Dub Life: In Conversation With Dennis Bovell
All photos via Dennis Bovell on Facebook.


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Dub Life: In Conversation With Dennis Bovell

"I discovered this website and, just to see if I've got any saleability, I threw up eight tracks that I'd found and hadn't previously put out." Dennis Bovell, UK dub pioneer and legendary producer to The Slits, The Pop Group, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, has just discovered Bandcamp.

"One of the people that bought one was a man called Chris Eckman, and Chris runs – along with Peter Weber – a record label called Glitterbeat. He calls me up and says, have you ever thought about releasing that on vinyl? I thought, very interesting…" Suffice to say the medium's been working out okay for him.


Bovell's new album is a collection of bits and bobs dredged up from the his personal vaults. Mostly unreleased tracks and different mixes of old songs, some of the tunes on Dub 4 Daze, the forthcoming vinyl release, go back to the middle of 1970s, around the time that he gave up DJing for the Sufferer sound system to concentrate on performing and producing music full time. But in the late 60s and early 70s, Sufferer had been one of the most important sound systems on a booming London scene. As Lloyd Bradley puts it, in his book Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, "Sufferer was the sound system others measured themselves against".

For Bovell, it had all started at a comprehensive school in South London. Born in Barbados in 1953, the future Matumbi frontman came to London in 1965 and enrolled at Spencer Park School in Wandsworth. Spencer Park had a recording studio. Despite being quite a musical school, with its own orchestra, the recording studio was expressly for the purpose of the English department, for recording soundtracks to plays. By the time Bovell was approaching school leaving age, he had pretty well commandeered the studio himself to conduct lunchtime sessions with some of the school's many instrumentalists. "And then," he tell me, rather matter-of-factly, "I happened upon tape loops."

"I had an idea to borrow bits of current tunes and glue a loop together round a broomstick, to keep the tension on the recorder," he continues. "I made loads of loops, taking bits out of really famous reggae tunes. People were going, how do you get that? I didn't tell them what I was doing. So I started making dub plates at school. And then word got out."


One day an old friend from school that Bovell hadn't seen for a while turned up. "I hear you're making dub plates," he says. "Can I come round and have a listen?" When he came over and checked out Bovell's work, he was clearly impressed because he offered to buy the lot.

"You want them all?" Bovell said, incredulous.

"Yeah," the guy said, "we're making a new sound system."

And Bovell, quick as a flash: "Have you got a DJ?"

With Bovell's exclusive cuts in their armoury, Sufferer rose fast. "Quite quickly we were playing with all the big sound system guys," he recalls, "Duke Reid, Sefrano B, Count Shelly. All the big guys. They were like, we'll play with you guys. Because we had quite a following."

Every Friday night they'd play the Metro in Ladbroke Grove. The doors would open at seven. "It was heaving by 7:30," Bovell recalls. "If you didn't get there before eight, you wouldn't get in." At eleven, they'd pack it up at the Metro and hot foot it over to Cricklewood to play the Carib Club from midnight till six in the morning. Saturdays they were often at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in the West End. Sundays was the Landsdowne youth club in Stockwell. Some other nights, a place in Fulham. "We were quite all over the place. It was seven nights a week almost. After a while, I got myself into trouble there."

The trouble, for Dennis Bovell, began one November night in 1974. It was a regular Friday down the Carib Club. But not quite the usual Friday night. That night Sufferer were in the middle of a three-way soundclash, with Lord Koos's system on one side and Count Nick's on the other. "I was taking two of them on, because I was like, come on, I'll take you both on." He did have a little advantage. Earlier that day, Lee 'Scratch' Perry had arrived from Jamaica with suitcase full of fresh dubs. Bovell had been there to meet him at the airport and now the Upsetter himself was standing beside him in the DJ booth. But over on the other side, stood next to Lord Koos, was Perry's arch-rival, Bunny Lee.


"So there was this dub out," Bovell says, "where I'm playing Lee Perry stuff and the other guy's playing Bunny Lee." But Bovell had a secret weapon. Since his group Matumbi had been working as the touring band for Bunny Lee's star singer, Johnny Clarke, he also had all of his latest dubs. "Then there was this tune," Bovell recalls, "which was a trombone version of 'The Real Rock' by Vin Gordon. Put that on. Won the competition. Hands down." But his triumph would be short-lived. For just at that moment, a fracas had broken out in the crowd.

Police had burst into the club, supposedly in pursuit of a man seen driving suspiciously outside. The Carib dancers had closed ranks and a fight had broken out. In court, the police would accuse Bovell of being some sort of ringleader, geeing the crowd up with a microphone from the stage. "No such thing took place," he insists. "Policemen put their hands on the Bible and lied."

Bovell spent nine months in court. "Monday to Friday. Every day. No chance to work." The first trial lasted six months and ended with a hung jury. Finally, after a further three month trial, he was convicted on a majority verdict after no unanimous decision could be reached. He was imprisoned, appealed, and after serving six months of a three year sentence, the appeal judge said, "this man should never have even been charged. There was no evidence to even have charged him." He was released, without compensation. He decided there and then to "put a halt to my sound system career. Matumbi became the main focus then."


But it was far from the last time he saw Lee Perry. Only this June, the two of them – with Mad Professor – were flying back from Mexico together when they got pulled going through customs at Heathrow Terminal Five. "They refused to believe that I had gone to Mexico for five days and hadn't dealt with any suspicious substances." But just as Her Majesty's finest were tearing apart Bovell's toilet bag, one of the female customs officers took out her phone. "Is that you?" she said. She had pulled up a remix Bovell had done just a few months previously for Glaswegian avant-party band, Golden Teacher.

"Ah, they're fantastic!" Bovell enthuses when I ask him about his work with the six-piece Optimo group. He had been in Glasgow for a gig when Optimo's co-director, JD Twitch, called him up out of the blue. "How would you like to go in the studio?" he asked. Bovell had an afternoon off, figured why not? The next thing he knows is in a studio with a Moog in his hand, dubbing up versions of 'Instigator' and 'Like a Hawk'. "Six or seven tracks later, I said, yeah, I've got to go and do my show now." A few months later he's being shown the YouTube video by a customs officer.

"I said, no, no, no," possibly thinking this wasn't the moment to associate himself with a group named after a magic mushroom, "you'd best look for Joss Stone!" Over the last few years Bovell has kept busy as a prolific remixer, working on tracks for Joss Stone, Manu Chao, Boy George, Arcade Fire ("there was none short of 92 tracks! Do you know what I mean? Alright lads, when's this gonna end?"), going all the way back to The Slits, The Boomtown Rats, and Bananarama in the early 80s, and just recently a version of 'Can't Remember To Forget You' with the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, using Shakira and Rihanna's original vocals.


"Well," said the customs officer finally, "congratulations! You've been in the business that long and we didn't find a thing on you!"

Is there anything you haven't done, that you would still like to achieve? I ask finally.

"I'd quite like to do a dub tune with Paul McCartney," Bovell says. "I think he's up for it." And with that he starts singing "Dub, dub me do," in the middle of an organic coffee shop on the Stroud Green Road. "You know I dub you / So please, dub me do / Dub dub dub dub dub me do do do dooooo."

Dennis Bovell's Dub 4 Daze is out now.

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