Adrian Sherwood, one of the nicest fellows in the music business. His personal catalogue of audio delights engineered by his dubwise fingers and brain covers well over thirty years. Delightful dubs courtesy of the Dub Syndicate and assorted off shoots. Ear shattering industrial noisescapes from the likes of Mark Stewart And The Maffia and funky drum and funky bass from the likes of the different guises of Tackhead. The audio delights he has had a hand in bringing to the reggae enthusiasts turntables, Carib Gems and Hit And Run records, cover well over thirty five years!
Dub Syndicate’s ‘Pounding System’ album is an absolutely crucial release from the ONU records stable, a stable that holds many other crucial moments by various label mates stored within two sides of vinyl.
What I adore about dub albums whether British born or from Jamaica, the titles of the tracks are generally as mad as a bag of frogs due to minimum vocal breaks, so the producer / engineer makes up the titles as an aside. This albums track listing is no exception!
Fill your boots with some of the best (and actually most recognisable) riddims from the hands of Adrian Sherwood along side a cast of Eskimo, Eek A Boo, Lizard, Crucial Tony, Bubblers, Deadly Headley, Flesh, Mr Magoo and Bonjo I.
I have known Adrian Sherwood for over twenty five years and now and again still spend a small amount of time with him, will look forward to some more moments together at some very time soon I hope.
With massive gratitude to Gregory Mario Whitfield for the immense interview with Adrian from 2003.
Going into the legendary On-U studios is like a lesson in musical history for those that love UK and Jamaican roots reggae. I was welcomed at the door by Adrian, and ushered into a completely chaotic, yet calm and friendly atmosphere, with a lot of people getting on with their work in the studio. A large portrait of King Tubby in crisp white shirt, perfectly pressed suit trousers with a typically serious, dignified expression takes pride of place on the wall as an obvious sign of respect. Shrine like, it is placed high up on the studio wall and dominates the vibe of the room. Inspiration from the source. Dub science.
I notice more casual, smiling pictures of Bim Sherman and other On-U luminaries on the walls. The next thing I noticed were the piles of boxed master tapes everywhere. Little Roy, Junior Delgado, Dub Syndicate, Ghetto Priest. (I was sorely tempted to make a closer inspection!) The vibe was good, and I was looking forward to a good interview with this man whose work I had admired for many years, (since those early UK roots classics, the early Creation Rebel albums) and who had worked with so many of the JA and UK roots legends.
Adrian Sherwood. The man hardly needs an introduction here: To anyone who has followed roots and culture music closely, it is generally acknowledged that he has produced truly innovative, ground breaking UK roots music of the highest order since the late 70’s. He had uncompromisingly worked on with roots and dub, even when roots music was at its lowest ebb in the early 80’s and many people had moved on to early digital dancehall and slackness. A lot of people considered roots music a spent force, but Adrian had persevered with the form, working with artists he respected, and artists who still had a lot of originality to offer the reggae world, even though they were no longer considered “fashionable”.
Albums like ‘War Of Words’, ‘Revenge Of The Underdog’ and ‘Pounding System’ showcased UK roots and Jamaican roots artists still at the peak of their creativity. ‘Fit To Survive’ and ‘Devious Woman’ are considered by many to match the best of Bim’s JA output, and are unquestionably deep and atmospheric pieces of music.
I was invited into the kitchen, and was met by the sight of guitarist Skip McDonald, sitting quietly at the table, wearing a West African style hat, cup of tea in hand, looking particularly calm and thoughtful amongst the activity. An artist comfortable with himself.
A man with a gentle and peaceable presence, he greeted me and we started talking, mostly about his recent album, a dub deconstruction of blues music: Eerie Robert Johnson blues style echoey cut ups, with one drop drum rhythms and backward tape loops. Some tracks also feature beautiful vocals from Bim Sherman and Ghetto Priest, an atmospheric new vocalist I was to meet later.
Skip McDonald ‘Seek The Truth’ is the aptly named track which features Bim’s haunting vocals, backed by eerie slide guitar, unpredictably soaring around in the mix, the righteous vibes urged forward by a Bunny Lee “flying cymbals” style. Bim chants, stating his creed with righteous emotion, a relentless, simple and direct message: “Oh friend of mine, a lie is a whisper, the truth is a shout… seek the truth…” The message is replete with a shuddering echo, and what sounds like African chants, cut up and spliced into a weird refrain in the background, swooping in and out of the mix. The brittle percussion is so strangely engineered as to be at times, of unidentifiable origin. Harsh, moody, aggressive and melancholy by turns, it’s a fine, original piece of music.
