February 26, 2010
July 7, 2009
If you are in East London on Sunday (July 12th) you could do worse than to head down to Brick Lane where Soul Jazz records are hosting a free screening of the seminal UK reggae film ‘Babylon’. The film starts at 2:00 and is worth going to see for the bit with Jah Shaka and the dancers alone. Here’s the Soul Jazz guys on the film…
Directed by Franco Rosso in 1980, Babylon is a raw and incendiary film employing an effective mix of music and social commentary to recount the everyday experiences of a small group of working class black youths living in South London in the early 1980s.
Driven by a musical score composed and arranged by legendary reggae guitarist, former member of Matumbi and record producer Dennis Bovell, with additional songs by Yabby U, I-Roy, Aswad and many more, Babylon is a brilliant, breathlessly energetic, neo-realist snapshot of what it was like to be young, poor and black in early 1980s Britain. The film is rightly regarded as a cult classic and remains as socially relevant today as when it was made almost 30 years ago.
We will be screening a fully restored and digitally re-mastered copy of the film on a huge cinema screen, coupled with a Funktion-One sound system, in the main room at Cafe 1001 at 2pm. This is an amazing chance to catch a classic piece of UK Reggae history. This event is totally FREE so please arrive early to ensure you get a space on the sofas.
Last time man like DB told all about his early days as a producer, and about hanging about outside cutting houses whilst Jah Shaka prepped his soundbombs. In the second part of his interview about cutting houses, how disco stole Sly and Robbie’s flying cymbal and turning sound system clashes into band clashes.
How much of a disadvantage were you at, making English reggae? And how much of a problem was it that you didn’t come from Jamaica in the first place [Bovell moved to the UK from Barbados aged 12]?
I had to go the extra mile. I had to make sure my stuff was stinging. By the time I done ‘Silly Games’, I showed them my craft and it was totally FM sounding and wasn’t off the radio – still isn’t off the radio! – and I’d created a new drum beat. The intention was to make every tune with that drum beat in that reggae style, but the success of it… I couldn’t. People would have thought it was all I could do. Sly Dunbar had the same one on every tune! We called it “Flying Cymbal” but it was so infectious disco had it and called it disco.
Lloyd Bradley told me that cutting houses had a very specific job in that world of reggae, and didn’t move out of that world until punk came along…
The invention of the cassette ruined it too. D’you know, by the time Lovers Rock had hit I’d stopped using Hessle because by the time I cut Yuh Learn I’d learned not to cut my stereo tapes in mono any more. I wasn’t aiming at sound systems any more. I was aiming at radio and the wider ear.
Was there overlap between what you’d call ‘wax culture’ and the uptown places?
The dub cutters were John Hessell and a place in the West End called LTS, London Transcription Service. LTS was owned by a friend of mine’s brother, Bill Farley in Tin Pan Alley, Denmark St. Shaka used to use there. I quickly stumbled on a guy called John Dent. John Dent was first called Sound Clinic and he was the cutting room that was attached to Island Records. That’s where I cut The Slits, Linton Kwesi Johnson. This guy has cut all Bob Marley and all U2. As cutting engineers in this country go, he’s the man. He built another cutting room called The Exchange in Camden. Him and Graham, then he left and went and opened his new cutting rooms called Loud.
Can you give me an example from the time at Island, with John Dent, when something clicked for you as an artist?
There was another guy called Aaron Chakraverty at Master Rooms. He made me realise how far I could push that piece of plastic to reproduce and enhance, even, what you intended from the mixing room.
That post-punk period was really interesting…
I produced Orange Juice. There was a song called ‘Wheels Of Love’. I’d done what I call a skid mix, which involved lots of backwards sequencing. If you hear the 12” version you’ll hear it. Once I’d done it I needed to go to the cutting room to hear how they sounded.
Why could you not know that in your studio?
Too much bass makes the wave got like that (shows jump in the air). The skid was a piece of information backwards that could trip the cutter head and make the cutter head think it’s a square wave, and think it can’t read it. If you printed a record like that, it would jump. The first few copies of the Pop Group album I cut, I lifted the cutter head before conventional standard dictated. It was just another crazy idea.
