Before you even hear a note of Mr. Scruff's music, the adorable potato-figure doodles on the covers of his albums and their animated versions on his website elicit a smile. Scruff's sound is equally pleasurable, though it gets considerably deeper. As you might infer from the title of his second album, 1999's Keep It Unreal (also the name of Scruff's regular club nights in Manchester), the 30-year-old Brit puts little stock in authenticity. He'd rather mix up styles, sample the oddest oddities from an obscenely huge record collection, and keep listeners guessing, grinning, and grinding on the dance floor.
No matter what genre Scruff mines, though, he inevitably injects it with giddy euphoria and funk. "Does it make you go wibby? Does it frimble?" are the guidelines by which Scruff creates his loopy music. His philosophy behind the Technics is simple and altruistic: "My goal is to share all the records that inspire me with other people, and to spread enthusiasm and knowledge," Scruff relates over e-mail. "I don't plan my sets, but I do make sure that I take risks and do my own thing. Every night is different, so you have to be versatile."
Versatility has long been one of Scruff's greatest assets. Since rising through the Manchester club scene in the mid-'90s, after a stint as a fine-art student at Sheffield University, Scruff has become famous for his wide-ranging, marathon-length sets (if he doesn't get at least five hours on the decks, he gets cranky). His self-titled 1997 debut still packs a wallop, with its weird, cheeky slants on dub, funk, exotica, and what used to be called trip-hop. Scruff followed that with Keep It Unreal, which spawned "Get a Move On" (Scruff's most popular tune and the theme music for various TV ads, including Lincoln Navigator and Volkswagen).
Scruff's new album, Trouser Jazz (Ninja Tune), is another playful cornucopia of quirky sampling. Take, for example, "Champion Nibble" and "Come On Grandad," both of which traffic in the same jaunty, jazz aura that powered "Get a Move On." Delve further and swoon to the ecstatic future soul of "Beyond," which sashays into James Bond-theme territory; bask in the "Valley of the Sausages," which puts a demented spin on EZ-listening lounge; and shake to "Vibrate," a stomping, whimsical take on hip-hop with witty newcomer MC Braintax.
Through it all, Scruff's tracks bear a sly, absurd sense of humor that, in the hands of others, could easily become annoying. Very few artists seem to be fun and forward-thinking, while still moving feet on the dance floor. (Luke Vibert, a.k.a. Wagon Christ, is perhaps Scruff's closest peer in this arena.)
"I don't try to force it," Scruff says of his ability to garner the occasional chuckle. "[What you hear on my records] is my humor, and I try to work within my logic and rules, so I don't go off the rails."
Oddly, Scruff's humor often focuses on sea life; every album features at least one ridiculous track devoted to aquatic organisms.
"It started out with a tune on my first 12-inch called 'Sea Mammal,'" he explains. "After I had released it, I found some more aquatically inclined spoken-word [records] and decided to do a sequel. I am currently up to number five. However, the subject was quite accidental -- it could have been bread, donkeys, or anything."
What's not so funny is Scruff's perpetual dilemma of trying to find a larger audience for his music. Given the current state of commercial radio and MTV, which are more conservative, in a sense, than Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell combined, it's questionable whether Scruff's brand of electronic music will ever become popular in America. But on the upside, Keep It Unreal has been selling around 2,000 copies a week, thanks to the heavy rotation of "Get a Move On." And hey, having Madonna as a fan doesn't hurt.
"From the response I have had so far, wherever there are open-minded people who like to get down to good music, I go down well," Scruff says.
So what does this mean for Cleveland, where he'll soon be playing at Touch Supper Club?
"No idea!" Scruff says. "Sometimes people in North America expect a traditional Ninja Tune style of music, whereas I play more of a soulful selection . . . some of my own records, plus a real mix of tempos and styles, old and new, with a party vibe, without resorting to any cheesy nonsense."
That said, expect no such ban on cheesy grins.
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