Dub genealogies

[Thoughts on listening to Rider Shafique’s I-Dentity]

Sometimes you find yourself scrabbling around for the right words to express something that’s been bubbling away in your mind for a while, only to find that someone else has said exactly what you wanted to say, using half the words, and far better ones.

I’ve had this unfinished piece of writing lying dormant in my ‘half-baked ideas’ folder for months. It was supposed to be a reflection on identity, on the concept of ‘race’ and how we refuse to let it go, on the experience of being a mixed-race person and having multiple narratives written onto my skin, on the ridiculousness of the term ‘mixed-race’ and and on how answering the questioned ‘where are you from?’ always ends with a conversation rather than a one-word answer.

It was a fumbled attempt to write about thoughts and feelings that have swirled around inside of me for most of my adult life, thoughts which I had always assumed would dissipate as I got older. But as 2016 has shown, the forces of xenophobia, nationalism and white supremacy are constantly being re-kindled, and we seem collectively to be intent on recycling ancient prejudices, falling back into nasty tribal allegiances, peering at each other with mistrust and even hatred.

Those are some of the sentiments that come through on Rider Shafique’s I-Dentity, recently released on the new record label by the Young Echo collective.

It’s a mournful track, and feels as though Shafique is trying to evict feelings that have long been bugging him, giving voice to a deep-seated frustration. It’s a frustration built on continually trying to untangle all the accumulated injustices of the past 500 years: hierarchies, classifications, categories that should be dead and buried but still shape our world and how we move through it.

The track also sits within a tradition: you could trace its genealogy to the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, but its more recent analogues are with the dread-infused growlings of The Spaceape, and the dub commentaries of King Midas Sounds‘ Roger Robinson. It’s a tradition of trying to destabilize and unravel systems of meaning that have kept us apart and oppressed. It’s also a tradition of transcendence, of trying to nullify Babylon’s notions, and through using the right frequencies, reaching a deeper level of understanding.

 

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Basslines of the Black Atlantic

[Thoughts on the Bristol Soundsytem Culture exhibition @ Colston Hall, Bristol]

When stripped back to its source, much of what emerges from Bristol musically has its origins in the Jamaican soundsystem. While many look to the 1980s as the decade when a distinctively Bristolian sound began to emerge, you have to look a generation back, to the era of West Indian migration and settlement in the UK in the 1950s and 60s, to find the seeds of a culture that has reverberated throughout the city’s musical landscape ever since.

Seeking a deeper insight into this period, I paid a visit to the Bristol Soundsystem Culture exhibition and installation at Colston Hall, which is an expansion of a project begun by historian Mandeep Samra to document the soundsystem culture of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

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Primarily a photographic exhibition of some of the key soundsystem pioneers in the city, including the magnificently-named Tarzan the High Priest, the exhibition also pointed out the importance of shebeens or blues dances – afterhours parties held in people’s houses – in fostering a new way of experiencing music. In the centre of the room was a custom-built speaker stack and turntable, a reminder that the physicality of the bassline was and is central to the soundsystem experience.

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While there was almost too much detail to take in, I was struck by the intimacy of the scene, as it emerged in the 1960s and 70s. The blues – which were concentrated in St Paul’s, Easton and Montpelier, were most Jamaicans had settled– functioned both as transmitters of Caribbean culture for recent migrants, but also as safe spaces for the black community, who faced hostility in city centres during a time when ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ posters could still be seen in windows. As the decades progressed, the soundsystem began to find its way into community halls, youth centres and some music venues, partly due to police crackdowns on blues parties.

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The exhibition also pointed out a couple of historical ironies. I’ve heard Bristol described before as a ‘meeting point’ between the old and new worlds – a reference to the significance of the city’s port and its role in British colonial trade and slavery. I hadn’t realised that it was also a Bristolian, William Penn, a naval officer who commanded a fleet that was instrumental in the British seizure of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. 300 years later, lured by the promise of jobs in the health service, transport and construction, many West Indians would find themselves trying to establish an identity in the former colonial homeland.

