Saturday saw ‘My Machines’ take place in Stokes Croft’s Hamilton House; a coming together of Elevator Sound – the music tech arm of pivotal Bristol record shop Idle Hands with Novation – a company producing MIDI controllers and synths. The corporate sponsorship of the event felt incongruous with the grassroots and community-focused ethos of Hamilton House. Yet the event was a rare opportunity to hear insights from some of the most important artists from Bristol’s underground music scene of the last three decades, including Roni Size, Krust and Stryda (of Dubkasm).
Much has been written about the fabled ‘Bristol Sound’, it’s origins and characteristics. But I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing two of its pioneers give their own interpretation of the movement they helped to create. Peter D Rose and Ray Mighty, who together with Rob Smith formed both Smith & Mighty and record label More Rockers, represented the first generation of producers who would later cement Bristol’s reputation as a mecca for bass-driven music. Reflecting on the anarchic origins of the sound as teenagers in mid-80s Bristol, full of Jamaican soundsystems, punk gigs, and breaking into Glastonbury, the duo isolated three sets of factors which led to the creation of the sound.
The first of these was technological: the availability of early drum machines made it possible for the first time for young people to create their own beats from their own bedrooms. But the development of a distinct style was very much an accident of circumstance. Ray Mighty described the way they were trying to make ‘stuff that sounded like everyone else’, emulating sounds from Jamaica and the US, but coming out with rougher, less polished recordings that gradually came to form a peculiarly Bristolian aesthetic.
The second, was the ethnic make-up of the city and the relative acceptance that members of the black community found there. Despite widespread racism during the early 1980s, parts of Bristol – St Paul’s and Easton in particular – were havens for first and second-generation black Bristolians, as well as white locals fascinated by the bass frequencies they encountered at reggae dances, which couldn’t be found elsewhere. By the middle part of the decade, clubs such as the Dug Out became multiethnic havens, accommodating the full cross section of Bristol’s social, racial and subcultural populations.
The third was the relative isolation of Bristol from other large urban centres, coupled with the close proximity in which most of the city’s producers and musicians lived in the city. In the pre-internet age, early tracks were distributed mostly on tape and were aimed at the local community, reflecting the immediate experiences of those who lived there. The fact that people are still drawn to the city by its music (this writer included) shows the depth of impact the music continues to have.