Nick could read music and I could read, but we banished that as our ears seemed to be quicker than our eyes. I got chucked out of the orchestra because once doing my homework in the music room, there was a rugby match going on in the playing fields opposite. I was playing with the music in front of me but gazing out of the window and playing perfectly along. And the master said, ‘Stop there’, and he told me to start again at [a specific] bar and I said, ‘Oh where is that?’ he goes, ‘You weren’t reading it were you? You were playing from memory. I wish my memory was as good as yours, but if the conductor stops and says, OK, we are going to start here, you won’t know where you are. You’re not orchestra material.’ And I had to agree.
The Isley Brothers “Testify Pts I & II” From Testify 7" (T-Neck) 1964 It sounds like Arthur Conley? Lou Rawls. Right, wait a minute… sounds like Jimi playing guitar. King Curtis? No, wait, Little Richard [emits Little Richard scream]. I know it’s Jimi playing guitar and I know he played with Little Richard. It’s the other lot he played with around the time. Oh, I’m lost. The Isley Brothers. Oh, The Isley Brothers! They are bringing all these other acts on, like Little Richard, James Brown and Stevie Wonder; it’s like a variety performance. It’s them doing mimics of all those people. It’s interesting because Matumbi, at the end of our show, did the whole of that week’s Top 20 over two chords in a reggae style, just for a laugh, to say that everything’s everything. We used to do that frequently. How big an influence on you was Hendrix? Huge! Before that there was Hank Marvin, “Foot Tapper” [sings guitar line] or “Apache”. That was a lesson in note bending – semitone bending on slinky strings. Hendrix he bent it right out! Bending with the whammy bar as well and coming right back in, making the strangest animal sounds on guitar, and with delay and echo. That’s why I tell people, that’s the first dub I heard – Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun”. The guitar is making any amount of sounds, like it’s out in space, it’s like the soundtrack from Star Wars in 1967.
Public Image Ltd “Public Image” From Public Image 7" (Virgin) 1978 It’s John [Lydon], innit? We were wondering what you thought of Jah Wobble’s bass playing. I’ve done something with Jah Wobble. With a girl, PJ Higgins, it’s called “Watch How You Walk” [in 2014]. I remixed it and added a voice of mine. You worked a lot with some of the people from the punk and post-punk scenes. It seemed that there was a kind of empathy between them and reggae, but what do you think were the points of connection? The whole thing about me getting involved in it is that they wanted the separation sound of reggae, everything loud but audible. Up until their era, rock had just mixed it and mulched it in so you couldn’t quite separate the drum sound. Now there were groups that had lots of trashy guitars and keyboards as well, and voices with harmonies, and so the compressor had to come into play. People just squashed everything, threw it to the wall and whatever came back, came back. But reggae was more selective about its frequencies and would exclude the frequencies that we didn’t want so it wouldn’t sound woolly. We’d shave things down at the input section, but quite often rock engineers would say, ‘It will work out in the mix.’ That’s why a mix took two or three days sometimes.
We in the reggae world were mindful of the mix in the recording. So if a guitar had to be tchick… tchick… with no bass frequency on it, shave it at the recording end and fit it together like a jigsaw puzzle; don’t wait till you get to the mix. There’s no point trying to re-equalise something that’s already been EQ’d. Quite often I would have a balance near as dammit as to what I was going to do in the mix, so I could mix an album in an afternoon. On the Pop Group’s 1979 debut album Y, you changed the group’s sound quite radically. I excluded all the frequencies that we weren’t going to need in the mix – I decided what it was going to sound like and that was the way it sounded from when it was recorded to when it was mixed. It’s cooked and by the time the vocals go on they are the icing on the cake. And Cut by The Slits. The vocal melodies were the same from their early days, but otherwise it sounded completely different. Well now you know what I did. It was quite deliberate. Quite often they would say, leave it we’ll get it right later and I would say, ‘No, we’re going to get it right now. We decide at the point of recording what it sounds like forever more and a day.’ On paper it could have been a clash of styles but it worked really well. It was the compartmentalising of the instruments, giving them their own reverberation and their own room, so when I put them together you get a big fat chunky sound with lots of reverbs. I add a little bit of space and width and you need to hear, clearly, everything that you recorded. Reggae’s been compartmentalising, in terms of sound, for ages, so that’s what they needed to learn how to do.
