Behind each of the iconic British indie record labels is an iconic founder/figurehead. Rough Trade has Geoff Travis, Mute has Daniel Miller, Factory has Tony Wilson, and so on. For On-U Sound, that person is Adrian Sherwood. Much more than a label, On-U sound was a loose collective of musicians who reflected and enhanced Sherwood’s artistic vision. It was where punk, reggae, dub, hip hop, rock, Afrobeat, and electronic music were synthesized and bastardized in equal measure, with Sherwood the overseer of a rich yet murky sonic cauldron.
Save a fluke hit single here or there, the label never experienced the commercial success of many of its contemporaries. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find an imprint whose sound was more groundbreaking or unique, or that has had a greater influence on multiple genres of music.
On-U Sound is still going strong, but its golden age was arguably the first half of the 1980s, the period covered by Science Fiction Dancehall Classics. The label has been much-anthologized over the years, but never so thoroughly and yet succinctly. To listen to these 27 tracks is, quite literally, to hear history being made.
Sherwood and his ever-fluctuating lineup of cohorts recorded under many different names, including the African Head Charge, Dub Syndicate, and Missing Brazilians, all of which are represented here. Especially in America, though, Sherwood and On-U Sound are known primarily for two mid-’80s Anglo-American hookups. Sherwood joined forces with the former Sugarhill Records backing band of guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Keith LeBlanc, who played the music on early hip hop classics such as “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message”. Together they formed the nucleus of On-U Sound from that point on, recording primarily under the Tackhead banner. Shortly thereafter, Sherwood was approached about collaborating with Al Jourgensen on the second Ministry album. Sherwood and Tackhead ended up producing sessions for what became Ministry’s Twitch. These events, along with his mindbending remixes for Depeche Mode and others, introduced On-U Sound to a generation of Doc Martens-sporting alternative types.
That fertile, high-visibility period makes up a good part of Science Fiction Dancehall Classics. The brilliance of the Sherwood/Tackhead axis is in producing music that sounds impossibly funky yet almost mathematically taut at the same time. The piledriver drum beats, heavily panned bursts of noise and industrial clanging, and snippets of found sound effects and voices are all in full form on quintessential tracks like “Now What?” and “Move”, the latter released under LeBlanc’s name. Fats Comet, another Tackhead alias, add turntable scratching, chunky slap-bass, and shimmering soul keyboards to “DJ Programme”. No track embodies the classic Sherwood/Tackhead sound more than Fats Comet’s “Dub Storm”, an aptly-titled salvo consisting of LeBlanc’s drum machine-exploding-on-a-trampoline rhythm; McDonald’s multi-tracked, Robert Fripp-inspired guitar; a groovy Wimbish interjection, doo-wop samples, and what sounds like several earthquakes.
As fun and seminal as this circa-’85 material is, the stuff from On-U Sound’s early-’80s formative period is, if anything, even more fascinating. Here, one will find the relatively minimalistic, slightly unnerving dub-punk of New Age Steppers’ “Animal Space”, with the Slits’ Ari Up on vocals and, most likely, a schizophrenic chimpanzee having a nervous breakdown. Those looking for something a little more left-of-center are pointed toward ex-The Pop Group singer Mark Stewart’s “The Wrong Name and The Wrong Number”, a cacophonous collage of sampled snippets, gunfire, scratching, and “intestinal parasites”.
Not so ironically for this label, it’s the relatively straightforward tracks that are the outliers. Atmosfear’s “When the Night is Over”, for example, is an effective bit of hi-NRG Eurodisco. Reggae great Bim Sherman and Sherwood’s Singers & Players project are both represented by deep, rattling dubs that reveal traditional, earthy reggae underneath. African Head Charge’s “Latin Temperament” is an authentic, percussion-heavy African jam that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Fela Kuti album. But these, too, are part of Sherwood’s genius. On-U Sound was never weird or “challenging” just for the sake of it. There is always an artistic end to be served.
Sherwood’s steadfast commitment to his artistic vision coupled with his penchant for collaboration meant that On-U Sound served home or waypoint for all kinds of like-minded cult figures. Hence, in addition to Ari Up and Mark Stewart, appearances on Science Fiction Dancehall Classics by the likes of performance artists Annie Anxiety and Alan Pellay, a pre-“Buffalo Stance” Neneh Cherry, and a per-Massive Attack Shara Nelson.
A substantial number of previously-unreleased or new-to-cd tracks means that even ardent On-U Sound collectors will find Science Fiction Dancehall Classics worthwhile. For everyone else, Sherwood’s wonderful cauldron awaits, still boiling over with creativity.