Adrian Sherwood launched his On-U Sound label in 1979, but he was already a fixture on the London roots and dub scene. Selling imported dub plates from his van across the city, a teenaged Sherwood had absorbed the transplanted sounds of the Caribbean with the air he breathed. Living in a Battersea squat with Neneh Cherry and Ari Upp, he was also close to the city’s post-punk explosion.
It didn’t take long for Sherwood to start putting out music himself. He soon learned to play with the studio controls in the spirit of dub pioneers like Lee “Scratch” Perry. Tearing sounds apart and reconstructing them through radical combinations of delays and distortion became the On-U Sound signature.
Sherwood’s ability to drive beats for projects like Dub Syndicate and New Age Steppers, while maintaining hypnotic grooves, brought him to the attention of electronic and industrial artists like Cabaret Voltaire, Skinny Puppy and Depeche Mode. Ministry’s Al Jourgensen used him to make the Twitch album, “borrowing” Sherwood’s studio techniques for later use in Ministry and Revolting Cocks.
Surrounded by talent from the roots and dub scenes, Sherwood took on industrial remix projects but also put out music with incredible sensitivity. The ultimate combination of these strands came on Mark Stewart’s “Stranger than Love,” which combined Erik Satie’s piano exercises with Bristol’s most powerful voice. It was proof positive that, in a master’s hands, the most delicate emotions can still be found in the red zone of the VU meter.
10. Bim Sherman – Slummy Ghetto
A key part of the On-U Sound ensemble, Bim Sherman was an uncompromising talent. He recorded solo, as well as with Dub Syndicate, New Age Steppers and Singers & Players – On-U projects that drew from the collective of artists surrounding Sherwood.
This take shows the mainstream version of Sherwood’s production work. In his hands, the material is classy but subversive.
9. Robert Wyatt – Biko
The British communist activist and composer, Robert Wyatt, engaged Sherwood to shape his cover of Peter Gabriel’s tribute to the South African anti-apartheid leader, Steve Biko. Recorded in London’s legendary Blackwing Studios, with John Fryer engineering, the track still raises goose-bumps with its haunting and spacious mix.
8. Cabaret Voltaire – Here To Go (Live Drum Jacknife Mix)
Cabaret Voltaire had already found their way to the alternative dancefloor when they recorded Code. Years of listening to James Brown in Sheffield had influenced the industrial pioneers; but, as this single showed, they were just as moved by Brion Gysin’s art and writing.
Sherwood was brought in for the production of part of the album, but he took the tapes apart for this remix.
7. Skinny Puppy – Deep Down Trauma Hounds (Remix)
Canada’s dark electro pioneers called on Sherwood for the 1987 release of “Addiction,” which featured this version of “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” on the flip side.
6. Depeche Mode – Master and Servant (An On-U Sound Science Fiction Dancehall Classic)
Many Depeche Mode fans were mystified by the limited edition remixes that Mute released with Sherwood at the controls. Stripped back melodically (and given what sounds like a thorough going-over with Keith LeBlanc’s drums), the retooling of “Master and Servant” and “People Are People” was unexpected and – for the less forgiving – unwelcome.
Today, the remix of “Master and Servant” isn’t as jarring. Sherwood’s signature is still engraved in the rhythm – carved by hammer and chisel across the master tapes – but the world has caught up to the idea.
5. Dub Syndicate – Wadada (Means Love)
Of Sherwood’s many projects, his collaboration with “Style” Scott as Dub Syndicate was the most successful. Infused with the possibility of space travel in the mind, and hidden in a cloud of sweet-scented smoke, it represented the avant-garde end of the roots spectrum.
Scott was murdered in Jamaica, which brought this project to an end. Its legacy is an incomparable body of reggae with experimental flair.
4. Mark Stewart – Hypnotized
The dissolution of The Pop Group freed singer Mark Stewart to mix his love of noise, funk and reggae together in a flammable cocktail.
“Hypnotized” is a savage cut-up of beats, breaks and scratches that completely dismantles conventional song structures.
Sherwood worked with Stewart to mangle tapes, splice beats and throw faders, created the most subversive 12″ single of all time. People still quote the statistics cited in the song.
3. Ministry – The Angel
Al Jourgensen claims to dislike Twitch, but Ministry’s last album before they let metal in was an alternative dancefloor classic. With tracks like “Over the Shoulder” pummelling clubbers like a backhoe shattering asphalt, it set a new bar for hard beats.
Jourgensen managed to sound menacing throughout, and nowhere more than on this track. When he returned to Chicago, he took samples of Keith LeBlanc’s drum sounds with him, fuelling the Wax Trax sound for years to come.
2. Einstürzende Neubauten – Yü Gung
German metal-bashers, Einstürzende Neubauten, recorded “Yü Gung” with Gareth Jones at Hansa in Berlin before Adrian Sherwood was let loose on the tapes. Blixa Bargeld screams “Feed my ego!” with the intensity of a drug-addicted chemistry grad starved of narcissistic supply – which is fitting, as the song was inspired by the chopping and snorting of methamphetamine.
1. Tackhead – Mind at the End of the Tether
In 1984, Sherwood was in New York on a studio assignment when he met up with Keith LeBlanc, the drummer in the Sugar Hill Records house band. Within short order, LeBlanc was in London with two other members of the band, Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald, making magic with Sherwood as Fats Comet.
Wimbish – who went on to play with Living Colour and the Rolling Stones – suggested using the name, Tackhead – New York slang for a homeboy – for the group’s less commercial work.
For this powerful 12″, LeBlanc’s beats create a furious racket, while a voice laments the decline and fall of civilisation. Citing H.G. Wells, the narrator asks, “Is there a way out?” The only way is across the dancefloor.