The album ‘Hard Grind’ is obviously a work of love and dedication, a tribute to Skip’s respect for, and love of the blues. It has an overwhelming sense of the genuine, a work of integrity. ‘Hard Grind’ is an unusual record, a distinctly weird listening experience, and one I’d strongly recommend. A cut up dub funk blues experience, and definitely one for those of you that loved ground breaking records like Eno’s ‘My Life in a Bush of Ghosts’.
For someone that had worked with so many musical legends in the roots and culture and funk worlds, I was impressed that he was so modest and unassuming a character.
Excusing himself, Skip returned to the studio to work on some new rhythms with one of Adrian’s engineers, Nick Coplowe. Later I had a chance to speak with Nick, currently working on his own project, Mutant Hi-Fi. Clearly, there is a strong working relationship and understanding between him and Adrian. I asked how he met Adrian and what clinched it for him in getting the job. He looked at me directly, and put it very simply and succinctly: “Me and Adrian work well together and get on well, because we both have a common interest in noise.” He didn’t need to say any more…
It wasn’t easy getting Adrian to focus on the interview process, because he was doing so many things at once. Periodically, Skip would rush back in to the kitchen enthusiastically to ask what Adrian thought of some new sound he was working on, and Adrian would juggle ideas back and forth, striving to flesh out new ideas, adapting and innovating together.
At the same time, the phone was ringing constantly, people organising sound system sessions (sound system session with Adrian, Junior Delgado and Iration Steppers in Leeds was being put together, and Style Scott was in town, to play with Luciano) enquiring about record release and tour dates and so on. Crucial Tony and Eskimo Fox were due to lay down some tracks for Adrian, and Junglist Rasta Congo Natty had a meeting with Adrian a few days later. I kept on switching on my tape, only to be apologetically interrupted by Adrian, “I’m sorry, bear with me one minute…”
As if this wasn’t a busy enough scenario, Adrian was constantly trying to parry the mischievous playfulness of his daughters. They hurtled around the studio as Adrian prepared snacks for them and good naturedly did his best to organise some kind of afternoon schedule for them. It was a lovely summer’s day, and the garden, as I looked out of the window, looked peaceful and quiet compared with the mayhem in the studio.
Adrian comes across as someone who is completely down to earth: direct, sharp, smart, and it is clear that this is a man who is very determined and resolute. He has earned respect from his many years in the reggae world, and his work as an innovator. Ghetto Priest arrives and joins the work in the studio.
I take advantage of an ensuing period of relative calm to begin the interview, and I ask, what led Adrian to reggae in the first place. What started his journey that led to the On-U Sound experience?
When I was pretty young, I was heavily into soul music. I loved that, but I was really carried away by early reggae music and ska tunes. Those were pretty eccentric, freaky tunes, stuff like U Roy’s ‘Wear You To The Ball’… I was soaking up all that energy, even when I was at school, and when I heard reggae music at the local black clubs I went to, that was when I got really into it.
What was your next stage after your initial fascination with reggae I asked?
Well, I was still in my late teens when I started working for the Carib Gems label people… I was a junior director… I loved roots music, and the tunes we were putting out on that label, tracks like ‘Observe Life’ by Michael Rose, and ‘Babylon Won’t Sleep Tonight / Sleepers dub’ by Wayne Jarrett and the Righteous Flames were strong, strong tracks, they really were. Especially I loved the ‘Sleepers’ track. The Tubby’s version is a heavy dub. It’s sad, I don’t even have copies of those 45’s myself anymore. I wish I’d held on to my copies! You know of course we cut our own On-U version of ‘Observe Life’ with Creation Rebel on the rhythm, and Ari on the vocal, then there was a dub too.
Since you’d released so many good tunes on that label I asked, why don’t you collect them to release on a compilation? I think a lot of people would be really glad to hear them on one compilation.
