Mighty Oak Sound System

mighty oak label.jpg[Mighty Oak Label artwork – Joseph Robertson]

Having finished setting up the sound and munched down on a solid portion of chips,  Joe and Ben very kindly sat down with me to have a quick chat about the origins of Mighty Oak Sound System and Label.

 

I guess first of all, how did Mighty Oak start?

Ben: well, we originally started playing out without a sound system, and we were called something else back then.

Joe: [Laugh]

What were you called back then?

Ben: We were called ‘Itchy Soul HiFi’. We did that for a while, collecting records, and then…

Joe: Well we both left Edinburgh for a while, so there was a break.

When was that?

Joe: I was like 22 or something

Ben: Yeah, around 2001, 2002.

Joe: 16 – 17 years ago yeah.

Ben: And then we were in different places for a while, and then we started to acquire a few speaker boxes here and there and experimenting with sound system set ups. Joe also had kept busy with his music making.

Joe: Yeah at that same time we released our first record, the Alpha and Omega Remix of the Eagle the Dragon and The Bear. That was when we were still both living in the Borders.

And it was at that time that got more serious about our project, about getting some sort of proper rig together, and start playing out a lot more.

Ben: We did our first few nights at the Mash House with a very small rig.  That was pretty much when we started as Mighty Oak… was that seven-eight years ago?

Joe: Yeah around 2010.

Ben: But it’s only really four years ago when we starting playing out on a regular basis with a sound system.

So it’s relatively recent?

Joe: Yeah, since we’ve established ourselves as Mighty Oak, started putting on nights as Mighty Oak… It doesn’t feel like it was only four years ago, it feels like it was a lot longer.

Ben: I think it’s because we have been collecting records for years…

How did you get into reggae at first or what was the scene like in Edinburgh when you started, and that made you want to focus on reggae?

Joe: Just Messenger (Sound System) basically at that time.

Ben: Pretty much yeah. We had some friends down south with a sound system called Desta*Nation Sound System, they put on a lot of free parties. And I think before I had ever been to a Messenger night I had been to a few Desta*Nation events

Was that down in England?

Joe: Yeah in Oxford. That was the first time I heard reggae and fell in love with it. Before that I was into Jungle and Hip Hop and stuff.

Ben: And then when we were both in Edinburgh, obviously Messenger (Sound System) was putting on his nights. At that time Messenger was once a fortnight.

And this is in the early 2000?

Joe: yeah, that was at the original Bongo [club], it was the main event there. Well it still is now I guess. That was a wicked venue, that sort of changed my life, working there. It got me properly into music.

Ben: In fact, I think when we started playing out with the sound it felt like it was around that time that new things started to happen and were developing in Scotland. Before that there was very little, there was Messenger and Mungo’s Hifi, and that was pretty much it.

Was there anyone else in Edinburgh putting on reggae events, or even just playing records.

Joe: Well there was Robbie (Robigan).

Ben: There was a guy called Paul.

Joe: Oh yeah, he used to play in the back room at the Messenger nights.

Ben: There was also a guy called Cliffe, with Blueberry Sound System. It was very infrequent events. He didn’t have a regular night or anything. And Tongue & Groove Sound System as well.

itchy soul.jpg

How would you describe Mighty Oak Sound System – as in what does Mighty Oak Sound System represent or try to promote?

Ben: For me I think we try to bring the beautiful aspect of the music rather than necessarily how heavy it is. A lot of the kind of stuff I personally like has more depth and melodic quality to it than just bass. I think that’s what I want to try to bring out.

Joe: Yeah it’s not just stepping your head off, it’s trying to get people to listen in a bit deeper to the music.

Ben: And you know, we’ve spent quite a lot of time and thought on the top section [of the sound system] because we want to try and get all the frequencies represented really well.

It’s true that when you hear Mighty Oak System it has a clarity to it which is very impressive.

mighty oak2[Photograph by Graham Wynne]

 

Would you say there is a distinction about how the scene is developing in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK?

Ben: I think it’s quite a unique thing going on here. It’s really nice at the moment, there are so many different sound systems working together, even though they are all quite distinct. It seems like it’s becoming a proper scene now.

Joe: I don’t think I know the scene well enough to be honest, I don’t get out much to be able to compare it to other places.

Did you live in England for a bit?

Joe: yeah I lived down there a few times for a year or two at the time, and have been down several times, but not enough to really experience the scene down there. I’ve been to some gigs in Bristol but nothing really to be able to comment on it.

Did you find it quite hard to develop the sound system in Scotland, in comparison with the English scene where there may be lots more sound systems around and more help available?

Ben: well we very much learnt as we went along. There hasn’t been anyone really giving any advice. Occasionally someone would give us a tip here and there.

Joe: Kenny [Bass Warrior Sound System] was really helpful.

Ben: Yeah we used to phone him if we sometimes had a technical issue. He was great for that. But apart from that it’s just been us on our own.

Trial and error really?

Ben: yeah, and very little money. So you end up going slowly.

Despite that it does seem like you have managed to build it up really well and relatively fast.

Joe: Yeah I guess we have. It’s strange to think it’s only been six or so years really.

Ben: Well it helps to have my storage yard where it is, because I have access to a workshop there. And so I can just build boxes quite easily, I have the space to store them and the tools for it. I’ve also got a lot of experience with woodworking, so that helps.

You can really see you woodworking skills on the new scoop grids. They’re lovely.

Ben: I think that’s really us trying to show that sound system is a beautiful thing. We are just trying to bring that out.

Joe: It also gives a particular character to the sound system and the equipment.

mighty oak scoop.jpg[Photograph by Ben Young]

 

There is an idea that the look of a sound system is the identity of the crew and can sort of inform you on what kind of music they will play or the vibes they will push.

Joe: Yeah I guess it’s earthy, quite organic looking sound …  Well it kind of represent where we’re from and what we are about. We are both woodsmen. Although I’m not literally a woodsman anymore (Laugh)

Anymore?

Joe: I used to work in the woods a lot with Ben, back where we used to live.

Did you guys discover reggae when you came to Edinburgh, or had you heard reggae when you were kids?

Ben: I think we were listening to it before that. It was a lot of old classic albums you know, like the Upsetters, and King Tubbys albums, Mad Professor. Things like that.

Joe: So many dub albums (laugh). It’s really frustrating having all these dubs without the vocals.

