Adrian Sherwood’s music, although nominally regarded as dub reggae – or sacrilege, if you’re a purist – crosses so many boundaries it’s little wonder that he’s regarded as a primary influence on industrial music. These days, the echoes between his best work in the 1980s and drum and bass and, especially, dubstep are extant. This interview coincides with a wide-ranging and long-overdue reissue programme for the On-U-Sound catalogue. He’s still making music, still following his own path, still uniquely British. He’s also a disillusioned West Ham United fan. We love him.
How did you get into music?
The first record I heard that I liked was ‘Walking To New Orleans’ by Fats Domino when I was about seven. The school I went to in High Wycombe had lots of Pakistani, Indian and West Indian kids and I used to hang around my friend Gilbert Barker’s house. He was Vincentian and his sister Jean used to play all the 7-inches, reggae and calypso; but mainly reggae. I got into it instantly. But I was into funk and we used to go over to Dunstable, to the California Ballrooms and underneath the Ballroom there was the Devil’s Den which is where they used to have all the funk. We used to stay at my mate’s family, the Redison family, in Luton and there it was pure reggae. We were waking up to John Holt’s A Thousand Volts Of Holt playing!
So you must have been into those crossover records like ‘Monkey Spanner’ and ‘Double Barrel’.
Well what happened, I was DJing at school for fun at lunchtimes in the science lab to raise money for the old people’s Christmas fund. It was really crap but good fun. Eventually we went down to the Newlands Club and the DJs were Judge Kilroy and Chalky White. My friend, Joe Farquharson, ran the Newlands. He was Jamaican and he was like a father figure to me. Judge Kilroy and Chalky White were playing slamming dance music of the time, stuff from the States, interspersed with ska, rocksteady, bluebeat and modern reggae (but not much). The main emphasis was on the black American stuff. They’d play Adriano Celentano’s ‘International Language Of Love’, and then it would be into ‘Lottery Spin’ by Zap Pow, then loads of funk; two or three ska tunes you could shuffle to, maybe a few tunes for a smooch and then back on to the funk. That’s how it used to run in them days. They were good DJs and eventually we got to DJ there in the afternoons and then in the evenings and that’s how I started with my love for the music.
Were you collecting then, too?
I used to go from High Wycombe very early on a Saturday and get to Record Corner in Bedford Hill in Balham for 9.30am. This is from 15 or 16 years old. They used to import soul and they were more of a soul shop than reggae but I bought reggae there too. I remember buying ‘Rastaman Chant’ by the Wailers on a black Tuff Gong import. After Record Corner I’d go to Shepherd’s Bush market to Caesar’s and I’d end up in Harlesden, where I got free copies off the Palmers – the guys that ran Pama – because Joe had previously worked for them at Soundville. Then I’d go from there back to High Wycombe and drop a few of the new tunes that afternoon at Newlands. I’d be back there by 1.30pm.
How did you get involved in the industry?
Through the Newlands. That club was brilliant. In the afternoons we used to have Emperor Rosko, Johnnie Walker, Dave Lee Travis, Noel Edmonds, Judge Dread, all doing PAs in the afternoon at our thing for the kids. I started doing that in 1971 when I was 13 or 14. The opening thing Joe put on there was his mate Johnny Nash. There was a roadblock, about 2000 people. The club could only hold about 600 legally but they managed to get a 1000 in. It was only a little place. I had some mad nights down there. In 1975 or ’76 we had a really hot summer. It was so hot no one wanted to go in the club. So that was the end of the Newlands.
Tell me about Emperor Rosko.
Mike Pasternak, his name was. He had an office in the west end. They were such pissheads, all around the top of the office they had these empty Bacardi bottle tops and there was a girl working there who had a string vest on and no bra. I was only like 14, so I was like, “Wow this is mental.” (This is my memory, don’t want to cast aspersions on Rosko!) Rosko was fantastic. He was the first person playing reggae properly on his Rosko’s Roundtable. He was wonderful, like a Wolfman Jack impersonator, but he did the gigs with me. I think it was 1971 or ’72, the first gig.
We were playing off our crap system and then he suddenly kicked in with 20k of Orange. He built it like a reggae sound system. He came on in this fur coat looking like something out of Sesame Street, pissed, and just killing it. He loved his soul, he loved his reggae. Yeah, he was the man. But then Rosko used to work for Pama. Joe knew all these people from his Pama days and putting events on in the ’60s. So when he had the Newlands club he started calling these people. We had Winston Groovy, we had Nicky Thomas, BB King, Ben E King, all playing at the Newlands. It was mad.
