Science Fiction & Dancehall Dissonance: Trevor Jackson Talks


Launched in 1981, Adrian Sherwood forged his defining On-U Sound label from the collision of the worlds of reggae and punk. Combining spacey dub techniques with visceral experimentation and political commentary, it was the label’s eminence in pre-acid house times that caught the ears of a young Trevor Jackson. With Jackson becoming a graphic designer, DJ and producer himself, under names such as Underdog and Playgroup, as well as a label owner running the now defunct Output Recordings, On-U Sound proved a pivotal influence.

Trevor Jackson Present: Science Fiction Dancehall Classics (released October 2nd) is Jackson’s pick from the label vaults. Combining personal favourites from staple acts such as Tackhead, African Head Charge and Dub Syndicate, with never before released gems, including ‘Dead Come Alive’ by Neneh Cherry & The Circuit, a track that could have been released by DFA last week, it’s a selection that burns with an intense energy and singular sense of purpose. Reaching from industrial hip-hop to dissonant PIL-like post-punk, it also highlights the incredible diversity of the On-U Sound legacy and Jackson’s ear for the dancefloor’s most outlandish moment.

We met Jackson in a North London pub to find out more about the project, as well as his own plans to put out (a lot) more music following the release of his recent F O R M A T album…

It’s interesting that Adrian picked you to curate the label’s back catalogue. How long have you known him personally and why didn’t he do it himself?

I don't really know Adrian, if I'm honest with you. I've been a fan of his since I was a teenager. I've always avoided meeting anyone I'm a fan of, because there's always disappointment. Then, before I did my NTS show, I did a show on Strongroom Alive, at Strongroom Studios on Curtain Road. I got him on the show and did a two hour chat with him, a retrospective, that's the first time I properly met him. It was probably three years ago. Then it was one of the guys at Warp, who've picked up On-U-Sound now, that suggested I do it.

I don't think if Adrian had done this that he would have picked the same tracks. He was quite surprised at some of the tracks I picked. I realised that when I did the radio show with him, a lot of the music that I liked that he did, he wasn't really into. My interpretation is that after his friend Prince Far I was killed, was murdered, he was on a real downer. He was in a bad place and just did lots of fucking crazy music. He worked non-stop. I don't know the facts. When I spoke to him he was like, you really like this? I was like, I fucking love this track, are you kidding me? I'd be lying to say I grew up on reggae and dub, I didn't, I grew up listening to electronic music and hip-hop. So my approach was very different to the way that he would have done it. 

Can you tell us about your credentials for this task? What does On-U Sound mean to your own sonic evolution?

Someone asked me whether nostalgia is a good thing and I think it is. I don't mind nostalgia, history is super important. You've got to know the past to move forward. You can't deny that his productions and that label were hugely important to so much music that's around now. It's inspired so many people. My approach in doing the compilation was partly to really introduce new people to the music, so there'd be a lot of young people that had never heard of the label and younger people now have really open minds. So it was important for me to pick the tracks that were a bit more weird and a bit more abstract, and at the same time put a few more classics on there so it wasn't so inaccessible. I could have filled it with completely extreme music. Some of it is even madder. I mean, the Mark Stewart track is pretty extreme, but there's more stuff on the label I could have picked. So to make it accessible, but at the same time to satisfy the fans and put some unreleased music on there that no on had heard before. So that was my remit. And also make sure Adrian and myself were happy too.

My introduction was through hip-hop really. In the mid-80s the first track I would have heard was Fats Comet 'Deejay's Dream'. That version on the album is more musical, there's another Fats Comet version that came out on World Records, which I think I heard Tim Westwood or someone play. So I got into that, then I got into Tackhead. So I got into On-U-Sound around '85. The label had been going since 81. I went to the Mark Stewart and The Maffia gigs, Tackhead, and it wasn't until later that I got into Dub Syndicate and some of the weirder stuff like Missing Brazilians. DJ Cheese was doing the scratching on that Fats Comet record, and he was the DMC champion. He was involved in loads of hip-hop records at the time.

It must have been a pretty mammoth task compiling from such a large body of work. 

It wasn't mammoth at all, it was fun. Originally I wanted to do something that was more of Adrian's stuff and wasn't just On-U Sound, there was the Depeche Mode remix he did, The Ministry track that I put on Metal Dance, there are loads of things he did I love that weren't on On-U Sound. Adrian Sherwood at the Controls was the first On-U-Sound compilation which came out this year and that had Shriekback on it, 'Mistah Linn He Dead', which is one my favourite remixes he ever did. But then that didn't quite work out. Depeche Mode, for some stupid reason, won't let him licence that track at all, which is crazy as 90% of it is his music and he probably did it for free anyway.