This in turn got me thinking about how the soundsystem as a mode of communication was borne out of a form of alienation; out of the experience of being both a colonial subject and a third-world immigrant in the ‘motherland’. As I was looking at the photos, I eavesdropped on a Uruguayan music producer talking about how soundsystems could be seen to form part of postcolonial theorist Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic – a transnational culture forming in between the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. Expanding on this, I wondered what information could be contained within the bassline – the most critical aspect of reggae, dub and all subsequent musical mutations – that still resonates so powerfully with so many people? Could it be that soundsystems are transmitters of a particular code, represented sonically in bass frequencies, that contain all the emotions of the colonial/post-colonial encounter? Rage, frustration, injustice, liberation, emancipation all converted into movement energy by 18 inch speaker cones ?

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The current roots/dub renaissance in Bristol – which features soundsystems such as Negus Melody, Masaai Warrior, Pappa Roots, Jah Lokko, Kibir La Amlak, Downbeat Melody and Lionpulse regularly filling out nights such as Teachings in Dub at the Trinity Centre and Bristol Dub Club at the Black Swan draws on a very rich, complex and deep-rooted history, which underpins much of the city’s musical identity, and also acts as a kind of template, a starting point, for newer sounds to experiment with and evolve from.

The Bristol Soundsystem Culture exhibition runs until 17 July.

In Between Notes

[Appleblim, power ballads and a brief history of the Skull Disco record label]

I’m sitting in the education suite of Bristol’s Colston Hall, watching Laurie Osborne – better known as Appleblim – run a class on sampling using 80s power ballads. It’s week 5 of an Ableton Live course I’m currently taking, and the Bristolian producer – one of the key figures in the emergence of dubstep in the mid 2000s, as well its subsequent deviation into weirder sonic worlds – has dropped by to share some tips on using the software’s effects to manipulate sounds. It’s an insight into the producer’s creative imagination, which seems to depend on serendipity, chance and experimentation as much as obsessive attention to detail. Full of humility and humour, Appleblim uses a sample from Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ as a starting point. The snippet is then transformed by a multitude of reverbs and delays until it becomes unrecognisable, mutating into a cavernous ambient drone. It’s a deliberate attempt to push spatial effects to their extremes in order to generate sounds that are as far removed from their source material as possible. Essentially, it’s the same technique beloved of early jungle and hip hop producers: mining record collections for obscure musical sources before transforming them into something else entirely. Often, he emphasises, it is the space in between the notes, the intake of breath before vocals, the initial scratch of a pick on a guitar string that provide the most interesting sounds to work with.

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This idea of seeking out the spaces between the notes could equally apply to his role in the evolution of dubstep.

From an instrumental musician and bassist, Appleblim came to inhabit the tiny circle of producers and journalists who began to congregate in the the fabled FWD nights at Plastic People in Shoreditch – including Skream, Mala, Kode9 and the Bug. But it was his collaborations with Shackleton that proved to be pivotal in creating alternate spaces for the sound to evolve in.

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Bringing an outsider’s perspective to the scene – Shackleton was a Lancashire native and a decade older than many of his South London peers – their formation of Skull Disco was crucial in expanding the parameters of dubstep; allowing the sound to coil away from its skulking, skunk-induced origins to more abstract, almost psychedelic levels. The Skull Disco releases were influenced by Middle Eastern and African percussion, infused with a slightly otherworldly sensibility, summoning a world of both expansion and entropy. All of which was helped along in no small part by the graphics accompanying the releases by Zeke Clough, whose apocalyptic sense of humour – drawing on sources as diverse as Egyptology and hardcore punk – made the Skull Disco releases prized for their visual art as much as for their sonic relevance. Although the label had a lifespan of only three years – from 2005 to 2008 – it was hugely influential, paving the way for some of the more experimental compositions that have emerged from the studios of Shackleton, and other musicians, in recent years.