Ben: It was really hard to get tunes back then, especially in Scotland.

Were there no good record shops in Edinburgh back then?

Joe: There were a couple, but you had to spend hours digging through crates and crates, and hundreds of records in order to find some reggae. But then you could find a few gems. But mainly it was stuff out of Fopp, they did compilations or represses of classic albums.

Ben: There was a place also called Professor Plastic’s Vinyl Frontier. It was a nice little place, we would hang around in there and just flick through records.

Joe: I’d go to London sometimes. But it was quite tough. So we mostly ended up buying lots of albums, because that’s what was available. You couldn’t really get singles.

Ben: But then it all changed when the internet became widespread.

Joe: I used to play some pretty ropey tunes back in the days (laugh). Barely acceptable! Just because we didn’t have enough records to play. Sort of slightly sketchy dancehall-y sort of things… Never anything really terrible. I think we always tried to mix it up quite a lot. I think that’s something else we do. We aren’t too worried about always playing heavy dub at the end, and always classic roots at the beginning. We much prefer to not have rules, just play according to how we feel.

Regarding the Mighty Oak releases, was it something you had been working on for a long time, or was it just something that happened once you began building the sound?

 Joe: I had been making music since I was 15, so like almost 20 years. But I only had a Commodore Amiga, so it’s pretty hard to make decent stuff. It was mainly really rough 8-bit, experimental stuff. I did make one sort of dub tune with it and my four track, and we played a few times at our gigs. But it was pretty ropey, and mostly I was just making more electronica until I went to uni really in my late 20s, and learned how to produce properly. I think that really helped me make dub that I was satisfied with.

And yeah, my newest record is actually one of the first dub track I made. I made it at uni.

But the first record, it was maybe my second track that I had ever really been happy with. And it was sort of by chance that I ended up putting that vocal over it and it worked. I asked Alpha and Omega and they were like: “yeah this is really cool you should put it out”. And I was really surprised, but they said: “there are so many Alpha and Omega heads who will buy it, because they will by anything we put out, so it will almost definitely sell” (laugh).

So yeah, it was cool of them. They were really honest about it.

And then there was the horns tune, that has now become a really sought-after tune.

Joe: You mean the “Makating Horns”. Yeah, that was mental! It’s been a big help for promoting our sound, getting us known around the world. And hopefully we can start taking our sound around the world too. We had hopes to go to France this year, but it’s turned out to be a bit tricky.

Ben: Yeah the financing was quite hard, it proved to be more difficult than we thought. I really want to get a trip to France, but I think we need more time to organise gigs and get people to promote us.

Was the Mash House the first venue you played in?

Joe: It was our first venue with the sound system.

Ben: We’ve played in a lot of places without the sound, but that was the first place we sort of took a chance really. The sound wasn’t really developed at that point. But we really wanted to play out, and get back in the scene and see what was happening. And really it was around that time that loads of other people also started to come into the reggae scene and we started meeting different people.

Joe: We did that party, that free party in the Squat…

I remember that one. In the squat, with Riddim Tuffa and everyone?

Joe: Yeah, that’s where we met you, and Phil (Decades of Dub), Laurie (Crucial Roots). And then Phil invited us to play at Doune the Rabbit Hole that summer. And that’s where we really met all the Glasgow crew. It was great.

Is there much interaction between the Edinburgh crews?

Ben: it’s very dispersed. There were quite a few intentions to link up with people. But in terms of sound systems in Edinburgh, of actual crews with speakers, there aren’t that many. There is Messenger Sound System, Edinburgh Roots Collective… I’ve actually just finished building some tops for the ERC sound system. I think at the moment there is more of a growing, active scene in Glasgow. Well, that’s how it seems to me.

Joe: Yeah. I mean in Edinburgh, you’ve got the standard bearer of Messenger Sound, which is clearly a well-established night with a beautiful sound system.

It seems that even between Edinburgh and Glasgow there wasn’t much of a connection until fairly recently. Would that be accurate from your perspective? Were you aware of the Glasgow scene back when you were starting?

Joe: I wasn’t really aware of anything (laugh).

Ben:  Not really. Occasionally I would come over to see Mungo’s Hifi.

Joe: Oh well yeah Mungo’s Hifi of course.

Ben: But I mean they played a lot more roots and things like that at the time before they began releasing their own productions. And we knew Dougie and Tom, and we came through here once and played on a radio show they were doing.

Joe: yeah, on a Glasgow radio station, I can’t remember which one.

Did you ever play out with them?

Ben: We did actually, we started a night at Cabaret Voltaire in Edinburgh, and a few other people were involved as well. They [Mungo’s Hifi] came across to Edinburgh and played at that night.

Was that before you had your sound system?

Ben: Yeah, we were just playing on the house PA.

Joe: it was a fucking expensive venue as well…

Ben: we did also bring Desta*Nation from down south to play at that night, with their sound system.

Joe: That was epic. It was quite an ambitious thing for us at the time, to bring them up from Oxford. They had a lot of speakers!

Ben: Two of the members have passed away now, but at the time they were quite a vibrant sound system, playing out a lot.

Joe: Yeah they were really well known in the Oxford free party scene, which was quite a big scene at the time.

So have you had many connections with further down south, in terms of bringing people up or playing down there?

Ben: There are connections, but the main problem is paying people. And even paying people quite small amounts of money is not that easy. At the moment we don’t attract that big a crowd, and it’s a relatively small scene in Edinburgh.

I guess people like Messenger have the added value of the being well established sound and the good location of the dances.

Joe: Yeah, he has quite a lot of walk-in just from playing in the Bongo Club.

Ben: I think the main thing is that he’s been established for so long, and the other is that the Bongo Club is a famous venue in Edinburgh. We play in the Mash House which is technically just around the corner, but it’s a small club hidden away, sort of out of range. It makes a big difference I think.

You do get quite a lot of reggae events in Edinburgh for such a small scene. Things like Wee Dub Festival attract quite a big crowd.

Joe: It’s more about the roots genre that doesn’t attract as many people, it isn’t as ‘commercial’ if one could say that.

Ben: I think it’s also that most of the stuff we play generally has some sort of spiritual aspect to it. Some people maybe do not want to engage with that on a night out.

Joe: I think the vibe at our night is good, even if there are only a few people, those people will be really into it. I don’t know what you’d call people like that, who are really into it…

Heads?

