You are heavily involved in the roots scene, where did this love of reggae originate from?
I had early influences like going to St Paul’s Carnival and seeing friends from primary school on the floats and hearing soundsystems playing reggae during the 80s. I seriously homed in on Reggae around 1990 through listening to the local pirate radio stations of the time; all of them were playing reggae. These stations would advertise shops where you could buy the music, and promote dances where you could hear it, so once in tune to the radio it was fairly easy but still took a bit of searching out.
How long have you lived in Bristol for and what influence has it had on your music?
I am a Bristolian, born and bred. I have generations on both sides going back here in the city. My family could have never envisaged that I’d put on huge soundsystem events at the Trinity Centre where my grandparents got married or that I’d have pirate radio meetings at the Jolly Roger pub where my parents met in the 1960s.
I am pleased to have witnessed how Bristol has developed into a multi cultural city and feel blessed to have been a teenager in a time when Massive Attack released Blue Lines and Bristol became, for a time, the musical capital of the UK. I remember friends of my cousins in London being very impressed that I was from Bristol. Many producers and DJs in Bristol have been inspired by reggae. As Dubkasm, Digistep and I didn’t incorporate influences from reggae into various other electronic genres of music; we went to the source and have done our part in keeping orthodox Rasta focused roots and dub music alive.
Much is made of the influence of reggae on Bristol’s musical output; what would you say the reggae scene in Bristol is actually like?
That depends how far you go back and what circles you move in. When I was growing up I went to numerous reggae nights at the Malcolm X Centre. Back then most top Jamaican artists passed through Bristol. There were soundsystem nights and blues parties every weekend in St Pauls. Even though I had some great experiences I only caught the tail-end of the best times.
These days the scene has dwindled to some extent. Not so many of the live acts pass through the city due to poor crowd attendance. Today’s younger generation are more into grime or other genres of music, reggae or dancehall isn’t necessarily the ‘in’ thing in the way it was when I was a teenager.
There are events that are labelled ‘reggae’ nights in town with no set order to them at all, it seems to be more of a mash up affair with DJs dropping a Shabba Ranks tune followed by A King Tubby dub with very little knowledge of where the music’s coming from. Not my vibe at all.
I have loved being a part of the real inner-city reggae scene and using my reggae t shirts from Bonestudio. Playing at and attending dances that mainstream magazines would never even hear about, dances that would sometimes be advertised just by word of mouth but would get rammed! Proper local vibes with the crowd knowing the tunes, understanding the lyrics, and feeling the vibes. There is nothing like playing reggae to a real reggae crowd. My first ever DJ appearance was at Ajax Blues in St Paul’s.
How long have you been doing Dubkasm for?
Our first release was in 1996 on Dub Out West Vol II, released on Nubian Records & Armagideon Sounds. We spelt our name Dubchasm back then. After that we spent time establishing friendships within the roots scene whilst Digistep developed his musical talent at University level. Although we had no further releases until 2003 we had extensive dubplate exposure from Jah Shaka, Aba Shanti-I and Iration Steppas. Shaka was running ’20th Century Dub’ in 1997, Aba was running ‘Jah Bible’ in 1998 and so it continued. Our most well known dubplate since then has to be ‘Warrior’ run exclusively by Jah Shaka, the dub version to Every Lion featuring Lidj Xylon, Shaka closed many of his dances with this tune which was a real honour. A previously unreleased mix of ‘Warrior’ features on our forthcoming LP.
What roles do you and Digistep play in the music making process?
Digistep is the musical talent behind Dubkasm. He plays many instruments and has a degree in Music Technology. My role has always been based around my contacts within the roots scene, getting singers to record with us, writing some of the lyrics, and of course I run the label. That said, the sound and vibe of every release is discussed between Digistep and I. We both have an equal share in the final outcome of the music.
How did Digistep moving to Brazil influence the music that you make?