Prince Far-I “Plant Up” From Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter III (Daddy Kool) 1980 Prince Far-I. Him and Adrian Sherwood. I quite often ring up Adrian and go [imitates deep Prince Far-I voice]. For someone to speak like that all the time! We often mention Far-I. I was wondering what you thought of Sherwood’s production on this. There’s just a bass drum pulse, Far-I’s voice, and the vocal effects. That’s a harmonizer. It’s a Rastafari chant. It’s the funde, the fundamental beat – the bass drum plays that. In the original Rasta chant there would be voices answering the lead chanter, a kind of preach and response. It’s congregational stuff and Adrian’s got Far-I’s voice and feeding it into a harmonizer, so the voice triggering that kind of Darth Vader effect created an electronic congregation [laughs]. What do you think of Adrian Sherwood’s production? He’s worked in a lot of different styles. He’s very inventive. In fact, I mixed his first album, Creation Rebel, he was 17 and when I’d mixed that for him he was on his way. So we are mates from a long time. [At the end of the track] He’s using his harmonizer well, it’s feeding back and all that. It was probably a new toy, so he is featuring it heavily. Engineers tend to do that – all the latest splodges and splashes. You see, Adrian has been a long time admirer of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and all his effects, and King Tubby and all the dub boys. Errol Thompson is another dubbist that you can’t ignore and Scientist took it to another level. At Channel One, that was quite remarkable. Sylvan Morris [engineer at Studio One and elsewhere] did some mixes that were quite off the hook dubwise. Do you think dub can ever go too far? No, there can never be a point where you go too far with dub. You can do whatever you like as long as someone else appreciates it, and there is no end to the imagination. There are no don’ts in dub.
Allstars “Walk On By VIP” From Walk On By 12" (Allstars) 2000 Is it that [Shanks & Bigfoot’s] “Sweet Like Chocolate”? Sounds like a Wookie production. This is Allstars, produced by Steve Gurley, and a reworking of Sybil’s soul cover of “Walk On By”. Is this a style and approach that you like? I admire people who do that, because it takes a bloody long time to do all those samples and then clear them as well. When I made records with Linton Kwesi Johnson and I wanted to veer off in this direction he would go, ‘Let’s not do that; it takes too long and it’s boring.’ He was quite right to insist. We’d go into the studio with a bunch of musicians, and decide which musician was most apt to play on each particular piece, and that was much better than going through a lot of samples to find the right sound. But with a computer it’s finding and tuning samples and then they turn out stiff. This is stiff. 2-step garage has been seen as a kind of modern update on the style of lovers rock. Yeah, because what it was, they couldn’t nick the lovers rock grooves so made grooves of their own that were reminiscent of lovers rock, but mechanical. You wrote and produced the original and pivotal lovers rock tune with Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”. How do you define it compared with other reggae styles? It was to be British, it was to be about love, the tempo can only be up about 120 bpm, which is like the tempo of “Silly Games”. That’s like the top lovers rock groove. It has to be tuneful and harmonious and has to be a love song. Because the lover is lyrics, the rock is the reggae rock. I was there at the forefront of it, pushing it along. With “Silly Games” had you specifically intended to make a hit record? Absolutely. I wanted to take over the whole reggae field because I’d noticed that it had been overrun by a drummer called Sly Dunbar, and he was such a good drummer that everything he played on and every time he played a new beat somewhere it would be a new reggae style. So I had in mind this drum pattern where, quite like soca, the drums would lead from the hi-hat and then try to fit the snare in so that the drummer is kind of juggling the hi-hat and the snare… and so it was slightly Afro. And you’d be playing the hi-hat near to the bell and you’d roll. But it was four beats to the bar with the kick drum, like disco. So using those three [elements] and then playing reggae over the top, and then an ice cream of a young lady singing on top of it, so by the time she got her man she was shrieking
22 | The Wire | Invisible Jukebox | Dennis Bovell