Was there a link between early pirate radio, back in the early ‘80s, and cutting houses?
You’d have to ask Dread Lepke about that. He’s going to open a radio station in Ghana, for his sister. You know, Rita Marley.
Who would you bump into at a typical cutting house?
You’d try not to bump into people. It was inevitable at Hessle’s, because people would just turn up, typical sound system stuff. Count Shelley, Neville The Enchanter, they’d be everywhere cutting dubplates. You’d have to phone up and book a particular cutting time: here on Monday, there on Tuesday. come the weekend you have to have dubplate!
It hadn’t occurred to me the volume of music people would be getting. How important have cutting rooms been to UK street music?
It was the only means to liberate the stuff that was being recorded. Before I pressed Matumbi’s ‘After Tonight’, that song was on the sound systems of Great Britain for about two years. People were flocking to London to see me to get a dubplate of that, from Birmingham, from Manchester, from Leeds, from Coventry, from Doncaster, from Bristol.
What did they have to do to get their dubplate?
Chat to me at the right time…. and pay me, basically. They’d be cut to order. People would bring their deposit or cash or a postal order. You had to go to the source, to get a dubplate. If cut a dub for someone and I heard they let someone else cut it, they weren’t getting no more dubs from me. You had to go to the source.
Going to the source. What impact does that have on the music?
It just allows me to know where the music’s gone. It would allow me to know if I was popular enough to do a live show. If my tune was being played on the Bristol sounds, I could safely go to Bristol with my band and do a show there because people knew my music, people would come. Birmingham, the same.
Who else was in the same position as you? A DJ and producer and musician?
I used to get a lot of flak from the band: what are you? A sound man or a musician? Sometimes the rehearsals might clash with the sound playing out. They’d be like, ‘I’m fed up of going to hear your sound!’
So what are you, soundman or musician?
I am me. I’m both. The soundman did win, back then. This was a time when sounds were more important than bands. It was sounds and oh – there’s a group playing too. I remember arriving once at Acton Town Hall with Matumbi. We arrived and all the sounds had lined the stages with their boxes. I was like ‘Ya! Move dem!’ They deemed it their right. ‘We’re the sound! You’re only a group!’ It was only because I was in both worlds that people would listen. That kind of thing would cause friction. Groups were disrespected by sound systems, people getting turned off so the sound could play. Luckily no-one would do that to Matumbi. We’d plug a desk from the stage into the sound so it went around the room in this enormous PA system. We used to have group showdowns. There was this group called Black Volts, that was led by Michael Bruno, Frank’s older brother. Our band would clash Black Volts in Pountney Hill, just up the road from the Beaufoy, that was the scene of the big sound clashes between Duke Reid, Sir Coxon, Count Shelley, Neville the Enchanter. Those big sounds would have soundclashes there. So we decided to do a group clash. It was a show of strength.
Do people need to know why all this was important?
We found a way to bring [the music] from the studio to the living room, via the cutting room. From the control room, to the cutting room, then to the living room. It’s all rooms, isn’t it? There was room for improvement, in maximising the quality, and the best way to do that was to get it right at the cutting room stage. Even if it lacked something in the control room, in the studio, you could inject, elasticate frequencies, then it would lock them in, so that any reproduction of it would be regular. They are the heroes. Of ears.
Dennis Bovell was born in Barbados and moved to England when he was 12. At school in Wandsworth he discovered tape looping, with the help of a broom handle, and created his own cut-up of Bob and Marcia’s ‘Young, Gifted And Black’ with a teacher-performed trombone piece on top. The sound system top boy created Lover’s Rock smash ‘Silly Games’, formed UK reggae band Matumbi, wrote the soundtrack to seminal south london flick ‘Babylon’ (check it if you can) and produced a host of post-punk gems from Orange Juice to The Slits to The Pop Group. But this interview is mostly about that forgotten area of UK sound system culture, the cutting house – the place where DJs and producers have been going to get their dubs cut since reggae arrived in the UK in the 1960s.