It was a pleasure, I had the honour of going through old tapes. Adrian did loads of different mixes of tracks. I got to the chance to hear versions that no one has ever heard before. It's hard, because there are maybe five or six Dub Syndicate tracks I love, probably eight African Head Charge ones. So I picked all my favourite bands, then I had to pick my one or two favourites from that band. I love compilations, it's a lot of fun to me. It would be pressure if I couldn't find enough things but I could do three volumes easy.

Do you think you will do some more?

That hasn't be discussed. I think the thing is, because now On-U are reissuing the back catalogue, this is like an introduction to people that don't know it. The Missing Brazilians album has just been reissued, that was really hard to get. Maybe there's not the need for a second volume, people can now digitally buy pretty much every On-U album that exists. 

The label’s motto was ‘Disturbing the Comfortable, Comforting the Disturbed’. What was the comfort On-U Sound was kicking against? It wasn't just musical, right?

At that time, you've got to remember, you had Reagan, you had Thatcher. I was young then, I was a middle class teenager but I could still see the fucked up things that were going on. I was too young for punk and too young for Crass and bands like that. On-U had that punk mentality. Punk and reggae together is such a fascinating kind of mix, be that with Public Image 'Metal Box' or Don Letts. That whole period of time has really fascinated me. It's fascinated me even more when I started discovered more about it later. I was maybe a little bit too young to understand that stuff. It had an ethos and it was a really revolutionary label. 

I was as attracted to the artwork as I was the music, the early Tackhead with Gary Clair, the Mark Stewart covers. There's an amazing Tackhead one with The Statue of Liberty and Thatcher in a satanic star. They're all black and white, really harsh and very, very high contrast, kind of collage stuff. It was a big inspiration to me when I first started doing graphic design. They were all done by Kishi [Yamamoto], who was Adrian's partner, who also played on most of my favourite On-U Sound records. She was a very important part of the label, especially that period I focussed on.

There’s a Playgroup track on there. Was that the inspiration for your own Playgroup moniker?

No, it wasn't taken directly. When I came up with the name for Playgroup, I didn't have every On-U Sound release. I had maybe a 12" or maybe an album [from them]. When we came up with the name it wasn't relevant to that, we just had to ask Adrian's permission, so apparently my manager asked Adrian. There were about three Playgroups, there's one on Factory Records that is unrelated as well. It's just pure coincidence.

The term dancehall in the title feels a bit misleading. Do you think On-U Sound’s initial reputation as a dub/reggae label has stopped it getting credit for the brilliantly weird and warped sound it developed?

Like I said, I got into it through hip-hop. I was religiously going to the Camden Palace with Colin Faver DJing, Evil Eddie Richards, and going to all these clubs in London. A lot of Adrian’s remixes were getting played. Einstürzende Neubauten's 'Yü-Gung', that's a fucking amazing remix, he did the Depeche Mode one for 'People Are People' and 'Master And Servant', which was called the 'Science Fiction Dancehall Classic'. It was a term he used for remixing. That's where he took the title from.

But as you said, Adrian is mainly known for his reggae. The first release was a 7" of New Age Steppers, a cover of 'Fade Away', but then New Age Steppers as a band was a kind of a weird mix of punk and reggae. A lot of people have the misunderstanding that On-U was just a reggae label. A lot of it was reggae based and based in dub techniques. But for me that wasn't the stuff I was most interested in.

I was going to ask where it was played but you've already mentioned some of the places.

It was played all over. When I was younger, I just went to loads of weird warehouse parties of people like Mutoid Waste Company. They did these really incredible parties where they built these mad robotic machines out of cars and machinery, it was almost like Mad Max. They threw these crazy parties and it was like walking into ‘Beyond Thunderdome’. You had crazy guys with Mohicans wearing American football outfits. It was fucked up. But then you had people playing go-go, people playing hip-hop. I think I heard Norman Jay, Jazzy B, Coldcut. Coldcut would play On-U Sound. It was a really fascinating time. I remember hearing a lot of the more up-tempo stuff, certainly.

Talking about the warehouse scene, there's always been such a big concentration in the press on acid house. Having done the 'Metal Box' compilations, and an interview with Boiler Room, do you feel you're a go to person for some of club culture's less celebrated sides?

I suppose for me, even when I first started doing Playgroup – even though they were big bands, Soft Cell, Human League, Blancmange, bands like that, were laughed at. If you listened to bands like that in the '90s, people just thought you were a cunt. I was always like, ‘Memorabilia’, that was the first techno record. Records like that were so important to me and yet they weren't revered at all. Part of the reason I made the Playgroup record was to reinvigorate an interest in that stuff. I do kind of have a duty to make people aware of some of the forgotten heroes of the roots of club culture. I was part of acid house, but there was a really interesting time between the more traditional clubs and the acid house scene. There were so many clubs I went to, illegal parties – a lot of them were rare groove things but there was a mix of stuff. That's a fascinating time, which hasn't been fully documented. I think Test Pressing do quite a few things about it, but on a general level I think a lot of it has been forgotten about.

