Adrian Sherwood & On-U Sound

Given the size of its West Indian diaspora community, it should come as no surprise that there are quite a few fine reggae producers in England. Fertile reggae scenes in London, Bristol, Birmingham, and other cultural centers have fostered the production careers of such important names as Neil Fraser (a.k.a. Mad Professor), Dennis Bovell (a.k.a. Blackbeard), Carroll Thompson – and Adrian Sherwood, who got his start as a freelance distributor of Jamaican records before founding a few small labels on his own. Eventually he organized – rather loosely – a conglomeration of expatriate Jamaican musicians and booked shows for them under the name Singers and Players. Their success led to a broadening of his contacts and associations, and in 1981 Sherwood created a label and studio he called On-U Sound. There he worked with his growing cohort of collaborators in varying combinations, producing singles and albums credited to Singers and Players, New Age Steppers, Creation Rebel, Dub Syndicate, and other bands, most of which shared members with each other and some of which only recorded a handful of singles.  

The most durable of these ensembles was Dub Syndicate, the one constant member of which was drummer Lincoln “Style” Scott. Scott was also a founding member of the legendary Jamaican studio band Roots Radics; in that group, together with bassist Errol “Flabba” Holt, he had created a signature style that focused on deceptively simple-sounding but truly elephantine midtempo reggae grooves. These created a perfect test bed on which Sherwood could turn loose a variety of singers and other instrumentalists while exploring his own adventurous mixing ideas. Dub Syndicate released albums for several decades until Scott died under suspicious circumstances in 2014.

Other artists with whom Sherwood worked on an ongoing basis included Tackhead (an ensemble that consisted largely of former members of the Sugar Hill Gang, the studio band that was one of the primary architects of early hip hop), Andy Fairley (a spoken-word artist with a weird and unsettling vocal delivery), roots reggae crooner Bim Sherman, deejay Prince Far I, and the utterly unique African Head Charge, a band centered on percussionist and singer Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah whose sound was like a wild fusion of field recordings and avant-garde dub. He has also produced most of the albums by Little Axe, a solo project of Tackhead/Sugar House Gang guitarist Skip McDonald, whose style could be characterized as a sort of dubbed-out modern blues.

While On-U Sound was never a big moneymaker, over time Sherwood caught the attention of artists outside the reggae community who were attracted by his growing reputation for adventurous, heavyweight production. He would eventually produce albums and create remixes for artists as varied as Cabaret Voltaire, Sinéad O’Connor, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nine Inch Nails, and Simply Red. He has also released several albums under his own name, on which he called in musical IOUs from a wide variety of singers and players; he has also recorded several collaborative albums with dubstep legend Pinch.

The On-U Sound label has continued in fits and starts since its founding, releasing spurts of albums and singles and then going temporarily quiet before picking up again. Much of the label’s formerly out-of-print back catalog is now available via Bandcamp.

Lows & Highs cover

Creation Rebel was one of the bands associated with Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label, and much of their recorded output consisted of instrumental reggae and dub. The group’s membership overlapped significantly with that of On-U Sound house band Dub Syndicate, but this was typical of the musical community that revolved around that label and studio. Lows and Highs features an unusual predominance of vocal numbers, notably the fine “Independent Man” (presented in both conventional and dub version) and a wonderful take on Smokey Robinson’s “A Love I Can See.”

Pounding System cover

Released in 1982 shortly after the founding of the On-U Sound label and studio, the first album by label mainstays Dub Syndicate lays out a map for just about everything that would come out of that studio in subsequent decades: a monstrous bass sound, dark and heavy roots reggae rhythms, and wildly adventurous production techniques. On tracks like “Hi-Fi Gets a Pounding” and “Humourless Journalists Work to Rules” the band and producer Adrian Sherwood sound like equal partners in the creation of the music, Sherwood’s sonic manipulations doing as much to define the sound as the grooves of Lincoln “Style” Scott, bassist “Lizard” Logan and Crucial Tony.

The Wolf That House Built cover

Guitarist Skip McDonald built a career playing funk and hip hop with Tackhead and the Sugarhill Gang, and avant-garde reggae as part of the On-U Sound collective with producer Adrian Sherwood. But as a solo artist billing himself as Little Axe, he has put all of those influences to work creating a sort of modernistic industrial blues. The opening track of this album is centered on a Howlin’ Wolf sample and the kind of heavyweight dub-funk groove that has long been Sherwood’s specialty. The rest of the program is like a funky kaleidoscope of American and Jamaican music both ancient and modern.