There are similar connections with Africa in Brazil as there are in the Carribean. Some of the instruments, musical styles, fashion and traditions were brought to Brazil by Africans who were enslaved and transported there. These similarities struck a chord with us and we decided that our LP would have some subtle elements of Brazilian instrumentation as well as the traditional reggae sound and the heavy UK dub vibe people already associate with Dubkasm.
Of course, Digistep’s move to Brazil also had a huge impact on how we operated as a duo. Dubkasm became a transatlantic operation. Digistep would send me a riddim track and I would record singers in various studios around the UK and send the files back to him where he would then finish the track. When the final track was returned to me I would then set about releasing the vinyl here in the UK.
Eventually we started work on tracks for the debut LP. We performed in Rio early 2008 and spent hours in Digital Dubs Studio recording percussion and local singers in the Brazilian tropical heat. When I was back in the UK things continued as normal with me recording singers here and sending the files out to Brazil. Once we’d complied all the tracks for the LP Digistep came home to Bristol for a holiday and we mixed the whole thing at Daddy Roots’s studio in Montpelier. Slightly afterwards the Sao Paulo council paid for Afrikan Simba and I to fly out and join Digistep to host two Dubkasm shows. We took full advantage of this and mastered the LP at El Rocha Studio in Sao Paulo. So the link between Bristol and Brazil is really strong, I think Digistep and I have spent the best part of the past five years on Skype!
How long has it taken to put the LP together and what was the vision behind it?
We’ve planned on releasing an album for many years. Digistep moving to Brazil in 2004 meant the volume of music we released wasn’t quite the amount we initially planned as things took longer to complete. The LP has been an idea in our minds that’s developed and changed as our own situations have. I suppose it’s years in the making really but it’s been the last two years that we’ve really knuckled down to it. The mixture of influences that shaped the LP is what gave rise to the title, Transform I. It’s really an adaptation of Brazilian singer Ras Bernardo’s song title, ‘Transformai’. In Portuguese, the word is used to urge someone to transform their mentality, their way of thinking – effecting a spiritual transformation and in a Rasta context, ‘I and I’ is an expression to totalize the concept of oneness. These two messages, along with others such as building whatever you do ‘From the Foundation’ sum up the progressive, forward-thinking vibe we try to project – to transform I and I using the music as a vehicle to promote the message. The decision to use a Portuguese word stemmed from Digistep’s Brazilian roots, which are a key influence. You can hear that in the instrumentation too – cuica, berimbau, cavaquinho, zabumba. Many of these instruments were brought to Brazil from Angola and the Congo by Bantu slaves. So when you mix nyahbinghi rhythms with samba, you can feel the same African roots, the heartbeat.
You have gone to a lot of effort with the presentation of the album, both with the artwork and the heavyweight pressing. Why is this so important to you?
After an event I promoted years ago at the Black Swan I was in London in someone’s flat and noticed framed on their wall the flyer for that same night. This person liked the look of the flyer so much they had taken the time to frame it and given it pride of place in their home! Making an effort with presentation does get noticed. Collecting records as a teenager, the album artwork was often just as exciting as the actual music. I remember sitting with Digistep at his mum’s house listening to newly bought LPs while marveling at the sleeve. So much of this has been lost in the digital age we now live. We want to release music that will last and package it in such a way that it feels like a special item to have.
In keeping with the tradition of the music we commissioned a Rasta painter from Gloucester to paint a picture to be displayed in the inner section of the gatefold sleeve of the vinyl and a pullout section of the CD. This artist used to paint rasta imagery on soundsystem speaker boxes in the 1980s. I gave him just one of the vocals from the album along with all the track titles. After a couple of weeks had passed I returned to Gloucester to view the final painting. I was overwhelmed when the artist showed me how every track title was incorporated into the painting and listened in awe as he gave a reasoning on what each aspect of the painting represented. We wanted the LP to reflect the message and vibe both visually and musically.
In the trailer video you say that Dubkasm has a very strong Rasta message. Is this something which you feel strongly about?
