“We were early and we were late ...” 1. BCD Basic Channel as an identity, entity, sound and approach is rightly revered, incredibly influential, often imitated, but something most people are genuinely generally oblivious to. So, for anyone not aware, Basic Channel is a production partnership, record label, and umbrella organisation. As a parent company, Basic Channel is (presently) home to eight different imprints: each of these has its very own specific character. The chain is directly affiliated to and based in the Hard Wax record store in Berlin, a specialist shop which since 1989 has dealt in techno music with a broader electronica/reggae related stock today. A large proportion of its business is now conducted by mail order through the Hard Wax website. There is a great tradition of record shops diversifying into record production. Hard Wax in a way takes this literally by also (effectively) sharing premises with the Dubplates & Mastering vinyl cutting studio, which uses a mix of new technology and classic equipment (e.g. an original Neumann VMS 70 lathe which may have belonged to the Motown Corporation). This accurately implies the Basic Channel/Hard Wax axis is fundamentally about vinyl. A quick glance at either the Basic Channel or Hard Wax websites will demonstrate just how much the emphasis remains on vinyl. The reputation of Basic Channel as a production team and as a record label is for ‘hardline’ followers based on a series of nine 12” singles, released during 1993/1994, which remain eternally available for successive waves of converts to discover. These monolithic masterpieces are incredibly desirable objects: arcane, mysterious, imposing. Many people have had a go at replicating the sound and the approach, but the incredible impact of these records reverberates relentlessly. The actual artefacts arrive with a minimal amount of information, helping to accentuate the mystique, which remains an endlessly appealing way of operating. As a production unit and as a record outlet there was no desire for self-promotion: the music could/should speak for itself.
So the Basic Channel doctrine can be interpreted as being very much rooted in the art of vinyl and its imperfections, the sound system, club culture ceremonials, and dancehall display. It was only ever reluctantly that a Basic Channel compact disc (BCD) was released, initially in 1995. It has since taken on mythical qualities, and in wonderful ways has redefined the aesthetic by being displaced from the initial intentions of the recordings. Original pressings of the Basic Channel compact disc came packaged in a plain white card envelope mailer, manufactured by the Calumet Carton Company of Holland. On the front was a sticker with the Basic Channel logo, overlaid with the tracklisting which was almost rendered indecipherable. On the rear flap was a barcode sticker referring to the distributors EFA (Medien), and below this another sticker listing the original Basic Channel 12”s, publishing details and fax number, with an exhortation to “buy vinyl”! The CD did not give much away, but that was part of the fun of it. Most of the 11 tracks featured on the Basic Channel CD (BCD) were selections or edits from the 12” series. A couple of cuts were exclusive to BCD: one was Mutism while the other was E2-E4 Basic Reshape which was an ‘abstract’ reinvention of the Carl Craig/Paperclip People work Remake Uno/Duo, which itself drew on Manuel Göttsching’s revolutionary E2-E4: a perfect example of influences ricocheting. Where things got really interesting was when BCD took the listener beyond (known) dancefloors, the kick, the thud and the low-end fealty. No matter how unwillingly the producers put together the CD they specifically chose to feature or focus on certain sounds/tracks, and to programme these in a particular way. What they offered the consumer was quite extraordinary, emotional music. Hopefully Basic Channel took great delight in sounding ‘not right’. One lingering impression is of subaqueous resonance, suggestive of a world of echo and boom, sonar and depth charge devices. Imagined distant engine hum and judder evolves into a rolling rhythm, pulse beats become a percussive mantra, vibrations evolve into traces of melody. The recordings on BCD seem strangely distressed, battered, worn, weather-beaten, as if they have been exposed to the elements and corrosive substances. On repeated listens the background noise becomes the focal point in the recordings: alluring allusions
to atmospheric interference, radio signals, static, generator throb, crackle, sizzle, fizz, hiss. Part of the beauty of listening to BCD over a prolonged period of time is the way what’s not there seems natural. It would be intrusive to have vocal samples and cymbals, for example. Equally it can be a strain to catch what is there, as things fall away. This is something the recordings share with certain classical works: the disconcerting absence of anything at times in say an Arvo Pärt work. This quality makes BCD unsuitable for certain environments, and pretty much dares the consumer to listen alone at home on earphones, painfully conscious of clichés about electronic music and imaginary soundtracks. Nevertheless with BCD it is difficult to resist conjuring up certain landscapes and scenarios. The music has that power. Wonderfully, not too much has been revealed about how the Basic Channel recordings were made. The impression is that traditional techniques were used rather than cutting-edge programmes: laborious manual methods chosen over computerised ease. Perhaps contradictorily there is a sense too of instinct and improvisation, rather than endless clinical polishing and refining. It is this as much as anything that links Basic Channel to the oft-mentioned dub conventions. The production team clearly revered the dub sound and methodology, the reverb and delay, as much as they were in thrall to the electronic citadels of Chicago and Detroit. The curious thing is that when BCD initially appeared the word ‘dub’ had taken on an almost ridiculously mystic quality, partly fuelled by Blood and Fire reissues, and was so overused that the one once sacred syllable became syllabub. Basic Channel could never be accused of being insubstantial, shallow or frivolous. They were spectacularly serious about everything they did, and it is for this very reason that the recordings remain such a pleasure and so engrossing. In an age when algorithms make presumptive recommendations for us (“If you have bought Autechre, Aphex Twin, Biosphere, Bedouin Ascent, Bandulu, Higher Intelligence Agency, Tortoise, Labradford, you might like Basic Channel”) it’s wiser to be less logical and suggest that perhaps the Basic Channel methodology had more in common with a contemporary group like
Fugazi in terms of resolution and attitude than they did with most of their techno/electronica cohorts. Certainly Basic Channel and Fugazi shared a sense of being strong-willed and self-determined, and both outfits were exceptionally good at holding their nerve. It could be said too that Basic Channel shared an austere aesthetic in terms of presentation and philosophy with Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. Perhaps in recognition of the ferment stirred up by BCD the curtain was lifted slightly, allowing The Wire to run a piece in its August 1996 issue. This was written by Biba Kopf (Chris Bohn) and he reveals the Basic Channel team to be Mark and Moritz (who choose not to have their conversation taped), but does not dwell on their pasts. He does refer to their approach as “techno classicism”: “This is the key to Basic Channel. Where Techno hurls blinkered into the future, Mark and Moritz have turned their backs on it. Theirs is an archaeology of Techno, almost, which burrows beneath the future-shock debris to work up new geometric shapes from the music's original architectonic ground plans.” 2. Vainqueur – Elevations The Wire returned to shed further light on the Basic Channel organisation in its March 1998 issue which featured a Future Sound of Berlin cover story on the Chain Reaction label. This was at the time the most active of the imprints hosted by Basic Channel. Kodwo Eshun put the feature together: he was the hottest property in music journalism at the time, limbering up for the publication of his More Brilliant Than The Sun book. Around the same time he wrote a piece for The Wire on the Detroit collective Drexciya who shared similar ideas with Basic Channel about eliminating personality and biography in the way their music’s presented and their activity conducted. In the Chain Reaction article the Basic Channel co-ordinators are not quoted, but a little more is revealed about their identity, their real names (Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald) and personalities (“Mark Ernestus's shyness and elusiveness”). Instead the feature focuses on five of the artists/acts who
