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Act Mark Stewart / Maffia

Mark Stewart
Mark Stewart

Mark Stewart remains one On-U Sound's most influential acts, having made peerless, arresting and skull splintering music for almost as long as anyone can remember. Here then is his story:

Mark Stewart started out in Bristol in 1978 with the Pop Group - an out-there, genre-busting band whose titles, political conviction, disrespect for copyright and willingness to collaborate laid the foundations for his later work. This militant gang of leftist radical politicos specialised in a funk-driven cacophony of sound that was abrasive, strident, and ultimately very exciting.

Railing against Margaret Thatcher's Tory UK government, the state of pop music, racism and sexism, the Pop Group were not the easiest band of the early post-punk era to listen to, but those who made the effort were in for an interesting melange of primitive rhythms and avant-garde guitar racket.

Led by Stewart's squalling "vocals", they were unabashedly and stridently radical to the point of being hectoring. But, unlike others of their ilk, the music was so challenging, joyfully noisy, and downright weird that it was easy to cut them a little slack, even when their finger-pointing and ranting became a bit much. Said Stewart once of the group's output, after its decline:

"It was not punk. Punk had already happened. We were a year or two younger than the punk bands. And I'd always loved black music. I'd always gone to funk clubs so I wanted to play funk. We really thought we were funky, but we couldn't play very well and we played out of time, so people thought we were avant-garde. All these old journalists would come up to you and start talking about Captain Beefheart. I couldn't stand Captain Beefheart. We thought we were like Bootsy Collins or something."

Never intending to make a serious run at the pop charts, the Pop Group imploded in 1981 after three albums. They did, however, contribute some talented people to other bands: most notably Gareth Sanger, who formed Rip Rig & Panic, which also featured the lead vocals of a then-teenage Neneh Cherry. Stewart of course went on to flourish in Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound stable of artists. Despite its raw, inherent anti-commerciality, the Pop Group's dissonant agit-prop rock did influence a contemporary generation of political bands like Fugazi, Fun-da-Mental and Rage Against the Machine.

Post-Pop Group members Mark Stewart, Bruce Smith and John Waddington thus heading off to London and hooked up with the emerging On-U Sound as part of the New Age Steppers. On-U supremo, Adrian Sherwood, had previously worked as European tour manager for legendary Jamaican deejay Prince Far I, whose live backing band largely comprised members of Creation Rebel and later Roots Radics. So while Lincoln Valentine 'Style' Scott (drums), Errol 'Flabba' Holt (bass) and Eric 'Bingy Bunny' Lamont (rhythm guitar) formed the core of Dub Syndicate, they were also enlisted as part of Stewart's new backing band - the first line-up of the Maffia.

The 'Learning To Cope With Cowardice' LP
The "Learning To Cope With Cowardice" LP

The highlight of their first LP "Learning To Cope With Cowardice" (ON-U LP24) is almost certainly the last track of its vinyl editions, "Jerusalem". British politicians of various pursuasions have laid claim to William Blake's anthem in the process of attempting to create a definition of "England" as a nation. Stewart however has perhaps more claim to Blake's legacy as it is clear from Blake's texts that his visions of "England" were both beautiful and horrific. The track itself continues the theme of a disregard for copyright kicked off by the Pop Group, phasing an un-credited choral version of the song in and out of the mix.

On paper it didn't sound like it would work. Urban paranoia and a techno sensibility; the positivity of dub reggae gone horribly wrong; dystopian visions mixed with those of William Blake, Donna Summer and William Burroughs; voodoo and ultra-left texts. But it worked, and when it didn't, the fractures could be far more rewarding than the gleaming monolith of any corporate uber-production it could never have been.

By the time 1985's second LP "As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade" (ON-U LP36) was released, Mark Stewart's Maffia had mutated. Though Stewart had been aware of Doug Wimbish, Keith LeBlanc and Skip McDonald and their seminal work as the Sugarhill Gang, it was Adrian Sherwood who had recently brought them to the UK and started working with them on a largely experimental but ground-breaking project called Fats Comet. Stewart heard them play at the Language Lab in the mid-80s:

"It was this tape they'd done with like rockets going off and drums that sounded like steamhammers. I was going mental playing it to everyone."

Sherwood soon introduced the trio to Stewart, and so the new Maffia were formed. Parallel to recording as the Maffia for Stewart, without him and sometimes replaced by Gary Clail or Peech-Boy Bernard Fowler, Keith, Doug, Skip and Sherwood continued to record as Fats Comet and later Tackhead with their own, equally influential brand of funk-soul-sonic mayhem.

