Music Article

Been Caught Stealing

The secret behind US 3's top 10 single -- An illegal sampling and an unusual mix of musical genres lead to success for the British group

The best ideas often arise from the basest instincts. ''Hip-hop thrives by begging, borrowing, or stealing from around it,'' admits Mel Simpson, 38, co-founder of British jazz/hip-hop collective US 3. ''So it was natural that hip-hop would eventually stumble upon jazz.''

Named after a 1960 hard-bop album by pianist Horace Parlan, US 3 (pronounced ''us three'') has turned that musical collision into a gold mine. The group's debut disc, Hand on the Torch — a soulful blend of rap with samples of contemporary jazz and material from Blue Note Records' legendary back & catalog — is nearing gold status, and its ubiquitous single, ''Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),'' has rocketed from several year-end ''best of'' lists to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Which brings us back to theft, the original sin of this success story. In 1992, coproducers Simpson and Geoff Wilkinson, 32, a London DJ, had sampled a Blue Note tune without the label's permission. The producers were called into Blue Note's London office, but instead of being sued, they were offered a demo budget. The duo returned two months later with ''Cantaloop'' and immediately snagged a multirecord deal and access to the 55-year-old Blue Note catalog.

''The aim of US 3 was to get jazz nonbelievers into jazz, and jazz purists into hip-hop,'' says rapper Tukka Yoot, who performs the second single, ''Tukka Yoot's Riddim.'' And that, despite jazz purists who view the unholy union with rap as bastardization, may be exactly what has happened. Thanks to heavy MTV ''Buzz Bin'' rotation, Blue Note is enjoying its most profitable year. ''Jazz is its own worst enemy: It's elitist and intellectualized, which are barriers to having a big audience,'' Simpson says. ''I'd like to think this was a logical extension of jazz, finding its natural bond with hip-hop.''

Originally posted Mar 18, 1994 Published in issue #214 Mar 18, 1994 Order article reprints