Interview from No TiTLE Magazine (www.notitlemag.com)
Jamaica 1940’s , there’s no “my space”, no i-tunes, no digital radio; you want to hear the freshest sounds you got to get out there, down the dance to hear them sounds. About this time something new is taking over the job of the 10 piece bands, the soundsystem.
In its humble beginnings of a single record deck, a valve amp and a speaker; the soundsystem was favoured over bands because it was cheaper than feeding the 10 mouths of the band. One dj could give the people what they were after, which at that time was Rhythm and Blues music imported from USA.
By the 1950’s the soundsystems or ‘House of Joys’ as they were affectionately known were getting bigger, both in popularity and shear size. Purpose built speakers were now used, the size of wardrobes that could be heard pretty much in the next district!
In the mid 1950’s, Coxone Dodd’s sound called “Sir Coxone Downbeat” made a major change to the soundsystem delivery. On a record buying trip to USA, Coxone heard American djs talkin’ over the tunes to introduce them. Coxone took this style back to his sound and his popularity grew to such that Coxone could be running up to four separate sounds on the same night throughout Kingston, using djs like Count Machuki and King Stitt.
Competition was fierce. As well as Coxone there were two other big sound operators at that time, Arthur “Duke” Reid’s “Trojan Sound” and Vincent “King” Edwards who controlled the most powerful sound of that time called “Giant”.
Really sounds were only as good as the music they played (so newly imported tracks were top, top secret) and the vibe created in the dance. Sometimes underhand tricks were used like starting fights and firin’ guns in the air at an opponents dance to scare the crowd into leavin’ and findin’ their dance.
When tastes in the USA turned to Rock n Roll, sounds began to cut their own tunes. The ‘version’ was created as R&B tunes were reworked in Jamaican styles, Ska, Rocksteady and eventually reggae music evolved. Coxone and Reid ruled as producers for years. Bunny Lee and Lee Perry worked as pluggers and record scouts for Coxone and Reid before producing their own tunes in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s.
Bunny Lee met Osbourne “Tubby” Ruddock, who was a disc cutter for Duke Reid and took him to a dance in Spanish Town to shown him how popular the sound was becoming. Tubby began his own soundsystem “King Tubby’s Home Town Hi-Fi” a high quality sound due to King Tubby’s electronic expertise.
Bunny Lee began to take all his productions to Tubby’s home studio where Tubby would create versions in his fresh, inventive style using effects never yet heard. Tubby would cut a dub plate try it out at a dance and if it became popular then release it on vinyl. Tubby also cut special versions just to play on his soundsystem, not to be sold. This creation and invention of individual dubplates kept soundsystems unique in style and made dances one off experiences not to be missed.
Chapeltown, Leeds 2006, you’re blissful, the beats are nice and you’re teetering on the edge cos any second now a solid wave of bass is gonna kick – right down your spine, vibrate the core of you. You are in the capable hands of Mark Iration, a man who works that crowd so good you’d think he came out of the womb arms wrapped around the control tower of his unstoppable soundsystem…Leeds own dub heavyweights Iration Steppas.
I joined two of the ‘spiritual steppin’ warriors’ to hear them speak with passion about their sound, their crowds and their inimitable vibe – Mark, soundsystem controller and creator of the Iration experience and Dexter whose tight and seamless toastin’ is so natural and smooth he makes it look easy.
So Mark, the beginnings of Iration Steppas, how did it come about?
M: It come about through my fascination with soundsystems. It started really and truly.. me buildin’ speakers, messing about trying to make my mums little amp louder and louder. So we had a few little arguments here and there “turn it down, turn it down” but mum was alright she was kinda behind me.
I started working, had some money I’d buy some 15s… not like nowadays cos them days 100w was like a lot and you build your 100w from any wood, like anything, wood from council buildings, old wardrobes was a main thing, things people were throwing out… and hammer and nail, no screw business and some glue… bam! Made. Sounds really rough but them days the more rattle it made the more you thought “Yeh man… hear this speaker!”
Anyway me and my best mate, who’s died now, called Sam Mason, me and him had an ambition to build a little sound because from school days we always bought music. He was the one that really loved bass, you’d get in his car… no tops, no mids, just bass! I was the man with the clarity but he just loved bass man trust me!
