With the mixing desk as his primary instrument, Adrian Sherwood has constantly aimed to erode categorical boundaries during the last four decades.
Over that time he has been melding an overriding love of reggae and dub with punk, funk, rap, blues, cutting-edge rock and electronica, along with traditional elements from disparate parts of the globe, all subjected to extreme sonic treatments to yield a complete absence of standardization. Through the On-U Sound label, his main platform since the early 1980s, Sherwood has pooled a wide range of talent from Kingston, London, New York and elsewhere, to create strikingly unique, forward-facing sounds that ultimately reflect the fractured, stratified nature of contemporary multicultural Britain.
Sherwood’s fascination with Jamaican music began at the age of eleven when he was living in the small town of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire; he was exposed to ska and rock steady there at house parties thrown by a friend’s parents, and became more deeply enamoured through a local reggae club run by a Jamaican immigrant called Joe Farquarson. Bitten by the reggae bug and equally smitten with soul, he soon began DJing at local venues, and in the early 1970s was promoting reggae and soul at noted regional hotspots such as the Wigan Casino, doing the work mostly for Pama Records, the group of labels started by the Palmer Brothers, Jamaican immigrants based in northwest London that had distribution deals with the most important reggae producers of the day.
Sherwood then formed the J&A record distribution company with Farquarson, and in 1976 founded the independent Carib Gems label to issue fresh Jamaican product by the likes of the Twinkle Brothers, Delroy Wilson, Michael Rose and Black Uhuru. Carib Gems also issued Prince Far I’s landmark ‘talking’ album, Psalms Of Dub, during its inaugural year, and Sherwood subsequently formed a strong working relationship and friendship with the enigmatic toaster, mixing all four volumes of Far I’s Cry Tough Dub Encounter series and helping Far I to negotiate licensing deals with the Virgin and Trojan labels. Sherwood launched the Hitrun label in 1978, and in addition to releasing product by Far I, Prince Hammer and Rod Taylor on the imprint, Hitrun was also a vehicle for Sherwood’s earliest productions, made with a loose aggregation of London-based musicians called Creation Rebel, whose numbers would often be augmented by visiting Jamaican performers associated with Far I.
After experiencing some inevitable financial disappointments associated with running independent record labels (with labels such as 4D existing only momentarily), Adrian Sherwood officially launched On-U Sound in January 1981. From the outset, the label housed intriguing product by leftfield hybrid acts based in rock, but largely inspired by reggae, including the New Age Steppers (featuring members of the Slits, the Pop Group, and Aswad), the Mothmen (with Dave Rowbotham of the Durutti Column and Bob Harding, who would later form famed reissue label Blood and Fire), the London Underground (led by Pete Holdsworth, who would later launch reissue label Pressure Sounds with Sherwood), and African Head Charge, centred on Jamaican percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah.
Later hybrids included Singers and Players, centred on members of the Ruff Cut band; Tackhead, which reconfigured players from the Sugarhill Gang within a rock format; and Dub Syndicate, a compelling project in which drummer Style Scott of the Roots Radics, who became a friend and collaborator of Sherwood through the Prince Far I link, played a crucial role. Work with roots reggae vocalist Bim Sherman, former Pop Group front man Mark Stewart and reggae shaman Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry also featured on the label, the originality of the material gradually resulting in collaborative requests from Primal Scream, Sinead O’Connor, Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode.
On-U Sound has rarely stayed static as a label, in part because Sherwood continually rejects the tedium of formula and standardisation, but also because of the unintended curveballs life can throw at us. There was, for instance, a noteworthy shift of content in the early days of the label, following the brutal murder of Prince Far I in Jamaica in September 1983, which drew Sherwood away from reggae and closer to the rock and rap worlds. You can hear it in the mid-1980s albums by Tackhead and Gary Clail, which were miles away from anything with an ‘irie’ vibe. Then, once BBC Radio Lancashire DJ Steve Barker connected Sherwood with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the result was fantastic for both parties, because Sherwood was able to introduce screeching rock guitars, mangled motifs from show tunes and real-time sampling into Perry’s work, yet keep enough of a reggae backdrop for him to feel comfortable in it, and the presence of Perry convinced Sherwood to return to the reggae spectrum, resulting in fine sets by Dub Syndicate and Bim Sherman during the early 1990s.
Japanese dub group Audio Active later came into the fold, as did the UK’s Revolutionary Dub Warriors; roots crooner Little Roy was on board for a time too, while Tackhead’s guitarist, Skip McDonald, initiated the nu-blues project, Little Axe. The new millennium brought an album from ancient trumpeter Harry Beckett and excursions into dubstep with the likes of Kode 9 and the Moody Boys. What’s next for the label is anyone’s guess, though the sparse re-workings that recently surfaced under the Sherwood & Pinch moniker suggest that the disjointed sounds of dubstep may be a pervasive element for some time to come.