had recorded for Chain Reaction, essentially an outlet for works by production teams that shared the Basic Channel aesthetic and approach. From 1995 onwards Chain Reaction would release 35 12”s and 11 CDs (including one compilation). As before, the purist would insist that the sound of Chain Reaction is best heard on the original, stately 12”s, but the compact discs have a very specific charm. The first half-a-dozen in the series came in distinctive metal tins, embossed with the label logo, and with one simple sticker featuring the name of the production team, the CD title, track listings, plus a little in the way of practical detail like catalogue number, publishing and contact details, and distributor’s barcode. The choice of metal tin, almost inevitably, brought to mind PiL, almost challenging the consumer to connect Public Image Limited with Basic Channel which did not really need that much imagination: the use of space, the bass sonics, what was left out, the arrogance and aloofness. The Chain Reaction metal tins were not universally liked. They were tricky to open, and easy to dent. Some claimed the casing actively destroyed the compact discs they contained, but it was hardly necessary to leave the CD in the tin. Nevertheless the long-running Fabric mix CD series would later use a refinement of the metal tins. Even in the context of Kodwo’s feature dissent was expressed about the Chain Reaction way of working. The Porter Ricks (a poor choice as cover stars) duo bridled at certain aspects, such as the metal tins, but it was Chain Reaction’s younger artists, the producers behind the identities of Vainqueur, Various Artists and Substance that really caught the imagination and, importantly, really looked the part. Being directly affiliated to the Hard Wax shop they came across as the children of Basic Channel in the same way, say, Orange Juice, Josef K and Fire Engines could be said to be the children of Vic Godard and Subway Sect. Intriguingly, appropriately, Vainqueur and Substance recorded together as Scion, and their Emerge 12” was the first release on Chain Reaction. Vainqueur was a persona adopted by the producer Rene Löwe. The story of how he became involved with the Basic Channel organisation and went on to
work at Hard Wax is a strong one and worth seeking out. His first release Lyot is pretty central to the whole Basic Channel phenomena. Originally released as part of the M series in 1992, it came with a highly revered Maurizio remix. The M series drew together some of the harder, faster, more dancefloor-oriented recordings produced by the Basic Channel organisation. There is a very attractive CD compilation of Maurizio tracks put out as part of the M series which illustrates this perfectly. Lyot was also given a radical Basic Channel remodelling or reduction as part of that label’s 12” series, and an edit of this was to be one of the real attractions of BCD. Löwe put out four 12”s on Chain Reaction in 1996/1997 under the name Vainqueur, and tracks from these formed the basis for his Elevations set, the second compact disc released on the label. The opening track, the highlight of the CD, Antistatic was a new one and quite remarkable. It is built around a rigidly repetitive rhythmic pattern that is almost disco-like in nature, with a virtual vocoder coda. It suggests the spin cycles of a washing machine, and the hypnotising effect household appliances can have. This is appropriate in a way, what with Mr Fingers’ Washing Machine and Löwe having been a DJ at the Waschhaus in Potsdam, a club space with close links to the Hard Wax/Basic Channel story. Vainqueur’s work seems defiantly to have been made with analogue synths, as if to say it’s the ideas that are advanced not the technology. The original mix of Elevation II, for example, has effects similar to wow and flutter on a damaged tape which has become twisted and is disintegrating. Much of the Elevations CD moves along at a sprightly tempo, with a bass drum kicking hard under proceedings. Where the fun is to be had is with synth-produced melodic motifs suggesting disco chants repeated as a mantra. The tenacity with which Vainqueur sticks to his rhythmic patterns is impressive. The rigorous repetition suggests locked groove melodies or a stuck needle effect, which reimagined in the mind’s eye is oddly reminiscent of a clockwork toy going through its routine ceaselessly. The mood and tempo change with Elevation I (Version 3), which is more suggestive of an early ‘70s Tangerine Dream soundscape, albeit with off-
centre ebb and flow of sound which strangely suggests an Arvo Pärt string arrangement should be present albeit with interference from power tools in the distance. The compact disc closes with the pulsing grace of Solanus (Extracted) which ripples with soothing synth waves oddly oblivious to the unsettling intrusions and distracting background noise associated with the Basic Channel organisation. Rene Löwe has continued to work occasionally as Vainqueur, sometimes recording with Substance (Peter Kuschnereit). As Scion they ‘arranged’ and ‘processed’ a selection of Basic Channel tracks for a celebratory Tresor CD, and this serves as perhaps the best introduction to the production team’s early classics. 3. Various Artists – Decay Product One of the most revealing parts of the Kodwo Eshun feature on Chain Reaction is a quote from Torsten Pröfrock who refers to conversations he had with Vainqueur about the way techno could develop: "Rene and I really talked a lot about music, about how to leave all these 909s and 808s behind, how to make music without percussion sounds, just replace the common claps, snares and hi-hats with other sounds; and Basic Channel defined what we were talking about." Torsten is another person who graduated from being a fan of techno music to working in the Hard Wax shop to producing tracks of his own. His CD showcase, Decay Product, is in many ways the definitive Chain Reaction/Basic Channel artefact. It partly draws on a 12” he made under the spectacularly blank (and downright perverse if considered in today’s ‘search engine optimisation’ culture) name of Various Artists which featured seven tracks over 30-plus minutes, helpfully labelled 1 to 7. This 12” was, in 1995, the second release on Chain Reaction, and generally is pretty upbeat, with the bass drum cheerfully kicking away accompanied by great swarm of wasps in the sound system effects. Where things get interesting on the Various Artists 12” and CD showcase is when on No. 5 the pace is slower and statelier, and the difficult to resist
comparisons with dub techniques seem particularly pertinent. It seems to have been more a case of Pröfrock hearing some examples of dub reggae and recognising very specific links or common ground with what he was trying to achieve in his productions. This is somewhat different to a situation where (criminally underrated) artists like Bandulu or Bedouin Ascent would talk about growing up and hearing reggae sounds, on the radio and through friends. ‘Dub’ is the singularly most overused word used in relation to the Basic Channel organisation. They certainly were not the only people experimenting in the strange hinterland between dub and electronica: Bandulu’s Antimatters is a complete classic that explores the same terrain. But it is Pröfrock’s Chain Reaction productions that best define such activity, and justify the default critical setting. The caveat that needs to be added is that in no way was Pröfrock trying to recreate sounds and rhythms that might have been put together in late ‘70s Jamaica. Instead it’s something to do with a shared sensibility and (un)common approach to production. The Various Artists track No. 3 (debit) on Decay Product acts as a portal to five more tracks of exploratory electronics that resonate with dub distortion. This series of tracks draws on two more 12”s Pröfrock made for Chain Reaction. The first of these was as Resilent in 1996, and Resilent 1.2 which features on Decay Product still sounds unsettling as it conjures up images of wind, rain, waves, and desolate locations, a sense of being hunted: the power of suggestion. It has an eerie sweetness, something of the sort Throbbing Gristle once played with, and is thankfully far removed from either the dancefloor or the flotation tank. The other Pröfrock Chain Reaction 12” Decay Product draws on was issued under the name of Erosion. The three Erosion tracks over the course of 30-odd minutes are astonishing. Erosion 2 with its busy rimshot percussion and different layers of rhythmic melody which probe and recede makes for a remarkable dance experience. Erosion 3 by contrast is back into insinuating, sinewy On-U Sound meets ECM territory, bringing to mind the Eberhard Weber title and indeed (from certain angles) composition Fluid Rustle, with added interference and static to stop things ever becoming comfortable.
