EVERYONE seems to regard the Eighties as a very fragmented decade, where the nation’s youth were divided up into a series of distinct tribes – football fans, indie kids, skins, punks, skaters, whatever – with, the odd bit of casual ultra-violence aside, very little interaction between each. That wasn’t really the case.
We were coming to the end of the time when you had to be ‘something’. Or maybe it was just me feeling like that, having finally reached some kind of level of maturity.
I don’t think I ever self identified as ‘a raver’, in the same way I never really thought of myself as ‘a punk’, as such. I just used to like wearing stupid clothes, having a bad haircut and listening to poorly produced music on a cheap record player. And, at least as far as the people I hung about with were concerned, everyone seemed to be into everything.
Either way, whatever the fuck you call the kind of people who listened to the Fall, the Buttholes, Sonic Youth and Big Black in 1989, I was one of them. Ditto Public Enemy, KRS-1, the Cabs, Renegade Soundwave and the Shamen. And the Stone Roses and the Mondays. And Ofra Haza. And On-U Sound – Tackhead, Dub Syndicate – and lots more dub.
Meanwhile, the musical landscape of Britain was shifting and, just like everyone else, I was getting more and more into house music.
I was all about the music. You may have noticed.
I didn’t have a proper job, I didn’t have a girlfriend, l lived a semi-nomadic, semi-nocturnal existence on very little money, and despite being as daft as a brush, I was often quite miserable – but I had a fucking great record collection. Well done me.
I’d developed a liking for Shaka back in Scunny but, after going to one of his all-night sessions at the West Indian Centre in Chapeltown, I’d become a real convert – of the music, if not the religious element of what he does. Getting involved in this kind of shit was precisely the reason I’d moved to the big city in the first place.
I’ve no idea how I first heard about it, but I remember hotfooting it down to Jumbo in the Merrion Centre to get Dub Masters on the Monday it was released. Literally. I had to walk into town from Hyde Park. The album would’ve taken a sizeable chunk out of my fortnightly Giro.
It comes in a beautifully produced but very minimal package by Island’s own in-house art department, with a loud pressing. The sleeve reproduced an interview with Shaka by Ray Hereford and Colin Moore from seminal reggae zine Small Axe:
“When people really talk about roots music, this is what it’s about, because it’s a way of life. As a youth, at school, I used to have a band. I never really start having a sound system, I started with a band, and from that, certain inspirations would come.
“With music, you hear another person playing music, which you know to be good – because it gets into you – something with a feeling.
“So we don’t have places to go around and play, we could only play at school dances. We decided after a while – this being the era of Angela Davis and Martin Luther King, George Jackson – the black consciousness era, that is when the sound come about – to base it on the history of black people. The sound is based on that. So that is where everything is really coming from – the message.
“Like I say, it started with the group and then transferred from that into sound system. Well, we play a certain type of music from that time, which after a time now, playing that type of music, I would be in a position to get into a studio to make music for myself.
“This music now is heartbeat music right, you have music that is made by machine, but you also have music with feeling. When people hear it, they feel it in the heart. This is the type of music we are concentrating on. Yes, the music has different stages, but without the root, there is no tree. Officially, what we have done is concentrated on the roots, from that time until this time.
“I stick with the people who were making original music. The Abyssinians, those sort of people were making original tunes, those were the tunes I used to play at the time, original. Origination comes from inspiration, we didn’t go to school to learn about music, it is an inbuilt concept. A heartbeat.
“Therefore, a lot of people don’t understand about the music fully, the influences of African tradition, music and the message. And being a musician, it makes a difference. I think that helps me a lot to make original music and create things, some people dream and have visions, but I get my visions from my ears. I’m listening all the time because music is a very important part of people’s lives.”
There’s something about the way that Shaka talks that reminds me of Mark E Smith.
I remember spending endless afternoons at Doug and Rachel’s place on Pearson Grove in Hyde Park, sitting on the front step, rolling spliff after spliff, drinking gallons of tea, chatting shit with the Purple Eternal lads and listening to this album, cranking it up and blasting it out of the living room like the worst kind of LS6 nightmare neighbour.
