Thursday, March 23, 2006

O is for... On-U Sound

This is a post for another blog somewhere else, but I see no reason why it shouldn't be here too, marking, as it does, one of my first musical obsessions.

O is for…. On-U Sound

This is a fairly formal first posting, but this simply what I found myself writing when I wanted to convey why I thought Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound should be included – biographical information and all…

It might be true to say that Adrian Sherwood and the On-U Sound System label lost its way in the very late 80s, and has not released anything genuinely essential since then. However, for about ten years, from 1978-1988, the On-U Sound label and all it’s offshoots were amongst the hottest, most experimental and perhaps, most influential outfits working in the musical underground during that time. Not bad for a geezer that got started by flogging reprinted Jamaican records up and down the country from the boot of his car.

It was by doing so, however, that Adrian Sherwood began to meet reggae hero Prince Far I, and became acquainted with his backing band, Roots Radics. Being a bit of a young upstart, and it being 1978 and all that, Sherwood wanted to start his own record label, and so agreed to produce a side by members of the band, calling themselves ‘Creation Rebel’ after a Burning Spear song.

Two early releases ‘Dub from Creation’ and ‘Rebel Vibration’ were released on the Hitrun label, which soon went bust. These two LPs were well received by some critics, but dismissed by hardcore reggae fans as being too experimental. Now, they sound as fresh as anything Tubby, or Lee Perry produced from the 70s. The dubs were sharp and spacey, and made good use of all musicians. Despite Hitruns collapse, Sherwood persisted, however, establishing the On-U Sound label soon afterwards.

The well-documented punk connection with reggae saw Sherwood forging links with Dennis Bovell, ex-slits Ari-Up, ex-Pop Group members Steve Beresford and Mark Stewart, as well as some from the Corpus Christi label, Penny Rimbaud, and Little ‘Annie’ Anxiety – even John Lydon shows up one release. Perhaps a consequence of the input of these artists, or perhaps a natural leaning in Sherwood himself, it saw On-U sound becoming increasingly experimental as the roster of artists on the label grew.

Every release was given the future-proof tagline ‘Another 1992 On-U Sound Production’ and with Adrian Sherwood was at the helm, the production became deliberately futuristic. Creation Rebel’s third release ‘Starship Africa’ stretched the sparseness of dub reggae to breaking point. Ari-Up’s ‘New Age Steppers’ pulled the genre towards a post-punk (post-everything) sensibility – their cover of Junior Byles’ ‘Fade Away’ needs to be heard. The arrival of Bonjo Iyanbinghi Noah and his band, African Head Charge, took the Rasta vibrations to unheard-of possibilities of abstraction, with their debut ‘My Life in a Hole in the Ground’.

Various studio-based projects prefigured Bristol based Trip Hop. Mark Stewart’s abrasive assault is best seen in his debut ‘Learning to Cope With Cowardice’ (especially the single release – a cover of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’). The party reached its highpoint with the insanity of The Missing Brazilians’ ‘Warzone’. This LP pushed so many barriers down that even the open-minded distributor Cherry Red balked. Mixing trippy dub beats with heavy noise assaults pushed even Sherwood abilities to the extreme. There are points on the album where everything pours into the red. It is an album that really ought to be heard by everyone with an interest in avant-garde – even if only once.

A growing critical reaction and increasing studio technology (with perhaps a nod to the digital sound now coming from Jamaica) saw On-U Sound refine its sound away from raw experimentalism. Making use of Sherwood’s collaborators Skip McDonald, Doug Wimbush and Keith LeBlanc (the original Sugar Hill house band in NY), the sound became more electronic and more syncopated. This resulted in On-U Sound hitting both its high-water mark in terms of artistry and record sales, but also the slow slide away from what made the label so exciting in the first place.

Records of note from this period include Dub Syndicate’s ‘Echomania’, and African Head Charge’s truly magnificent ‘Songs of Praise’.

Perhaps reliance upon a formula, perhaps the move of key players to other labels, perhaps the increasing competition of other labels, producers, and genres all resulted in On-U Sound becoming something of a spent force by the very late 80s. Only very few truly great releases have emerged. New artists have joined the label, some of whom have made good releases (notably Ghetto Priest, Japan’s Audio Active, and Sherwood’s own 2Badcard), but nothing has gained the same level of impact as those early ‘1992’ releases.

Sherwood himself has kept busy at the helm of On-U Sound, but also as a jobbing producer, having worked with Depeche Mode, The Fall, Skinny Puppy, Simply Red, Michael Franti amongst many other. He has also established the reggae re-issue label ‘Pressure Sounds’. His influence on the path of music remains considerable, if only for those historic releases. The Bristol connection through Mark Stewart and Gary Clail has been credited by Massive Attack and others in that scene. The ambient field of The Orb and Orbital draws links to On-U Sound, and it is plausible to draw links to labels such as Mo’Wax and Warp, if only the range of their production.

Some final personal notes: I first recall properly listening to an On-U Sound release under the influence of magic mushrooms (circa 1989), listening to the suitably trippy (and undoubted classic) collaboration between Creation Rebel and the New Age Steppers. More than simply changing the shape of that evening (which remains exceptionally memorable), it changed the shape of my musical listening, opening my mind to reggae, dub and dancehall. I also managed to see African Head Charge at Glastonbury in 1990. The electrics kept cutting out, leaving only the heavy nyahbinghi drumming. Fireworks from another part of the festival were set off. I was in heaven.

Essential releases include:

Creation Rebel - Starship Africa (1980)

African Head Charge – Off the Beaten Track (1986) & Songs of Praise (1990)

New Age Steppers – New Age Steppers (1980)

Dub Syndicate – Pounding Systems (1981) & Echomania (1993)


paul said...

You should right a book about it and call it Firework Nyahbinghi(it makes sense to my tired brain anyway! :) )

Anonymous said...

Excellent retrospective -- I've been snatching up On-U cds like a mad fool for the past few months. They're increasingly rare and increasingly expensive, so when I see one for under $20 I automatically grab it. Beat Records in Japan has reissued the New Age Steppers and early Creation Rebel albums in beautifully remastered cd format -- they sound AMAZING. They've also given Dub Syndicate & Dr. Pablo's "North of the River Thames" a first-class reissue treatment.

My only quibble with your account of On-U is that I don't feel they "lost it" in the '90s. While nothing can match the mad experimentalism of the late-70s/early-80s stuff, there have been some superb Dub Syndicate releases (Acres of Space & Fear of a Green Planet, in particular), and the near-impossible-to-find Japan cd of the latest African Head Charge, "Vision of a Psychedelic Africa," is magnificent, featuring some of Sherwood's best-ever mixing -- which, as you know, is REALLY saying something.

Check out Little Axe, too, Skip McDonald's eerie dub-blues project. "The Wolf That House Built" is especially good.

Anyway, it's nice to see that group of wacked-out, incredibly creative musicians/dubbers getting some notice out there. Music is the healing force of the universe, as Pharoah titled one of his albums long ago.....