Joe: yeah, dub heads, roots heads…

And is there a particular way you set up? Is there a particular way you guys define the Mighty Oak setup i.e. two turntables, two stacks…?

Ben: We go backwards and forwards a bit. Sometimes I quite like having two turntables, and then we might play on one and never use the second one.  it depends really. We do have guests sometimes, and we try and provide two turntables because some people prefer it that way. I’m happy either way.

Joe: yeah, I like both.

mash house[Photograph by Mighty Oak Sound System]

Ben: Part of what got me into reggae, and what was quite striking for me when I started listening to reggae, was that people would play only on one deck. I thought that would really take the emphasis off the DJ, and that was something that I had noticed and thought was quite interesting.

Joe: Yeah it seems specific to reggae. It gives a bit more respect to the tune somehow, by having a pause in between each tune, rather than mixing them into one another.

But then there is often an MC chatting in between.

Joe: Yeah but even when there isn’t I still quite like it. And even when there’s no sound at all coming from out of the system, and you can turn to your friend and have a quick chat or talk about the tune… I like that. But it seems to scare some people. Some people who were dancing will just look really surprised, like “what’s going on?”, or shout at you “Oi DJ! Where are the tunes!” because they think something’s wrong.

And would you be comfortable chatting on the mic yourself?

Joe: God no (laugh). I like to say a few words if I can, but not more than that.

Ben: Usually we will have somebody else.

Joe: But again, there aren’t that many MCs around in Edinburgh.

You seem to play out with Ista-Lion quite a lot.

Joe: Yeah we do, but again we haven’t the chance to really pay him every time he comes to play with us. I think he’s a fucking brilliant MC, and in the last year or two he seems to have gotten much better. He keeps telling us he’s been practicing at home and stuff.

I was outside the Mash House recently with him and he just started singing this song – I think he said he wrote it quite a long a time ago, and maybe someone else ended up releasing it? – but he sang it to me there, acapella, and it was brilliant!

Have you ever thought about getting him on one of your productions?

Joe: I’d love to but I need to have a chat with him. It’s quite hard to get a session organised. Maybe it would help if I take my studio to him, just bring my mic and my laptop.

I’ve had issues in the past when I’ve sent a tune away to be voiced – I’m sure it will be fine with Ista – but sometime you send a tune to be voiced and it won’t come back as expected.

Or you work with a singer or a musician, you try something out do something which they then think should be released and you don’t. And that’s always a bit of a tricky situation. There comes a point where you have to think, like, do we need to make an agreement about this?

That’s a bit of an issue for producers, and I know I’ve brought this up with other people too. Because the system is: you contact a singer you like, ask how much it will cost but you don’t really know what you are going to get, unless you’re actually there with them. And even then it might not be what you want.

Ben, have you been involved in making some of the Mighty Oak productions?

Ben: Me? No that’s always been Joe’s remit.

You have quite set roles it seems within Mighty Oak.

Joe: Yeah definitely. It’s almost entirely Ben who deals with the sound system side of things, I’ll help pick up a couple of boxes (laugh). But he’s the one who’s really behind the speakers.

What direction are you hoping Mighty Oak will go from here?

Joe: To the stars!

Ben: I’m really interested in what’s happening here in Scotland. It’s such a positive thing, the scene seems to be gathering a really good momentum. I just really want to see where that goes, with us being a part of it.

I mean there are other things I want to do as well with our sound system. We have a couple of gigs this summer, that will be interesting […].

But yeah, I think we’re particularly interested in the scene at home, and curious about how it will develop…

mighty oak.jpg[Photograph by Mighty Oak Sound System]

 

Thank you to Joe and Ben

 

Words by AF

 

Advertisements

How women are shaping a new UK sound system scene (from i-D Vice)

A very interesting article interviewing some of the new female-led sound systems:

“A new generation of UK sound systems are changing and modernising the scene, as well as maintaining and nurturing important traditions — using vinyl, playing dub, roots and culture reggae rather than newer genres, keeping ‘the message’ central to the dance — established by previous generations. One of the changes being pushed forward by this new wave of sounds is greater gender diversity: more women are building, operating and owning their own sound systems now, rather than singing or selecting on those belonging to men.

An upcoming photography exhibition called Let’s Play Vinyl — which will tour the UK, kicking off this Black History Month — is going to shine a light on these pioneering women for the first time, using portraiture and interviews to explore them and a whole new generation of UK sounds.”

Continue reading the article on i-D Vice

Bliss Zion Interview

bliss

[Photo by Stan Proudlock]

I was fortunate to have a quick chat with the very talented singer, MC, selector, producer, and promoter Bliss Zion ahead of her first ever gig in Glasgow, as part of the Decades of Dub Female Takeover. 

 

How did you first get into reggae, and especially singing and producing?

So, my mom has always been listening to reggae, not so much dub, more like Tony Rebel, Morgan Heritage, Beres Hammond… So like lovers rock and stuff, so I grew up on that and dancehall. Buju Banton and all that. And at the age of about 14 I started going to dub nights in Bristol, and I was blown away. Later on my mom introduced me to Andy Scholes from 2 Kings, and she knew most of the guys in Bristol who were active in the scene.

I grew up on reggae, and then I started collecting records as I began going to the night and buying records there. I was also writing songs and singing, but just your standard songwriter stuff.

So not reggae at that point?

No.  But I was always singing. And then I thought “hey I could start doing this”. But first I started collecting records, and Andy Scholes was like “why don’t you come and have a gig”. So he gave me my first gig.

And then I started working with Ras Muffet from Roots Injection. I met him through my mom’s friends. There’s a little place in Bristol called Cosies that’s been going on for longer than I’ve been alive, and my mom used to go there when I was a baby on reggae Sundays. And the guys that run it, Conroy and Dion, who I also run Bristol Dub club with, also run a sound system in Bristol called Jah Lokko.

So my mom introduced me to them, and one day they just asked me “why don’t you come and meet our friend Ras Muffet”. And I knew who he was already as I’d been going to dances for a few years by then. And I was just like “no waaaay! Yeah!” [laugh].

At first I wasn’t confident with singing, so he was just teaching me how to produce, because I was already producing dubstep at home. Just to a very average level.

Bedroom dubstep?

Yeah bedroom dubstep. And then I went over to his over and the first experience I had of making a dub tune was with a desk. It was amazing. We made it in Qubase, and that was my tune New Beginnings, which Iration Steppas have played.

