Seit mehr als drei Jahrzehnten ist Adrian Sherwood einer besten und dauerhaft wegweisenden Produzenten, Musiker und Remixer.
Er hat seine tiefe, dunkle Magie auf die Musik international gefeierter Künstlern wie Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Blur, Primal Scream oder Lee Scratch Perry angewendet, und mit legendären Acts wie Tackhead und Mark Stewart unzählige, neuartige, seelenzerschmelzende Sounds erschaffen, deren Einfluss bis heute allgegenwärtig ist.
Sherwood hat immer lieber im Schatten agiert, wo seine kreative Integrität am wenigsten von der korrumpierenden Lächerlichkeit des Mainstream-Pop bedroht wurde. Weitgehend sich selbst überlassen, erschuf Sherwood so einen kolossalen Werk-Korpus.
Ausgehend von Reggae und Dub entwickelte er mit Hilfe elektronischer Klänge, Industrial, diverser Weltmusiken und vielem anderem seinen einzigartigen Sound. Die atemberaubende Vielfalt der Einflüsse löste nie seine klangliche Identität auf, ebenso wenig verwässerte sie seinen einzigartigen, im Bass verankerten Sound.
Sherwoods musikalische Biographie liest sich wie eine transatlantische Straßenkarte der wichtigsten Momente der jüngeren Musikgeschichte. Sie reicht von jugendlichen Exkursionen auf die wegweisenden Londoner Reggae- und Soul-Partys an die Front der britischen Punk-Bewegung und, mit seinem Label On-U Sound, zur Erschaffung eines der maßgeblichen Kollektive des Post Punk.
Er produzierte New Yorker Emporkömmlinge, die später Hip-Hop mit erschufen und arbeitete mit einigen der größten, glaubwürdigsten Namen der Pop-Welt der 1990er Jahre zusammen. All das mit dem Spirit und dem Mumm des Punk und dem mystischen Genius von Jamaikas Dub-Tradition – gesehen und gehört durch die Augen und Ohren eines rastlosen Erfinders.
Während die Legende um Sherwood meistens um die schiere Menge von Musik und um seine goldene Hand in Sachen innovativer Produktions- und Remix-Arbeit kreist, verwebt sein Output als Solo-Künstler äußerst gegensätzliche Stränge wie geisterhafte Polyrhythmen, Post-Rave-Nebel und eine Hals-über-Kopf-Sensibilität für tolle Pop-Momente zu einem der einzigartigsten „dub“-Stile, der je aufgenommen wurde.
Jetzt erscheint mit seinem dritten Soloalbum Survival & Resistance eine äußerst greifbare Weiterentwicklung des auf den vorangegangenen Alben entwickelnden Sounds – und doch wirkt es wie der perfekte Abschluss eines Triptychon: Düstere Atmosphären, schleichende elektronische Klänge und ein beinahe orchestraler Ansatz im Arrangement sind mit einem unbeirrbaren Gespür für Melodien und Analog-Technik verbunden. Eine aufregende, längst überfällige Weiterführung des On-U Sound.
Der Opener des Albums, die kurzgeschlossenen Reggae-Ballade „Balance“, bringt Agitation und Unbehagen zum Ausdruck. Wenn man aber die paranoide Übertragung von „U.R.Sound“ empfangen hat und in den klagenden Optimismus von „Effective“ hereingezogen wurde, gerät ein viel komplexeres Bild in den Fokus. Indem das Album die jüngsten Londoner Ausschreitungen und die gegenwärtige, internationale Wirtschaftskrise aufnimmt, formuliert es eine ernsthafte Kritik der Ungerechtigkeiten der Gegenwart. Und wie alle große Dub-Musik ist es auch äußerst angenehm zu hören.
Die Eckpfeiler von Sherwood´s einzigartigem production style sind alle da und erklingen eindrucksvoller denn je: das unwahrscheinliche Duell von Lärm und Melodie, Dub als femininer Protestsong und das Aufspüren verschollener Verbindungen zwischen Dub, Blues-Roots und brasilianischem Bossa. Ebenso wichtig und ehrehrbietend ist die Post-Punk-Linie der On-U-Ästhetik. Und die mythische Methode der Mischung, die Sherwood über Jahrzehnte hinweg entwickelt hat. Die schweren elektronischen Klänge und der meisterhafte Einsatz von Atempausen und Alien-Echo erschaffen einen strudelartigen, hirnerschütternden Sog. So definiert Survival & Resistance wie Avantgarde-Dub im Jahr 2012 klingt.
Adrian Sherwood Biografie
For more than three decades, Adrian Sherwood has been one of the world’s finest and most consistently ground-breaking record producers. In the process, he has wrought his wizardly magic upon such internationally acclaimed artists as Blur, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Primal Scream and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, as well as coining countless mind-melting new sounds with legendary acts such as Tackhead and Mark Stewart, whose influence is ongoing and, to this day, omnipresent.
