Interview with Nick Manasseh
Pioneering UK dub producer/selector. Manasseh sound system was built in 1985 by a group of friends with the aim of playing reggae with a roots focus. In 1987 Nick began his show on Kiss FM, brought in by brothers Norman and Joey Jay whilst the station was a pirate until 1999.
Riz Label was started by the Manasseh crew in 1991, releasing the first Manasseh Meets The Equalizer (AKA Jeremy Armstrong) album in 1992- ‘Dub The Millennium’, which was then licensed to Acid Jazz. Nick has since produced countless tracks, remixes and albums from world class musicians including amongst others, Pama International, Emeliana Torrini, Lee Perry for Rob Da Bank, Brother Culture’s ‘Isis (including tracks ‘Supernova’ and ‘Rider’) and Earl 16’s Roots Man.
Most recently and notable are the wave of Roots Garden Productions storming the UK reggae charts Nick has produced, beginning in 2004 with Johnny Osbourne’s ‘Black Star Liner’. Recent releases have included singers Ava Leigh, Luciano, Ras Zacchari, Levi Rhythm, Bob Skeng, Dark Angel, Cate Ferris and Brother Culture. One of the latest releases, Manasseh Meets Praise, ‘The Struggle Continues’ features live viola player Michael Pagulatos.
Nick recently did the sound design for Julian Temple’s new film about London and has been working with a 12-piece band from the Solomon Islands, Narasirato.
Since the sound system began in 1985, Nick has been a DJ all over the world, working with MCs Brother Culture, Danny Red, Earl 16, Dark Angel and Kenny Knots.
1.How did you get involved with reggae …..:
I think that is the thing, in London in particular somebody like me choose to get into reggae music is kind of environmental as a London kid and not have some affection for reggae, if you don’t , you are really from a different planet. I think with younger kids now it’s a bit different but in those time, this was coming off of punk music, that was a time when people were allying to themselves with a certain movement and said I am this, and as a 15 year old there was no question I was reggae and soul, they went together. For me the hardcore roots reggae thing, the Shaka thing came a little bit later but just right at the beginning either you are a little to young for the first wave on punk music, so for me when I was growing up it was about the Clash and the Special, and it was about Trojan compilations and all the skinhead reggae was very popolar, the Bob Marley “Live” album was very popular, Bob Marley was very popular. For my 13th birthday when it came out, this album was so environmental, you cannot really say what obviously is that really made me into reggae…a kind of aesthetics thing, I love reggae and I love that kind of tonality….And to give you another round about examples: somebody make me a CD the other day, two CD’s, a rare gospel music, and some of the music in there has the same mysteries as deep roots music, very similar of kind of mysteries…I guess a musicology would know more than me, but when you embrace reggae music, then you are embracing a tonality music, a certain kind of cords and progression and this are the things that made you happy, because you respond to that kind of music ….but yeah like I am saying the age that I am, when I was starting it was all about reggae and soul music and funk music ant then it become the hip-hop, and it was coming all at that same time…I was that age, I was going to DaddyCool records to buy reggae 12” and I was going to Grove Records, one street along, to buy early hip-hop 12’ and then after few years was like – “ look it …we doing reggae…that’s what we are, we are reggae….” – and that’s how it stayed… I often say that sometimes I think that with some of punk music, the rebellion always feels to me a bit like fake, its not a real rebellion… when I was coming of age and I was watching Brixton riots on the news 1981 and hearing the music on the background… that was real rebellion, so obviously for a 14-15 years old boy that’s really powerful, very strong stuff, not just a rebellion by words but its actually frightening rebellion, it’s serious, there is violence and some people was being killed… its real and I think, when you are 14-15 what you’re looking for, is real and this was real…..I mean the history is fascinating because also at that time I was hanging around with dreads in South London who would’ve been maybe 5-10 years older than me, but they would’ve been born in Jamaica and come over to England when they were 4-5 years old, so demographically it was a very different time… because we wanted to buy weed , because we wanna get to dances, and because for all London ….London is still sometimes quite heavy, but it doesn’t mean that is not well integrated, and London is well integrated. You go to America and see cities not well integrated, where are we right now in West London it has always been well integrated place, always been interaction between black and white and in those days there where not difference where people were living with, you were living in the same street, in the same little houses as West Indian families, everybody lived in the same street. When I lived in Brixton from 1990 that what it was, I remember when there was a fire in one of the house near me in Brixton, everybody helped, and I remember saying that was one of the last West Indian family in this street. Many people sold the house and went back to Jamaica or moved back to West Indian then…
2.Info and memories about the sound systems in the 80’S:
So we got into the culture, we went to Carnaval, we saw sound system and we got to understand about sound system. The first sound system could be Jah Live sound system, then Java sound system but I saw many sound system before to see Jah-Shaka. In those days and maybe still now in some extend, the big manufactures of PA are not really making sound systems for DJ’s, they are making sound systems for bands. Now there is an industry making sound systems for people who want to play music, two tracks. Then there wasn’t and If you wanna have a big, big, sound system you had to make it yourself. The all of Edgware road was full of shops selling speakers, you know the cones. There was a big one called “Music Craft” in the north part of Edgware road now, that was the place to get your sound system equipment. You build your cabinets yourself and go and get the cones from Edgware road, that was kind of get for that. It’s gone now, it doesn’t really exist anymore.
