1998 was a landmark, if slightly troubling, time for drum & bass. It was a year of shifting styles, sprawling albums, and new sub genres, one that saw the still buoyant scene start to fracture from the unified highs of 1995 and 1996. Ed Rush, Optical & Fierce’s ‘Alien Girl’ proved crucial in the rise of the fiercely dark, technically obtuse sound of tech-step, while EZ Rollers’ ‘Tough At The Top’ suggested a poppier future for drum & bass, and scene leader Goldie released his proggy, rambling and ultimately misunderstood double album ‘Saturnz Return’ to widespread confusion.
But the one drum & bass album that best sums up 1998 — and indeed, the mid-to-late-’90s electronic era as a whole — didn’t come from these acts. Instead, it was the work of Marc Mac and Dego McFarlane, aka 4hero, a pair of North Londoners who had made their name with the dark rave tune ‘Mr Kirk’s Nightmare’ in 1990, before venturing into jazz on their 1994 album ‘Parallel Universe’ and fusing Detroit techno with jungle on 1996’s ‘Jacob’s Optical Stairway.’
The genius of 1998’s ‘Two Pages,’ however, was that it both encompassed and went beyond all of this, resulting in one of the most mind-blowingly experimental, sickeningly accomplished, and downright epic electronic albums of all time. Released initially as a double CD or four-vinyl set, the first half of the album (aka ‘Page One’) comprised the jazzier, funkier side of the record, full of live strings, thumbed double bass and percussion lines that had all the surgical precision of the best drum & bass, tied to a pinpoint restraint that stopped them from overwhelming the mix.
It’s not that this kind of sound was entirely without precedent: ‘Parallel Universe’ had shades of ‘Two Pages’ live jazz feel, notably on the former LP’s sublime opening track ‘Universal Love’ (which is reprised on ‘Two Pages’), while Reprazent’s ‘New Forms’ had taken live d&b to commercial audiences the previous year. But ‘Two Pages’ was almost shockingly lush in its make-up, the production bathed in the kind of gilded shine that comes with employing a coterie of brilliantly sympathetic jazz and classical players, including saxophonist Chris Bowden and vibraphone artist Roger Beaujolais.
‘Golden Age Of Life’ and ‘Planetaria,’ to take two examples from the album’s divine opening passage, seem to glide into your ear holes, as if transmitted by silk rather than boring old air molecules. ‘Two Pages’ also felt notably more American than the work of Roni Size’s Bristol crew. American spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker and Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler from Brooklyn hip-hop outfit Digable Planets both add vocals to the album — and there were plans for jazz legend Alice Coltrane, J Dilla and Raphael to contribute, which sadly came to nothing. Rucker’s contribution, on opening song ‘Loveless,’ is a particular highlight, with her fiercely intelligent vocal, pitched somewhere between spoken-word, rap, and song, shadow-boxing against the rolling drum beat and elastic double bass, while climactic string lines and cumulous dabs of choral melody bring the drama and unease of gathering storm clouds.
This is London drum & bass that is true to the spirit of American jazz-funk pioneers like Lonnie Liston-Smith and Roy Ayers: mature, palatable, and melodic, but never boring. ‘Two Pages’ would be 4hero’s first album to be released in America and, though it didn’t exactly blow the States away sales-wise, you could see where it fit with the jazzy, alternative soul stylings of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.
In a 2018 blog celebrating ‘Two Pages’ 20th anniversary, Marc Mac told journalist Duane Powell that he liked to “pay close attention to the 1970s recording process,” adding that “unlike a lot of our peers in the electronic scene, when we sampled a breakbeat it was from records we owned and knew… I would know if it was Harvey Mason, Pretty Purdie or Clyde Stubblefield on drums, and we would have knowledge of the producers, arrangers, and session players on the albums.”
This deep cultural knowledge — a respect for the past that never strangles the present — is very much in evidence on ‘Two Pages,’ and 4hero would go on to influence both the West London broken beat scene and the current crop of London jazz acts. Yussef Dayes, who played in Yussef Kamaal alongside Kamaal Williams, is a particular fan. In an interview with Dummy, Williams said that Dayes was inspired by the drumming on ‘Loveless.’ “It’s one of these productions with intricate rhythms,” he said of the song. “It has something like a drum & bass beat, but you wouldn’t immediately affiliate drum & bass with that tune because of the spiritual jazz touches.”
The first half of ‘Two Pages’ on its own would establish the album as a brilliant work of melodic drum & bass. But it’s with the addition of ‘Page Two’ — which revolves around an entirely different sound, one that’s sympathetic, yet removed — that the album is transformed into a universally recognized classic.
In the interview with Powell, Mac says that ‘Page Two’ was for fans that wanted to hear “something more d&b, hard” — and so it proved. Over nine tough, brooding tracks (the vinyl edition adds three additional sketches), the disc sees 4hero travel from the California sunshine of ‘Page One’ to the darkest inner city musings.
The result is a 21st-century take on drum & bass that rings with the electronic paranoia of Detroit techno, as tracks like ‘We Who Are Not As Others’ or ‘Humans’ are precision-engineered for maximum future shock. This is dark music that — in contrast to the sheer heart attack of Bad Company and Ed Rush — leaves room for breath and contemplation, with the stellar synth chords on ‘Pegasus 51,’ for example, suggesting astral clouds and celestial travel.
Overall, ‘Page Two’ is not, perhaps, as strong as ‘Page One,’ but the album’s unique strength comes in the combination of the two. By bringing together ’60s jazz, ’70s funk, ’80s techno and ’90s drum & bass, 4hero connected the dots between four decades of music that purists, perhaps, would have rather they left alone.
After ‘Two Pages’ initial UK launch, a one-CD set was made available in Canada, Europe, and the US, with ‘Page Two’ represented on the new release by just a handful of songs. This is the version now available on most digital platforms. “I wasn’t happy about having a single disc,” Marc Mac told Powell. “I mean, after all, the album was called ‘Two Pages’ for a reason.” But in a way, this consolidated release works — it merges both of ‘Two Pages’ personalities together in one entity, rather than sitting them on opposing discs, which might have led fans to dig into either one side of the group or the other.
‘Two Pages’ would be followed by ‘Two Pages Reinterpretations,’ a nonessential but nonetheless interesting album of reworked versions with a list of remixers — from Masters At Work to jazz-funk trio Azymuth — that demonstrated 4hero’s musical scope. The group’s later albums would see them concentrate on broken beat (‘Creating Patterns’) and neo-soul (‘Play With The Changes’). These days,
Dego and Marc Mac tend to work alone, but the impact of ‘Two Pages’ has not been forgotten. It may have only been a minor chart hit — reaching 38 on the UK albums rundown — but the album stands as a monument to a time when drum & bass wore its heart on its sleeve, looking towards the past as a path into the future.