Gone To A Rave: The dub-informed sound of Rockers Hi-Fi
Formed by Glyn ‘Bigga’ Bush and Richard ‘DJ Dick’ Whittingham in 1991, Rockers Hi-Fi occupied a unique position within the world of British dance music.
The Birmingham duo’s early output, inspired by King Tubby, Scientist, On-U Sound Records and the like, saw them apply a dub aesthetic to house music in a way that set them apart from both their UK club scene contemporaries and the dark, minimalist dub techno sound that was emerging out of Berlin around the same time. Far from a one-trick pony, the sample-heavy Rockers sound evolved from these early house stylings, taking in everything from techno and jungle to ambient and trip-hop across eight years and a handful of albums.
Their formation was the result of a chance encounter. Dick, a carpenter by trade, was doing some work at Glyn’s place when they got talking. It turned out both were keen to try their hand at electronic music production and Glyn’s living room was swiftly turned into a makeshift studio.
Initially calling themselves Original Rockers as a salute to dub pioneer Augustus Pablo – they later changed to Rockers Hi-Fi at Pablo’s request – a string of favourable reviews saw them land a deal with Island Records. However their broad sonic palette was difficult to categorise, and when it became apparent that they weren’t the Tricky-esque trip-hoppers that Island first thought, they were dropped before being given the chance to get things properly off the ground.
Always enjoying more success on the continent than in the UK, they then signed to Downbeat, a German imprint that oversaw the latter years of the project. While admitting to not being part of any real scene, at least not at local level, Rockers Hi-Fi are a shining example of dub’s far-reaching impact on British music. An impact that can still be felt today.
Ahead of a forthcoming Rockers Hi-Fi reissue EP on Seven Hills Records, we caught up with the oft-overlooked duo to find out more.
How’s it going guys?
Dick: Alright Glyn?
Glyn: Yeah I’m alright. We haven’t seen each other for about 20 years.
So this Zoom call has a bit of a reunion vibe to it?
D: Haha yeah. Rockers reunion!
To start off can you describe your musical background and how it led to you forming Rockers Hi-Fi.
D: Well I came through DJing. I started out clubbing at a very early age, probably an illegal age, at a punk club called Barbarella’s. I became fascinated by the DJ and ended up getting hooked on reggae. That was my reggae connection. Then I got a paid DJ job at The Rum Runner, which is the club that Duran Duran emerged from, and I got into promoting clubs and running clubs. I was also a carpenter – I still am – and Glyn, who I knew of as we were both on the scene at the same time, asked me to come round to his house and do some work and we got chatting didn’t we? We were just getting into the electronic side of music-making and you showed a keen interest and said ‘look, why don’t we have a dabble? I’ll bring some records round’ and hey presto.
G: I was playing in bands from the mid-70s, mostly doing quite proggy stuff, then I moved to Birmingham in ‘78, just at the tail-end of punk, and I was inspired to form a sort of post-punk-new-wave band and got involved in the scene up there with people like Rob Lloyd. I ended up playing in various bands throughout the 80s, playing everything from funk to commercial soul stuff to weird avant-garde stuff and by 1989 I was getting interested in MIDI. A friend of mine had a sampling keyboard which was quite a deluxe bit of gear in those days. I started messing around with that and that’s when I met Dick and we started getting stuff together. I remember you had an Atari computer and I’d just been using a shitty drum machine that you couldn’t do all that much with. But that’s how we got started.
Was Birmingham a fertile musical breeding ground back then?
D: I can’t remember many people doing electronic music in Birmingham at that time. You had your UB40s and people like that, quite a lot of reggae influence and then there were rock bands, Steve Gibbons Band and stuff like that. It didn’t feel like we were part of a scene really did it? Not in Birmingham anyway.
Your debut single ‘Breathless’ was named after Dick’s club night. Were you trying to emulate the vibe of that club night?
D: I think so yeah. There were plenty samples ripped from American house imports, I think one of the big ones was from a Canadian label called Big Shot. ‘Breathless’ was basically just two different loops nicked from other songs. You’ve gotta start somewhere!
G: We hadn’t really found our sound at that point.
And after ‘Breathless’ came ‘Push Push’. What kind of reception did that get at the time?
D: It went ballistic! It was just unbelievable.
Looking back would you describe it as your best-known track?
G: I’d say it’s our best known track would you?
D: Yeah but maybe not our most successful track. When we get PRS statements things jump around a bit. ‘Going Under’ is a pretty popular one as is ‘What A Life’.
The dub influences are pretty clear in that one.
G: Yeah we started lifting drum fills and I remember the bassline to ‘Push Push’ was from a reggae track. Then you had this nice dirty synth sample off a house track that I can’t remember the name of. We put it across the keyboard and played this reggae bassline with it and it sounded pretty epic and the track grew out of that. Dub records are great for sampling, there are lots of clean bits which have just one instrument on their own.
Were other people doing that kind of thing with reggae and house?
D: Well some people have said that we started that kind of house-dub sound but there were people like Renegade Soundwave and On-U Sound who had a big influence on us. They were doing a similar cut-and-paste thing.
G: And a group who I recently rediscovered was Shut Up and Dance. I realised that we must’ve been sampling, or at least getting ideas, from there records, which were really nice and raw. Yeah in terms of fusing dub and dance music Shut Up and Dance definitely inspired us.
