Producer Adrian Sherwood has crossed so many musical boundaries throughout his lengthy career that it's impossible to describe the kind of work he does except to say it's delivered with integrity, and has opened up possibilities few knew existed. Such bravery has long cast him into the role of an outsider where mainstream UK reggae's concerned but his contributions really shouldn't be overlooked.
“A sensational and original offering of music you can seldom place, rarely hear, or hardly ever find.”
This is the slogan that’s appeared on a good many Adrian Sherwood productions although the obscurity of some of his records wasn’t planned – it’s just that few DJs and media people took any notice of them. The maverick producer’s various labels have long existed on the periphery of the mainstream record industry, as well as any musical category you care to mention. For the past thirty years he’s forged his own path without so much of a backwards glance, assembling a catalogue that’s extensive as it is eclectic. Notoriously slippery to define, it spans reggae, punk, experimental hip-hop, dub and many other styles besides. It’s a sonic landscape where undiluted creativity, fuelled by an impish sense of humour, has been granted free rein. The only thing that’s remained off-limits is predictability, which hasn’t exactly helped his commercial prospects any. He’s paid a price for being imaginative but can now be viewed in similar light as his great friend and collaborator Lee “Scratch” Perry, who knows another Upsetter when he sees one.
Sherwood’s productions are often challenging, or prompt a strong response one way or another. But you get the sense that everyone involved has grown as an artist and a person as a result of the experience, and that intuition – not expediency – has played a key role in determining the outcome. It’s this kind of approach that’s persuaded the likes of Sinead O’ Connor, Primal Scream, Bim Sherman, Prince Far I, Little Axe, Nitin Sawhney, Asian Dub Foundation and dub-step pioneers Kode 9 and Digital Mystikz to record with him. He takes chances yes, but has regularly stumbled across possibilities that others didn’t know existed.
“Good music is supposed to have character,” he explains. “It’s supposed to have all the things that you want in a person – warmth, humour, darkness, excitement and imagination... What you don’t want is something that’s just playing the game or is methodical. If you apply those things to a human then you’d have someone with no spark to them but I’ve worked with great musicians from all manner of diverse backgrounds and that’s helped me tremendously. I’ve learnt that the most important thing is to be true to yourself and make records you care about, but I also love anti-production techniques. I like things like Link Wray and people who play their guitars really loud. I love all of that imbalanced stuff as well, and anything which has a unique, sonic expression to it.”
Born in London but raised in High Wycombe, he started out as a DJ in his teens, playing early reggae records alongside the likes of Dave Lee Travis, Emperor Rosko and a young David Rodigan. That was at the Newlands Club, owned by Joe Farquharson. He then worked for Pama Records before joining Chips Richard at Carib Gems – a record distributor who specialised in Jamaican imports, and first made Prince Far I’s two albums Psalms For Iand Message For The Kingavailable in Britain.
Far I’s gravelly voice was thick as tar, and it made him sound like Moses reading from tablets of stone. In 1978 the burly “Voice Of Thunder” signed to Virgin’s Frontline label and toured the UK. Adrian, still in his teens, befriended him and together with Dr. Pablo, they recorded some tracks for a label called HitRun. Carol Kalphat’s African Landbecame their first release, and was followed by the albumCry Tuff Dub Encounter.
“Far I came to stay at my mum’s house and called her ‘Mummy,’” says Adrian, laughing. “She called him ‘the Honey Monster,’ and he’d be there doing Elvis Presley impersonations! He was a real comedian but after a while he became convinced that people were working black magic on him and was always feeling ill. He was a complex character. I’ve actually started writing a book about that period called Raise The Champion...”
Adrian’s first solo production – not counting a session with calypso artist Mighty Volcano – was Dub From Creation, credited to Creation Rebel. This was a group of musicians whose core personnel – Clifton “Bigga” Morrison and “Crucial” Tony Philips included – would later form the Ruff Cutt band. Far I’s drummer Lincoln “Style” Scott contributed overdubs, and Dennis Bovell endured calls for “more bass!” as he and Adrian worked on the final mix.
“Dub From Creation sold like a couple of thousand copies,” says Sherwood. “People think we were selling truckloads of records back then but we weren’t. The thing is I’d made that whole album for two hundred quid and so those sales figures really weren’t that bad. I thought, ‘Wow! This is easy, so maybe I should record someone from Jamaica,’ but I was literally making records that me and my mates were listening to at home. That was how it went.”
Out on the road it was a different story and Creation Rebel gigs were often memorable, highly charged affairs. Members of the Clash, the Slits and Johnny Rotten’s circle of friends might be in the audience as the band played their brand of heavy roots music, laced with blistering “live” dub. They toured with the Slits in 1979, and then went back out on the road with the Clash the following January. Adrian released their Starship Africa album soon afterwards, on a short-lived label called 4D Rhythms.