Anyway, Joe had worked for the Palmers in the ’60s in Club 67 and obviously they had the London Apollo club and they were doing promotions. They had people like Ellis Breary who Gregory wrote that ‘Thief A Man’ tune about. Joe had worked for them selling the records. Palmer gave me a job when I was 15 or 16, before I had a driving license; they’d just started back the label about 1974. They’d released ‘Tonight’s The Night’ by Claudette Miller, ‘Wolverton Mountain’ and re-released ‘Wet Dream’ by Max Romeo on their own Ocean label.
I was travelling up and down the north of England promoting it, dropping off the tunes to DJs and Carl gave me my train fares. I went to Wigan Casino and met Russ Winstanley, who had his little shop in Wigan and I got loads of Clifford Curry and rare Pama Records out of the cupboard for him, which we sold to him for £1 but he was probably selling for £40, because Pama released quite a lot of northern soul like ‘You Turn Out The Light’. This was in my summer holidays! You know, they’re lovely the Palmer brothers: Harry and Jeffrey and Carl. I passed my driving test and got my license two months after my 17th birthday which was spring 1975 and I started working for Carl in Soundville Records in Harlesden.
This is not the one that Andy Sojka and co were involved in, is it?
That was on the other side of the road, All Ears. Arawak was upstairs and Hawkeye up the road came later. I know the whole of Great Britain by reggae shops that aren’t there anymore [laughs]. That’s how I learnt the whole country. Anyway, we had the shop and Fitzroy Sterling, who owned Body Music, had been running it. I took over it. I was only 17 but I did really well. Got the turnover up.
During the year Newlands collapsed, Joe said, “Why don’t we start a little distribution company?” We called it J&A. Carl Palmer rented us a room above Jet Star and we started distributing all the little reggae labels. This was just before Mojo opened up down the road. That was the start of my career in the business.
Why only the north?
In those days everyone had their little patch. Larry Lawrence from Ethnic Fight had a van; most people had their own little van. And it wasn’t worth their while going to Granby Street in Liverpool if they only had one tune to sell three copies to Junior who owned that shop. Eventually I had Trojan, Virgin, loads of them, specifically for the north. Then we started importing from Jamaica.
So initially it was domestic releases?
Well we had our own label Carib Gems. J&A only lasted from 1975 to 1977. Pete Stroud (aka Doctor Pablo) and me started Hitrun together. We worked on such small profit margins. Virgin were giving us 7% discount on dealer price. So if you had one bad debt, a really late payment by HMV, you were screwed. I finished J&A with a debt of £3,500 secured against my stepfather and mum’s house, which was only worth 15 grand at the time. Big money in those days. I was only 19. I was living my life as nervous wreck. I took those debts with me into Hitrun and then on to On-U-Sound. It took me until I was about 25 before I was debt-free from my early music life experiences.
With Carib Gems, you were just licensing stuff from Jamaica, right?
What happened was we knew Chips Richards cos I spent four or five months working for Vulcan, Junior Lincoln, Webster Shrowder and Chips Richards. Don’t know if you know any of them, but they’re proper characters. They’d been involved with Trojan. They were all original people involved with Trojan. They started this thing called Vulcan and I was driving this massive truck. I don’t even think I had a proper license to drive it. It was like a huge Mercedes 406D truck full of stock and it wasn’t even that popular what we were releasing. There are some good titles like Mystic Revelation album, the triple album, Ras Michael and The Sons Of Negus. I was there for a few months.
After that Chips was at a loose end and we started Carib Gems with Chips, Joe, Anil and Mohti Khana, who were from High Wycombe and financed the thing. When you’re that age and you love the music so much, you’re on it. I selected the first ever Prince Far I album which was Psalms For I. Chips wanted to release an album called Blood Claat Dub, some crap created album, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt to release that album which in turn came to making Message From The King, which we put together as well. Plus the second Twinkle Brothers album, some of the earliest Dillinger Trinity, the first Michael Rose tune ‘Observe Life’. We released some really good tunes. And I selected those.
So you were basically the A&R?
