. issue V : vii .
. artist : taskforce .
. album : life without instructions .
. year : 2001 .
. label : rehab .
. grade : b .
Somewhere around ten years ago I first heard the track, “Life Without Instructions,” which shares its name with the album’s title. Since then the song has always occupied a special place close to where my heart might be, if there was one, in my mind’s musical catalogue. Last month, on a whim, I decided to search for a copy of the record.
However, I underestimated how difficult it would be to acquire this one. It is rather unfortunate that a record of this caliber is so difficult to obtain: Taskforce, being the epitome of independently produced hip-hop, never had much of a production or distribution budget to speak of. Thus the production and distribution of their material has always been very limited, and as a result copies of their work are scarce or all together unavailable. In spite of Taskforce’s lack of exposure to a wider audience their strong following among their fans drives demand for their records and CDs; UK hip-hop being very little known here in the States, most existing copies tend to end up in continental Europe where there is a large market for English language hip-hop and rap. So it was not surprising when the only copy I could locate was expensive, and in France. Go France! Despite the price tag ($50), Thomas Paine’s assertion, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly” soothes my inner Scrooge, reminding me that I am making an investment, not just a purchase.
Taskforce is a duo composed of two biological brothers: Joey Coombes aka Chester P and Robin Coombes aka Farma G. They are the sons of Peet Coombes, former guitarist in a band called The Tourists that included several members who would go on to found the Eurythmics; his influence can be measured by Farma G’s (who handles much of the production for the duo) preference for acoustic instrumentation. The brothers were raised on a council estate (equivalent to Section 8 housing here in the States) in London’s Canonbury area.
2001’s Life Without Instructions was one of their earlier efforts. It was released through Rehab Records, based out of London. The A-Side of the record consists of “Life Without Instructions,” “Don’t Cry,” and the instrumental version of “Life Without Instructions.” The B-Side follows with “Jelly Fish Kiss” and the instrumentals of “Don’t Cry” and “Jelly Fish Kiss.”
“Life Without Instructions,” the album’s title track, begins with a lonely mournful whistle followed by an evocative acoustic riff which continues to repeat itself as it is quickly supplemented by a simple bass-kick-snare pattern; the song uses a four beat meter. Chester P and Farma G are community-minded emcees in the classic sense of conscious rap, and they address socioeconomic inequality glibly and with urgency, as in the lines “Money’s got this whole world gripped by the balls,” “My peoples live humble / Inspiration all gone,” and “There’s a war going on outside your front door / Who you fighting for?”
Taskforce’s production often demonstrates a penchant for the American Wild West; both through the instrumentation employed and their self-characterization as urban cowboys struggling in the amorphous urban jungle of London’s North Side around the turn of the last millennia. The beginning of “Life Without Instructions” reminds me of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. I would actually characterize this as a ballad, as it documents and laments the struggles of the lower class in a post-industrial welfare state.
The sentimental, lugubrious tone of “Life Without Instructions” is replaced by a cynical and belligerent attitude on the second song, “Don’t Cry.” Queen bashing and disdain for the government, political system, and commercialism are all in effect here. Part of why I find Taskforce so likable is because of their unassuming disposition; Chester P claims that he’s just “a Caucasoid on a journey with no heartbeat, burnt by defeat.” They are very honest and to-the-point about what they perceive as injustice, but at the same time they acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers — they are still in search of knowledge themselves. And that’s what this song revolves around: conveying, for the benefit of the youth and their own offspring, what they perceive to be universal truths. They warn of the dangers of ‘groupthink’ and they advocate critical thinking and the practice of humility. Throughout “Don’t’ Cry,” the brothers take shots at some of their favorite villains: the queen, parliament, the police, and the upper class. All the while, a simple melody hummed by a cello accompanies them, complemented by barebones bass-kick-snare combo in four/four meter. The instrumentation produces a somber tone.
Lastly, the B-Side’s “Jelly Fish Kiss” is something of your classic hip-hop battle track; something no late-90’s/early-00’s independent hip-hop record would be complete without. Full of mythological references and word play, it’s a great finish to a great record.
Without a doubt, “Life Without Instructions” is the highlight of this record. The other tracks are mere filler; though not entirely without merit, they pale in comparison. However, the more time I spend with this record the more the other songs grow on me, especially “Don’t Cry” — you just can’t help but appreciate that kind of unassuming honesty. When considering Life Without Instructions, one should also bear in mind that it was recorded at a time when much of hip-hop was centered on either pursuing material goals or deriding those who pursued them. Taskforce stands out because of their unique approach to the genre.