Here are 11 of Mr Sherwood and On-U’s most noteworthy creations.
The first volume of Adrian Sherwood’s career-spanning anthology Sherwood At The Controls Volume 1: 1979 – 1984 drops on April 3.
(4D Rhythms, 1980)
Of the half-dozen Creation Rebel albums, Starship Africa is the strangest – the soundtrack for an intergalactic space flick yet to be made. Featuring bassist Tony Henry of Misty In Roots, keyboardist Clifton ‘Bigga’ Morrisson – who would later play key roles in Jazz Jamaica and Aswad’s touring band – and drummer Lincoln ‘Style’ Scott of the Roots Radics (also active in Prince Far I’s backing band, the Arabs), most of its rhythms were initially recorded circa 1979 as backing tracks for a little-known album by a deejay called Ranking Superstar; Sherwood subsequently subjected the entire proceedings to totally excessive levels of stereophonic sound effects, many of which were applied while the master tape ran backwards. If Sun Ra hijacked George Clinton’s Mothership to bring Augustus Pablo to another galaxy, the end result might sound something like this.
The New Age Steppers
The New Age Steppers
(On-U Sound, 1981)
Punk’s jagged edges clash with the cavernous contours of dub on this early Sherwood production, the first official album release of On-U Sound. Featuring Ari Up of the Slits, former Aswad bassist George Oban, free improvisation supremo Steve Beresford, and regular On-U collaborators Mark Stewart and Style Scott, the New Age Steppers’ eponymous debut is a messy, self-indulgent set that points in several directions at once, ultimately forming a sonic marker of an era when the link between punk and dub was anything but tenuous. If the cover versions of Junior Byles’ ‘Fade Away’ and Bim Sherman’s ‘Love Forever’ have off-kilter vocals, they somehow simply add to the appeal, and journalist Vivien Goldman’s skinhead saga, ‘Private Armies’, serves as an ironically insightful snapshot of the era’s overriding tensions.
Singers & Players
(On-U Sound, 1983)
Another of the many On-U collectives, Singers & Players was born in the early 1980s as a potential collaborative space for likeminded artists and wound up being the temporary home of several top-ranking Jamaican legends, with soave roots vocalist Bim Sherman being the most constant element. The crisp and clean Staggering Heights starts off strong with Congo Ashanti Roy’s ‘African Blood’, and keeps up the pressure with Prince Far I’s gruff reading of the incredible tale of ‘Bedward The Flying Preacher’, whilst Mikey Dread’s ‘School Days’ and Far I’s ‘Autobiography’ are worth the price of admission alone. The production values are sterling here, with non-standard percussion and odd sound effects helping the whole shebang to leap out of the speakers.
African Head Charge
Off The Beaten Track
(On-U Sound, 1986)
Rising from the ashes of Creation Rebel, live dub band African Head Charge is the showcase for the percussive talents of On-U stalwart Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, who also fronted the more vocally-oriented Noah House of Dread. Early Head Charge efforts were sparse and abstract, but the aptly-named Off The Beaten Track heralded a new direction through Sherwood’s concerted mixology, which spiced things up with hard-to-identify vocal noises, reeling fiddles, distorted guitar, and computer dog barks courtesy of Fairlight and Synclavier digital synthesizers; the excellent ‘Language & Mentality’ features the ghost of Albert Einstein as well, reaching out from the ether to illuminate the workings of the mind. Overlooked due to sparse availability, Off The Beaten Track is another prime example of Adrian Sherwood’s compellingly superb dub futurism.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
Time Boom X De Devil Dead
(On-U Sound/Syncopate, 1987)
Perry was at a very low ebb when northern BBC radio jock Steve Barker suggested he work with Adrian Sherwood; the result was the most significant Perry album since the trashing and burning of his Black Ark studio, despite the many demons that were plaguing him at the time. Dub Syndicate’s complex backing perfectly suited Mr Perry’s schizoid, stream-of-consciousness delivery; the band’s Roots Radics core was familiar enough for him to feel comfortable singing over, while the On-U augmentations and Sherwood’s sonic treatments resulted in the thoroughly modern sound that Perry was seeking, being distinctive and challenging, yet broadly appealing. Tracks such as ‘Jungle’ and ‘De Devil Dead’ have since become mainstays of Perry’s live shows, which always sound better when Sherwood is present at the mixing desk.
