Before there was dubstep (or whatever sound that encompasses dub), there was Producer Adrian Sherwood and his label ON-U Sound, one of the most influential labels of underground dance, dub and electronic music.
BY JOHN C. TRIPP
England has been a fertile breeding ground for reggae music since the late 1950s, when Jamaican music washed ashore alongside the many thousands of immigrants from the island who came for work. At the time it was strange music in a strange land, and was largely ignored by native British. That didn’t stop the music from prospering, fed by a legion of record importers, sound systems and promoters who mirrored the musical trends coming from Jamaica. In England’s West Indian and white working class neighborhoods the sounds of ska (known as ‘blue beat’), rocksteady and dancehall proliferated and became an essential part of the culture. Growing up in this environment would have an indelible impact on one’s musical tastes, as well as culture. And it’s in exactly this way that Adrian Sherwood was influenced.
Born in 1958, Sherwood’s youth paralleled the rise of Jamaican music. From the ’60s “rude boy” era to the ’70s merging of ska and punk, it was a period of intense creativity and cultural blending. Sherwood was transfixed by Jamaican music at an early age, swept up by its sounds and culture. In his teens he spent many a night outside the door of a local club listening to sound systems playing and attending the neighborhood blues and house parties that were an essential element of the scene. Pirate radio also played a big part in the culture and Sherwood listened to Radio Caroline for the latest sounds from Jamaica.
And so the imprint was made and Adrian Sherwood began his long and winding trek through the world of reggae music. Already a man ahead of his time, Sherwood worked with the Pama and Trojan roadshows, and school vacations were spent working for the legendary Pama and Vulcan labels. He also worked with now nostalgic sound systems like Emperor Rosko, Judge Dread, Johnny Walker and Steve Barnard and at age seventeen, co-founded the Carib Gems record label, importing music direct from Jamaica and issuing the first Black Uhuru sides and early dub work by Prince Far I including ÒMessage from the KingÓ. Carib Gems distributed to the records shops outside of London (where the competition was too stiff), going to Hansworth, Liverpool and Manchester and did well until HMV records skipped on a sizable bill and put them in a deep financial hole — a sign of the trials and tribulations Sherwood was face again.
As a producer, Sherwood cut his teeth on the fine “Dub From Creation” set from Creation Rebel on Hitrun Records, the label he formed in 1978. Hitrun issued a total of 34 twelve-inch singles; classics including Carol Kalphat’s “African Land” (with Eastwood & Dr. Pablo) and Prince Far I’s “Higher Field Marshall.” Hitrun also issued the first Roots Radics dub set “Dub To Africa” and the first chapter of the renowned “Crytuff Dub Encounter” by Prince Far I & The Arabs, mixed and co-produced by Sherwood.
Keeping track of Sherwood’s prolific career is next to impossible, especially with his output on On-U Sound records, which he founded in 1980 with photographer Kishi Yamamoto. Working with a crew of incredible talent including Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbish, Style Scott, Skip McDonald and Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, Sherwood blended deep dub and roots with a punk sensibility, creating music that defied category. In this time Sherwood produced a vast army of reggae, funk and rock artists including New Age Steppers, Singers & Players, Creation Rebel, Bim Sherman, Mark Stewart & The Maffia, Judy Nylon, London Underground, African Head Charge and Dub Syndicate. Throughout the early 80’s Sherwood also turned the knobs on non-On-U Sound records such as the “Crytuff Dub Encounter Chapter III” on Daddy Kool, “Revenge of the Mozabites” by Suns of Arqa and “One Way System” by Dub Syndicate.
Sherwood’s accomplishments in fusing sounds and styles are unmatched. And after a four year hiatus, in which he again faced the financial woes of running an independent label and changes in his personal life, he’s returned in full with a brilliant debut on Real World records and the rebirth of On U Sound. Clearly a man who doesn’t look back too long, Sherwood may finally be getting his just due.
Mundovibes talked with Adrian Sherwood just before the release of “Never Trust a Hippy”
MV: Adrian, you dropped off the radar with On-U Sound for sometime, but now it seems you’re back in a big way.
