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Dennis Bovell – Dub On Air

Author: Elsie Bath

Dennis Bovell is a key player in the British music scene, and the shape that it holds today. With not only a career but a life studded with famous bands, talented musicians and too many stories to remember, it’s serendipitous that Bovell now takes to the airwaves on Soho Radio with Dub on Air, bringing the story back to a pivotal part of Bovell’s life; independent music broadcasting.

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, before reggae, dub or lovers-rock were played on radio, they were played through Sound Systems. These were the self-made, mobile and multi-managed DJ set ups that filled the back rooms and basements of London with the music Black British youth could identify themselves in.

Bovell was right there in the thick of it with his Jarah Sound System; just one of many that ‘is totally responsible for the development of reggae in this country, because radio didn’t play it.’

Early on, getting played on one of these sound systems was the only way that new and loved reggae tracks could be heard by the buying public. ‘The sound system was reggae’s radio’ as Bovell puts it.

Today there are reggae designated stations and shows, but non with such a prolific presenter as Dub on Air.

These were the self-made, mobile and multi-managed DJ set ups that filled Londons back rooms and basements with the music Black British youth could identify themselves in.

Dennis Bovell (left) playing with Matumbi, 1978

Born in Saint Peter, Barbados in 1953, Bovell moved to South London with his parents at the age of 12. Around this time a surge of immigrants from the West Indies and beyond were making England their home.

This situated Bovell in a perfect storm, a surge of Black culture that was brewing in London, which prominently took its shape on the music scene in the form of reggae. The genre became a vibrant scene, a way of telling the history of the West Indies while also carving out a space in the UK that was wholly their own.

But contrary to what is widely reported, Bovell immersed himself in a wide range on genres from a young age, not just reggae. He performed in rock and soul bands and even psychedelic Hendrix tribute band, Stonehenge.

At a time when reggae was infecting the world with its passive rebellion and off-beat rhythm, Bovell joined Matumbi (aptly meaning ‘rebourn’ in Yoruba). The group was born in 1970 and quickly became Britain’s premier reggae band. ‘After Tonight’, ‘The Man in Me’ and ‘Point of View’ brought Matumbi into the spotlight, with chart toppers and tracks that are still regraded as British Reggae Classics.

Bovell sheds some light on the name of the band, ‘Matumbi was the most African sounding word that we could have come up with at the time, ‘cause we where chasing our African roots, ‘cause having been brought up in London, there was no African history.’

Despite the desire to let their roots shine through, the band was trying to pave a more commercial path for reggae style bands in the UK. Bovell remembers, ‘We were more interested in trying to fuse a pop style with a soul style with a reggae beat,’ drawing a focus on melodic reggae.

This was the first real indication of Bovell’s gift for songwriting and his melodic voice; Matumbi became the backing band for many touring Jamaican artists in the UK, including Jonny Clark, Ken Boothe and I-Roy.

This, however, was just the beginning of Bovell’s proximity and influence on great musical acts.

From Matumbi, Bovell graduated into Producer, Songwriter and Sound Engineer, where he could have more control over the sound. Bovell worked hard and intuitively, welding together dub, disco, funk and post-punk to revolutionise the sound of British music; making reggae accessible to the British buying public while also staying true to the meaning and feel of the genre.

It’s impossible to distill Dennis Bovell’s long spanning and successful career in the music industry into a few concise paragraphs, but’s it’s safe to say that he played a key role in revolutionising the sound of reggae and dub in the UK, while also helping to expand into a new genre all together; lovers-rock.

He was a key figure in the early days of the lovers-rock genre which developed as a lighter, a-polotical style fo reggae, or more aptly, ‘lovers-rock is the British sound of reggae.’

In a Dub On Air show, Bovell hosted Janet Kay, artist of the hit track ‘Silly Games’ which was most notable for its unique fusion of disco and reggae.

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Bovell produced this track with the sole intent to be a hit and has been dubbed one of the greatest lovers-rock tracks to grace the pop charts.

Since then Bovell’s work has always been extremely varied in the best way possible. Constantly embellishing on genres and formats to make them his own, he developed a distinct heaviness to his music that attracted collaborations with the likes of Linton Kwesi Johnson.

As Bovell was making his mark on the British music scene, the two urban genres punk and reggae began to collide through their share marginalisation in the mainstream music scene, despite the sounds being so different.

In this era of the dub, punk aesthetic, Bovell worked with Maximum Joy, Thompson Twins, The Pop Group, Orange Juice and others.

On a Dub On Air Special, Tessa Pollitt, base player from The Slits, joined Bovell to talk about his production of the bands debut album Cut back in 1979.

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‘They were experiencing the same kind of police brutality and blatant disregard for their human rights. It was happening to the working class kids as well, and they were also trying to speak out against it, which resulted in the whole punk movement.’ This then grew into something that all marginalised groups in London could identify with.

Dub on Air is a homage to the development of the West Indies sound on UK soil.

Through all this however, Dennis’s real love has been dub.

Developing out of reggae in the late 60’s, dub was a sub-genre of reggae with its own distinct sound. As Dennis explains, ‘British dub is quite a lot different to its Jamaican counterpart; quite a lot of young British people like the fact that the echos will take them into a different world.

Successfully carving out a space on Soho Radio once a fortnight, Dennis Bovell has graduated from the underground Sound Systems, but continues to spin dub, reggae, lovers-rock and ska records across his two hour show, ‘All over the world’.

Sifting through classics, dabbling in new releases, playing tracks and artists that have influenced him over the years, and occasionally diving down a rabbit hole of his own creations, Dub on Air is a homage to the development of the West Indies sound on UK soil.

Bovell stands by the fact that Jimmie Hendrix was his first encounter with Dub. Bovell however, now known as the ‘Godfather of British Dub’, took this initial influence to make something entirely his own.


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