Coldcut and On-U Sound’s ‘Outside the Echo Chamber’
A reggae guitar chop sounds, closely followed by a siren-like synth and an array of electronic squelches and subsonic hums. A reverberant drum fill introduces the vocalist, British-Jamaican rapper Roots Manuva, whose defiant words kick off Outside the Echo Chamber with a swagger:
Rolling on that 50K, we medicate, we drift away
So proud to pump this fist today, so fist to dat, so fist a pray
With a mystic twist we instigate, many may try to vindicate
But we partake in raising stakes and the makings of this greatness.
In “Vitals”, Roots Manuva is not talking about money or fame; he’s marking out his territory. The “50K” he mentions is a reference to the specific bass frequency that underpins reggae music and, consequently, all of the music on this reggae-inflected album. Outside the Echo Chamber revels in its dancehall, dub and various other reggae influences, melding them into a dazzling 55 minutes of modern groove. It took almost 10 years for Coldcut and On-U Sound to put together this particular greatness, but it’s been well worth the effort. Outside the Echo Chamber is one of the most impressive and enjoyable albums I’ve heard this year.
In December, “Everyday Another Sanction” was released as a limited edition 7” through Coldcut’s Ninja Tune website. It begins with a cheerful brass riff that sounds like something from a late-’60s Desmond Dekker rocksteady recording. The Jamaican patois of noted roots-reggae singer Chezidek reinforces that impression, but this is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip: Chezidek’s lyrics depict the daily struggle to survive in Jamaica’s harsh economy, with the disenfranchised being “sanctioned” off their social security benefits at the whim of bureaucracy.
Matt Black and Jonathan More, the duo who comprise Coldcut, had been accumulating tracks from recording sessions held across the globe, collaborating with different musicians and co-producers. Toddla T, Dave Taylor (aka Switch and With You) and Jeff Waye each contributed to different songs; however, it was only when On-U Sound linchpin Adrian Sherwood got involved that the project became focused and gained momentum. After they had chosen which tracks to include, the trio set about finishing the album. I interviewed Adrian Sherwood and Jonathan More recently, and they each described what happened next. “Once we started, we were working either with all three of us, or two of us then three of us,” Sherwood told me, “… It was like teamwork, really. I was building the rhythms up with them, overdubbing, you know, voicing, all sorts of stuff.”
The trio had recruited long-time On-U Sound associates Skip McDonald and Doug Wimbish on guitar and bass. Wimbish and McDonald used to be part of the house band at Sugar Hill, playing on such landmark recordings as “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Together, they deconstructed and reconstructed all the recordings. “On ‘Everyday Another Sanction’,” More told me, “Chezidek did the vocal in one take. It was in fact an a capella, and we went from there. With Skip and Doug, we replayed the bass line, worked out the structure, re-edited the vocals, and then put backing vocals on with Ghetto Priest … It’s a combination of live and direct, and sampling, and collage.” Despite all this post-production sleight of hand, the album sounds completely natural, as if it had been recorded completely live.
“Make Up Your Mind” sprang from a session in London with Toddla T. In Jamaica they added dancehall star Ce’Cile and she devised the vocal melody and lyrics. “Make Up Your Mind” was influenced by lovers rock, the sweet and smooth subgenre of reggae that became prominent in Britain in the mid-’70s. Ce’Cile’s beautiful melody sounds so classic that I was convinced the song was a cover of an old hit. How could a melody this simple, this great, not have been discovered before now? More had the same feeling. “It sounds like a lot of very classic reggae records,” he said, “but it is actually original.” Coldcut liked it so much they used it to reintroduce the Jamaican tradition of “version”, where different singers each come up with their own song over the same groove. At a session in LA they asked Elan Atias, the singer of The Wailers, to improvise a male “answer record” and both versions are on Outside the Echo Chamber using identical backing tracks. They’ve even included a dub mix, for good measure. Far from being a novelty, all three versions are indispensable.
By now you’re probably getting the idea that this collaboration between Coldcut and On-U Sound was a labour of love – and you’d be absolutely right. Every aspect of Outside the Echo Chamber is spot-on, including the selection of vocalists. When it comes to reggae, no one has more gravitas and credibility than Lee “Scratch” Perry. Sherwood has had a long association with “The Upsetter” but it was actually Black and More who got the dub legend to record his inimitable vocals in a hotel room in Brussels. “Divide and Rule” is peppered with Perry’s philosophical musings, yielding such gems as, “Love music and don’t die, hate music and cry, so love music and be happy forever”. Elan sings the main vocal melody, and Junior Reid “singjays” in between them all. Reid is a Coldcut veteran, having sung on one of their earliest hits, “Stop This Crazy Thing”, in the late ’80s. Coincidentally, Sherwood was one of the producers who remixed that song at the time. The symbolism of Reid’s presence on the new record was no accident. As More told me, “It was a kind of ‘complete the circle’. I mean, we did actually try to get Eric B. & Rakim to do something, too.”
