Don Letts set to visit the North East

Acclaimed DJ, filmmaker and BBC Radio 6 Music host Don Letts is set to perform a one-off North East show when he rolls into Teesside this Autumn.

Letts will bring his vast knowledge of reggae and punk music to Middlesbrough Town Hall for a special DJ set on Saturday 23rd November, celebrating the premiere of the eagerly anticipated documentary ‘Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records’.

As resident DJ at the iconic 1970’s London punk club, ‘The Roxy’, Letts came to notoriety as the DJ who single-handedly turned a whole generation of punks onto reggae and has been at the forefront of the UK music scene ever since.

Following his early success as a DJ, the reggae icon managed some of punk’s biggest names, including The Clash and The Slits. He also formed a number of his own music projects throughout the 80s and 90s, releasing critically acclaimed albums and hit singles with Big Audio Dynamite and Screaming Target.

Speaking of his upcoming show in Middlesbrough, Don Letts told us: “I’m going to be nice-ing up the place with some heavyweight bass, a reggae-type set that’s very much in the spirit of this amazing new film.

Apparently, the reggae-punk connection is all my fault.

Luckily for me, the punks liked it too. It was like a cultural exchange: they were turning me on to the whole punk DIY thing, and I was turning them on to bass-heavy Jamaican music. We were like-minded rebels.”

I love performing in the North East and I can’t wait to make my Middlesbrough return. My set will be all about the heritage and legacy of Jamaican music and the island’s gift to the world…bass!”

As a filmmaker, Letts has directed over 300 music videos for the likes of The Clash, The Psychedelic Furs, Elvis Costello and Bob Marley & The Wailers. He would later go on to win a Grammy for his ground-breaking documentary, ‘Westway to the World’.

Over the course of his long and prolific career, his work has been exhibited in The Kitchen N.Y.C, The Institute of Contemporary Art, The N.F.T in London and was honoured at Brooklyn’s BAM festival.

Don continues to educate music aficionados on the rich history of reggae and punk in the UK with his popular BBC 6 Music show ‘Culture Clash Radio’, as well as national and international DJ sets, performing at the likes of Glastonbury Festival, The Rough Trade 25th Anniversary, Trojan Records, Lee Perry’s Meltdown and Stussy’s 25th Anniversary.

Support will come from Ska’d For Life, an all-star DJ group who bring the sound of ska to some of the world’s greatest songs.

Capital Letters: Wolverhampton in Dub

a0869349583_10Capital Letters, producing new music after a gap of several decades, have met with acclaim for their resolute adherence to the authentic sound of Midlands roots reggae. Their comeback release ‘Wolverhampton’ has been positively reviewed on these pages and now we have the complete dub version of the album on separate release. Mixing engineer Dave Sandford was given licence to play dub with the original album, commenting that “on these dubs I just went with what I wanted to hear. Of course there are the norms for dub albums, but I wanted to take it further, trying to do things that haven’t been done”. The results speak for themselves as the album sounds neither like a classic-era dub collection nor a latter-day digital experiment. Along with the dub elements that might be expected – echo, reverb, bass, drums – there are unpredictable additions of partial vocals, sounds and effects that give it all an adventurous feel rather than just offering instrumental versions of the vocal tracks. This approach is demonstrated on a track like ‘Opportunity’ which powers along happily, and also on both versions included here of ‘Wolverhampton’, one of which is a ‘stripped down’ vocal version of the original track. ‘Tell Me What’s Wrong’ has a strange staccato style that works well, while ‘Jamaica’ stands out as a strong rhythm track in its own right with snatches of vocal thrown in to accentuate the overall impact. With 14 dubs here, plus 3 further alternate versions, the overall musical feel is curiously light, fresh – and happy. Listen alongside the original vocal album and the dubs here can be appreciated further. The 14 core tracks conclude with ‘A Place on Earth’, a fine conclusion indeed.

Capital Letters: Wolverhampton in Dub, released on Sugar Shack Records, CD and digital, 16th October 2015

UB40: Present Arms/Labour of Love deluxe editions

UB40’s mass appeal from the 1980s onwards, and their move into a more comfortable pop-reggae niche as the years went on, sometimes means that the strength of their early albums is overlooked. This is a mistake as there is power and authenticity in these early albums. These two ‘deluxe’ releases revisit ‘Present Arms’ (their second album, initially released in 1981) and ‘Labour of Love’ (their fourth album, released in 1983, which would bring them mass international success).