Another Various Artists 12” appeared around the same time as Decay Product on the London label FatCat, extending the previous series by adding the titles 8,8.5, 9. This was quite a coup for a label that also grew out of a highlyrevered specialist shop which was quite a focal point for the London techno/electronica milieu. The 18-and-a-half minutes of 8 are really extraordinary, with a determined, elegiac Satie-like melody at the heart of the adventure which is assailed by distracting, destructive elements in classic comic-book fashion, but still the melody lingers, unvanquished. 9 is a gorgeous 13-minute reverie based around another melodic motif of music box simplicity and elegance, repeated as a loop which becomes an urbane gamelan symphony, exploring similar ideas to the ones Tortoise toyed with on T.N.T. Naturally, the sounds of surface noise and corrosive elements provide a perfect counterpoint harmony to the melody. The highlight of Various Artists’ Decay Product is maybe Melted, an unaligned track which from one perspective may seem to be about automated piston propulsion, but really it feels far too human for that. Instead from a different perspective it conjures up ideas of battered vinyl collections of old field recordings featuring African drummers or traditional Brazilian rhythms reprocessed. Or maybe it’s a more modern approximation, which is why the track is an almost perfect accompaniment to the wonderful Tribeca A Certain Ratio footage where they are intently, intentionally, performing their own variations on ideas of Latin percussion and African rhythms. And Pröfrock from the few extant images instantly available on the internet looks like he might have very easily fitted in to ACR circa Tribeca. Appropriately the Wireless double 12” set Pröfrock released on Honest Jons, using his T++ persona, in 2010 features samples from historic East African recordings. The two 12”s are quite remarkable really, and shoot off in all directions. There is curiously a sense of reversing to a point in the very early ‘90s where hardcore breakbeat sounds, rave populism and avant-garde electronica were curiously jumbled up and the possibilities seemed intoxicatingly endless before cosy compartmentalisation crept in and sucked the strangeness out of the music. The spectacular series of 12”s which Pröfrock released as T++ between 2006 and 2010 seems to be an attempt to rewind
time and start all over again to show how it should have been done. It is easy to understand why Pröfrock may be an underground hero to some, an enduring enigma, and an unknown quantity to many more. 4. Hallucinator - Landlocked There is a pleasing symmetry to the series of CD showcases released on the Chain Reaction label. After five CDs by producers/artists with connections to Hard Wax/Berlin came the ... compiled collection in 1998. This was the last release on the label to be presented in one of the distinctive metal tins. Subsequent compact disc showcases would be packaged in NaturePac editions: “no plastic biodegradable” digipaks made by topac. The five CD post-... compiled releases on Chain Reaction would be recorded by producers/artists from the international electronic underground like Fluxion (Konstantinos Soublis) and Matrix (Tetsuo Tsuri). It is not clear if this ‘outernational’ outlook was happenstance or a deliberate policy. Quite possibly the ‘opening up’ for some shattered a certain Berlin/Basic Channel mystique. It is also a fact that by 1999 critical attention had drifted away from Chain Reaction activity. Landlocked by Hallucinator was one of these later CD showcases released on Chain Reaction, and it is in many ways the best. Hallucinator masks the identity of the one production team from the UK to release anything on Chain Reaction. There will have been many techno types who would have sold their entire collection of 12”s and computer hardware to gain a Basic Channelrelated catalogue number. Hallucinator achieved this without really revealing anything, and instead let the music speak. Landlocked itself collects together tracks from three 12”s released on Chain Reaction in 1998/1999, with three additional numbers, adding up to an intriguing showcase which has rewarded frequent visits. When Landlocked was released the identity of Hallucinator seemed shrouded in mystery, but in the digital age information is so much more easily accessible. Now it is easy enough to ascertain that Hallucinator is the music-making outlet of the multi-media art ensemble Flow Motion. Perhaps the notion of Flow
Motion issuing records on a label called Chain Reaction might have been a little too Can-ny? Flow Motion was itself started back in 1996 by Anna Piva, Edward George, and Trevor Mathison (who somewhere along the way moved on to different activities). Biographical notes refer to the pivotal moment for Anna being “a concert she attended by Sun Ra & his Arkestra in the late 1970s”. Edward and Trevor, meanwhile, were among the members of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) which was founded at Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982. These facts show that the people behind Hallucinator did not fit the wonderkid/geek profile that became a techno touchstone, and that makes it even better that they were the only UK production team to record for the Basic Channel organisation. Musically, the exceptional Landlocked draws on dub ideas, futuristic fusion, and abstract atmospherics, but undeniably the sound is very much Hallucinator’s own. The heavy bass (Anna’s assumedly) is a fantastic feature, and the beats and rhythms at times have a jazzy, skittering lightness and disco swish, while at others the feel is much more meditational or menacing. There seem to be middle-eastern influences at work from time to time, and the sounds suggestive of heavy plant and construction machinery create rhythms of their own. It’s not a record that has been written about anywhere near enough, but one eye-catching review on the Reggae Vibes site, however, gets things remarkably right, with some intriguing reference points: Zap Pow/ Lee Perry’s The River, Michael Brooks’ Hybrid, Aba Shanti I and The Disciples. The titular and sonic themes of some of the tracks on Landlocked seem to be reflected in the wider work Flow Motion has undertaken. Resumes of projects (exhibitions/installations/workshops/performances) put together by Anna and Edward reveal titles such as Astro Black Morphologies (2005), Ghost Dance (2002), Dissolve (2001), Kosmos in Blue (2001), and The Dub Museum (1999). Kosmos in Blue tackled “questions of troubled subjectivity, of isolation and freedom, of melancholia, and music” and gave the ensemble the opportunity to take the music and philosophy of Sun Ra to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, where they were able to perform in a zero gravity environment which has to be infinitely more rewarding than a live PA in Wigan on a wet Wednesday.