Is that the one we can find on Youtube?

Yeah that tune. I had made it at home. I’ve actually put on Soundcloud the one I made at home and the one I made with Muffet, so that people can hear the difference. Because obviously the one I made in the studio, the instrumental is the same as the one I made at home, but once it’s been through the desk and all the channels, it just brings it to life. So I thought it would be really cool for people to be able to listen to the two.

And it’s quite funny, because when I first used to play it, people would go “that’s not your tune, is that a Muffet tune?”. Because it gone through Muffet’s equipment, it sounds like a Muffet tune.

It sounds like one of his productions?

Yeah, but I made it, and he just helped me finish it. And then I started going around there regularly, and he started teaching me, well… everything. Mixing, building a riddim… And as I got more confident with him and as a musician, I started singing.

The first song I sung was actually ‘Freedom out of Babylon’, and then I did a tune with Muffet called ‘A Time to Come’, which isn’t anywhere except my record bag.

It’s basically (Ras) Muffet, Andy Scholes, and being in Bristol that got me into reggae

Well that leads on to the next question. Outside of London, Bristol is one of the other big reggae and sound system cities. Here in Glasgow if you start out and you’re quite new, It’s fairly easy in that sense that it’s quite a small and tight community for sound systems, and people are happy to help out. Is it like that in Bristol too? How was it starting out there?

Yeah definitely. I mean it’s changing in recent times, because it’s getting a bit saturated.

But the general vibe is that in the community everyone helps out.  For instance, the night I run Bristol Dub Club, we almost run like a cooperative. So we sometimes book big sounds, we’ve had Channel One, Iration Steppas play there, and obviously you have to pay them whatever they want to be paid. But in general how we work is we say to people “we’ll cover your costs, and whatever we make on the door we’ll split”. So me and the other promoters, we’d never make a thousand pounds on the door and just take it, not that that ever happen anyway. Everyone that has been involved, including people who have handed out flyers, helped at the door, and obviously the sound systems, the artists…all get a cut. And that is part of it. It just means that small sound systems who aren’t known can come and play, and don’t have to worry about putting on their own nights, and try to get lots of money together for that.

It’s a community idea isn’t it.

That’s it yeah. But then you have these other nights who are coming in and setting up these massive student events on the same nights as ours. And it’s like, we’ve been doing this for ten years, and you’re fucking this up so you can make ten grand… But the heart of it is beautiful.

bliss2

[Photo by Stan Proudlock]

That’s the other thing as well, the sound system scene and bass culture scene is huge now. Glasgow is coming up, but Bristol is huge by now – stuff like Tokyo dub and all that

We’ll they’ve actually just changed their name. It started off as predominantly dub nights, and now it’s called Tokyo World. Because it was a bit disrespectful as they weren’t really pushing the dub side of it. But he didn’t mean to do that, and he changed the name. But there was a period of time where everyone was just like “why is he calling it Tokyo dub, where is the dub”.

Everyone is all about supporting the scene, which sometime can be a bit too much you know. Everyone has so much to say, and there is so much politics involved in it. But the heart of it is good, and people have good intentions.

I mean it’s quite a small city and everyone ends up knowing each other. I guess that why I also wanted to ask you about Cosies, it seems like everyone who starts in Bristol goes through Cosies.

Yeah, Cosies… It’s just mad.  On a Friday night there might be techno, on another Friday night there might be dubstep, but on a Sunday its always reggae. Getting to play at cosies means more to me. I’ve played at Glastonbury the last few years, and Cosies means more to me, even though Glastonbury is really amazing. Actually I really love Glastonbury as well. Okay bad example [laugh]

Let’s say playing at a really big event, Cosies has so many memories you can feel it in the place. But even Cosies is changing, I mean Bristol is changing

It seems like an incubator for the Bristol scene.

Yeah I mean it’s easy to use, you don’t need to pay much to hire it. People just go there for a good time. No one really knows what’s going on. They’re like “Oh let’s go to cosies”, they won’t say “let’s go to cosies to see such and such”. Occasionally maybe, but generally it’s just because you know that whatever is on there will be good.

Did you feel it was quite easy starting as an artist and DJ in Bristol?

Definitely. When I was growing up I always felt like I didn’t really fit in with anything, like I didn’t really have best friends. I spent all my summers at festivals and my good friends would be there, but then they would be in other parts of the country during the year. So I always felt very isolated in Bristol.
And as soon as I started entering the dub scene, not even as an artist but just as a person who goes to those nights, I instantly felt welcome. I find that in any dub across the UK. If you are at a proper dub night, not a student mash-up night – which is cool too – but when you are at a proper dub night, even if you don’t know anyone, someone is going see you in the garden and see that you’re not with anyone and come to ask “hey are you alright”.

It’s a different vibe. Most of the time I think it’s because there’s not really many drugs involved.

And if there is I guess it’s more social drugs like weed, where you can still talk to people, not just chew your jaw off.

Exactly yeah. I’ve never felt alone in that scene… I think it was very nice to come into it, very welcoming.

I had a few more questions about Bristol, and especially the Bristol sound. It is quite peculiar. There’s Dubkasm, Maasai, You, Evermoor, Henry & Louis, Armagedion… The Bristol sound seems to be on the heavier side of dub, quite steppers. Is that an influence from everyone else, or just how it developed through other sounds?

Yeah that’s true. I’m not sure how it developed. I mean across the scene it’s become quite stepper focused. But people are moving back now, making slower stuff. We kind of just follow what has come before us, and change it a little bit. But the bottom line is, what people really want to dance to…

It’s a really difficult question to answer [laugh].

I’ve just started making more rootical stuff recently, none of it is ready yet. And I’m working with people to get some live instruments because I’ve been listening to a lot of steppers and I just think it’s a bit too much head-banging.

But I think it’s quite easy to make, steppers, compared to roots, because there is a pattern you can follow. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s not, but it’s a good starting point.
You listen to Dubkasm’s early stuff it wasn’t really steppers, it was more rootical. You listen to Ras Muffet early days, like Shashamane…. It’s all just changed.

And you notice in the dance, people are going the most nuts when its 140 bpm steppers. Personally I love both, but the commercial crowd that are coming and supporting the scene with their money, they like steppers. So I think everyone keeps making steppers for them.

