Great lost hit: Us3, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” (1994)

Us3

(Above: If you haven’t taken this off the shelf in a while, now’s a good time.)

I’ve had a lot of extra car time in the last few days due to the weather. One of the ways I pass the time on the commute is with – why not? – an iPod. Some days I’ll pick a letter (of course, shuffle has not been deployed) and let ‘er roll. The other morning the letter C reminded me of a fantastic tune I hadn’t thought of in a while.

In early 1994 a British production began making its way up the American pop chart. Producer Geoff Wilkinson created Us3, best described as a jazz/rap hybrid. The band had, in a previous incarnation, used some samples from EMI’s library, gaining the attention (and not in a good way) of the label. Wilkinson was able to not only avoid the lawsuit, but managed to get access to the music library of Blue Note records. The creations of Us3, released on Blue Note, went on to become the biggest-seller in the label’s history.

Each track on the debut album, Hand on the Torch, used jazz recordings for the samples. “It’s Like That,” the sort of rap that sticks in your head for a while (it did the other day when the letter I came up), used songs by Big John Patton and Lou Donaldson. Tune across the album and you’ll hear Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (including his spoken word tracks), Donald Byrd – it reads like a who’s who of Blue Note jazz.

But the hit track is “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).” It borrows heavily from Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island;” in fact, at the same time I bought Hand on the Torch I bought Empyrean Isles, the 1964 Hancock LP that gave us this track. Perhaps that was the point of the whole exercise after all? Anyway, the catchy beat backs British trumpeter Gerard Presencer, who shines on this track. Rahsaan Kelly’s rap – he has a writing credit on it – drives the track home. I suppose that I should mention Pee Wee Marquette, whose sampled voice at the beginning lets us know that it’s “a recording for Blue Note records,” but I seem to remember that being trimmed off or cued past on the single version.

“Cantaloop” ends up as a #9 single on the March 5, 1994 chart, being the one and only charting single for Us3. Interestingly, the song fails to chart in the UK in its initial release, but makes the Top 40 in a reissue.

I didn’t grab a copy until later that summer. I was in the middle of my very short stint in Springfield, Illinois, where I doubled as the stadium announcer for the Sultans of Springfield minor league baseball team. The record came on at the ballpark, and I think I bought it the very next day. Fast forward: I’m teaching at Grand Valley, and I put “Cantaloop” in the radio station’s playback system. A student excitedly let me know that she now could identify a song that she remembered “at the pool when I was little.” I smiled, left the station, and started pricing artificial hips.

Dip trip. This should be played loudly. You can hear “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” by clicking here.

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