Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound: adventures in schizophonic sound
By, May 4 2012
The full version of the resulting article has never appeared online before. On the eve of the release of a new Sherwood solo album, and as he prepares to play Croatia’s Stop Making Sense festival on August 2-6, we thought we’d rectify that.
Adrian Sherwood is a manipulator of sonic phantoms, a technician of disembodiment.
He is talking about putting together the two Sound Crash CDs of 2006, enjoyably violent “slash and mixes” of material from his groundbreaking record label, On-U Sound. When he returned to the On-U vaults, Sherwood found himself confronted by the voices of dead friends. Three of the voices which most contributed to On-U’s sonic signature – the authoritative, awe-inducing Old Testament boom of Prince Far I, the honey-spun golden plaint of Bim Sherman, and the Orson Welles-like rasp of MC-cum-poet Andy Fairley – belong to men who are now dead.
But dub is inherently hauntological, and Sherwood – a dub producer for more than thirty years – has always been a manipulator of sonic phantoms, a technician of disembodiment. Anyone who has heard Sherwood mix a live show will know of his ability to render occult the relationship between sounds and sources. Reverbed, panned, cut up with wraith-like pre-recorded sounds, the live instruments become unlive, and in the process, it is as if the sound gains an extra – tactile – dimension. It’s not for nothing that one of Sherwood’s earliest ventures was called 4D Rhythms, and once you’ve heard how his mixomancy can transform a live show, you’ll realise how unforgivably dull and flat most live mixes are.
Sherwood was possessed by dub at an early age. As a teenager, he sold 7” reggae pre-releases out of a van, and he retains his fanatical passion for reggae to this day (“Even if it it’s reggae with a crappy house beat, I still like it,” he confesses). When he began producing his own records, Sherwood’s inspirations were Lee Perry, King Tubby and Far I, but there was never any question of imitation. Sherwood took from his Jamaican precursors a license to be syncretic and synthetic. Perry and Tubby had not hesitated to produce sonic fictions steeped in their own (Jamaican) here-and-now, to use their studios as time and space machines in which all manner of strange cargo could be weaved into the story. Similarly, instead of pretending he was from Jamaica, Sherwood would re-situate London in the Black Atlantic, combining Jamaica’s ghost science with the alien currents of the English metropolis.
“Even if it it’s reggae with a crappy house beat, I still like it.” – Adrian Sherwood
An architect of what Kode9 calls ‘hyperdub’, Sherwood was very far from being a dub purist – a concept that is any case something of a contradiction in terms – and On-U was, from the start, a haven for post-punk refugees such as Ari Up of the The Slits and Mark Stewart of The Pop Group. When, later, Sherwood heard the cut-up funk of Keith Leblanc, Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald (who at that time were collectively known as Fats Comet, later Tack>>Head), he immediately wanted to incorporate its crunching, animatronic energy into the On-Universe too. Jamaica – New York – London…Three corners of the Black Atlantic met and re-combined in Sherwood’s studio in Wood Green.
What Sherwood learned from dub, post-punk and funk, he bequeathed to pop. His mixes for acts such as Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails brought a combination of spacey spectrality and bionic muscularity to the pop mainstream, permanently mutating it. Sherwood’s taste for film and TV samples, cut-up abstraction and spine-pounding bass make for a sonic signature as well-defined as that of any producer. This trademark sound is celebrated in the title of his own 2006 album, Becoming a Cliché. Much like Sherwood himself, the title suggests both self-deprecation and quiet pride. ‘Cliché’ is being used in a positively, meaning something that is instantly recognizable.
When we spoke in 2006, Sherwood envisaged Becoming a Cliché as both a summary of past achievements and a statement of intent. As ever, the album was a collective affair, featuring long-time allies such as Dennis Bovell and Mark Stewart alongside newer collaborators like French-Tunisian singer Samia Farah, Italian rapper Raiz, dancehall toaster Jazzwad. Varied but always bearing Sherwood’s unmistakable fingerprints, the album is never less than catchy. In On-U’s case, there has never been an opposition between the experimental and the compulsive.