In Glasgow for example, it’s a big techno city. And unless you’re really into it, it’s hard for people to get into the roots vibe. Guys like Mungo’s are a bit more on the dancehall side, bridging the gap between reggae and more continuous mixing and bass music in general. It’s a lot easier for people to get into, because it’s more familiar.

Yeah dance music, really. You can pop a pill to it.

You’ve worked with Maasai Warrior quite a bit. How did that happen, or how did get to collaborate with them? They seem to have sprung out of nowhere, and become one of the ruffest sound around in the space of 5-6 years.

Yeah they were just about, and then they had the sound. They used to play at Bristol Dub Club a bit.

I used to go to school with Jermel’s sister, and he lives around the corner from me. One day he just asked me if I wanted to come round, and that tune (Freedom out of Babylon) was recorded in his bedroom years before Maasai were touring around Europe. But yeah, he just asked me if I wanted to come round one day. And I already had some lyrics. I was really shy, and I had Paul Maasai on my shoulders, shacking me, going “Come on sista! Let it out, let it out!”.

And we had to do a couple of takes, because the first one I was just singing the chorus ‘freedom out of babylon’, and Paul was in the background shouting “freedom out of Babylon! Come on lexi, meh say freedom!!” [laugh].

And in the end I was too shy as a singer to do the harmonies. So the bits in between the chorus and the verse, that was Jermel. I was just “No Jermel I can’t do it, I can’t hit those notes”. And he just smashed it. It was literally just in a day we did that at his house.

Wow, because you wouldn’t think it was someone else. I thought it was you.

I know, it’s quite funny. And then we had no idea the tune would get such a great response. It worked really well.

It seems like Maasai, and Evermoor Sound, and you are the sort of new Bristol generation, that have been really active and pushing the scene.

It’s mostly built on friendship prior to anything to do with music. Quite a lot of the happenings, it’s just through friends and stuff. Bristol is just like that. People don’t say “oh I’m this person, I’m a big shot”. You get a couple who are like that. But generally not. And that’s really nice as a newcomer, to feel like you can work with these amazing people.

It’s like with Ras Muffet, he just says “hey come down whenever”. I used to just go round to his for hours.

bliss 3

[Photo by Tom Porter]

When you play, you obviously select tunes, but you also sing and MC. And that’s quite impressive because not everyone can do that, and do it well. MCing is very different from singing, and selecting demands a lot of attention. But you do all that and do it well. So I was wondering what is your process. Because combining the three and having to read the crowd in those three different ways must be very tricky.

Yeah, I find that it’s one of those things… I’ll never sit at home before a gig and practice, or say “I’ll sing this part over this tune”, and do this and this. I’ll maybe practice my songs, that I’ve produced and that I’m singing on, but when I’m singing or just MCing on riddims, it’s just totally on the spot. And a lot of the lyrics will come on the spot just from the vibes. It’s total freestyling most of the time.

Because sometimes I won’t sing during the whole set. I might sing my tunes, like Freedom out of Babylon or A Time to Come, but I might not actually freestyle because nothing’s coming. But other times it’ll just be vibes the whole time.

I’m trying to work on that because it’s good to try and find the balance between freestyling and having loads of stuff prepared in your head. I do have lyrics in my head that I could throw down at any point, but it’s nice just to feel the vibes and the flow.

Aba shanti, he’s one person that I really watch. And Mark Iration. Have you ever heard him sing? A lot of tunes just say ‘Iration Steppas’ and you’ll assume he’s just on the production. But he’s got an amazing voice, and he’s an amazing MC. But when he sings, and only occasionally does he sing, I love watching him. You know that it’s so natural because he only does it when he’s in the vibes. So yeah, Mark (Iration) and Aba Shanti are big inspirations.

Because it is hard. Say if I’m singing over a tune, then when and how am I going to get the next tune ready. So I’m singing whilst flicking through my record bag. Sometimes it gets a bit much. But when you’re in the moment it just flows and you don’t think about it, and you hope that you’re doing a good job.

Yeah it really is about spontaneity. Does that feed into how you interact and feed off the crowd as a selector.  

Just don’t separate yourself from the crowd. Yeah I’m behind the turntables and I’m playing the music, but we’re all here having a good time. Even if you’re not on the mic, all you have to do is just look into people’s eyes, and vibe off of them. The worst thing you can do when you’re playing is to keep your head down and not look at anyone. Because nobody wants to look at you and see you with your head down. They want to see you having fun with them, and the same time.

The last couple of question link up to what we were talking about earlier, as far as being a female singer, selector and MC.

Yes, I love this topic [laugh]

It’s quite interesting. I’d interviewed a few guys before about this topic, and asking them about the whole idea of sound system as a very male dominated scene, with the stereotype of sound system culture being dudes lifting big speakers, nerding around with electronics. But they were guys, so I’m really interested to hear about your experience within that scene, as an up and coming female artist.

Well yeah at times I did feel people were like ‘you’re good for a girl’. I did feel that. But generally people are cool. We’re moving out of a time when women were completely marginalised. I mean physically, naturally women aren’t as strong, but it’s the principle that if we want to be we can be. And that’ all I ask from people. When I lift a speaker-box it hurts me, that’s why I don’t have a sound system. I’m not cut out for that. But some women do, and people need to respect that, and respect that women can do that if they chose to do it.

Yeah, I mean you can tell people are always blown away by your set, and part of it is because you’re a woman and they maybe weren’t expecting that. And that’s kind of annoying. Like what did expect me to do, just skip the needle? cause loads of feedback?

There’s been a couple of times when I’ve been DJing… There was this friend of mine, I’d say he’s a feminist, like he’s clued up and in no way judgemental. And he was having a technical problem with the mixer, and he’d asked my partner –who’s not a DJ – about it. And I was standing right there, and I was DJing that night, and sort of just wondered why didn’t he ask me. My partner couldn’t sort it out, even though he is very technical, but I’m around mixers all the time. So I had a look at it and just flicked a switch and it worked. And this guy didn’t even realise. Because if he knew that I was thinking he hadn’t asked me because I’m a woman he would have been devastated. But it’s engrained in him to ask the closest man, even though I deal more with mixers than my partner.

And you get that a lot. You’d be doing something and people are like “I can’t believe you know how to do that”. Well you know, women can learn things too.

But mainly it is totally cool. Especially as a singer, because women are mainly seen as singers, not as selectors. That’s the easier part.

