is ruined.
PSF: What do you think young people should be doing now to keep music on a higher level?
Skip: Young people should get into the history of music and check who taught who and get back to the roots of what going on rather than just being a leaf on a tree.
I think the music business is in a very dangerous position right now because you have spirituality and you have financiality and you have stockholders and all they want to know is, "did we make money this year?"
PSF: Should music really be about that?
Skip: For me music is not about that, like the tune I play says "you can't eat money"- music is about communication, making people feel better about things and giving people good vibes.
You have to have a balance because if you love something but you have to make money from it to eat, you are in conflict with yourself to start off and it creates a situation of compromise and imbalance.
Do what you want to do, don't trip out, stay in your own skin and stand up for what you are doing and don't listen to all the chitter-chatter like you should be this, that or be more commercial.
PSF: How did you learn to play music?
Skip: My Dad taught me- he was a guitar player, he wasn't into the concept of earning money. For him, it was pleasure. On the weekends, he would put on his suit, get sharp and we would have friends over make a barbecue and he'd played music that made my mum happy. My dad was from Alabama and his parents were sharecroppers. His family was very much into the church and at that time, blues was a bad word.
PSF: Blues was seen as dangerous at that time.
Skip: Yeah, it was seen as dangerous. As a kid, my dad had to build his own guitars from cigar boxes and he'd play them but if he was caught by his mother, he would get beaten because his mother was very much into the church. His father was a hardworking man and very much in control and he'd say like "No, were not going to have that devil music in the house."
PSF: A bit like rock and roll's beginnings?
Skip: The same thing happens over and over again. It's like I said earlier- music is a loop if you think about when jazz began, if you think about when rock and roll came out or if you think about when punk came out, it's the same.
PSF: What about hip-hop? You did some work with Grandmaster flash?
Skip: Oh yeah Grandmaster flash, Crash Crew and the Treacherous Three.
PSF: What brought you to this music?
Skip: Well, Doug Wimbish and I had a band called Wood, Brass and Steel back in 1973 and we worked with a company called All Platinum which had all these doo-wop groups like the Moments and that company methamorphosised into Sugarhill.
PSF: How did that happen, did someone decide that hip-hop was going to be the next big thing?
Skip: I think Sylvia Robertson's son Joey took her to a club in the Bronx called Disco Fever and that was her first introduction to Rap and she lost her mind. She had such a good time so she put together the band Sugarhill Gang. There was a record cut called "Rapper's Delight" which was done by the band Positive Force and they also brought out a record a remake called "We Got the Funk."
So, when they went on tour, me, Doug Wimbish and Keith Leblanc would be called in as supporting act to hype the show up. But then there were disagreements between the company and the bands as you often have, and our band then replaced Positive Force with an additional keyboard player, percussionist and later on, a horn section. Then you see the economy going up and down, the horn section being sacked, changes just like the stock market.
PSF: You did a lot with jazz too. Does it still influence you today?
Skip: It's very hard to categorise me because I worked with so many great players from so many different areas in music, all over the board. You know, some people like this, some people like that and I like everything and this creates a problem. People have all these expectations and it's impossible to please them all, you want to make people happy but at the end of the day, if you are not happy yourself you won't won't make anyone else happy.
PSF: Unless it's an accident.
Skip: Well, if its an accident you won't know how to do it again because it's an accident. At this moment, I'm proud and comfortable with what I am doing. Since I started playing I always wanted my own sound, my own fans and my own party. I'm not into this scripted Hollywood thing. I would prefer to fail on a good mission than succeed on a bad one. Doug Wimbish calls it rolling people over- you get on stage and do the same thing every time, I would rather be a dentist than do that. I want to do performances that people enjoy and the next day, these people should say that concert was worth going to. Even if I mess up or fall off the stage, I'm going to get back up there because I love what I'm doing.
PSF: If you could choose a time period, which one would you like to live in?
Skip: If I could have my wishes, I would choose the roaring twenties because people really danced back in those days, they were throwing each other through the legs and over their heads, can you imagine being there. It's not like that anymore because people are too cool now, ain't nobody gonna step up to dance, they are cooler than the band.
PSF: Maybe the band should do that. Maybe they should start flipping people over their heads?
Skip: (Laughs) Yeaaah, every once in a while it happens. People lose their minds when Bad Brains play or when Rage Against the Machine use to play. I'm trying to get the same affect with what we are doing.
PSF: How is it being signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label?
Skip: Real World is the best relationship I've had to this day because they are actually trying to help, I've been signed to many labels Sony, BMG and many others, but as I said, some people love music and some people like money and that makes a big difference.
PSF: Do you think this love of money is a cause for the problem in the industry?
Skip: Listen to this- we come from a time when companies had an A & R, A & R's worked really hard to put the right band in the right place, put them with the right writer in the right studio, get them trained, make sure the right musicians were on the session and teach the musicians how to handle interviews. That position is gone now- everybody has laptops.
PSF: It's just C.E.O's now.
Skip: It's just a head now saying "nahh I don't like this" and "ohh I like that and I don't like that." Nobody is doing any ground work any more. People are just trying to grab what they can get keep the costs down and let's not have any drama. It's the wrong way. You need someone who is going to teach the kids. You have to show them how to be on stage.
PSF: Talking about teaching the kids, which records you would recommend to young people as must have's?
Skip: OK, but my answers would not be albums, it would be artists.
1. Donny Hathaway, anything by him
2. Jimmy Hendrix of course
3. Otis Redding
4. Aretha franklin , a must
5. George Clinton, Funkadelic
6. Bob Marley
7. Esther Phillips
8. Skip James
9. Robert Johnson, getting back to the blues again
10. Sly and the family Stone.
PSF: I'll add one- Skip McDonald.
Skip: Thanks very much for that. I will sleep well.
Skip McDonald/Little Axe websites:
© Alexander McLean/Genius Developments, 2006
Alexander Mclean: http://www.geniusdevelopments.com/
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