Roots Garden is a Brighton institution. A legendary midweek club night that ran for 14 years and span off a record label that has released over 150 tracks – including brilliant Nick Manasseh productions featuring the likes of Johnny Osbourne, Cornell Campbell and Johnny Clarke. Roots Garden is also a 1BTN radio show and long standing promoter of some of the best reggae nights Brighton has to offer. Ian Lawton caught up with Jon Jones for a long overdue interview and label focus.
So let’s start off in the now and then we’ll jump backwards in time. So I wanted to have a chat about the new record, the Manasseh Meets Praise record. Tell us about that. It’s a bit of a different vibe.
Yeah, it is a different vibe. I mean, we did a single back in 2011 from Manasseh Meets Praise which is a project with Manasseh as producer, writer and musician, and Praise is a guy called Michael Pagulatos, a viola player and violin player, who’s worked with all kinds of people. He started out, I think, touring with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. He’s done stuff with Gorillaz in the early days. He is a very accomplished musician. Nick Manasseh had met him at Glastonbury Festival I think, when Nick was actually living near Glastonbury with his old studio back in Bruton. I think about 2009 they met and got on really well and Nick invited him into the studio and they started writing some music together. Without much of a plan as far as I understand at that point, and that they had a collection of tracks, just three or four, I think. One of which we released in 2011 on Roots Garden, called A Matter of Struggle. Electronics, dub production, you know, very much Manasseh style. It was a programmed beat with a synthesizer bassline, what we’d call a digi-reggae tune, but with Michael’s strings over the top. It was a new sound in a way.
We got a really good response from that. The initial vinyl press sold out really fast and certain shops were featuring it, like Rough Trade, I think had it, and Sounds of the Universe and some of the cooler shops that aren’t exclusively reggae were really into it. Yeah, and by that point they had about half an hour of an album together, maybe about seven or eight tracks. So really the album’s been made over the space of like 11 years now. I was always really excited about the project. I felt it had potential to be bigger than just the regular audience. Although it is structurally full of reggae influences and the tracks have a skank, you know, the piano skank and a one drop beat, it has lots of elements from other genres in it, as you know as you’ve listened to it. Obviously a big classical influence and a kind of cinematic vibe to it, I suppose, for want of a better word.
How’s it going down with like the more hardcore reggae crowd and shops?
So, surprisingly, the hardcore crowd seem to really love it. And I think we’ve always been a little bit left field with what Roots Garden does, and Manasseh as a producer has always had that balance of appealing both to the hardcore and outside of that, you know, that goes right back to his work in the late eighties and early nineties with Acid Jazz and people like that. So we’ve always had that recognition that although we have a hardcore fan base, some of our stuff is sometimes a bit adventurous, this release obviously a lot more so. But actually there’s a few tracks on there that really appeal to the hardcore audience and we’ll come to that in a bit. But there will be a vinyl release to fit that market. Actually they’ve been really supportive of it. I was interested to see how it would go down, but it feels like people really accept the fact that it’s a bit different and they seem quite open to that at the moment. It seems to be the right time to be releasing something like this.
Cool. It’s got a lot of crossover potential.
Yeah. Gilles Peterson has been playing it …
He probably doesn’t normally play your records?
No, I mean, I send stuff. I know he’s played Vin Gordon’s work, but not our stuff with Vin, recently. He always touches on reggae. I think there’s other stuff of ours like maybe the Cate Ferris tunes he probably would have liked if they were on his radar. But yeah, usually he doesn’t respond. It’s not really his bag, what we do. But that’s the sort of demographic we were all hoping for. We thought it would appeal to the Ninja Tune crowd, maybe people that are into Cinematic Orchestra, maybe Bonobo and, perhaps even people that are more into the world stuff and even balearic and this sort of chill out market as well. I think it sits in all of those genres, there’s appeal.
It’s great. I really love it.
What did you feel when you initially heard it? Do you hear it like a reggae record, I’m still interested to get feedback from people when they hear it? Is it primarily a reggae record or not?
I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say because I know it’s on your label. So I’m thinking I’m going to hear a reggae record. I hadn’t read about it before I started listening to it. So I listened to the first track and thought “Oh, that’s interesting, all those strings” and then there’s a whole album of it! … But I guess I wouldn’t have thought of it as a straight reggae record, just that I was associating it with your label.
I’m interested I guess in how the the non reggae world, not knowing Roots Garden, might contextualise it I suppose.
