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Hip-hop, Not Easy Listening: Lewis Parker On 20 Years of 'Masquerades & Silhouettes'

Thursday, 07 June 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

For people of a certain generation, English producer Lewis Parker is best known for working with Ghostface Killah and being sampled by Joey Bada$$. Flitting between London and New York, Parker has made his name as one of hip-hop's most respected underground heads, renowned for his impeccable groove-based beats.

However, even even hip-hop-oriented critics tend to overlook one of his most important accomplishments, released when he was barely out of his teens. It’s 20 years since 'Masquerades & Silhouettes' dropped on Massive Attack's legendary Melankolic label. The album received less attention than many of the key UK hip-hop albums it would inspire, let alone the myriad grime releases just a few years later.

Yet there's a reason it continues to be cited by fellow artists as one of the most important records in the scene’s development. Packed with twinkling keys, sweeping strings, classical samples and Parker's purposefully accented vocal delivery, the eight track release broke the mould. In a British context, it set the pace, eschewing the funk and jazz-based sampling styles of Parker’s American peers. Its influence on emerging UK acts like Jehst, Klashnekoff and Task Force was profound.

“I still feel like I don't get the credit for changing the direction of UK production at the time,” Parker says. “And to this day, I hear the remnants of that style. At the time, the record really was a combination of styles I was working on for a long time, probably since I started making beats around '89. So, it was pulling all of my styles into what I kind of envisioned at that time to its ultimate form.

“As a beatmaker, I've come along so far since then, but I understand what it meant to people. It sounded completely different to what was going on at the time. There were a few guys in the States you could put it with maybe – the DJ Muggs and Pete Rocks and so on were who I was watching at the time. In the UK, people were still sampling the same old breaks more than anything else.”

It could have all been different. Parker's vision for the record was in stark contrast to the trip hop and downtempo material that dominated Melankolic’s roster, partly due to Massive Attack's influence and the reputation of the scenes in London and Bristol at the time. While Parker's early material had a melancholic tinge, he set his stall out more explicitly on the 1996 EP 'Rise', which crossed Chopin samples with mellow grooves and boom bap beats.

“After mixing ‘Rise’, I was happy and thought it was the best thing I'd done to that point,” Parker says. “My engineer Corin [Pennington] had a lot to do with the sound of both that record and ‘Masquerades…’. I was just a kid making beats at that age and just used to fuck around – I didn't understand compression and mixing down and all that stuff so it was a tricky learning path.

“I was fighting a lot of stuff. They heard I had the potential to go that Bristol kind of route and I was like: 'No, I make hip-hop music, not easy listening'. I wanted to express that and wasn't trying to be the next Tricky out here or anything. I guess as a hip-hop head I had that shit cemented in my head at that age. I wasn't selling out to those industry guys.”

Parker's doggedness paid dividends. 'Masquerades...' was a focused and unified record, with cinematic instrumentals (Shadows of Autumn, A Thousand Fragments), otherworldly samples (Crusades, Song of the Desert) and immaculate percussion (101 Piano's, Fake Charades). Not everything was esoteric – Parker's lyrical references to Star Wars throughout the record served to illustrate both his real life struggles and his overactive imagination.

“I was all about the Jedi!” he says. “It was a conscious decision to do that. When I first came out with my 'B-Boy Antiks' EP I was just kind of emceeing over dope beats. So, I didn't want to develop a gimmick, but that's kind of how it was for me. I made a conscious decision of what I was into. I thought: 'What am I going to represent?’ This is me. I used to watch that shit on repeat and recreate all the crazy battles with my action figures. So that was influential for me – it even helped form my moral code, almost.

“To this day I still love the sound of the album, too. When I first started sampling back, it was just tape loops. I did whatever I'd find on my parents' records and loop a drum beat or whatever. As I got older, you'd get certain cats showing you the ultimate breaks and I learned from that. I didn't just go for the funky beats – the 'classic Lewis Parker' sound came from the cheap old Top of the Pops kind of records. I found it had a dry, unique sound and my sampling range widened.”

Parker is quick to point out how much his sound has developed since 'Masquerades...', but adds that he “recognises its legacy” and is planning to re-release the album on vinyl with reimagined versions of the tracks in the near future. In the meantime, his latest single When It Rains It Pours, with its crisp drums and classy brass, hints at the direction Parker is going in next.

“Now I'm all about groove, straight up and down,” he says. “In the ‘90s, I was just vibing. I liked those dreamy loops that made me feel like I was flying and shit. But now I lock stuff down in a musician type of way and I play the bass and keys and so on. My next album, which will probably be called ‘Wearing Shades at Night’, is going to be very late ‘70s/early ‘80s-influenced, almost like a TV drama or movie soundtrack.

“It's almost like progressive funk fusion, which is different. I'm now 41 – not a young boy anymore and my tastes have really changed. But you should never rule anything out. Sometimes I bug out to records I thought I'd gotten bored of a decade earlier. Now, I try to make the best music I can with what's around me. It's easy - hip-hop is within me, so when I wake up I feel like hip-hop. I make the music that I like.”

'When It Rains It Pours' is out now.

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