We’d go through different soundsystems, not really part of but be around. A big soundsystem we were with was ‘Conquering Lion’, but me and Sam wanted more, cos it was their soundsystem but me and Sam would go there with the music and ideas. We were working then, we had money, cos then it’d be like the kitty, each man put five pound a week in, but man and man fall behind, so me and Sam thought let’s us just go ahead with this, cos we were both ambitious people, we had the heart for it.
So we built up Ital Rockers, proper speakers, proper amp, we had this thing called ‘the annihilator’ and with that the bass was just.. wooophf! It was heavy! We just cleaned up, parties, weddings, any little hall things, we cleaned up and people would say “bwoy, why don’t you build a big sound?” I thought nah man, too much hassle…but it happened didn’t it? We borrowed big boxes and played Ital Rockers sound. We then built up to 12 15 inch speakers, playin with big sounds like Aba-shanti-i and comin out on top! Not weight wise, cos of 15 inch speakers, but comin out on top cos of the vibes and the music and I thought “Bwoy, what’s going on here?” and it went on from there with Iration Steppas.
Dexter, you’ve been with Iration Steppas for a year, how’s that year been for you?
D: When Sammy, the right-hand in the sound, the merchandiser, said to me, come to Leeds soundsystem, I thought “After Birmingham, it’s not Britain!” cos I’m in London already. But I came up here, holiday really, for Unity Day and I’ve been around in top sounds before… but I went into promotion side really, gangster, but am back on the straight and narrow now. Hearin’ this sound I was impressed… fully. I was so impressed I stayed here, I ain’t been back.
So back into the music, here with the Steppas, more professional than all the other sounds I’ve been with, more interaction with communities, not just a black crowd and all that, there’s students. I was totally shocked cos I thought dub music’s dead, after Shaka, but I saw a different side of it here. It’s a proper outfit, I’d label it the sound for the millennium, for vibes and changin’ lifestyles, that’s what it done for me personally.
Peoples reaction to the sound as well, that’s the enjoyable part of it, the crowds appreciation, people shakin’ your hand and photographs… the last time I made the newspaper it was criminality! Now I’m doin’ it for music, you no what I mean, so it’s all good.
Well, yeh, you always say “Leeds you’re an amazin’ crowd, Subdub you’re an amazin’ crowd.” Mark, do you say that to all the crowds?
M: Well put it this way, obviously you gotta say something in that aspect to say “Let me hear you, let me feel you.” Cos I like to see the crowd, know that they’re with me. I won’t be playin’ head down on the pre-amp, in it for myself, cos I might as well stay at home and play for the radio.
Leeds is the definitely the best crowd, but I think we’ve made it that way. Subdub in the last couple of years, it’s just got massive and we’ve made the crowd interact with dub. Dub music isn’t Back to Basics or Mint, two turntables and a guy dj but not interactin’ with the crowd. Then crowd have to find their own vibe, and there’s a few vibe, a little hen night here and group of man making their own noise in the corner.
Soundsystem was with one turntable, when the record finish you turn it over for the B-side, so it’s stop – start –stop- start and you have to get you’re head around that business cos that’s the beauty of soundsystem. So we gotta create that atmosphere, we have created that crowd involvement, I don’t think you could go somewhere else in Leeds and get that involvement, so Subdub’s got that kind of vibe.
I’d say Leeds definitely has a vibe, amongst I think, any other place that I’ve been in England. Leeds Crowd is warm and they’re warm to other sounds if they drop it right. Anyone who comes here, artists, musicians, soundsystems have expressed that Leeds is truly a wicked crowd. Leeds has a good warm vibe about it. And they educated to good dub!
D: The students here, the whole vibe, the crowd are happy coming here, we see Subdub as our home really and truly.
M: The creation of crowd involvement is a very important part of Iration for me, cos if I don’t feel the vibe from a crowd I think “Bwoy! Somethin’ not right here!”
But it’s reciprocal innit? You get a vibe from the crowd and they get a vibe from you?
