Celebrating 40 years of On-U Sound with selections from the label’s catalog of groundbreaking post-punk meets dub productions.
Emerging during a time in the UK when racial tensions were peaking, Adrian Sherwood and Kishi Yamamoto’s On-U Sound formed a cultural bridge between the post-punk and reggae scenes in London, Jamaica and beyond. The label worked almost entirely under a collective mentality, with members from seemingly disparate communities coming together to craft unique, genre-bending sound experiments.
One of the most important and beloved groups to come out of the label was the New Age Steppers, a group formed by producer Adrian Sherwood and singer Ari Up of the Slits. Members of NAS included George Oban of Aswad, “Style” Scott of the legendary Roots Radics, journalist-musician Vivien Goldman and Steve Beresford of the Flying Lizards.
In a recent interview with Helen Barrett, NAS bassist George Oban recalls, “Adrian brought together outsiders, and we were doing stuff that other people weren’t. We were forcing the boundaries of the equipment.”
To mark the label’s 40th anniversary, on March 19 On-U Sound will reissue three classic New Age Steppers albums: New Age Steppers (1980), Action Battlefield (1981) and Foundation Steppers (1983), along with a new album, Avant Gardening, which includes outtakes and rarities including tracks from a legendary 1983 John Peel session.
To celebrate the label and the upcoming reissues, we’ve compiled a list of essential On-U Sound releases along with a playlist of favorites.
New Age Steppers – S.T. (1981)
The first LP on On-U Sound is a post-punk-meets-reggae classic that encapsulates the musical melting pot that was happening in London during the late 70’s. Most of the record is wild and unpredictable (classic Sherwood style), but there are a few slightly more straightforward, song-based compositions. The lead single “Fade Away,” a cover of Junior Byles’ reggae standard on Channel One, features Ari’s playful, relaxed vocals soaring over a deep rhythm set by George Oban and “Style” Scott.
Creation Rebel – Starship Africa (1981)
Crafted from numerous overdubs, backwards tape loops and interplanetary sound effects, Creation Rebel’s Starship Africa is a two-track, 41-minute psychedelic trip through Adrian Sherwood’s cosmic dub world. Sherwood’s creativity behind the mixing desk is on full display here, with mutant tape-manipulated sounds swirling and sweeping across the stereo field in a truly singular experience. Deep listen recommended!
The Mothmen – Pay Attention! (1981)
A product of the Factory Records DIY post-punk scene, the Mothmen featured three of the four original members of Durutti Column. Their debut album is classic early On-U, featuring free-form jams that pull from psych, kraut, punk and prog, all filtered through Sherwood’s dubwise production.
African Head Charge – My Life In A Hole In The Ground (1981)
A studio project inspired by Brian Eno’s “vision for a psychedelic Africa,” African Head Charge was formed as a vehicle for Sherwood to express the more experimental side of On-U Sound. It’s hard to pick just one album out of the bunch, but we’ll go with the debut. Highlights include the tribal, four-to-the-floor “Stebeni’s Theme” and the rubbery, jaw harp punk-funk “Elastic Dance.”
Singers & Players – War of Worlds (1982)
Another On-U collective, Singers & Players, is exactly what the name implies: singers including Prince Far I, Bim Sherman and Jah Woosh team with players from various On-U groups. The label describes the collective as “a colourful bunch of Punks and Rastas, Rebels, Rockers, Instrumentalists and Experimentalists.” Bim Sherman is featured on the cover of their debut, War of Worlds, and assumes most of the vocal duties here, though Prince Far I, Jah Woosh and Ari Up contribute as well. It’s also important to note the NYC punk connection here as this album was first released on legendary indie label 99 Records.
Judy Nylon and Crucial – Pal Judy (1982)
Probably the least tripped-out album on this list, Judy Nylon’s Pal Judy is a beautiful collection of moody, electronic lounge pop perfectly produced by Adrian Sherwood. Judy Nylon was a no-wave singer from New York who worked with Brian Eno on a sound-collage tune called “R.A.F.” Her lone solo album is her best work and includes the perfectly chill “Room Without a View” and an incredible druggy version of “Jailhouse Rock.”
Mark Stewart + Maffia – Learning To Cope With Cowardice (1983)
Landing somewhere between early hip-hop, dub and avant-garde music, Learning To Cope With Cowardice is one of the most unique and difficult listens in the On-U catalog. Sherwood employs a heavily disjointed copy-and-paste style here, constructing tracks using snippets of drum breaks, dub grooves, harsh noise, sound bites and anti-Cold War ravings from Mark Stewart of the Pop Group. Not for the faint of heart; we recommend listening to this one last if you’re new to the Sherwood sound.
Dub Syndicate – Tunes From The Missing Channel (1984)
Like most On-U projects, Dub Syndicate has maintained a fluid lineup through the years. On their third album, Roots Radics’ drummer “Style” Scott and The Congos’ Ashanti Roy meet Public Image Limited’s Jah Wobble and Keith Levene. Pushing the sound further away from the classic dub of their first two albums to a more electronic, atmospheric dub, the record’s standouts include the digi-sitar “Ravi Shankar pt.1” and futuristic floating dub “Forever More.”
The Missing Brazilians – Warzone (1984)
The brainchild of On-U co-founders Sherwood and Kishi Yamamoto, the Missing Brazilians’ Warzone is an experimental sci-fi dub classic capturing the emotions of the mid 80’s Cold War era. The tracks are composed of simple melodies and riffs that they cut, stretch and mangle into chaotic electronic mosaics. Even by today’s standards, these tracks sound completely futuristic and unique. It’s one of On-U-Sound’s finest moments, and possibly Sherwood’s most visionary release.