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If there's anything that irritates Fred Sargolini, half of the forward-looking hip-hop/electro duo Ming and FS, it's artists who think they have to color inside the lines.
"A lot of them don't realize they're doing it," he believes. "They say they're open-minded, but they're really puritans. It's like they're doing this underground art form, but at the same time, they've taken Britney Spears rules and all these other rules of pop and just applied it differently to another form of music. That's some silly shit to be doing to independent music: struggling, busting your ass to make a living, and then putting all these rules on yourself."
Ming (born Aaron Albano) and FS can't be accused of committing this sin; they shift gears more often than a Grand Prix driver. After putting out an album -- 1999's Hell's Kitchen -- that was embraced by the hip-hop intelligentsia, they followed up two years later with The Human Condition, which downplayed rap in favor of house and other electronic noises, completely mystifying a sizable percentage of their constituency. Their latest CD, Subway Series, blends hip-hop and house so irresistibly, it should placate fans of both genres.
Ming and FS know a little something about genre-juggling. In concert, the two not only man four turntables simultaneously but also toss in sounds they generate using actual instruments rather than the sampled kind. Pulling off this stunt night after night takes careful planning.
"We work on tracks in the studio, but we also work on live stuff so we can figure out who's taking what on, what needs to be changed in the computers, what needs to be exported," FS says. "One of us will go, 'I'm going to play the bass line on this track, so you've got to cut everything out. But I'm going to drop out and then come back and scratch in this one certain part, so the bass line needs to come back in.' We've got to work all that stuff out and have it pre-recorded before we can play it live."
On the surface, having extra cohorts to handle some of these chores would make life easier for the headliners. "But sometimes, other musicians don't do what you want them to do," FS says. "Especially the way the economy is, it could get ugly going out on the road with a four-piece band right now. I think we'd like to progress to that, but this is a medium step, and people just freaked out over it on our last tour. When we came around the turntables and played, people lost their shit, because they didn't expect it."
The Ming and FS story to date has been just as unpredictable. The twosome first got together in 1996 after meeting at a Manhattan party and soon began churning out groove opuses under the name Leadfoot. By 1998, when they signed with Om Records, a small San Francisco-based firm, they'd shifted monikers and were becoming known as remixers par excellence. Their Hell's Kitchen debut, at its best, suggests the early electro-rap of hip-hop pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force updated for the post-rave generation.
Ming and FS felt inspired to take additional risks on The Human Condition. "When we were making that record, I knew, being a hip-hopper, that these 130-beats-per-minute tracks were going to offend a lot of people," FS says. "We knew that the whole time, but it was music we wanted to do, and that was it. It wasn't meant to piss people off. It was more like, 'Dude, we sucked you in on the first record. Now there's something more in this music you should listen to.' But for some people, it was a little too much."
This backlash is understandable, since the dance touches that were frequently relegated to the background on Hell's Kitchenwound up at center stage of its successor. "Intro to Life" is a high-adrenaline scorcher, and "Head Case" moves at supersonic speed; in contrast, "Some Die (Some Come Up)" and "Uncle Bubble" are cooler and more soulful, thanks to the diva-ready pipes of guest star Ada Dyer. These offerings and others like them help turn The Human Condition into a first-rate house album -- something that's finally being acknowledged a year after the fact.
The packaging of Subway Series, which features illustrations of Ming and FS wearing backward baseball caps, is a clear invitation to rap aficionados, and so is most of the music on the platter. A few house efforts remain, including the charmingly schizophrenic "One for the Treble," but they're overshadowed by a broad menu of hip-hop approaches. "Steady Shot" showcases the toasting skills of Dr. Israel; "Misdirected" provides a brassy, atmospheric soundscape for co-stars DK and Aref Durvesh; "World Wide," featuring B-Boy Speedy of the New York City Breakers, finds the boys enrolling in old school; and "Nevada" allows FS's synthesizer to engage in a little g-funk. "Hip-hoppers will come back for this one," FS predicts.
Whether Ming and FS will return to Om Records, which has released all their CDs, is harder to foresee. Their contract with Om expires with Subway Series, and they're considering options, one of which is to hook up with a larger imprint. If they choose the major-label path, FS knows there is no shortage of potential pitfalls.