Part of the A&R team, I was choosing lots with Chips, but Chips started Skynote in tandem which came through Carib Gems and it was the UK outlet for the productions of Sonia Pottinger. We also had Highnote and there was Carib Gems, Larry Lawrence’s Ethnic Fight, Castro Brown’s Morpheus all going through J&A as well. They all helped me because I was really young. I just loved it and they knew I loved it. These were people who didn’t just deal with anybody. They trusted Joe and knew that I was massively into it and on their side, so I made sure I did the best for them. We also imported from Jamaica. That only lasted two years and after that we started Hitrun and that was where I did my first production, which I started in 1977 just for fun.
What was it?
Dub From Creation which I called Creation Rebel after the Burning Spear song. I pretended it was a band and it eventually evolved into one.
How did you put it together?
I had a friend in High Wycombe and he was a calypso bass player called Clinton Jack and I hummed the basslines to Clinton. I met Fish Clark, who was drumming for Far I, the previous year. He’d illegally overstayed in England after the tour and was in Birmingham. I got him down and he did the drumming. I had Crucial Tony who was the cousin of Clifton ‘Bigga’ Morrison. So I had Clifton, Tony, Fish and my friend Dr Pablo who had started the label with me. He played a bit of melodica. We made the whole album in a few days really.
How did they react to working with someone so young?
Well we were all 19! We were all teenagers. And then Chips introduced me to Dennis Bovell, who’s become a lifelong friend of mine and Dennis engineered it for me. I kept saying, “More delay, more reverb. More more more!”
He kept laughing and saying, “Shut the fuck up!”
It was a really silly album but people still like it.
I wanted to ask you about punk. You worked with a lot of the interesting people that came out of punk and I’m wondering if the music itself had any impact on you at all?
The interesting thing about punk is Pete Stroud and I lived in High Wycombe and a mate of ours who ran the non-black things was called Ron Watts. Ron became our partner as well. As well as doing local promotions Ron did Uxbridge University and he also promoted Tuesday nights at the 100 Club. So Pete would finish work and he’d go home and drive Ron (because Ron was a bit of a pisshead). Also Ron had a band called Brewers Droop, in which he was the lead singer! At one stage Mark Knopfler was his little guitarist. We used to throw things at him cos we thought he was an idiot. [Adrian’s mum wanders in] Hello mum. Mum knows all this. She’s a personal friend of Prince Far I, my mum.
Anyway, Ron promoted all the Sex Pistols gigs, when they played Uxbridge etc. Pete would drive him every Tuesday, stay for the whole evening and bring him home. Pete loved it, he loved the Jam, he loved all that stuff. But it wasn’t my cup of tea.
Maybe it was the attitude that might have appealed to you, because you worked with a lot of the interesting characters: Ari Up, Mark Stewart, Jah Wobble etc
When we started doing Creation Rebel gigs in about ’77 to promote my record. Prince Far I was fronting it. The Slits, Generation X (Billy Idol was a fan), the Clash and the Pistols, Rotten and all that lot, used to come to our shows. We were doing live dub and they loved it.
Wasn’t John Lydon involved in Frontline, Virgin’s reggae offshoot?
I know the ins and outs of all that as well. Previously reggae had been treated so badly. It was always for sale at a budget price in cheap racks and looked like it was second-rate music. Chris Blackwell, to his eternal credit, started marketing it like rock music and so it got respect. And Virgin did the same thing. They put Dread Inna Babylon by U Roy and the Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time album, Johnny Clarke’s authorised version, on the main Virgin label. And they sold about 100,000 of the U Roys in Africa. Didn’t cross over into the mainstream here. So they thought, hang on a minute, this is easy money. This is what I think they did. I know they did. And they went to Jamaica and signed everything. They sent Lydon out, because he expressed an interest – there’s all those famous photos of Lydon and Big Youth together – and started the Frontline label. The only problem was about a year later all the African nations put a ban on the importation of luxury items, like fridges, TVs and… records. So suddenly their market was screwed. And that was the thing that eventually broke the back of Virgin’s reggae was the lack of income from exports.
How did On U Sound come about?
Hitrun had finished and I was in a lot of debt that was owed against my mum’s house. I was in a panic really. I had a few tapes left over. By this time I was squatting in a house in Battersea with Ari Up and Neneh Cherry and my friend Junior Williams who ended up becoming the father of Ari’s twins. I did a bit of recording of what became the first New Age Steppers album. So I started On U with another debt, but the original idea was it was going to be like a production company. So I had Pete Holdsworth, who I later started Pressure Sounds with, he was involved with his band London Underground. I had Lizard and Crucial Tony from Creation Rebel, Martin Harrison who’d been involved with This Heat and a guy called Dennis Brady. That’s how it started. But it didn’t work. Pretty soon after, Lizard got put in jail. Some money got stolen from the company; all sorts of things were happening. It was anarchic.