Bristol bass weight

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).

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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.

Babylon’s still burning

[Vivian Goldman’s Punky Reggae Party @ The Cube, Bristol, 19/10/14]

The seats in the auditorium of The Cube – Bristol’s independent, volunteer-run cinema and arts venue – are clearly not designed with the large-legged gentleman in mind. Having been coerced into becoming a member on top of paying the substantial tax at the door, I’m sat at a wonky, sideways angle, waiting for the appearance of Vivian Goldman, veteran music journalist, friend of Bob Marley and self-styled ‘Professor of Punk’ who now teaches the history of punk and reggae music at New York University.

A tinge of nostalgia colours the event, but doesn’t dampen the overall effect of Goldman’s multimedia presentation, which turns out to be a fascinating oral account of the punk/reggae cultural mash-up that happened at the end of the 1970s, the effects of which have reverberated throughout subsequent British musical subcultures up to the present day – especially in Bristol.

The starting point of The Punky Reggae Party – taken from the eponymous Bob Marley single – was that it was a unique cultural fusion that cut across class, race and gender lines at a time of deepening social conflict. The UK was scrabbling around for a coherent sense of identity in the wake of the decline of empire, and waking up to the harsh realities of the 1970s: the oil crisis, the Three-day Week, IRA bombs and the SUS Laws. Out of this social meltdown, punk and reggae became unexpected bedfellows – twin voices of resistance that found common ground in the rubble-filled streets of London.

Drawing on her own heritage as the child of Jewish German immigrant parents, Goldman was attracted to punk and reggae as both were forms of outsider music, giving voice to disenfranchised first-generation black kids and pissed off white kids, unable to see any hope in an era of racial tension, unemployment and street violence. The echoes of dub seemed to reverberate in psyches that were otherwise filled with dread and anxiety; the uncertainty of dub trajectories mirroring a world permanently on the brink of collapse.

For punks, dub and reggae opened up spaces for both musical and social experimentation, allowing them to disrupt the hierarchies of postwar British society. Yet she made the point that the cultural transfer was in many ways a one-way street: while bands like The Clash and The Slits drew heavily from reggae, the same was not always true the other round. As she put it: ‘no one was sitting up in Burning Spear’s house in St Anne’s, Jamaica, listening to The Jam’. Equally, not all elements of reggae, and in particular, Rastafari, resonated with predominantly white punk culture. Yet the concept of Babylon – an easily-identifiable enemy that encompassed the police, the state, and the establishment – definitely did.

Alongside this partial borrowing from Rasta lexicon came an opportunity to explore and break down gender identities. As a female journalist having to battle the entrenched misogyny of the music press – writing for major music journals of the day including Sounds, Melody Maker and NME – Goldman noted the explosion of female participation in punk, citing Ari Up of The Slits and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex as two examples of trailblazing women who refused to conform to notions of how women should dress, talk, behave or perform. But even in this more tolerant atmosphere, the sight of women with weird haircuts dressed in a mishmash of men’s clothing didn’t always go down well with some of the more ‘Old Testament’ reggae heads.

Towards the end of the show, which featured a constant soundtrack of seminal punk/reggae/post-punk tracks, as well as photos of some of the major musicians from the era, the air of nostalgia took over slightly; the cohort of former Bristol punks bemoaning the decline of record shops, the music press, and the lack of militant music of the same calibre as that made during the 70s and early 80s. Arguably, the clear social and political fault lines that defined a generation growing up in that era no longer exist in an age of instant information, free downloads, and – despite a general disillusionment with the political class – a lack of a clear alternative.

Yet as one audience member pointed out, all is not lost. The protest movements that swept the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years have all had their own forms of protest music. However, the galvanising force has increasingly been hip hop, which, when looked at from its South Bronx sound system origins, also has its roots in reggae. So, resistance to Babylon in its many manifestations continues, though instead of underground zines, shebeens and benefits parties, maybe the soundtrack is made using cracked software and shared on social media.