Little Axe makes gospel dub like you ever head before… haunting and spiritual journey through blues history with a mystical and lingering blend of synthetic and organic instrumentation
Which artist released records on all these labels: legendary r’n’b label Okeh; nu-blues stronghold Fat Possum; key rap originators Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy and 4th & Broadway; Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records; and the innovative On-U Sound?
Which musician links Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, James Brown, Robert Plant, Mark Stewart & The Mafia, Sinead O’Connor, and Megadeth?
The answer to both questions is Skip McDonald, and Skip is LITTLE AXE. Skip made his name as an integral part of the Sugar Hill house band playing on the most influential early rap classics, and as part of Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound crew he has made some of the most adventurous and praised UK music of the last twenty years.
Little Axe is the return to the blues that Skip grew up with. Born in 1949 in Dayton, Ohio in the USA, Skip McDonald learned to play the blues on his father’s guitar from the age of 8. But from picking up a guitar as a child, and returning to his roots with Little Axe, there has been a long, twisting road. Having completed his high school education, Skip left Dayton with a band called the Ohio Hustlers, which broke up not long after relocating to New York City, where he met Doug Wimbish, who played in a band called Wood, Brass & Steel. In 1979 Skip and Doug teamed up with drummer Keith LeBlanc and they became the house band for Sugar Hill Records. The trio played on some of the earliest rap hits such as “The Message” and “White Lines” with Grandmaster Flash. While they worked at Sugar Hill, LeBlanc also freelanced at Tommy Boy Records where he first met Adrian Sherwood. LeBlanc introduced his colleagues to Sherwood and the trio were persuaded to relocate in London. They then formed a production team and, again, a house band, this time for the legendary On-U Sound.
The partnership developed and metamorphosed into a fully-fledged band, Tackhead. The dispersion of Tackhead in the early 1990s allowed Skip the time to work ever more closely with Sherwood, both on his own projects and as a musician on many other On-U Sound productions, such as by Junior Delgado, Bim Sherman, Dub Syndicate and African Head Charge.
Skip has been the prime mover behind Little Axe since around 1992. Under a name inspired by Bob Marley’s Small Axe and gospel singer Willmer ‘Little Ax’ Broadnax, the debut album Wolf That House Built was a personal take on blues and dub, and was released to critical acclaim in 1994. The second Little Axe album, Slow Fuse, was also well received. Then it remained silent for far too long. In 2002 Skip’s third Little Axe album Hard Grind became the first release for four years on Sherwood’s revived and re-launched On-U Sound label with a mixture of raw blues and reggae. While Hard Grind no doubt will also draw comparisons to Moby’s Play, it was Skip who pioneered the fusion of blues and electronic music with Little Axe.
In recent years Skip has collaborated with Mauritanian guitarist Daby Touré on the album Call My Name, whilst continuing to issue his own solo work. His most recent album for On-U Sound is If You Want Loyalty, Buy A Dog, and in 2015 he contributed to the Sherwood & Pinch album Late Night Endless.