It’s sort of been a blessing as well. People are like “oh you’re a woman and you do this, great, I want to help you in any way I can”. Whereas if I was a boy, I might not have gotten the same support as I have. I don’t know.  But I have never been in a situation where someone said anything to me and made me feel like shit. I don’t pick up on it too much.

But on the topic of female nights, I think it’s great and we should embrace these female takeovers because women don’t get paid as much, and don’t get the same respect. What I have noticed about women compared to men – and this isn’t all men, this is mainly old men. The young ones are a different story; they have less ego it seems. But women are not there like “look at me, I look great behind these decks”. They’re just feeling the vibes, and people feed off of that. But a lot of guys, especially older guys, they’re just standing there “look at me, meh got tunes”. And yeah, you’re great and you’ve got great tunes, but I’m not really feeding off your ego right now. I think people like that about women. The women’s nights I do in Bristol do way better, in terms of turnout.

I guess the fact that you need a female takeover in itself shows the problem.

Exactly, but I still like to look on the bright side of it, and think that at least I’m not in Saudi Arabia, where women don’t even get these opportunities. And today things are being talked about constantly, people are more aware of certain things.

Okay so the last question would be do you have any future projects or releases? 

I’m going to start my own label, called Higher Meditation. I’m probably looking at the tail end of this year, beginning of next year.

I’m still finding my feet you know; it’s only been four or five years. If you look at the great people that are in this scene, they’ve been working on their stuff for years. I don’t want to rush anything and just put stuff out there for the sake of it. I really want to do it right and make some really nice connections. But I’m definitely planning some stuff. Because my only release has been freedom out of Babylon, and that was when I was 17. I’m 21 now.

It is a bit mad really. I’m very fortunate that I’ve had so many opportunities without releasing anything. But I do keep my dubplates fresh, I’m constantly making tunes at home, and playing them out, seeing the feedback, and then putting that feedback into the tunes I want to release.

So yeah, watch this space!

 

 

Thanks to Bliss Zion for her time, and to the Decades of Dub family for helping make this happen.

words by AF. 

Doug (Mungo’s Hifi) Interview

doug

[Photo: Bartosz Madejski]
“So I feel that what we’ve ended up doing, maybe not consciously, is somehow trying to bridge that gap between an orthodox rootsy reggae dub selection, and a club DJ. The differences being, people have shorter attention spans in general, and a desire for music to carry on. It can be very effective to have a gap in the music, but for a lot of young crowds it confuses them.”

Doug from Mungo’s Hifi was very kind to take the time to have a quick chat about his thoughts on the role of the sound system selector, and the various techniques and methods reggae DJs use when performing.

(This interview is part of an ongoing research project)

 

What kind of performance techniques do you use as an artist?

It’s a broad question. An example?

Well the performance would be for example playing records, and then you could use additional performance techniques such as an MC, or using pull-ups, or echoes like a lot of the old roots sound systems. Anything that would add to the performance, other than playing the records.

And this is in the context of a sound system dance as opposed to other forms? … I think there are a lot of different kinds of shows you can play, from being in a bar, to background music.

As a sound system session, with your own sound.

Classically a sound system session is a long thing, I mean the Shaka Style, with one selector for five or six hours… Or that could also be an hour long slot in between other selectors and acts, and all of these things influence how you will approach it, and what techniques you will use.

Because, it’s a lot about story-telling, about bringing people on a journey. having a starting place and a finishing place, as opposed to simply tune after tune. I mean people can approach it like that, just play a big tune, play another big tune… So it depends how knowledgeable the crowd is of the aesthetic; what kind of background they’re coming from, you have to gage that. And always it’s going to be a mix: sometimes you’ll have a majority of the audience that’s more into going to clubs, sometimes you’ll have a majority that’s more versed in classic sound system.

Usually it’s trying to weave these different elements in, so that it appeals both to a newcomer and a hardened veteran at the same time.

Ultimately once you’ve got a sound system sitting there, a good sound hopefully, then it’s mainly about selection and what you’re going to play. That’s the most important thing.

Is it about that, or more about specific techniques within that. Within what you play, and again that varies between dancehall tradition, dub tradition, or kind of more modern approach I would say that has more of a consciousness of club music in general.

They all have different kinds of approaches to it. In a sense the pure dub approach, which is more how Iration (Steppas) plays, and which is much bigger in France – the UK sound is much bigger in France than it is in the UK. And that is kind of formulaic with 4/4 beats, and a certain way of bringing in the bass, and building up anticipation for the bassline drop.

That is one end of the spectrum.

And it’s funny, within the world of reggae you have people who have funny attitudes towards that, kind of ‘that is the one and only’ – there is a kind of orthodoxy about that. Which I understand, objectively it’s neither good nor bad. For me, that’s like a drum build up in techno. The first time you hear it it’s amazing, and then the next 100 times less so, and then 1000 times it’s like ‘oh god not again’.

And I was thinking about this while listening to rubbish radio, that my kids insist on putting on (laugh). We seem to have moved on a lot in pop music, it’s in a sense more sophisticated than that. If they do a drum roll, if they do a build-up, it’s more sophisticated than a drum roll that gets louder and louder and then drops. I don’t think I’m answering your question though…

It’s interesting, because there is quite a bit of information from the roots and dub perspective, traditional UK dub scene, on how they perceive their role, and how they get the dance going.

But I’m more interested in how you guys bridge that, in the sense that you still have the traditional elements of a sound system, while at the same time using two turntables and going into other realms and genres that are not traditional to UK dub.

In a sense I feel we’re looking at it more from where the majority of our audience is coming from. Electronic music, dance music, in all of its various shapes and sizes is so predominant in the UK and Europe generally, that that is people’s most familiar aesthetic. So I feel that what we’ve ended up doing, maybe not consciously, is somehow trying to bridge that gap between an orthodox rootsy reggae dub selection, and a club DJ. The differences being, people have shorter attention spans in general, and a desire for music to carry on. It can be very effective to have a gap in the music, but for a lot of young crowds, it confuses them. They think there has been a technical fault if the music goes off.

Is that linked, in Glasgow especially, to the techno scene and house scene, where you don’t have gaps, it’s just a continuous musical experience.

Yeah exactly, people want to dance, and in a sense it’s a collective experience. But again, this is how sound system is different from a live band.