At that time, night club sound systems were not great for playing reggae, they were not really great for anything, they came from the disco, so there was a need, there was nothing else that you can do and because it was a need it became the culture. And then the culture became playing in venues that were not nights clubs, so, it was about playing in schools, sports halls, and communities centres and places were you could take your sound system into. You will always been taking your sound system into a place where there was no sound system , nothing, because this was also the era of the warehouse parties, and warehouse party is another word for a free party then Europe became a free party scene, and in England ithe end of the 80’s was known as the warehouse party scene.
3:Building my own sound system:
I started with my first sound system in 1985. We were not the first white sound system, there was Tabby from 1970’s and Tabby was not really a white sound system, but Keith is white. Jah Warrior too was there but to be honest we were all mix sound systems, I mean, I don’t know any sound system which is all white, maybe in Europe was a bit different, but this is just because of the environment. I can say this now because I cannot be persecuted, for me the money to build a sound system came from selling weed and I then bought my first studio session in 1886 and I went to record…. I remember I had the night before going to the studio, I worked out what became the record Seven Seals, Sound Duration. I recorded the next day, I knew the lines, my melodically lines, the cords, so I started the sound in 85 and the production from 1986. We were playing by 1988 with Jah Shaka for the first time, we were in the Shaka tradition but of the all sound systems, Shaka was the exception. Still to this days if I’m playing in London, West Indian to a black crowd, I’m gonna play in a different way, is not the same. I remembered talking to a sound system guy in Jamaica and the sound system called Area Code, and they were complaining to me how difficult it is to break a new tune … impossible, everybody just wants to hear Dannie Brown or whatever, and that can it be tricky. I think that sometime for people like us and Markie and stuff, some of the difficulty we had playing, let’s say playing a little blues in Brixton or something, you know they didn’t want to hear roots music, one or two pieces, but not all night of roots music. It is different now, it’s changed, there have been a lot of movement, we had a big influence within the black community. I see the people from the original era of roots, I’m thinking about Ras Hippy now, we couldn’t play that music to a black crowd in certain years, but now these people play all over Europe. It’s a very subtle situation, you can play a roots session to a black crowd and they will be totally down with it, it is hard to explain. If I’m playing in a park, I’m not gonna play Shaka style all day, because I love those Danny Brown tune, I wanna play that classical suite reggae, the London people love, a Manchester people and Brixton people love. I don’t want to alienate people playing obscure roots tunes that nobody knows, if I’m playing in a park I want everybody having a nice time. I think for me: first I’m a DJ, and DJ main function is to wake the crowd, read the crowd, see what people are about and you gonna play the music that you just feel right away and this is what I’m going to play tonight.
The first time we played with Shaka was in Hackney in 1988 and 1989 was the second time.
The first one is very famous because Shaka had white label of our first album Sound Duration, and he played but he didn’t know that was our music, and he destroyed the dance with Sound Duration …..so, when we came afterwords, we played the Gingol “Jah children crying”, which is Shaka first released…..Then we used to play regularly with Norman Jay which was a famous funk Dj, his brother Joy was in charge of the sound system, and often we will brake into warehouses, sometimes into a new house that was developed or an empty house and we will put on a party. This is how Manasseh got into KFSM, that is how they new us, because we are from the some area, West London, and they new us because we used to do warehouses parties with them and this is way they said come and do KSFM.