AS: I’ve had four years where I haven’t had the label running. I got into a little trouble with like my personal life and I just wasn’t particularly functioning very well, so I’ve just had jobs to clear the debts I had from the On-U of old. And now I’ve regrouped myself and I’ve started to make a big effort to put a lot of records out again. But it’s all good. In the last four years it’s been quite interesting. I’ve been producing a lot of stuff for other people that you probably haven’t heard or don’t know I did. Everything from Primal Scream to Sinead O’Conner — all sorts of stuff. And I’ve just relaunched the label, basically. the first release was the Little Axe album, which I think came out in America on Fat Possum, which was called ‘Hard Grind’, which is a good record if you want to investiage that. The second release is ‘Chainstore Massacre’ which is a compilation. It’s very diverse, showing the intentions of what the label’s going to be doing in the next year or so. And the third things is my solo album on Virgin, “Never Trust a Hippy”.
MV: Is that your major launch, in terms of your name? AS: I don’t know, I’ve got lots of things and I think they’ve been really good and for one reason or another they haven’t had the promotion or the release. I mean, getting a release and some promotion in the states is really quite difficult, you know?
MV: Considering how prolific you’ve been in your output, do you ever feel like that’s almost against you?
AS: To a degree but that’s my own fault. I deliberately did that because I wasn’t attempting to make kind of pristine overproduced records. As I’ve got a bit older I’ve attempted to spend a bit more on them and they sound a bit more polished than a lot of the other stuff. But the early things, that’s how I chose to do it. And I’m proud of those old records. A lot of them sound a bit old now, but at the time they were good little records. And there’s quite a few classics in there in my mind that still stand up twenty years on.
MV: Absolutely. In fact, the re-releases that came out on EFA were a great refresher.
AS: Well, they’re fine. But I’ve got to concentrate on moving forward and what I’ve got to do next. The next release is a new artist called Ghetto Priest and that’s an album called ‘Vulture Culture’.
MV: It seems like a lot of your music is infused with a punk aesthetic and also a political perspective.
AS: Definitely. In the time when I started the whole situation in England. Thatcher was basically trying to destroy the unions, there was no work around, they had the SPG which was the police unit which was going around stopping young blacks in particular on the spot and then brutalizing them. We had the Brixton riots, we had the Handsworth riots, we had problems at Broadwater Farm. The late ’70s and early ’80s were interesting times in England, to put it mildly. And the Thatcher government deliberately eroded the powers of the trade unions. And this happened all over the world, but the ‘Rock Against Racism’ movement was born largely out of the death of Blair Peach in Southall and lots of musicians you wouldn’t expect to do a show on the same stage, and though musically they were very different and a lot of people wouldn’t have liked one or the other types of music. But the reggae actually was almost a bit like when ecstasy came in big with the football crowd. It calmed a lot of the tension and got a lot of people into a different headset than they were in. So the whole kind of ‘Punky Reggae Party’ thing, as they called it, was a very healthy time — we thought anything could happen.
MV: And, how important was the whole idea of the soundsystem in Britain?
AS: For me or for everybody? Because, nobody really, outside of Jamaica, have got their head around having speaker boxes made out of old boats and the volume, nobody had ever heard anything like that before.
MV: How were you introduced to it then?
AS: I grew up in an area where there were lots of black friends and black clubs. And we used to stand outside it when we were 12 and listen to this incredible bass noise rattling the door. And then when we were a little bit older, a year or two later we used to go in. And you just into it. And I used to go to a lot of funk clubs as well when I was young, like the Devil’s Den in Leeds and the California Ballroom, where a lot of people like Stevie Wonder and the Temptations; they all played there and we saw them all live. So, I was into a lot of black music to start with and then got completely immersed in reggae, basically. But the soundsystem was key to everything because everybody would go. If you were a big soundsystem, you’d play in a small club and if you were a big soundsystem you’d play in a big club. Or a little soundsystem playing in a blues party.
MV: You’ve got a lot of people collaborating on ‘Never Trust a Hippy’ and, firstly, how did this all come about.
AS: Basically, Real World offered me to do some remixing for them of Temple of Sound. And I did a couple of tracks and they said ‘we’ve already got a Temple of Sound’ album, we’d like you to do an Adrian Sherwood album of the Real World catalogue. That’s how it started and what happened was I kept requesting things that, for religious reasons or the fact that they didn’t want me to do a remix of their tracks, I seemed to get blocked on things that I chose. So, I said to the Realworld people ‘I’d like to make my own version.’ They are familiar with Headcharge, and things I’ve done which are vaguely world music, and I said ‘what would you think about me doing my own version of it and they said ‘yeah, let’s try it.’ So I cut some tunes and they loved everything. And that’s how it evolved. It’s a record that can reflect everybody, basically. But it’s not crap, and not for myself but sounding contemporary — that’s what I was trying to do.
MV: And how did you bring some of these other artists in? Like Sly & Robbie — was that an immediate choice?
