Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Flag Fen project - initial findings

900 BCE. Fire devastates a settlement that had thrived at Flag Fen for centuries. There is compelling if controversial evidence that it was started deliberately, most likely by the villagers themselves.

1982 CE. Excavation begins at Flag Fen against the wishes of the archaeologists who undertook the initial surveys. They have since been seen alive in various locations including Cairo, Lisbon, Moscow, Somerset, Cornwall and South Yorkshire.

2000 CE. The 'mouse nest' fire at the Flag Fen site destroys important archaeological records. The cause of the blaze remains mysterious.

October 2018. Arson attack on buildings close to the archeological site. Doves rescued by firefighters.

December 2018. Fire in a Bristol warehouse destroys the property of small businesses, organisations and musicians. One of the affected organisations is a 'bio-electrical resistance' project known as Flag Fen. Their transmission 'The Burning of Flag Fen' was published online just weeks before the incident took place.

January 2019. Rebuilding begins. There is much to be done. Follow here for regular updates.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Dubkasm - Interview with DJ Stryda

Stryda and Digistep in the studio
DJ Stryda on Brazilian connections, the new Peng Sound label, and building a studio from scratch: a slightly extended version of a feature that appeared in Venue (R.I.P).

If you’ve dipped a toe in Bristol’s reggae waters in recent years, you’ll almost certainly have come across DJ Stryda. Those with longer memories may recall his late-90s sessions for Ragga FM, when he was barely out of school. More recently, he’s been a fixture on Passion Radio for well over a decade. Stryda – Sam Howard in civvies – is a familiar face in clubland too, whether as promoter and selector at Teachings in Dub, or supplying a rootsy contrast to the future shock at Subloaded.

Then there’s Dubkasm – the production handle he shares with childhood friend Ben Glass (aka Digistep), whose sax, melodica, guitar, percussion and keyboard parts are such a distinctive part of the duo’s sumptuous sound. “Ben’s the musician/producer and I’m the executive producer,” Sam explains, “although our roles very often overlap. One of us comes up with an initial idea, which then spins off uncontrollably as we discuss it.” Growing up in Bristol, they discovered dub “through listening to pirate radio, then at 15, we attended our first Jah Shaka session at the Malcolm X Centre.” Forming Dubkasm in 1994, their journey was fuelled by Sam’s career as a musician and Ben’s broadcasting. “Interviewing people for the radio show led us to meet Jah Shaka and Aba Shanti-I,” says Sam, and before long the soundsystem giants were picking up their tracks. “The reaction was overwhelming, seeing the crowd rocking to Aba flinging down a Dubkasm plate at Notting Hill Carnival encouraged us to release our debut 12-inch” (2003’s ‘Hornsman Trod’/‘Strictly Ital’).

If that sounds like a textbook apprenticeship, what happened next is one of those sideways lurches that are crucial to truly original music. “Dubkasm became a transatlantic operation,” explains Sam, “which is when ‘Transform I’ started to be created.” Ben, who has Brazilian roots himself, assembled the album’s nuts and bolts in Rio, drawing on local sounds that deliciously complemented Dubkasm’s reggae foundations. “Cuica, berimbau, cavaquinho, zabumba… many of these instruments were brought to Brazil by Bantu slaves,” Sam says. “So when you mix nyahbinghi rhythms with samba, you can feel the same African roots, the heartbeat.” Meanwhile, Sam was shuttling up and down the M4 recording vocalists like Dub Judah, Afrikan Simba and Levi Roots on a portable digital audio workstation. “We could record a lead vocal in Levi Roots’s frontroom, or traditional Brazilian instruments in a tropical bungalow.” The album title reflects the duo’s international blend of influences, juxtaposing “transformai” – a Portuguese word “used to urge someone to transform their mentality” – with “I and I”, the Rasta concept of oneness.

