Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Birmingham Reggae production houses and the third generation. Friendly Fire, The Elephant House and more

They say Birmingham exports more reggae and sends more bands and sound systems out on tour than Jamaica. That's a hell of a statistic.

True or not, 21st century Birmingham reggae is still huge. It's still at the heart of music making in the city: a continuing hotbed for reggae, dancehall and old-school/new-school mash-ups. Sympathetic promoters and enthusiastic audiences abound. There are (at least) two production houses, both in Balsall Heath, pretty much a stones’ throw apart. There's way more to talk about than one blog post can cover. 

If you trace 70s and 80s Birmingham music, the emphasis eventually lands squarely on reggae and cross-cultural mixes. Much of this came from Handsworth and Balsall Heath: tough, inner city areas with overlapping cultures - always promising from a musical perspective. Handsworth had the edge, with Steel Pulse, Ruby Turner, Cornerstone, Beshara and Apache Indian, and many others. But Balsall Heath can lay a powerful claim, being home to most of UB40 for many years. 

With Andy Hamilton’s generation as a starting point, all of the above are second generation reggae/soul artists. British by birth, and from a bewildering range of backgrounds, all of them happily worked, and mostly still work, across a whole pile of musical genres. 

Robin Giorno’s Friendly Fire operation has been up and running for around ten years. He takes an old-school view, working with a core set of musicians  - Friendly Fire Music - who back up both local artists and visiting stars from the old country. Most of Robin’s work sees the light of day on his own label, and he also backs his music and label work up with regular JamJah Sound DJ sets, setting himself a ferocious schedule. If you check out the PST and  Reggae City Festival sites, he's there - with his band or as a DJ.

Friendly Fire Music with Lionart - Badness

Friendly Fire HQ is an unconventional but effective studio and production centre, spread across several rooms, and leveraging both old-school techniques and web-powered tools. It can be a one-stop shop, with a production chain marked out by a mic and shield rig and decks at one end, and a CD duplicating machine at the other.

Robin Giorno is French; he came to the UK at 18 to study electronic engineering. It’s a complicated story. 
"Studying in England is different. In England it’s much more along personal development lines, whereas in France it’s much more rigorous. If I’d stayed in France I’d have only met other engineers; in England I got fully involved in…. all sorts of areas." 
Including Reggae? 
"I started listening to Reggae a couple of years before I left France; all the old-school guys like Marley, Toots, Gladiators, all the roots 70s guys."
So were you aware of the second-generation Birmingham reggae tradition?
"I don’t think I was! But I wound up going to Summit Records in the Bullring… and all these songs I could only hear on the radio, on Friday nights from 10.30 till 11.30 …they were all there! I could get the whole album! So Winston, who runs Summit, he guided me a little bit."
"Now those Indie shops are disappearing, the guys like Winston who fulfilled that role – the benevolent guy behind the counter who turns you on to this or that sound – are getting rarer and rarer. We’re going to pay for that in the end."
Robin's exactly right there. Losing the bricks and mortar stores is a 21st century tragedy. Record shopping online works fine, but there's no soul or passion, and it's driven most old-school stores to the wall.. 

Robin had already cut his teeth on guitar as a teenager in France, into Kiss and Glam rock, but his first UK band is still the band he plays in now. It emerged from some looped experimental work, to which local rapper Paradox added a vocal track. That found its way to a local studio which gave Robin some free time to develop some ideas… and the band came into being.

Check the Friendly Fire site for more - there's a lot more - as well as the gigs list at the bottom of the post.

Nip down the road from Friendly Fire, take a right at the crossroads, and then right again up the next alleyway, and you’ll find yourself at Elephant House, home of Overproof Sound System, who happily overlap with G-Corp and others. You’ll often find the same musicians working in both Friendly Fire and Elephant House; relationships are cordial and mutually supportive. Brian Nordhoff and Robert Cimarosti run Elephant House. If you want to read about their studio setup, there’s a post here. 

