Pay to Play

The Allstars released two singles, "Disco Machine Gun" and "Kool Roc Bass," to the praise and delight of fellow DJs, clubgoers, record buyers, and the ever-frothing UK press. The Best New Band award from British music tabloid New Music Express followed in 1997. Soon the Lo Fidelity Allstars set their sights on America, a land that has always presented a challenge for British bands on the make. The Lo Fis were rightly anxious and apprehensive about their prospects, having been told firsthand by others who had tried and failed that breaking in the U.S. is a Herculean task. It didn't calm their nerves when the Wrekked Train abruptly quit the band on the eve of its coming to America. But it did help that the band had the good fortune of following on the heels of the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and Fatboy Slim, who opened Yankee ears to electronic music.

This British wave has translated into a growing electronic underground in the U.S. "It's almost like the American rave scene is happening ten years after it happened in England," Ward says. "We come over here, and we see drum 'n' bass shops sprouting up all over America. It seems like you are really picking up on the dance thing now a lot more. In England a few years ago, we'd hear stories [about] America, [from English electronic] bands saying, 'It's really hard to do this stuff.'"

The Allstars' success has meant that they can afford to pay for more samples -- part and parcel of doing business now -- and their rising stature means that they have to give credit when due. "U Can't Touch This" gives songwriting credit to both Hammer and James, which makes sense because the entire song is built around the James track. But what about when someone samples a horn riff for five seconds in a five-minute song -- what percentage of the song should the original artist receive? "It's quite annoying when we sample stuff and then you hear some guitar band ripping off a song from the '60s almost wholesale, just changing a few words and changing a few notes, and they probably don't have to pay a penny for it," Ward complains. "We'll sample one bar of somebody's record and have to pay, like, 5000 pounds [$8100 dollars] for it. That disgusts me, because there are guitar bands out there that sound like bands from ten years ago; they get away with it, and we sample one bar and lose our royalties from it."

Now, as the Lo Fidelity Allstars work on the follow-up to Blown Mind, they hand the tapes right off the tape machines to lawyers. "As soon as we finish a song, we give Skint Records the songs we sample, and they start clearing them now, six or seven months before the record comes out," Wards says. "It can slow [the recording process] down, but we've got a totally different approach; we just clear the samples as the tracks are written. Hopefully the last track we write hasn't got any samples in, 'cause that might delay it." He adds that the band is doing the songs with the "awkward" samples first, in case there are problems, "so we can get the samples cleared, and if we have to rerecord we can."

Though Ward was careful not to mention any specific song by name -- to ensure that the lawyers will be the first to hear about it -- it's certain that the band won't shy from using high-profile samples. As more bands use samples, the issue of ownership will become more complex. Though the Supreme Court ruled that samples had to be paid for -- when Gilbert O'Sullivan sued Biz Markie for borrowing "Alone Again (Naturally)" for 1989's "Just a Friend" -- exactly who owns a song is a question that even the artists may not be able to answer.

The Lo Fidelity Allstars are scheduled to play at 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 18, at Respectable Street, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, 561-832-9999. Tickets cost $10 in advance, $12 day of show.

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