I’d love to. I was so into those Carib Gems releases, but like a lot of those Hitrun label tunes, it’s a matter of ownership and copyright that prevents me. It’s a shame because there are a whole lot of unreleased tunes which just haven’t seen reissue because of ownership debates. A whole lot of those Creation Rebel Hit Run 12’s were very good, such as ‘Beware’. They deserve good reissue. I did collect a few of the best tracks from that time on an early On-U compilation with tracks like Carol Kalphat’s ‘African Land’ and some other Far I and Creation Rebel stuff. I don’t know how available that release is now, but it’s a solid collection. Another person from that time I’d like to work with again is Deadley Headley, who is another Jamaican artist who just hasn’t received the attention he truly deserves. It’s possible that I’d consider putting together a compilation of my tunes I did with him if there’s enough unreleased stuff in the On-U vaults: I’m not sure that I have enough unheard stuff though, but that would be nice, and it’d be good to get some more exposure for such a good artist.
When I had linked up with Don Letts, I ‘d asked about his experiences with Adrian and the early days of the On-U family. He remembered it this way: “Sure, we hung out with Adrian in those times. I still do see Adrian! I’ve known him for about twenty five years. The thing about Adrian was, you knew that the man always ran with a posse in them days! So if you met up with Adrian, they’d all be there too. Yes, man like Jah Whoosh, Prince Hammer would be there, Crucial Tony, Bonjo I, and Don Campbell too. And of course Prince Far I and Bim Sherman if they were in London at the time”.
I’d asked Don which records he’d liked from the early On-U stuff: “Of course the early African Head Charge music, which is pretty far out stuff. Extreme music. Of the later stuff, I think Skip McDonald’s dub blues fusion stuff is pretty interesting.”
Since Don Letts had around that time cut a tune with a vicious, threatening subsonic dub (with Jah Wobble and Keith Levene at the production desk) as the Electric Dread, I’d asked if he’d ever liked to have worked with Adrian in those days: “Yeah sure, of course I would, but I’m more a vibes man, a sound man. I’ve always DJ’ed and made films, that has always been my thing you know, I’m not really a musician.”
So in the light of my discussions with Don Letts on this subject, I was keen to know about Adrian’s experiences with John Lydon, as well as his very early days with Jah Wobble, Keith Levene, Ari Upp, and of course most importantly, Creation Rebel who were the backbone of all those early On-U tracks, and in my opinion haven’t really been given full credit for the outstanding original and innovative UK roots outfit they were at that time.
Keith Levene circa Creation Rebel. Ok, on the subject of Creation Rebel, who made a great body of roots music, then later let’s talk about those early days when I hung out with John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Ari and Keith Levene. We had an authentic, hard rhythm section in Creation Rebel, with good musicians, such as Crucial Tony, Lizard and Eskimo Fox, with Pablo on the melodica. I still work with Crucial Tony and Eskimo Fox now. They will be here in a few days to lay down some stuff for the new Little Roy music I’m working on, and Crucial did some stuff on the Little Roy Long Time album. Yeah, so in those days, we were always competing with the Jamaican bands of the time, always looking for a way to get the edge on them, it was a challenge for us, a hype thing too, to be different from the JA bands when they came over on tour to the U.K. and the way for us was with the drums… we really worked on getting a heavy, heavy rockers drumming style, but it had our own thing in there, our own distinctive contribution, our own hard edge to it. It wasn’t just a copy of the Jamaican drum sound, and I think in its own way, it was as good as what was happening in Jamaica at that time. Of course when we got Style enlisted that was it, a great step forward for us, because it united what was going on in the roots scene in UK with what was happening in Jamaica. And of course, linking up with Prince Far I was a great thing for me at that time because it opened up access and pathways to a whole pool of great Jamaican talent too.
Speaking of the whole early period of experimentation with Creation Rebel, Dub Syndicate and African Head Charge, including the contributions of Public Image members Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, Adrian remembers it this way:
Going back to the influence of punk days now, yeah, I knew John Lydon well, and it was through John that I got to know Keith Levene and Jah Wobble. I got to know John better after Sid had died. Ari Upp, Neneh Cherry, Junior and I, we all lived in a squat down Battersea way, and John Lydon was living with Nora [his future wife and Ari Upp’s mum] round the corner. John Lydon used to visit us, and we all hung out together. John was just so hip you know, a lot of people really looked up to him at that time. John really knew his reggae, he loved his reggae. I can tell you that John Lydon really helped the progress of roots and culture in Britain at that time. It was around that time, not long after he’d been beaten up here in London that he went on to radio and played Dr Alimantado’s ‘Born for A Purpose’. Alimantado was immediately shot to cult status as a result! The lyric of that tune was relevant you know? “If you feel like you have no reason for living, don’t determine my life!” That was John’s reply to the idiots that had beaten him up. You should realise that it was John Lydon who suggested that I work with Keith Levene who I was really impressed by, and then through him I linked up with Jah Wobble, which was great for me at the time. I was so happy to work with Keith, because Keith just had such an original sound, and I knew I could translate that originality he had into a dub context, and it worked totally if you listen to those Creation Rebel and Singers and Players records. He also played guitar on some of those New Age Steppers sessions, and laid down bass as well on some tracks, which I don’t think he was ever credited for… So it was John Lydon who had the idea for me to work with his band, and I loved their sound and what they were doing.
