Adrian Sherwood has been running his label On-U Sound for 31 years. Quite a feat in itself, but made that much greater by his steadfast refusal to submit his vision to corporate dilution. While this may have led to mainstream indifference, he’s one of the most respected innovators in dub music, working with everyone from Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart, to a whole new generation of producers including The Bug and Pinch. His new album Survival & Resistance is out now through On-U Sounds. Photo: Luci Lux
The title of your new album Survival & Resistance sounds like a political statement. Is this album an extension of the protest songs from the sixties?
The album is an instrumental album, it’s only got two actual songs and I wrote or co-wrote the lyrics for both. ‘Trapped Here’, the Ghetto Priest track, is basically saying there’s no point trusting in capitalism, and the second track ‘We Flick the Switch’ is about the god of money, the god of mammon, so they’re both vaguely relevant to money masters. The name of the album fits the history of On-U Sound because I’ve resisted taking the path of becoming a career producer. The name comes from a book about the struggle of the Palestinian people.
Were you ever tempted to become, what you call, a career producer?
I am actually very proud of myself. All the time I was running On-U Sound I thought, instead of selling 10,000 or 20,000 units that I was actually very near to people liking it enough to sell 100,000 or 200,000. I’ve taking jobs to put money back into the label all my life. If I’d not run the label I would have become very successful financially but then after the interest dips, what’s left? Instead, I’ve maintained a fanbase since the late seventies who respect the work. The last six albums I released nobody even knew they came out because my business got fucked with the likes of EFA going down, the EMI debacle. Now I’m just rebuilding myself, I’m going with Warp, I’m currently making another new album with dubstep producer Pinch.
You’ve always worked with interesting people rather than fulfilling market interest.
Yes. And I did various remix jobs that had nothing to do with On-U because I thought I could do a good job on whatever I took and also I was getting paid for it. As I said before any money I made went into the label. I’m glad I did the collaborations, but a lot of the times the record companies were making the deals and not even talking to the artists. It’s revealing: Each time I worked with the artists together on the remix or the production it turned out good. But when it was the record companies saying ‘go and do this’ it was less so. I’m happy with where I am now my private life, I’m not rich or anything but I’ve got a nice studio, I’ve got a roof over my head.
It takes a lot of strength to choose your path. Where does it come from?
Fear. I wanted to be able to create my own destiny. It tends to go in patterns, sometimes I would be very busy and other times people don’t want to know you. The tides turn and if you’re any good you can come back again and reinvent yourself.
What inspires you?
Continuity is good. Longstanding relationships in life are good. If you have old friends and you know who your friends are. For me, the oldest working relationships is with Skip McDonald. Working with people like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is an honour because I was a fan of him and now I’ve worked with him now for 27 years and made some good records with him like ‘Time Boom’, ‘Secret Laboratory’ and ‘The Mighty Upsetter’. I still work with Style Scott, the great Jamaican drummer. There’s nobody of my old friends I’m not in touch with. Having said that, I’m trying now, in the next part of my life, to work with new faces because I don’t want to stay on the same page. If you don’t start working with great new producers or musicians you end up staying in the area of nostalgia, and that means death.
On the list of contributors you credit Skip McDonald with ‘tunings’. What did you mean?
Part of the record was cut in Brazil and I had all these Turkish and Brazilian percussion instruments, so we drastically tuned them down – Skip fine-tuning everything as he happens to have very fine ears. I challenge anyone to name the synths used on the album because nearly all of the things that sound like synths – aside from two tracks – are not actually synths. There’s no synths on ‘UR Sound’, there’s no bass either; the part which you think is a b-line is not, it’s tuned down percussion.
Returning to my initial question, I believe you don’t necessarily need words to write a protest song, sometimes the title is enough. Alec Empire once wrote a song called ‘Hetzjagd auf Nazis!’ which was a techno track without any words. When I see the On-U history and the way you’ve survived the last 30 years, resisting the system seems to be a common thread.
The whole record industry was full of people who might as well have been trading pork bellies instead of music. It was controlled by rich people who owned these labels who employed their friends and they bought catalogues. I was told early on by the reggae people to build a catalogue, which I did. The principle is if you get enough catalogue numbers the distributors will deal with you. What the record companies had was these massive catalogues of music from the forties, fifties and sixties and when the CD came along in the eighties they could suddenly reissue every single album of their catalogue, resell anything. It made them so much money, millions of pounds swilling around the record industry. But when it came to getting new artists they’d make their cousin head of A&R and sign anything, spend hundreds of thousands on videos and promoting rubbish. Nobody was looking on artist development and that’s when I went ‘fuck this’. Whenever I had to set my foot into the offices of one of these companies I recall that I wanted to just take drugs and piss on the carpet. I felt that offended.
What was it precisely that offended you that much?
They didn’t want to deal with us because there were too many black people involved. They were rather looking for desperate white kids who wanted to be famous. That was the lure in the eighties: To go and become part of this Babylon system, kissing the arse of some idiot running the record label who doesn’t even is interested in music. It was unbelievable: In England and America, they would buy and sell shares in the company, rape the company of money and go and buy real estate and golf courses. I was desperate to make our little model where we shared the profits work. I just never managed to get the sales we needed. But I did stick religiously to my guns, and in the end we did survive.