Yet, he is neither a household name, nor an instantly recognisable face – indeed, even those who’ve followed his crypto-revolutionary movements in music since the mid-1970’s, might struggle to pick out the guilty party from a line-up of shaven-headed suspects.
Sherwood has always preferred to operate in the shadows, where his creative integrity is least threatened by the all-corrupting ludicrousness of the pop mainstream. Largely left to his own devices, he has built up a colossal body of work, whose staggering diversity – after launching off from reggae and dub, he duly innovated with electro, industrial noise, various world musics, and much else besides – somehow never eclipsed his own identity, nor diluted his unique bass-anchored sound.
In a time when every survivor with a chunk of glorious heritage to sell has long since done so, this fiercely independent spirit has stuck by his original vision. Adrian Sherwood remains the genuine article, as radical and forward thinking today as any wet-behind-the-ears hotshot, a man who has put his whole life and family on the line for his music and his pioneering label, On-U Sound. This is the label which he set up amid the chaotic post-punk landscape, aged just 22 and already up to his neck in debt. Across the ensuing years, On-U has become a by-word for experimentalism, spewing forth incredible, far-fetched, sometimes completely baffling tunes, lurching from one financial crisis to the next, but never straying far from the cutting edge.
“Someone once described me as just a fan who’d got his hands on a mixing desk,” Adrian chuckles. “They were probably trying to be nasty, but I took it as a compliment – that’s exactly what I was!”
Adrian Maxwell Sherwood grew up in High Wycombe, where, from the age of 13, he’d hang around outside the local Newlands Club, listening to reggae sound systems. At 15, through a contact of the club owner’s, he worked in his school holidays at Pama Records, the UK’s main rival to Island and Trojan, and within another couple of years, was driving up and down the country distributing reggae and Northern soul records from his car.
Before he was even legally allowed in, the young Adrian was a regular at reggae/soul nights to the West of the capital. He soon fell in with some of the performers coming in from Jamaica, most notably Prince Far-I, a sometime security guard, whose gravel-y DJ-style exhortations of dread struck an unforeseen chord in mid-’70s Britain.
“I’d actually go along with Far-I,” he remembers, “and eventually ended up mixing gigs for him. That’s how I started off. I’d stand next to this fat white sound man he always seemed to have, who obviously wasn’t used to reggae, and I’d be saying to him, ‘Turn the hi-hat up, turn the rimshot up – more bass!’, till eventually he goes, ‘OK, you do it’. So I got thrown in the deep end doing sound.”
On subsequent visits, Adrian would not only work the desk, but actually accommodate the musicians at his mother’s house (“Far-I used to call her Mummy”). At 17, he was running a distribution company with four vans, and started his first label, Carib Gems, initially releasing other people’s productions on Far-I, Black Uhuru, Dillinger and Trinity.
“I knew all these musicians from Jamaica, so I started running my first studio session. I wasn’t a musician, so I’d just hum the bassline and stuff, to get what I wanted. I wasn’t trying to emulate Jamaica. I was trying to make a thing of my own, for fun.”
His first albums were cut with a loose aggregation of musicians who formed Far-I’s backing band on tour. Initially, they were known as The Arabs, as on Sherwood’s debut, Prince Far-I’s ‘Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Volume 1’, but soon evolved into Creation Rebel, with whom, circa ’78-’79, the fledgling producer, still barely into his 20’s, began to explore the outer perimeters of JA dub. The furthest-out of his early forays, ‘Starship Africa’, was shelved for a couple of years, as each of Sherwood’s labels went to financial ruin (it eventually appeared on the short-lived 4D Rhythms in ’80).
“I was trained up early by Far-I,” he says, “to build a catalogue of things I’d produced myself, to establish my own sound – to get myself noticed. Each of the producers I liked – Keith Hudson, Joe Gibbs and Errol T, Lee Perry, Augustus Pablo, and the mixes of King Tubby – you could identify their sonic. I tried to develop my sound like that, so people would say, ‘That’s an Adrian Sherwood production’. I very consciously and deliberately built my own techniques, so I could survive”.
Keeping afloat was very much the name of the game. Sherwood carried the debt from his first abortive ventures into another one, which he could never feasibly have anticipated would still be in business more than a quarter of a century later. On-U Sound was inaugurated with an album, which capitalized on post-punk Britain’s love affair with reggae.
“In 1978, I met The Slits, who used to come to all our gigs,. We did a tour with Far-I, Prince Hammer, Bim Sherman and Creation Rebel, and we’d have Johnny Rotten, Billy Idol, and members of The Clash coming to see it. When we did the first Creation Rebel album, Ari Up invited us out on tour with The Slits. Ari and I became firm friends, and through her I got to meet all these people who weren’t from my background. The first New Age Steppers record grew out of that – I got all the people I knew, and mixed them all together, authentic to their own scene but working via the reggae tonality.”