Levene’s sparse guitar sound on Creation Rebel’s ‘Threat To Creation’ and the ‘War of Words’ albums, jagged and lonely, punctuated the melancholy and ethereal purity of Bim’s angelic voice… Without a ‘Love Like Yours/Devious Woman’ and its dubwise excursion is a work as powerful and compelling as Bim Sherman’s earlier Kingston releases.
On his tracks cut for Adrian and Creation Rebel, Keith Levene’s style is eerily reminiscent of Earl Chinna’s style on the ‘East of The River Nile’ album… (Check out the emptiness of the ‘East of the River Nile album, and specifically Chinna’s spiraling chord structures on Pablo’s Nature’s Dub, loosely held together by almost bleak echoing piano notes, falling like rain in a deserted space).
Then there is Bim’s meditative version of ‘Satta’, here going under the title of Ethos Design, and it is a design, the instruments acting as sculptural forms, existing in structures in which the silences are as vital as the drum-bass movements. It is an extraordinary work of linear sound deconstruction, the rhythm section building up, only to literally fall away, as the engineer gets deeper and deeper into separate drum tones, reducing the vibe to a heartbeat pulse… snares fall away, cymbals and high hat oscillate in bright spirals, only to be further reduced to a skeletal form, with Bim’s voice effortlessly present, floating over the surface as the song fades in to reflective silence…
Deadley Headley, (who contributed to Augustus Pablo’s Rockers label, notably the ‘Rockers meets King Tubby inna Firehouse’ album) cut his own melancholy horns version on the same Creation Rebel version of this rhythm, and the drum track was used to fine effect on a version of Bim Sherman’s ‘Revolution/ Resolution’: In the latter case, the drum track received brutal disassembly at the hands of Adrian, spinning the snare sounds backwards, then forwards in a spiral of noise, only to drop into the familiar Revolution bass vibration… uncompromising and aggressive. Also featured on ‘Threat To Creation’ are the severely underrated drum skills of Eskimo “Mus’come” Fox, and Bruce Smith, who went on to work as Lydon’s PIL drummer for four years: Listen to the version of Horace Andy’s Problems on the ‘Playgroup album’, (titled ‘Deep And Mintyful’) for some militant drum and percussion interplay, and you’ll see how underrated these drummers truly are.
What about working with Jah Wobble, I asked Adrian? Jah Wobble had in his early days, had a serious reputation as a hard man: an instinctive, natural bass player, but cantankerous into the bargain. In Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming, journalist Nick Kent describes the by now notorious time he was attacked with a bike chain by Sid Vicious at an early Pistols gig : “Sid immediately pulled this chain out. He made some remark he thought was insulting like: ‘I don’t like your trousers.’ The guy next to me immediately makes a motion towards Vicious and then pulls his knife out and he really wants to cut my face. Years later I find out his name is Wobble. This was a real speed freak, and this is when it got very unhealthy. I remember putting my hands up and not moving a muscle, and then Vicious tapped him on the shoulder and he disappeared immediately. It was all a set up: Vicious then had a clear aim, and got me with the bike chain.”
Wobble saw it somewhat differently though, as he told Jon Savage: “I used to get violent on a few occasions… The one with Nick Kent was not one of those. Kent was with some geezer who demanded that we step aside, they couldn’t see the band. I said ‘fuck off’ which was pretty standard. Sid wasn’t a rucker but he lashed him with a chain and then I had a go, but we were just mucking about. What I didn’t know then was if you set yourself up as a hardman, someone will come looking for you who’s harder than you are…” Again to Jon Savage, Wobble spoke of his friendship with John Lydon and Sid Vicious: “John and Sid were exactly what I was looking for when I was sixteen… all I knew then was that I desperately didn’t want to work. I was already an angry young man. I had images of being enclosed by council flats, feeling very claustrophobic.” Jon Savage comments on Wobble: “Only [Jah Wobble’s] icy blue stare now betrays his past. During Punk, Wobble, Like Sid, resembled a random destruction machine, wound up and placed in the middle of an event to see what would occur. Today he speaks of his past as if of another life.”
