When Kevin Martin, aka The Bug, was booked for a show in Israel in 2011 he had low expectations.
“All I’d heard before was that Israel loved trance,” he recounts over the phone from his Berlin home. His expectations were somewhat vindicated when the rave he played at proved to be “shit, really shit.” The next day, Martin was looking forward to a day off when the promoters invited him to a local party they were throwing in a tiny bar called Honolulu, in the Jaffa neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. As Martin exited his hotel, the promoters convinced him to bring his laptop so he could “do a small set.” Perhaps owing to a desire to rebalance the negativity of the previous night, he agreed. A few hours later, Martin was blasting his brand of heavy beats to a crammed basement with people standing on any available space as the owners grinned.
At some point during this impromptu set, Miss Red, a local MC, approached Martin. She tapped him on the shoulder. “He looked at me like ‘what the fuck do you want?’” the young MC recalls. “I was like: just give me the mic.” The British producer relented and as Miss Red fearlessly engaged with his music Martin realised he’d found a unique talent with an unmistakable voice. The next day the pair found a studio and recorded a quick session – hungover and with little sleep – that became ‘Diss Mi Army’, the B-side of Martin’s second 7″ release on his Acid Ragga label.
By 2012, after finishing her obligatory military service, Miss Red packed her bags and moved to London. She soon became one of Martin’s go to vocalists for live shows, alongside MCs Flowdan and Manga. She appeared on Martin’s Angels & Devils album in 2014 and in January this year collaborated with Bim One Production for ‘Nah Bwoy’, a cover of Shabba Ranks’ ‘Trailer Load A Gyal’.
Three years on from that fateful meeting in a sweaty Tel Aviv basement, Martin and Miss Red are teaming up to self-release her debut mixtape, Murder. Conceptualised by Miss Red and recorded by Martin, the tape takes its cue from Martin’s acid ragga experiments – a distorted, futuristic re-imagining of dancehall and bashment – with riddims from Martin and an international cast of producers: Mark Pritchard, Evian Christ, Andy Stott, Stereotyp, and Mumdance. And while the music is arresting in its own rights, Miss Red is very much the star of the show on Murder, displaying a range of styles and approaches that display her growth and hint at yet more potential.
FACT called the pair at Martin’s studio in Berlin to find out more about Miss Red’s origins, the evolution of their partnership, and how to imagine a future for Jamaican music.
Murder is out today. Stream it via the YouTube playlist below, and download it here.
How did you get into MCing and Jamaican music?
Miss Red: In a very special place in Haifa. We had this community meeting in a Capoeira centre and every night after practice a sound called Easy Rider would play in a small bar inside the venue, just a cave with a few speakers. They’d play amazing Rub-A-Dub tunes, Ragamuffin… I got deeper in with them after discovering it.
Kevin Martin: They’re obsessed with 80s dancehall. It’s like retro in a crazy way. You weren’t there at the beginning of Easy Rider though, right?
MR: No, I was just a fan of the music. Some friends started doing beats and my boyfriend at the time came to me and said I should just sing on the songs. So I’d chat something I’d heard and he passed it to all the Easy Rider crew. They all told me: ‘Sharon you’re sick, come. You need to work with us.’
KM: You’d never sung before?
MR: I’d sung, but never MC’d and not in a Rub-A-Dub style. I’ve been singing since I can remember but really getting deep into vocals for dancehall, it started then.
You’re from Haifa originally?
MR: Yeah, I was born there. My mom is Moroccan and my father is Polish. It’s quite a common thing in Israel. People come from different places and meet and mix and whatever.
Do you think those diverse roots played a role in you being curious about different kinds of music?
MR: I’ve always liked all kinds of music.
KM: Reggae is mad popular in Israel, right?
MR: Depends what you mean by mad popular.
