Reggae was born in Jamaica, but it found a second home in the UK – the result of waves of post-war Caribbean migration, and the curatorial ambitions of labels like Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, who took names like Bob Marley and made them international celebrities. Early on, the idea that Britain could turn out reggae artists to compete with the Jamaicans seemed absurd. But around the mid-‘70s, a new wave of musicians and studio hands started bubbling up from the UK’s multiracial centres, taking the style, sound and themes of the Caribbean groups and giving them a distinctly UK twist.
Red Bull Music caught up with three legends of the UK reggae and dub scene – broadcaster and DJ Don Letts, On-U Sound don Adrian Sherwood and BBC 1XTRA’s Seani B – and asked to talk through 10 essential UK reggae and dub landmarks.
1. Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution (1978)
Don Letts: A seminal UK reggae release. For many years, British reggae artists didn't get any respect – if it ain't from Jamaica, it ain't the real deal. But thanks to pioneering work from Matumbi, Aswad and Steel Pulse, it really felt like UK reggae had come into its own, and could stand toe to toe with any Jamaican production. The other thing about it, this is coming out of a period of reggae music when it was very political, militant, socially conscious. This album was certainly that – it dealt with the black British experience. It's a very poignant record, considering the political movement right now around the whole Windrush scandal. David Hinds, the lead vocalist had a very distinctive vocal. The thing that struck me with Steel Pulse was the harmonies – they managed to do this very poignant music, but sugared the pill, if you will.
2. Matumbi – Point Of View (1979)
Adrian Sherwood: If you're looking at the dub pioneers in England, you've got to say Dennis Bovell. Dennis is a dub master. His work with his band Matumbi was amazing, and he went on to produce lots of really important dub albums. He was unique, he had his own sound, and he was very, very musical – a very talented multi-instrumentalist. He'd play the drums, guitar, piano, every instrument – people didn't always realise that. He's been a huge influence on me. He engineered the mix on my first ever record, [Creation Rebel’s] Dub From Creation, which is 40 years old this year. I remember he told me, and he really hit the nail on the head… he said: "You go in the studio, record all these great musicians and great performers. And when you go in the studio to make the mix, now that's your time to express yourself."
3. Aswad – New Chapter Of Dub (1981)
Adrian Sherwood: The main track is an absolute horns anthem. Aswad were the standard setters really, as far as the rhythm section goes – "Drummie" [drummer Angus Gaye] featured on lots of great UK-produced records, and they functioned as a rhythm section for the great Burning Spear. If you look at most great reggae records, they're made by fantastic rhythm sections – the same as American soul tunes, the records on Tamla Motown. What makes bands like Aswad fascinating is that they were very good players, and they did study their art – but they also have the flavour of a few mates playing together, their own chemistry, as opposed to just serious professional rhythm sections making great tunes. They were capable of singing very beautiful stuff, and I think their manager at the time said, do you want to be the Lions of Ladbroke Grove, or do you want to make some money? [Laughs]. And bless them, they decided why not, and went more commercial.
4. Carroll Thompson – Hopelessly In Love (1981)
Seani B: My early days as a DJ was part of a house party soundsystem. That meant you played at birthday parties, Christenings, weddings, clubs – basically anywhere people wanted music! You had to be versatile as a selector that could play all night. In any house party, around 4 or 5am the pace of the music changed, and rare groove, slow jams and Lovers Rock was what was required. Lovers Rock was the UK take on Jamaican reggae in the ’70 and ‘80s – it had created its own stars at the time, like Louisa Mark, Janet Kay and The Investigators. In my very limited Lover Rock selection at the time this was a go-to album – I could always rely on playing I’m So Sorry to nice up a party. I used to get the look of “this young bwoy know tune.” There was something about the smoothness of Carroll Thomspon sitting on the hood of the car in her fur coat – an iconic album cover in UK reggae music.