Did you ever go beyond simply sampling dub tracks and start applying dub mixing techniques to your music?
D: Well when we first started we were doing it in the front room of Glyn’s house. I’m not sure if we were doing it then but after a while we got some money off our record label and moved into our own little studio. Then space echoes came into it, lots of instruments, and we used to mix live didn’t we? We did everything live and onto tape.
G: Yeah, nowadays when you finish a track you just export it all but back then we were manually controlling the mixer and the fx, having a few rehearsals and then recording it all straight onto a DAT. I remember Brian from Groove Corporation saying that dub is essentially the template for house music in terms of how you have patterns emerging and then dropping out. House is quite stripped-back, there aren’t many musical elements in it so you’ve got to make the most of every element and make sure each has its place to shine within the track.
You of course changed your name at the request of Augustus Pablo. Is there an interesting story behind it or was it more a case of legalities?
G: It was basically down to him requesting more money than we had for us to use the name. So Dick came up with Rockers Hi-Fi.
D: Yeah he was asking for £10k to use the Original Rockers name. Island wouldn’t pay it.
How did you guys meet Farda P and how did he end up doing vocals?
G: Patrick was a security guy at Snobs where Dick had a residency and he often used to get behind the decks and start singing or chatting along to what was being played. We ended up inviting him to the studio when we were tweaking Rockers To Rockers for the Island release, replacing some of the samples and doing some vocal links. It went well and we asked him to do our first gig with us at the Glasgow School of Art. The rest is history.
D: Yeah when I played in Snobs I sometimes used to like getting out of the main room so I’d go and play reggae and dub in the chill-out room instead. As Glyn says, Patrick would jump on the mic.
You mentioned On-U Sound as having a big influence on the music you were making?
D: Yeah definitely. Our third single ‘Stoned’ with The Doors sample – I don’t like using the word rip-off – but that idea first appeared on an On-U Sound track and we basically adapted it to the Rockers sound. So a big influence. People like Overton Brown, Scientist, Roots Radics as well.
I feel like ‘Stoned’ has been given a new lease of life of late, largely due to your daughter Lauren [who DJs as re:ni] playing it out Glyn?
G: She’s played it out but the person who really gave it a bump was Francesco Del Garda. He played it at a festival and all of a sudden it started selling on Bandcamp for large amounts. Eventually I just emailed one of the people who’d bought it and asked how he’d come across it and he told me about Del Garda. I think that’s partly why Seven Hills were interested in it.
Are there other contemporary artists who have let you know that they’ve been influenced by your sound?
G: There’s a guy Angus, who DJs and makes music as Minor Science, he did a remix for one of my other projects and he’s a big fan of the Rockers sound. The people of Lauren’s generation definitely seem to check the Rockers out.
D: Noiseshaper from Germany are another act from back in the day who were really influenced by Rockers.
The Bandcamp listing for the Seven Hills release describes Rockers as ‘dub techno pioneers’. Would you describe your music as dub techno? For me that’s a genre category more associated with Basic Channel and Hard Wax and that kind of scene.
G: The thing is we dabbled in so many styles. As you say, when I hear ‘dub techno’ I think of someone like Rhythm & Sound and the foremost exponents of proper deep, dark techno which they did brilliantly. Whereas we dabbled in that but we also did jungle and trip-hop and hip-hop and even some library music. I think we dabbled in dub techno…
D: Jack of all trades master of none! I think that just shows the kind of musical background we had and the fact that we grew up in Birmingham.
G: Yeah I remember Richard was always going down The Diskery which was just down the road from the studio. He’d come back with a pile of records that would include everything from spoken word to preacher stuff, film soundtracks, loads of weird stuff and we’d just sit there going through them, finding stuff to put in the sampler. That’s how we’d make our tracks. It wasn’t so much building up a library of samples, we’d be working on a specific thing and gathering the samples for that track, developing it and moving onto the next thing.
Would you describe Rockers as more of a cult act? In comparison to the more commercially successful British dance music of the time?
D: I think so yeah.
G: We weren’t so well-known in the UK were we? Much better known in mainland Europe.
D: Germany and France were probably the biggest and also California. We didn’t even do that many gigs in the UK.
Why do you think that was?
G: Well here’s an example: we got signed to Island Records for the first album and we did a few gigs in London, a few industry-type gigs which were pretty horrible, but it never really ignited in the UK and then they just dropped us after about a year. We always understood the reason to be that Island thought ‘we already have a trip-hop act’ which was Tricky and we were just bracketed as this second-best trip-hop act, while we felt that we had so much more to offer. Then we got picked up by a German label and it all started to happen in Europe for us.
Do you think you made the right decision signing to Island?
G: Yeah, if for no other reason than we can always say we were signed to Island – even though it was 4th & Broadway which was a bit of a crap offshoot of Island! It was great to be associated with that label.
Fast-forward to 2021, why did you decide that the time was right for a Rockers reissue?
G: Well it was more a case of the time was right for Seven Hills who reached out and told us they wanted to put some Rockers music on vinyl. If anybody had come up to us and said that we’d have said yes. It’s great that the music’s going to reach a new generation of people. I don’t think the stuff has dated. There’s a lot of early 90s dance music and not all of it still sounds great. But I think our stuff has stood the test of time.