KM: I found reggae to be popular in Mediterranean countries. I didn’t expect a sound system culture in Israel, and certainly not this crew of young people massively obsessed by 80s dancehall. It’s the last place I expected it. I was so blown away by Sharon’s voice. I’d tried for many years to work with Lady Stush, and Sharon’s voice reminded of her but… just different, more mutant. When I heard Sharon jump on my riddims, I realised it was like a gift thrown into my arms. My music is so layered with low end that her voice fits perfectly because it’s at the other end of the spectrum. I had this label called Ladybug for a while, I’ve always wanted to work with female MCs because I got pissed off that people thought my music was just this macho, doomy shit.
Sharon, what was it about reggae that attracted you early on in your life?
MR: The vibe… what isn’t there to love about reggae? [laughs] I started with roots stuff, I played guitar for a long time. I enjoyed the easiness, the vibes. I loved the sound, the old sound… It was just something that got into me and it hasn’t left yet.
What happened after you left Israel?
MR: I wanted to do this music thing, to keep working. Kevin invited me to come record with him. Moving to London was super exciting. It was a good place to focus. After that I moved to Berlin, about a year ago.
KM: She’s stalking me. [laughs] Ever since meeting Sharon and this first recording session, it’s been all about enthusiasm. It’s a weirdly naïve relationship, refreshingly DIY. I’m enjoying not being answerable to anyone and just following our instincts. After the first single I was already sure that her sound was fresh. I told her soon after we met that I’d be happy to help her, in a sort of manager-not-manager role, to not make the same mistakes I’d done before. It’s a minefield out there, it really is. I just try to give her opinions and let her make decisions. I did say that for the first year or two she should limit the people she works with, to learn the strategic aspects of it. Learn the craft on stage, learn producing techniques, and then you can be in a stronger position to have people come to you. It’s all sort of fallen madly into place. It’s obvious she’s talented. It’s not the only way, or the best way, but it’s how I felt. And she makes her own choices. Sharon is also part of another crew called 3421, an Israeli band…
MR: We’ve toured together in Europe and at SXSW in Texas. I’ve written some songs with them, but nothing that’s come out yet.
KM: It’s a sort of parallel project to what we’re doing together. It’s a good way for her to get a lot of live experience. A lot of dancehall MCs, at their best, are about the magic of a live arena and the energy. Both on and off stage.
How long have you guys been working on Murder?
MR: We took our time. Working on it in between other projects for a year or so.
KM: I promised her one day a week. But it wasn’t always like that because my schedule has been mental since my last album, Angels & Devils. We began after that, and in parallel to the King Midas Sound record I finished this year.
When you say working together, what did it involve?
KM: Sharon came up with the idea for a mixtape, and somehow it connected with things I wanted to do. Her desire was for something fresh and similar to our existing work. That was good for me and meant I could handle more production. After Angels & Devils and the new King Midas record, I knew that this idea of acid ragga was the thing for me, a sort of mad science fiction project. It’s why I left that side of The Bug off the last album, I wanted to do an acid ragga album anyway. This gave me the opportunity and focus to do it.
“I’m feminine! I’m not afraid of it, never was.”
What is it that appeals to you Sharon about the acid ragga idea?
MR: I love dancehall riddims and the sounds, as a listener. It’s something I want to sing on because I can be heard, very clearly. As Kevin said we combine well, he works the low end and I sit at the top. It keeps me flowing.
KM: Sharon is very charismatic. At shows guys always gravitate to her side of the stage and take pictures. I like that. I love having this hideous, ugly weird music with Sharon turning guys and girls on in the audience. What first attracted me to bashment and dancehall was that the music sounded alien and twisted. If anything this mixtape is just an attempt to reintroduce this shock value to the music. And to do it in an honest way, not passing ourselves off as Jamaican. The idea of working with an Israeli MC, inspired by Jamaican music is already mental. Add my roots to it… it’s a surreal thing. It’s doing something we don’t hear anywhere else. Picking riddims from other producers was me just playing stuff to Sharon or introducing her to people I’ve known who are also obsessed by dancehall and not faking it: Stereotyp, Mark Pritchard, Evian Christ. It’s important for me that this mixtape has a strong, individual identity but remains part of a lineage. We are making this music because of Jamaica but trying to find a path away from it that’s still true to it. It’s a strange challenge.
Perhaps it’s also testament to the impact the music has had worldwide.