Three corners of the Black Atlantic met and re-combined in Sherwood’s studio in Wood Green.
“I’m not going to put anything out myself until I’ve got the business structure in place,” said Sherwood of the dormant On-U at the time. But since celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2010, the the label has re-asserted its presence, making its catalogue available digitally, issuing new albums from New Age Steppers, African Head Charge and others. In the interim, Sherwood used other companies: Becoming a Cliché, for instance, was released on Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label.
The first of the aforementioned Sound Crash CDs showcases the full breadth of the On-Universe, while the second is specifically devoted to Tack>>Head. The word ‘soundcrash’ is apt, not only for the mix CDs, but for Sherwood’s approach in general. It turns out that – in keeping with dub’s (anti-)methodology – the word was an accident turned to an advantage. Sherwood had been invited to put together the mix CDs to spearhead a series of sumptuous re-issues in Japan. While they waited for a better name, the Japanese record company used the old JA term ‘Soundclash’, which Sherwood always knew was too hackneyed to stick with. But when one of the written communications misspelled ‘Soundclash’ as ‘Soundcrash’, Sherwood realised that he both had the right name and a new concept.
On-U Sound Crash takes listeners on a whirlwind tour of the On-Universe. For those familiar with the label, the CD is like is a speed-rush through a mutated version of the past, in which altered versions of classic tracks are patched into a sequence that is – gratifyingly – far from seamless. New samples and vocals have been added (including eerie ethereal chants from the late Ari Up).
On-U became a cyberpunk bunker in which misfits and visionaries holed themselves up against a mad world order that was re-tooling itself as a Science Fiction monstrosity.
Like the label it celebrates, On-U Sound Crash is a study in contrasts and unexpected contiguities. The CD consummately demonstrates that, like all great producers, Sherwood is as an inventor of sonic fictions as well as an expert manipulator of sound. He conjured a series of strikingly distinctive sonic concepts from raw material laid down by what were essentially the same group of musicians. You would never mistake the lush, Science Fictional grooves of Dub Syndicate (based around drummer Style Scott) for the fantasmatic, phantom-haunted soundscapes of African Head Charge (based around percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah), even if both are instantly identifiable as Sherwood’s work.
Sherwood set up On-U in 1980, the year that Ronald Reagan became US President, and the year after the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory. Unemployment was reaching record levels. The post-war world was coming apart; the Cold War was about to enter its final phase. Fear of nuclear annihilation was so routinised that no one thought twice about dreaming every night of planetary destruction. Rasta dread at its most end-times apocalyptic and punk no-futurism at its most nihilistic seemed perfectly realistic. On-U became a cyberpunk bunker in which misfits and visionaries holed themselves up against a mad world order that was re-tooling itself as a Science Fiction monstrosity.
Mark Stewart’s first solo LP, Learning to Cope with Cowardice, captures the spirit of those times perfectly. Stewart’s intuition that there were connections to be drawn between dub’s dismantling of the song, William Burroughs’ cut-up techniques, and Situationist detournement plugged directly into the On-U ethos.
Mark Stewart had developed a fevered vocal style that seemed to be derived as much from the howls of Antonin Artaud as from the yelps and yaps of James Brown.
As lead screamer with The Pop Group, Stewart had developed a fevered vocal style that seemed to be derived as much from the howls of Antonin Artaud as from the yelps and yaps of James Brown. The Pop Group’s atonal, fractured funk – which, on their first LP, was simultaneously held together and dub-disassembled by producer Dennis Bovell – was what you imagined punk would sound like before you encountered the r-and-r plod of most punk records. There was no question of improv-tedium, in part because of Stewart’s bizarre facility for generating hooks, albeit of an aberrant kind.
“I was fed up with the music industry, and I was spending a lot of time working with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament,” Stewart told me, describing the period leading up to the recording of Learning to Cope with Cowardice. CND were organising a gig which The Pop Group would headline, but Stewart wanted the event to end with an “English protest song”, and chose to perform William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.