So, ‘New Age Steppers’, released in January ’81, featured both ‘Style’ Scott, drummer from Kingston’s ultra-tough Roots Radics, and Mark Stewart, singer from punk-funk radicals, The Pop Group. While Stewart would go on to front up a series of mould-breaking Sherwood albums through that decade and beyond, ‘Style’ became one of On-U’s early lynchpins, as Creation Rebel evolved into the mighty Dub Syndicate.
“If you look at all the great labels in reggae, or black music, they’re all production houses, with house bands, and proper professional players – think of Booker T & The MG’s, Tamla Motown, the Revolutionaries, the Roots Radics, all of them. So that’s what we were going for with On-U.”
By 1983, On-U had the London punky-reggae market sewn up, but on microscopic budgets, the label struggled commercially. Adrian lived out his production-house ethos with rapid-fire releases from New Age Steppers, Bim Sherman, Singers & Players, Creation Rebel and African Headcharge, an Afro-roots rhythm combo centred around a percussionist raised in a rasta camp in the Jamaican hills, named Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. All these were inspirational in their own way, but, in the face of blanket-bombing strategies from rivals like Virgin’s Frontline, they would frequently undersell, and lose money. That year, Sherwood decided to diversify on from reggae, for very different reasons, as his friend and mentor, Prince Far-I, had been brutally murdered in Kingston.
“After that, I immersed myself in the funk for four or five years, doing Tackhead and noisier things – a complete response to the anger and upset I felt from his death. Like, what’s the fucking point? In hindsight, I think I was just really angry with the Jamaica situation, sickened by the whole thing. I met Daniel Miller [from Mute Records] and did some remixes for Depeche Mode. Suddenly I was getting asked to do non-reggae things. I was previously so entrenched in reggae, so I just learnt as I went along. My head got opened up to different things, but I kept using my reggae techniques.”
He and Mark Stewart were increasingly tuned into New York’s electro scene. Inspired by the early-sampling classic, ‘Malcolm X (No Sell Out)’, Sherwood tracked down its creator, Keith Leblanc, who’d started out as drummer in The Sugarhill Gang, responsible for the proto-hip hop monster, ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Soon, Sherwood acquired another house band, as Leblanc drafted in ex-’Gang-sters Doug Wimbish (bass) and Skip McDonald (guitar), and they and Sherwood together started experimenting with drum machines, keyboards and early sampling gear. Over the ensuing few years, this collective would unleash a barrage of ultra-harsh tech-rackets, variously credited as ‘solo’ artists (e.g. Leblanc’s ‘Major Malfunction’), Fats Comet, and finally Tackhead.
“We were quite competitive on the gig front,” Sherwood recalls. “We wanted to be the loudest, the best sounding, and the best playing, so no-one could fuck with you. We wanted to outplay everyone. It wasn’t in a big-headed way, it was just you had to stand out from the pack and completely confront everybody’s preconceptions. With Mark Stewart ranting over the top…it was just insane.”
Leblanc’s crew moonlighted as The Maffia, on Stewart’s caustic second solo record, ‘As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade’. Stewart’s refusenik diatribes brought a militant political edge to On-U. Concurrently through the ’80s, Sherwood was launching ‘Style’ Scott’s Dub Syndicate, and keeping his reggae homefires burning. It was a hectic time.
“I was moving a lot of people in from different countries, having to finance air tickets from Jamaica, and from the States. It was proper, but it meant lot of sacrifices. My wife, Kishi, had a new baby, and we’d have a load of bodies sleeping in the lounge and the spare room. It was bonkers, but I wanted the authentic personnel. I didn’t want, ‘Oh, that sounds okay’. We wanted something special.”
In British music through the mid-’80s, there was little alternative to your Duran Durans and Spandau Ballets. White rock was at an all-time low, and On-U gradually assumed a fearsome outsider status. Adrian’s first team-up with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, 1987’s ‘Time Boom De Devil Dead’ was a highlight, but one of the label’s biggest records to date came from an unlikely setting.
“From 1985, I was living right next door to West Ham football ground. I found out that you could walk in for free ten minutes after kick-off, and just stand and watch a game. All the Americans – Bernard Fowler [sometime Tackhead vocalist], Doug Wimbish – used to love going to the football, so we made this football album, ‘The English Disease’ by The Barmy Army, sampling terrace chants, roughing it, really fast, in about three days.”
What started as a laugh became, with a little help from BBC radio DJ John Peel, an indie chart-topping hit.