I recounted these stories to Adrian, and I perceived a certain mischievous, conspiratorial expression cross his face, (memories perhaps?) but when he speaks, his love and respect for Wobble are only too obvious. He speaks of Wobble’s achievements with pride:
Wobble & Lydon, Me and Wobble go back a long way, and I love him. We’ve always been very close. It’s true, Wobble did have a problem with alcohol, but that’s all in the past now, and he’s long left that behind. I respect what he has become as a person and a musician, because he is an example of someone who has really achieved and built everything from his own efforts. You always hear people say, “Oh Wobble couldn’t play bass when Public Image started, and he just had a good, instinctive way with playing a heavy dub bass-line” well, that may have been true back then, but let me tell you, Wobble really can play now! He really understands his instrument; he is the original MR FAT BASS SOUND. That is Wobble for you. The last time I saw Wobble was at his wedding and he looked so happy. I’m proud of the stuff Wobble has done with me on those African Head Charge and Dub Syndicate records, and I love a lot of his solo stuff too. Some of his early tunes on the Betrayal album are really good.
I was very keen to know more about the African Head Charge albums as well. They were so prolific, eccentric and uncategorisable, yet no one had really spoken about them at any great length, so I was very eager to get Adrian’s insight in to these strange records. He spoke about them with obvious a sense of sincerity, but with a definite high spiritedness, representative of the obviously bizarre and downright eccentric sounds that Bonjo I et al had created all those years ago.
African Head ChargeI’ll be straight with you, a lot of those sounds we created on those records came out the consumption in large amounts of two very different drugs, speed and marijuana! You know, those African Head Charge records were a labour of love to me, and we didn’t really expect too many financial rewards. When you listen to a record like ‘Environmental Studies’, it’s clear that a sound like that might be intimidating to some people. Woven into the mix, you can hear car crashes, water flowing, bottles breaking. We used a lot of “found sounds” and many “environment sounds” from the studio down at Berry Street where it was recorded. It’s a long time since I’ve listened to that record, but who knows what sounds we put into that record, I think we even might have used water sounds from the toilets and humming vibrations from the boiler room! I haven’t listened to that record in a long time, for the simple reason that when I was working on the record, I listened to it repeatedly, day in, day out, so in my mind, its very much a part of that time… I’ll have to go back to it and listen to it again some time…
I mentioned that the Deadley Headley contributions are especially good on that album, to which Adrian wholeheartedly agreed. I also asked him about my favourite track from the ‘My Life In A Hole In The Ground’ album, the eerie and haunting ‘Far Away Chant’. It is such a strange piece of music, and I was inquisitive to know, where it had come from, deep in the On-U Sound psyche!
Yes, that’s a heavy track. If I remember rightly, it came out of the same sessions we had been working on with Prince Far I and the Dub Syndicate for the Cry Tuff album. There was a slow and hard track, ‘Plant Up’, with a classic, growling Far I chant about the herb… anyway, I wanted something even slower, more threatening, heavier, so I took similar sounding rhythm track, and slowed it right down, right down, making it ridiculously slow and heavy, and laid Far I’s anti nuclear chant over the top. You know, the film director David Lynch took that track, and slowed it down even further, which made it even more threatening, and used it in the film ‘Wild at Heart’ as part of his soundtrack which really pleased me. The mood of the scene he chose it for was pretty dark… I believe it was a ritual ceremony or sacrifice with Harry Dean Stanton.
I asked him specifically about a point in the middle of the aforementioned song, when it just simply stops, cuts off randomly for a few seconds, halfway through a vocal line, midway into a word, seemingly for no reason… before crashing back midway through the tune… It creates a pretty surreal effect! Adrian laughs at the memory…
As I said, they were pretty strange times when we recorded those albums, and random too sometimes! I can’t tell you about that part of the track! Who knows? Maybe I accidentally hit the pause button halfway through the track and we left it in the mix?