M: Yeh, I notice a lot of time people don’t get that kind of vibe at all, I don’t know if it’s something to do with the way Iration is, cos I think a lot of people are copyin’ that style now, in the way that we involve the crowd. For me that style comes from Ital Rockers, with some involvement in house music, acid and jungle, so it was that kind of crowd environment, get the crowd up and ready, so I brought what I learned there into the dub circuit.
D: And there’s a art in doing it, that’s why I let Mark do that. As long as it works I’m happy and it always works, so when he take the mic I know exactly what he’s on.
M: Yeh It’s all about delivery, catchin the crowd at that moment. You wanna make that ride smooth, no fear. And all sounds have their own way of deliverin’ that message “are you alright?”… but I think recently it’s becoming more like our style.
Maybe it is because you do put people more at ease. Like you say Dexter, Iration plays to all different sections of Leeds community and I’ve asked people to come to Subdub before and they say “Chapeltown!! No way!” But you put people at ease, so they feel like, “Yeh, I can be here as well.”
Anyway, less of me, who’s interview is this!!!
You’ve played all over the world, France, Italy, Australia, Japan etc. What’s been your favourite audience worldwide?
M: Japan, definitely Japan. The warmth they give you down there, the people are so nice and wonderful, and they don’t look at you as alien. They take you in if you got dreadlocks stickin’ out, if you’re white, black, whatever, they take you as you are.
But yeh, the people are wicked and other things, the food’s wicked, the hotels are wicked. Japan as a whole a wicked country, I was lucky this time to have seven dates so I saw seven different areas. Yeah, wicked.
What is the live set up of Iration Steppas and what’s the importance of playin live?
M: Dennis Rootical playin bass live, me mixin live and the m.c’s… Jazbo, Danman could be whoever on the day as the frontman and Jack Rubels was there back in the days, he was effects. Sound effects River and Sammy Dread (Ublo).
Live is wicked, it’s heavy same way. Live is less work than sound system, you just on stage for an hour at a certain time, but soundsystem is an endurance. Live you mash it down on stage for an hour. Live is more intense, you’re on show and all eyes are on you on stage. Soundsystem you got eight hours to play with.
D: When I saw them live I was shocked, I was in the back of the hall in Cornwall and I thought they was mimin’, like Top o’ the Pops thing? It was tight! Rootical so mean with his bass! To me in some ways better than the soundsystem cos you can see them makin the music there and it’s big, it’s phat on time, so good you think it’s a record, you think “Nah man they not playin that.” I see Rootical and I think “It’s true man he’s playin the bass!”
And High Rise Studio is another aspect to Iration Steppas?
M: Yeh, High Rise is the heart of Iration Steppas in the sense of our music, because that’s like our temple where we actually get our vibes when we start buildin’ tunes for Iration. It’s like, only certain people are allowed in that studio.
D: It is quality, the facilities, the board, the sound quality… yeh it’s like BBC level in there it’s proper.
M: The studio has been built up from scratch and you’ve got people like Michael Rose, Rankin’ Joe, Junior Delgardo, Johnny Clarke and they’re sayin’ “Your studio sounds wicked, I like you’re set up.” You think about how many studios they’ve been to! And they say that! That to me, touches me, cos that’s people I would have never dreamt of to be in my studio, singin on to our music and sayin’ that!
But, from the late 80’s I’ve been doing the studio up. So I’ve built it up for a number of years and wired it up the way that I want it wired up and I’ve got this certain board or desk…whatever, which is Soundcraft, Ghost… a strong desk cos it’s got a hundred and odd channels on it.
Cos now a lot of people use Reason, like a PC based desk and there’s no way you could do that cos you work that desk, jump about!
D: Yeh, yeh! It’s true!
M: I’d love to get into Reason, I’ve been pushed into Reason quite a few times and I just can’t feel it, I just can’t feel that vibe with workin through a computer. I’d love to be a student now with no wire’s here and there, all in computer, but with me like with old school, King Tubby, dem and dem, I have to be hands on my mixer, hands on my effects. It’s got to be hands on because to feel and make that music, it’s a different feel than makin it on a computer.
It’s not as much physicality.