“There’d been loads of trouble with Heysel, and football violence in general, but what we started seeing at our gigs was that all the football lads, from Essex to Moss Side, started getting into ecstasy, and this dance music scene came along, where everybody was E’d off their tits. It was actually quite revelatory, because you started to see people wanting to have a hug, where they previously wanted to have a row. At our dances, it was amazing – we’d have lots of lads, who you could see probably for the first time were actually really loving what we were doing. We’d have Tackhead, [Bristolian MC] Gary Clail and the reggae guys all playing on the same gigs. During the evening, we’d be DJ-ing, playing out-takes of pure Dub Syndicate, African Headcharge, then bang into out-takes of Tackhead, and have Clail on the mic over the top. We’d entertain all evening, and the crowd were all smiling faces. We used to pack out gigs every time we played.”
So, at the turn of the ’90s, On-U had segued perfectly with the times. As part of a major-label push, some remixes from Gary Clail’s ‘Emotional Hooligan’ album by Paul Oakenfold/Steve Osborne were bona fide chart hits. On-U itself, however, stood firm, still firing along on all its experimental fronts, and releasing a series of budget-price samplers of its diverse catalogue, pointedly entitled ‘Pay It All Back’. The ‘Pay It All Back’ nights at London’s Forum, meanwhile, were regular sell-outs.
“It got to the point where I grew and grew and grew, and by the mid-’90s, things started going a bit pear-shaped. I split up with my wife, and went through a bit of a lapse of concentration and motivation. I nearly went out of business with distributors going bankrupt on me. I had eight or nine staff, I wasn’t selling enough records and I was losing about five grand a month. In no time, I was in massive debt. I ended up having a crisis point around ’97-’98, where for about four years I was stopped in my tracks. I was faced with going bust, or selling everything I had to pay off my debts. My business partner in Japan, Ray, said to me, ‘If you’ve got no honour, you might as well be dead’. So I sold everything I had, and rented a place for two years, and paid off the MCPS – otherwise, the musicians wouldn’t’ve got paid. That way, also, I got to regroup.”
Even in those dark days, Sherwood was making remarkable records, such as Skip McDonald’s inaugural Little Axe album, ‘The Wolf That House Built’, and his Primal Scream dub mix, ‘Echo Dek’. He even produced Shane MacGowan’s last album, ‘Crock of Gold’. Artists of a certain rule-breaking mentality would never be far from his door.
“I see sound as a picture, and most producers who are good do as well,” he says, arranging a make-believe track in mid-air. “You have the hi-hat there, the snare there, bass drum….I like things moving around, bending and moving…”
With his financial affairs back in order, he rematerialized as few might have anticipated, as an artist in his own right, under his own name, with 2003’s ‘Never Trust a Hippie’ album, on Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label. Showcasing, in a sense, the sum of his musical knowledge, its dubbed-out electronic sound wafted in flavours from all over the world – from Asia, Africa and the Orient, as much as Kingston or the Big Apple. 2006’s follow-up, ‘Becoming a Cliché’, went a step further, showcasing a series of pan-global singers, but that avenue was soon closed down when RealWorld’s distributors went under.
Without much fanfare, Sherwood had a busy Noughties, often as a DJ and live mix guru. “A lot of the time,” he explains, “my name was on the poster, rather than on the back of the sleeve.” He DJ’d and remixed for Blur. In 2009, he cut a wonderful third record with Lee Perry, entitled ‘The Mighty Upsetter’, laced through with tantalizing echoes of Perry’s golden years at the Black Ark, and followed up with a collaborative ‘Dub Setter’ mix. “I think I still get the best out of Lee,” he notes.
As well as playing occasional ‘dub action painting’ shows with Perry, the pair also devised “Nu Sound & Version” which Adrian calls “a kind of ‘Modern Sound of Lee Perry’ remix album”, with various young bucks from London’s electronic underground, including Digital Mystikz, Kode 9, Bullion and Horsepower Productions. “It’s not like they’re my kids or anything,” he adds, smirking, “they’ve moved things on, they’re following the legacy of dub, and re-inventing it for themselves, which I find really exciting.”
Overseeing this remix package has clearly sent faint echoes through Sherwood’s latest solo outing, “Survival & Resistance”. While it continues in the post-punk lineage of the On-U aesthetic and retains the mythic dub approach he has evolved over the years, the album is also noticeable for it’s swirling maelstrom of skull-shaking, heavy electronic tones and masterful deployment of breathing space. All of these elements have been adopted by a new generation of young artists and producers to great effect, but to hear a master at work is a special occasion, and this album is the sound of dub in 2012.
“I’ve really spent hours and hours studying aspects of sound and production,” Sherwood concludes, “and I’m still doing it. A lot of other people may have made lots of money, but they couldn’t even sell one tune anymore. I’ve had my times, I’ve had the greatest experiences in the world, worked with all my heroes, and I’m still able to do it. I can still go out and play to a young crowd for two hours, and have a really good vibe, and I can make records. That, for me, is proper.”