Adrian Sherwood

Adrian Sherwood's love affair with Jamaican music began back in the late '60s when, as a child of 11, he would hang around outside a local West Indian club with a school friend, dancing on the pavement to the ska sounds of Prince Buster emanating from inside the club. It was the start of a lifelong association for the celebrated dub mixer/producer.

Sherwood has spent the last 30+ years producing and/or remixing some of the planet’s most innovative recordings under his own moniker or that of his On-U Sound label, stamping his big, fat, booming sonic trademark on hundreds of releases from African Headcharge and Dub Syndicate to Nine Inch Nails and Primal Scream. So revolutionary is his knob-twiddling that artists have been beating a more or less constant path to his North London home – where, in a home grown recording studio, Sherwood continues to play his mixing desk, bulldozing boundaries between funk, reggae, dub, and good old industrial noise with ease.

At 18 he co-founded a small distribution company, Carib Gems, selling the records shop to shop from the boot of his car. (“There were few outlets for black musicians back then. Even now a black musician has to be three or four times better than a white one to be heard.”) Ever enterprising, he started making records himself; his early dub plates for the likes of Prince Far I, Creation Rebel, and Dub Syndicate won him an invitation to play alongside such politically motivated, righteously angry bands as The Clash and The Slits. Cross-cultural interest heightened the tinderbox climate of the times.

"The Punky Reggae Party was full on. We thought we could change everything." Adrian Sherwood

In 1980, fired by the collective, optimistic spirit of the Rock Against Racism movement, he formed On-U Records (“It means “onus”, or very important sound”) and its equally ubiquitous touring offshoot, the On-U Sound System. Sherwood joined forces with Pop Group vocalist Mark Stewart and members of The Slits in projects like New Age Steppas, pushing dub and reggae into hitherto unknown territories of new wave and industrial rock. A vast army of reggae, funk, rock, and rap artists – Bim Sherman, Cabaret Voltaire, Tackhead, Lee Perry, Gary Clail (for whom he produced a top ten hit with Human Nature), Keith Le Blanc, and innumerable others – were soon clamouring for Sherwood’s wildly experimental studio techniques.

The legacy of his use of technology, particularly the then-unheard-of use of ambience and delay, is evident to anyone familiar with the history of club music and, it must be said, the work of multi-million selling acts like Moby. Sometimes, he even ran whole tracks in reverse.

The On-U vibe was democratic, leftfield, determinedly non-materialistic, and unashamedly idealistic. With it, Sherwood created a niche. “It gave us an identity among like-minded people,” he offers. “Anything with the On-U tag on it will sell a few thousand copies around the world, to people who know that we’ve been true to our spirit of making things.”

Further reading

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