Although they might not claim the title of ‘hip-hop band’ in the same way as the likes of Stetsasonic and The Roots before them, the connection the multi-talented El Michels Affair has with the rap world cannot be denied. First making a name for themselves in the early Noughties with their unique brand of funky, old-school instrumentation, the collective’s credibility really started to rise in 2005 after they were approached by Scion to perform with the king of rap slanguage, Raekwon of Staten Island’s mighty Wu-Tang Clan.
Following the success of the perhaps unlikely pairing’s shows, El Michels Affair released a number of cult 7” singles featuring their own interpretations of some of the Wu’s most well-known classics. Turning the raw production of The RZA in on itself, the group fleshed out the melodic sounds contained within many of the original samples used to create the Clan’s gloriously gritty Chamber music, almost acting as the sonic bridge between the soul music of yesteryear and the hip-hop of today.
So successful were the group’s lovingly crafted re-workings of some of rap’s most recognizable cuts, El Michels Affair were inspired to embark on a completely Wu-related project, the recently-released instrumental album “Enter The 37th Chamber”.
Here, group organist Leon Michels talks about working with the Wu and why live bands are still the future of music in a digital world.
Obvious first question, how did the group come together?
“The group first released a 12” on Soul Fire Records in 2002. El Michels Affair was a group of musicians from The Dap-Kings, Antibalas, and the Mighty Imperials that played occasionally for Soul Fire Records. In 2005 I purchased a Tascam 388 and me and Nick Movshon from the Mighty Imperials and Antibalas started recording tracks which eventually turned in the ‘Sounding Out The City’ record. After Wu-Tang hired us to back them up, El Michels Affair formed itself into a functioning band.”
The group’s sound has been described as “cinematic soul” – what does that description mean to you?
“I’ve always been into soundtrack records and the way music is used in movies, so when we create instrumentals we always try to apply some sort of cinematic narrative to the music, whether it’s in the strings or the mix or whatever. Cinematic soul is exactly what it sounds like—soul music with moody, cinematic overtones.”
El Michels Affair has had a strong connection with the Wu-Tang Clan over the past few years, performing with Raekwon and also releasing instrumental single versions of some Wu classics. What were your initial thoughts when you were approached to work with Raekwon? Did you feel it would be a natural fit or where there reservations?
“When we were first approached to back up Raekwon, we didn’t really think much of it. We thought it would just be a one off performance that would help the ‘Sounding Out The City’ record sell better. But when we actually started dissecting RZA’s beats and playing them live, it sounded cool and completely different to the originals. Jeff Silverman, the co-founder of Truth & Soul, thought it would be a good idea to record the instrumentals and release them on 45s. Initially, it was scary because that music is untouchable. It’s like trying to cover Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, it will never be as good as the original. So our approach was to enhance the soul side of RZA’s beats. We just tried to turn those grimy hip-hop songs back into soul songs without losing to much of the Wu’s spirit.”
Have you had any feedback from Clan members regarding you reworking some of their most memorable moments, particularly from RZA himself?
“The Wu-tang guys always loved the stuff live but I’ve never heard them say anything about the record. I played RZA ‘Glaciers of Ice’ and he seemed to like it.”
Would you consider recording a whole rap-based album as El Michels Affair and if so which MCs would you want to work with and why?
“Probably not. Live hip-hop is not my favourite thing. I think it works great live but sampled and programmed hip-hop is more interesting to me. Even when we recorded ‘Enter The 37th Chamber’, our intention wasn’t to make a “live hip-hop record””
In today’s digital music age, is it a challenge being out there as a live band, or do you feel people are still looking for that organic sound that only live music can offer?
“I think live band shows kill shows with DJs. When you just have an MC and a DJ on stage, there’s not much to watch. You’re really just getting a chance to hear the record, really, really loud. More and more hip-hop acts are taking live shows on the road because they realize they can create more of a spectacle, which is why people pay $40 to see a live show – it’s entertainment.”