Mark Iration: “People love the fascination of a sound system but it’s very hard work”

In conversation with legendary soundman Mark Iration. 

Having been active on the scene as a sound system and production unit for over 25 years now, Leeds institution and wrecking force Iration Steppas have become somewhat legends on the bass circuit since their formation. The two-man team of Mark Iration and partner Dennis Rootical, the pair’s innovative approach to sub-low sound experimentation has seen them cross swords with Jah Shaka, become the first to utilize DAT recordings into live mixes and regularly cause vibrations across festivals and clubs worldwide.

Their next stop this year will be helping curate the full lineup of Outlook Origins, who after ten years of showdowns at the iconic Fort Punta Christo, move further across Croatia, asking pioneers like Mala and Goldie to join the Legendary Leeds soundsystem in celebrating the best of dub, drum & bass, dubstep, reggae and beyond.

Ahead of the festival, we catch up with Mr. Mark Iration, looking back at some of the highlights of Iration Steppas’ ever-growing legacy and discussing just how sound system culture changed over the years.

Talk us through the formation of Iration Steppa’s – How did you (Mark Iration) and Dennis Rootical meet?

Back in the 90s when I travelled from Leeds to London in a place called Vauxhall Arches where Aba Shanti was playing, I was asking for a certain tune I’d heard to Keety Roots and Blackamix outside of the venue and (believe it or not!) Dennis Rootical was in the outside area and he overheard us. He pulled us up and said he was behind that tune, so we met through music… It was always supposed to be!

In the years that followed, what is one of your earliest and most memorable events, can you recall details?

Could be a DJ, sound system or country highlight I suppose. I’d say that sound system-wise, back in the early 90s when I played with Jah Shaka in the Mandela Centre in Leeds it was a real big moment. That started me off to take things more seriously. Before, I was doing jams before, little DJ sets and clashes in Huddersfield but from this one night things evolved.

Country-wise, I would say Japan, that is one of the top ones. It’s so tranquil and beautiful. You’d never think to go there for this music but they’re mad for it. Music is so powerful. Mexico, South America, Europe and Australia are now great places to go to as well.

The production style has been described as ‘Year 3000 Dub’ – essentially culminating a sound that resonates past, present and future. Why do you think that is?

That was a formality of life. We grew up with reggae music from the 70’s, 80’s, then in the 90’s we evolved the dub scene by trying out different sounds and innovating with strings, acid sounds. My background is also Chicago house as well as dub. I just love the 4/4 kick, and hip hop, so we fusion dub with all the other things we liked. It’s still evolving and nowadays it feels more people are aware and on board with it.

How have events and the sound system culture changed over the years – is it still as exciting as it was back in the early days?

In the 70’s/80’s when we were at school it was more exciting back then – it was our own thing. It was a black thing, but a white thing too, but because we couldn’t get our music out in the town centre and radio stations, we had to formulate our “own thing” by doing sound system and blues parties. That’s why we did Sound Systems, we were fighting against something. We made it big in that way. In the 90’s, the European countries got involved into the sound system reggae culture and that’s when we went to France to teach them about this dub Sound System culture “thing”, and they loved it. Today, it’s massive everywhere and it’s great to see!

You’ll be helping to curate the Outlook Origins lineup for their 2020 edition – how has your experience been performing at Outlook over the years?

We’ve done every one so far. It started as a small underground festival so I am happy to see how big it has grown! We’ve seen the beginning, and all the changes and evolutions in between. It will be interesting to see this new one, to see how it evolves. Outlook is great, you go and see faces you don’t get chances to talk to. It’s intimate, it’s something we need to cherish.

How important is diversity in dance music? Is it important to have all genders, races, ethnicities playing on big stages?

Of course, man. It’s about the music, not who you are. We’re all in it for music, together as human beings, to fight the current politics and all that other bollocks of life making music, to release our energy, heart aches, to make us happy.

In your opinion – What makes a good Sound System?

Dedication and knowledge. Sound systems are not as that easy as they look. We might make it look easy, but we’re used to it; it’s in our DNA. We built our own boxes way back, amps, this, that and the other. You had to look hard for the music – head to London or meet on the motorway to exchange music; it was mysterious and fascinating. Now you can go online, buy a whole sound system online, boom, and you think that’s it. No, it doesn’t work that way. People love the fascination of a sound system but it’s very hard work.

Scoping out – How important is bass music as a community focus, a way of people meeting all sorts of other people and coming together through music?

Like I said, we all like bass. Dubstep to jungle to bass. The beat is always a kick, bass, pianos and top lines- to hear it though sound systems is energy. The energy we hear – you wait for that. You pull up and put down, you have a man on the mic chanting, so people are waiting for the drop. When you’re playing jungle they’re mixing it together so you do get a break, and a drop, so it’s the same in a way. Outlook is all about that, the bass, bringing people together.

We may well have touched on some great moments, but what are you most proud of through the Iration Steppa’s project so far?

Ok, I am most proud of teaching and bringing people into the Sound System Culture, as I have inspired many people to build their own Sound System and make music in the underground Dub industry. As for the future, I am not sure what Brexit will bring on to the European scene; It’s not looking good at the moment. The music industry is changing slightly, and I hope that all music people stick together throughout these uncertain times.
I recently went to America, which was nice. And for the future, I’ve got more tour dates, that can be checked on Social Media. Opening new doors and playing new venues is great and I love to do that!

Catch Iration Steppas at Outlook Origins Croatia in July. 

Words: Chris Alderton

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