In June of 1993 Us3 were in Osaka, Japan, for their very first live show. “We could hear the crowd outside shouting ‘Us3, Us3, Us3!,'” remembers Geoff Wilkinson, who co-founded the group with Mel Simpson. “It was proper mad. People clawing at your clothes, and stuff. They got the mute out of the trumpet player’s trumpet and he spent most of the gig trying to get the mute back. It was just bedlam. That was when we realized, first of all, something is happening here, something big is happening.”

Fast-forward to the present, and Us3’s debut album, Hand On The Torch, is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the group is readying the release of their ninth album, The Third Way, which is due out in the US next week. The Third Way is the unofficial follow up to Hand On The Torch, and RapReviews caught up with Wilkinson to find out more about the project, and hear a few stories from 20 years worth of Us3 history.

Adam Bernard: Let’s discuss The Third Way, which is your ninth album. You’ve stated it’s sort of a follow up to Hand On The Torch, which was released 20 years ago.

Geoff Wilkinson: Yeah, I realized last year that it was gonna be the 20th anniversary of Hand On The Torch this year, so I thought it would be nice if I could persuade the record company to do something about it, put together a reissue package, maybe remaster it, or something. I met Don Was (president of Blue Note Records) in London in September of last year. He didn’t know that Hand On The Torch was the first platinum album Blue Note ever had in the States, and he was quite taken aback by that. He was like, “Whoa, we’ve definitely got to do something,” but it was literally a week before the Universal takeover of Capitol and EMI happened. I also played him the demos that I was working on of The Third Way, and I said to him then I’m gonna make the follow up album that Blue Note probably wanted me to make back in ’94, but I didn’t for various reasons. I didn’t want Us3 to become a vehicle for Blue Note’s greatest hits, if you like, back in the day, which I’m sure they would have probably been happy about.

AB: I know you didn’t have the greatest split from Blue Note because you differed with what you wanted to do musically. Did any of that play into your not wanting to do a direct follow up the album?

GW: Yeah, I think so. I thought that would just shorten the whole thing, kind of. It would have made it as though it was some kind of novelty act, which it wasn’t. It’s always been about fusing jazz and hip-hop together, and the chance to work with the Blue Note back catalog was incredible, but it was more about jazz in a wider context, than about Blue Note, to me. It obviously wasn’t to them.

AB: Was there ever a point in time when you couldn’t stand Hand On The Torch, or at the very least, bristled when it came up in conversation?

GW: Yeah.You must be embarrassed by things you wrote 20 years ago, probably. I think everyone would be. There had been times when I couldn’t even listen to “Cantaloop,” but we made friends again. I hadn’t listened to the first album for a long time before this year, and going back and remastering it was really interesting. I took out all the DAT tapes. It was all mixed to DAT tapes, and I found the original DAT tapes and remastered it from them. It was really interesting listening to some of that stuff raw, and I think the remastering of it actually sounds quite a lot more beefy than the original release.

AB: What did it take for you to reestablish your relationship with that album?

GW: Just listening to it. It’s funny, when you haven’t listened to something you’ve been so closely associated with, when you haven’t listened to it for a long time, and then you listen to it, it’s amazing how many memories come flooding back of all kinds of silly things, mainly about traveling, and being on the road, and people that you meet. You forge relationships with people at the record company, as well, who you worked closely with. Inevitably they’re not there, they’ve all moved on, all apart from the people in Japan, actually. The two main guys who were running Blue Note in Japan, in Tokyo, are still doing the same thing, in fact they’re running the whole of Universal’s jazz side of things now, which is why I managed to license The Third Wayto Universal in Japan, where it’s been released on Blue Note. That was always my intent. That’s what I wanted to do when I met Don, to say to him it would be great if we repackaged the first album and then did what would be the follow up album that I never made. I didn’t want to go back to using Blue Note samples, I wanted to do more interpolations, replayed elements of jazz classics across the board, which is something that I haven’t done since the first album. Don was really into the idea, but, as I said, it was literally a week before the Universal takeover happened, and he said “let’s just keep in touch,” which we did do, but then about a month later he emailed me, and somewhat inevitably his budgets had been slashed considerably, and he just said “I know now before I hear any finished work that I’m not gonna be able to do it because there are other acts that I want to sign that I can’t sign.” He had to scale back what he was doing.

AB: Listening to The Third Way, if I do the math here, do the artists you have on it cover almost the entirety of your catalog?