He isn’t joking either…
I went on to ask him if a he had received criticism from the reggae cognoscenti mafia in London at that time for his bizarre experimentation with roots music, and unconventional attitude to an often over orthodox form. (I remembered back in the late 70’s and early 80’s some roots purists turning their noses up and not buying certain tunes if they knew they had been recorded in Wood Green or Peckham, even if the dubs were as heavy and creative as what was coming out of Jamaica).
Yes, I did experience some of that, but I didn’t care. We always believed in those early On-U releases, and I felt some of them would have sounded incredible as futuristic film soundtracks. It’s true that some purists on the London scene dissed me for those records I was producing at the time. Perhaps it was the sheer unconventionality of the sound, the inability to be able to categorise such a threatening sound. I didn’t give a fuck about the luddite purists with their little reserves. Really, they didn’t matter to me. I just went on to expand my experiments, putting out hard dub records by Creation Rebel, featuring entire tracks made up of backward tape loops, industrial drills roaring, that kind of style. Anyway, what did the elitists matter to me? I remember going round to people’s houses to listen to tunes, and these guys would be covering up the label with their hands so you couldn’t see who it was by, or blanking out the title. What is that behaviour, you know? I was always very open about this music ‘cos I love it. I used to give away good rare tunes, help people get into the music and hear good tunes. I enjoyed promoting good roots artists, artists who deserved the exposure. I even knew some people who would be too intimidated to visit roots stores because they worried the vibe might be intimidating, but of course it isn’t like that at all.
Finally on the subject of African Head Charge: what about ‘Drastic Season’, I asked?
‘Drastic Season’. That was extreme. The stand out track for me is ‘Depth Charge’, with that slow, driving syndrum intro.
Seen. 20,000 leagues under the sea style! I always thought that was such a harsh record, and I loved that aspect of it, its uncompromising sound, its complete lack of concession to anything even remotely commercial. When listened to repeatedly there were some extraordinary rhythms at play here. A look at the track titles gives some indication of the bizarre listening experience lying in wait for the (believe me here) unprepared listener: African Hedgehog, ‘Snake in the Hole’, ‘I want Water’…
On some tracks, it sounded as if an array of animals had somehow been sucked into the wildness and primal coldness of the mix… croaking frogs, shrieking birds, massively distorted so as to be rendered unrecognisable, snakes hiss, and an assortment of other bizarre creatures make their presence felt… The overall result is disorienting, disturbing, but as a sonic assault, deeply pleasurable… It is the strangest collection of rhythms I’ve ever encountered, yet one of the most rewarding…
When discussing these African Head Charge works, Adrian’s expression is bright, concentrated, inspired. It is clear he loves talking about these old releases, taking pleasure in how disorienting and ground-breaking they were and still undoubtedly are, the mixture of menace and sheer euphoric spirit present in the records. Apparently not many press releases ever came out of the On-U Studios, but in the case of ‘Drastic Season’ one did emerge, and reading it back now is as extraordinary and baffling as the sounds on the disc proved to be:
“A mix of human, animal and machine sounds… check it if you are a dancer, a listener, a film maker, a computer programmer, a human or an animal. Special treats in store for steam locomotive enthusiasts and biologists. You’ve never heard such sounds in your life.”
Changing subject now, I asked Adrian what he felt had changed in people’s attitudes to buying reggae, or indeed any good music, since the late 70’s. He reflected a while then answered:
Is music too corporate and controlled now? … Well, in the past it was a whole ritual… the vinyl, the sleeve, the record label… you know, down the record shop on a Friday night, it pure ritual… was pure ritual… black guys, young white guys, sound men… all enjoying the thrill and pleasure of the ritual, buying the hardest 12″ disco, or spiritual 7″ with a heavy dub on the version… Now, it’s largely a different matter, more of a commodity, a lot of people with a disposable income, and besides, music isn’t viewed in the same precious kind of way, because so much is available now. This just wasn’t the case before. You really had to hunt around to find the kind of tunes you wanted, it was a whole different process. The mystique is taken out of record buying now in a way. Besides the commercial side, there is a whole cross pollination and interchange of ideas and influences going on, which just wasn’t in existence in the late 70’s or eighties, and that in a sense demystifies the uniqueness of what was once a specific “reggae sound” too. Many noises, vibrations, frequencies that were exclusive to reggae are now being used in Hip Hop and other styles too, so that has to be taken into account. Plus the influence isn’t only one-way: reggae too, is soaking up sounds and influences from other forms as well.
