Cult UK record label On-U Sound has been pushing a unique breed of industrial, punk-inspired dub music to unsuspecting audiences since its inception in the late '70's.
Founded by Adrian Sherwood at the turn of the decade, the legendary imprint has released countless crucial works from the likes of Dub Syndicate, Tackhead, African Headcharge and beyond. The label inspired a new generation of dub-heads and noise-freaks well into the 90's, and left a radical mark on experimental music communities across the world - a mark that can still be observed clearly today.
Science Fiction Dancehall Classics - a new compilation curated by musician and artist Trevor Jackson - provides a new, comprehensive insight into the label's experimental '80s output - "the electro-fried avant-garde side of On-U Sound."
The album, released today on triple LP, CD and digital formats, features a broad selection of classics, rarities and unreleased tracks from the On-U Sound vaults.
Ahead of the release date, we caught up with the album's curator to discuss his relationship with the label, the process of compiling, and the lasting impact of the label's aesthetic to date.
Let's start from the beginning. Can you remember the first On-U Sound record that you heard? Where were you at the time, and how did it sit with you?
I think the first On-U related record I heard was on Tim Westwood’s rap show on Capital or Kiss - he was playing Fats Comet & DJ Cheese “King Of The Beat”. From that I got into stuff like Tackhead and Mark Stewart + the Maffia. I was a fan of Keith LeBlanc anyway, those records he did around that time like “No Sell Out” by Malcolm X and “Lip Service” by Beatmaster.
What was it about the early material that resonated with you in particular? And what was its immediate effect on you as an artist?
I was really into beats, things like “Beatbox” by Art Of Noise, lots of electro and hip-hop stuff, early Run DMC, so when I heard those early Keith LeBlanc/Skip McDonald/Doug Wimbish On-U Sound records, they were coming from a similar place because they were about the beats and bass. I’d just started making music and sampling things around that time. I had a very limited amount of sampling time on a little Commodore 64 computer, you could get this add-on pack where you could sample something like 2.5 seconds, so you could only really sample beats. But those records really inspired me and made me want to make music.
How did you come to be involved with the Science Fiction Dancehall project, and can you tell us a little about the process of compiling the record? In particular, is it hard to retain an objective approach given that your relationship with the music is a deeply personal one? How do you strike a balance between presenting an impartial 'greatest hits' collection, and - on the other hand - compiling something idiosyncratic and particular to you as a fan?
I’ve always dreamt of doing an On-U Sound compilation, and eventually I got talking to someone from the label and they were up for me having a crack at it. I started to approach it from a few different angles - the first angle was to do something that would appeal to a new, young audience; secondly I wanted to appeal to all the hardcore On-U Sound heads by putting some unreleased stuff on there as well; and thirdly do something that pleased me and Adrian as well. I’ve got a pretty expansive On-U Sound collection at home, so I started off by going through each album and picking out my favourite tracks. It’s difficult, because with bands like Dub Syndicate and African Head Charge, there’s quite a few albums, so I could have easily done a best-of just based on those bands. It was difficult to edit it down, but once I’d got a starting point of released tracks, the label suggest I check out some of the unreleased stuff from their tape archives, so I was lucky enough to go through those and pick out the tracks that I thought were most exciting and would be interesting for people to hear. There was also an angle of trying to show a far more abstract and avant-garde side of the catalogue - there’s tons of that music they released but most people think of it as being a more reggae/dub type label, which there’s a lot of, but that’s not the whole picture.
Can you ultimately pick a favourite track from the album, and why?
I think the Neneh Cherry & The Circuit track, because it’s something I’d never heard before. The Circuit are exciting because there wasn’t much of their stuff released at the time. I’ve always been a fan of “Loudspeaker”, off the first Pay It All Back comp, and I’m also a fan of a lot of the stuff that Steve Beresford did for other people, so it’s really exciting for me to discover that and be able to share it with other people by putting it on a compilation.
You recently released F O R M A T - your first solo album in 15 years - which features a broad collection of tracks from the span of your career, some dating back to the early 90's. Can you trace the impact of the On U Sound back-catalogue within this particular body of work?
The weird thing is there’s a lot of music I love that’s never really had a direct influence on the music I’ve made. With early hip-hop producers I used to listen to what they did and try and copy it, but when I listened to early On-U Sound stuff I had absolutely no idea how it was made. I could kind of make the beats because that was quite simple but I had no idea what those effects were that Adrian used. If I’m honest, the music I make comes from inside me. It’s almost embarrassing because if I play back older music I’ve made I don’t like it, because it doesn’t compare to most of the music I love. If anything, it’s an attitude and open-mindedness with On-U Sound that’s inspiring rather than a particular sound. I know some people make music by putting on something they love and, not necessarily copy it, but be directly inspired by it, with the arrangement or production. I’ve never done a track by listening to another piece of work, deconstructing it, and then try and do my own version. It’s always been completely expressive.
Lastly - how would you describe the lasting impact of On-U Sound on modern electronic music?
I think it’s interesting now that there’s more people making music than ever, and with current technology there’s so many choices, so it’s quite easy to make music now, and it’s quite easy to make good, sonically interesting music, but with all those choices you can get bogged down in it. If you listen to those early On-U Sound records, they had really basic technology. They were working with a miniscule amount of equipment compared to what we have now and ultimately what comes through with those records is imagination and personality. To me, that’s a legacy - the attitude that it doesn’t matter what gear you have or how big your studio is, it’s about what you do with that. There were certainly lots of producers who were inspired by Adrian’s work and the label. Also the fact that they blended genres and it was multi-dimensional. We’re going through a new wave of eclecticism in music now where there’s no money anymore but they’ve also got no boundaries. On-U Sound for me had no musical boundaries at all.
Science Ficton Dancehall Classics is released today on On-U Sound.
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