By that time I’d met Kishi Yamamoto, who became my girlfriend, and she was gonna do all the imagery. So I was burdened with all the debts from Hitrun and by this time I owed the studio £8,000. So Kishi and me ended up running the label for the next few years. The first years were very hard because I initially had a deal with Rough Trade to do the first album but Geoff Travis didn’t want to do the second one which threw me back into the lion’s den. So I ended up making loads of crap albums for Cherry Red for very little money. So I was robbing Peter to pay Paul.
You did a couple of things with Bruce Smith from the Pop Group on Cherry Red, didn’t you?
Yeah, I’d met them all through the Slits. I had Bruce Smith and John Waddington from the Pop Group on those records. Anyway, as soon as I could I got back into making experimental stuff for myself like the African Headcharge LP and Mark Stewart’s first album. I’d have the bank phoning me, I’d have VAT arrears. I was teetering. For years I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t start turning things around until I was about 25.
What changed things? On U Sound did make an impact.
I did start making an impact. I started getting people phoning up asking me to do some jobs. So in 1983 I had Daniel Miller ask me to do one of my first remixes: Depeche Mode’s ‘People Are People’. I got 1500 quid for that. That was a fortune in those days and I used it as down payment on a little house in East Ham. That enabled me and Kishi to move from Wapping and that coincided with Kishi getting pregnant with our daughter who’s now 26, Denise.
The sales started going up, and I kept getting offered jobs. So I’d do a job to pay for the label. Anyone that thinks labels make you loads of money is an absolute nutcase. Well, they can make money but you have to get out quickly, which I can’t because I don’t know how to do anything else. If the label starts doing well, you have to take on more staff and then you maintain the success and you take on more staff then if you have a bad period, you lose huge amounts of money and you make one or two bad moves and you’re out of business. Late 1982 was when I got myself out of the hole. I’d paid off the debts. Apart from the studios, which I owed money to. For about five years I’d virtually sleep in them. I’d get up on the Monday, go to bed Tuesday, get up on the Wednesday go to bed on the Thursday and so on.
How did you first meet the guys from Wood, Brass & Steel?
I did a record with Steve Beresford, Akabu’s ‘Watch Yourself’. My friend Neil Cooper who owned ROIR cassettes in New York played it to Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy. Tom had already heard about me and heard some of the tunes I’d made and said he’d like to release it on Tommy Boy’s new label Body Rock and would I come over and work on it. So I went to New York and when I was in New York I met Keith LeBlanc, who was working on a session with Sylvain Sylvain. He’d just put out Malcolm X’s ‘No Sell Out’.
I invited Keith to come over and do a tune and him and me did a tune together in England. He came on his own first. Next time I went over for the NMS in 1984 and I met Skip (McDonald) and Doug (Wimbish). We decided to team up and try and do our own label which was World Records, through John Louder at Southern. John looked after Crass and we’d be in the same studio hanging out with Kukl (Björk’s first group), the Subhumans, Crass and all that lot, Minor Threat and Steve Albini and Big Black. It was an amazing studio in a garden in Wood Green. We did that Mark Stewart album, Learning To Cope With Cowardice. And to this day I’m really proud of that album. So we teamed up and we did Mark Stewart & The Mafia first record which evolved into Tackhead and then we done Fats Comet and these other funny little tunes.
A lot of the releases on On U Sound bore no resemblance to a lot of the reggae out there at the time. Was it a conscious decision to go in that direction?
I didn’t see any point in following. The one thing I learnt early on was you got to have your own sound and Prince Far I and all the great producers I liked all had that. You could identify Keith Hudson’s productions, Lee Perry’s were very easy to spot. So what I thought I would do is get my own sound. I’d been heavily influenced by working with Mark Stewart and also I’d worked with the Fall who were completely into anti-production: no effects, all dry. I’d studied the production of Link Wray and all those odd balances in sound. Geoff Travis was trying to get me to mix the first Jesus & Mary Chain album and I said, “Mate, don’t do anything to that, it’s brilliant.” It was amazing, but it sounded out of balance, with the drums really tiny and the guitars all upfront. So through all of these experiences you learn about space and sound – plus I was working every night in the studio.
