[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.
[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
[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