For this re-release, each album is issued as a 3-CD collection. ‘Present Arms’ is accompanied for the first time by ‘Present Arms in Dub’, originally issued a few months after the parent vocal album. The music within is well-known. Highlights on disc 1 include the striking sound of still-relevant ‘One in Ten’, ‘Don’t Let it Pass You By’, and the welcome addition of the 12” version of ‘Don’t Slow Down’, which curiously enough does slow down to take us into a great extended dub fadeout.  Disc 2 is ‘Present Arms in Dub’. This previously seemed a little disappointing in its interpretation of dub, but now sounds more impressive, perhaps through the improvement in sound quality or the simple passage of time. The dub of ‘One in Ten’, and the classic bass line of the closing track ‘Neon Haze’ (the dub of ‘Silent Witness’), are as good as ever. Disc 3 adds something different in the shape of live BBC radio sessions from 1981. These begin at a cracking pace with (again) ‘One in Ten’ but there are also performances of tracks from the their first album ‘Signing Off’ including ‘Food for Thought’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, the latter as part of a closing run-together of three tracks. The production of these songs is excellent. Whatever view you take of UB40’s latter-day output, or which current incarnation of the band you favour, there is some great reggae music here, sharp and politically informed, mirroring some of the urban anger of the Specials’ output of the time.

‘Labour of Love’ was even more of a commercial breakthrough for UB40, and, unusually for a reggae band, charted highly in the USA as well as the UK. It consisted wholly of covers, not only of classic reggae songs like ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ but also of less likely targets such as Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’ (which had previously been performed in a reggae style by Tony Tribe). Disc 1 is the original album, featuring the long version of ‘Red Red Wine’ and a good account of Dandy Livingstone’s (aka Boy Friday’s) ‘Version Girl’ although it ultimately sounds a little thin in comparison with Livingstone’s rugged DJ-ing take on the song. Disc 2 features ‘singles and B sides’ and there is interesting music here, including strong dubs of ‘Sufferin’ and ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, a live version of ‘Food for Thought’ and a different version of ‘Johnny Too Bad’ from that on Disc 1. The third disc is composed of BBC live tracks from 1983 and 1984, including the sweet but neglected single ‘Love is All is Alright’.

There would of course be ‘Labour of Love’ volumes II and III in later years, and the commercial appeal of covers would be evident in single hits like ‘I Got You Babe’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ but something of the spark of a creative band started to be lost with this immersion in crossover pop reggae. But that original sound is still there in these ‘deluxe’ releases. What would be even better? Maybe an album-set consisting wholly of 12” versions as originally released, ideally including ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ where unusually the instrumental dub precedes rather than follows the vocal track; or the lengthy dub takes on ‘I Think it’s Going to Rain Today’ or ‘Dream a Lie’, or the hard-to-get- hold-of 12” version of ‘King’. If that release ever happens you’ll hear about it here.

UB40 are touring in the UK in May and June 2015.

UB40 ‘Present Arms’ and ‘Labour of Love’, each available as 3-CD Deluxe Editions and also as 2-LP 180g vinyl, released 2nd March 2015.

Yabass Yaba Radics: Dubplate Drifter

This new dub album from Yabass Yaba Radics follows up the recent well-received ‘Community Rocker’ (see 12th January 2013) with nine further tracks in a retro dubplate style.

Grouped around a spoof Western theme, Dubplate Drifter opens with ‘Arrival’ – a repeating two chord instrumental with its drums and bass rhythm becoming a little more assertive toward the end – before the more muscular ‘Everyday Hustling’ bursts in with some classic dub styling held together by a powerful bass, with a hint of Tubby-era hi-hat in there somewhere too. A very decent dub. ‘Saloon Wondering’ (nice word play on ‘Everyday Wondering’ to be found in these two track titles..?) follows through with another steady dub in the old style, while the final track on ‘Reel One’ offers a melodica-sound that conjures up the intended spaghetti Western theme, reflected in its title ‘Big Chief Van Cleef’. Most of the tracks on ‘Reel Two’ are perhaps too similarly slow in tempo, demanding of a bit more light and shade, though ‘Heavy Horse’ is worthy of attention, its bass phrase and drum mixed up-front, with everything else much further back in the rhythm. ‘The Rapids’ is, in contrast, a more uptempo rhythm track with a fine dubbed-up sound, instrumentation fading in and out in the familiar dub style.

