Adrian Sherwood: Strange Turn

By Stinky Jim

Disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed, London label/collective On-U Sound has been dishing out the dubwise damage for three decades, with Adrian Sherwood always at its core. The master mixologist returns in December to play one New Zealand show.

'The evolution of what came from Jamaica - roots and dub - is now kept alive by a lot of people in London because the Jamaican scene is pretty unhealthy.' Photo / Supplied
'The evolution of what came from Jamaica - roots and dub - is now kept alive by a lot of people in London because the Jamaican scene is pretty unhealthy.' Photo / Supplied

Though Adrian Sherwood's production credits are impressively wide (Primal Scream, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Dave Dobbyn etc), it is the On-U Sound label built around artists like Dub Syndicate, African Head Charge, Singers & Players, Mark Stewart & The Mafia and Bim Sherman and Gary Clail that is the real legacy. From early experiments in noisy, post-punk afro-dustrial music in 1981, to 2011's sophisticated dubbed-out blues with Skip McDonald's Little Axe outfit, On-U Sound has remained a standard setter for adventurousness and sonic pugilism.

One of Sherwood's most consistent collaborators has been Lee "Scratch" Perry, the Jamaican dub pioneer and unhinged genius, whose work with others has been notoriously patchy at best. However with Sherwood there's a real chemistry, and actual quality control - what's the secret?

"I care more probably. I get on well with him in the studio. He's got streams of consciousness that pour out of him and good ideas, and if you stop him in his tracks and say, 'Let's enlarge on that', he'll take you off on something amazing, even at the age he's at now."

On-U Sound may well have started off in debt and has had to endure various tough times and even ill-advised dalliances with major labels and shifty indies, but the sound and aesthetic has remained strong. Brand-building may not have been the intention, but three decades down the track, On-U remains an unimpeachable trademark for quality, innovation, sonic adventure and elephantine basslines. That's a point that isn't lost on the elders of the dubstep community like Digital Mystikz's Mala, Horsepower Productions, Moody Boyz and Kode 9 who all contributed to the stunning 2011 Lee "Scratch" Perry remix set Nu Sound and Version. The feeling is mutual.

"I got a good respect from that community. I big up the ones I like, and they all kind of give me a good respect - it's brilliant. I think it's important; the evolution of what came from Jamaica - roots and dub - is now kept alive by a lot of people in London because the Jamaican scene is pretty unhealthy. There's incredible stuff coming out of London at the moment."

Though he did his first DJ gigs in school lunch breaks as a 13-year-old, Sherwood remains primarily a backroom operator, only releasing a record under his own name in 2003. Previously the closest he came to the limelight was as part of Tackhead, the ferocious outfit who provided the backing for records like Grandmaster Flash's The Message and White Lines in New York, before being led to the outer limits with Sherwood at the controls.

"I got very disillusioned with the reggae because my friend, [Prince] Fari, had been killed I thought, 'F**k this, it's rubbish. What are you doing?' A lot of it was thankless, I wasn't making any money and I was doing it because I loved it. But how much can you love something when your friends are being topped by a***holes? Then I thought, 'Hang on a minute - we were going in an area with the noise and funk and the dub together, and it was really exciting and nothing had been done like that before'."

So what went so wrong with the big Tackhead album, Strange Things, then?

"Cocaine... cocaine, I think that's it. We suddenly got given lots of money and everybody wanted to make a record that was a bit of this, a bit of that, and Keith [LeBlanc] wanted to play acoustic drums, having made all the records with these fierce fucking drum machines before. So it was an absolute pile of shit, that record. Don't get me wrong - everything comes to an end eventually - but that turned into the epitome of Spinal Tap."
Disarmingly honest and down to earth after over 30 years in the business, Sherwood is an unsullied true original and, as his New Zealand show will testify, there's a good deal more woofer worrying and tweeter terrifying yet to come.

The NZ Connection

Mad bNet radio and DJ support alongside a series of scorching tours in the late '80s and early '90s solidified On-U's place in the New Zealand firmament. However while Salmonella Dub remixes are to be expected, Sherwood producing Dave Dobbyn... what the... ?

"His manager's an old friend of mine, and she suggested we meet. So we met and it was a really good experience, brilliant people. He's a really good lad, Dave, and I really enjoyed doing that - bit of a departure. I've always tried to do things that are different, so working with a singer/songwriter like Dave was really good fun."

And the rather splendidly titled track Dobbyn Joins the Head Charge on their latest album Voodoo of the Godsent?

"That track was derived off one of Dave's tunes, the horns. I thought it was like when Whitney joined the Justified Ancients of MuMu (on 'Whitney Joins The JAMs'). I thought that was quite funny."

* Adrian Sherwood plays The Powerstation in Auckland on Friday 16 December.

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