If anything irritates Fred Sargolini, half of the hip-hop/electro duo Ming & FS, it's artists who force themselves to color inside the lines.
"They say they're open-minded, but they're really puritans," he says. "And people in drum and bass and all kinds of other stuff do it. 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. And to me, it's fucking the most idiotic thing I've ever heard."
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 noise that mystified a sizable percentage of their constituency. And while their latest CD, Subway Series, irresistibly blends hip-hop and house, they're working up two additional projects that move in separate directions. The first is Uncle Bubble, a house group named for a song on The Human Condition; the second, Freddy Churchill, is a rock band with mass-audience aspirations.
"It's straight-up Pixies, old Red Hot Chili Peppers, with some Rage thrown in," FS says of the latter. "I'm doing all the vocals, Aaron's playing all the guitar, and there may be some other power hitters in there; we haven't totally decided on the lineup yet. But we've done a lot of recording already, and they're songs, you know? There's no weird electronics, no shit for the sake of shit."
The average person would find it impossible to keep so many balls in the air, but Ming and FS know a little something about juggling. In concert, the two not only man four turntables simultaneously, but they also toss in effects with actual instruments rather than samples.
"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," says FS. "Like 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 prerecorded before we can play it live."
The twosome first got together in 1996 after meeting at a Manhattan party and soon began performing under the name Lead Foot. By 1998, when they signed with San Francisco's Om Records and changed handles, they'd become known as remixers par excellence. Among the performers whose ditties have been given the Ming & FS treatment over the years are Craig David, Brandy, Puff Daddy and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
At their best, the duo's results suggest the early electro-rap of such hip-hop pioneers as Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force updated for the post-rave generation.
"When we first made Hell's Kitchen, we were like, Nobody's going to like this shit. It's way too complicated for people, but we don't care. We want to do it anyway,'" he says, laughing. "Seriously, we didn't think anyone would even remotely be able to understand it. I remember us sitting in our living room saying, This is crazy-people music. We've really made a record just for ourselves.' But then it came out, and it was well-received. And we were like, Fuck.'"
This experience inspired Ming and FS 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 . . . but for some people, it was a little too much."
This backlash is understandable, since dance touches relegated to the background on Hell's Kitchen wound 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.
"As we get further away from The Human Condition, I have a lot of people coming up to me saying they like it better than Hell's Kitchen," FS asserts. "Which just goes to show that the initial knee-jerk isn't always the final answer."
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Even so, Ming and FS aren't interested in alienating the hip-hop crowd any more than it already is, which is why future house recordings will emerge from under the Uncle Bubble umbrella. "That'll add clarity," FS says. "It's like, hey, if people are going to freak out so much over this, let's make separate outlets for things."
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.
Whether Ming & FS will return to Om Records, which has released all their CDs, is harder to predict. Their contract with Om expires with Subway Series, and they're considering their options, one of which is to hook up with a larger imprint.
If they do choose the major-label path, FS knows there is no shortage of potential pitfalls. "Those companies don't know how not to spend too much money. It's just innate; it's what they do, so you have to watch out for that. But hopefully we wouldn't have to suck a dick too much, as the rappers would say. We're probably going to have to bend over a little bit. But I think we're ready to have someone say, If you do this song with Method Man, it's really going to take you places.' Some people from the underground will say, What the fuck are you doing working with Method Man? He's doing fucking deodorant commercials.' But that's a little small-minded, and we won't let it bother us."