British producers score early with hip-hop and then expand the brand

Many production teams, regardless of their enthusiasm for hip-hop, would go gangsta and don FUBU if it meant an opportunity for top MCs to spit rhymes over their beats, let alone break down the door to a busy, sustainable career.

Cambridge duo The Nextmen aimed for an instrumental “Ninja Tune—style, left-field electronica” debut with 2000's Amongst the Madness (75 Ark), guitarist/producer Dom Search says. Instead, the duo, also featuring keyboardist/producer Brad Baloo, was thrust into an elite group of British beatmakers after a crop of talented UK MCs laced the virgin tracks.

Success followed with bigger gigs and collaborations with Blackalicious, Morcheeba and Public Enemy, among others, the latter remix praised by Chuck D. But hip-hop success created an enviable quandary. “It pigeonholed us,” Search says. “Because if you'd been alongside us the whole way—before, during and after [the record]—you'd realize we're just musicians who made a hip-hop record.”

The Nextmen's latest release, This Was Supposed to Be the Future (Sanctuary, 2007) will bury any notions of a monogamous relationship with hip-hop. Ranging from mid-tempo R&B swingers (“The Drop”), bouncing dancehall hybrids (“Piece of the Pie”) and even lilting acoustic samba (“Tuffen Up”), Future, according to Search, reflects the terrain you'd encounter during a typical Nextmen DJ set.

In fact, if there's any complaint to level at the record, it rests on its very diversity. The spectrum spans broad enough as to nearly lack an identity or signature sound. Though the songcraft is deftly executed no matter the genre, one can't help but wonder if you'd just heard a great mixtape. “Yeah, we worry about that,” Search admits. “But when we make beats, we don't come up with a plan. You stick a tempo in and work from there. It's a fair criticism. If somebody likes the album, then tries to describe it, it's quite hard to pigeonhole. But that's just how it ended up. It wasn't really a deliberate thing.”

The stylistic twister is easy to forgive when you consider the duo's backgrounds—Baloo an accomplished pianist, and Search the son of a noted guitarist who moved through the British folk circles. Both men share obsessions with reggae, and their foray into the Trojan Records vaults for a recent compilation is credited for kick-starting the new record.

Like his father, Search's main guitar is an acoustic, and it's the instrument on which many Nextmen tracks take shape. He's only recently, at the urging of friends and manager, plugged in to a Fender Strat. “I don't play electric guitar, but I'm gonna give it a go,” he says gamely. “I'm definitely an acoustic guitarist.”

Nextmen material starts at home on Macs with MOTU interfaces and Apple Logic software, with Baloo having a keyboard part or Search an acoustic progression. Sometimes either party submits drums or bass lines sculpted from Spectrasonics Trilogy (“fast, intuitive and you can create some really unique sounds if you dig deep,” Search says).

Audio files are knocked around online until work moves to the production studio and its TL Audio and Drawmer outboard gear, 1970 Roland Space Echo, Technics SL1200s and a locker filled with Neumann, AKG and Audio-Technica mics.

“Brad and I work differently, and we often start the beats individually,” Search explains. “We both have fairly trademark sounds. Mine is quite layered and subtle, like the 50-odd tracks of audio going on in the title track, whereas Brad tends to just get a beat out, then starts playing a heavy bass line over it.”

Determined to keep progressing their sound, the DJ/producer/musicians have gathered a 10-piece band around them, including two horns, three female vocalists and Dynamite MC on the mic. “We don't want to become a funk band,” Search says. “We always want to keep this electronic element. We're built to be working on lots of different things, lots of different song arrangements, live instrumentation—doing the package, rather than just a beat and rhyme, you know?”