If the work of Hallucinator/Flow Motion seems to explore similar territories to and take further the ideas behind Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than The Sun ‘sonic fiction’ then that makes sense. Edward George is credited in the book as a co-pilot, and the text draws deeply on a Black Audio Film Collective documentary Last Angel of History, which Edward wrote with director John Akomfrah, and which features (the lineage of) Juan Atkins/Model 500, Derrick May, Carl Craig, DJ Spooky, Ishmael Reed, George Clinton, the astronaut Bernard Harris, as well as Sun Ra, Underground Resistance, and Lee Perry. The Otolith Group, which Kodwo Eshun’s part of, in 2002 put together the exhibition The Ghosts of Songs: A Retrospective of the Black Audio Film Collective, and there are more links between Flow Motion and Kodwo Eshun should anyone want to investigate further.
After Landlocked there were two further Hallucinator 12”s on Chain Reaction in the new millennium. The latter of these was the Morpheus 12” from 2003, and in the (uncharacteristically explicit) wording of the Basic Channel website this was: “The return of Hallucinator with four heavyweight excursions into the aquatic depths and stellar planes of techno dub morphology. Four elemental soundscapes, ideal for all hours domestic listening and the deeper progressive dub and electronica dancefloor. To be continued with an album in the new year.” The promised further full-length set seems to have never appeared, but the side of the 12” which features Morpheus and Waterline is just about perfection, so perhaps that was a good point at which to suspend Chain Reaction releases/operations.
The title alone of Waterline, with its A Certain Ratio connotations, is enough to pique the interest of some with a very particular interest in the sonic advances made in the very early 1980s, and the connection is not at all outlandish. Where a good proportion of the electronic music made at the turn of the millennium was recorded by people who had grown up specifically on the sounds of hip-hop, house and techno, some like the Basic Channel and Hallucinator production teams had roots which went deeper. So, yes, the ACR of Waterline, Funaezekea, Sommadub is related to Hallucinator, as is Cabaret Voltaire’s Red Mecca, Aswad’s Warrior Charge, Mad Professor, Jah Shaka, Creation Rebel and African Headcharge, Duet Emmo, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts etc. and maybe just maybe that breadth of experience is a lot to do with what makes the sound of Hallucinator so special, so sonically adventurous, when other artists use the same elements and create nothing that’s of interest. 5. Vladislav Delay – Multila Sasu Ripatti was once well-suited for a script about the unpredictable prodigy as producer, the young electronic maverick making a prodigious amount of music under multiple identities for a variety of labels, who enchants and exasperates in equal measure. Richard D. James once took on this role admirably. Sasu playing the part of techno upstart in Finland was taken up by the Basic Channel organisation and invited to make a couple of 12”s for Chain Reaction which he did as Vladislav Delay. These were later collected together and released as the Multila CD in 2000. This showcase was unique for the label in that it came with some contextual notes on the NaturePac’s front cover. The wording seemed to explain how the music on Multila relates to the subconscious and “is a soundtrack for vision”, but didn’t really give much away. There are two pivotal tracks, both epic compositions, on Multila. One is the disquieting Pietola, a 16-and-a-half minute excursion into ‘sinister resonance’: atmospheric sounds as the antithesis of background music. A lot of music that is packaged as ‘soothing’ or ‘relaxing’ is in reality intensely irritating and
irredeemably insipid. The moods created on Pietola conspire to unsettle and as such are more satisfying and a lot more fun. The introductory warm synth wash is misleading, as whirs and hums and crackles mutate into what seems like the flapping of wings and winds, and this builds up in momentum to become heavy rain or percussive precipitation. Much of Multila is in this stormy soundtrack vein. The big exception is Huone which appears in its uncut 22minute form. This is more of an upbeat collage of a production which becomes an ever-evolving and decidedly funky suite of music that cuts an endless dub-disco groove warmed by an African sun, punctuated by ecstatic moans which are more suggested than anything too blatant, which sort of sums up a track which miraculously does not outstay its welcome. The CD showcase’s influence extended beyond electronic circles and seems to have been a particular favourite of Animal Collective who were attracted to Multila’s ‘murky vagueness’. They are right in a sense to highlight the way the fog or fug shrouds some very intriguing if indistinct activity. It is tempting to imagine certain cinematic situations where the way the sound billows and oozes would fit perfectly the mood and landscape. And oddly that is at the heart of Multila: it really feels like a natural habitat, almost too real and unforgiving a setting for happy human existence. And extending the nature/natural conceit, the music feels improvised and intuitive, rather than programmed or processed. Multila was the central part of a trio of turn-of-the-millennium releases from Sasu Ripatti. On the other side of the groove-led Huone came the Vocalcity set under the name of Luomo. This came out on Force Tracks, a subsidiary of Force Inc, and was a selection of more house-infused tracks which nevertheless seems to steer clear of conventional dancefloor sounds despite featuring some irresistibly infectious productions. Spiritually and temporally somehow it sits between French disko (La Funk Mob, Super Discount, Motorbass, Cassius, Bob Sinclair, the dreaded Daft Punk, etc.) and the Nordic cosmic disco of Lindstrom, Prins Thomas, Todd Terje, etc. Vocalcity is something delightfully special, capturing the essence of a sentiment attributed to Basic Channel’s Mark Ernerstus about admiring the strange ambition of certain records which have a “weirdness that grooves”.