The full feature, by Emma Warren, contains interviews with the UK’s foremost reggae historian Lloyd Bradley as well as drum ‘n’ bass don DJ Zinc and Jason Goz from Transition Mastering Studios, will be in the next issue of the super-fly dancehall and grime fanzine Woofah. Pick up the print version or check it online at Woofahmag.com. And you can check Emma Warren’s monthly half-hour Wandering Feet podcast, featuring music from kizomba hip hop dudes Ritchaz e Keke and Silkie and interviews with William Orbit, Deadbeat and Musinah here.
People know about pirate radio and all that, but they don’t know how important cutting rooms were. Do you agree?
Without cutting rooms we wouldn’t have had what we had. Cutting rooms are most important. The transition of the music, from the studio to the turntable.
How did you discover cutting houses?
About the age of 15 there was a recording studio built in my school in Wandsworth. The school was called Spencer Park, then it was renamed John Archer after the first Mayor of colour, and since completely abolished. The site where it was, directly opposite Wandsworth Prison, was a hospital during a time of war. Then it became a school. There was a bell tower in the building which was turned into a studio. Our school had a thriving orchestra, a thriving drama group and it was positively one of the best schools in Wandsworth. The studio wasn’t built for the drama department, it was built for the English department to record plays. At the same time, I was involved with a group of lads and we were called Roadworks Ahead. We helped ourselves to quite a lot of the Government’s gear, to adorn the stage when we played a gig. The headmaster made us take them back. I’d made friends with lads that lived down the end of my road, and lads who knew I could play the guitar. Norman Hitchock, Colin Short, Derrick Chandler and me: that was Roadworks Ahead. The studio was built and one day I hit upon an idea to make a loop. This involved recording a piece of a popular reggae tune and editing it together so it went round and round constantly in a loop, with a broomstick to keep the tension on the tape recorder. I created a loop from what was the number one reggae tune at the time: Bob and Marcia’s Young Gifted and Black.
Was this a new idea for you? Or were you inspired by other people doing it?
No. I had the idea. At this time I was messing around with tape recorders. No-one had done it before as far as I was concerned!
This was when, ’67, ’68?
Yes. I was a kid of 14, 15, playing with a tape recorder, in charge of the school recording studio. But I was also a musician and I suddenly had the ability to tape from disc on to this tape. I brought in my copy of Young, Gifted And Black and realised there was a bit of the song where they weren’t singing, so if I took that I could then make my own record without having to have a band and no-one would know where it came from.
How many bars did you have?
I thought you were going to say six, eight…
I took two bars of that song and I made a loop. And in order to make it play without going whrrrrrrwhrrrr (does wonky time sound) I needed tension. An old Ferrograph, it was. A broomstick came in handy to steady the tape. Then copying that onto another reel… we were blessed, we had two tape recorders, just ¼ inch two track tape. You’d have to mic the whole band up to record it – we did that as well – but for this purpose we didn’t. That record is why I became known as Blackbeard the Pirate later on, because I’d done this in my school days. I invited members of staff who played trombone and flute to join me in my adventure and to play a trombone version of a very popular song, Guantanamera. To be marrying that with Young, Gifted and Black! I did that.
I guess that makes you the original fusion man. So how did this record lead you to the world of cutting houses?
It was customary for sound systems to play dubplates. Except in those days they weren’t called dubplates, they were called ‘wax’. I took it to the local cutting house, which was owned by R.G Jones. Now R.G Jones is one of the most reputable studios in this country. It’s in Wimbledon, right. And old man Jones, he’s long passed away now…
Cliff Richards recorded there. The first black group from Scotland, Average White Band, their first album was recorded there. Mutumbi’s first recordings were recorded there. RG Jones were the first people to have PA Systems. Old man Jones was intrigued by this school boy who was cutting wax.
How did you know about him? Did you know about cutting houses generally?
