Classics Critiqued

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Mr. Scruff – Keep It Unreal (1999, Ninja Tune)

Last year Ninja Tune Records celebrated 20 glorious years of throwing out the rules of what people can dance to and  what is possible in music and art. One of Ninja Tune’s principal artists is Mr. Scruff, aka Andy Carthy, a DJ and producer known for his eclectic and humorous style. For this month’s Classic Critiqued I will be covering Mr. Scruff’s second album (his first for Ninja Tune) “Keep It Unreal”. I’ll discuss why Mr. Scruff seems to have courted less attention than his peers and because he is not taken seriously (and doesn’t take himself too seriously either) the true depth that his music can reach and his love of fish themed music is not recognised.

“Keep It Unreal” was Mr. Scruff’s first big splash after a steady stream of releases for Manchester based labels Rob’s Records, Pleasure Records and Mark Rae’s Grand Central had caused enough of a stir to attract Ninja Tune, who had the aim of taking Mr. Scruff to the next level musically and commercially. His six-hour plus DJ sets were becoming legendary and the scene was set for “Keep It Unreal” to blow away the world.

Mr Scruff is always associated with songs like his humorous fish-themed tracks ‘Sea Shanty’ and ‘Fish’, the funky, brassy nugget ‘Spandex Man’ and his most popular track jazz shuffler ‘Get A Move On’. What is often overlooked, however, is his ability to produce deep, soulful down tempo songs such as ‘Midnight Feast’, ‘Honeydew’ (featuring Fi), the yearning ‘Travelogue’ and ‘So Long’ and the pointed ‘Do You Hear?’ These tracks adhere to the only rule that Carthy places on his DJ sets: ‘the music has to have soul!’ This particular brand of soul isn’t the uptempo hits of Motown or Southern dirt of Stax’s ‘60s output but the luxurious orchestral sounds of Isaac Hayes, Roy Ayers and the sombre Blaxploitation soundtracks “Super Fly” by Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”. Carthy’s songs are deep and emotive and even more impressive as they are almost entirely sample based. They are easily equal to the work of his more lauded contemporaries DJ Shadow, Amon Tobin, DJ Krush and David Holmes. This points to a misrepresentation, though an understandable one as the music people are most aware of are the upbeat and humorous single releases that appear regularly on adverts and TV programmes. Unfortunately this only tells half the story of this producer’s brilliant music.

That is not to say that we should dismiss “Keep It Unreal”’s humour, in fact there’s extra layers of depth and detail to these songs too. ‘Sea Shanty’ and ‘Fish’ don’t just feature happened upon vocal samples that sound cool but ones that directly inform the tracks’ swaying sea-sick rhythms and seaside-recalling melodies and harmonies. Carthy’s employment of humour widened what had become a limited emotional palette for Ninja Tune and the associated instrumental hip-hop/trip-hop producers who were the cause of a huge backlash in the late ‘90s. ‘Blackpool Rock’ evokes childhood nostalgia without that sickly sweet aftertaste which tarnishes many similar compositions; this is another example of how Mr. Scruff expands the emotional spectrum while putting a big smile on your face. As Carthy said when talking of his risk taking musical philosophy, it’s “about holding onto that playfulness that you had when you were a kid. It’s about being curious and getting excited about music.”

In many ways “Keep It Unreal” is a DJ album; one of his sets in a microcosm and this is often detrimental to the final product, which lacks a cohesive sound. Yet that is also part of the genius of Mr. Scruff. He hops from the fast and funky ‘Spandex Man’ to the smooth slowy ‘Honeydew’, past the jaunty lopsided rhythms of ‘Fish’ to the bouncy ‘Jusjus’ (which features Roots Manuva). Carthy’s experienced DJing hand guides you through the songs that are always different but always definitively Mr. Scruff.

“Keep It Unreal” and Mr. Scruff have not influenced anyone directly apart from Carthy’s collaborator Quantic who has ploughed a similar furrow and London trio Belleruche where there are traces of his influence their in self-described turntable soul music. His music is a singular sound though and Mr. Scruff’s real place is with his fellow Ninja Tune artists, exploring music and the sampling technology they use to create it. It might be the era of the download but the vinyl based “Keep It Unreal” has endured for 12 years and I firmly believe that it will far into the future.

Spotify playlist:

Mr. Scruff – Keep It Unreal (10th Anniversary Analogue Remaster Edition)