Archive | March, 2018

Review: Bazza Ranks and The Prisoners of Audio

24 Mar

By Rhea H. Boyden

Last week Barry O’Brien aka DJ/Producer Bazza Ranks sent me over his latest release: ‘Where Would We Be (Without Our Music)’ which is a top notch collaboration with Irish hip hop group Prisoners of Audio. P.O.A. as they are also known, comprise MCs Ricki Rawness from Dublin, Russell Flow from Waterford City and Leiko Tola who is originally from Zimbabwe, but has resided in Ireland for the past decade.

I listened to the track and I immediately liked it so I asked Bazza to tell me a bit more about it. ‘It is a 90s style reggae hip hop track that fuses reggae samples and dub basslines with classic Boombap hip hop drums and tight rhymes,’ was his response. That seems like an awful lot for one track to cover and I realised when he told me this, that I really know very little about the magical fusion of all of these genres and how they all influence on and work with each other. I also spoke to MC Russell Flow who told me: ‘All of these genres are hinged together in some way, shape or form; that is the beauty of urban music. It’s very easy to dabble among different genres; to me hip hop and reggae are the lego pieces of the urban music world.’ Bazza Ranks also told me that he doesn’t like to limit himself to one genre and that he produces everything from reggae to hip hop to dancehall and house music. They both told me how much they love the vibe and music of Jamaica and are both reggae and hip hop fanatics.

The past week I have been listening to the track ‘Where Would We be Without Our Music’ and I have been reading about Jamaica and reggae, hip hop and dub. And indeed, my big question now is, Where would we be musically without Jamaica and reggae? One book that has enlightened me a lot on this topic is the brilliantly written and very entertaining ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. In it they write the following about Jamaica: ‘This tropical volcanic rock only 200 miles long was where many of dance music’s key innovations were first made flesh. To many, reggae is just a quirky local flavour, bouncy beach-party music. In fact, it is one of the most forward thinking genres in history. Reggae was the first style to value recorded music more than live performances. As the meeting place of African, European, North American and native influences, the Caribbean, as a whole, has an astonishing range of musical cultures.’

Bazza Ranks and The Prisoners of Audio

I asked both Bazza Ranks and Russell Flow a little more about their musical influences and backgrounds and the musical cultures that have inspired them the most. ‘Growing up in Dublin I had an older brother who used to give me tapes and I know it is a little cliched, but one of the first big ones that I loved so much was Bob Marley and that fired a love of reggae in me.’ Bazza, who is now 36 said he was a little young to be a part of the Irish rave scene, but it affected him musically nonetheless. ‘I loved rave and house and became a huge hip hop fan, ‘ he told me. He is one half of successful Irish electronic music act The Dirty Dubsters who have toured all over Europe, Canada and the U.S and have been a staple on the reggae stage at the annual Irish music festivals The Electric Picnic and Body and Soul. He has held many residencies in London where he currently resides and performed at numerous festivals all up and down the U.K. His musical bio to date is impressive indeed.

MC Russell Flow, former member of acclaimed hip hop group The Animators was introduced to hip hop and reggae in the U.K. as a teenager. ‘In 1995, there was a budding Jamaican scene in London. I was only 15 and was hugely influenced by the likes of early hip hop group London Posse and various local acts in Luton where I was living.’ He told me that the new release ‘Where Would We Be Without Our Music’ of which he raps the last verse, is truly a love letter to music. Each MC raps a verse about his own love of music and what music means to him.

We also spoke about the challenges they face producing music together seeing as they are spread out over 3 cities – London, Dublin and Waterford. ‘Recording is easy enough. I can record things and send it over to the guys and vice versa;’ Bazza told me. He told me that the ‘hook’ – the line of audio, ‘Where Would We Be Without Our Music’ is a sampled part and that gives the MCs a direction. He gives them that and a beat he has produced and then they fill the empty space in between with their rapping. It certainly is intriguing to hear about the process of how a song is constructed. ‘Filming the video was of course a little more challenging;’ Bazza told me, ‘Because naturally we all have to be in the same place at the same time to do it, so it was just a waiting process until we all had time.’ The excellent video was filmed at The Record Spot on Fade Street in Dublin as well as in North Strand where Dublin’s Rub A Dub Hi-Fi have their soundsystem. There is also a clip of Bazza Ranks on the decks at The Purty Kitchen in Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.

We also spoke about how elements of dancehall music and hip hop have a bad reputation for glorifying guns, violence, and drug use and also how many lyrics are degrading to women and blacks. Bazza admits that is true in a lot of cases, but he also hopes that the tunes that will withstand the test of time musically will be the ones with more spiritually uplifting vocals. Hip Hop sprung from Jamaican and Bronx ghettos after all, and a lot of it expresses the harsh reality of life there. In his book ‘Caribbean Currents’ Peter Manuel writes: ‘The glorification of guns may be primarily rhetorical, especially insofar as it expresses the theatrical rivalry between between DJs. Many DJs claim to be singing about a lyrical gun; it is better than taking up a real gun and pointing it in a man’s face.’ Indeed, my further reading about the history of hip hop in the Bronx has shown this to be true. Music was a saving force for many in the ghetto with the police turning a blind eye on extremely loud Bronx block parties, reasoning that it was far better and more peaceful than the alternative which was gang warfare and gunshots.