I went on to ask Adrian his view of the UK roots scene past and present, and UK so called “Nu Roots”:
UK has always had good roots music. I love what Neil Fraser has done over the years. I especially liked the tunes he put out by Aisha, Macka B and the good stuff he does these days with Mafia and Fluxy. Those are really good tunes. As for the UK Nu roots? Yeah, I like it too, it’s all good works, but I would say this, I feel they need to get away from concentrating exclusively on steppers rhythms, perhaps use vocalists more. They need to get out of limiting themselves to steppers. Having said that, it isn’t a criticism. I like what they do. So England has always had a good roots tradition, and besides that, it’s always had openness to a kind of avant garde thread in the dub world. I had a taste of that myself when I worked with Suns Of Arqa back in the late 70’s and early eighties with their weird cut ups and Islamic, Celtic and Persian influences which were way ahead of their time. They came to me and said “give us some rhythms!” I duly did so, and was impressed with what they did with them. So this openness has always been there in UK, love of hard music and willingness to experiment.
In a discussion of UK roots artists, it was inevitable that I ask him about Shaka. He answered with a sense of awe, respect and reverence.
Shaka? I’ve known Shaka for over 25 years. We are close. I’ve got his number, he’s got mine you know? I have ultimate respect for the man Jah Shaka. Shaka just loves his music! He’s a soul head and he knows his jazz too, deeply. Did you know that? Shaka just has his own thing altogether. Playing music for ten, twelve hours without a break, until he enters a trance like state, then he’s on God’s plane, following God’s plan.
What was his opinion about the current roots music coming out of Jamaica?
There is a lot of hard, tough music coming out of Jamaica right now. Astounding tunes. I especially like the Xterminator studio works, and the album MLK in Dub was a real groundbreaker. Then of course there’s people like Daweh Congo. Good music. There is a lot of good music out there to check out and follow. I think they are increasingly aware of an interest in dubwise styles over here in Europe, as well as an awareness of Europe’s interest in the noise factor.
(This interest in keeping up with the cutting edge of Jamaican innovation was certainly in evidence from the (literally) piles and piles of modern Jamaican roots and dancehall 45’s, neatly stacked in the studio, cupboards and corridors: Productions by new and hungry contenders, innovators out of Kingston such as Steven Stanley, Soljie, Bulby, Penthouse label, African Star and Xterminator music… Bass Research and development…)
Where did Adrian think was the main market in Europe right now for roots music?
France, without a doubt. People like Burning Spear and Israel Vibration are stars there in their own right, and why on earth shouldn’t they be? They do consistently good work and France rewards them accordingly, they get appreciated. This kind of thing just doesn’t happen in UK for roots artists.
What is Adrian’s opinion of the Junglist and drum and bass vibes, I wondered, especially since some of the drum ‘n’ bass artists I had recently interviewed had name checked On-U Sound as an influence?
When I hear Jungle and drum ‘n’ bass artists saying that On-U Sound influenced them, well I feel that’s very kind, because as Rasta philosophy tells it, “each one teach one”, and I was influenced by so many people too, so I’m glad this vibe is continuing.
Finally, I felt I had to ask him about the death of Bim Sherman. We had listened to his music for 25 years or so, but not many of us had any insight into the man himself. All we knew of him was his voice, with that uplifting, lonely and angelic character. Adrian looked somewhat dark and serious at the mention of Bim and it is obviously still a delicate point, since they had worked together for a long time.
Bim Sherman RIP. Did you hear ‘Miracle’? That says a lot about Bim. What can I say? Bim was a darling. I’m sorry for using that term, but I’m not sure which other word to use. He was a lovely human being, just a pleasure to work with, and I had been a huge fan of his, right from the early records. He was such a gentle person. Don’t get me wrong though, he could look after himself, and cuss with the best of them. Bim is not someone you would fuck around with. He could speak up for himself, stand up for himself.
Much later, I was to see Adrian’s diary entry for the period covering Bim’s illness and eventual death…
“It was to be my first proper tour as a live DJ… A few days prior to departure, Bim had fallen ill and was in hospital. I visited him at 11.30 the night before I left. It was to be the last time I’d see him alive. We got the news that he passed on the 17th while we were in Dijon. I returned home the next day. Skip McDonald and Bim had a very close friendship. Skip… was devastated… I was sad for Bim’s family, angry with people and everyone around felt empty…”
Gregory Mario Whitfield – 2003