Follow in the footsteps of Phil Legg and at some stage you’ll end up at Rhythm King. Any label that released Hey DJ/ I Can’t Dance (To That Music You’re Playing) by the Beatmasters and Betty Boo would have a special place in pop culture. But Rhythm King got off to a flying start with a selection of smartly chosen tracks they licensed (Taffy, Viola Wills, Denise Motto) and some pioneering UK productions like Renegade Soundwave’s Kray Twins, Pablo Gad’s Who Are The Terrorists?, argumentative hip hop from Three Wise Men, and the early North East house work of Hotline.
Then came Rhythm King’s pop assemblage explosion, riding the wave of hip hop and acid house, which resulted in a string of hits for the Beatmasters, Bomb The Bass, S’Express and Baby Ford. Rule books were gleefully ripped up, as all involved used new technology, DIY techniques and punk irreverence to transform the pop scene. The Rhythm King brand of rave pop thrived on creating havoc, and its acts were responsible for a number of exuberantly anarchic and memorably madcap performances on Top of the Pops. More to the point though, its chart successes still seem like a blast of fresh air, even stripped of their context.
Rhythm King started out as a subsidiary of Daniel Miller’s Mute label. He tells a brilliant story about the chance meeting that led to the setting up of Rhythm King: “There were two English guys I knew. I remember seeing one of them walking down the street one day with a bunch of 12-inches. ‘Where are you going with all of those records?’ ‘Oh, I've got a label and we're trying to do a deal. This house music thing is just about to explode.’ ‘House music? What's that?’ He explained what it was, came back to the office and played me some records, and I said that it sounded quite interesting. I didn't quite get it. It sounded like disco to me...but it sounded quite good. But it seemed like he had a passion for it, and he really knew it, so I had him start the label that became Rhythm King.”
The fact that Daniel had Rhythm King on one hand, and Blast First (home of Sonic Youth, Ut, Big Stick, Big Black, etc.) on the other as offshoots of Mute seems perfect looking back. After all Mute initially had an uneasy if brilliant balance between pop and noise: the Silicon Teens and Fad Gadget up alongside D.A.F. and Non. And the subversive ultra-pop approach of Betty Boo is a perfect complement for what Die Doraus und die Marinas were doing ten years earlier.
The story of Mute is a fascinating one, full stop. The turning point was succeeding in signing Depeche Mode, or maybe more pertinently Depeche Mode opting to sign and stay with Mute. The story of what happened to Depeche Mode is stranger still. The descent into darkness is one thing, but the resilience of the recalcitrant and retiring Vince Clarke is more remarkable. From the pop confectionary of Just Can’t Get Enough to the sheer oddness of Yazoo’s success to the brief liaison with Paul Quinn to the enduring Erasure, Vince is unvanquished. A lot has been made of the Pet Shop Boys artful perversity, but the stubbornness of Vince in the pop marketplace is extraordinary. And even the harshest critic of Clarke’s work will grudgingly concede his success has helped fund what might ungraciously and probably inaccurately be considered more substantial fare.
After that early burst of chart activity the Rhythm King stars didn’t take the easy options. Bomb The Bass, for example, literally headed for Unknown Territory on the 1991 LP of the same name. It featured two themes that would be commodified and become much more dominant as the decade progressed: trip hop and big beat. Among the people who worked with Tim Simenon on this great record were J. Saul Kane (Depth Charge) and Doug Wimbish of the Sugarhill Gang/On- U Sound peerless legacy. John Coxon was on there, too, around the time he was working on the Betty Boo phenomenon and before Springhill Jack got off the ground. Simenon also covered ESG’s Moody, suggesting he was several steps ahead in looking back in the post-punk funk direction.
And then there was Baby Ford, the precocious raver who crashed the charts and was almost too smart for his own good. Not only could he recreate the Chicago sound with an English twist but he just happened to come up with some irresistible bubblegum smashes which he’d occasionally sing on in a curiously appealing Prince meets Green voice. This approach pretty much reached its peak on Beach Bump (there’s a Phil Legg connection, for the record) and then things started to get stranger as Baby Ford gradually started to erase himself from the pop sphere.
BFord9, Baby Ford’s 1992 LP on Transglobal, a Rhythm King offshoot, was a brilliant and defiantly uncompromising techno set, which pretty much defined the direction his work would take. When he sang on this record it sounded strangely like Shaun Ryder fronting the early Cabaret Voltaire, or what Davy Henderson would sound like when he re-emerged with the Nectarine No. 9. Indeed Sashay Around The Fuzzbox sounds suspiciously like an NN9 title. Ford would revisit three of the BFord9 tracks on Normal Re, an EP for Rephlex in 1998, including the mesmerising Normal (Changed Version) which just may be the best thing he’s done. There’s a Phil Legg connection there too.
Among the things Baby Ford did after leaving Rhythm King and the pop contest behind was record as Twig Bud for the Mo’ Wax Excursions series. Other participants in the series were Steve Picton (aka the fantastic Stasis), Mark Broom and Dave Hill (together as Midnight Funk Association). This trio were very much kindred spirits of Peter ‘Baby’ Ford, and in various permutations they would continue to be part of the UK’s techno underground. Baby Ford, for example, has doggedly kept on with his music, releasing his take on minimalist techno on the occasional record for a loyal following.
It is fascinating how as each musical moment passes determined souls dig in and continue to plough their own particular furrow, do their own peculiar or particular thing regardless of what else is going on. They stick around. It is easy to lose track, though. It is impossible to keep up with everything. It can be all-consuming chasing after new information, foraging around in forgotten corners, following up clues from unknown territories. So, if you immerse yourself in something, inevitably other things pass by unnoticed. But it can be fun playing catch-up ...