British-born Richard Blair takes his world music literally. He got his start in the recording studio engineering reggae and bhangra in Birmingham and then manned the controls at Peter Gabriel's Real World studio, producing acts ranging from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Geoffrey Oryema to Toto la Momposina. Momposina, the folkloric cumbia queen, invited Blair to visit Colombia in 1993, where he spent three years, by his own admission, lost in the Bogotá club scene. When taking a break from dancing, Blair put his studio savvy to work producing not only Momposina but also pop-folk phenomena Carlos Vives and trip-hop alternative outfit Aterciopelados.
Nowadays Blair is putting his energy into his own band, Sidestepper. More Grip, the full-length followup to the Latin trip-hopper's 1999 debut EP Logozo, makes good on the CD cover's claim to bring salsa into the 21st Century. This is not a case of DJs strip-mining salsa for percussion loops or piano runs. Instead Sidestepper takes the music to a new funk-filled place with groovy loops, well-timed breakbeats, and some heavy dub accenting human-generated beats and brass. Echoes of Latin classics, such as the Cuban ensemble Orquesta Aragon and the Puerto Rican masters Eddie Palmieri and Ismael Quintana, sound fresh with a futurist treatment. Without once losing the clave, Sidestepper delivers some of the most head-pleasing yet hip-shaking sounds ever recorded.
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The lyrics by Ivan Benavides, a creative force behind the critically acclaimed alternative band Bloque, give the tunes a cerebral cool that heightens the more primal pleasures of the dance tracks' deep bass. Janio Coronado is an old-school sonero, his vocals vibrating with Africa via the streets of Colombia's Atlantic coast as he agrees to get out of his lover's life on the opening track, Andando (Going), or sings the virtues of salted codfish on Bacalao Sala'o. Even Andrea Echeverri, the velvety voice of Aterciopelados, takes on an otherworldly salsa timbre in the haunting Linda Manigua. The British-Colombian mix is cocktail-lounge ready, as in Hoy Tenemos, in which the Spanish-language chorus We've got it today/We don't know about tomorrow alternates with the refrain right now, repeated in a go-go-girl purr. Sergio Arias brings hip-hop into the mix, rapping on the dance anthem Chever Q' Chevere. The closing song sums up the good feeling emanating from all ten tracks: Tremendo Vacilon. More Grip is some awesome party.