On the other side of the imposing Pietola came Anima, on the Mille Plateaux label. This is an hour long electronic meditation, which may be but is probably not on a theme inspired by the title track of Milton Nascimento’s beautiful 1982 LP. In the CD edition this makes for an immersive experience which becomes almost a religious one such is the music’s engulfing beauty. Very little happens over the course of the hour but that’s part of the attraction of the experience: there are broken loops of melody and rhythm which threaten to disintegrate or unravel, with dub effects and interference as percussive accompaniment, which keeps the listener engrossed for the hour-long duration. In an age where the consumer has grown accustomed to skimming and skipping, fast forwarding and shuffling it is a treat to bathe in such an extended composition, to contemplate a work in some depth. The development of technology has fostered a superficial approach to listening which is totally at odds with an hour-long repetitive, meditative work, and that is exactly the appeal of Anima. Multila, Vocalcity and Anima make up a remarkable trilogy. Each of these works has now been reissued on Sasu Ripatti’s own Huume label, and the producer has continued to be a prolific and contrary presence within the music industry, popping up hither and thither in a number of guises. Of particular interest is the electronics/jazz set by the Vladislav Delay Quartet which appeared on Honest Jons in 2011 and joins the dots with the ECM approach. Sasu Ripatti has also participated in a series of recordings by the Moritz von Oswald Trio, which Honest Jons again have been behind releasing. There has been a flurry of Moritz von Oswald Trio releases since 2009, with accompanying press activity, including a fascinating Red Bull Music Academy lecture/Q&A session with Moritz which is surprisingly playful. The Moritz von Oswald Trio approach is pretty playful too, largely improvised and very danceable. Both von Oswald and Ripatti studied percussion, which perhaps explains a lot about their success in and approach to music. The 2011 set Horizontal Structures is particularly appealing, with the jazzy, dub-ious textures embellished by added guitar filigree from Paul St. Hilaire and bass ruminations from (ECM artist) Marc Muellbauer. It’s easy listening in the most attractive and rewarding sense, rather like the Tortoise/ Isotope 217° Chicago
underground sounds of the latter half of the 1990s where elegant electronic adventures met Miles Davis’ directions in music circa In A Silent Way. The improvised heart of the Trio’s work also seems to tally with a very specific Basic Channel approach, where the most adventurous recordings are a mixture of careful thought and instinctive activity with the only test being whether a sound feels right. 6. Rhythm & Sound w/ Tikiman - Showcase The web and weft of releases from the Basic Channel organisation is endlessly fascinating: the development of sound, the overlap between labels, the subtle shifts in emphasis, and so on. There is rarely a point at which it is possible to say: “This starts and that ends”. The evolution is generally gradual. And where compact disc collections/showcases have been issued they are particularly effective summaries, highlighting trends which have been established over a specific series of singles. At some stage the Basic Channel production partnership began using the identity of Rhythm & Sound. As Basic Channel they were active for two or three years. The Rhythm & Sound persona has been in operation for considerably longer, and in its own way has been as influential and as often copied as the Basic Channel approach. Rhythm & Sound productions have been split between the Burial Mix and rhythm & sound labels. The Burial Mix releases have been much more about exploring the tension between reggae vocals and the musical context. The first 10” releases on the label appeared in 1997 without much fanfare, featuring the vocals of Tikiman. It would not be until the first five Burial Mix 10”s were collected on the Showcase CD in 1998 that the cumulative effect of the Rhythm & Sound productions would be felt. Experienced as a whole on Showcase the Burial Mix 10”s, the vocal sides and the versions, and the very specific direction would make a special sense. Up until that point the Rhythm & Sound releases were overshadowed by the lineage of Basic Channel, Maurizio and Chain Reaction, and maybe there was a certain resistance to or unease about the increased inclination towards a more explicit reggae context.
That reggae context is itself endlessly intriguing. The music remained indelibly linked to the Basic Channel techno source, with the reggae/dub aspects of that sound exaggerated. The extraneous elements and background noise would be reduced but not eliminated, making for a more focused sound with less in the way of distractions. And the reggae input itself was elusive: neither roots rockers recreations nor digital dancehall daze. But the concentration, oh the concentration was extraordinary. Has anyone ever had the nerve or resolve of Rhythm & Sound in the sense of being able to sustain a microgroove? Vocals were never really a part of the Basic Channel/M Series/Chain Reaction releases. But before using the name of Rhythm & Sound the BC partnership of Mark and Moritz had recorded with Tikiman (Paul St. Hilaire) on a 12” for their Main Street imprint. This was the outlet, initially, for more club-oriented sounds which leaned towards the Chicago deep house tradition or the New York Nu Groove/Strictly Rhythm approach. I’m Your Brother, the first release on Main Street in 1993, as/credited to Round One, featured the voice of Andy Caine, and came with a ‘Twisted Chicago’ mix by Ron Trent and Chez Damier. It was mastered in New York by Herb Powers at The Hit Factory, and there was a Quadrant Dub II mix to link proceedings back to what was going on at Basic Channel. I’m Your Brother was apparently co-written by Andy Caine and Vivien Goldman, using Caravan of Love as a base. Anyone raising an eyebrow at that should recall Vivien and Andy are linked (to Manasseh) through the track Seven Days which appears on the Chicks On Speed compilation Girl Monster. Acting Crazy by Round Three, the third 12” on Main Street, which came out in 1995 retained the uptempo house foundation but there was much more of a dub feel to the sound with Tikiman’s vocals drifting over the top. What Rhythm & Sound would then do with Tikiman on the Burial Mix recordings is slow the pace right down. Where others who played with similar ideas would incorporate, say, elements of hip-hop or skip from one musical form to another on subsequent tracks, Rhythm & Sound stayed incredibly focused, blending the techno tradition and the reggae ingredients in unique ways, constantly intensifying what they were doing, paring the productions down boldly.
The Rhythm & Sound w/ Tikiman (this was later changed to w/ Paul St. Hilaire to avoid copyright claims) Showcase is a beautiful thing. First released in 1998, it features the initial five Burial Mix 10”s from 1996 to 1997, the vocal sides and the instrumental versions consecutively. The front and back covers feature great portrait shots of Tikiman, and the digipak-style sleeve itself is made of thick and pleasantly rough cardboard, with the traditional bare minimum amount of information on the rear. The compact disc has a great print of Tikiman’s profile on the mirrored surface. Musically, naturally, the rhythm and sound on Showcase is exceptional, mesmerising and ascetic, almost metronomic, but the challenge for Tikiman specifically was how to make the vocal contributions anything more than colouration, something else to be manipulated, something slight and suggestive. This was his big opportunity: an exile following in the footsteps of Malcolm Mooney or Donna Summer challenged to make his mark. And his singing does have gravitas, sweetness and substance, evolving over the course of these tracks from creating a sense of grabbing a mic and improvising over a dub plate in a live environment to the rather more structured studio singing on the cuts What A Mistry and Why, which are meatier and more memorable. The Showcase CD makes for a convenient way of listening to the original Rhythm & Sound 10”s. Ironically or appropriately the distributors EFA (Medien) were also responsible at the time for a collection of On-U Sound MasterRecordings CD releases which included two compilations of tracks from the classic On-U Sound 10” Discoplate series, mainly featuring tracks from the early 1980s by artists such as Congo Ashanti Roy, Creation Rebel, Bim Sherman, Prince Far I, and Undivided Roots. At that time, in the late 1990s, the new releases emerging from the Basic Channel organisation seemed to complement perfectly the historic recordings being salvaged from the On-U Sound archives. They still do: they are very different but very similar.