Not every music has a culture and faith attached to it. Roots and dub reggae does. This is something that we have always been keen to respect and maintain in our work as Dubkasm. As a youth, listening to the lyrics of the music led me to reasoning with elder Rasta people who in turn explained the importance and significance of the message. In 1997 I had the opportunity to go to Jamaica. I visited numerous recording studios, Rasta centres and record shops in Kingston. The way in which reggae music was used daily confirmed to me that it really is the cry of the poor and the voice of the sufferer. Through very difficult times both Rasta and reggae music have literally kept some people sane. I have called my radio show the ‘Sufferah’s Choice’ to this day and of course we named our record label after the show. Rasta people and reggae music don’t try to preach or convert but aim to give a voice to people and offer an alternative outlook on life. Rastafari has had a huge impact on my life for which I give thanks.
Would you say that the roots scene is welcoming to newcomers, or is there a need to prove oneself before being fully accepted?
It’s important to remember that this music was a major unifying force for black people here in Britain during the 1970s and 80s. Racism is still sadly a part of life these days but during the 80s it was rife and often a daily pressure for black people, the Friday night dancehall was a place of refuge. Over the years many reggae artists have been exploited. This considered, it’s not surprising that some newcomers are met with a certain level of suspicion and sometimes hostility. I faced some of this at first but if you’re coming from the heart, in time people see this and guards are dropped. This music and its message is a whole way of life for many people, it’s not a fad or phase for people to go through; it’s all about longevity and those dealing with it respectfully and who are in it for the duration will get the respect they deserve.
You have worked with a large number of different vocalists; how do these link ups come about and who is your favourite singer that you have worked with?
By interviewing soundsystem owners, reggae artists, and producers for my radio show during the late 90s, Digistep and I formed many great friendships within the roots scene. Often due to the homework I did not just on the music but also the message meant that established main players in the scene took us seriously and in turn worked with us as bredrins. I often write letters to singers explaining the vibe behind the track they’ve agreed to voice before the recording takes place. This helps set a theme for the song before it’s actually written. This is followed up by phone calls, and then of course linking up in person to record them. Before recording vocalists we like to reason with the artist and even have our own input on the lyrics being written. These reasonings, both in the UK and Brazil, have lasted for hours and have in turn shaped the final song. We feel strongly about the lyrics and the emphasis is on the original Rasta teaching that ‘word sound is power’.
Highlights for me have been listening to Digistep reason with Ras Bernardo and Jeru Banto at the Digital Dubs Studio in the tropical heat of Rio. When Ras Bernado explained the message of the LP’s opening track, ‘Introdução’ he had tears in his eyes. His lyrics are all in Portuguese and they carry some serious weight; here they are about ‘historias esqueçidas, verdades escondidas’ forgotten stories and hidden truths. He talks about oppression and how mental slavery must be abolished through self-transformation. I think his vibe reflects other militant aspects of the LP such as ‘Babylon Ambush’ and keys in with the general ethos of the album. I will never forget recording Dub Judah in his Dub Tech Studio, he’s an artist Digistep and I have always admired and been inspired by. Most recordings with Judah take place during the night, From The Foundation was no different and was completed as the sun came up.
You have been doing your show on Passion for over ten years now; what are your views on the importance of pirate radio?
Well, pirate radio got me into reggae and was the direct link to the scene I’ve since become a part of so it’s a very important thing in my life. Even after all these years of reggae music in Britain there’s still not a weekly national roots and dub reggae show. If people want their music promoted they have to get it to pirate radio DJs and soundsystems.
The power of local radio is truly incredible. Many years ago a very well respected figure of St Paul’s, known as Bangy, was killed when he intervened in a mugging that took place on new years eve. There was quite rightly outrage in the local community and the radio stations of the time were the medium for people to update the community. It was the same situation in the mid-nineties when Marlon Thomas was racially attacked at a fairground on the Downs. In later years this incident was told in the Smith & Mighty release ‘No Justice’, sung by Rudey Lee. At the time of the tragedy it was pirate radio that informed the people of these events and gave the voice for people to express their feelings about it. It’s about much more than just music.