The album was an underground success and made specialist dub critic Steve Barker’s top 10 of the year in muso bible The Wire. It was followed in 2010 by Stryda and Digi’s own dub version, ‘Transformed In Dub’, and the less traditional ‘Transform I Remixed’ – a radical but respectful makeover by dubstep producers including Pinch, Appleblim, Headhunter and Peverelist. The remix project “came about through my friendship with Pinch and our promoting Subloaded and Teachings in Dub at Clockwork,” says Sam. “There was a whole host of dubstep producers living in Bristol so it was quite a natural process.”

Since then, Ben has returned to Bristol and the pair have been busy turning “a simple patch of earth into a fully functioning studio. We built it from scratch brick by brick. Although it's a fairly grass roots setup we still put in cavity walls, a soundproofed ventilation system and a double window. We felt a new studio deserved a new console and, with the help of Sountracs guru Tim Jones, we bought a 48-channel CM4400. It's built like a tank, with chunky dials and a retro meter bridge and it sits perfectly with our armoury of old school outboard - the tape echo, spring reverbs, and some home-made oddities."

The studio build seems to have given them a new burst of energy - their current single ‘Emotion’/‘Are You Ready’ contrasts the honeyed tones of Rudey Lee with the bravura deejay style of Solo Banton, and its video is creating a buzz online. Other projects nearing completion include a collaboration “with virtuoso musicians in Sao Paulo that picks up where ‘Transform I’ left off”, and a new album compiled from the restoration of early Dubkasm master tapes and mixed by “a UK dub legend” – out later this year. “Another project we are really excited about is our collaboration with Gorgon Sound. Kahn and Neek handed over their track ‘Find Jah Way’ which we remixed.” The first release on the new Peng Sound label, it’s being launched at the Take Five Café on 7 Apr. “Our releases slowed down during the studio build so it’s nice to be back on course”, says Sam.

If that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, there are the regular Teachings In Dub sessions at the Trinity Centre to organise.  “April’s instalment will be a landmark session,” says Sam. “London-based Jah Tubbys are meeting Bristol’s very own Jah Lokko. The last time these two sounds met was during the 1980s so it’s been a long time coming!” As a venue, Trinity is important to Sam: “It was there that Digi and I experienced our first reggae gig back in 1992, plus my grandparents actually got married there. I’m very proud of Bristol’s soundsystem history. It’s great to help keep this tradition alive.”

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Subloaded 6th Birthday. Friday 29th October @ Motion Ramp Park, Bristol.

Subloaded isn’t just a club night - it’s part of dubstep history.

When Pinch staged the first one in 2004, this music was the preserve of a small clique around FWD>> and the Big Apple record shop in Croydon. The early Subloaded dances triggered an explosion of local creativity, and within two years dubstep was a global movement, with Bristol rountely referred to as its "second city". Subloaded is where we started, then. Is it still where we're at?

After a typically modest, musically inclusive warmup from Peverelist, the answer comes from Digital Mystikz, as the night’s first plunging bass drop unleashes the sound system’s weight. If you’ve never heard dubstep at battle volume, you’ve never really heard it at all. There’s nothing like the physical shock of this music through a serious PA, and this one is serious. It shakes your teeth, your bones, the fabric of the building. It sucks air from your windpipe, and inhibitions from your mind. Within seconds, the head-nodding is consigned to history.

Brixton’s Digital Mystikz [pictured left, with Loefah] work a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine that sums up the genre’s contradictions. In theory, Mala’s hypnotic percussion and psychoactive subs explore dubstep’s reflective side, while Coki’s doomy horns and cocky, abrasive synth riffs channel its aggression. In practice, they’re two halves of the same unstable personality.

Ice well and truly broken, fellow DMZ man Loefah steps back from the abyss, and steers a course between the extremes, riding the tension.
Heavy on material from his fine Swamp 81 label, it’s the most satisfying selection so far. Stripped down and austere, but with pain-staking attention to detail, it’s exactly what you’d expect from Loefah – after all, his own bass sound is the only man-made structure visible from space.

As always, Bristol receives Pinch rapturously, and as always he earns it. His style is less minimal than Loefah’s, but no less powerful for it. Tribal drum patterns and eerie half-melodies add colour and texture, but they don’t soften the blow - the pressure barely drops for a second.