Soon after the CND show, The Pop Group finally disintegrated once and for all, and it was a logical step for Stewart to record with reggae players he had long admired, including legendary drummer Charles ‘Eskimo’ Fox, one of the founding members of Creation Rebel. Fox and African Head Charge’s Bonjo, together with bassist Evar Wellington and keyboard player Desmond ‘Fatfingers’ Coke, provided the grooves – alternately defiant and dejected – from which Learning to Cope with Cowardice was assembled. In the studio, Stewart and Sherwood denaturalised the music, mercilessly shredding it with noise, sound effects and samples: it sounded like the world was caving in.
There is no song that captures the atmosphere of early Eighties virtual nuclear winter better than ‘Liberty City’.
The chopped-up version of ‘Jerusalem’ became the centrepiece of the LP. Stewart’s ‘Jerusalem’ deranged Blake’s verse from Middle England common sense and reclaimed it for the Black Atlantic. In its very form, the track is an argument, a theoretical proposition about culture, politics and nationality, which establishes an affinity between Blake’s anglo-millenarian visions and Rasta eschatology. Something is restored to Blake’s prophecies and provocations when they are declaimed by Stewart. Suddenly, the words glow again with a delirious lucidity that familiarity and reactionary misappropriation has dulled.
Learning to Cope with Cowardice came out in 1983, the year that Thatcher was re-elected. Its vision is deliberately confrontational, amping up the contrast between the Spectacle’s dissimulations (‘The Paranoia of Power’, ‘None Dare Call it Conspiracy’) and the forces of resistance (‘Blessed are those who Struggle’, ‘To Have the Vision’). The album’s stark divisiveness was timely: a year later, the Miners Strike would set the industrial working class and the forces of resurgent capitalism against one another in a violent struggle that would lay the groundwork for a total reconstruction of British society.
There is no song that captures the atmosphere of early Eighties virtual nuclear winter better than ‘Liberty City’, the album’s second track (released at the time as a single). The song dated back to the Pop Group days, but the difference between the wracked version on Learning to Cope and the song played live by The Pop Group is a testament both to the brilliance of Sherwood’s production and to the increasing bleakness of the times.
The bassline, which Sherwood insinuates into the centre of your brain, sounds like a motorcyle revving up on a sink estate. It’s so bitterly cold you practically have to turn up your collar as you listen. Dub detritus flits across the mix like trash in an icy wind. Stewart takes on the role of tour guide through the city of the living dead, trying to shake the defeated and the resigned out of “the comforts of slavery”. Noise fragments rear like de-tuned radios playing in long-abandoned flats. Friends are either “bitterly aggressive” or “eternally well-meaning but broken”, and consumer pleasures offer scant protection against the collapsing public sphere: “buy a car and watch / it rust”.
“I’ve never really learned how to behave properly…” – Mark Stewart
‘Liberty City’ is unusual in Stewart’s solo work in that it resembles a conventional song. Most of Stewart’s tracks are constructed out of chants and slogans that are periodically buried in noise and interference. On the face of it, the political impulse to communicate a clear message would seem to conflict with the noisenik tendency to subject everything to cut-up and distortion. “It may surprise you,” Stewart explains, “but I’m quite shy about my voice. I need a noise, to get myself going…” When I suggest to him that embarrassment is the first defence system of the social, that the very act of screaming in public is a challenge to (the ruling) order, he laughs. “Well, I’ve never really learned how to behave properly…”
The next phase of the On-U story concerns Tack>>Head, most of whose best moments can be sampled on the Tack>>Head Sound Crash CD. When Stewart and Sherwood heard Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald – the legendary Sugarhill rhythm section that played on ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and ‘The Message’ – the appeal was immediate and obvious. Their FX-laden, sample-heavy electro was a funk equivalent of On-U’s dub punk, a parallel evolution. The three New Yorkers began recording with Sherwood, and backed Stewart on his uncompromising 1985 LP, As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade – a record that, although largely ignored on its release, came to be one of the most important of the decade through its impact on the likes of Nine Inch Nails.