As an instrumental album in the continuous dubplate style of releases of the past, the music fits the feel of the dub tradition and generates an atmospheric sound consistent with its theme. Produced by Gibsy Rhodes, and mastered at Maximal Sound in France, the imperfections of the sound are more than made up for by the period feel of the music and the sympathetic production throughout.

Yabass Yaba Radics: Dubplate Drifter. Release 20th April 2013 on CD, DDL and tape (Smash N Grab/Springline Jamaica label).


Yabass Yaba Radics: Community Rocker

From the folks at Springline Records/Come Fi Conquer we encounter an album fashioned not in the trial and tribulation of Kingston, Jamaica, but in the mean streets of Willesden, North-West London. Like previous releases from this undervalued label the sound, feel and message remain true to the origins of the music and its guiding influences. The album opens with ‘Silver Locks Crackin’, a no-nonsense skanking start to the proceedings, followed up with ‘Playing Good Vibes’, a master lesson in slow, spiritual, melodic roots from Yabass, featuring also the contrasting input of Michael Rose. This strong and impressive track is followed immediately by its dub, ‘Vibez a Wa’, with Jah Wa Wa making another guest contribution – a great dub production with snatches of the original vocal and even a touch of ‘row fisherman row’ and ‘down by the riverside’ in there somewhere, this is a fine deconstruction with all the elements of a dub-era classic mix and something that sounds almost like a Tubby-era hi-hat making itself known. ‘Community Rocker’ itself comes in with a busy dubby mix, and a lot going on around and behind the simple ‘community rocker’ line and the repeat bass phrase beneath. ‘Fear No Evil’ opens with its brief childlike vocals and a biblical message, then is straight into a deep dub-led mix, along with melodica-sounding instrumentation and a sparse drum and bass pattern. A doomy sort of feel indeed.

‘Who Jah Bless’ is a delightful discovery – again, a simple repeating vocal figure, this time with a striking keyboard intervention reminiscent of play-the-organ-at-home adverts of bygone days, after which the instrumentation and vocals are stripped away to go into an echoing bass-heavy dub before reintroducing the vocals: a brilliant little track, and quite unlike anything else recently encountered, closing with a nice spoken rhetorical question: ‘who could beat that?’ Indeed – and a great job from producer Gibsy Rhodes. Listen at the You Tube link below – it’ll spread!. Next up, ‘Judgement Day’ is thoughtful roots music, nice percussive sounds in the background, a subtle and interesting mix and the album ends on a high with ‘Natural Situation’, a splendid dubbed-up rhythm track.

A surprisingly strong album and a most rewarding way to spend 32 minutes of your life: have a listen.

Yabass Yaba Radics: ‘Community Rocker’. Release March 2013 (CD/DDL/cassette), Springline Jamaica- Come Fi Conquer-Roots Lab Intl–D8qiQqTc

Yabby You: Deeper Roots

This Pressure Sounds double-album from Yabby You brings together some little-known bass-heavy roots tunes/dubs together with selected alternative versions, rare dubplates, and tracks previously found only on vintage singles. It is a striking testament to roots and dub at their peak. The compilation revolves around Yabby You’s creative production collaboration with King Tubby, featuring some tracks only recently unearthed for first release here.  Personnel include Barrington Spence, through King Miguel and Smith and the Prophets, together with Aston Barrett and Robbie Shakespeare on bass and the great Tommy McCook on saxophone.