Dubstep isn’t the only music on offer tonight. There’s a rootsy vibe in the tunnel, peaking with a live PA from men-of-the-moment Dubkasm, while Dub Boy and Atki 2’s karnival house (or is it UK Funky?) brings rays of tropical sunshine to the cave. Even the main room lets off steam eventually, as Metalheadz legend Doc Scott tears off a spectacular string of 90s classics, including the ricocheting snares of J Majik’s ‘Your Sound’, and the claustrophobic joystick jungle of Jo’s ‘R-Type’.

He’s followed by Breakage, whose restlessly inventive set finally tears down the walls between genres.

We all know why we’re here, though. Dubstep’s purest form is often its most powerful, and the music at Subloaded’s heart is as pure as it gets. With this lineup, and that sound system, it has rarely sounded as deadly as it does tonight.

This review was originally published in Venue magazine. Thanks, as always, to Ellen Doherty for the pics.

Friday, 11 June 2010

20 Years Of 2 Kings: Blood Red Sounds meets Henry & Louis Uptown

Extended version of a feature I wrote for a recent issue of Venue, celebrating the 20th anniversary of 2 Kings Records. I caught up with Andy Scholes - half of Henry & Louis - to talk Jamaica, dubstep, and the enduring appeal of roots reggae.

Reggae's influence on British music runs deep, especially in Bristol. Few people know this better than production aces Henry & Louis, otherwise known as Jack Lundie and Andy Scholes. They’ve been associated with drum & bass, trip hop and dubstep, without ever straying far from their roots.

Jack and Andy started making music together in 1988, forming 2 Kings Records two years later.
Both were steeped in the sound system culture of St Pauls. “Bristol's always had a big roots following”, Andy remembers. “If you went to St Pauls in the early 80s you could go to Sam’s Blues, Green Street - those shebeen blues things were massive in Bristol. Going back further you had The Bamboo Club. The Wailers played here”.

Inspired by dub pioneers Scientist and King Tubby, the fledgling producers used their heroes’ analogue techniques as a starting point. Their first single was ‘Too Late’, with Jamaican singer Prince Green. “It was hard to sell reggae back then”, says Andy. “There were only a few shops, and we had to go to London to press records at Jah Tubby’s. Distribution was practically non-existent”.

2 Kings struggled on, but when they finished an album Henry & Louis decided to turn elsewhere. ‘Rudiments’ - a collection of sure-stepping dub versions - came out on More Rockers, the imprint of Bristol Sound pioneers Smith & Mighty.

“Rob Smith was a mentor from day one. He’s a very humble guy”, Andy recalls. “He wouldn’t say ‘that’s wrong’, even when it was definitely wrong. It was always ‘have you thought about trying this?’ ” Jack and Andy also spent time at Smith & Mighty’s studio, 40 Ashley Road, contributing to their low end classic Bass Is Maternal. The sessions also led to some timeless jungle-dub collaborations, like ‘Rwanda’ and ‘How Can A Man’, which ended up on 1994’s ‘More Rockers Dubplate Selection 1’.

Bristol’s first great drum & bass album - arguably its best -, it was a health and safety nightmare. “Rain was pouring down the wall”, says Andy, “and Rob’s got electrical equipment everywhere. He’d say, ‘don’t worry, it’ll be ok…just don’t lean on the wall’.” He remembers Ashley Road as “a legendary studio” though: “the people who passed through there - Roni Size, Krust, Die. Rob had every analogue machine you can imagine.”

Next stop, Jamaica. Andy spent a year on the island, hunting down the best reggae vocals he could find. Packing ten dubs he’d made with Jack and another nine of Rob’s, he moved to Duhaney Park in downtown Kingston. “I went to see Sugar Minott”, says Andy, “who set me up with Johnny Clarke, Willie Williams, Tony Tuff” The vocals were recorded at UB40’s studio in Port Maria - previously owned by Bob Marley.

