“When we started we felt like outsiders who could change the world” – so says producer, DJ and dance man Adrian Sherwood of his On-U Sound imprint, 30 years young this year and, in his own words, still “fighting”. His words are cut through with a fierce, independence typical of the way he describes much of his music making in our conversation.
Sherwood’s CV is one for today’s producers to look at in wide-eyed awe. Taking his pointers from Motown, early ska, skinhead reggae as a youth, he fell into DJing and label owning purely by chance, making the transition from fan to player purely through a love of music rather than any notions of carving a career out of his passion.
His numerous projects, records, collaboration and labels have certainly been widely varied in their scope and influence. Having absorbed the politics and sounds of dub, punk, hip hop and acid house, he’s somehow worked with the likes of Lee Scratch Perry, Ari Up, Prince Far I, John Lydon, Primal Scream along with more recent names such as Kode 9 and Horsepower. It’s an impressive feat – as is retaining the relevancy to recently rock a packed Fabric as part of Pinch’s Tectonic label night.
“It’s like a battlefield out there at the moment and I’m just pleased we’re still out fighting, still making and putting good tunes out. And the fact I can still play in the main room at a club like Fabric and people are into it is great,” he says.
2011 is a certainly a notable year for Sherwood – it’s officially the 30th birthday of his On-U Sound imprint. The candles on their cake have been blown out via the re-releases of the New Age Steppers debut (his collaboration with Slit member Ari Up), African Head Charge’s Off the Beaten Track as well as new records from Little Axe and African Head Charge. Plus there is the unveiling of Nu Sound and Vision, a collection of reworkings of collaborations with Lee Scratch Perry, a figure omnipresent as a co-conspirator in Sherwood’s lengthy career. This effort features contributions from key figures in today’s underground, speaker shaking world – Digital Mystikz’s Mala, Bullion, Congo Natty as well as the aforementioned Kode 9 and Horsepower all throw their hats into the ring.
“I’m getting nods from a lot of the relative youngsters out there – which is great – so to a certain extent I feel like I can fit right in,” Sherwood notes. This glut of releases comes despite himself noting that the celebrations have been “a bit laid back” – hearing his kids interrupt the interview suggests that while music is still foremost in his mind, his nippers aren’t too far behind.
But this seemingly insatiable urge to release records shows how pleased he is still to be in a position to exercise his passion for all things bass. “I still feel like I’ve got a point to prove but at the same this current bass-friendly environment really suits me. It’s good for the sound system training I learnt from going to Jamaica and dances. When I play out, I’m using tunes which I’ve made just to play out – an exclusive so nobody can play them back at me. That’s how we started so it’s almost as if the wheel has come full circle.”
As Sherwood himself notes during our conversation, clubland is a notoriously fickle beast. It can pick producers and Djs up for a few moments, chew out their flavours and spit them out never for said music maker to return. It’s not surprising he likens the landscape of the music industry to a “battlefield”, particularly when the industry is still struggling to get to grips with the ongoing rise of the Internet.
“Kids my daughters age spend all their money on music via their Blackberry or computer – they don’t even own a CD player. I don’t know any of the kids who own a CD player let alone a record player so they’re not going to buy music on these formats. So now the challenge is different. Initially you’re not established so you’re trying to show that what you’re doing is worth a damn. Now you’re trying to find anyone to buy what you do. The world has obviously changed.”
But despite still trying to prove himself, arguably there has never been a time among dance music’s consumers where Sherwood’s effect-laden dub heavy sound has had more relevance – this is now a world where bass is on the agenda in a big way. “When I played at Fabric the other night, I played my own versions of some of the hottest dubstep tunes, which myself and my engineer had cut up and put our own samples on top so they couldn’t be played back. Then we were mashing them up with reverbs and delays.”
“I started the evening by playing a couple of dub tunes from 1972 – what other music on earth could you have played from 40 years ago that fitted perfectly? Sonically, it could have been made last week.”
“Now if you make club music today, very few tunes from five years ago would have been played in that club -except may be some great jungle. Club music dates quite quickly. So with your productions you need to add things or at least make it stand the test of time,” he explains.
It’s clear that Sherwood’s burning passion for music shows no signs of dimming. With more releases planned for next year and clubs to shake in Japan and New Zealand how does he explain his longevity to those looking to come through? “The good producers are those who emerge with their own sound in tact – if you can identify them and say it sounds like one of their tunes, then you know they are the best ones coming through. People like Mala, Kode 9 and Congo Natty obviously have it as they sound like no one else but themselves. You just need to stick to your guns. And make sure what you do sounds great.” He may still consider an outsider but Sherwood is still doing his best to change the world. There aren’t many other artists who still retain any sort of relevancy after over 30 years in the game. His beat continues to go on…
For more information on On-U Sounds releases, head to www.on-usound.com.
Photography: Will Biggs
Interview: Jim Ottewill