"Would you like to hear?" asks Adrian Sherwood from his studio in London, where he's been working around the clock producing the new Asian Dub Foundation project. Over the phone comes a little sample of the new track he's been mixing with colleague Professor Stretch, who, he says, is "helping me kick in the grooves." The mix is rough indeed, especially transmitted across the Atlantic over a monophonic speakerphone. It's hard to hear anything but a bunch of percussive-sounding noise, but Sherwood is already visualizing the finished product. "We're actually building the drum grooves at the moment," he explains. "Then we're actually gonna put the b-lines on a bit tighter. The ideas are all laid out."
Over the last twenty years, Sherwood has earned a reputation as a prolific engineer, mixer, producer, and label head, most notably with the London-based On-U Sound. At the core of On-U's innovative output is dub, a term originally referring to the instrumental B-side of a reggae record (or "version," in Jamaican parlance). Often, a dub version provided an opportunity for producers to experiment with echo, delay, reverb, and sound effects outside of the confines of the verse/chorus/verse format of vocal productions. Dubs have been called the first remixes, but the word also refers to a genre whose innovators include Sly & Robbie, Augustus Pablo, Scientist, and Prince Jammy. There were other dub producers in the UK when Sherwood started -- most notably Mad Professor and Jah Shaka -- but they tended to be far more conventional in their efforts than Sherwood's zany approach to dub's drum 'n' bass-oriented sound.
The label, whose name is a clever play on the word "onus," began in the late '70s. Inspired by the Rock Against Racism movement, which had paired acts like Steel Pulse and PiL on the same stage, On-U linked the nervous energy of punk and new wave with the ganja-puffing intensity of reggae. "On paper, there's no reason for [collaborations like] that to exist, but they had the same message," Sherwood says. "You felt like anything could happen. It was a very engaging period."
The emergence of multicultural groups like the English Beat and the Specials during that time was a unique English experience, according to Sherwood. "It was very much like drum 'n' bass, which was like a second punk thing here in recent years. That came strictly from England. In fact, people like Timbaland are using those techniques now, which is quite amusing to me, watching from afar. People like KRS-One and Timbaland or whatever, their whole vibe is based on second- or third-generation Jamaican licks -- every form of modern dance music is." Sherwood's conversational style is best described as stream-of-consciousness -- every thought seems to be contesting with three or four others at a time. That's great for entertaining dinner guests, but not so good when you're trying to pin the man down on the factual details of his storied career. It's perhaps understandable -- when you've been at the mixing board consoles for thousands of sessions, you're lucky if you can remember the name of a record, much less its release date.
Drawing from a vast creative wellspring that almost completely contrasted the style-over-substance disposability of mainstream pop, On-U's first releases were experimental collages of punk, reggae, jazz, and noise. Artists that were produced by Sherwood, like African Head Charge, Creation Rebel, and Dub Syndicate, didn't aspire to mainstream success or cater to trendiness, yet were a stylistic blueprint for much of what flowed out of England in ensuing years. For example, Massive Attack chanteuse Shara Nelson and Neneh "Buffalo Stance" Cherry worked with Sherwood long before their commercial breakthroughs.
Over the years, On-U's recorded output has covered a dizzying array of solo albums, group albums, dub albums, singles, and compilations -- sort of like a soup that uses every spare scrap of food found around the kitchen. Artists as divergent as Lee Perry, Einstürzende Neubauten, Manu Dibango, and Megadeth all worked with Sherwood, as well as in-house artists with great reggae pedigrees, like Congo Ashanti Roy, Bonjo I, and Lincoln "Style" Scott. Like the alternative music scene's version of Kevin Bacon, Sherwood's six degrees of separation links together punk attitude, industrial noise, ambient groove, spacey dub, and kinky reggae.
Sherwood's sonic journey began at the age of twelve, when he was first introduced to reggae through his friend's sister. "I got into it quite passionately, and to this day I'm still a huge fan of music from Jamaica. It's a very, very crazy island. On one hand it's very radical, but on the other hand it's sort of conservative. There are people who like reggae because it's like sex; it's warm -- a big fat bottom end, and there's loads of space in it."
While still a teenager, Sherwood ran a mobile sound system and worked retail sales for the Pama label, hustling "disco 45s" (reggae 7-inches) by artists like Max Romeo and Gregory Isaacs. Later, he became a junior partner in the Carib Gems imprint, which released early records by Black Uhuru and the Twinkle Brothers. Another notable Carib Gems artist was Prince Far I, a Rastafarian DJ (or toaster) who would become his biggest influence. Their partnership, however, started off on the wrong foot. "I was going to Birmingham, selling reggae to black record shops," says Sherwood. "I heard Prince Far I was looking for me, because I had released one of his records. I heard he wanted to beat me up -- he wanted to kill me."
Eventually Sherwood and Far I met, and luckily no blood was shed. They ended up becoming friends and collaborating on numerous records, including the Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series, which Dave Thompson described in his book Reggae and Caribbean Music: Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion as "heavy, metallic, skull-crushing essays on bass, booming, and echo, with just enough shattered shards of melody trailing through the wreckage to remind the listener that it used to be a song." To this day, Sherwood remains indebted to Far I, who made it possible for him to pursue his dreams of having a career making reggae music. "Without a shadow of a doubt," he says, "it was my association with him that gave me credibility to make records of my own."
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