Few bass players can claim to have arranged and recorded one of the most innovative and enduring bass parts in hip-hop history. Even fewer can say that they’ve also played with Madonna. And fewer still can truthfully boast that they’ve done both those things as well as been invited for sessions with Annie Lennox, Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones, Ron Wood, Seal and Joe Satriani, underpinned the legendary funk-metal band Living Colour, laid down bass parts with the dance pioneer Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound System and still found time to guest on a thousand stages and studios. Doug Wimbish has done all this with a dedication that puts most other aspiring bass-heads to shame – and all before his forties.
Connecticut-born Wimbish began his career as a jobbing bassist as a member of the house band in New York’s Sugar Hill label, the legendary hip-hop stable run by industry mover Sylvia Robinson which introduced the world to the idea of rap. After scoring an early high point by recording the bass part for Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s gazillion-selling hit ‘White Lines’ (you know the one: E-G-E-G and repeat at high speed), he joined forces with British dub reggae artist Sherwood, guitarist Skip McDonald and drummer Keith LeBlanc. After many successful recordings with Sherwood, the trio renamed themselves Tackhead and began earning a reputation for their musical dexterity and frenetic live shows. Doug became Living Colour’s bass player in 1993, only a year before the group folded, and went on to record many successful sessions, as well as releasing a solo album, Trippy Notes for Bass. Living Colour returned in 2000 and continue to ply their funk-heavy trade to this day.
How’s the band going, Doug?
Living Colour’s like a fine Porsche car that’s been in the garage a little while. It just needs a little tuning before it’s running at full speed! We’re a great band and we just want to make sure we’re slamming at full speed. It’s a great rush. We’re starting to get a lot of 17- or 18-year-old kids coming to see us now, who were 10 when our last album came out, and their jaws are hitting the floor! My reward is just seeing the people dig our stuff. I hope we can keep going as hard as we do so that more and more people can see what is truly the best band on the planet.
I’ve seen the list of bass gear on your website. Not bad…
Yeah – and that’s just the stuff I’ve got up at the house! I’ve got a state-of-the-art studio that I built with my cousin Walter, too. Three acres of land, it’s residential. You can put a helicopter in there!
How did you become the Sugar Hill in-house bass player back in 1975?
I was in a band called Wood, Brass And Steel and those guys were like 10, 15 years older than me. They were already associated with Sylvia Robinson through her previous label, All Platinum Records, and I got into her house band when I was 17 or 18. I was cutting records by Solomon Burke, Candi Staton, The Moments, a lot of the old R&B and blues stuff. From 1975 to ’79 I was a studio musician until the label collapsed – but then The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was done, and that’s when everything started to rekindle itself.
When Sylvia opened Sugar Hill she asked me to come down and play on some records, so that’s how all that stuff started. A lot of tracks were cut very fast. We’d cut the track on Monday and they’d play it on the radio on Friday! We’d take a song that was already a hit in the clubs and record it so they could play it on the radio. We were on more turntables than any other self-contained band in the world.
You’ve sessioned for Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and others. Do people like Madonna tell you what bass-line to play?
Definitely combinations, man. It always starts with what you’re hearing, because somebody in that room will have played the song a lot and has a real clear idea of what’s happening. That could be the producer or the artist. So at that point I try to find out what vibe they want me to try. I try a bunch of grooves out. I try not to get twisted about it, man, and get stuck in a whole kind of ‘this is how I’m going to do it’ approach. I just start playing and talking to people, then they give you an idea of what’s going on, which you can then translate. I’ll talk to the artist, I’ll talk to the producer, the guitar player – whoever has the most attachment to it.
What’s the secret of a good drummer and bassist partnership?
Man, the secret is a good friendship. When you’re friends and you can talk about life, when it’s time to start talking about art it’s easier because you already have that language. I had the best time with Charlie Watts, for example, because he can turn it on like you wouldn’t believe. It’s because he’s a jazz drummer.
How did the ‘White Lines’ bass-line come about?
That bass-line was actually written by a band called Liquid Liquid and appeared in a song they did called ‘Cavern’. What we did in the studio was embellish some of the grooves that they had already come up with live. I ended up arranging the horns around some of the bass licks that I did. That particular riff was straight-up improvisational playing. Hip-hop changed everything, man. The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, for example, was cut for like 1200 dollars and it’s still the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time.