4:The big difference between those days and now:
The big difference between those days and now, I think is that demographic is moved on, a lot of people who are in charge now of the urban infrastructure, were people of my generation or younger, and one of the big difference is that the sound system is welcomed in events, in parks events in London, they want it, because is positive is a nice energy. So, things are changing, we are not dealing with a war time generation, and came up saying this are the people in the authority, is different now, for people of the same background that me, we are now in a situation that most people in power have raved, they understand… we have an MP that is a black man, Chuka Moona, he is a DJ., he was a DJ in the 90’, a friend of Norman Jay. Perhaps not consciously but sublimaly there is a realization that in many raves situations a reggae sound system is quite a positive influence. I said this in particular because recently, this will be only interest of people who have been to Glassbury festival, there is a late night area in the Glassbury festival called Shangryla, and a month ago I was there with “Solution sound system”, the sound system played every day and every night, and I player everyday in the sound system. I think that “Solution sound system” had a positive influence on Shangryla , it was a civilized influence, this is positive, it is music with heart that express positive things and is good. I was playing in their sound system and Jah Observer was there playing and many other people too.
5:Reggae , Jamaica and Europe now with the web:
The internet have really mashed up Jamaican music industry….the thing about Jamaican music industry, which is a very healthy thing…that some politically militant european people don’t understand but what is really important …that Jamaican music industry is about making money and if they not making money …they not gonna release their records…. they are not doing it to make a political statement, they doing it because it is their living…and that is their way to make progress in life …We are talking about Jamaican music industry……basically that Jamaican people understood that internet was fucking up with their music….ya! that vinyl would stop selling in the same way and all of the pressing plants in Jamaica had closed at that time, I think now Tuff Gong is re-opened…it’s not dead at all in any way…I thing in recent years with Chronixx and Protoje and all the new generation it’s really come back and that’s a good thing and I really support that whole thing but certainly it went down and even now – I am jugging from my own perception – vinyl is too expensive to buy….. I mean every Jamaican record now that comes out, its not actually from Jamaica but by Reggae.com from Germany who is pressing it and it’s 7’’ are expensive….and from my point of view, the other day I wanted to have certain music and I went on the web and I bought a download wav for 1.66 pound, it’s like 2 EU and it was good, I enjoyed the experience, I thought the website worked well and was kind of making sense to me, I am not religious about vinyl…I love it…I still find that for me to play on vinyl is easier, mainly because of the visual recognition when you flicking through the records you can just see what the record is…. you are not looking at the list and I don’t like to look at the list, when I’m dj, I just want to do it intuitively and I can just tell from the labels what is what… but many times you go somewhere where the turn tables are not good or you go to a venue that got two 30 years old technics in there ….so the whole way of selling music its really being a big blow to us and at the end, I think its a big blow to European labels as well, but what I think the differences for many european labels they still what that kind of prestige of pressing vinyl…and I feel this too…….I often say that I think reggae really took off in UK-Europe when Asha, an R’N’B artist introduced his own credit card, I think that was the end for hip-hop in Europe, hip-hop was then seen very corporate and about big labels and commercial stuff and then reggae was the real thing and I thing that’s still is true. I think in some way reggae benefit even-though jamaican people would disagree, reggae benefit from the fact that the major record labels have never been able to deal with reggae and actually reggae benefit from that because it preserve the independent thing and the integruty thing. In England in a big city, a reggae sound system, in particular, is look like a kind in a slightly farther like way, you can have young kids and they are going to be playing grime and for them it works very nicely to have a reggae sound system next door, it’s a nice dynamic, and both people like both. That is particularly british thing. I think that for the rest of Europe and the world is a little bit different, it’s a little hard to explain how is different, because if I’m playing in France the crowd is not identical, some people have deep and historical understanding and knowledge in reggae music and some people don’t. Quite likely the people who don’t have it , they can be facing speakers and rocking out, for them it is just bass music and perhaps they don’t understand the lyrics so much, you know. But other people would have similar understanding of reggae music to somebody of my age in London, they get the same references, but I think in Europe is much more underground. It’s seen, it still as the rebellion feel. I remember that before I played in Naples, the army came and stop the dance. I remember in Italy playing with the South Sound System and people mixing the rhythm.
6:SOUND SYSTEMS as a culture, a business or just “the voice of people”?
I think is all three because the business is really important because without money people don’t live, they loose their initial enthusiasm and do something else, other or you make a living or you can’t.
I mean you know there are sometimes things you need for the sound system and if you have them life is much easier; one is the van, two is a premacis to keep your sound system, if you have those two things you have a sound system, and if you don’t overtime is becoming overtiring, just an hassle the all thing, and that is true with our physical sound system we had one robbery effect, but really the all think was to difficult because we didn’t have a premacist a van and it is hard.
I think if you are in the right position – for me life is quite tuff because I have to rent my studio and I have to rent a home, I have to turn over money just to keep going, the easiest your situation is in that sense the more likely that you are to make all your living from a sound system of for been a producer or whatever it is, I mean record labels, it is all about how much money it cost you just to exist.