The Revolution Will Be Digitised – The Bug

The Bug rails for a ragga rebellion

Revolutions inevitably go one of two ways. And it’s tough to gauge which until the first stone is thrown.

So, when Bob Dylan strode onto stage at America’s Newport Folk Festival on July 24th 1965 determined to play electric guitar, the resultant booing mustn’t have matched the image of eruption he’d painted in his head.

But when Prince Jammy dropped Wayne Smith’s ‘(Under Me) Sleng Teng’ – the first ever digital dancehall rhythm – upon his rival Black Scorpio at Kingston 11’s club in Jamaica on February 23rd 1985, the result was the polar opposite.

“It was like a smash!” Jammy told Clash earlier this year. “It was such a new song that the whole place was in uproar – we had to play it twenty times more, for all the people bawlin’ ‘forward’ [rewind]. It was their first experience of the electronic sound.” Let us not underestimate what a deep line in the sand this moment was.

And it’s to this backdrop twenty-eight years later that we find ourselves shooting the dancehall breeze with The Bug, AKA Kevin Martin. He’s preparing to unleash a compilation that pays homage to digital dancehall since Jammy’s devastating deployment of ‘Sleng Teng’ in Waltham Park so long ago. Into the bargain The Bug is calling for a sonic revolution to knock him on his ass.

The compilation, ‘Mysteron Killer Sounds’, starts with the insurrection of Steely and Clevie, who were the first to use digital drums on ‘Streetsweeper’: “When I heard that it totally blew my head off, it was so intense,” recalls Kevin. “It was so unlike anything I’d heard before; it was so creative and odd, genuinely odd. And that was the point where I went, ‘if this is from that area then I need to know more about that!’”

Between him and Stuart Baker from Soul Jazz Records they’ve crammed in a living history of the genre. Legends such as Dave Kelly, Lenky and Sly Dunbar rub shoulders with fresh faces that operate in different cities, in different ways, like Redlight and even Diplo (who dips into dancehall according to which superstar he’s producing that month). It’s worth a spin just to hear the spread of sounds and textures, and Kevin appreciates how far he has come as a listener: “I muscled in on this compilation when I heard it was happening. But for a long time I was just a reggae arsehole, a non-Jamaican reggae snob who thought they knew a lot about reggae when I knew shit really, I knew fuck all.”

‘Streetsweeper’ as a rhythm had passed on the dancehall torch. Kevin had triggered a personal fascination that’s led him to being one of the most innovative producers of the last decade of bass culture. His notable achievements are his three albums as The Bug, acclaimed material as King Midas Sound, the prowling darkness of his Black Chow collaboration, the dubstep wobble under the alias of Pressure, and the industrial rock of Ice (a collaboration with Justin Broadwick from Napalm Death!). But all this isn’t enough, he wants dancehall and ragga to further explode, he wants another revolution in sound.

“So much new bashment has been uninspiring,” sighs the producer, “it’s been watery and too indebted to R&B, just a glut of this middle-mass sameness. I have a vested interest in wanting people to come along and blow my head off. But all we need is a few new pioneers and it will flip again; as anyone who is involved in music for any length of time will know, things evolve in cycles.”

Perhaps this next chapter isn’t far off. We talk at length about the state of dancehall, its weird lack of traction in the mainstream and its operation in pockets around the world. Kevin talks of wanting to show that the genre is still living and breathing, hoping to invigorate it by licensing tracks by artists such Stereotyp, Harmonic 313, Team Shadatek.

“One of the things that was important for me,” he affirms, “was that I didn’t want this to be just a time capsule of music from the past, but also possessing a lineage of producers that were equally inspired, people who were all intent on doing something new with Jamaican music but not faking it, not being ‘Jafakan’; producing something that is true to your own roots. I wanted to show it as thriving.”

Yet dancehall remains a funny beast. Its politically and socially inclined message has been surprisingly ignored in times of social decline. Punk, hip-hop and even techno have been sub-culturally embraced by the angry youths of the UK during tough times whilst dancehall has failed to cross social boundaries and cut through class. Kevin has a theory why, and once more it’s down to listeners committing time and love.

“People are lazy, they can’t be bothered to take the time to listen to the lyrics, or just ignore them blatantly, but I understand that some people just hear the dancehall MC as a tone, or maybe they don’t want to dive too deep in case they find something that they aren’t comfortable with. But for me it was an attraction, it was a passport into another world. I personally like the intensity, the social commentary and the politics of where it’s come from.”

Despite dancehall remaining something of a maligned genre The Bug has a trick up his sleeve. And it’s one that may explain his tireless work at the coalface of his beloved bashment: “If a ragga rhythm comes on then 99% of any female crowd is going to move their hips automatically, there is something about the bashment rhythm that syncs up to ladies’ hips. It’s a woman thing. Then on top of it you have this sonic craziness, this world of contradictions sonically.”

We are far from announcing a dancehall crisis, but if you enter the Soul Jazz record shop in Soho, most of the vinyl will be repressed platters originating from the ’70s and ’80s. The art and obsession around the ‘riddim’ is waning, and the fury with which artists jump on slick instrumentals to showcase their lyrical wares is getting fractured and diluted all over the world. “I think it’s to do with this global glitch of people wondering whether music is vital to their lifestyle,” ponders the producer. “Do you like a piece of music enough to want to pay for it? Or are you going to take music for granted? Does it just become secondary to your lifestyle? And I think in Jamaica, like everywhere else that has become a big question. Why is there such a lack of music in general that’s being released that is forward thinking? Music that takes you by surprise? That fucks your head up? All in the same way that jungle did when it came through, that hip-hop did, that post punk did?”

Sadly the slide of independent music shows little sign of abating soon. The Bug’s favourite record shops have largely closed. Dubvendor in Notting Hill and Daddy Cool in Clash Magazine’s stomping ground of Berwick Street have sadly sold their last discs. Now we are faced with the brazen niche of dancehall and ragga eventually getting wiped off any physical shelves. Instead it faces a future of being filtered too many times through crap Internet forums whilst the legacy of incredible sound fidelity is forgotten as shite MP3s at a sixth of the original quality become the norm.

Furthermore dancehall risks the reality that it actually no longer SPEAKS about anything, as The Bug angrily rounds off: “You can sound like a prick these days when you speak about needing a revolution in music,” he fumes, “because there’s a culture of irony around music these days, people are scared to talk about what they are truly passionate about – but I am passionate about music. It changed my life. Message music can be a pain in the ass but at the right time it’s incredible. Just look at Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ or Public Enemy – then political music can be sexy as well as crucial. And ragga has such an intense mix of lyricism that can be political as well as sexual and violent. It’s just got the whole world between my ears; it has all the contradictions that exist in all of us.”

Words by Matthew Bennett

‘Mysteron Killer Sounds’ is released on Soul Jazz Records this month.

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