Tunes from the Missing Channel cover

Dub Syndicate was basically the house band for Adrian Sherwood’s ground-breaking avant-reggae label On-U Sound. Although its membership shifted somewhat over time, it was built on the drums-and-bass foundation of Lincoln “Style” Scott and Errol “Flabba” Holt (also the mainstays of the legendary studio band Roots Radics). Dub Syndicate provided backing tracks for many singers and instrumentalists who worked out of On-U Sound, but also released a steady string of outstanding albums on their own, of which this 1985 release is one of the best. It showcases the two essential elements of the Dub Syndicate sound: the elephantine grooves of Scott and Holt, and Sherwood’s adventurous dub mixing style. Highlights are tough to identify on such a consistently excellent album, but certainly Andy Fairley’s creepy cameo on “The Show Is Coming” counts as one, as does the bustling, organ-driven “Geoffrey Boycott.”

The English Disease cover

Of all the strange albums that came out of Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound studio, this one is probably the weirdest. Although it drew for its music on the usual On-U suspects (members of Dub Syndicate, Tackhead, and African Head Charge, among others) and is built on reasonably straight-ahead reggae and funk beats, the vocals consist primarily of field recordings of football fans singing the themes of their favored teams — anthems like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Abide with Me,” along with sampled recordings of football announcers. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone — but for those who love the unique vibe of On-U Sound and have a reasonably high tolerance for musical whimsy, The English Disease is tremendously fun.

Songs of Praise cover

Sounding like equal parts ethnomusicology, dubwise reggae, and avant-garde sound experimentation, Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah’s work under the name African Head Charge has been consistently interesting and usually captivating over the course of his career. Songs of Praise is the most consistently powerful of AHC’s albums, one that features field recordings of gospel singers, Muslim prayers, Nyahbinghi chanting, and all kinds of other elements, all wrapped up in heavy roots reggae rhythms and then exploded into outer space by producer Adrian Sherwood’s dub-heavy mixing. This is one of the most astonishing and moving albums ever to come out of the utterly unique On-U Sound studio.

Across the Red Sea cover

One of the most prolific artists attached to Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label, Bim Sherman had a light, almost ethereal voice that contrasted nicely with his chosen lyrical themes of deep religious devotion and cultural oppression. As a producer, Sherwood tended to be a bit more restrained with Sherman than he was with other On-U artists; instead of crafting wild dubwise soundscapes around Sherman’s voice he generally couched it in rich, heavy, and reasonably traditional reggae grooves. Highlights here include the lovely “Golden Locks” and the powerfully testifying “Just Like a King.”

Time Boom X De Devil Dead cover

Reggae producer and On-U Sound honcho Adrian Sherwood has never made any secret of his debt to the legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and on Time Boom X de Devil Dead he began paying that debt back, a process that continued with From My Secret Laboratory and, many years later, Rainford. On Time Boom, Sherwood enlists his house band, Dub Syndicate, to provide instrumental tracks over which Perry could declaim his typically unhinged pronouncements. Then Sherwood dubbed everything up in fine style, creating dark and brooding soundscapes from the raw material of Dub Syndicate’s rhythms and Perry’s incantations. Three separate mixes of “Jungle” was maybe a bit much, but honestly, which one would you jettison? And “Allergic to Lies” is undeniable. The whole album is a trip, and an enjoyable if occasionally scary one.

Golden Greats, Volume 1 cover

Singers and Players weren’t really a band, as such; they were a somewhat loose conglomeration of session musicians headquartered at Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound studio (who also often recorded under the name Dub Syndicate), called into service backing such singers as Bim Sherman, Congo Ashanti Roy, Mikey Dread, and (most memorably) Prince Far I. This album brings together some of their deepest, heaviest, and most dread recordings, including Prince Far I’s “Prodigal Son” and “Dreadlocks Soldier” and Congo Ashanti Roy’s exceptional “African Blood.” UK roots reggae has never been darker, heavier, or more brilliant than it is on this collection.