Things get under way with the R and B chants of ‘Valley of Joeasaphat’ from the Prophets, followed by its dub, then up looms the austere ‘Thanks and Praise’, an ‘exclusive dub plate mix’ from King Tubby. Side 1 is completed by ‘Don’t Touch I Dread’ from Barrington Spence, together with its dub: a seminal release of the period (those previously unacquainted with Yabby You will no doubt recognise it from the widely-disseminated I-Roy version). Side 2 consists solely of dub plates, with Tommy McCook’s opening ‘Fighting Dub’ featuring the kind of bass that was truly meant for vinyl within a mix that embodies classic roots/dub production of the era perhaps better than anything else here. The dub mixes continue, including an excellent ‘Deliver Dub’ credited to King Tubby and Yabby You, culminating in Don D Junior (Vin Gordon’s) striking and unique trombone excursion on ‘Milk River Rock’, one of the newly-discovered cuts on the album, and quite unlike anything else with its rhythm track mixed far away in the background. Side 3 opens with the little-recognised Prince Pampidoo’s ‘Dip Them Bedward’ in a deejay style, plus its dub, while ‘Dub Vengeance’ from King Tubby again offers a dubplate mix, this time percussion-led, and a great tuneful old school ‘Forward on the Track’ from King Miguel. The final side consists mainly of dubplates, with ‘Poor and Needy Dubwise’ a great stripped-down dub in the classic King Tubby style.

Actively recording from the 1970s to the early 90s, Yabby You (Vivian Jackson) died in 2010. This release is by far the best introduction to his deep roots style and it emphatically sums up his definitive late 70s take on spiritually-driven roots and dub.

Release December 2012; double-album vinyl on Pressure Sounds; also available on CD and DDL

Bob Marley and the Wailers: In Dub Vol 1

With minimal sleeve notes or production details, along comes a brand new CD release of Marley dubs issued previously via download only. With eleven tracks including ‘Lively up Your Dub’, ‘Smile Jamaica Version’ and ‘Waiting in Vain Dub’ it’s an intriguing take on some of the classic songs of the Marley era.

Of course this is not the first opportunity to savour some key Marley tracks in a dub style: an early release of pre-Island tracks like ‘Bob Marley Original Dub’ provided raw instrumentals devoid of the vocal channel, more properly described as instrumental ‘versions’ rather than ‘dubs’, but their primitive power is still evident through a suitably cranked-up sound system. The 12” vinyls of Marley singles provided some excellent dub renditions, notably on ‘Buffalo Soldier’, a dub whose bass register reaches so low as to alert any seismic measuring equipment in the vicinity to register some imminent catastrophe: you can get a worthwhile 12” Buffalo dub on the later CDs of ‘Confrontation’ but sadly not the bass-led B side of the 12” single. And – seeing as how we’re getting a bit obsessive about this – on the second CD of the double-CD release of the zillion-selling ‘Legend’ there are some very decent alternative remixes, specifically the ‘extended version’ of ‘One Love/People Get Ready’, possibly the best place of all to start with all this Marley dub stuff.

So, if the release of ‘In Dub Vol 1’ is not the first such attempt, what is it? Well it’s the first album-length release of Marley dubs on a major label, and it does have an original approach to dub construction. This makes it interesting but also uneven. ‘Roots, Rock, Dub’ Kicks things off cleanly and keenly, skanking guitar, fragments of backing vocals preserved, yet it lacks urgency and sounds more like a rather languid backing track than an assertive dub. The same could be said of the ‘Jamming Version’ included here. ‘Is This Love Dub’ comes in much more strongly, and could conceivably have been sequenced to get the album under way more convincingly: lead vocals fading in and out, echo, repeat, with percussion hammering out the beat somewhere far away, a lot going on and a lot more interesting than the way the album began. ‘One Love/People Get Ready Dub’ is similarly impressive. ‘Forever Loving Jah Dub’ takes the lead role of the dub bass seriously, while ‘Lively Up Yourself’ retains more of the original vocal than some of the other tracks although tending to get too busy with studio effects and old-fashioned speaker-to-speaker twiddling than is strictly necessary. ‘Three Little Birds Dub’ sounds, engagingly, like something from the dawn of reggae, no doubt due to the classic-era instrumentation. ‘Crazy Baldhead Dub’ is darker and more interesting while ‘Waiting in Vain’ seems even bleaker than the original when stripped down like this. ‘She’s Gone Dub’ includes much of the original vocal before breaking off into great old-school version/dub style while the album concludes with ‘Smile Jamaica Version’ and its characteristically muddy production sound.

