Q&A: Adrian Sherwood On The State Of Dub, On-U Sounds’ 30th Birthday, And His Return To America


Beware of unearthly echoes, gut-thwomping bass bombs, and gaping holes in the sonic fundament when the Dub Invasion Festival hits town this week. Produced by Brooklyn’s Sound Liberation Front and the Subatomic Sound label, the 10-day event begins Thursday with a master class presented by the prolific and influential British producer Adrian Sherwood, then continues with appearances by Mad Professor, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Twilight Dub Circus, Clive Chin, Ticklah, Dr. Israel, Badawi, and other maestros of the mixing board.

Sherwood, who makes a rare local appearance with Brixton DJ Brother Culture at Dominion on Friday, launched his On-U Sound label in 1981 with the New Age Steppers’ debut. He has since released more than 100 albums, using scores of musicians in a collective capacity while also producing and remixing for countless acts both famous and obscure. Rooted in the classic dub style developed in Jamaica during the ’70s, Sherwood’s ever-evolving aesthetic cuts across punk rock, jazz, hip-hop, musique concrète, dubstep, and jungle. We spoke by phone while he was at his home in the seaside town of Ramsgate, about an hour outside London.

You haven’t performed in the United States since the ’90s. What’s kept you away?

America’s been odd. It’s always promising things for me and never delivering. I’ve got some good memories from coming there. It’ll be quite weird coming back there, but it should be a good vibe.

What’s keeping you busy these days?

I’ve got my life. I’m still making good tunes. I’ve got my kids, who are expensive. My son’s nineteen and he’s probably going to take over the mantle because he’s cutting tunes and everything at the moment. I’ve got my studio. I’ve got my runnings going on. I can’t complain. I think I’m creatively in a good position.

How has the collapse of the recording industry affected On-U Sound?

It’s pretty odd, the way things have gone in recent years with the closures of all the record shops and little creative interactions. But it just is how it is, y’know?

On-U was one of England’s more vibrant, exciting, and experimental labels during the ’80s and into the ’90s. How are you keeping it in play?

The label is like an imprint to a large degree. We put a lot of things out on different labels, like Mute or wherever. I put out a lot of things, and a lot of people don’t realize the legacy of all the links. But the label never stopped trading. And here I am after 30 years with a very good catalog. We’ve got respect, which I think’s a lot more important than wealth, to be honest with you.

Are you doing anything special to celebrate On-U’s 30th birthday?

We’ve done some reissues this year: New Age Steppers, Creation Rebel’s Starship Africa, a Dub Syndicate best-of called The Royal Variety Show, and African Head Charge’s Off the Beaten Track and Songs of Praise. I’ve also been releasing albums that probably aren’t even available in the States, such as The Modern Sound of Harry Beckett [the late Barbados-born jazz trumpeter]. We’ve got a new African Head Charge album I’m very proud of called Voodoo of the Godsent. There’s a Lee Perry and Adrian Sherwood dub album called Dub Setter and another Lee Perry album called The Mighty Upsetter. I have another Little Axe album coming out next month called If You Want Loyalty, Buy a Dog, as well as another new Lee Perry album called NU: New Sound and Version, which is kind of a contemporary reappraisal of the Lee Perry sound.

What’s the state of dub? Where is dub at as a production strategy?

Dub itself is in a pretty good state, because you’ve obviously got all the new people in the market: the junglists, dubsteppers like Digital Mystikz, and all the other derivatives and evolutions of dub. It’s very important that dub continues to change, because if you stay in one place it turns into nostalgia and dies.

Dub is usually associated with a very specific era in Jamaican music, but thanks to hip-hop and dance music production, it’s become nearly ubiquitous.

The legacy of dub is everywhere in pop music and hip-hop. Even shit like Britney Spears is produced with an ear to the sonic atmosphere. I think the legacy of dub can be heard throughout modern dance music.

It’s like a virus in that respect.

A good virus.

How has technology changed the way you approach production and mixing?

I used to do everything on tape, but now it’s my job to get the same analog sound on digital equipment. There are plenty of digital plug-ins that simulate analog sounds, but most of them sound horrible. My goal is to synthesize the analog and the digital.

I doubt there’s been many classes in dub production recently. What do you have up your sleeve?

Well, this is only the second time I’ve ever talked about music in front of a group of people. The first time I did it I fretted about it and got sweatier than I had before any of the hundreds of shows and DJ sets I’ve done in my life.

The Dub Invasion Festival takes place at various venues throughout the city between September 8 and September 16.