The 'As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade' LP
The "As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade" LP

Meanwhile, Mark Stewart & The Maffia's "Veneer..." LP was without doubt one the heaviest albums he ever made. "Passivecation Program" sets the agenda for the rest of the LP by being wickedly harsh, dubby and funky. The track was a highlight of the Maffia's live set at the time, and Paul Meme recalls their early live shows:

"Basically the live Maffia experience was just like seeing Tackhead - i.e. a brain-pulverisingly intense experience, the closest music could get to all-out apocalypse and still be endurable - but with the addition of a front man who projected this incredible political / social paranoia vision which twisted the energy up yet another notch. He was actually a very focussed performer, he wasn't obviously in need of help to function, but he wasn't 'controlled' in the sense of being a cynical fake. Watching him bouncing up and down and calling out 'Operation Passivecation' had this amazing propulsive energy. There's no way the On-U story would have happened without him."

The track "Bastards" [Rhythm 66] is like finding yourself in the middle of a military installation without security clearance. Klaxons, layer upon layer of distortion and Stewart shouting "This is a restricted area!" through a megaphone might not be everyone's idea of a good listen, but hearing Stewart's voice switching between oppressor and oppressed characters was pretty compelling - particularly when coupled with some of William Burroughs' words of advice.

The microchip on the cover of Mark Stewart's third, self-titled album (ON-U LP44), released in 1987 continued the theme that all was not rosy in the 20th century brave new cyber-world. It prefigured the dystopian vision and love/hate relationship with technology that characterised techno, which had been evolving simultaneously in Detroit and Chicago for two years. The album's main themes centre around raw emotions such as love, anger, lust and alienation.

Mark Stewart's self-titled LP
Mark Stewart's self-titled LP

"Survival" kicks things off with lyrics grabbed from the Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five track of the same name (echoing the Maffia member's past incarnation as the Furious Five's backing band). Stewarts' vocals make mincemeat of the way that "the strong survive" is usually portrayed. The vulnerability and dread in his voice completely subvert any notions that "strength" is something obtainable from being in the right club, reading the right books or listening to the right music.

The sample at the beginning of "Hell is Empty" [Rhythm 49] pre-empted the furore about the militarisation of space, and is essentially Keith LeBlanc's "Object-Subject" (from his "Major Malfunction" LP) with additional vocals from Stewart. "Stranger" has been credited as a blueprint for trip-hop (according to UK newspaper, The Independent, no less): a mellow classical refrain (actually Erik Satie's "Gymnopedies") backed with a mellow breakbeat.

Mark Stewart's contribution, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, to the development-of and culture-underlying the "Bristol Sound" is widely acknowledged. In fact at one point he became a mentor to Tricky, giving him crash space, forcing him on-stage and recording his first post-Massive Attack tracks. Tricky remembers the sessions with some bemusement:

"Mark's quite a mad geezer he brought loads of disorder to the studio when I was recording 'Aftermath'. He brought all these people with him; he just goes around clubs and picks up people on the way ... The track is so tense because of him being around, he got on the mixing desk and put on reverb and echo and just f****d around with everything. We took it all off, but there's still a lot of his spirit on the record."

The lead track of Stewart's 1990 "Metatron" album (ON-U LP51) was "Hysteria", another almost-hit. It was a classic example of a warped pop song that did all the right things, but was just a little bit too edgy for the mainstream. Skip McDonald's guitar work was to the fore on the album, especially on the tracks "Collision" and "Mammon", making this the most "rock" of Stewart's albums. That said, the rock in question is always more akin to granite rather than Guns 'N' Roses!

The 'Control Data' LP
The "Control Data" LP

It was a long but worthwhile wait until 1996 for Stewart's still most recent studio album "Control Data" (ON-U LP80). With Simon Mundey now recruited for programming duties, the Maffia (no longer credited as such) occupied more of the background, giving the album a more techno feel. The lead track "Dream Kitchen" is almost poppy, but the "You love objects..." refrain gives the game away - a glossy critique of commodity fetishism. Elsewhere the influence of UK soundsystems remains, with dubbed out vocals and synthesised horns. In fact "Scorpio" with its siren effects and steppers rhythm could be a serious dub track, were it not for the tortured vocals.

The live shows accompanying the release of the album were extremely well received. The gig at the Astoria in London saw Stewart and crew on top form, the energy and vision undiminished after a break of several years. However, throughout the album there is a sense that the huge chasm between Stewart and pretty much everyone else producing music is being closed. Perhaps this is a deliberate attempt to come in from the cold after so many years in the wilderness, but it may just as well be that the technology now allows easier access to extreme sounds and textures.

In recent years Mark Stewart has only made occasional recorded appearances but tracks like "The Lunatics Are Taking Over The Asylum" for On-U Sound's "Chainstore Massacre" compilation (ON-U CD1002(1)) and his mix of the Silent Poets' "Prisons" (on the Japanese "To Come - Volume 1" remix album) confirm that his militant, hard-edged style is reassuringly and thankfully still to the fore.

(Largely compiled, extensively edited and supplimented by the editor from John Eden's excellent Mark Stewart & The Maffia article at but also using extracts from John Dougan's Pop Group entry in the All Music Guide formally at

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Adrian Sherwood
African Head Charge
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Mark Stewart / Maffia
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