Deep, deep dub. Political protest. Radical studio experimentation. Sitting at the crossroads of punk, reggae, industrial and other points on the genre map. Yes, all these things are true of On-U Sound, but we’re not just hear for the heavy things in life! There’s also plenty of joy to be had whilst we man the barricades and shake the speaker stacks. Here is a collection of some of the most upbeat, positive and yes, downright joyful tunes in the On-U catalogue. Enjoy!
Congo Ashanti Roy – Breaking Down The Pressure(EP A Side, 1983)
The man born Roydell Johnson first gained notoriety as the tenor voice in legendary Jamaican vocal trio The Congos, whose Heart Of The Congos set (produced by Ashanti Roy’s classmate from Kendal School, Lee “Scratch” Perry) is an essential component of any reggae collection. Going their separate ways, Ashanti Roy moved to the UK and was introduced to the On-U collective by his friend Mikey Dread, becoming part of their growing merry band of Singers & Players. Interestingly, his fellow Congo Cedric Myton issued a 12” on seminal downtown NYC label 99 Records around the same time that the same imprint put out the debut Singers & Players LP War Of Words. Ashanti Roy bought some of his own material to On-U, including this anthemic tune and the classic “African Blood”. A keen student of martial arts, he also graces the sleeve of Dub Syndicate’s One Way System in a dramatic high leg kick pose! These days Ashanti Roy operates his own Lion’s Den recording studio and Koto Koto label in Portmore, Jamaica, and continues to make music with The Congos. Their Icon Give Thank set from 2012 in collaboration with US musicians Sun Araw and M Geddes Gengras is highly recommended for fans of experimental roots music.
Dub Syndicate – Jolly(from Tunes From The Missing Channel, 1984)
Dub Syndicate were first credited as an entity on the back sleeve of Prince Far I’s Cry Tuff Dub Encounter III LP, released in 1980, and produced by Adrian Sherwood. With a typically (for On-U) fluid line-up in the first few years of existence, the band would settle over time to be the main musical vehicle of Lincoln Valentine ‘Style’ Scott, drummer of crack Jamaican studio group the Roots Radics. Dub Syndicate would go on to have one of the most prolific output of anyone on the On-U roster, with around 20 albums released, as well as numerous singles, EPs and compilation appearances. For this playlist we selected two songs – the title track of 1993’s Echomania, and the appropriately titled “Jolly” from 1985 album Tunes From The Missing Channel, featuring the aforementioned Congo Ashanti Roy on guitar.
Barmy Army – Liquidator
(EP A-side, 1982)
Adrian Sherwood’s solo venture into the fairly untapped world of political football chants set to reggae rhythms, the result being on the one hand a love letter to the beautiful game, and on the other a modest social commentary on the twilight of the Thatcher years. The album certainly taps into the joy of the terraces, as evident in this tune “Liquidator”, which shows that West Ham fan Adrian is magnanimous enough to countenance a version of this Chelsea FC anthem. All instruments are played by original member of The Clash and Public Image Limited, Keith Levene, with Sherwood at the controls (here credited under one of his many pseudonyms, Crocodile).
Noah House of Dread – Dem People
(from Heart, 1982)
Yet another showing for Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah – he must be good! Alongside the darker more experimental work that African Head Charge were producing at the time, Bonjo also recorded a more conscious reggae-fied set for On-U under the name Noah House Of Dread. On the Heart album he takes mic duties and a co-production credit in addition to his usual rhythmic role. This production is in classic discomix style, the vocal going straight into the dub version, where we hear Bonjo’s typically masterful percussion lines beautifully decorating the arrangement with pebble-like shards of hand drums ricocheting off the walls of delay.
Jeb Loy Nichols – Everything Is Different
(from Long Time Traveller, 2010)
Jeb Loy Nichols’ story might be one of the most intriguing of the many artists to represent On-U Sound. Originally from Wyoming, and raised on blues and country music, Nichols soon latched on to a different sound in his later teen years, punk rock. This lead to his move to New York City, where he manned the counter of a Manhattan Record Store, also having his ears opened to disco and the nascent hip-hop scene. Moving to a squat in London he befriended members of The Slits, and met a young Adrian Sherwood, then starting out in his record label adventures. While being a long standing friend of the label (and cutting his first tune with Adrian back in 1981), his first solo album for the label didn’t arrive until 2010, Long Time Traveller, a mixture of Roots Radics & Dub Syndicate rhythms, with Jeb’s unique country style vocals. This rhythm was originally used by Bim Sherman for his 1986 track “War Mongers”.
2 Badcard – Sweet Feelings
(From Hustling Ability, 1995)
2 Badcard, and the 1995 album ‘Hustling Ability’ saw a long overdue central role for one of On-U’s most extensive collaborators, Carlton “Bubblers” Ogilvie. Since the late 70s Bubblers has provided keyboard credits for On-U artists such as Singers And Players, Dub Syndicate, Bim Sherman, Little Roy, the Barmy Army and Little Axe, but probably only identifiable to those keen enough to check all the musician credits on each album. Outside of the label, Bubblers also formed the group Undivided Roots, who released their own studio records, and perhaps most significantly, acted as a backing band for many of the most high profile Jamaican artists traveling to the UK to perform, including Dennis Brown, Big Youth, Freddie McGregor and Culture. This is a version of a romantic classic by Carlton Manning of Carlton & The Shoes fame, also recorded by the Abysinnians.
Akabu – Sweet Inspiration
(From Warrior Queen, 1995)
Keeping things sweet, we move onto this breezy ditty from the Warrior Queen album. Akabu was born out of a group called African Woman, significant for being one of the first, widely known all-female reggae bands, releasing an album in 1982. Their first Adrian Sherwood production to emerge was a soulful electro number for Tommy Boy Records in 1984. Over the years Valerie Skeete and Vyris Edghill would contribute backing vocals to many On-U sessions as well as performing with such artists as Ziggy Marley, Freddie McGregor, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Aswad, Culture and Maxi Priest.
Little Annie – I Think Of You
(From Short And Sweet, 1992)
Like Jeb Loy Nichols, Little Annie arrived in the UK from the New York punk scene, initially hooking up with Crass Records crew. Also like Jeb, her stay in London was intended to be short. However she ended up staying for over a decade, including a spell living in the shed at the bottom of Adrian’s garden! Adrian produced her first album Soul Possession in 1984, a landmark blend of post-punk and dub. This should-of-been hit from the 1992 Short & Sweet album was single of the week in the Melody Maker at the time, a brilliantly sardonic take on the love song with ruminations on disturbing daytime TV host Kilroy and burnt toast.
New Age Steppers – My Love
(from Action Battlefield, 1981)
The first ever 7” and LP on the On-U Sound label came from this underground supergroup featuring various members of Aswad, The Slits, The Pop Group and Creation Rebel, conjuring up an innovative take on the punky reggae party. Much of their music still sounds fresh to this day, finding echoes in the contemporary likes of Glasgow’s Golden Teacher and Oakland’s The World. This irreverent take on B.B. Seaton’s lovers rock gem features the combined vocal talents of Ari Up, Bim Sherman and a young Neneh Cherry (prior to both her work Rip, Rog & Panic and later global pop superstardom!).