British producer Adrian Sherwood's life and music have come full circle. Thirty years ago, London's streets were wracked by inner-city riots. Then as now, police harassment and a grim economy drove citizens to revolt. By 1981, punk was in its death throes as New Wave pop and post-punk music rushed in to fill the void. In the shadows stood Adrian Sherwood, a part-time record distributor and music fanatic who launched On-U Sound as a vehicle to promote experimental dub productions.
Three decades and hundreds of releases later, On-U Sound is revered by generations of dub, industrial, and electronic music aficionados and lauded by critics as one of the U.K.'s most important independent labels, its output and influence comparable to Rough Trade or Factory.
The label has released reggae projects by Dub Syndicate and Lee "Scratch" Perry; psychedelic world grooves by African Head Charge; plus edgy industrial hip-hop and dance beats by Mark Stewart, Tackhead, and Strange Parcels. Sherwood has also produced and remixed Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode, worked with Sugar Hill Gang's rhythm section, and recorded two albums for Peter Gabriel's Real World imprint. He remains active in the studio and onstage mixing live dub sessions that feature British reggae artist Brother Culture on the mic.
For On-U Sound's 30th Anniversary tour, Sherwood and Culture join San Francisco's DJ Sep Ghadishah to celebrate another milestone: Dub Mission's 15th year of weekly dub, dubstep, roots, and dancehall sessions at the Elbo Room. Ghadishah says she wanted to invite a guest who directly influenced her DJ work. "[On-U Sound] took me from the music I loved — post-punk, indie, experimental — to the music I came to love even more: dub, reggae, and electronic," she says. "It helped grow my musical tastes exponentially."
Other music experts concur that On-U Sound has made a significant impact. Steve Barrow, Blood and Fire Records cofounder and coauthor of Reggae: The Rough Guide, says that Sherwood laid much of the U.K. dub scene's foundations. Likewise, Dub.com's DJ Dublinator reckons that anyone who has heard On-U's '80s and '90s sample-delic DIY productions knows the impact the label had on artists like M/A/R/R/S, Coldcut, or even Aphex Twin. "On-U Sound may be small in name recognition," he says, "but it's huge in influence."
Over the years, Sherwood has endured disastrous distribution deals and the deaths of key On-U Sound artists, including Michael "Prince Far-I" Williams and Jarret Lloyd Vincent (aka Bim Sherman)."I've got some very fond memories of the last 30 years and also some very sad ones, friends who've died and all sorts of things that have gone on," he says. "But the job is to keep the creative fire burning and do good works. That's my agenda."
On-U Sound started off humbly enough. In the late '70s, Sherwood worked at reggae imprint Carib Gems, which released Jamaican recordings by the Morwells and gravel-throated chanter Prince Far-I. In 1981, he assembled artists and musicians he met through Carib Gems, calling them Singers and Players. The ensemble included vocalists Williams, Vincent, Mikey Dread, and Congo Ashanti Roy, and drummer Lincoln Valentine "Style" Scott from Jamaica's Roots Radics (a band that provided backing rhythms for Yellowman, Wailing Souls, and dozens more).
The tireless and DIY-minded Sherwood recorded additional ensemble projects under names like Creation Rebel, African Head Charge, New Age Steppers, and Playgroup. He paired reggae talents Bonjo-I Noah and Dr. Pablo with artists from across the post-punk spectrum including Public Image Limited's Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, Slits members Viv Albertine and Ari-Up, and Mark Stewart from Bristol No-Wave band the Pop Group.
"I started Creation Rebel as a studio project and it evolved into a band," Sherwood says. "I thought it would be more financially viable as a label to have three or four [bands], so I kept creating projects. With Singers and Players I thought, 'Why not make a reggae supergroup?' African Head Charge was a studio project that also evolved into a band." Sherwood admits that providing more names for the growing On-U catalog was imperative: "To be honest, I was trying to survive. I wasn't thinking beyond that."
On-U has avoided stagnation and nostalgia. The label embraced new studio technology and released forward-thinking titles like Barmy Army's soccer-chant-sampling The English Disease and Dub Syndicate's synthy Stoned Immaculate. In the '90s Sherwood expanded further, mixing Primal Scream, Skinny Puppy, and Skip McDonald's Delta blues project, Little Axe. He embraces future sounds. "I love dubstep and jungle," he says. "They're carrying the flame for reggae." He cites dubsteppers Digital Mystikz, jungle label Congo Natty, and the drum 'n' bass group Kosheen as current favorites.
Similarly, Ghadishah's Dub Mission night has evolved. No longer a strictly old-school dub reggae session, dancers are likely to hear dubstep, new roots, and other bass mutations. Despite a few setbacks over the years, including a fire that damaged the Elbo Room's upstairs, Ghadishah says she's still excited to spin at Dub Mission every Sunday. "I'm mostly grateful to my DJs, Vinnie Esparza, Maneesh the Twister, J-Boogie, and Ludichris," she says, noting that her partners helped the night survive its lean years.
Sherwood sounds equally thankful for the praise his label and work receives. "Artists from some surprising areas — Matt Groening from The Simpsons and Eugene [Hütz] from Gogol Bordello — have [told] me how influential our work was. I'm not a rich person, but when people say nice things that makes me feel rich."
Don't expect Sherwood to bask in the adulation too long. "I'm proud of what I've done but I've still got a lot to offer," he says. "I'm looking forward."