When it’s live, you’re watching a band. So they’ll play a song and you dance around, and then they stop and they say something. But a DJ just plays music, and doesn’t stop playing music until the next DJ starts playing, and then they just carry on.

Old sound system style I guess was coming more from a live band tradition. I guess all they knew until then was a live bands playing, and as DJing has developed people are more into a continuation of music.

doug2

[Photo: Bartosz Madejski]

So that comes from the whole dance aspect, but then for example for both traditional sound system as well as what you guys do, you still bring MCs, use pull ups… You are still using those traditional elements to an extent, would you say they still work, or do you bring them out less because of the crowd, or do you still try to use them because of the music you play?

It’s about creating some sort of work of art. It is about your artistic interpretation of that. And yes, pull-ups, and yes MCs. It’s about proportion within that. It’s something that is often commented on as irritating when a DJ pulls up too many tunes, or if there’s too much MCing.

So an MC can play a stage show where they just chat over riddims – which is more like a live band. And a lot of artists do PA sets, but we aren’t into that so much. It’s something that the MC likes, because it’s a of their work. But in my mind it’s not so much a sound system event. It’s more about vocal and version, and in that way you break up the potential monotony of having one voice on everything. As long as you keep a flow within it.

The whole continuous mixing is a lot easier with dance music and techno and stuff, but you can’t really do it in the same way with reggae. Because they are different songs.

They are different songs, I mean if you do mix, you won’t mix them in the same way, you’re not actually playing one over the other because they are more complex usually. It’s very unusual that all the chords would sound nice together. Having said that, there are ways of blending it, often reggae tunes will start with a drum roll, so you can bring a drumroll in on the beat. You can roughly match tempos, so that there aren’t big jarring jumps. Or if you are going to jump from one tempo to another, choose wisely. There can be two tracks that have the same tempo and that can sound weird together, while at the same time there a link between 90bpm and 140bpm and thereabouts, and you can go from one to the other without people necessarily noticing that change.

A lot of those comments you could say about dance Djs, and techno DJs is that there is very little interaction with their crowd, they often play their planned set which tends to be one hour of continuous music where the songs blend into one another and then once they are done they are done. Whereas in reggae and sound system culture there seems to be more of an engagement with the crowd, either through an MC chatting on the mic between songs, or arguably through pull ups and things like that which are forms of engagement.

So say if you are at a gig playing an hour showcase of Mungo’s Hifi music, are there particular ways in which you would interact with the crowd?

Yes, and I think that’s one of the things about sound system, it tries to break down the invisible barrier that exist between performer and audience. In various ways…

By performing more so from the floor, that’s one way of breaking down that barrier, by being literally within touching distance of people dancing around, and simply being another person in the room who is dancing around to the tunes.

Having an MC is a way of not only playing recorded material, you can literally interact with the crowd. You can say “oi you!”, you can talk to people, you can do call and response of various sorts. Either musically or by simply saying “how are you doing everyone’.
And the MCs that we work with are very professional, they have a good sense of how to do it. And again, you have to do it the right amount. You can do it too much and be annoying about it, and really turn people off. But if done well it is really effective.

You can see a crowd that is used to going to clubs not being sure how to react. And this is what I was saying about the aesthetic, it’s about what people are expecting, they bring their expectations to a dance, and there is only so far you can pull them away from their expectations before they start feeling uncomfortable, or stop enjoying the experience.

So you really have to have a sense of where people are coming from.

This is what I was coming to in terms of performance techniques. Are there ways of engaging with the crowd simply as a selector, without an MC?

Yes in that you can see the responses that each tune gets and that informs the direction you’re going to take. Personally I never plan a set, I have ideas and I have little groups of thing that I put together, but I never plan a full setlist.

Do you use sirens and effects?

We have a siren, a little Benidub. We use it, but quite sparingly. In a traditional dub approach there is more time, you are listening to a tune from beginning to end. In a sense it’s something for the selector to do as well, while they are listening to a tune. And yeah, it’s very much can be used to heighten the sensation. That’s mainly how I would use it, some bleeps when the track comes in.  Either as some sort of crowd interaction, or in between tracks, to fill a space, to create a bit of atmosphere.

 

It’s interesting how it became so closely associated with dub – to the point that it is now called a dub siren.

It’s like the space echo isn’t it, and having space within a track, pulling out a vocal so that there’s a lot less to focus on. So there is space for that to be done live, whereas with a fully produced vocal tune, it’s just going to make it sound shit.

There is also the thing about pulling the bass in and out. Because that’s the thrill for the dub selectors really, that they’ve got a massive sound system which when it is pumping the bass, is so physical to the point that when it isn’t there you really miss it and crave it.

And so they tease the crowd by the long intros, by pulling the bass quite a bit, and even us, we do that as well – although we’ll tend to do it for fewer bars than traditional sound systems would, and then bring it back in.

Or just pull it out for the last bar and then bring it back in just to get that impact again. Because you notice in a session if you don’t ever do that, you become kind of numb to the effect.

So in some ways using dub sirens and echoes and effects can hype up the effects of the bass?

Yeah, it’s about having peaks and plateaus

Is there anything else that you like to add in terms of building up the vibes in sessions, or ways that you have observed, or that you feel are particularly effective.

For me, as I said in the beginning, I think it’s about taking people on a journey. It’s about being in a completely difference place when you finish than when you started. Or you could be back where you were when you started, but having done that in a way that never feels like its jarring.

So working through 15-20mn sections of tempo or style, and then move on to the next one. But in a way that you would struggle to see where the join was, so that they flow.

That’s something that keeps it fresh and novel. And that’s something that I react against in the traditional dub night, because the tempo, the pace, the sound, doesn’t change from beginning to end.

But even people who are famous for doing that like Iration or Shaka, they will warm up the dance, they’ll go through different styles, although maybe fewer amount styles, and they’ll stick on one style for an hour or two… or three.

I was reading this article by Laurent Fintoni who was talking about the pull up being a very democratic technique, and used in many ways to bridge the gap between audience as passive and performers as active.

It is very democratic. But where is becomes undemocratic is when the MC intervenes. Because often you’ll have an MC shouting for a pull up, and that’s undemocratic because that’s just one guy thinking that.

Whereas in general it will depend on the moment, but if you feel there is a genuine up-surged from the crowd, a desire for that, then it’s a natural thing to do if there is a genuine sense of excitement in the room.

