Emma Warren is back with the second part of her Dennis Bovell interview.
Last time man like DB told all about his early days as a producer, and about hanging about outside cutting houses whilst Jah Shaka prepped his soundbombs. In the second part of his interview about cutting houses, how disco stole Sly and Robbie’s flying cymbal and turning sound system clashes into band clashes.
How much of a disadvantage were you at, making English reggae? And how much of a problem was it that you didn’t come from Jamaica in the first place [Bovell moved to the UK from Barbados aged 12]?
I had to go the extra mile. I had to make sure my stuff was stinging. By the time I done ‘Silly Games’, I showed them my craft and it was totally FM sounding and wasn’t off the radio – still isn’t off the radio! – and I’d created a new drum beat. The intention was to make every tune with that drum beat in that reggae style, but the success of it… I couldn’t. People would have thought it was all I could do. Sly Dunbar had the same one on every tune! We called it “Flying Cymbal” but it was so infectious disco had it and called it disco.
Lloyd Bradley told me that cutting houses had a very specific job in that world of reggae, and didn’t move out of that world until punk came along…
The invention of the cassette ruined it too. D’you know, by the time Lovers Rock had hit I’d stopped using Hessle because by the time I cut Yuh Learn I’d learned not to cut my stereo tapes in mono any more. I wasn’t aiming at sound systems any more. I was aiming at radio and the wider ear.
Was there overlap between what you’d call ‘wax culture’ and the uptown places?
The dub cutters were John Hessell and a place in the West End called LTS, London Transcription Service. LTS was owned by a friend of mine’s brother, Bill Farley in Tin Pan Alley, Denmark St. Shaka used to use there. I quickly stumbled on a guy called John Dent. John Dent was first called Sound Clinic and he was the cutting room that was attached to Island Records. That’s where I cut The Slits, Linton Kwesi Johnson. This guy has cut all Bob Marley and all U2. As cutting engineers in this country go, he’s the man. He built another cutting room called The Exchange in Camden. Him and Graham, then he left and went and opened his new cutting rooms called Loud.
Can you give me an example from the time at Island, with John Dent, when something clicked for you as an artist?
There was another guy called Aaron Chakraverty at Master Rooms. He made me realise how far I could push that piece of plastic to reproduce and enhance, even, what you intended from the mixing room.
That post-punk period was really interesting…
I produced Orange Juice. There was a song called ‘Wheels Of Love’. I’d done what I call a skid mix, which involved lots of backwards sequencing. If you hear the 12” version you’ll hear it. Once I’d done it I needed to go to the cutting room to hear how they sounded.
Why could you not know that in your studio?
Too much bass makes the wave got like that (shows jump in the air). The skid was a piece of information backwards that could trip the cutter head and make the cutter head think it’s a square wave, and think it can’t read it. If you printed a record like that, it would jump. The first few copies of the Pop Group album I cut, I lifted the cutter head before conventional standard dictated. It was just another crazy idea.
Was there a link between early pirate radio, back in the early ‘80s, and cutting houses?
You’d have to ask Dread Lepke about that. He’s going to open a radio station in Ghana, for his sister. You know, Rita Marley.
Who would you bump into at a typical cutting house?
You’d try not to bump into people. It was inevitable at Hessle’s, because people would just turn up, typical sound system stuff. Count Shelley, Neville The Enchanter, they’d be everywhere cutting dubplates. You’d have to phone up and book a particular cutting time: here on Monday, there on Tuesday. come the weekend you have to have dubplate!
It hadn’t occurred to me the volume of music people would be getting. How important have cutting rooms been to UK street music?
It was the only means to liberate the stuff that was being recorded. Before I pressed Matumbi’s ‘After Tonight’, that song was on the sound systems of Great Britain for about two years. People were flocking to London to see me to get a dubplate of that, from Birmingham, from Manchester, from Leeds, from Coventry, from Doncaster, from Bristol.
What did they have to do to get their dubplate?
Chat to me at the right time…. and pay me, basically. They’d be cut to order. People would bring their deposit or cash or a postal order. You had to go to the source, to get a dubplate. If cut a dub for someone and I heard they let someone else cut it, they weren’t getting no more dubs from me. You had to go to the source.
Going to the source. What impact does that have on the music?
It just allows me to know where the music’s gone. It would allow me to know if I was popular enough to do a live show. If my tune was being played on the Bristol sounds, I could safely go to Bristol with my band and do a show there because people knew my music, people would come. Birmingham, the same.
Who else was in the same position as you? A DJ and producer and musician?
I used to get a lot of flak from the band: what are you? A sound man or a musician? Sometimes the rehearsals might clash with the sound playing out. They’d be like, ‘I’m fed up of going to hear your sound!’
So what are you, soundman or musician?
I am me. I’m both. The soundman did win, back then. This was a time when sounds were more important than bands. It was sounds and oh – there’s a group playing too. I remember arriving once at Acton Town Hall with Matumbi. We arrived and all the sounds had lined the stages with their boxes. I was like ‘Ya! Move dem!’ They deemed it their right. ‘We’re the sound! You’re only a group!’ It was only because I was in both worlds that people would listen. That kind of thing would cause friction. Groups were disrespected by sound systems, people getting turned off so the sound could play. Luckily no-one would do that to Matumbi. We’d plug a desk from the stage into the sound so it went around the room in this enormous PA system. We used to have group showdowns. There was this group called Black Volts, that was led by Michael Bruno, Frank’s older brother. Our band would clash Black Volts in Pountney Hill, just up the road from the Beaufoy, that was the scene of the big sound clashes between Duke Reid, Sir Coxon, Count Shelley, Neville the Enchanter. Those big sounds would have soundclashes there. So we decided to do a group clash. It was a show of strength.
Do people need to know why all this was important?
We found a way to bring [the music] from the studio to the living room, via the cutting room. From the control room, to the cutting room, then to the living room. It’s all rooms, isn’t it? There was room for improvement, in maximising the quality, and the best way to do that was to get it right at the cutting room stage. Even if it lacked something in the control room, in the studio, you could inject, elasticate frequencies, then it would lock them in, so that any reproduction of it would be regular. They are the heroes. Of ears.