7. Rhythm & Sound – the versions The second series of 10”s put out by Burial Mix was collected together on two compact discs, which were released in 2003 and sold as separate entities. One CD was Rhythm & Sound w/ the artists: a selection of reggae singers who collaborated with the production team over 8 sides. The other CD gathered together the versions, the instrumental cuts of the vocal sides released between 2001 and 2003. Both compact discs have an enduring appeal. Both remain fascinating works. It seems natural enough that Rhythm & Sound should favour the sacred over the profane when creating vocal works. The singers featured on this series of Burial Mix sides are primarily reggae elders, heavyweights in their field, and consummate performers. Their very presence is like a benediction, an endorsement of what Rhythm & Sound were doing, a blessing bestowed on proceedings. It is a blessed relief, too, that the vocal performances are so arresting. Sure, these were great singers: Cornell Campbell, Jennifer Lara, Paul St. Hilaire, and a selection of voices from Wackies (Jah Batta, Claudette Love Joy, Lloyd Bullwackie Barnes), but that has never been a guarantee that a recording session will be touched by creative inspiration. The themes are familiar: devotional outpourings, betrayal by intimates, self-determination, the power of music. But the combination of singers and producers is uncommon, the impact strangely spiritual. The compact disc that gathers up the versions almost seems sacrilegious: expunging the exceptional vocal interpretations, leaving only vestigial voices. But over time it has taken on a life of its own, and assumed functions which are independent. Shorn of the singing these tracks take on different emphases, different aspects come to the fore, and it’s easier to appreciate the meticulousness and the resolve. Nothing dramatic happens in the versions, and that is the beauty of it. There’s little in the way of deviation. Where the cool poise is disturbed, where the echo and reverberations disrupt proceedings, where the sonic booms go off, it seems shocking. Where the added instrumentation creeps in, the unblatant guitar here, some extra
percussion there, the ceremonial horns somewhere, it seems startling. The feel is formal, the pace is processional, the music incredibly powerful: yes, like The Eternal. Oddly the tightly coiled, compelling cyclical rhythm patterns of the versions seem to sound closer to the more measured moments among the Basic Channel output, where the dub elements seemed to take precedent over the beat. In this sense the mood and feel is closer to the more experimental extended excursions on the rhythm & sound label, as showcased on a beautiful CD issued in 2001. Where some of the Basic Channel productions sound subaqueous, on these 2003 versions the focus is much sharper. But there is nevertheless that strange sensation of moving through water, the gentle resistance, the effect of the water’s drag, the sense of being buoyed. It’s a state that those who practice tai chi and qigong will be familiar with, and in a way it is no surprise that some music produced now for these activities is on occasions not that far removed from the Rhythm & Sound ripple effect. To coincide with the release of the two Burial Mix CDs, in its October 2003 edition The Wire ran a feature by Will Montgomery about Rhythm & Sound where he was invited inside the inner sanctum but still not allowed to use direct quotes. By this stage Mark and Moritz (M&M) were clearly having doubts about the logic of being too detached from the media/promotional cycle/treadmill. Dexys and A Certain Ratio, among others, had passed that way before and found that contrariness could be counter-productive. But the rule still held, and Will Montgomery was forced to be more interpretive in his feature which makes for a more engrossing read than strict reportage. The same issue of The Wire included an Ian Penman review of w/ the artists and the versions. The review catches Ian at his playful best, relishing the opportunities for wordplay, juggling with puns, ideas and how to interpret what one hears, setting out his sentences in a specific way so that the words flow just so, with yes their own rhythm and sound, as if they are riffs to be read aloud, in time with or against the musical drift. And the special illogicality and intended humour which feature a lot in any IP address to whomsoever’s
paying attention is so often missed by those who seek to align themselves with every Penman miaow. Ian was enchanted by the Rhythm & Sound w/ the artists set, but less smitten with the versions, questioning the need for a separate disc. The punman demurred, averring that the versions “feel unduly dry, claustrophobic, too near the pro forma of other nEuro dub for my taste”. This seemed the right response at the time, but the versions’ lack of ostentatiousness and gimmickry has become its strength. The decorous, stately progress is at odds with the notion of dub as some sort of fireworks display, but closer indeed to the sort of dub/roots sounds by those new age (digital) steppers that were particularly active in the UK during the 1990s. The reticence of Rhythm & Sound means that it is unclear (from here) what their attitude was to the practitioners of this music. They clearly had an affinity with King Tubby’s Firehouse digital productions, but whether they countenanced British variations is open to speculation. Curiously, as with the Rhythm & Sound (susurration steppas) versions, time has been kind to what once might have seemed arid digital (but oddly often warmly analogue) processing. The dub/roots output which once was overshadowed by more dramatic activity in other arenas now demands attention and in-depth investigation. The pioneering productions of Jah Shaka and Mad Professor led, through the ‘90s, to the richly rewarding works of The Disciples, Alpha & Omega, Aba Shanti I, Dread & Fred, Dub Judah, Iration Steppas, Manasseh, Henry & Louis, Bush Chemists/Conscious Sounds, Rootsman, etc. and by broadening the scope slightly (Richard H. Kirk) Sandoz and Muslimgauze. What was once considered conservative, or mannered, for following a fairly strict code and being pretty sedate and undemonstrative, now seems radical for its sense of purpose, and has become immensely appealing through being such functional music: bass relief as meditational sounds or active background noise.
8. Rhythm & Sound – See Mi Yah The third series of Burial Mix releases was a set of 7” meditations using the same rhythm track over the course of seven discs, issued in 2005, featuring a variety of vocalists. A compact disc, See Mi Yah, brought together a selection of these cuts, making up a onerhythm collection, a standard reggae format. But as the Reggae Reviews site suggests: “It's more E2-E4 rather than a standard Greensleeves riddim album”. There was also a vinyl equivalent of the CD showcase, and a special set of 7x7”s for those irredeemably attached to that format. The featured vocalists include a couple of indisputable reggae greats, Sugar Minott and Willi Williams, who visited specially the Rhythm & Sound studios to record their contributions. Jah (Joseph) Cotton is another reggae elder who provided his DJ skills on one track. Generally, however, the voices belong to singers and DJs active in Berlin, including Paul St. Hilaire and his brother Ras Perez. In a funny kind of way the absence of a truly all-star cast provides less of a distraction. The themes and sentiments expressed are often regular Rasta notions. The familiarity of the lyrical content (no matter how heartfelt) means they can wash over the listener, suggesting some words of Geoff Dyer: “This is not just a linguistic quibble. Off-the-peg formulae free you from thinking for yourself about what is being said. Whenever words are bandied about automatically and easily, their meaning is in the process of leaking away or evaporating.” So when something unexpected pops up, like Sugar Minott referring to his television and radio, or Walda Gabriel singing about the soul-sapping grind of the working life on Boss Man it is riveting. Boss Man is a particularly compelling highlight of the set, along with Paul St Hilaire’s beautiful blues-dance Free For All. The See Mi Yah rhythm itself is a restrained affair, mid-paced, and almost perky at times. Each of the ten vocal cuts on the CD and the concluding See Mi Version feature minor variations on the theme, with subtle shifts in tempo and