It’s not something you can plan for, because until it drops and people feel that excitement, you don’t know if it will happen

doug 3.jpg

[Photo: Bartosz Madejski]

Is it that maybe why you don’t see as many pull ups in dance music, where all the tracks blend into one. Whereas for a pull up you need to have tracks which are distinguishable, to really hear the particular track that gets the excitement going and that requires a pull up?

I don’t really know, it’s been a while since I’ve been to a dance event. It would be odd, wouldn’t it. I don’t know, it must happen. Because most people who are into dance music today would also be familiar with reggae tradition… maybe? Or maybe I just don’t go out enough anymore.

There must be other genres…

I guess grime, jungle…

But you wouldn’t expect to go to a house night a get a pull up. The house night usually will be a lot less about a big tune. Some nice noises going on while you’re fucked, but not a tune (laugh).

 

 

Words by AF

 

 

 

 

‘Systems of Sound’ by Joe Muggs

Great sound reproduction is vital. From the first Jamaican dancehall systems – brought to the UK for the first time 60 years ago this month by “Duke” Vincent Forbes – through the Klipschorn speakers put by David Mancuso into his own home for the Loft parties that created disco culture as we know it; through rebel sounds like DiY, Desert Storm and Spiral Tribe that epitomised the outlaw spirit of rave culture, to the perfect 21st century techno sound of havens like Berghain and Trouw. The technology of sound has informed the culture and vice versa throughout the modern age.

What “great sound” is, though, is tough to define. What makes good sound is not a simple science. The study of acoustics is beset by complexities of turbulence and interference patterns – and the art of filling an irregularly shaped room full of moving bodies with sound that will satisfy on an aesthetic and physical level has sent many great minds round the bend over the years.

And it’s not just about sound either, because the soundsystems themselves have a mythic quality. They are the beating heart of the layout and décor of clubs, parties, festivals and dances. The glib old adage of “dancing about architecture” doesn’t seem quite so silly when you are moving to and through the air pushed out from a legendary system.

Mikey Dread, creator of and selector for London’s venerable Channel One Sound System, talks of sound fanatics coming to watch the rig being set up each year at Notting Hill Carnival as “like tourists coming to see Stonehenge”. He means it jokingly, as if to say it’s something people like to tick off on their holiday itinerary, but he actually hits on something profound: the speaker stacks are in a very literal sense monumental – “majestic and authentic” as Positive Sounds‘s Darren Kis puts it – and maybe even ritual in their function. 

Read more on Boiler Room

Jah Shaka: Testament of Dub

Great little interview of the legendary Jah Shaka and his thoughts on the dub-reggae scene in the far-east (via JUICE):

Perhaps the greatest sin committed by the dance scene today, in certain parts of the world at least, isn’t its perceived dwindling quality. That point is infinitely arguable. Instead, it’s the lack of attention paid to sound on a more obvious level – not the technicality of composition, not the how of the music, but something more basic; the sound system with which these tunes are amplified on. Jah Shaka was one of the pioneers of sound system culture, a Jamaican subculture that was brought to the UK during a tumultuous time in their migration history. Any of the genres that branched off dub you pay allegiance to right now owe the seemingly immortal Rastafarian an invaluable debt. Shaka’s lecture during Red Bull Music Academy 2014 in Tokyo was expectedly an erudition of the importance of audio – from trajectory and acoustics to the effects of potent bass on a biological level to aural spirituality. JUICE had the rare opportunity to converse with the living legend, and filtered through the Jamaican-inflection of the man’s Ent-like pace of speech were the words of a godly man whose testament was less proselytising and more universally positive.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk to you. It’s already a pleasure to attend your lecture! To start our own little session – we’re not sure if it’s a rumour, but we heard you actually dislike standing on stage when you play? You’d rather be with the crowd, in a circle of people. 
Yeah. Mostly with our sound system when the crowd is around us, we feel energy from fans, feel energy from the crowd. We like to do that. In travelling, sometimes better on stage, too much people, too near. So, sometimes abroad it’s better to be on stage although we like to be amongst the people. But when you’re with people who don’t understand you, you have to first balance it out. When they know you, then you can be near them.

You’ve been to Japan quite a lot…
Japan… about 17 years. I’ve been to Australia… tour in Israel, Germany, Italy. So many countries! Nonstop.

There’s another rumour we would like to check if it’s true. Was there one show where the lights were so hot that your dubplates melted and you walked off stage?
No, rumour! (Laughs)

When you’re a legend, there are many rumours. Music is very spiritual to you. What about people who don’t believe in religion but when they listen to your music, they find themselves getting lost in it. How does that work when you don’t believe but still find the music ‘spiritual’? 
What we are doing is planting seeds to grow. So when you hear something, you go into the community and practise. It’s good. And then you get to believe after. When people tell you, “You are a good man,” people say, “You are doing well,” [it’s] so you will know that you are doing something good. Whether someone believes in the beginning, they will believe eventually because of feedback from people. You have to know that when you’re playing [the] keyboard and you play a wrong note, you have to know that the note is wrong! [It’s] not good note… so religion – religion to us – is a way of life. How you live with people – that is religion. Love, respect others, help the sick, help the poor – people under privilege, help them. And whether you know or not, you are looking for God! Whether you know or whether you believe or not, it’s good.

Japan has a strong reggae scene. Even huge sound systems…
Mighty Crown [comes] to England sometimes, I see them.

Why do think the reggae sound is so big in Japan?
Influence. Jamaican artistes come to Japan. Great artistes. People recognise importance of legendary singers. People recognise [their] importance. So many bands in Japan at [Fuji Rock Festival] – ska bands! Playing Jamaican ska. [They] practise what they see in Jamaica. Someone would be in Japan and is like Miniman, or like Sizzla. Y’know, Japanese people produce lookalikes, whether [they’re] watches [or] shoes – they do it in music too. They can copy.

read the rest here

S&G Records Nianatty ‘One Love Stylee’ Repress

The killer roots-lovers tune is finally repressed!


For years, the original presses have been going on discogs for over 150£. But it is now available to all those who have been dreaming of one day adding it to their collection.
Indeed, London’s Supertone Records have re-released it alongside another S&G Records killer tune: Naggo Morris ‘Going Places’.

For any roots fans out there, these two are a must to add to your vinyl crate.

AF