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Adrian Sherwood on the Record that Introduced Him to Drum Machines and Why He Thinks Grime Rocks

In the next installment of Diggin, British Dub-legend Adrian Sherwood reminisces on the pioneering single from his industrial hip-hop group Tackhead.
July 12, 2016, 5:10pm
British DJ and producer Adrian Sherwood's may be best known over the years for his dubby solo productions, iconic collaborations with Lee Perry, remixing Depeche Mode, and for founding London's On-U Sound record label, a hotbed of dub-focused productions in 1979. But as with any boundary pushing artist working over decades, there's also a handful of lesser known curious projects that populate his wide-reaching discography. Shortly after starting his label, Sherwood followed one of the many interesting rabbit trails he'd encounter over the course of his career. After a fortuitous trip to New York City in the early 80s—where he got exposed to the blossoming world of hip-hop and drum machines—he joined up with drummer Keith LeBlanc and bassist Doug Wimbish of Sugar Hill Records, as well blues guitarist Skip McDonald (AKA Little Axe), to form short-lived industrial hip-hop group Tackhead.

Though the group only released two albums over four years, and reunited briefly in 2014 for a short tour, their work combining oddball vocal samples with hard-hitting percussion and razor-sharp basslines—has contributed to their lengthy influence on a variety of styles—from dubstep to grime. It was also an early demonstration of Sherwood's knack for bringing talented artists from different spheres together in one studio, to craft new and innovative sounds. Now nearly three decades after their prime, Sherwood has re-released Tackhead's well-received second single, "Mind at the End of the Tether"—a low-slung beat that samples H.G Wells reading his final book—'Mind at the End of Its Tether' (1945)—on his latest retrospective compilation 'Sherwood At The Controls, Vol 2' (released June 24 on On-U Sound). For our latest installment of Diggin, we asked Sherwood to reminisce on the history of the project, as well as how he thinks the three decade-old track fits into today's musical landscape.

I got brought out to New York for the first time in 1983 by Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records when the whole hip-hop thing was going off. It was here that I got to meet Keith LeBlanc, who was doing a drum-dub for Edgar Winter. Keith had just put out "No Sell Out" from his Malcolm X record on the label. I was fascinated by all of the beats and grooves that were coming out of the city then, and to see [Keith], who had drummed on all of the Sugar Hill Records, going into the new programmed-drums era was great. Previously I had worked with all sorts of amazing musicians from England, Jamaica, and Africa where we recorded everyone live, but now we were entering a different time.

After meeting Keith that first time, within a year I got him to come to out to England. I'd just started On-U Sound Records at the time. We started mirroring the idea of taking news clips and putting that on the beat, which is what Keith called it. [On "Mind of the Tether"] we started out by taking the drum track and then recording the HG Wells lyrics on top of the groove. I remember the recording process like it was yesterday; we recorded it at Southern Studios in London, a famous studio in a semi-detached house in Wood Green that has been home to people like Björk's, Crass, Ian [Mackeye] from Minor Threat; the Dischord lot. Derek Birkett, Björk's manager and founder of One Little Indian Records, was also in that same building. It was a really amazing and interesting place to be when that record was created.

Tackhead. Left: Adrian Sherwood, Center: Keith LeBlanc, Right: Doug Wimbish, Far Right: Skip McDonald

"Mind of the Tether" was for me quite a seminal track and one that marked my work with drum machines, sampling, and triggering, and ushered in a whole new era for me. I thought it was a very vicious, kind of a brutal tune. A lot of people were influenced by it, and Nine Inch Nails fans would even follow us around. At the time honestly, ["Mind of the Tether"] stood out from the rest of the pack. I can remember John Peel playing it on the radio—the most interesting radio show in England at the time—and he was just blown away by it. People were going to record shops to pick it up which was so mad. It wasn't selling millions or anything but it still had a massive reputation.

With the release of the track of Sherwood At The Controls, Vol 2., I just think people should investigate more of Tackhead's catalogue. We have a wide body of work so it's an interesting starting point for checking that out. I think it still sounds quite interesting and unlike everybody else's stuff. At the moment the most vibrant stuff in England is the UK Grime scene—it's kind of hip hop with UK rapping on it—and it's quite exciting. If I had to parallel [Tackhead] to a current sound, I think what we were doing was quite underground and edgy, and I think the most underground, edgy stuff around at the moment is the UK Grime. I'm friends with quite a lot of people in the whole scene. Obviously my kids are all into that stuff so they cringe when they hear that their dad likes it as well.

There's an excitement to the raw, don't-care-at-all kind of level, and it's quite exciting. It's not pandering or trying to copy Americans, it's very British. I think with Tackhead we also had a very unique relationship with the tradition of the great American musicians. The evolution of music just happens. There's a Jamaican saying "Each one takes one"—you pick up influences that you like and then you go and make a record and become a fan and make it your own. The idea is that the spirit lives on, it carries on, and lots of people influence each other.

As told to David Garber.