Strike The Balance
(On-U Sound, 1990)
Another loose conglomerate of the early 1980s, Dub Syndicate found its feet once drummer Style Scott became its central creative force, helping Sherwood realize his emulator-laden vision through complex beats and inspired co-production. Aside from the top-notch backing on Lee Perry’s Time Boom (as detailed above) and the 1992 set Stoned Immaculate (the latter largely recorded in Jamaica), Dub Syndicate’s most compelling album was Strike The Balance, which features Islamic wailing on ‘Shout It Out’, dubwise football chants on ‘Hey Ho’, an oddball re-cut of Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je T’aime’ featuring Massive Attack collaborator Shara Nelson, and exquisite versions of Lloyd Parks’ ‘Mafia’ and Lloyd Robinson’s ‘Cuss Cuss’, both featuring the dulcet tones of Bim Sherman.
The Wolf That House Built
(Wired Recordings/Sony Okeh, 1994)
In the mid-1980s, Sherwood convinced the core of the New Jersey-based Sugar Hill Gang to travel to London, the resultant Tackhead becoming the most rock-oriented of all On-U acts and moving far from their militant rap origins. When Tackhead ran out of steam in the early 1990s, guitarist Skip McDonald formed Little Axe as a vehicle for the blues on which he was raised, filtered through Sherwood’s dub sensibilities. This highly acclaimed debut album allowed McDonald to express himself without being constrained by the ordinary rules of the form, while Sherwood’s production is somewhat more subdued than usual, yielding a futuristic variant of the blues that greatly influenced Moby’s Play album some five years later.
One of roots reggae’s many unsung heroes, the soft-voiced Sherman cut several impressive singles and a couple of albums in Jamaica in the late-1970s, before subsequently relocating to the UK. The close friendship he enjoyed with Adrian Sherwood lasted several decades, resulting in a range of material of varying quality, the pair’s dynamic potential only truly realised in Miracle, a truly stupendous album that drew out all the subtle nuances of Sherman’s quietly forceful voice by framing re-workings of his back catalogue beneath the lush strings of a Bollywood orchestra. The result is surprisingly excellent, and benefits from repeated listening.
Vanishing Point, the most cosmic effort by Glasgow’s finest head-trip band, was a natural for Adrian Sherwood to reconfigure in dub, yet the results exceeded all expectations. Not content with merely remixing the material, Sherwood took eight Primal Scream tracks completely apart at On-U’s studio, then based in Walthamstow, overlaid electronic drumbeats and various bits of exotic instrumentation (such as African koras and Indian drones), and then mixed the heady result as a seamless whole, 99% vocal free, to maximize its newfound psychedelic potential. Highlights include ‘First Name Unknown’, a compelling dub of ‘Kowalski’; ‘Duffed Up’, a dub-funk reworking of ‘Get Duffy’; and ‘Living Dub’, an emotive restructuring of ‘Long Life’. The overall feeling here is of tension, fear and angst, delivered on the verge of lost consciousness.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
The Mighty Upsetter
If Time Boom was a great beginning for Perry and Sherwood, then the follow-up, From The Secret Laboratory, felt somewhat unfinished when issued by Island Records in 1990. After a long hiatus during which Perry made a series of collaborative recordings with Mad Professor, followed by a slew of hit-and-miss releases with friends and fans, The Mighty Upsetter seemed to come from nowhere, but is arguably his best collaborative work of all. Sherwood kept the standards impeccably high throughout, rejecting any rubbish and stimulating Perry’s abilities through creative 3D re-workings of classic Upsetter rhythms. Thus, ‘Bucky Skank’ became the fluid rap of ‘International Broadcaster’, with extra verses from Roots Manuva, while ‘Zion’s Blood’ morphed into the fearsome ‘Rockhead’, incorporating a snippet of ‘Bird In Hand’ for good measure. Proof that Perry still had more goodness left in him, and that Sherwood’s creativity was entirely undiminished.
(Echo Beach, 2015)
Adrian Sherwood worked closely with Style Scott on Hard Food for a lengthy period; neither knew at the time that it would end up being the final Dub Syndicate album, owing to Scott’s despicable murder in October 2014. Recorded mostly in Jamaica by Style, with post-production wizardry applied by Sherwood in Britain, the album features a stellar cast, pairing Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry with Sangie Davis for ‘Jah Wise’, allowing Bunny Wailer to drift into lover’s rock territory on ‘Bless My Soul’. There’s even U Roy spitting fire on a ‘Police In Helicopter’ re-cut called ‘Dub Is All I Got’. There are plenty of hard-hitting dubs elsewhere on the disc, too, then combined result making it an almighty Style Scott swansong.