Label of Love: ON-U Sound
Written by Grace George on 14th September 2019
Brought to you by record collector and DJ Grace George, Label of Love is a new series that tells short histories of music labels & their legacies. The first edition on Melodic Distraction sees Grace explore the dub legacy of UK producer Adrian Sherwood & the On-U Sound label.
Officially launched in 1981, On-U was born out of the UK DIY scene of the late 70’s and sits at “a junction point between the heavy influence of Jamaican music on UK culture and the development of disparate sounds such as post-punk, hip-hop, industrial, jungle, dubstep and beyond.”
Having released over 100 LPs & singles, the label continues to operate today, releasing reggae founding father & Upsetter Records head, Lee Scratch Perry’s album “Rainford” in May 2019, Sherwood’s own personal productions, & experimental dub act African Head Charge LPs as recently as 2016 (their first LP was released on On-U Sound in 1981). Notably, On-U released their full back catalogue to download in 2015, with over 70 LPs & previously unreleased material available now digitally, a sign of the labels continuous progressive nature. Despite what the diggers of yesterday would say; the digital format is a more accessible platform when vinyl playing & some pricing doesn’t make it available to most.
Sherwood started his life-long love affair with Jamaican music after hearing ska & rock steady aged 11 at a friend’s parent’s party. He started DJing as a teenager & promoting parties in Northern Soul territory at the Wigan Casino. Moving to London, he cut his teeth working for Pama Records, a label ran by two Jamaican brothers based in North London leading him to launch his own label Carib Gems in ’76. After building a relationship & friendship with Prince Far I (founder of Cry Tuff label) & his clan, Sherwood launched the Hitrun label in 1978 releasing music by Prince Far-I and some of his own early production work too, but hit financial difficulty with his indie labels. However, Sherwood did not cease to destroy us on the controls, and after meeting his then partner Kishiko Yamamoto, the On-U Sound legacy began in ’81.
The sound & vision of On-U & Sherwood’s cosmic dub sound was enhanced by the cut & paste aesthetic of designer, photographer, musician & label co-founder Kishiko Yamamoto. Born in Japan & now based in London, Yamamoto’s collages & photographs formed the iconic On-U sleeves till the early 90’s when she left the label. Kishi also played keys for early On-U groups Dub Syndicate, African Head Charge, Barmy Army + more…
The label was a child of the DIY scene: the sound & look was rough & ready, whilst also reflecting the beauty of a multi-cultural Britain, more important than ever in our current political turmoil. Sherwood’s production skills have led him to work with a vast amount of musical excellence including musicians Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode & Sinead O’Connor over the years, but perhaps it’s his long-standing (& on-going) contribution to the UK DIY dub & reggae scene that leaves him in greatest stead.
Out of the vast catalogue, these three tracks reverberate strong in our minds:
Distortion, police sirens, heavy dub, screaming Stewart, Sherwood on the controls, what’s not to get down with? Mis-titled on Youtube, the On-U group New Age Steppers (which Stewart was part of + a young Neneh Cherry) also have a track of the same name from 1980.
Tackhead were a changing point in On-U development towards a heavier rock & industrial sound in the mid 80’s, after the brutal and untimely murder of Prince Far I in Jamaica. Guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish & drummer Keith LeBlanc were Sugar Hill Records house band, playing the rhythm section for Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” & Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” etc. After the demise of Sugar Hill Records & the money wrangling of owner Sylvia Robinson, Sherwood met with LeBlanc, Wimbish & McDonald forming Tackhead (slang for “homeboy” in New Jersey), coagulating into a “Hip-Mutant-Funk-Metal-Dub-Hop” group, often playing as the band for On-U shouters Gary Clail & Mark Stewart.
In On-U’s words, Singers & Players were “a colourful collective of rastas, rebels and punk rockers… a dub super-group.” Prince Far-I speaks to us on this track as if he is running through the thoughts in his mind; of a many-roomed mansion, of King Solomon’s mines, the King of Babylon, of those running through the fire who never get burnt. The reverb hits your core & the syncopation sets you spinning; Sherwood dub production at its most sublime.