Long Time Traveller cover

Jeb Loy Nichols is a real oddity — an artist who could be called with equal justice a country singer and a soul singer, and one who has also made one of the most lovely reggae albums in the On-U Sound catalog. Accompanied by members of the legendary Roots Radics band, on this album Nichols delivers a program of original songs that chant down Babylon, but with gentleness and regret more than prophetic imprecation. And Sherwood’s production is absolutely perfect: spacious and uncrowded, with tasteful application of dub techniques and an admirable focus on Nichols’ attractively grainy voice.

Longtime cover

Roots reggae singer Little Roy had made a modest name for himself in the roots reggae community when he was invited into producer Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound studio to make this album of hard-edged roots reggae. Track titles like “Way Down in Babylon” and “Righteous Man” give you an idea of what to expect lyrically, but the grooves are a bit of a surprise; guitarist Skip McDonald and the bass and drums team of Mafia and Fluxy give the music a sharp digital edge without undermining the seriousness of Little Roy’s messages. Sherwood’s production is somewhat more restrained than usual, but still nicely creative, and several of the tunes are presented in “showcase” style (with dub mixes appended to the vocal versions).

Pay It All Back Vol. 2 cover

There are some record labels that have a sound and an aesthetic all their own. On-U Sound, run by the brilliant producer and impresario Adrian Sherwood, is one of those, and the best way to introduce yourself to the On-U Sound experience is with one of its many Pay It All Back compilations. The best of them is the second, which features contributions by African Head Charge, Bim Sherman, Barmy Army (a “band” whose output consists entirely of English football chants set to electro reggae rhythms), and the mighty Dub Syndicate, among others. Roots reggae, avant-garde dancehall, experimental electro funk, and other less-identifiable musical genres all rub up against each other and create a delightful stylistic friction.

Friendly As A Hand Grenade cover

The core members of Tackhead — guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Keith LeBlanc — had already made musical history as the backing band for the Sugarhill Gang when they hooked up with On-U Sound label head Adrian Sherwood. He enlisted them to back up vocalists Gary Clail and Mark Stewart, and then released this album under the Tackhead name in 1989. The sound is exactly what you’d expect if you know their history: sharp and tensile funk with an industrial edge, lots of dubwise effects, and sharp social commentary.

Emotional Hooligan cover

It’s hard to know how to categorize Gary Clail. Not a rapper, exactly — his hectoring, declamatory style doesn’t usually track with the rhythms of his instrumental tracks — but by no means a singer, he performs more in the manner of secular street preacher with a backing band. The fact that his band on The Emotional Hooligan consists largely of members of Tackhead, alongside other luminaries of the On-U Sound stable, means that his mini-essays on homelessness, vegetarianism, and romantic vexation get maximally funky and dubwise settings. The result is an unusually compelling album.

Classic Selection Vol. 1 cover

Despite its title, the first of Dub Syndicate’s two Classic Selection compilations actually pulls together a fair amount of material that isn’t available elsewhere: 11 of the 17 tracks are previously unreleased, while one was from an obscure 12" single and one was a radio theme. There are the usual cameos from the likes of Andy Fairley and Bim Sherman, and adaptations of songs by the likes of Horace Andy (“See a Man’s Face”) and Keith Hudson (“Satan Side”). And of course there are oddities, like an arrangement of the Dr. Who theme. Throughout, Style Scott’s drums and Adrian Sherwood’s production provide a consistent foundation for one of the most inventive sounds in reggae music.

Rainford cover

Adrian Sherwood (of the mighty On-U Sound label) and Lee “Scratch” Perry (of the legendary Black Ark studio) is a match made in heaven — assuming that your idea of heaven is a place where reggae music gets stripped to its essentials and then radically remixed. Released only a couple of years prior to Perry’s death at age 85, Rainford was their final collaborative project, and definitely one of the best. The instrumental backing tracks that Sherwood provides partake of his typically dark and heavyweight sound but also incorporate samples from Perry’s deep vault of recordings from the Black Ark. Perry declaims and chats, while the rhythms roar and skank. (And don’t miss Heavy Rain, the dub version of this album.)

Revenge of the Underdog cover

Singers and Players, a loose conglomeration of reggae artists pulled together by producer Adrian Sherwood, made four albums in the early- to mid-1980s for Sherwood’s On-U Sound label. Every one of them was an outstanding document of dark and heavy roots reggae, but Revenge of the Underdog was arguably the best; featured vocalists included the ethereal Bim Sherman and the gravel-voiced deejay Prince Far I, whose exceptionally dread “Prodigal Son” remains one of the strongest tracks ever recorded at the iconic label.

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