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On-U Sound In The Area

Act Dub Syndicate

Style Scott and Adrian Sherwood in 1981
Style Scott and Adrian Sherwood in 1981 (Photo: On.U Sound)

On-U Sound's premier dub outfit and a name synonymous with the label from its inception. Steve Barker charts its history, edited and supplemented by the Editor:

Dub Syndicate (DS) first surfaced as an addition to the credits of Prince Far I's "Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter III" being given credit for overdubs along with Adrian Sherwood. So just as African Head Charge was to become the vehicle for the talents of Bonjo I, so DS would provide the creative housing for Lincoln Valentine "Style" Scott as an alternative to the Roots Radics, who had proved to be such a powerfully influential force in reggae from the late seventies through the early eighties.

The 'Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter III' LP
The "Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter III" LP

So in 1982 Scotty made no appearance on the outfit's first album "Pounding System" (ON-U LP18), then he took joint drum credits with Charlie "Eskimo Fox" on "One Way System" (ON-U LP25) and "North Of The River Thames" (ON-U LP30) with Dr Pablo in early 1984, and it was not until the 1985 classic "Tunes From The Missing Channel" (ON-U LP38) that he assumed his rightful role at the core of the artistic and creative process.

"The Pounding System" (ON-U LP18) was, as Mr. Sherwood so laconically puts it, - "One of those quick ones", but speaking on behalf of most fans of On-U Sound, I would argue the album was none the worse for it. Obsessed by achieving "a big sound", Sherwood created an instrumental dub set that certainly has stood the test of time and sounds even crisper today than it did back in 1982. The track titles were an open piss-take of the contemporary releases by Scientist, which were usually along the lines of "Heavyweight Super Vampire Ninjas versus Alien Voodoo Cowboy Androids Chapter III".

For the album's rhythm tracks that were not already in the can, two non-stop days and nights were spent in the country at a studio called the Manor - owned by Richard Branson's then rapidly expanding mega-corp. and a favourite haunt of Sherwood and the On-U collective, as and when the time was either cheap or free. The tracks which became the album's final set were mixed in just one day back in town at Berry Street in the heart of London, where "ambience" was a built-in feature of the studio's technical specifications.

'The Pounding System' LP
"The Pounding System" LP

The reason behind the super-fast recording and mixing times of the album did not relate to any residual punk ethos built into Sherwood's modus operandi, but was more to do with the fact that On-U Sound had, as was common in those times, run out of money! "Deadly" Headley Bennett guested on the album, though not through any subtle and cautious design but because "...he just turned up"!

1983’s "One Way System" (ON-U LP25) was the immediate follow-up album and for some strange reason did not initially appear on the On-U Sound label. Instead it found its way to New York and ROIR, also known as Reach Out International Records the cassette-only imprint run by Neil Cooper. Actually the real explanation for this apparently bizarre move is a very good one. As was all too common at the time, On-U Sound was not exactly in the best of health financially - but the music kept on coming and had to have an outlet somewhere!

Like its predecessor "One Way System" was pre-modern DS, in that the band was still a collection of musicians without a permanent home and as yet without a focus on the specific creativity of producer Adrian Sherwood and drummer Style Scott. It's also instructive to put this album in place historically, at least in the context of what was happening in reggae. Or to be more precise, what was not happening in reggae!

In the history of the music there have been relatively few lulls – but the early to mid eighties was one of them. The dancehall craze had fizzled out and there were still a couple of years to go before "Sleng Teng" opened the floodgates of the digital revolution. Roots music was taking a breath and the major artists were still looking for major deals in the shadow of Bob Marley and the Wailers. So the appearance of an album of what might be described as experimental dub, created by an young English producer who was still years off a grudging semi-acceptance by an aspiring reggae establishment, did not even recognise the tide never mind swim against it!

The set largely comprises of dubs or versions from other On-U projects of the era, for example by opening with "Socca" [Rhythm 31] a version of the Bim Sherman tune of the same name which appeared on the Singers and Players"Staggering Heights" LP (ON-U LP23). Only the track "Drilling Equipment" seems to stand alone without an original vocal version unless I can be otherwise corrected!

