[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.
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.
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.
[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.
[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.