GW: Yeah, that was the idea, as well. This was sort of a way of bookending it. When I started thinking about doing an album as kind of a follow up to Hand On The Torch, a volume two, if you like, I started thinking about which emcees am I gonna put on there. I knew Tukka was still around in England, so I contacted him. He was only on two tracks on the first album. He came in quite late when we were finishing the album up. He was really up for it, and KCB, as well, who was on the second album, actually came into the band when we were touring the first album, so again he’s someone that I’ve kept in touch with over such a long time, and you grow over the years, families grow up, and we’re just really good friends and I thought it would be great to work with him again. Akil (Dasan) has been a real rock in the band since I first met him in 2005, 2006. He was on Schizophonic and Say What!? before. Since the first album I’ve never had three emcees on any album, so it was great working with three emcees, all guys that I know really well. It was a bit of a family vibe, and I kept the band really tight on this, as well. I’ve normally used a lot of different musicians on each album, but with this it’s the live band, so it really is a tight little family affair.

AB: What was inspiring you in-between albums, and where do you think we can hear those inspirations come out on The Third Way?

GW: With the jazz tracks that I used, or did versions of, if you like, they were tracks that I couldn’t use with the first album. There was never a version of “Manteca” recorded on Blue Note, I don’t think. I used tracks that got me into jazz right at the beginning, and tracks I always felt like I could do something with, that I wanted to work with, that inspired me right at the beginning when I was first discovering jazz, things like “Maneteca,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.” There’s still inevitably a bit of a Blue Note link. “The Sidewinder” was a huge track for me when I was getting into jazz, and I wanted to represent that.

AB: Speaking of your musical history, since you’ve been releasing music for 20 years now, tell me about something that’s happened to you over the course of those 20 years that you never imagined you’d get to experience.

GW: A multi-million selling album right from the word go, and a top ten single in America, just wasn’t on the agenda when we started. Nobody anticipated the success of “Cantaloop.” The record company didn’t. Me and Mel thought that we had just made a funky little club tune. It was a sleeper. It took a long time for it to be a hit. It was exactly two years to the month for it to be a hit in the States. When I was looking at the DAT tapes when I went to remaster it, the original version, the demo version, was done in March ’92, and it was in March ’94 when it became a big hit in the States.

AB: That sort of a timeline doesn’t get to happen today.

GW: No, everything moves a lot quicker now. We’re talking pre-internet days here.

AB: What was the toughest adjustment you had to make after “Cantaloop” hit so big, so quickly?

GW: The first album was made with sound pause in the studio, and we just got lots of different rappers, vocalists, and musicians in. We were just making an album. We never thought it was gonna have the success, and the one thing we didn’t think of is that there would be a demand to see it live. When that happened, by this time we’d got a manager and everything, and the record company were on to us, and we really felt a bit hemmed in by our manager, and the record company, to put together a live band for this, so we did put together a live band for it. We had a six week US tour in the beginning of ’94 supporting UB40. It was booked about five months before, when obviously the promoters didn’t know who the hell we were because we hadn’t released anything at that point, so basically the tour was like $100k shortfall, and the record company agreed to pay that upfront, but when they give that much tour support they recoup it from you, so one of the first decisions that me and Mel had to make is that we would effectively underwrite a tour with fifty grand of our own money, each. {*laughs*} That’s not a decision you want to make, really. If it didn’t work we would have had to walk away, and have gotten nothing out of it whatsoever, but it did work.

AB: Yes it did, and you’ve done a lot since then, but is there anything you haven’t attained in music that you’d still like to attain?

GW: There are places that we didn’t go with the band. We haven’t been to South Africa, we haven’t been to Australia, both of which are countries the first album did really well in, but for one reason or another we just have never been there. The band is quite big on stage, like eight or nine people on stage, so when we travel it’s a bit…

AB: You need some accommodations and a pretty big stage.

GW: Yes, it’s a military operation, kind of. One of the highlights of the last 20 years has been playing in China, which we did in 2009. The traveling has been really good, just going to different countries, meeting different people. One of my favorite countries, actually, is Poland. It’s not somewhere I would have thought of going to visit, but we played there first in ’97, which was only about five years after it came out of communism, and it was still very very gray. It’s completely different now. Warsaw is fantastic. It’s a really modern city now, but seeing the change that’s happened there, and the young people there are the most politically aware that I’ve ever come across in any other country anywhere in the world. Basically, they kind of got fucked by the Nazis, and got fucked by the Russians, too, and they were well aware of it. Really interesting people, and that’s the best thing, talking to people when you travel around, because everyone has interesting stories.

AB: Is there any one place where you felt especially foreign, or out of your element?

GW: China, definitely. It’s the only place that I’ve been that hasn’t had CNN on the hotel TV. There were like 200 channels, and none of them were in English. We stayed right in the middle of Beijing. Nobody spoke English at all. I went into about 50 different shops to try to buy a little item of clothing for my daughter, and just even saying, “Excuse me, do you speak English,” people didn’t understand that. Nobody spoke it. So that was fascinating.