Steel Pulse to re-emerge from the underground

Howard Campbell in Jamaica Observer

14 March 2004

Of the slate of Roots-Reggae bands that emerged from the London underground during the 1970s, Steel Pulse is among a handful still carrying the banner of British Reggae. Formed in the Handsworth section of Birmingham in the middle of that decade, Steel Pulse came to prominence in their homeland through hard-hitting albums like 1978's Handsworth Revolution, which was distributed by Island Records. The album earned them a slot as opening act in Europe for Island's marquee act, Bob Marley and The Wailers. Later, Steel Pulse gained an international following with True Democracy, the 1982 Elektra Records set that many consider as one of the outstanding Reggae works.

That record included roots standards like Blues Dance Raid, Chant A Psalm and Rally Round The Flag songs that formed part of the band's set at Reggae Sunsplash in 1981, which marked their live debut in Jamaica. The band, which was in Jamaica this week to perform at a wedding in Montego Bay, took time out to record a couple of songs for their upcoming album which is scheduled to be released in the summer. It will be Steel Pulse's first studio set in five years. David Hinds, the band's chief songwriter and leader, told the Observer that the group has concentrated on touring in the past five years and done a lot of soul-searching during their hiatus from the recording studio.

According to Hinds, "When we come back we want the album to fall like a ton of bricks." Though they won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with Babylon The Bandit in 1987, Steel Pulse lost a lot of their revolutionary sound after True Democracy. Moving from one major label (Elektra, MCA Records and Atlantic) to another, where executives were more concerned with sales than message, had a negative impact on their music, something from which Hinds admits they have struggled to recover. The 47 year-old Hinds (rhythm guitar and vocals), keyboardists Selwyn Brown and Sidney Mills, bassist Alvin Ewen, guitarist Clifford "Moonie" Pusey and drummer Conrad Kelly are the backbone of Steel Pulse. Longtime drummer Steve "Grizzly" Nisbett recently called it quits due to failing health.

The affable Hinds, whose parents are from St Ann, took a break from a recording session on Tuesday to chat with this writer about the band's comeback plans, their legacy and relationship with major record companies.

HOWARD CAMPBELL: What are you guys up to now?

DAVID HINDS: We are in the middle of recording our new album now, but we've been doing extensive tours of the United States and re-introducing ourselves to Africa. We've also been doing the odd gig in Europe.

HC: You guys have changed so many labels in the last 10 years. How difficult is it for a veteran Reggae group, a Rasta group, to find a new label that will do justice to your music?

DH: It's never been hard finding a label, it's hard finding a label that will suit the band's needs and have the band as their focal point. We've found that being with the Elektras, MCA and Atlantic have been no joy for us because they don't appreciate Reggae music and its potential, so we're keen now to go to labels that have us as a big fish in their pond.

HC: Any label in mind?

DH: It's going to vary from country to country. I know there's been talks with Sanctuary in England and RAS Records in the US and Nocturne in France has been on our case for sometime. All I can say, it's gonna be diverse.

HC: A lot of people have said that the stuff you did with Island lost its edge when you moved to the majors.

DH: I would agree with that. Island Records was a major label in a sense but they had someone like (founder) Chris Blackwell who understood Reggae music and the attitude of the musicians. All of that worked hand-in-hand with taking the music to another level and exposing the music to the world, but we're not the only band that affiliated ourselves with a major label and got shot in the foot. A lot of bands on this island can attest to that.

HC: Have you ever listened back to some of the albums you did for the major labels and winced?

DH: Yeah, Babylon The Bandit, which won the Grammy, was an achievement but I don't think it was one of our best products. But if you are familiar with the Grammys or Oscars you find that a lot of the music and movies that win are not necessarily the best, it's just Hollywood politics. I see that album as a milestone in our career but it wasn't one of our best.

HC: You write most of the songs and I know you don't like taking credit for where Steel Pulse is today, but which album do you think you did some of your best work on?