In the course of my conversations with them, both Bazza Ranks and Russell Flow enlightened me on many further aspects of how all these genres work in harmony and how the music works. ‘Some of the 90s dancehall stuff is some of my favourite music with its powerful basslines and what drives me to that music is the tone and voice of Jamaica. I just love the sound of a Jamaican singer or toaster over a hip hop drum,’ Bazza said. ‘Yes, and if you take hip hop and reggae in its rawest form you can do so much with it,’ Russell Flow told me. ‘You can take reggae and add something to it and then you have dub, for example. I decided to read more about dub of which I knew little before and ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ contains the following stunning description of it: ‘Dub is a new universe of sound. It is the first full flowering of the dance remix. Dub opened up such dramatic possibilities that it is considered a whole new genre. Dub techniques are so powerful they are now used across the entire spectrum of popular music. A dub mix is essentially the bare bones of a track with the bass turned up. Dub separates a song into its stark component parts and subtracts each strand of sound until a new composition is made. By adding space to a track what is left has far more impact. By boosting a bassline until it’s a monstrous shaking presence, dropping out the whole of the song except its drums, sending a snatch of singing into a reverberating echo, stretching out a rhythm with an interminable delay, dub can make a flat piece of music into a mountainous 3-D landscape.’

Dub, reggae, hip hop and dancehall; they certainly seem to collide and fuse frequently with each other and my reading and discussions the past week have opened my eyes a little more to this world. Bazza also told me about his record label Irish Moss Records. ‘Irish Moss is a famous drink over in Jamaica so we thought that was fitting. It is a dance music label with a very definite reggae heartbeat,’ he said. ‘Yes, a love of reggae is very definitely something that bonds us,’ Russell Flow agreed. Bazza is also a podcaster providing a platform to speak to many other DJs about their musical passions. ‘It really is something I love to do. It was born out of talking to DJs at length when I bumped into them. I don’t really have access to the A list of DJs but it is great because people like to hear about the hard-working local DJs just as much.’ And it really is true. There are so many fascinating stories to hear about people’s many creative projects.

‘Where Would We Be’ is released on Irish Moss Records

Photos and graphics courtesy of DJ Bazza Ranks and MC Russell Flow.

‘Where Would We Be’ video courtesy of Dan Gill

Black and white photo by Tara Morgan

Review: Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands

11 Mar


By Rhea H. Boyden

I am lying on my bed relaxing and listening to Spacemen 3’s 1989 album ‘Playing With Fire’ through my headphones. This is the first time I have ever heard this album and I am intrigued. I listen to it a second and a third time and with each play it grows on me more and more. I especially love the song ‘How does it feel?’ I have been prompted to listen to this album because I have just read Will Carruthers’ stunning memoir of his time as a bassist in Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, two pioneering British psychedelic bands from the 80s and early 90s.

‘How does it feel?’ I love this song and it really makes me think about my feelings after reading Will’s book. It is a book that takes you on a magical rollercoaster ride of feelings. At one moment I am laughing til my sides ache and the next I feel anger at the manner in which Will and his band members were treated by mainstream British society and the Thatcher government of the 80s. This anger is then calmed by reading on as Will writes beautifully, poetically and philosophically on a host of topics, and then I am laughing again as he tells yet another anecdote in his fantastic, self-deprecating wit and style. This book is superb. I am hooked. It makes me feel everything and I want to learn more.

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Musician, author and bookmaker Will Carruthers

I became acquainted with Will back in 2011 in Berlin. We lived in the same neighbourhood and had some mutual friends in the music scene and I saw him perform a few times. I have since been following his adventures as he moves around between Donegal, Ireland, Iceland, Berlin and other places. Now that I have read his memoirs I am intrigued by his multiple talents and am studying his work and listening to his music. ‘Can you tell me a bit more about the beginning of this song, ‘How does it feel?’ I ask Will on the phone. He fires back without hesitation: ‘Yes, it is a Vox starstreamer guitar using a built-in effect called a repeater.’ I tell him I would not have even known it was a guitar if he hadn’t told me. I clearly have a lot to learn. Quite apart from providing me with the technical descriptions of instruments, Will is a man who can write about music so beautifully which is refreshing and breathtaking to read in ‘Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands.’

Describing playing a gig in the north of England, Will writes: ‘I took myself, sliding, up to the top octave on the bass and held it for a perilously long time, until that high thin note hid itself in the drone, and when I ran back down the neck, the bass came surging up like a shark out of the deep blue sea.’ He writes about how well Spacemen 3 were received in the north of England: ‘Maybe they understood drugs and desperation more completely up there.’ Maybe indeed.