I’d got more and more into dub reggae as I got less and less tolerant of the old-fashioned views of women often heard from otherwise cool reggae artists. I was never going to be the Leeds Other Paper’s Right-on Feminist Man of the Week but I guess some of that stuff must’ve rubbed off on me. All the praising His Imperial Majesty stuff too was starting to get on my nerves too.
In the past, I was able to appreciate the spiritual sentiment without directly relating to it, but I was always sceptical of taking relationship advice from Rastafarians, and by the end of the 80s, the whole militant Rasta thing just seemed increasingly outmoded and against the spirit of the times – or at least, the times I lived in.
I didn’t think separatism was the answer. I didn’t want to send anyone back to Africa. And, of course, only being part of the South Yorkshire diaspora, I wouldn’t ever have the option of leaving Babylon behind in any case.
The manner in which dub simply stripped out of these problematic vocals was very convenient, as far as I was concerned.
This is all very ironic given that Shaka is well known for his steadfast devotion to Rasta and music which views black history through a decidedly spiritual lens – and this was particularly striking at a time when reggae was usually about dancehall sounds full of crude, rude and lewd slackness.
I’m pretty sure I played tracks from this at the singularly unsuccessful VLF nights Jez and I did at the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford. The initials stood for Very Low Frequencies or Vegetable Liberation Front, depending on what mood we were in.
Nobody ever turned up to it, apart from our special guest DJs Mark and Farrah, a couple of Morley boys who were residents at Tony Hannon’s wild Kaos nights at Ricky’s. Not unreasonably, they still wanted their money even if no one turned up.
I remember being very off my head, dancing to mad Belgian techno through dense clouds of smoke lit by some very expensive lights, absolutely alone on the dance floor (apart from Jez). The night almost certainly serves as some kind of metaphor for something, but I’m not sure what. Either way, we ended up calling it a day, got a load of other people involved and started Microdot.
By this point, I’d had to move out of Doug and Rachel’s place in Hyde Park. I’d become pretty disengaged from normal society and began to get twisted on a semi-permanent basis. Our lifestyles were increasingly incompatible.
They had responsible jobs, and were thinking about kids. I was still a bit of a kid myself, only took crappy jobs that allowed me to continue signing on, didn’t really contribute much to the house and was just generally a bit directionless. I don’t think I was a lot of fun to be around.
I somehow managed to secure a tiny box room in a student house five minutes up the road in Woodhouse via Carrie, a posh Peruvian student girl I met at a party and unsuccessfully pursued for a while.
Most of the kids in the four-storey house on Moor Road were at Leeds College of Music, but the guy who had one of the attic rooms was a couple of years older and studying to be a social worker or something. He was always borrowing reggae records from me, particularly the heavy dub albums I had by people like Mad Professor and Shaka.
I’m pretty sure he ended up robbing them off me in the confusion of chaotic move out. I still occasionally daydream about tracking him down to whatever east Lancashire shit hole he ended up in and stabbing him with an icicle or something. Mind you, I’d probably be at the end of a long Murder on the Orient Express-style line of people waiting to stab him with an icicle.
Anyway, that was it. I didn’t hear Dub Masters again until I found it on Discogs and bought it from some guy with a shop in Altrincham last year. All I could remember about the album was that it was fantastic, and one track featured a tap, dripping.
I fuck up the delivery instructions and have to spend my dinner hour trudging to the Parcel Force office in the industrial estate behind Piccadilly station to get the package. It’s raining. I’m late getting back to work.
It’s worth it. I have a spliff, crank it up and blast it out. Like all the best various artists collections, Dub Masters works as an album in its own right, with a consistent flow throughout despite the varying styles of the acts behind each track. I quickly find myself zoning out, lost in the music, occasionally latching onto disparate elements as they disappear and reappear, as if by magic.
As one online commentator puts it, laughably and also beautifully: Shaka helps us navigate the wide seas of dub and locate our own spiritual islands.