AS: Well, we did that at my house. And I actually released Sly & Robbie’s stuff many years ago when I was in my teens, when I was licensing stuff. So, I’d my Sly a few times and they arrived in England and I gave them a ring and they cut two tunes for me, really really nice. The same with Lenky (drum patterns), Jazzwad and others. I was trying to use the best people that were available.
MV: And it’s been about a year of putting this project together?
AS: About a year-and-a-half to make the album. On and off, so it took about a year. It was really natural, it’s really good.
MV: You seem to work with Asian Dub Foundation a lot.
AS: I just produced their new album. They’re my friends. That’s coming out this month.
MV: Of course there’s a new whole new generation that have been influenced by the dub sound.
AS: Well, they grew up with all that stuff themselves.
MV: What else is new?
AS: We just launched a label as well, a new part of On-U, which is called Sound Boy. The first release on that is the Junior Delgado album, which is called ‘Original Guerilla Music’, which is kind of the best of all his Jamaica recordings. There’s going to be some great stuff coming out on that label.
MV: There seems to be a real interest in a lot of the older roots and rare recordings of Jamaica.
AS: That’s because it’s really good stuff.
MV: Does it bother you that a lot of it is older?
AS: If you listen to the new stuff coming from Jamaica — every week there’s a few brilliant tunes coming out. I just bought a new box of singles today from Jamaica and half of it is absolutely brilliant. It’s still very underground reggae. The problem with is people can’t get their heads around it.
MV: Much of your music seems to have a politics to it.
AS: What particular record?
MV: Well, in reflection of the affairs in the middle east.
AS: Well, I’ve got my opinions on them but they’re not exactly reflected in the record of mine currently. I’ve got very strong opinions on the war, yeah. I mean, what do you think?
MV: I think it’s outrageous what’s going on.
AS: It’s quite simple, what’s going on to me. But, if you start saying those things you end up getting squashed. The whole media is controlled, the whole record industry is controlled. If you start saying, you know, ‘Why have so many U.N. resolutions been disobeyed by Israel at the expense of 400,000 people to occupy Palestinian land. Why are the American troops in Saudi Arabia. You can’t say things. If you say things people think you’re anti-Jewish. Which I’m not. I’m completely anti-Israeli but I’m not certainly not anti-Jewish. But you can’t say those things. If you do, people suddenly say ‘Oh, you can’t say that.’ But my staff and my best friends are Jews and a lot of them feel the same way. You’ve got this horrible system supported by the United States, backed by the government of Great Britain. And you have to ask the question why people are angry and why they feel completely helpless, and why they blow themselves up and why they fly planes into buildings. Once you’ve done something like that, telling somebody else why, to a degree your justification seems to be blown out the window. But, it’s not a coward who does something like that, it’s a very very frustrated person like somebody who would set fire to himself in a Czech square. Do you agree?
AS: And you’re stuck in a situation — I’m not reflecting that in the records I make, but I’d love to make records completely anti-Israel at the moment. Emphasizing that I’m not anti-Jewish. The movements here in the education society — they’re completely boycotting Israeli academics. They won’t communicate with them because people feel like if they sit back and do nothing, and the Israeli people voted Sharon back in again. If you know what’s going on there — all these poor Palestinians are penned in. 400,000 settlers and it’s encouraging more settlers who aren’t even Jews to go to Israel from Russia just to irritate the Arabs even more and inflame the situation. You know, Bin Laden went on tape, as far as I can understand, and said ‘Look, if America leaves the holy land, which is Saudi Arabia, takes its troops out. That’s why they’re pissed off, more than anything, because the most holy shrines of the Muslim world are occupied by Americans, which is completely wrong. And the U.N. forces the Israelis to obey 54 resolutions or however many it is they’ve disobeyed. You know, Saddam Hussain is like an ant. They’re using him to steal the oil. And there’s fuck all we can do because if any musicians do bother to stand up and start trying to speak up and spill the truth: MTV is controlled by Jews. So is all the media in America. So is every record company and they’re not going to say, ‘Oh, yes, we agree.’ It’s a few very brave soldiers that have stood up in Israel and said ‘We’re not going in, this is appalling.’ Hundreds have stood up and said we are no longer going to be fighting. These are rank soldiers, completely oppressing these people because what we are doing is appalling. And lots of people are coming up, there’s some really good Jewish people who are fighting and saying look this is appalling. If you look from here from where you are, right across the globe, the interests that are being served are not the interests of the Muslim people, they’re not the interests for Palestinians. I think anyone who blows somebody else up is appalling, but my God, I kind of think it was me and I was hemmed in like that, what are you going to do? Anyway, is that what you were asking me? Well, I’m not reflecting that in my fucking records, you know?