Are you trying to promote it a bit differently than you would normally. Going after different DJs and…
Yes, definitely. Nick’s daughter Tiger Lilly has her own music promotion agency and is a music manager for bands and stuff. She was involved with Resonators a few years ago, helping them, and Vin Gordon. She’s been working for a music charity recently and that role has come to an end. And so she’s on board helping out and really passionate about this album and she’s got lots of links in the non reggae world, which has been really helpful to branch out, to have someone who’s got contacts outside of my usual contacts with people like Rodigan.
We’ve always had quite a lot of support from 6music and people like Steve Lamacq and Cerys Matthews in the past . So I’m hoping they pick up on it. They will have the promo. And we’ve done a proper visual, it’s the first music video we’ve ever done, for the first track on the album Yes Mic. Our friend Badge Whipple has helped put that together for us and done the editing and stuff. It’s fantastic. It was filmed in London during lockdown, and the context is the story of Manasseh’s life and Michael’s, they’re both from West London and it films a journey, a car journey to Brixton, where Nick’s old studio, his original studio was. It is very much a non reggae video; I mean, I’m not particularly a video person. I’m not that much into music videos and I actually don’t really like ones that give you a whole storyline of a song. So I think that’s worked really well because it’s just a beautiful visual and it helps to engage new audiences in a way that it’s hard to do without that. And we’re also working on the second visual for the LP, which is one of the tracks that Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee is on. Do you know him?
I was looking him up today cause I was reading the blurb that you’d put on Bandcamp about the record. But I didn’t know him, I wasn’t aware of him.
He’s in Asian Dub Foundation now, and he’s previously worked with loads of hip hop people. I think he’s collaborated with Guru and DJ Premier and others. He’s known in the hip hop and beats world more, and he’s s famous for doing the beat boxing into a flute thing. Lots of YouTube footage of him doing that. He got quite a big name for that very original thing he does. That’s not what he’s doing with the album. He’s a friend of Michael in West London, and he was brought in as a guest on a couple of tracks to do the flute parts, he’s an amazing player. So the next visual we do with the vinyl will feature Nathan. Which is great because he’s part of Asian Dub Foundation and his fan base is much broader.
Nice. Awesome. And so the Earl 16 and Vin Gordon tune on the album, is that new stuff?
No, that was an EP that Earl put together himself and assembled, that he did with Nick, Walls of the City. Do you know the original version of that song?
The original version is by the Heptones and it’s called Love Without Feeling, which Earl 16 covered with Manasseh and Michael, Praise, on Viola and Vin Gordon. Vin played on the original Harry Mudie version, which is the Heptones produced by Harry Mudie, in the seventies. It was a nice touch that we had him involved in the remake. The dub version is a very famous King Tubby dub from an album called Dub Conference by Harry Mudie with King Tubby, called Dub With a Difference, which we kept as the title because it’s essentially a straight cover of the arrangement. So it’s kind of a homage to that track. We later put out the whole album Earl 16 Meets Manasseh Gold Dust. That was I think 2014, a digital only album that did really well. Rodigan gave a lot of play to that particular track, Love Without Feeling, and so this is the dub version of it, or the instrumental dub version, on this album.
So that was a good history lesson.
Yeah. I’m trying to have a conversation with Vin to get him on board, pushing his involvement. I think it’s a nice story that he played on the original version and that he’s on this remake as well.
Should we rewind now? I’m gonna get onto how you got involved with Vin Gordon and how you first met Nick Manasseh and everything, but can I go right back?
So where did you grow up? When? How did you start getting into reggae, how did that all happen?
Well, I grew up all over the place. I was a hippie child born in the hills of Wales, but to cut all that story short, I ended up in Cambridge by the age of nine and I lived there until I was 16,17. So I was brought up in Cambridge in the mid to late eighties through the early nineties which was a real hotbed of musical activity. Tonka sound system came from there, there was a big hip hop scene there, a big acid house scene. Bizarrely Cambridge actually had quite a lot happening.