tension, so that the whole fits together smoothly. Such is the brilliance of the Rhythm & Sound production team in sustaining a rolling movement that it would be a treat to hear purely the See Mi rhythm track over the course of an hour E2-E4 style. This effect could be achieved by playing See Mi Version on repeat, mentally stripping it down to a simple throb, pulse beat and occasional flicker. As it is, identifying the deviations beneath the vocals is great fun, and as on the previous Burial Mix series (and indeed a later Moritz von Oswald Trio work) it is the occasional subtle use of brass and woodwind from Jonas Schoen and the spidery guitar of Paul St. Hilaire that really startles and beguiles. See Mi Yah would be followed in 2006 by three remix 12”s, and the eleven remixes from these would then be collected on to one CD. Dub. Version. Remix. Is it just a case of syntax or are there specific points where one discipline ends and another begins? Discuss. So, these See Mi Yah remixes perhaps contain the secret of the universe, which is basically that when you set eleven parties the same task they will shoot off at all sorts of strange tangents and interpret things in very different ways, and then those results will be viewed in completely contrasting ways, and so it goes. The reviews, responses and comments about the See Mi Yah remixes prove this is the way things work. It’s to do with personal taste and leanings, at least until things get repeated too many times, and views become almost uniformly similar and stick as facts which are used to batter other people with. That becomes dangerous. Of the See Mi Yah remixes some are by heavy-hitters (e.g. François Kevorkian, Ricardo Villalobos) who take the sound off into the glare of the club lights. Of these the Carl Craig mix is of particular interest, partly because it complements perfectly another CC remodel of that time (Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom’s Relevee), and partly because it seems to bring the whole Basic Channel story back to its origins with Carl/Paperclip People’s Remake. Interestingly the remixes by those who might be considered to be part of the Basic Channel family are ideal for less blatant dancefloors. The Basic Reshape itself is hypnotic, with the sound stripped down to metronomic tom-toms, with occasional colouration such as some serpentine guitar. The Vainqueur mix
reduces Koki’s Rise and Praise to an unsettling invocation, while Substance’s reinvention of Sugar Minott’s Let Jah Love Come transforms it into a mesmerising, startling murmuration, which is perfect dub-drenched conscious lovers rock. The real highlight of the See Mi Yah remix selection is the Hallucinator remodel of the title track, featuring Willi Williams on vocals. It has a truly spiritual, cosmic (as in ‘not of this world’ feel) gravity-defying gravitas, and is in many ways the belated and truly beautiful end to the blues and roots adventure which is closely identified with the Bristol School (Massive Attack, Smith & Mighty, etc.). It is also a pointed reminder that not enough has been heard of Hallucinator, and this may indeed be the only track that has them working with vocals. Willi Williams, ironically and appropriately, at this time was the subject of a very late Blood and Fire reissue, when the label salvaged his 1980 LP Messenger Man. There are links around this time too between the Blood and Fire camp and the Rhythm & Sound partnership. Steve Barrow tells the story about how the Fisherman Style LP, based on The Congos’ rhythm, once the vocal sessions had been completed, was mixed and edited in the Rhythm & Sound studio in Berlin by Mark and Moritz. As Steve put it: “Respect is due to the Rhythm & Sound team of Mark Ernestus and Moritz van Oswald for their painstakingly brilliant technical achievement in turning the raw material as we received it from Jamaica into a seamless whole. Hundreds of studio hours were spent fine tuning and creating subtly different edits of the rhythm track to best complement the various performances. The finished results speak for themselves.”
9. Love Joys – Lovers Rock The Basic Channel organisation has been running a programme of reissues from the New York-based reggae label/umbrella organisation Wackies (or Wackie’s: there is an Honest Jons-style amibivalence about the apostrophe) since 2002. In that very singular Basic Channel way the programme has been beautifully executed, smartly sustained (e.g. 30plus CDs) but not over-done. The Wackies Sampler Vol. 1 featuring 18 tracks from the early part of the reissue series is a fantastic place to start for anyone interested in exploring the Wackies archive, and it perfectly illustrates why the Basic Channel team was so drawn to the Wackies sound. Wackies is a reggae institution run by Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’ Barnes in New York and the label’s productions, particularly those from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, have taken on a special, almost mystical significance among some reggae aficionados. Barnes had the distinct advantage of being closely connected to the Jamaican reggae community (so could enlist some heavyweight figures for his recordings, such as Horace Andy, Stranger Cole, Meditations, Sugar Minott) while being remote enough to develop his own sound and signature style and become effectively “the reggae Motown in the Bronx”. There is a useful overview of Wackies’ history in the Dec/Jan 2007 edition of Wax Poetics, put together by Carter Van Pelt, who also wrote the liner notes for the Blood and Fire/Willi Williams set. This Wax Poetics article touches on the technical aspects of the trademark Wackies sound, the use of equalizer, reverb and effects etc., but as Barnes says: “It’s gotta be a concept in your head”. In that 1998 Kodwo Eshun feature on Chain Reaction, Thorsten Pröfrock says, "Dub was a kind of resonance to my soul because everything I like within Techno music, all these effects, these dub people had it. You see a line between dub and Basic Channel. If I listen to Wackie's sound, Wayne Jarrett, Horace Andy [or] these mid-70s recordings by Lee Perry or King Tubby or Prince Far I, it's unbelievable." More recently Rene Löwe (Vainqueur) has said: “The dub influence came pretty late, in the middle of the 90s, like 1996-97. Mark
had these Saturdays after the store closed where he presented the reggae he had found in New York in a basement somewhere. It was a bit similar to when he went first to Detroit and Chicago and came back with a lot of big boxes of classic 12”s and other stuff he found somewhere, also in a basement! That was my introduction to reggae. I realized that these sounds, or at least the way the sounds were treated, had a lot in common with how I use sounds.” The Vainqueur quote is enlightening, and fits in with a story Moritz von Oswald has told about how he and Mark would go to New York to seek out old reggae singles, and as they had become particularly interested in the Wackies sound they tracked down Bullwackie. In a practical sense the Basic Channel/Wackies link seems to have come through being offered the opportunity to put out a lost Chosen Brothers/Bullwackies All Stars 1979 extended recording/version of Mango Walk (in the spirit of the In Crowd recording of the song). This came with a radical Rhythm & Sound reverberant reinvention of the track (Mango Drive) on one of the earliest rhythm & sound 12”s in 1998. The first in the Basic Channel/Wackies salvage series would appear in 2001. There may be very practical reasons why the first of the reissues was Love Joys’ Lovers Rock from 1982, but it seems the right choice in every respect to start the programme. Love Joys were cousins Sonia Abel and Claudette Brown, two singers who originally came from Brixton but who relocated to New York and became involved with the Wackies set-up. In a curious way their story has echoes of the way 20 years later the vocal duo Floetry left south London for the States and made the incredible R&B/soul LP Floetic. Lovers Rock was not the first LP Love Joys made for Wackies, but it is the one that is the most remarkable. The Lovers Rock showcase by Love Joys features extended versions of the compositions which stretch out cat-like to seven-minutes plus. The playing is exemplary and inventive, the production visionary, but the cousins’ performance is what demands the attention. There are those who (rightly) argue that the female-voiced lovers rock style developed in the UK by Dennis Bovell and others is one of the highest forms of art known to mankind. And the
Love Joys recordings were of this world but far removed from it, which worked to their advantage and it is that distance which makes the Lovers Rock showcase so unique, so strangely compelling. In the lovers rock field and in reggae generally there is a wonderful tradition of great vocal trios but duos (of the same sex) are rare. The one precedent to Love Joys which does stand out is the Jamaican duo of Althea and Donna who are still loved the whole world over for the ravishing revolutionary pop hit Uptown Top Ranking. The wonderful and woefully under-celebrated follow-up (could be cash-in) LP for Virgin’s Front Line label is the one full-length set the duo made, but it is this which seems to set the template for the Love Joys’ Lovers Rock with its mixture of personal and political themes, roots and relationships, that was actually a Wackies hallmark. The Love Joys’ conscious lovers approach, from the feminine perspective, would become a feature of the Mad Professor’s Ariwa output. Actually Ariwa is the one label it is easy to imagine the Love Joys recording for if they had stayed in London. It would be 20-odd years later that Claudette Love Joy would sing Best Friend, a (torch) song of betrayal, for a Rhythm & Sound production on Burial Mix. She sounds strangely like a mistier bassy Horace Andy. And that rich deepness to the Love Joys’ singing was one of the really appealing aspects: a contrast to the quiver and fragility of many of the UK lovers rock singers. Best Friend apart from being a wonderful vocal performance demonstrates the genius of the Rhythm & Sound approach. They resist the temptation to add in anything unnecessary, which can also be phrased as knowing what to leave out. Similarly they avoid trying to sound too (historically) authentic when creating a work so rich in romance. Instead there is the distinctive Basic Channel/Rhythm & Sound throb in the production, burbling away beneath the staccato reggae detail, behind the chilling tale recounted in such weary, resigned tones.