KM: It’s how you channel it. The crucial thing for me, with any vocalist, is that they should sound like themselves. We approached this like a craft. Sharon is gifted: she has so many ideas for vocals, she works hard. It made it easy for me.
MR: I’ve learnt to listen to myself working with Kevin, it was important. For years I didn’t know what I sounded like, every time I heard a recording of myself I would be shocked! Working together has made me realise how I like to hear myself best. Really getting deeper into being a vocalist. It’s fun, it’s what I want to do.
I was struck by how you varied your vocal approach is on the mixtape.
MR: I love to sing and to chat in the same song. I feel accomplished when I do that. Or getting the chance to get weird too. It was fun to build the tape with this variety of options.
What is it about sound system and sound system culture that appeals to you Sharon?
MR: Again…what’s not to love!? I love the wave of it. To not listen to yourself. To feel it in every part of your body. It’s a hobby. I get bothered if I grab the mic in a place where there aren’t enough speakers or where the bass is missing. Touring with Kevin, having to push everything to the max. It’s something I learnt from him.
Sound system pressure can be feminine even though it’s often thought of as a masculine thing.
KM: Nearly every woman I’ve spoken to who loves this music is partial to bass-heavy music, for whatever reason. The last acid ragga set we did together was in Bristol, and every woman in the room was brucking out like mad. But The Bug shows seem to encourage a more masculine response. There were mosh pits at the latest one in Paris. With Sharon it’s a different energy. I noticed this when I used to work with Warrior Queen. Women love to see other talented women on stage.
The first time I played Bug riddims live was at the end of a Techno Animal show in Switzerland, years ago. As soon as I did, the girlfriends of the guys who had been down the front moved past them and there was a stage invasion, girls jumping on stage and gyrating in front of the mixing desk. Justin [Broadrick] and I laughed our heads off because that shit never happened at Techno Animal shows. I was sick of playing to white dudes dressed in black. I’ve never been to a sound system show with a girl who hasn’t enjoyed the experience. The masculine thing is a huge generalisation. What do you think Sharon?
MR: We all love it. Of course. Dancehall parties in Haifa, in Israel, you always see girls on fire.
KM: Anyone who makes noisy music comes across this antiquated idea that it’s only for men. I don’t think that’s true at all. Less and less so. It depends how you do it, and how macho the presentation is.
MR: Some women might not want to be the centre of attention, so I don’t think it’s necessarily about that. But some women want to dedicate themselves, some want to dance, some want babies and shit… so you know [laughs] And some women with babies want to dance too!
KM: What’s the percentage of women to men at reggae parties in Israel?
MR: Half and half, maybe even more.
KM: You can see Sharon’s crew in the video for ‘Diss Mi Army’ and that’s really how she rolls.
MR: That’s my girls! Love dem so!
Perhaps it’s more about the fact that music has been seen as something that men do for so long.
KM: Undoubtedly. And there is a rise in women being vocal about how bullshit it is that they should have to justify that they are women working in music, rightly so. Men and women are different, mentally and physically, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t similarities. Working with female MCs and singers provides a totally different energy.
Sharon, do you consciously try to keep your music somewhat sensual no matter how aggressive it might be?
MR: I’m feminine! I’m not afraid of it, never was. But being feminine is just like you are masculine, we feel comfortable with it, it’s all good. I give it in the music because I am open about it. I’ve no fear saying what I need.
She acts as a perfect counterpoint to the energy of your music, Kevin.
KM: I love the yin yang effect, the chemistry we have. This tape really gets that across, it’s a mutant creation that sounds like nothing else. Sharon was the perfect vocalist to feed off the acid ragga methodology. She encapsulates both the old and new school, and it’s a wicked combination. We’ve done this project out of pure love, with no money or label behind us. We just wanted to hear something we couldn’t find anywhere else. Everyone who’s worked on this is very enthusiastic about the final result.
What’s next for you Sharon?
MR: I’m continuously writing and recording. I just want to make nice music, you know? There’s an album coming next year with Easy Rider, 3421, and Jahtari all involved, something more old school. It’s exciting. There are five different MCs and 3421 on the riddims.