M: No it’s not. Sometimes people don’t understand when I say like a “vibe in a studio” and I don’t see how you can get the same kind of vibe sittin at a computer, like the vibe in a studio, touchin the buttons, actually playin the keyboard. It just gives it that creation. When there’s a vibe in the studio you can’t just go to bed and pick it up the next day it doesn’t work like that. Like when I say in a dance “this is a GMTV mix” that’s no lie.
Your last album ‘Dubz from de Higher Regionz’ that was to give a taster of the experience in a dance. The new upcoming album, does that have a particular angle or flavour to it?
M: The new one is our first full vocal album, with the vocalist Tena Stelin which is a vocal and with dubs. So that will be out this year and after that will most likely be a dub album or a compilation, we’ve got quite a few different things… different people that we’ve worked with.
It depends you can’t really predict too soon what you’re gonna put out. When you’re independent and you do your own stuff there’s no pressure from the record label and I’ve been there and done that. To have your own time to do whatever is good for Iration because as the sounds playin’ out people know the tracks are there, our connection is there and we can do our own survey on particular tracks.
At the moment there’s been enough people sayin’ they want to work with us, but my mind’s focused right now on getting’ that album out so anything else will have to wait and when it’s finished, yeh, doors open for the next project.
So Subdubs gone massive in the last three or four years and now there’s ‘Transmission’ as well. What’s ‘Transmission’ all about?
M: Transmission is a subsidiary of Subdub, but it’s jungle night. They hire my sound to get the bass, the big sound from artists. Me and my boys, me, Dexter and Ublo are there cos we’re from Leeds, River, Rootical, Strongback and Scud link up say for ‘University of Dub’ in London. River and Rootical would come and join us for Subdub, but Dexter, Ublo and me are already up in Leeds.
D: People doing jungle music always want a top quality bassline and a good set-up, so when jungle wanna to hire Iration Steppas I feel proud really cos it’s a different type of music to what he play and still the people are happy with the quality of playin it. So even when the top DJs come they’re impressed too, cos they all wanna play on the soundsystem, to me it’s like an industrial soundsystem.
M: Transmission night we’re really not part of it, we’re just there to take care of the sound. We’re there really to provide a service, make sure that people are happy with it. I like jungle, but I’d rather listen to dub all night than jungle, you know.
And what’s all this ‘dubstep’ business?
M: Dubstep is a new trend, a new style of music. It’s just a new thing and people get excited about new things and if new things come from England then I’m proud that it’s been born in England, y’know?
Myself I’m not feeling the name Dubstep because Dub is a special word, it’s a unique word that has been brought from invention, dub itself is invention. But Dubstep is a bass formula with beats on top. That said, I’m not gonna knock it, it’s a new thing, let it progress. We’ll see how it moves on from there, cos dub has been around from before I was around.
Dub has been around for years, dub is something you go find, not a new trend, it continues.
Dub does seem to have a certain cache around it, like people always want a part of it, but it has remained it’s own.
M: Yeh, you can’t turn your T.V. on or your radio on and put dub on, it is something that you have to go out there and find. So when people use the name, I have to ask the question “do you know what dub is?” cos dub us about mixin’, your creating, opening new worlds or whatever. It really is all about the mix, I could mix down next mans tune in my fashion and he could do my mix in his fashion and it’s never gonna be the same tune. Y’know you could take a dead mix and make it lively, that’s what dub’s about.
So for first timers, how would you describe Subdub?
M: For first timers going to anywhere like Subdub, University of Dub in London, Love Dub in Manchester. Anywhere that’s getting the main core of soundsystems, the masters, the top five or six sounds… the first time that you go to any of them session, you take it in properly, you will be amazed. If it’s being played right, dropped right, executed right it is a whole new experience. It’s not your norm like town type thing, y’know what I mean?
It’s hard to explain… you’re gonna feel the power cos of heaviness in bass, you’re gonna see the uniqueness of a DJ chattin’ on a soundsystem, the sound effects itself is unique, the delivery of the sounds played to the crowd and the reaction from that and the niceness of just being in a cool, no trouble business vibe.
We like to keep it spiritual and uplifting really, cos that’s what dub is about. It is an experience.