10. Natures Dub There are striking reasons to applaud the Basic Channel organisation for the way it went about its sustained Wackies reissue programme. One is the presentation: the CDs come in very smart digipak editions, retaining the original Wackies artwork, and resisting any obligation to add ‘explanatory’ sleevenotes. The original Wackies artwork is in several cases quite remarkable. It cannot be coincidence that the first two Wackies reissues (Love Joys’ Lovers Rock and Junior Delahaye’s Showcase have stunningly stark monochrome covers, featuring commanding portrait shots with simple dry transfer lettering and the label logo superimposed. These two covers make vivid statements about the label’s unorthodox approach. Other Wackies covers are almost childlike in their simplicity and all the more charming for it. And then there is the sound quality of the Wackies reissues. Presumably these were mastered at the Dubplates & Mastering vinyl cutting studio in Berlin, by Moritz. His sound mastering services were in demand, and he would have a long running relationship with the Honest Jons label, for example. The Blood and Fire label had been so important in raising expectations about how reggae reissues should be presented, and in all cases the Wackies/Basic Channel sets sounded superb. This should not be taken for granted: other (earlier) Wackies reissues had been in circulation (e.g. Horace Andy’s Dance Hall Style) with noticeably inferior quality sound and artwork reproduction. But no matter how sharp the sound mastering the compact disc or vinyl can only capture what’s there (or not), and the Wackies productions were pretty special. The performances that these productions were drawn from must have been pretty exceptional too. The Natures Dub set, which Basic Channel salvaged in 2002 but which first appeared on Wackies in 1980(ish), is a wonderful example of Lloyd Barnes’ work at its very best. It features the playing of the Bullwackies All Stars and New Breed (aka Reckless Breed), and this could well cover the key personnel that performed on the great Wackies sessions in the Bronx., such as Fabian Cooke, Jah T. (Tony Allen), Owen Stewart, Jerry Harris, Scotty and Roy, plus the technical team like Noel (Junior)
Delahaye, Clive Hunt, and (Prince) Douglas Levy. In this and indeed other ways Wackies mirrors what would go on with On-U and Ariwa Sounds and their respective trusted pools of players. “How do you like your reggae?” may be a pointless question. It’s rather like asking how someone likes their tea, wine, salad or steak. The answer may be: “Not at all”. But Natures Dub has become a favourite of many connoisseurs who consider it a remarkable example of what could be achieved in terms of dub productions. Around the time the LP (and it’s a very compact disc: barely making it to 30 minutes) was made there were very many dub sets. Natures Dub does not have any mysterious added features missing from other records of the time, and it almost certainly was not made in an environment more technically blessed than other studios. But the ingredients were put together in a way that seems singular and the record rewards repeated investigation in a way that makes other dub sets seem shallow. There is a crispness to the sound on Natures Dub that does actually make the title seem apt: the crispness of an autumnal morning when the sun is out, the temperature has dropped, and there is no-one and nothing else around. The outstanding track Kicking Scott best illustrates this. Its use of space is striking. The drums, resonating tom-toms which sound like the echoing tattoo of slowmotion jazz dancing footsteps, are right upfront in the mix, alongside the guitar (Jerry Harris, hazarding a guess) which does not quite reach the metallic sheen of Levene but does nevertheless suggest John Kpiaye’s lovers rock take on Albatross, which seems to bring it back to PiL, and John K. had been behind The Cats’ early UK reggae reinvention of the theme from Swan Lake which brings things round again to PiL and Death Disco, and round and round the ideas go. It’s tempting to extemporise in this way, it’s fun to analyse and eulogise, to tease out connections, but in the art of dub indubitably there is a surfeit of pleasantly functional recordings so the consistently unorthodox approaches really do seem all the more extraordinary. Consistency is the pivotal word: the one-offs and the exceptions are at the heart of art but to be able to sustain invention and uniqueness is an art form in itself. What factors foster that
consistency? A certain stubbornness, a degree of detachment, a conducive context, a little bit of luck? It all helps. Itâ€™s all part of it. But the ideas have got to be there in the first place, and the vision needs to be reinvented regularly. When looking for a specific clue to how the Basic Channel organisation was able successfully to refresh its activities over a prolonged period of time the Rhythm & Sound reimagining of Bullwackiesâ€™ Mango Walk is an invaluable aid. By subtly changing the title to Mango Drive the emphasis shifts considerably. Not too much of the original track remains, except the spirit of the original version. And the substitution of that word Drive fits in a peculiar way. For this Drive is taken at a stately, purposeful pace, with a purring contentment induced by the rolling motion, though the unsettling synth stabs keep the attention fixed. And this is one of the BC/R&S hallmarks: the way the softly skanking underfelting is overlaid with rhythmic clicks which form a pattern which is then embroidered by those staccato guitar and echo effects which in turn settle into an irregular motif of their own, and these rhythms and sounds all revolve like clockwork cogs, creating a strange symphony which somehow does retain a link to the Bullwackies New York vision, not just musically but in terms of adventure and romance which is the part that all the duplicators miss.
With special thanks to Per-Christian Hille for the cover designs, in the spirit of Basic Channel.