The influence of Jamaica’s sound system culture on the UK spans decades. Adrian Sherwood has been an ambassador for dub’s evolution and ongoing mutation since his early teens, and his studio mastery has seen him merge the artform’s soul-stirring bass with many other genres. For this Turning Points interview, we spoke with Sherwood about growing up around makeshift speaker boxes, the passing of Prince Far I, and the future.
Early 1970s: School Discos in High Wycombe
When you’re young, hearing Jamaican music on homemade sound systems on a local level is mad. My first entry was as a little DJ at 13, playing to kids at school during lunchtime in the science lab. My friend and I were raising money for the school and keeping a bit for ourselves to help build up our own sound system. We charged a few pennies for entrance. It was really crap; a little record box with a liquid projector. Early on, I was invited to support the Radio One DJ Emperor Rosko. He was like some Wolfman Jack impersonator and played the best soul and reggae you could hear at the time. I had my own sad little sound system in the corner clinking away. He had wall-to-wall Orange amplifiers, a modified Jamaican sound system. It was hell’s delight. So loud and powerful. Definitely one of my early heroes.
Mid 1970s: Getting Involved with the Reggae Industry
Joe Farquharson owned The Newlands Club and allowed me to play there in the afternoons. My dad died when I was young so Joe really took me under his wing. In my early teens, he used to take me to Palmer Records in Harlesdon where I’d hear all the soul and reggae imports. By the time I left college, Joe suggested we start a little business called J.A., which became one of the earliest independent distributors of reggae. We were also involved with Chips Richards who used to work for Trojan Records and had access to all the HighNote and Duke Reid catalogues. And it was through Joe and Chips that I got to meet and eventually work with Prince Far I, who was a major influence on me. A great singer has a voice like an instrument. Bim Sherman, Big Youth, Joe Higgs, and of course Prince Far I. He really stood out from the pack.
1983: The death of Prince Far I
I’ve got to be honest, it was devastating when Far I was murdered. When I think about Jamaica, I’ve met some little lads and girls who could so easily get bopped. Last time I went there I was visiting Ari Up from The Slits. Her sister-in-law had four brothers, one of them the father of her youngest son. He and all three of his brothers have been murdered. Some people might say I’m being too sensitive but I’ve lost very key people in my life to Jamaica. After Far I was murdered, I didn’t produce any reggae records for about two years until I started working with Lee [“Scratch”] Perry. Before that, I had totally turned my back on it.
1980s to present: Founding On-U Sound
I started the label with about four or five other people. I really wanted to have a go at creating a legacy. But I was in massive financial trouble. The mission statement was basically to survive. It was tough because there were so many other labels around. I’ve kept the label afloat from constant hard work rather than it actually being hit-oriented. We’ve remained underground rather than overtly successful. I’m running my label because it’s something I want to keep going. It’s pretty thankless, but without On-U, I wouldn’t know what else to do.
"With the label, I wanted to create a legacy, but I was in massive financial trouble. The mission statement was basically survive"
2013-2017: Working with dubstep pioneer Pinch
Rob [Ellis, aka Pinch] and I have just stumbled into it. We’ve got mutual respect work wise and personality wise. That’s why we’ve done [2017 album] Man Vs. Sofa. We’ve taken these last four years and evolved. I’d love us to continue working together in some capacity. We’ve created something really healthy. There’s elements of performance, sound and production programming that separate it from anything else out there. Some things remain interesting years into the future. I feel the same about this record.
Man Vs Sofa is out via On-U Sound vs Tectonic Recordings. Adrian Sherwood appears at Houghton festival, Norfolk, England, 11-13 August