DH: I'm really proud of True Democracy, it stands for itself. Fans will tell you that True Democracy and Earth Crisis are our strongest albums.

HC: Do fans still want to hear the songs from the old albums?

DH: They do, but it depends where we are on the earth. When we go to Africa they are not as familiar with the new songs, so we give them a cross-section of the band's political career but it varies from country to country and town to town.

HC: Has staying away from Jamaica hurt the band? If so, how much?

DH: It definitely hurt the band, because when we came for the first time in '81 we immediately captured the Jamaican audience and they learned that Reggae could be performed from a British standpoint. Over the years one of the things record companies didn't do with the band was release enough singles and Jamaica has always been a country that penetrates singles as opposed to albums. Tracks like Bodyguard and Stepping Out were not singles, they were taken from the album by Jamaicans and since not having any singles promoted in Jamaica, I think that hurt the band here.

HC: How much of a Jamaican flavour will the new album have?

DH: We did some work with (producer) Computer Paul and did a recording with Capleton. We always saw Capleton as the act for that particular track but that's it for now.

Text copyright Jamaica Observer 2004, used without permission.


Steel Pulse's Sidney Mills solidifying contact with Jamaica

Howard Campbell in Jamaica Observer

21 March 2004

Getting a hit song in Jamaica has always been the acid test for overseas Reggae acts, just ask British singer Maxi Priest or American rapper/deejay Shinehead who never felt like they made it until they made the breakthrough here. Producer/musician, Sidney Mills, has similar ambitions. The 46 year-old Mills is probably best known as the long-serving keyboardist for journeyman British Roots-Reggae band, Steel Pulse, but he is also one of the most respected Reggae producers in New York City where he lives and operates the Living Room Studios.

Mills was in Jamaica recently with the band to record some songs for their first studio album in five years, but he also took time out to make the rounds and shop some of his productions. "I definitely want to get some stuff out here so I'm trying to hook up with Capleton's people to make some alignment down here," the dreadlocked Mills told the Sunday Observer. "I intend to be coming back and forth, there's a lot of people in New York who want to do stuff here and I believe I can act as a conduit."

New York-based singers J D Smooth and Sophia Brown and guitarist/singer Junior Jazz are just some of the artistes Mills is presently working with. He says breaking an artiste in the Big Apple can be tough as the market there is singles-oriented and swamped by dancehall beats coming from Jamaica. "A lot of the producers (in New York City) will put out a 45 and use it as a dual purpose: they give it to the sound systems or to a radio station for test play, see what kind of response it gets and then send it to somewhere like England," said Mills. "But for the buying market in New York, Miami and LA (Los Angeles) the songs have to be coming from them it's not valid if it's not coming from Jamaica."

The London-born Mills has a solid track record as a musician/producer in his hometown of Brooklyn. He has worked with big-name performers like Ziggy Marley, message rapper, KRS-One, Michael Stipe of progressive-rock group REM and the late funk singer Gwen Guthrie. His touches can be heard on songs by Marcia Griffiths, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown whose last album, Let Me Be The One he produced just before the singer died in July 1999.

While Mills is working on albums with Smooth, Brown and Jazz, he says he is looking to break Smooth and Brown via the singles market. With Jazz, who made his name on the North Coast circuit and touring with performers like Freddie McGregor, he says the direction will be different. "For Junior who is more of a song-oriented musician and writer you might find that the percentage of people who listen to that type of Reggae is lower than that of the dancehall artiste," Mills explained. "So we go for an album concept where he can showcase his vocal skills rather than singjaying on a constant beat."

Mills and his family left England to live in Happy Grove, St Thomas when he was four years old. He spent most of his formative years in that eastern parish but in his teens he moved to Kingston where he attended Kingston College, getting into music by hanging out with bandleader Sonny Bradshaw and playing in a band called Outer Limits. He joined Steel Pulse in the mid 1980s and has played on most of the band's albums since, including the live Rastafari Centennial and Vex.

Text copyright Jamaica Observer 2004, used without permission.

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