|Stryda and Digistep in the studio|
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.”