MV: But, for example, I listen to a program here called ‘Democracy Now’, it’s a webcast. The host, Aimee Goodman, had Chumba Wumba on, for example. And Ani DiFranco’s an independent artist here. I guess my general question is, is it still possible to be political with music.
AS: I think at the moment you’re in a very dangerous position. Of course, it’s possible. You’ve got lots of bands, lots of bands speaking up for social things like Asian Dub Foundation. There are lots of voices and their voices do make a difference. So, I think very much it’s possible to make a difference. Turning to the issue we were just talking about, I think it needs some very very brave person to come and say, ‘listen, this is bordering on Nazi Germany. This is so disgusting that the United States and their allies are just basically — you know that book ‘Why the World Hates America’? I’m not making some big stand, I’m completely insignificant in the larger scope of things, but the bottom line is yes, I think people can make a difference. People need to start really, really thinking seriously about boycotting Israel. But saying that, I’ve got a large amount of Jewish friends and most of them feel the same way as well. But having said that, I believe that once you have blown up some kids or something, you’re whole argument is lost. What do you do? You can’t sit back and say these things are alright because they’re completely wrong.
MV: Well, now that I have touched upon the politics a little. How about the title, “Never Trust a Hippy”?
AS: Well, basically the stuff I’m doing is not political. It’s making a bit of a comment in the title. You’ve got a lot of Hippys who are really making a fucking mess of things if you think about it. I’m not preaching it on my records at all. You’re asking me. I just feel ashamed I can’t do anything. And the worst thing is the misinformation fed to most American people. It’s so gung-ho, like ‘let’s kill a towel head for Jesus or something.’ And I’ve not got a fucking clue. They think that everyone’s their enemy and it needn’t be like this. It’s just like if somebody completely disrespects someone for so long they’re going to lose it. I think it’s 400,000 people now illegally occupying the West Bank, completely against 50 odd U.N. resolutions. How do you re house them? They’re not going to re house them in some plush area of Tel Aviv are they?
MV: Switching gears, getting into your music, one thing that really interests me is the fact that you’ve had some long time collaborators and, in a sense, it’s similar to the Jamaican studio system, or am I wrong?
AS: No, we both worked off of rhythm sections so when I started working with people like Style Scott who was Roots Radics and obviously with the Sugar Hill Gang lads, which became Tackhead. They were like proper drum and bass — like proper musicians all working together. And I’ve kept those allegiances for a number of years, although I haven’t actually been recording as ‘my rhythm section’, like I probably should have done as much as I’d have liked. But I still know everybody.
MV: Have your techniques changed then?
AS: Somewhat, with the movement of technology but the last four years I haven’t been putting records out. I’m just restarting the label now.
MV: You touched upon your latest release, which is the compilation ‘Chainstore Massacre’. Is that a continuation of ‘Pay it All Back’ (On U Sound’s earlier compilation series)?
AS: It should be retailing for under ten dollars, that record. It’s five pounds in England. The idea is to promote the re launch of the label and to show some of the things I’ve got coming up.
MV: With your solo project, I know you have Keith LeBlanc on there. But, what do you do with some of these artists? Are they all different ideas. On ‘Never Trust a Hippy’, did each song come…
AS: With that, Keith is doing some percussion on that for me and he’s doing a couple of drum tracks as well.
MV: And each track, though. Did it sort of evolve based on a collaboration?
AS: No. I planned that record, so I had a lot of samples ready and the idea’s I designed that record so I could play it out at clubs because I’ve been doing lots of live dub shows, working with Ghetto Priest. And so I cut the whole record with a ‘modern world music’ kind of vibe but with dub influences and dancehall influences but always trying to make something that sounded kind of fresh and brand new. And it think we managed it, it sounds really, really fresh. But I had people like Sly and Robbie, Lenky and Jazzwad — some of the hottest Jamaica rhythm builders. I’ve worked with some great people on it, so obviously it helps it sound good.
MV: Yeah, of course. And that’s probably going to occupy a lot of your energy. Are you going to take this sound system on the road?
AS: I have been. I did a couple of gigs in America last year. I played in Seattle, I did the Palladium in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. And I’ll probably come back again if I get invited. I’m touring in Japan with Asian Dub Foundation, supporting them in April.