”That was only the second album I worked on,” he says. “It was recorded at Gooseberry studios in Wardour Street, and people thought it was a bit weird to be honest.” The lashings of delay, reverb and stereo FX wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on a Jimi Hendrix album. Starship Africa wasn’t ever likely to pass for Jamaican, but the young producer was already determined to do his own thing and let the music guide him.
“Chips Richard taught me to build a catalogue but the most important thing I learned was to get my own sound. I used to listen to Keith Hudson telling me things like that, and also Prince Far I. I used to spend a lot of time from relatively early on, studying aspects of sound that I liked. I’d plug one thing into another and change things around, searching for something that registered with me, or I’d experiment with outboard sounds and put them through different speakers... I applied all of that to my own productions and because I was working with authentic reggae people, I never questioned that I was on the right path.”
By 1981 HitRun and 4D Records had run out of steam and left him with massive studio bills to pay. Adrian’s family had acted as guarantors and stood to lose everything unless he came up with the money. It was at this point, still mired in debt, that he launched On U Sound.
“I was only twenty-one and gambling with my future like a nutcase because the loans had been secured with my mother’s house so I couldn’t stop! I was just making as many records as I could so I could get a small advance from labels like Cherry Red. They took six albums off me but I was licensing them for less money than they’d cost to make. People who’ve never tried running a label don’t know how difficult it is when you’re on the verge of collapse, because if you don’t maintain everything and put out more stuff then you’ll lose everything so I just kept going, and I was experimenting in the studio at the same time...”
Punk, reggae and dub were his main points of reference but he was also absorbing Japanese and African influences and exchanging ideas with former Pop Group singer Mark Stewart.
“I was so influenced by him and his William Burroughs cut up ideas,” he enthuses. “Brion Gysin – he influenced me so much with all his sonic distortions, it just sounded like your radio blowing up, or Jah Shaka's speaker system exploding! Those were very strange records I was making!"
There’s an album’s worth of them on Wild Party Sounds Vol. 1– an On U Sound compilation from 1981 featuring Creation Rebel, New Age Steppers, Jah Woosh, Michael Wadada's Suns Of Arqa and a supporting cast made up of virtual unknowns like the Chicken Granny (great name!), Jeb Loy & The Oil Wells and Machine Gun Hogg & Co, whose off-the-wall songs sounded closer to Captain Beefheart than anything yet heard from a reggae label.
London Underground had been there from the start, on the flipside of On U Sound’s first-ever single, whilst Jeb Loy arrived in London from Wyoming via the New York punk scene and shared a flat with Adrian, Ari Up from the Slits and Neneh Cherry for a time. Things That Made U.S is mockery writ large, and a litany of everything that “made America a great nation,” set to a wild and wacky backdrop. Judy Nylon also made the journey from New York to London where she formed arty punk duo Snatch, worked with Brian Eno and recorded a first solo album for On U. The Diceshares the same tumultuous, funky rhythm as Allan Pellay’s Parasitic Machine, whilst the Mothmen rose from the ashes of the Durutti Column and recorded an album for themselves in early 1980, but then asked Adrian if he’d release it. Pay Attention!became the second album to appear on On U, and it was the dub mix of Afghan Farmer Driving Cattlethat made it onto Wild Paarty Sounds.
A second volume was planned featuring tracks by Sid Slave & the Captives, New Age Steppers, Jeb Loy & The Oil Wells, Noah House Of Dread and Jamaican singer Bim Sherman, who Adrian calls “an honourable lion of a gentleman.” Unfortunately it was never released, but there’ll be plenty of other compilations – and musical surprises – to come.
The two Creation Rebel albums included with this box set aren’t part of the On U Sound catalogue, despite being Adrian Sherwood productions. Both were licensed to Cherry Red, who released them at a time when Jamaican dub-masters like Scientist and Errol T were at their peak, and post-punk bands like Public Image Ltd were defying all known stereotypes. Threat To Creation dates from 1981 and shares joint billing with the New Age Steppers, whose version of Junior Byles’ Fade Away – sang by Ari Up – had been On U’s debut single back in January 1980. There’s a dub version of it called Earthier Line on Threat To Creation, which contains treatments of other well-known reggae hits – namely the Heptones’ My Guiding Star (Eugenic Device) and the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana (Ethos Design.) Reggae’s always been the dominant strain in Adrian Sherwood’s musical DNA but he’s taken more liberties with it than most, and this hasn’t always endeared him to purists. Threat To Creation would keep them at bay whilst proving that you can make serious dub music outside of Jamaica – not by copying it, but allowing your own cultural attributes to shape what goes down on tape.
The music on Threat To Creation has real force behind it, and suspends belief as warped bass-lines, pulsating drums, squeaks and other, more indefinable sounds fill the speakers. Public Image’s Keith Levene played lead guitar on both albums and his glacial chords are mixed until they cry out, or explode like shattered glass.