I did learn a lot of the things Mark introduced me to like tape saturation and overloading and applied that to certain other productions. I was working with Kishi in the studio, working out delays and approaches to sound and she was a great musician. I didn’t want my records to sound like they came from Jamaica. I decided to go the opposite way.
One thing that I think typifies your approach is an interest in noise rather than melody. Do you think that’s a fair description?
I’m a bit tone deaf, so I went more noisy than melodic!
I know you’re joking but it’s significant, because it predates a lot of what happened post-acid house, which was very much about noise as hooks.
I think I was lucky. I had access to loads of studio time. I took the risk. I at least had the guts to go massively into debt and try things. But I worked with some brilliant people. I did things with Judy Nylon, we tried things with the London Underground that were PiL-ish. So it wasn’t just me, there were other people interested in similar things. There was a collision of people who were into the B-lines and slowing down the beats and I was there with the authentic reggae crew. I was lucky enough to have worked with Bim Sherman and Prince Far I which gave me the credibility. It was a collision of things.
Did you get a good reception in the West Indian community?
To be honest I wasn’t really making records for anyone but myself. Some people in that community loved On-U-Sound and others like the David Rodigans of this world… He once said to me, “What on earth are you doing to reggae?”. I respect Dave enormously, he’s got a love for the reggae and he’s a brilliant bloke but they are the champions of no change to some degree and you end up in the realms of nostalgia, which is the death knell for anything. Now we look at reggae and the one thing that keeps it alive and it’s not Jamaica. There’s a lot of things that have moved on like dubstep and jungle and various new roots movements in England and other places in the world.
Do you see parallels between what you were doing and what subsequently happened with dubstep and drum and bass?
A lot of the things you were doing are very similar to dubstep.
I’ve got great respect for the dubstep community, the good ones, and I give respect back. I’m aware that a lot of them have got some of my tunes in their collection. A lot of the stuff on On-U-Sound still sound really good. You can play tunes of ours from 30 years ago because they’re in a specialist area that we love.
What’s interesting about On-U is the breadth of music that you did on it, it’s not just reggae or dub, it crosses loads of boundaries, as does your production career generally.
I’ve done folk music with Ian King, right through to jazz with Harry Beckett, to industrial and funk, but I’ve always applied the same tonal approach and keeping it uncluttered and using the same mixing techniques as I have to everything.
How did you come to work with Lee Perry?
That came from Steve Barker saying look you two have got to get together.
What was it like working with him?
Fantastic. I always make an effort to make sure he sounds really good. He knows I don’t just rush rush rush to do any old thing. Lee’s fantastic to work with because even at 75 he’s got great ideas, you’re always gonna get something off the wall with him and he often goes off into the realms of spiritual stuff. And now he doesn’t drink, smoke or eat meat, he’s into a conscious tip, he’s a brilliant person to have in the studio because he believes he’s in a space where magic can be created and that spreads to everyone around.
Have you just got the rights back to On-U-Sound?
I’ve never not had the rights. I had one distributor after another go bankrupt, a German one then a French one. I almost gave up. We made an agreement with EMI where they were going to release a few albums a year. Then they went into meltdown where they couldn’t release anything. So Headcharge couldn’t tour because the record didn’t come out. All the things that were supposed to happen didn’t, so it all went into limbo for another three or four years, and it’s only now I’m starting to re-release things. It was ridiculous. Every Mistake Imaginable, that’s EMI.
I know when you play live it’s a mix of DJing and employing the desk to produce dub sounds. Is it something you do a lot?
Well nowadays as I’m getting older I try not to do too many gigs. This weekend I’m doing live DJ dub things putting all the tunes through a desk with an MC playing. Next month, I’m mixing Lee Perry and Max Romeo. Then in May I’m doing live shows with Mark Stewart & The Mafia and Tackhead. So I take CDs, a laptop and a drum pad, a delay, two reverbs, a noise machine and a Roland drum pad.
Tell me about the Pay It All Back Shows.
Pay It All Back were cheap releases that were designed to introduce people to the catalogue. So we thought with the tours we’d also keep the ticket price very low and do a buzzy really sold out tour, again to highlight and get profile for the label. With the label I encouraged people to go and look for a deal for themselves. I never ever signed anybody to the label. I paid for every recording, everybody had me free. And they shared half the profits. But the idea was to use On-U as a stepping-stone to go on to bigger things. That was the plan all along in everything I did.
© DJhistory, 2011. Interview conducted by Bill Brewster in Ramsgate on March 29th, 2011.