Quite a lot of influential people came from there. Like The Nextmen, a lot of producers and there was a link to Brighton through Tonka, which we’ll get to later. So that’s how I got into reggae. I was very young and going out to hip hop jams, illegal parties, when I was way too young because I had an older sister! I’d be given hip hop mixtapes from London and from pirate radio and stuff. I was always hearing reggae but also the whole ragga thing was happening back then in the late eighties, I was hearing a lot of reggae sampled in hip hop. I guess I was into the whole thing. But yeah, by the age of sort of 12, 13, I’d already started buying Trojan albums, King Tubby albums, taking a real interest in reggae … But alongside funk, hip hop, disco. It wasn’t exclusively reggae for me at that point. But I was already leaning towards that scene, my favourite one in some ways. I started DJing about 14, 15. Got my first DJ gig aged 15 at Strawberry Fair in Cambridge in the reggae tent. Which was a big deal.
So that’s how it started and that’s probably where I first heard of Nick Manasseh. I remember buying Sound Iration, aged 15 over the counter in Our Price. I remember listening to it on the headphones. I didn’t know what it was. It had a colourful cover, a colourful album sleeve. You know, listened to it on headphones, this mind blowing new form of electronic dub. I bought it on spec and actually remember playing two tracks at that Strawberry Fair gig, not guessing that I would later go on to work with Nick, and that he would become a good friend and all the rest of it. But that’s how I got into the reggae thing and that was my first introduction to the Manasseh sound. That would have been 1991, would it have been? Something like that.
When did he set up his studio in Brixton?
I think it’s Brixton studio was early nineties. He made Sound Iration in between 87 and 89 and they used a pro studio that had the sequencing stuff. I think he was writing it at home with his friend. Then they hired studio time from a proper studio that had I guess, back then, a midi sequencer with a pro desk. It was certainly sequenced with synthesisers and stuff. I’m not sure, that would be a Manasseh question. But I think it was early nineties that he moved to Brixton. I mean, I first visited him about 95 in his studio in Brixton, which is where he was doing all the Riz Records stuff, and a lot of his famous nineties stuff came from that studio.
So did you stay in Cambridge for a while? Did you move to London or…
I left Cambridge about 16,17 when I went and lived in Wales for a while, in the middle of nowhere. I saved up to buy my decks and then moved to Brighton to be a reggae DJ just before my 18th birthday.
When’s that then?
93 I think that was, yeah, 93.
So did that have to do with the Tonka connection then or…
There was just a lot of people from Cambridge living here. Mo Wax had a crew living here called RPM. That was one of the first Mo Wax releases. My friend Joe 90 DJ, he was here, my sister’s friend, and it was just a whole contingent of people at the art college. Before I moved here, we used to come down and go to Russ Dewbury’s night which was at the Jazz Rooms and the Jazz Bop. I had come down to the Jazz Bop to see Gil Scott Heron when I was about 16/17. There was a scene in the early 90s as you know, I don’t know when you moved to Brighton?
Not until about end of 2000, early 2001.
So quite a bit later than I was here. But at that point it was like the centre of the world, Brighton. And the free party scene was the place to be for music. My sister was living here. She moved here, so I had a place to stay, I had some of my friends. It was just somewhere that I felt was a good place to pursue my dream of becoming a DJ.
Was there was much reggae happening at that point?
There was loads of reggae actually in Brighton. There was King Tafari sound system here that had been going since the seventies really. And they were sort of more on the dancehall end of it by that point. When I moved down I went to one of the last blues nights they were doing, so that was coming to an end. There was stuff happening at the Richmond. I remember going to some house parties with sound systems. Good Vibes Uprising at the Richmond was a really amazing roots sound system, run by Phil and Ben, and they were very much in the Jah Shaka mould. They were that generation of non-black people that identified with rasta culture and the roots scene as it was in the UK. You know, those sort of Shaka heads, and they were doing it down here and playing amazing music. They were an amazing sound. Their sessions were really inspirational. Then on a Monday night, there was Killer Riddim sound system which Leggy, our 1BTN Leggy Reggae used to play at, on a Monday at the Volks; reggae, dancehall and a bit of hip hop. They had just opened a record shop when I moved to Brighton, Riddim Records, which was on Gloucester road where the glass blowing shop is now. That was run by Johnny Goodwillie and Pete. Johnny went on to start Catskills. Jonny is still around on the scene. He runs Brighton Sound System company now. So that was happening. Essential Festival hadn’t started yet, there was lots of reggae. Positive Sounds had started out as a reggae sound system as well.
Yeah. They were called Purple Polkadot I think, before Positive. They were still playing some dub stuff and there were lots of chill out rooms at raves with dub happening. Shaka was playing down here regularly. Yeah, it was really good. A good place to be for reggae.