The thing is, he probably does.
Kicking off the album in some style, Burning Spear’s Institution Dub takes snatches of Winston Rodney’s heavenly vocal and fades them in and out over a dense drum and bass groove. It’s a masterclass in echo, delay and soulful understatement.
The stately Very Well Dub by Wailing Souls majors on the sound of Nyabinghi drums combined with a bassline that just won’t stop – before everything comes to a shuddering halt and you hear the ghostly refrain: “Every sound of the drum you hear, it’s an African beat.”
The decidedly jaunty Row Fisherman Dub, also by Wailing Souls, retains more of the original vocal than most tracks the album, but this old Coxsone Studio One number is also very firmly aimed at the dancefloor. Featuring what sounds like a seaside organ and birds tweeting, it is also considerably lighter in tone than many of the tracks on Dub Masters.
Wild Suspense Dub completes the trio of Wailing Souls tracks, and continues the theme of providing a little respite from the relentlessly heavy dub around it, with some truly beautiful harmonies emerging from behind yet another steppas monster.
Side two opens with the insistent shuffle of Aswad’s Natural Aggression. It takes as it starting point Natural Progression from their New Chapter of Dub album, and it’s all about the trumpets and the horns and the bassline, and the way this version takes snatches of the vocal and stretches them out to infinity.
Mosman Skank is another Aswad track, and a majestic re-tread of Love Fire from New Chapter. A massive synth bassline rubs up against snatches of dialogue from Countryman, a skanking piano line and ghostly rimshots. Wha’appen bad man indeed.
Carry Us Beyond by Human Cargo (there’s a theory this is actually Aswad under another name) is another militant steppers cut, with a killer bassline and tom combination, and the high end tweaked into a sound that is very much like a very melodic tap dripping. It’s one of my favourite dub tracks ever. The original isn’t bad either.
Closing the album is Ghetto in the Sky (Version), which is definitely by Aswad, with a bluesy feel which is very similar to the Dennis Bovell tunes on the Babylon soundtrack. It’s actually a dub of African Children, although you’d barely know it.
All in all, Jah Shaka presents Dub Masters Volume 1 is a very neat little summation of one aspect of JA/UK bass culture from 1978 to 1981.
The funny thing is, this isn’t really a Shaka release at all, not in the conventional sense. Despite what I’ve thought for the best part of three decades, I’ve discovered there aren’t actually any Shaka productions on it.
You can see how I might’ve got the wrong idea, what with it being called Jah Shaka Presents Dub Masters Volume 1 and everything. And the sleeve notes don’t mention anything either.
It seems that Mikey Roots went through the Island archives and selected a load of classic dubs that Shaka had rinsed on his own system on a regular basis before, during and after their original release.
I’d always assumed that the tracks on the album sounded so much more expansive and polished than Shaka’s usual stuff because he’d redone them in an expensive and polished studio. It turns out not. He never had anything to do with them.
This would be marketed as ‘curation’ these days, when the idea of DJs compiling unmixed collections is painfully ubiquitous. It was a different story in 1989, and this is actually quite a forward-thinking collection in many ways. But I’m not sure how I would have felt about this if I’d known at the time. I might not have bought it.
Of course, that would be entirely idiotic because, whether Shaka produced them or not, the tunes on Dub Masters are top quality. I’m genuinely glad to have them back in my life.
“Well, some people have a choice,” says Shaka in a bit of the Small Axe interview that didn’t end up on the sleeve. “I really didn’t have a choice as to what I’m doing, like I received orders and I’ve got to carry them out. And no matter how long it takes, or how long the road is, you still have to walk in a kind of dignified way within your belief.
“And why I deal in music in this way is, again, because I’m a Rastaman and I have certain beliefs as to the way of life for me, and I’m transferring this feeling, or what I know about, to other people to pick up facts or learn something that they didn’t.
“Say the dance is filled up and only one person says I’ve learned something – I’ve did my job.”
Guess what. I think I’ve located my own spiritual island.