Your dance, ‘Teachings In Dub’, has become very popular. Although the initial interest may have been because of the link up with Subloaded, you have since proved that you can still ram dances on your own, a very hard thing to do with roots and dub. What do you think is behind this? Do you think that the popularity of dubstep has led to more people discovering roots music?
Well even before we teamed up with Subloaded there were many sound system nights I promoted that were successful going back to the late nineties. In 2007 the Bristol Reggae Society were looking to get involved in some local promotions and came to me to discuss options and we decided to start some joint projects. At the same time I was in discussion with a friend of mine, DJ Pinch, about he and I combining forces. It all seemed to come together at the right time and it wasn’t long before Subloaded moved to the upstairs of Clockwork and Teachings In Dub was launched in the downstairs arena. I think these nights were as popular as they were because of the joint effort of parties involved.
A lot of younger people who had come for the Dubstep upstairs would pop down to our room and be literally blown away by powerful soundsystems such as Aba Shanti, Jah Tubbys and Iration Steppas. For many, this was the first time they’d heard a reggae soundsystem. The feedback we got was good. We’ve now had to split from Subloaded due to not having a club with two large floors available but Teachings In Dub continues to be really popular. Perhaps some of those younger people enjoyed the vibes so much they followed the reggae sounds to the new venue? I recently played a set at Dubloaded and someone approached me afterwards saying he really enjoyed the set and asked me, ‘what was that music you were playing?’ He looked surprised when I told him it was digital UK dub, most of which had been released in the early and mid nineties. I hope people into dubstep do get around to listening to more of our dub sound. It’s important to keep the music accessible to each generation.
Do you see the two genres as linked in any way or are they very separate in your mind?
I see them as two separate genres. Just because someone decided to label the music ‘dubstep’ doesn’t mean it’s connected with dub reggae. I’m no dubstep expert but am told that its influences are wide and they range from Garage to Techno. I do, however, think there are some strong links. Reggae soundsystem culture and dub music has shaped all modern electronic music whether it be directly or indirectly, so it’s all connected regardless of genre. I really admire how dubstep producers and labels still use vinyl as the preferred format for released and am pleased that acetate dubplates are still used for DJs to promote exclusive music which is obviously in keeping with reggae soundsystem culture. I like the attention to detail and the obsession with sound quality, and the fact that instrumental, dubbed music is given the room to breathe.
The track ‘One Blood, One Source’, on Pinch’s ‘Underwater Dancehall’ LP, uses samples originally recorded by Dubkasm. How did this link up come about and do you have any plans to explore further dubstep related projects?
The files for one of the tracks from Transform I, entitled ‘Sangue Brasileiro (Brazilian Blood)’, was given to Pinch in 2006. He used many of the sounds to create the track ‘One Blood, One Source’ which features on his debut LP, ‘Underwater Dancehall’. I introduced Pinch to a great friend of mine, Rudey Lee, and they recorded the vocal. I’m really pleased with the Bristol connection on this. Other dubstep producers are working on Dubkasm remixes and there’s even talk of a dubstep remix album to Transform I. Let’s see what the future brings.
What does the future hold for Dubkasm and Sufferah’s Choice?
‘Transform I’ features a mixture of vocal, instrumental, and dub tracks. For all the dub-ites we have compiled a second LP entitled ‘Transformed In Dub’ which features dub mixes of a selection of tracks from ‘Transform I’. This will be released much later in the year. Digistep joins me in the UK for the launch party of ‘Transform I’ on 25th April at Teachings In Dub in Bristol. From then on we tour as Dubkasm with guest artist Afrikan Simba. You’ll be able to catch us playing the dubplate mixes from the second LP at our Dubkasm shows.