“Keith and I met through John Lydon, because his wife is Ari’s mother,” says Adrian. “They were together even back then but Keith had a problem with heroin at the time. He wasn’t very well and feeling a bit marginalised, but he’s a wonderful player and I’d always wanted to do something with him so I’m really pleased that I did. He’s such a really unique kind of player, and I would have liked to have done more things with him over the years.”
On U issued the debut set by African Head Charge that same year, which Adrian calls “areal psychedelic, African dub record.” He was spending much of his time shut away in Berry Street studios – hence the title My Life In A Hole In The Ground– and making music that in his own words, appealed to “herb smokers, and people into sonics.”
Lows And Highs was far less experimental, and is more of a straightforward reggae set. Style Scott was busy touring behind Gregory Isaacs with the Roots Radics for much of the early eighties, but continued to play the occasional session for On U. He and Charley “Eskimo” Fox, who was Creation Rebel’s regular drummer, both play on that album. They let go the rub-a-dub in time-honoured tradition on tracks like Independent Man (with Lizard covering Bob Andy’s Unchained), Rebel Party and Love I Can Feel, which John Holt had made popular in reggae. It was a reminder that they could wind up a few waistlines when they felt like it, although there was no mistaking the cultural messages heard in songs like A Reasoning, No Peace and Creation Rebel.
On U released a series of 10” singles in 1982 beginning with Prince Far I’s Virgin, which was a scathing attack on Richard Branson. The label was developing its own house style both in the studio and in terms of presentation, but it was the vision driving the On U project that set it apart. Radio DJ Steve Barker recalls his friend Sherwood talking about a pool of fifteen to twenty musicians, “all driven forward by the pulse and vibration of drum and bass, and coming from different musical and cultural directions.”
The idea was to form half a dozen touring and recording bands and sign them to big record companies, just like George Clinton had done when building his P-Funk empire. Every band would have its own identity, despite using some of the same musicians. This was the thinking behind African Head Charge, New Age Steppers and Singers And Players, who’d all formed at the label’s outset. Barker said of the latter that, “it was an attempt to bring together a loose collective of vocalists, DJs, musicians and engineers to record and tour under the same banner.”
Members of Creation Rebel had played on the band’s debut War Of Words from 1981. Leaps And Bounds was their fourth set, and would be the first of the original Singers And Players’ albums in terms of sound and core personnel. Released in 1984, it was dedicated to the memory of Prince Far I, who’d been gunned down at his home in Jamaica just six months earlier, on Sept 15th1983. Far I had been a friend and mentor to Adrian who was deeply affected by what had happened, and would record very little reggae over the next few years.
Far I’s Alla-La Dreadlocks Soldier and the rambling Dog Park, telling of his upbringing in Kingston’s mean streets, lent a sombre presence to Lows And Highs, which also featured tracks by Bim Sherman (Striving) and two additional guest artists from Jamaica – both of whom had already contributed to Singers And Players’ Staggering Heights. Mikey “Dread” Campbell was a popular radio DJ on the island and had his own label called Dread At The Controls, whilst Ashanti Roy was a member of the Congos, who recorded the classic Heart Of The Congos for Lee “Scratch” Perry. That’s his falsetto racking up the spiritual quotient on Moses whilst Breaking Down The Pressure was a former 10” single, and with Mikey Dread’s Autobiography on the flip side This was a very different kind of personal history to Far I’s as Mikey – who’d recently finished narrating filmmaker Howard Johnson’s Deep Roots series for Channel 4 – scats and frolics over a heavy blues dance rhythm. His Vegetable Matter refers to ganja, and issues a warning that crime doesn’t pay. Such sentiments arrived too late to save Prince Far I, whose death continued to cast a shadow over On U Sound for some time.
More than three decades later and Adrian is revered for the depth and breadth of his productions, which have encompassed many different artists, musicians and styles over the years. These days he works from a studio in Ramsgate, Kent called “The Care Home” but if he’s feeling his age, then it really doesn’t show. That’s because he’s still busy pushing at boundaries and making music “you can seldom place, rarely hear, or hardly ever find.” Unless you search it out of course.
“I’ve had a few films and some TV,” he reflects. “I’ve also had the occasional hit or mixed something that was successful for someone else, but I never really expected a lot of exposure to come my way because of how I set my stall out. I’ve never produced a lot of singers for example, and they tend to get you noticed more than the experimental stuff or dub records. I suppose I’ve gone more for a journey in sound, and then tried to put a good track behind it. I’m also proud of the fact that everyone on On U Sound has been given the freedom to do whatever they want, because I’ve never vetoed anything. I’ve always encouraged people to be creative; to start their own labels, form their own bands and do their own thing. That’s all changed now because anyone wanting to start a record label these days, they’ve got to really love it or be doing it as a lifestyle thing. In the past you could do it in the hope of making a fortune, but that’s not possible anymore and it’s more of a calling card to other things. People like myself on the other hand, are still doing it because we can’t do anything else...”