That’s interesting. And so Russ was doing his Jazz Rooms thing wasn’t he, and was that the first place you started doing your night?
Well, there’s a bit more to the story. This record shop had just opened, Riddim Records, which was off the back of Killer Riddim sound system and they were a reggae specialist record shop – hip hop, trip hop was happening. Drum ‘n’ bass, jungle… Jungle really, drum ‘n’ bass was just starting. So I ended up with a job as an enthusiastic 18 year old. I was getting little DJ sets at places. I think Killer Riddim had already given me a warm-up session. I was getting some little warm-up sets, you know, putting it out there. They gave me a job working in the record shop, so I landed on my feet. Moved to Brighton to be a reggae DJ then got a job in a record shop. Don’t think I got paid hardly anything, spent all my wages on records! Which is how I got to know Jonny who ran the shop, and me and Jonny started Roots Garden. Johnny had used the name Roots Garden, and they’d had a couple of nights they’d done that weren’t particularly successful on Preston street. So we already had the name and the Jazz Rooms was a cool club. Rob Luis was doing his weekly night on a Wednesday called The Wig before he started Tru Thoughts, which was really popular.
Then they started doing upstairs.
Yeah. It’s before Phonic Hoop. It was still in the week then, towards the end of the week. The Wig was legendary as well. And then Muffle Wuffle was every two weeks on a Thursday, I think. They were in the same, you know, acid jazz, funk, hip hop, funky house, reggae territory. They were a collective of art students playing everything cool. That was a really good night. So it was a happening club basically. We came up with the idea to do Roots Garden, to do a roots club night was the concept. Me and Jonny started Roots Garden DJing together as ‘the two Jon’s’ with help from our friend Ben Keeble (also from Cambridge) who was part of the Muffle Wuffle crew… he was a really talented artist and took care of all the Roots Garden poster/flyer designs as well as the visuals at the club. The branding and aesthetic of the club in the early days was a crucial aspect of its popularity and long term success. We were going to do it two weekly originally. I was into drum ‘n’ bass still at that point, and I wanted to be juggling with the drum ‘n’ bass as well. So we had drum ‘n’ bass one week, and a really embarrassing name for that night, the Lick I think it was, and Roots Garden the other week. But we were terrible drum ‘n’ bass DJs, so that night soon died!
Have I remembered it wrong? I thought you were on Wednesdays. What night were you on!?
Tuesday. Basically it was really popular from the outset. People seemed to love it. We started out with this concept of having lots of houseplants because of the garden thing. We used to have lots of visuals, slide projectors. We bought loads of houseplants in. We created this little vibe. We were playing roots reggae and we decided from the outset to not make it exclusively new music and to play like old reggae revival and new roots and not so much focused on the dancehall and the ragga, because it wasn’t our thing. We were really into Aba Shant-I and stuff like that which was happening in London and the new dub sound we were really feeling. And we were into Manasseh and those sort of DJs. So yeah, we were trying to create a club vibe that represented the roots scene, I guess. But it was never a… it was a loose plan, you know, it just happened organically.
So that became a Brighton institution. How long did it run for? Years and years!
It ran for 14 years, I think in total, until 2009. Started in 1995. It ran every single week without fail, I think, pretty much. We had a flood one week and we had to not open! Every single Tuesday until the smoking ban, which I think it was 2007, wasn’t it? Which was like armageddon really for a weekly reggae night. As you can imagine. We tried to do it monthly, on a Saturday, and it just never was the same vibe again. You know, it was ok for a bit, we had a few good Saturdays. It just wasn’t what it was, it was obvious straight away. The other thing was it was a midweek club. Students no longer had a grant. People weren’t going out midweek the way they used to, the pubs were suddenly allowed to open late. They changed that at the same time as the smoking ban. So you could stay in the Hop Poles pub till one in the morning and smoke in the garden and didn’t need to come around to the club at quarter past eleven. So the whole dynamic changed I think in Brighton for midweek clubbing.
It’s just gone, hasn’t it? The era of midweek clubbing. I mean, in London some of the most famous rave clubs and stuff, they were in the middle of the week. People were going out like Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…
Exactly. It was normal for us. We’d go to free parties at the weekend and pay to go to clubs during the week, you know, couple of quid to get in. Pub shut at 11 then you’d go to the club till 2AM and then later it was 3, we extended it. Can’t remember when it changed to 3, I think it was early noughties wasn’t it? When the licensing became a bit more lax.