The 'North Of The River Thames' LP
The "North Of The River Thames" LP

"North of the River Thames" (ON-U LP30), reflecting the other Augustus Pablo's "East of the River Nile", is the one and only album from the man from Bourne-End-on-Thames, long-time On-U associate Dr Pablo a.k.a. Pete Stroud. It first hit the streets in its original vinyl edition in the early Spring of 1984 - although the tracks which constituted the final set were assembled over a number of years prior to their actual release.

As well as featuring on the early Cry Tuff albums Dr Pablo was an original member of the Dub Syndicate, and was responsible for the haunting melodica and keyboard melodies to be found on other associated contemporary tunes, notably "African Land" [Rhythm 78] by Carol Kalphat and Clint Eastwood, "Frontline Speech" [Rhythm 79] by Prince Far I and "Dungeon" [Rhythm 14] by Glenn Miller (Wailing Soul). The good Doctor was also seen on countless stage shows with the original Creation Rebel line-ups through the period of the late seventies with live sound mix by Adrian Sherwood.

"North Of The River Thames" is an album that provides a satisfactory line between the ending of Creation Rebel and the true initiation of DS. The collection opens with a cut first made famous by the Shadows when the band charted the tune in late 1960, a version of the theme tune to the Edgar Wallace crime thriller TV series "Man of Mystery". This is followed immediately by an absolutely killer version of Ron Grainer's theme tune for the now cult TV sci-fi show "Dr. Who?". The tune "Tribute" [Rhythm 23] is just that, with a nod to the Doctor's credited inspiration the "Honourable R.N. Marley O.M.", the keyboard melody is from "Natural Mystic" with excerpts from both "Running Away" and "Get Up, Stand Up". The album closes with "We Like It Hot" which dedicated On-U train spotters will recognise as the rhythm for Prince Hammer's "Well Hot" [Rhythm 34].

"Tunes From The Missing Channel" ("Tunes" for short) (ON-U LP38) was originally released in June 1985 and was not so much a follow-up to the previous work but more of an initiation of a whole new genre. What we now know today as "new roots" can track its modern development back to this album as its source. What was different about "Tunes" though was the discovery of some new technology, its use and abuse.

Whilst in Switzerland working with Marc Hollander of Aksak Maboul fame, Sherwood, together with then partner and keyboard-player Kishi Yamamoto, discovered an emulator for the first time - hence the delight in pulling the sitar sound from the keyboard which resulted in the almost prosaically titled "Ravi Shankar Pt.1" [Rhythm 43]. Also, before sampling had a name, Sherwood stumbled upon the technique of what he called "captured sound" by utilising the locking function in the AMS digital harmoniser. No need to bleed all over the tape deck a la Double D & Steinski as a result of razored edits, instead you just invoke Emperor Rosko via machine triggers to appear in "The Show Is Coming" [Rhythm 44].

The 'Tunes From The Missing Channel' LP
The "Tunes From The Missing Channel" LP

And so in "Tunes" we have the earliest manifestation of the use of the kind of technology which is today commonplace in the production of the new roots reggae/dub all over the world. The collaborative nature of the enterprise brought together ex-PIL playmates Jah Wobble and Keith Levene in addition to members of African Head Charge and Creation Rebel, the sweet crooning of Bim Sherman and the apparently game for anything Steve Beresford. The result was the grouping of tracks that eventually became "Tunes", one of the best-selling albums in the entire On-U catalogue.

Released in the first month of 1990 "Strike the Balance" [***Ed.: A name chosen by Steve***] (ON-U LP47) is another milestone album in On-U history in that it was the last of the DS productions to be initially generated in the UK. From then on Style took the helm in building the rhythms in Jamaica for export to London where Sherwood would then complete the work. It was also the point where DS actually became both a real and a touring band.

Amongst the album's highlights is a version of the old Lloyd & Devon classic "Cuss Cuss", probably one of the toughest singing duties ever requested of Bim Sherman by Sherwood. The soon-to-be-diva Shara Nelson made a guest appearance on the cheesy old Serge Gainsbourg hit "Je T'aime", whereas the mysterious Delroy Cat fulfilled the requirement for On-U that is placed on all reggae-based labels to have cut at least one tune with a singer called Delroy!

