When Adrian Sherwood formed the label in 1980 London, On-U Sound was as influenced by collectivist ideals as it was by the loose scene emerging from the wreckage of punk's first wave. Many of its flagship acts, such as New Age Steppers and Singers And Players, were less "bands" than ad-hoc alliances of musicians. It was a broad church, too, welcoming traditional roots artists like Bim Sherman, post-punk agitators like Ari Up from The Slits, jazz musicians, performance artists and—in Tackhead—members of Sugarhill Gang who moved on from hip-hop to industrial rock.
Given that eclecticism, there was always more to On-U Sound than the dub it became synonymous with. On Science Fiction Dancehall Classics, Trevor Jackson—a long-time On-U obsessive, who even nabbed the Playgroup name from one of its acts—puts a microscope over the label's punk-funk and industrial side. In doing so, he reveals the source of the sound that would inspire much of the roster signed to his Output label.
By the '80s, the meeting of punk and reggae popularised by The Clash had transformed into something far weirder. With scabrous bass and snarled vocals, tracks like Voice Of Authority's "Stopping And Starting," Allan Pellay's "Parasitic Machine" and The Chicken Granny's "Quit The Body" could have all been scooped from the same melting pot as Public Image Ltd's Metal Box (that band's bassist, Jah Wobble, appears here on Dub Syndicate's "Over Board"). When more traditional reggae styles come to the fore, as on Singers And Players' "Kunta Kinte Dub" or African Head Charge's "Off The Beaten Track," it sounds like roots music shrouded in the smoke of belching chimneys rather than fragrant spliffs.
Science Fiction Dancehall Classics also demonstrates how the label went in other directions. Fats Comet's "Dee Jay Program" and The Circuit's "Dead Come Alive"—featuring a young Neneh Cherry—show how Sherwood was enamoured with the embryonic electro and hip-hop scratch tracks emanating from America. His remix of Atmosfear's "When Tonight Is Over" turns the British jazz-funk group into what feels like a Giorgio Moroder disco tune stomping around in boots made of pure bass.
At the centre of everything is Sherwood himself, turning up the low-end, ladling on reverb, dropping in bicycle bells and birdsong on New Age Steppers' "Radial Drill." In cases like "Ace Of Wands" by Missing Brazilians, he strangles the outlandish sounds from his mixing desk until you have no idea what they are. It's not so cutting-edge now, but must have all sounded incredibly futuristic at the time. Some of the electro stuff in particular hasn't dated well, even if their rudimentary beats still have a certain rough-edged charm.
Science Fiction Dancehall Classics is a treasure trove for newcomers as well as On-U completists (there's a generous number of previously unreleased tracks), and a fascinating piece of dance music genealogy. The Circuit's "Aiming At Your Heart Pt. 2," featuring Shara Nelson, could be a template for the trip-hop of her later work with Massive Attack. Mark Stewart & The Maffia's "The Wrong Name And The Wrong Number" prefigured The Bomb Squad's aggressive sample collages for Public Enemy. Dub Syndicate's "Drilling Equipment" prefigures contemporary bass music's experimental fringes. With reggae, punk, industrial, hip-hop and early electronica all colliding, Science Fiction Dancehall Classics is a soundclash from which the shockwaves can still be felt over 30 years later.
01. Missing Brazilians - Ace Of Wands
02. Dub Syndicate - Over Board
03. African Head Charge - Off The Beaten Track
04. Creation Rebel & New Age Steppers - Chemical Specialist
05. Suns Of Arqa - Asian Rebel
06. New Age Steppers - Animal Space
07. Alan Pellay - Parasitic Machine
08. The Chicken Granny - Quit The Body
09. African Head Charge - Stebeni’s Theme
10. Neneh Cherry & The Circuit - Dead Come Alive
11. Atmosfear - When Tonight Is Over (US Thunder Mix)
12. The Circuit - Loudspeaker (alternate version)
13. Fats Comet - Dee Jay’s Program
14. Tackhead - Now What?
15. Keith LeBlanc - Move
01. Fats Comet - Dub Storm
02. Voice Of Authority - Stopping And Starting
03. African Head Charge - Latin Temperament
04. Mark Stewart & The Maffia - The Wrong Name And The Wrong Number (DJ Battle)
05. Singers & Players - Kunta Kinte Dub
06. Bim Sherman - Melody Dub
07. Shara Nelson & The Circuit - Aiming At Your Heart Pt.2
08. Playgroup - Forty Winks
09. Dub Syndicate - Drilling Equipment
10. New Age Steppers - Radial Drill
11. Missing Brazilians - Quicksand Beach Party
12. Little Annie - 77 Emerging Strips