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Sherwood and the Axe

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Little Axe – guitarist Skip McDonald and famed producer/remixer Adrian Sherwood – have a fascinating recent CD on Fat Possum, Hard Grind. In a recording world full of bizarre hybrids – from metal-rap to industrial-lounge – Sherwood and McDonald have created a surprisingly successful and organic new slot: “dub-blues.”

Wedding McDonald’s evocative, deeply bluesy guitar work, with samples of grizzled bluesmen and Sherwood’s reggae-inflected dub beats, trippy echoes and hyp-mo-tizing washes, Hard Grind subtly reaches in, gathers listeners, and transports them to a mythical, swampy southern shore where Robert Johnson trades riffs with King Tubby.

“Dark as The Night, Cold as the Ground” opens the disc and creates a foreboding, lazy mood with McDonald’s shivery slide and otherworldly vocal samples reverberating around in the mix before slipping back into the grave.

“One Drop Blues” creeps in on an ominous dub beat and layers melodica with a sea of electric and acoustic guitars.

“All Night Party” borrows a vocal sample from labelmate Junior Kimbrough’s classic track “All Night Long.” “Long Way To Go” reaches down into a reggae dub nether world to support backwards-tracked guitar solos for a dark subterranean ride.

“Down to the Valley” does shocking, groovy things to this traditional gospel tune (recorded as “Down to the River to Pray” by Alison Krauss for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), bringing in live vocals from Ghetto Priest, Bim Sherman, and McDonald, calling into question what kind of praying is going on down there.

McDonald has the blues in his blood, having absorbed traditional music from his father. For Sherwood, dub-blues is a continuation of 20+ years on the beat-music scene where reggae, dub, industrial and world music come together to form a sinuous, thumping whole.

Infatuated with reggae and dub from an early age, Sherwood was a London club DJ in his early-teens. By his early-20s, Sherwood had owned three labels: Caribgems, Hitrun, and the legendary On-U-Sound, which continues to this day.

For On-U-Sound, which began as a loose live performance group in ’79, Sherwood has produced/performed with a rotating cast under various guises including African Head Charge, Creation Rebel, Dub Syndicate, New Age Steppers, Mark Stewart and Maffia, and most famously, Tackhead. He has also produced other reggae/dub artists including the great Lee “Scratch” Perry, Prince Far I, Bim Sherman, Singers and Players, and Little Annie.

Sherwood was born on the outskirts of London in 1958. By the tender age of 11, he was lurking about the door of a reggae club to hear the music. Within two years he was DJing at the club for teenage reggae parties. Sherwood attributes his proclivity for black music to growing up in a multiracial community. “I think England’s unique, in that we have a very, very healthy cross-fertilization of musical cultures in London. I have mates who are Indian, Chinese, Japanese, African, Jamaican – everybody’s in London and everyone does tend to mix up a lot here.” Very postmodern.

After high school, Sherwood and a Jamaican friend started buying Jamaican reggae records and reselling them in the north of England where such things were scarce. Within a year they were doing well enough to start their own label, Caribgems, which released reggae albums by Black Uhuru, Trinity, Dillinger and others in the U.K. (now rereleased by Sherwood under his Pressure imprint).

“I loved reggae first, but then dub became the thing. We used to smoke loads of weed and sit around, and the dub records were great: all the funny noises and everything. While you are lying on your back, with a very nice spliff and a huge bassline running over your chest, it’s fucking great,” he affirms.

Although Sherwood plays “some bass,” he considers the mixing board his main instrument, appropriate for his transformation from DJ to producer. “I bullshit my way along, really,” he says.

“I had enough money to run a session, so I ran a session. I paid the musicians, told the bass player what to play. I made a kind of dub album – for like $300 U.S. (rereleased as Creation Rebel’s Historic Moments) – and it sold a lot more than the stuff we had licensed from Jamaica because I made it for people like myself, who wanted it a bit spacier.

“I thought, this is easy. You get together some good players, you get the whole system together. If you pay for the musicians and studio time, and you run a session, then you’re the producer. Then by playing more and more I got more proficient and more confident, and as the years went by people started paying me good amounts of money to help them make their records.”

The On-U-Sound label was started 1980; around ’84 Sherwood met drummer Keith Leblanc, bassist Doug Wimbish (later of Living Colour), and McDonald – who collectively had been the house band at seminal rap label Sugar Hill Records – at the New Music Seminar in New York, and together they became Tackhead. All are featured on Hard Grind as well.

Performing/recording on their own and with toaster Gary Clail, Tackhead put on extravaganzas in the mid-’80s with live and recorded music, “all twisted and dubbed live through the P.A. mixing desk while maybe three rhythms, sound effects and chants play[ed] simultaneously.”

Sherwood has also greatly affected the course of industrial music. After veering toward harder beats and the liberal use of sampling in his own music in the mid-’80s, Sherwood midwifed Ministry’s transformation from poppy techno-weenies into the dark, edgy industrialists as whom they are known and feared today. It was Sherwood who transformed Jourgensen’s faux-English pop singing into distorted, whispery menace, raised the electronic beats in the mix to a mechanistic assault, and brought in a heavy quotient of noise for percussive and atmospheric effect on ’85’s Twitch.

In ’87 Sherwood produced the rubbery, jagged industrio-funk of Cabaret Voltaire’s Code, with the dancefloor thumpers “Don’t Argue” and “Here To Go.” That same year he produced and remixed Skinny Puppy’s syncopated, undulating “Deep Down Trauma Hounds,” and in ’88 he co-produced/co-mixed KMFDM’s clangorous Don’t Blow Your Top, including the dub/industrial tour de force “King Kong Dub Rubber Mix.”

Sherwood completed his ’80s industrial campaign by co-producing/remixing (with Keith Leblanc) Nine Inch Nails’ hip-hop/industrial masterpiece “Down In It” from the seminal Pretty Hate Machine. Sherwood also remixed a sensational, churning version of “Sin” from the album.

In the ’90s Sherwood ran his labels (On-U, Pressure), played/produced with Tackhead, Clail, Dub Syndicate and other configurations, co-produced the Fall, Shane MacGowan, Bim Sherman, and tackled a wide range of remixes.

At the end of the ’90s he was particularly pleased with the musical state of affairs in England: “It’s very much like the punk rock time really, a time of energy and optimism. None of the record companies know what to sign, there’s loads of good underground, a good club scene going again, and people believe the music is their’s. The drum and bass and jungle stuff, it’s got nothing to do with any other country; it’s our thing, which I think is great.”

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