Dub Realigned: Inside Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound

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There is but a single label that’s played a key role in the evolution of reggae, post-punk, dance, industrial, and experimental music alike, and that’s On-U Sound. Founded by English producer, remixer, and bandleader Adrian Sherwood in 1979, the label’s been in the throes of a massive reissue campaign since 2016. In addition to dusting off long out-of-print titles from the likes of African Head Charge and the Singers & Players collective, Sherwood has given the green light for a slew of anthologies, including Trevor Jackson’s brilliant Science Fiction Dancehall Classics and two volumes of Sherwood At The Controls that have helped contextualize the label’s sweeping legacy.

About that legacy: On U-Sound initially made a name for itself with a slew of titles that opened up the stylistic parameters of dub while at the same time remaining loyal to the movement’s spiritual core. Where albums like Creation Rebel’s Starship Africa and African Head Charge’s My Life in a Hole in the Ground—yes, that’s a cheeky Eno/Byrne reference—sound like echo-drenched alien transmissions smothered in futuristic electronics, Congo Ashanti Roy’s African Blood and Bim Sherman’s Across the Red Sea are moving meditations that ease ’70s roots music into ‘80s New Wave.

But Sherwood and U-Sound were never content with remaining tethered to dub. Indeed, what made the label so innovative throughout its peak years in the ’80s was an ability to fold dub’s trademark qualities—shuddering reverb, hulking bass, tape delay, and shuffling rhythms turned inside out and upside down—into a wide range of cutting-edge genres. The Sherwood-produced collision of world grooves, tape manipulation, and punk politics heard on Mark Stewart & The Maffia’s Learning To Cope With Cowardice opened up entire vistas of avant-garde expression that 21st-century explorers such as Gang Gang Dance and Sun Araw have since colonized. Similarly radical is Tackhead’s What’s My Mission Now? 12-inch, a speaker-shredding collage of hip-hop drum machines, fidgety electro syncopation, and aggressive industrial samples that hasn’t lost any of its radical bite.

While the bulk of these tracks are drawn from the On U-Sound catalog, listeners will also encounter a handful of relevant Sherwood projects that weren’t released by the label. For example, The Slits’ “Man Next Door,” co-mixed by Sherwood, is an early example of the cross-pollination between dub and post-punk. Then there’s the long-forgotten Sherwood production “Dead Come Alive,” which didn’t see the light of day until Science Fiction Dancehall Classics. This hybrid of hip-hop and ’80s club music features a young Neneh Cherry rhyming over bubbling, pointillist electronics that are so prescient, they could’ve been created just last week—something that holds true for just about every cut on this playlist.