“Kajra Mohobbat Wala” gave Matt Black the opportunity to indulge in his love of 1960s Bollywood soundtrack music. The song had been a huge hit in 1968, and when Black was in Mumbai a few years ago he recorded this new version with some Indian musicians and pop singer Hamsika Iyer. The song’s Hindi lyric describes a man’s infatuation with a beautiful girl and her heavily made-up eyes. Sherwood says they spent more time on “Kajra Mohobbat Wala” than any other song on the album. “There are so many little parts, and Matt wanted them all talking to each other,” Sherwood says, “so we went the extra mile on that one.” The result is simply magnificent.
As I listened to the bhangra-inspired “Kajra Mohobbat Wala” I noticed the rhythmic similarity to contemporary dancehall. More agreed. “That’s a traditional Indian rhythm,” he said, “but it’s also a traditional Jamaican dancehall rhythm.” Sherwood traced the beat’s Jamaican history for me, from the Pacomanian church to Rastafarian Nyabinghis, then on to its intermingling between the diaspora communities from Africa and the Asian subcontinent. I wish I had the room to include his scholarly explanation in full.
When More and Black hit on the idea of including Sherwood as a co-producer on their album, it was a masterstroke. Sherwood has lived and breathed reggae and dub music all his life and his production on the 1979 Suns of Arqa album when he was just 21 marked the first time Indian tablas had been incorporated into Western dance music. He is also one of the world’s greatest living exponents of dub mixing, and dub effects are a notable feature of the album, with one-third of the tracks being complete dub remixes of songs heard earlier in the track-listing. Rather than being an add-on, these dub versions are crucial to the listening experience and are album highlights.
Sherwood mixes completely analog, without the help of computer automation, though sometimes Black added an extra pair of hands where needed. Sherwood tweaks the tone pots and boosts effects sends and returns on the fly, giving the mixes an unrepeatable spontaneity, which is the main reason the music sounds so vibrant and alive. In recognition of his mixing genius, I’m going to let Sherwood describe his approach in his own words: “I’m doing little EQ sweeps. So if a hi-hat tt-tt-tt-tt-tt-tt-tteh” – Sherwood is imitating the sound of a hi-hat now – “I’ve got tt-ttch-ttchew-tt-ttchew, and I’m programming it into things like a Langevin – very rare, old EQs,” he explains.
“So I might be suddenly, as the mix is going, drastically sweeping things or sending all the effects into a Langevin, so the reverb will kkih-kkih-kkeww-kkih-kkih-kkeww, like this, warping the reverb return. And that, to me, makes the rhythm breathe.” As he describes his thought processes, he gets more excited, his words almost tumbling over themselves. “And then I’ll be EQ-sweeping, maybe, the bass – biyeww, biyewwp – to make it slightly heavier, and you’ve got that thing, and then position the tops, so you’ve got this kind of a bulbous picture bouncing around. That’s how I’m thinking about it.”
At one of their recording sessions in Jamaica, a young, barely known dancehall vocalist named Rholin X asked if he could “try something” over one of the grooves. The result is the extraordinary “Robbery”.
Fi snatch two h thousand uface in a pretty suitcase, it never too safe,
Gotta shoot straight whenever who chase, bullet wi’ leave up in a screw face.
Mi getaway driver pick up couple ’pon di double, why nuh true haste?
Reach di crew base, bloodstain ’pon mi shoes lace, money new race,
Do things wen suh amazing wid a new grace.
The Jamaican patois can be hard to decipher but his rapping flow is exceptional, and there’s no mistaking the emotional intensity of the story he is telling. It’s like a Tarantino movie set in Trench Town. The second version of “Robbery” on the album, a malevolent dub mix that is slightly reminiscent of “The Message”, makes a fitting conclusion to this compelling musical journey.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but Coldcut and On-U Sound have shown they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Yes, they are reggae purists, but they’re also musical innovators, and on Outside the Echo Chamber they have taken the music they love and updated it to a modern context. More than a revival, this is a renewal. As Sherwood told me, “Reggae started with ska, rocksteady, reggae, dancehall… it all evolves, you know? If it doesn’t evolve you stay in the area of nostalgia, and we don’t want to make a nostalgic record. We wanna try and push things forward, and that’s what I think we’ve done.”
LITERATURE Sydney Writers Festival
Venues throughout Sydney, May 22-28
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Three men in a dub". Subscribe here.