Nordhoff has been working in and around Reggae since the late 70s. 
"Cornerstone was one of the seminal Birmingham roots bands. They were one of the few reggae bands to get a Peel session... I started working with them, then I worked with a crew called African Star, I ended up producing because I was unimpressed with the live sound we were getting. One night I was standing by a desk, moaning, and someone said ‘Well, You do it then!’. So I jumped on, that led onto studio work, started getting more and more involved." 
Nordhoff was jumping back and forth between music areas. 
"The Elephant House started because we had a band called Electribe101, which we thought was dubby electronic stuff. But we were hailed as the forerunners of British House. So we had front pages on the NME and Top Of The Pops… which gave us enough money to build this place."
After major and repeated record company shenanigans (detailed here, and well worth a read if you're about to sign a record deal) the production team that grew out of Electribe 101 walked away to work independently, and have stayed independent ever since. 
"We were very fortunate, because we had built a bit of reputation. We were asked to produce a few of our heroes, like Dillinger, Big Youth, Ennio Morricone, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Sly and Robbie… and I got to mix UB40’s Labour Of Love."
 You’ve kept all that pretty quiet… 
"We’ve never been big fans of that side of things. We just want to make the music we want to make, and we can pay the rent, great."
Overproof Sound System Commander and Chief

So, like Robin Giorno, The Elephant House team spread themselves pretty far and wide, touring with Overproof Sound System, issuing material as G-Corp, and producing or mixing a surprisingly wide range of material - including Sly and Robbie, Dillinger, Big Youth, Luciano, Dubmatix, Adrian Sherwood / Dub syndicate, and a lot more.  
"I do find the way new musicians are using older music very inspiring. They aren’t restricted – they’re delving into all sorts of music. I think that’s fantastic. It’s much less tribal. The whole dubstep thing – somebody popped in earlier who’s connected through Jimmy Brown’s and Earl Falconer’s label – and we produced their Dub Specimen album. I thought it was fantastic. But I don’t know if anyone has heard it – it was a labour of love for them.. But I thought it was well worth the effort. It’s going to become a rare groove CD… "
When G Corp aren't busy touring Overproof, their studio is home to a wide range of bands (covered on this blog in a previous post).

Here's one of the latest productions, with Xova, who embody yet another facet of Birmingham's 3rd Reggae Generation; their management are currently working on a documentary covering the Birmingham reggae tradition.

 Knife Crime City - XOVA (G-Corp Album Edit)

Chatting with Brian about music in general and Birmingham in particular can take you all over the place. We eventually wound up taking about Country Music in Reggae, and in Old-school Soul.  
"I can reel off so many Country songs that were done in the Reggae format. There was a period in Reggae when it was so linked to Country. I spent the 70s in Handsworth, and everybody’s mum and dad were listening to Jim Reeves and all the big Country artists of the time. It’s always had a black/white connection.  Bob Marley and Black Uhuru was produced by Alex Sadkin, and that and Chris Blackwell crossed him over to the world."
‘Toots In Memphis’, Muscle Shoals, the Stax and Motown House bands… 
"We went over to the Cayman islands to produce an album, and what struck me was how all the cultures – Black Chinese, Asian, White - all speak either Jamaican Patois or with a Bajan or a Cayman accent. And everyone is actually seen as a Jamaican. It’s not what we see from here! The biggest reggae label in the world, VP, which is now run from Queens in New York, is run by the Chin brothers, who are Chinese Jamaicans! I grew up with Stax, Motown and Reggae, and that’s led us to where we are now."
It’s an odd but lovely thing to see the Stax-Volt house band concept being carried on in a highly individual reggae-oriented way by Robin Giorno, while Brian Nordhoff and Rob Cimarosti happily skate across a whole range of genres, while still centering on reggae, sound systems and dancehall. Just part of the grass roots in this town: the creative foundation from which all sorts of brilliant new work can grow. And while we listen to the current generation, be sure that there's a fourth generation getting ready. Some of them might be trying some moves out at Reggaebaby Lounge.

Friendly Fire website and 
JamJah Mondays
G-Corp website

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