If I’d mixed it in England it would never have sounded like that”, Andy believes. “In Jamaica you live and breathe reggae. It’s in the food you’re eating, the smoke you’re smoking”. The singers were respectful that he’d gone to live downtown, “because it’s rough place, but I’d never have got vocals like that anywhere else. I recorded twenty-six, and used nineteen. There are still vocals I’ve done nothing with. There’s more to come.

The resulting album, ‘Time Will Tell’ is a contemporary roots classic, combining the U.K sound system styles of the 90s with timeless reggae vocals. Dub legend Augustus Pablo liked it so much that when Andy returned to Jamaica in ‘98, he was invited to stay at Pablo’s house. “There I was, on Tangerine Hill, looking at him with that thing in his mouth…” His melodica? “No, the big smoking chalice”. Sadly, Pablo passed away six months later: “he had cancer, but like Bob Marley, he wouldn’t take the treatment”,

Andy remembers. “He couldn’t eat. He just sat there drinking this thing called bitters, and smoking. When I left, he gave me these boxes with ‘Rockers 1’ written on them, - ninety 7” singles, all his own productions. They’re probably worth thousands.”

‘Time Will Tell’ was finally released in 2001, on the American label B.S.I. Meanwhile, 2 Kings continued to grow, as cuts such as ‘Love Like A Diamond’ benefited from a new explosion of roots awareness in dubstep’s wake. “It was already building for us”, Andy says, “but without dubstep, it wouldn’t be selling as well today. Kids want to know where their music comes from, and that turns them on to roots and dub”.

2 Kings released treatments of ‘Answer’ and ‘Rise Up’ by Bristol dubstep mainman Pinch, and RSD (their old sparring partner, Rob Smith). “Pinch has something special about him”, thinks Andy. “Every time he drops something it’s like, ‘Oh my God’. He’s a humble guy as well - he reminds me of Rob Smith 20 years ago.” Radio 1 DJ Mary Anne Hobbs called her two-hour showcase of the local scene ‘Bristol Rise Up’, using a sample from Henry & Louis' track throughout the show. "Yeah, where's our money? Where's our royalty for that?", jokes Andy, adding, "It's flippin' hard to get on the radio. We've been lucky with Mary Anne Hobbs."

A third Henry & Louis album - ‘Increments’ - followed in 2008, and this time Jack and Andy released it themselves. A production masterclass, it pits contemporary roots rockers like ‘Lion’s Den’ against seismic steppers such as ‘Revelation Dub’. At twenty years old, 2 Kings is still in the vanguard of the UK Roots movement, with releases planned for Prince Jamo and the late, great Mikey Dread. A ‘20 Years of 2 Kings’ retrospective is due for release this autumn, packed with previously unreleased tracks from the label's archive.

Their next move is 2KD - a sister label with dubstep producer KDub. “We started putting dubstep out on 2Kings", Andy explains, "and people were getting confused, because we're a roots label. We're starting 2KD to prove you can have a roots-conscious thing on dubstep tunes”. The new label’s first release will be Pinch and RSD's remixes of ‘Love Like A Diamond’.

They're not just playing it safe, though. A big part of the 2KD plan is to work with Bristol’s next generation. Aware that good reggae vocals are hard to come by, they've handed theirs out to young producers like Rogue, Superisk and Widelows. If the results are as good as they expect, 2KD will release them next year.

Their priority is 2 Kings, though. “We’re not going to stop putting out roots”, says Andy Scholes, putting reggae’s long-lasting appeal down to “the message. It’s the experience of life - the reality of life”. Having seen sound system music mutate through dub, trip hop, jungle and dubstep, they’re more aware than ever of the value of the music that started it all. As Andy puts it: "We’re giving the dubstep thing a go, and we hope it will work - but this - roots reggae - we know this works.”

Prince Jamo - ‘Dance’ and ‘Lord’s Prayer’ are out now on 2 Kings Records.
‘20 Years Of 2 Kings’ is due for release this autumn.