I know Terry Farley has just written a big piece on how clubs used to be about the dancers, rather than the DJs, another time before acid house that's not previously been acknowledged.

I think what interests me, you had all these different things going on. You had Giles and Pete Tong and Nicky Holloway almost coming from the soul/funk scene, then you had Westwood doing his hip-hop thing, but when it clashed, that's when it really excited me. When I'd go to the Camden Palace and hear Colin Faver playing Africa Bambaataa 'Renegades of Funk' next to New Order 'Blue Monday' next to a go-go track. That to me was when it was interesting. 

That's what has changed now. You go to a club and I don't think clubs are anywhere near diverse enough. I think the biggest change is that clubs aren't in Central London anymore. So what happens is, clubs used to be in the West End. When you went to a club in the West End, you'd have people coming from North, South, East and West to Central. Now, because most of the clubs are in East London, it's a lot of East London people, you know. I think that's a huge part of the problem. 

I'm not going to moan, there's certainly thriving interesting things, but apart from NTS – I DJ on NTS and go to their parties, it's young people, it's old people, it's equally as black as it is white – I don't go to enough clubs now, but they're mainly white. It never used to be like that. That's not a good thing for London really. Diversity is hugely important in every aspect. On-U Sound truly represents UK diversity in its music and also its whole ethos. The fact you have guys from Jamaica, guys from London, a woman from Japan, Doug Wimbish.

Basically the On-U Sound rhythm section, Tackhead and Mark Stewart and The Maffia, the band, Keith LaBlanc, drummer, Doug Wimbish, bass player, and Skip McDonald, guitarist, they played all the music for The Sugarhill Gang, and all the Sugarhill records. So a lot of those early live hip-hop records, that was a band, they were playing. If anything, On-U Sound brought all these things together for me. If you look at the roll call of people who played on these records, you've got people like The Slits mixed with Steve Beresford, tons of Avant-Garde music mixed with reggae, I just think it's fascinating. That period is just hugely exciting, it was genuinely a highly innovative time. Those tracks, I think they all sound timeless. 

I read elsewhere there might be a live element to this project.

Maybe, we're working on some ideas. I'm not 100 percent sure it's going to happen. We wanted to get some guests involved, but it’s more complicated that I thought it was going to be. I would like to try and do something that is slightly more unconventional. I don't want to do it in a normal venue. I DJ a lot less now. Musically I'm satisfied. I certainly didn't used to do it for the money, I used to play just to be able to get music I wanted out there. But at the moment there's so much great weird music and I think there's very few places you can actually play it, unless they're really small clubs. You can't play it on a larger scale. So I'm kind of satisfied by doing my radio show. 

I don't want to play at conventional clubs anymore. I've done some events recently, be it my F O R M A T installation, or when I did an event at the ICA for NTS at the beginning of the year. I like to create environments. I want people to come to an environment. For me, beyond the music, the DJ, the crowd, the environment is the most important. I need to walk in somewhere and feel it's special and unconventional. That does go back, when you walked into the Mutoid Waste Company they'd build worlds. Not that I want to do something as crazy as that, but I like people to walk into something and feel they're having a completely different experience.

Can you tell us about what music you're working on now? After all, you’ve just had an album out.

That's the thing, for me it wasn't really an album, it was a sampler. I have like 12 albums worth of material. F O R M A T was literally taking one track off of each album. But I'm not going to release 12 albums, I'm probably going to release six albums worth. I've gone through it now and picked out the strongest ones. This is all old music. So, in the next six months, somehow, I' got to find some way of getting out all this old music. I'm going to find an interesting exciting way. The F O R M A T album, that project, happy as I was, was kind of inaccessible to some people. So I don't want people to pigeonhole me as the guy who puts out records in a weird way. I'm not sure how I'm going to do it. But it'll then free me up to make brand new music. I haven't actually started a new track in such a long time. 

It's like having a huge weight on my shoulders, this whole back catalogue of stuff that I never put out. At the time, I didn't think it was very good. And I listen to it now and think I'm a fucking idiot, I should have put it out ten years ago. There were many reasons, I was busy doing the label [Output], I just didn't feel like I really wanted to put anything out. But now I feel I need to get it out there somehow. I did a special Akabu On-U Sound re-edit, I've done a 12" for Vinyl Factory from a one-day recording I did at the Barbican as part of this Station to Station event. Quite a lot of bits and bobs are coming soon. It's going to be a prolific time for me. I'm happy with the music, it's really, really strong. 

Trevor Jackson Present: Science Fiction Dancehall Classics is out on 2nd October via On-U Sound.