5. Mad Professor – Beyond The Realms Of Dub (Dub Me Crazy! The Second Chapter) (1982)
Adrian Sherwood: All of us were fascinated by the array of reverb, delay and faders – all the stuff coming from the greats in Jamaica. But on England we had to find our own sound – it was like, the Jamaican stuff has the authentic sound and the great players, so we have to find our own avenue. Mad Professor was an electrician – he studied electronics and he had his own way of working. Really you have to investigate his whole Dub Me Crazy series – look at the track Kunte Kinte – The African Warrior, that was a seminal dub tune.
6. Maxi Priest & Caution – You're Safe (1985)
Seani B: This was a seminal album when it was released in 1985. Maxi came from a sound system background with Saxon, and was making a name on the international reggae market for his on-point vocals, which appealed to the ladies! His performances at Sunsplash in London during that period solidified his position as the flagwaver for clean-cut Lovers Rock from the UK. Produced by Paul Robinson, it was released on Virgin Records which gave prominence to Maxi and his talent. He went on to scale the heights of the Billboard charts a few years later, but this was the album that laid the foundation for future success.
If the world was going to make a sound, it would be bass.
7. Alpha & Omega – Watch And Pray/Overstanding (1988)
Don Letts: When I first heard this record, I thought it was some heavyweight dub outfit from Jamaica that I’d somehow missed. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was two white people from Plymouth – and the bass player, Christine Woodbridge, was female. I heard it and I went straight out and bought everything before that, and everything after it – about 25 records, my friend. They are one of the most authentic dub outfits in the UK – we’re talking about some serious roots and spirituality, classic basslines. A very distinctive sound. There are very few people who can touch them for that authentic vibe. People often ask me, what is it about bass? And I don't really know, but it connects like minded people to each other, and in turn, it connects them to the planet. If the world was going to make a sound, it would be bass.
8. General Levy – Wickedness Increase (1993)
Seani B: Long before General Levy recorded his biggest hit, Incredible, with jungle producers M-Beat, he was a well-established UK dancehall artist. I had listened Levy on some of the early UK soundsystem tapes from north-west London. But his recordings with UK dancehall label Fashion Records are what made him a household name. Fashion were the UK equivalent to many Jamaican production houses, with a catalogue to prove it. This album features many of the big records I had in my box around that time. Even now, playing Heat or Champagne Body wouldn’t sound outta place – but my favourite would probably have to be Mad Them. The way Levy changes his flow and weaves in and out of the every changing riddim track blew my mind at the time!
9. Mungo’s Hi-Fi – Sound System Champions (2009)
Don Letts: Mungo’s Hi-Fi are probably my favourite UK soundsystem – no disrespect to the others, but that’s a fact. It’s a production thing – they’ve very identifiable, they’ve got a very distinctive bass sound, which is very much in keeping with their old school vibe. This record is brilliant, it’s a great collection of the Mungo's Hi-Fi riddims, and it’s got a great collection of vocalists on it – it’s a great collection of some of their best riddims, over a selection of new and old school deejays. If you wanted a selection of who’s hot right now on the microphone, you could do a lot worse than getting this. They play non stop globally, and they’ve got a label called Scotch Bonnet, which I highly recommend to anyone into their dub and serious reggae. Funnily enough, a few Glastonburys ago BBC6 Music put me in a faux soundclash thing with them. Mungo's is going to destroy me every time, but it was fun trying to compete with them – just to be in their presence, man, it’s a wonderful thing.
10. Gappy Ranks – Put The Stereo On (2010)
Seani B: When a modern-day dancehall artist can ride rub a dub riddim of yesteryear you have to give him credit. Gappy is cut from the same north west London cloth as General Levy – just like Kingston, Jamaica this is a hotspot for reggae dancehall artists in the UK. He linked up with west London producer Peckings, and they came up with a modern-day classic. Chris Peckings has access to some of the very best vintage riddims from the likes of Treasure Isle and Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One. The title track sees Gappy’s take on Jackie Mittoo’s Hot Milk, painting the perfect picture of why we all love this music, while taking me back to when my mum would play music and cook the Sunday dinner – a history lesson on artists, soundsystems and everything else in the culture. You could not get away from this record when it was released. It captured the imagination of old and young all around the world and certified him in UK reggae and dancehall history books.
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