Tack>>Head riveted a rigid cyber-spine onto funk’s ‘loose booty’, disciplining its surrealist effervescence into a brutalist body armour.
Tack>>Head borrowed from David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts the idea of putting the sampled voices of demented preachers in the role of James Brown-type funk MC. But where Byrne and Eno’s funk was gentle and trippy, Tack>>Head’s was ballistic and harsh. They riveted a rigid cyber-spine onto funk’s ‘loose booty’, disciplining its surrealist effervescence into a brutalist body armour. The metallic tattoo of Leblanc’s pulverizing beats and rhythm programmes provided the human-machine-skeleton, over which Wimbish and McDonald stretched synthetic sinews. Wimbish’s bass was teeth-grittingly tense, while McDonald’s p-funk guitar and keyboards flared like bad trip flashbacks. But what was enjoyable about Tack>>Head was the estrangement of sound from any recognizable human origin; it was impossible to definitively disentangle what was played from the samples and the FX. Sherwood’s role was to amplify the confusion, with the result that listening to the best Tack>>Head tracks felt more like tuning into some constantly mutating machine channel than listening to music that had been written.
Appropriately for a group who would record an album devoted to the Challenger disaster, Tack>>Head put one in mind of the Funkadelic Mothership crash landed into a militarised zone. They sounded like the future with the gleam sheared off: depersonalised hip-hop welded to techno at its most panic-stricken and exhilarated.
In retrospect, Tack>>Head’s two best singles, ‘What’s My Mission Now?’ and ‘Mind at the End of the Tether’, uncannily foretold the direction that the American nightmare would take in the following two decades. ‘Mind at the End of the Tether’, which transmuted apocalyptic anxiety into a seething electro pulse, featured a brand of Far Right religious fundamentalism whose influence over the political mainstream in the US we now take for granted. ‘What’s My Mission Now?’, with Leblanc’s drum machine set to migraine, is an ominous audio-snapshot of the US military beginning to stir itself from its post-Vietnam nervous breakdown, bristling with expensive equipment, and itching for its next major deployment (which would turn out to be the ultra-technicized Gulf War, the first phase of what would become the War on Terror).
A number of On-U tracks refer to the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), the Reagan administration’s fantasy of a defence system that would shoot Soviet missiles out of the sky.
The sonic concept was extended into the 1986 LP, Major Malfunction (three tracks from which are cut into the Tack>>Head Soundcrash collage). Major Malfunction was credited to Keith Leblanc solo, but it was effectively a Tack>>Head LP, and the best they would record. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger signals the collapse of utopian political projects and the rise of religious fundamentalism: “Ain’t no heaven on earth nowhere,” a sampled preacher leers.
Space travel was replaced by Star Wars. A number of On-U tracks refer to the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), the Reagan administration’s fantasy of a defence system that would shoot Soviet missiles out of the sky, a piece of Science Fiction which became popularly known as the ‘Star Wars’ project. Instead of looking out to space, satellites were now trained on earth, delivering surveillance data and entertainment, and ensuring that capital had a genuinely global sweep. SDI would become GPS, the Global Positioning System, a crucial component in capital’s control and consumption network.
Tack>>Head would never produce anything else so coherent or potent as Major Malfunction. An understandable but misconceived attempt to court the mainstream resulted in the recruitment of former Peech Boys singer Bernard Fowler, and made for a series of increasingly bland records which disillusioned long-time fans while failing to attract enough new ones. The fact is that Tack>>Head appealed as a sonic fiction, a studio concept, not as a rock band. Their live shows were exciting when the group and Sherwood simulated the impossible geometries of the studio sound; when the records started to sound like a live group, everything that was unique about Tack>>Head disappeared. The Sound Crash LP works because it re-artificializes the group, transforming the tracks into impersonal machine parts which can be plugged into one another in new ways.
Little Axe’s records have been described as ‘dub blues’ or ‘hip hop spirituals’. They are certainly masterpieces of hauntology.