"Hey Ho" was later remixed by Sherwood as a signature tune for my BBC Radio Lancashire show "On The Wire". Alongside the voice of 'Fats Comet' (Emperor Rosko), there appeared the unmistakable sound of my young daughter Georgia (well, unmistakable to me at least!) uttering the words "On The Wire". It has since been replaced by "Ravi Shankar" - but nevertheless "Georgia’s Version" remains a true On-U unreleased underground rarity!

Editor's additions:

As well as the above "solo" albums and "North Of The River Thames" with Dr Pablo, DS also recorded two albums with the legendary producer / artist Lee "Scratch" Perry. In particular, the first, "Time Boom X De Devil Dead" (ON-U LP43), has become regarded as one of Perry's best post-Black Ark recordings. For On-U Sound however, protracted, bitter and ultimately failed wranglings over copyright ownership following a licensing arrangement with EMI appear to have left it without any claims to rights or royalties.

The early 1990s saw the release of a number of DS compilations under the "Classic Selection" banner that eventually extended to three volumes (ON-U CD5, CD6 and CD69). As well as showcasing previously unreleased material they also made available for the first time on CD tracks from a number of earlier albums. It was not for several more years that these original LPs would gain their first full CD release as part of EFA’s "Master Recordings" series.

The 'Stoned Immaculate' LP
The "Stoned Immaculate" LP

With Style now well and truly commanding in the creative process, new heights were scaled in 1992 as the "Stoned Immaculate" set (ON-U LP56) reached the world's hi-fis for the first time. As well as featuring vocals from Skip McDonald and Akabu, vocal samples from the late, great Prince Far I were also used, including from his 1979 "Dub To Africa" set with the Arabs on Hitrun (APLP 9006). With new-found momentum, the following year's "Echomania" album (ON-U LP64) delivered more solid rhythms and space-filling soundscapes. Amongst the guest list this time around were Lee Perry, U Roy and Spearhead’s Michael Franti.

Following 1996’s "Ital Breakfast" set (ON-U LP84), Style had gained the confidence to venture into the record distribution business himself and took full charge of the "Dub Syndicate" name as a vehicle for his own exploits, with Sherwood now mostly adding the finishing touches to releases. Thus the Lion & Roots label was launched, through which all DS product is now released. The 1998 companion "Fear Of A Green Planet" (ON-U LP86) and "Mellow And Colly" albums, though largely sharing the same pool of riddims, provided the first break in production "tradition" for DS. This came in the form of Scientist providing the final mix for "Mellow And Colly" rather than Sherwood. By this time the DS live show was in full effect and touring the world to the acclaim of its discerning gig-goers.

Dub Syndicate’s sound continued its evolution with 2001’s "Acres Of Space", and so up to date, with a greater focus now being placed on vocals rather than rhythms and mixing desk effects, though still underpinned by a final mix and overdub by Sherwood. Demonstrating Style’s musical standing and exercising his contacts with the cream of Jamaican vocal talent old and new, the likes of Luciano, Capleton, Big Youth, Gregory Isaacs and Cedric Myton have contributed to recent albums.

Much ground has been covered, influence imparted and musical "research and development" undertaken over the 25+ years since a young Style Scott and Adrian Sherwood first encountered each other. As the music is as fresh and tough today as it’s always been, the signs are still good that there will be plenty more to emerge from their partnership.

2 Badcard
Adrian Sherwood
African Head Charge
Andy Fairley
Annie Anxiety / Little Annie
Audio Active
Barmy Army
Bim Sherman
Charlie "Eskimo Fox"
Creation Rebel
Deadly Headley
Doug Wimbish
Dub Syndicate
    . Biography
Gary Clail
Ghetto Priest
Harry Beckett
Jeb Loy Nichols
Jesse Rae
Judy Nylon
Junior Delgado / Jux
Keith LeBlanc
Lee "Scratch" Perry
Little Axe / Skip McDonald
Little Roy
London Underground
Mark Stewart / Maffia
Missing Brazilians
New Age Steppers
Noah House Of Dread
Revolutionary Dub Warriors
Samia Farah
Singers And Players
Strange Parcels
Tackhead / Fats Comet
The Circuit
Tribal Drift
Voice Of Authority

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