It was probably the Yellow Pages to find him. It was Wimbledon and I lived in Clapham Junction so it was the closest one.
So he was intrigued by what you’d done?
I didn’t tell him what I’d done! But he was intrigued that kid of my age wanted to cut an acetate. So he explained to me about the frequencies and the cutter head and I made this acetate and sold it to this soundsystem called Jim Daddy. It must exist somewhere. It was the only one I made. The only other person would know about it was the teacher who played on it, he was a young one so he’s probably still alive. I’d like to find that man again.
So the tune went to the sound systems. And…
From thereon in, I was doing that kind of thing.
Now you had a place to get the music out.
I had a place to get my wax cut. And an outlet. The first one we did, we sold it for £3. In 1967 went a long way. It was a lot of money! A lot of people were getting £3 a week.
What were cutting houses generally like?
After that I found another cutting house, owned by a man called John Hessle. John is the architect of dubplates in this country right across the board. He was less expensive than RG Jones. He was cutting in mono, so it was the same on each side of the record. In fact, a lot of my stereo tapes were melted down into mono by using him, but sound systems were largely mono anyway. So it wasn’t that bad cutting a dubplate for a system on a mono lathe. He was an old Jewish man and they had a lathe in their front room in Barnes.
Another person with a cutting room in their house…
Another person, yes. RG Jones was a proper studio. Hessle’s was in his house. In Barnes. In Nassau Road.
What was the picture when you knocked on his door?
First was ‘what was this black kid doing in this neighbourhood’. John was blind, he’d been wounded by shrapnel and he lost his eyesight but his hearing improved. He had this mobile recordings business. I went on mobile recordings with him as a youth, to record Jaspar Carott. Before he was big on TV he used to record for a label called Sweet Folk All. Sweet Folk All! I’ve got loads of Jasper Carott records from before he was famous. Once I went with Hessle to the Royal Albert to record the Latvian Song Festival. A 500 voice choir no less! And John, he was a neighbour of David Rodigan. I met Rodigan then, before he was Rodigan the DJ, when he was Rodigan the actor. He did one of the first Guiness adverts on TV. Way way waaaay before he was Rodigan the DJ. He was curious what was going on and John Hessel would slip him acetates and he got to meet Shaka, everyone else.
Who else would be there?
Me, Sufferah. Shaka. Shaka would be camped out there all day. Be using the cutting room all day and no-one else could get in, then John would get pissed off ‘I’m not cutting any more tonight, this is my home!’
Shaka was in there, no-one else could go in. So where do you wait?
In the street, van loads of black people, the neighbours going (puts on posh voice) ‘what’s going on dear?’ I didn’t wait in a car. I was the first person, one of the first people, to go there and word spread. I was there before Shaka, before Coxone
So what did these cutting houses do before? Were they linked to soundsystem culture?
Not at all. They were tape to disc. Ordinary transcription service.
So the people who came from Jamaica, who were cutting dubs for their sound systems, where were they going?
John Hessel told me himself that he was intstrumental in building the Treasure Island studio. He was a friend of Duke Reid in Jamaica, before Duke Reid passed away. This was a Jewish guy, a white guy. I owe that man a lot, for taking me as a young man and telling me about the frequencies. He was instrumental in guiding me in how best to put the frequencies on so they reproduced properly. He was afraid of tripping the cutter head. You’d have to send to Germany for a new one and that cost wong. He wasn’t about to trip that for a dubplate for some young black boy. He’d send me back to the studio to remix it if my treble levels were too high.
I’m interested in the fact that cutting houses provided a sort of schooling…
It happened for me from talking to the cutting engineer. He’d been alive during the war, enough to be blinded. Him an elderly man, me a teenager. Whatever he said was gospel. If John said it, I had to do it. By this time I’d moved away from looping and moved into recording. I was recording with Matumbi and engineering. I’m interested in placing microphones and all that. I want the best for my product and I want to sound as heavy as the Jamaican stuff. And John was the best man to talk to.
Part two follows soon.