The members of Tack>>Head have continued to record together, most successfully as part of Skip McDonald’s project, Little Axe. Little Axe’s records have been described as ‘dub blues’ or ‘hip hop spirituals’. They are certainly masterpieces of hauntology.
The fifth Little Axe album, Stone Cold Ohio, may be their best. Like the four previous LPs, it is wracked with collective grief. Spectral harmonicas resemble howling wolves; echoes linger like wounds that will never heal; the voices of the living harmonise with the voices of the dead in songs thick with reproach, recrimination and the hunger for redemption. Yet utopian longings also stir in the fetid swamps and unmarked graveyards; there are moments of unbowed defiance and fugitive joy here too.
Both McDonald and Sherwood describe Stone Cold Ohio as deliberately “underproduced” by comparison with the other Little Axe albums. But “underproduced” means raw rather than “unplugged”; Sherwood’s dub necromantics continue to add space and odd angles to the songs.
“First of all I gather all the samples,” Skip McDonald said when I asked him how Stone Cold Ohio was put together. The Little Axe template was famously stolen by Moby for his multi-million selling album Play. McDonald is gracious about this, choosing to believe that “imitation is a form of flattery”, but Sherwood feels aggrieved on McDonald’s behalf.
On-U has always been an ideas factory, and the ideas keep coming.
It is bitterly ironic that Moby’s appropriation should recapitulate the age-old story, so familiar in the history of blues and rock, of whites stealing ideas from black musicians. It is also ironic because Little Axe’s records skilfully mystify questions of authorship and attribution, origination and repetition.
While Moby simply sat blues samples on top of 90s dance beats, in Little Axe’s case it is difficult to distinguish sampling from songwriting, impossible to draw firm lines between a cover version and an original song. Songs are texturally dense palimpsests, accreted rather than authored. McDonald’s own vocals, by turns doleful, quietly enraged and affirmatory, are often doubled as well as dubbed. They and the modern instrumentation repeatedly sink into grainy sepia and misty trails of reverb, falling into a dyschronic contemporeanity with the crackly samples. Little Axe’s world is entrancing, vivid, often harrowing; it’s easy to get lost in these thickets and fogs, these phantom plantations built on casual cruelty, these makeshift churches that nurtured collective dreams of escape…
On-U has always been an ideas factory, and the ideas keep coming. When we spoke in 2006, Sherwood was planning to record an acoustic album with Horace Andy (on the model of Bim Sherman’s masterpiece, Miracle) that has yet to materialise, and said he believed that he could “get another great LP out of Lee Perry” – this did materialise, in the shape of 2009’s Dub Setter. The title of the 2009 African Head Charge LP, Vision of a Psychedelic Africa, refers to the original inspiration for the African Head Charge concept, Brian Eno’s comment that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts would be a “vision of a psychedelic Africa”. There is a sense of coming full circle here, since the title of the first African Head Charge LP, My Life in a Hole in the Ground, also alluded to Byrne and Eno’s LP (the ‘hole’ was Sherwood’s tiny studio in North London).
African Head Charge sound like early 70s Miles Davis produced by Lee Perry, like New Orleans jazz playing in pre-historic graveyards.
The astonishing African Head Charge records are amongst the cream of Sherwood’s productions. As abstract as 23 Skidoo’s The Culling is Coming, as artily exotic as Japan’s Tin Drum, as lunar-spacy as Can’s Tago Mago, African Head Charge sound like early 70s Miles Davis produced by Lee Perry, like New Orleans jazz playing in pre-historic graveyards.
A new solo album by Sherwood is due to be released later this year, and a compilation of Lee Perry remixes by the likes of Digital Mystikz, Horsepower Productions and Kode9 is on its way; he’ll also be touring his DJ and effects set around the world. When I describe his live mixing technique as ‘schizophonic’ – referring to Murray Schaffer’s idea of “sounds devoid of sources”- Sherwood is delighted.
“I like that,” he says. “I think I’ll nick it…”
Adrian Sherwood plays Crotia’s Stop Making Sense festival August 2-6.