There is some credit due here for not simply releasing a routine ‘dub’ of Marley songs by just removing the vocals, fading a couple of instrumental tracks in and out, and adding a bit of echo and reverb here and there. By trying do more it inevitably succeeds a little more convincingly with some tracks than others.

Bob Marley and the Wailers In Dub Vol 1, CD release October 2012, Tuff Gong Records

Sahra Indio: The Tru I

American singer and songwriter Sahra Indio started her musical career in the Jahringa Reggae Band in 1993 in Hawaii, and since becoming a solo artist has been involved in several well-received releases. Thus we come to her third solo album ‘The Tru I’, from Olumeye Records and her new collaborators at Roots Lab Intl, drawing from songwriters in a number of different countries and involving several members of her extended family in the recording.

‘Big Fish’ invites us all to ‘wake up to conscious living’ with a strong soul-influenced melody, understated dubby rhythm track,  tight production and economical instrumentation. ‘Humanity’ is very much in the roots reggae mainstream while ‘Testify’ again adds a certain feeling of soul. ‘Right Fight’, with its simple rhythmic drum pattern, is effective precisely because of its simplicity. ‘Roger Dat’ is an acoustic reggae tune around injustice and drug laws with sparse guitar and drums, and, as throughout, very strong vocals. The same theme is picked up in ‘Pro Marijuana’. ‘DNA’ directly references its African roots in both the sound and the words, while ‘I’m Not the Only One’ gives us the luxury of an additional ‘I’m Not the Only Dub’, a very fine dub which, to be given a fully sympathetic hearing, demands volume and bass indeed. ‘At the Awa Bar’ is an acoustic song, light and effective.

With strong songs and smooth production, the album – especially the vocals – could have come from a soul or R&B release, and the album is all the more effective and powerful for that.

Doktor Lond featuring Agarfa: Rise Up and Love

Produced and recorded by Doktor Lond in his ‘Doktor Lond Live Dub Mixing Studio’, here is a sharp set of rhythm tracks featuring Doktor Lond on keyboards, synths, drum programs and other percussion which is enhanced further by the decisive vocal contribution of Agarfa. Although entirely new, this material has the sense and feel of roots reggae. The album opens with ‘Steppin’ Up’, a slow synth-led roots song which, if you were to imagine it with a Marley-era guitar and bass arrangement would not have been out of place in the Lyceum. A similar comment can be made about ‘Rise Up’ with its faith-based lyrics on the vocal version, closely followed by its dub which very much adopts a vintage dub template in its overall sound and mix. The splendidly named ‘spiritual disco mix’ of ‘7 Days and 7 Nights’ comes in at over nine minutes of eastern-tinged instrumentation, with soulful vocals from Agarfa and a strong melodic thread running throughout, resolving itself midway through into a dub/version instrumental excursion around the basic rhythm – a strong track that marks this out as a serious album.

‘Move It Up’ is a faster paced roots song, followed again by a separate instrumental version which is more inventive than it seems at first, using the bass and percussive structure of the classic dub style, but adding a lot more contemporary electro/synth instrumentation over the top and ultimately leaning toward the dubstep end of reggae. ‘Messiah’ is another devotional roots track, again followed by its dub or what is termed here, accurately enough, its ‘percussive meditation dub mix’. The vocal and dub treatments of ‘Don’t Be a Victim’ are based on a persistent bass pattern and a percussion that invokes, if anything, latter-day drum-and-bass. The album closes as it began with ‘Steppin’ Up’, this time in a traditional dub version, but before that there is ‘Swane Koko’ in its curious ‘sugar my porridge disco mix’, an intriguing mixture of vocals, sweeping keyboard, synthesiser and dub, coming in at over ten minutes.

This all amounts to a collection that is clearly inspired by the roots reggae tradition but is delivered through a medium of electronically generated sound, with significant contemporary influences, prominent percussion, and, running throughout, the rich vocals of Agarfa. Quite a mix. Strangely enough, despite the digital programmed sound, the album manages to retain a live and immediate feel: it remains unpolished, in a good way.

Doktor Lond featuring Agarfa ‘Rise Up and Love’; release 7th September (Roots Lab Intl label, CD and download)