Will writes candidly and openly on many topics including his and the band’s drug use. It was part of the subculture they lived in as they struggled to survive in Thatcher’s Britain: ‘We weren’t very well adjusted to the prevailing reality of our times,’ he writes. Drugs and making music were his escape, especially, from the drudgery and repetition of factory life in Britain. He worked an exhausting night shift in a sheet metal factory in Birmingham ‘putting the same bend in five thousand identical strips of metal.’ His book details the many jobs he has held over the years as a labourer, builder and handyman – digging ditches and hauling buckets of cement. Living hand to mouth, going into debt and then trying to climb out of debt by cleaning windows, all the while, his love of playing music being the passion that sustains him through hard times. His descriptions of British politics of the era are spot on: ‘The deathknell for post-war optimism had been sounded and we were witness to the breaking of the social contract in favour of personal gain, war and hate. Despite this, we were somehow hopeful in our despair.’


One of Will’s exquisite hand stitched books

Living hand to mouth and maintaining hope is challenging indeed, especially when you are a touring band and decent, cheap food is hard to come by. This book has many parts that are laugh-out-loud funny, but Will’s descriptions of some of the dreadful British food he encounters are hilarious. When invited by his bandmates for dinner he describes the roast pork he is served: ‘The piece of pig had been cooked beyond the limits of endurance and lay in the puddle of congealing treacle sauce as though it were undergoing some advanced form of culinary rigor mortis. It is said that we should not speak ill of the dead, so how then should we speak of the ill-cooked dead? This was a pig that had died twice, the first time at the hands of a slaughterman, and the second time of embarrassment at the indignities it had been forced to endure on the plate.’

With food like this who wouldn’t take drugs and escape into music for nourishment? In another chapter Will describes being stoned and playing at an arts centre in London. In this stunning chapter Will gets to the core and essence of what music does to your perception of time: ‘Spectral shapes, motifs and melodic archetypes drift in and disappear, while the occasional mythical beast emerges from the ocean of drone…and the drift of time is forgotten within the boundaries of limitless sound.’ Throughout his book, Will references having a strange and unique relationship with the passing of time whilst playing a gig and this has inspired me to read more about what other philosophers have to say on this topic. Pioneering American philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) writes the following: ‘The elements of music are moving forms of sound; but in their motion nothing is removed. The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of pure duration. Like its elements, however, this duration is not an actual phenomenon. It is not a period – ten minutes or half an hour- but it is something radically different from the time in which our public and practical life proceeds.’

How one segment of Will’s public and practical life proceeds when he is not performing music is summed up in his meeting with a dole officer who is challenging his claim to a payment of benefits. ‘Mr. Carruthers,’ the dole officer questions him, ‘What do you see your role in society as being?’ Will goes on the defensive to this question and asks the dole officer what his role in society is and that he simply wants the small government benefits that he is entitled to. This dole officer has very likely never considered how challenging life can be for people who are attempting, against all odds, to lead a life that is more artistically, environmentally, aesthetically and architecturally satisfying than what was on offer in the British towns of Rugby (Will’s hometown) Coventry or Middlesborough. Will’s description of the polluting chemical factories and hideous architecture of these towns are yet another impressive and well-researched part of this memoir.


Hand carved lino for handmade books by Will Carruthers

A further chapter details how Will receives a green bolt of yew for his birthday. He has had a few lessons from a character who he refers to as Elron the Bowmaker on how to make a bow. He becomes fixated on the task at hand: ‘I was prepared for an epic revenge story of tragic proportions. I set about my task of making my weapon like a man quietly possessed. I felt wronged and felt only vengeance could make it right.’ I had to read this chapter twice before I understood that the enemy was an imaginary foe. I asked Will about it. ‘I deliberately made that part vague,’ was his response. And now I am beginning to see why. There is no one single enemy that you could possibly shoot the arrow at to make yourself feel better and so it is better to keep making good art and music than resorting to vengeance. This is the role of the artist after all, to make life a little more colourful, bearable and infuse it with meaning and emotion. Will’s wise words are arrows enough. I am reminded of an article by Maria Popova as she writes about Susan Sontag’s philosophy: ‘Sontag said: ‘Words mean, words point, they are arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality.’ Popova continues by saying: ‘If words are the arrow, we ourselves, our interior landscapes, our outward actions – the authenticity of our lives – are the bow.’

It is the authenticity of Will’s life that make his stories so compelling. ‘I never used that bow for anything except entertainment. In the end I chose music instead of revenge, creativity instead of destruction and something else instead of money.’ he writes.

Will is currently back in Berlin making books from his beautiful handmade lino prints. He stitches each book himself and is making stunning boxed editions as well. ‘So how many have you made so far?’ I asked. ‘About 160 and I am hoping to make about 300 in total before I leave Berlin again,’ he told me. ‘Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands’ is certainly a book that deserves a beautiful handmade cover.

A hand stitched copy of Will’s book can be ordered on his Squarespace website

Books also available on Amazon.
Photos courtesy of Will Carruthers
Photo of Will Carruthers by Francesca Sara Cauli.

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