But it’s amazing that you kept it going that long. I mean, there must’ve been some nights where you had just a handful of people in.
Yeah, of course. You tend to remember it through rose tinted glasses, but you know, there were nights where I’d book big artists, as they are considered now, that now are popular. I remember having to go and get money out of the bank to pay Channel One cause it was dead, you know. Who now would sell out the Concorde 2 twice. I actually remember Mikey trying to give me money back. And I was like, no no, I do this every week. You know? I’m a promoter. I lose money tonight, I make it next week, It’s fine. Really bad! But the format was that every month we had a major guest. You know, either one of the big UK sound systems, producers, or maybe an artist, like a singer that was touring or something – usually a sound system or a producer feature. Our resident sound system Nations Vibration started from 96, very early – who’s now Darren Jamtone records, who worked for the Resonators, who’s one of my best friends. So they played the first Tuesday of every month, and then, you know, it was Roots Garden crew the rest of the time. But it was always as much about us showcasing other people and the scene we loved and other music as much as us Roots Garden performing, DJing ourselves, it was always about having a space where we could offer bookings to, you know, the Disciples, Jah Works, Gussie P, Channel One, Jah Observer, all these people were on the sound system circuit.
In the early days, before the sound system culture thing became a thing, which it is now, obviously, since Red Bull, roots sound systems weren’t getting booked for club bookings. It didn’t really exist. You had the Dub Club in London, which was physical sound systems, which was the big change in the culture and offered a platform, but outside of that, there were very few places around the country. You had Messenger Sound in Edinburgh that used the book sounds and artists to play in a sort of a club environment, but always with a physical sound system. There was nowhere that was sort of a midweek club night that you could come and see someone like Channel One just selecting tunes. And people used to be really quite mind blown that they could come to little Brighton and it would be packed; with 200 students on a Tuesday night essentially raving to roots music. It wasn’t a reggae audience. There was a handful of people that maybe had a cultural understanding, but it was essentially people… it was a bit of an institution. People knew it was always a good vibe. It was always quality music and it was welcoming. And I think, you know, it wasn’t a hardcore reggae audience and I think that’s what was different about Roots Garden. It was a little bit ahead of its time in the way that things are now I guess.
So were you putting extra sound in there from the beginning?
The in house sound was always just barely adequate. It had a really good acoustic, the club had a great sound, and it was really good until it got full, and they have a limiter on the amp, so when you dropped the bass really heavy the limiter would kick in. Those who were experienced at using it could keep it just on that threshold and the good DJs could work it out, but the more you pushed the level, the more the limiter came on. You’d try and explain this to DJs, they’d be hooligan, and they’d come straight in. It was the bane of my life back then. You needed that 5% more. It was really frustrating the amount of anti-climaxes dropping a tune and suddenly you’d lose 15% of the volume, and it was so frustrating. But it was actually a really good in house sound.
I remember it had quite a bit of thump down there.
Yeah. It was a vibe you know, and we did a couple of times take some boxes in, but it was problematic with the low ceiling and it would hurt your ears having high pitched tops in there too loud. And for a while we used to do some monthly specials upstairs and we used to do sound systems in The Loft or whatever it was called then. Where Phonic Hoop was. We’d do a monthly special with a sound system and we did about half a dozen and then we did one with Word Sound and Power sound system with Rod Taylor on tour as part of the festival and he brought so much bass, so many speakers that they brought plaster down from the ceiling and they never let us do it again! It was just the end of it! Alongside that we started doing other stuff, we were promoting sound systems, doing weekend dances from the very beginning. We did Aba Shant-I in late 95 at the Brighton Centre in the East Wing, a horrible clinical 600 person room and we started promoting Aba Shant-I. I think in the end we were doing him about three or four times a year when the second Concorde opened. Yeah, Aba Shant-I there until about 2003 and we did some other ones; Iration Steppers. It was mostly Aba Shant-I we were promoting as a sound system. Then we diversified and we were doing ourselves on guest sound and Channel One and Jah Tubby. We did a whole host of different sounds, RDK Hi-Fi, people that had been coming to the club, we started promoting with the sound, doing big dances.
So when did you start developing and building your own system then?
That’s in the last two years. That was a long term dream. That was, you know, fulfilled too late Ian in some ways! I’m in my mid forties now and the physical work it takes… I do that for a living anyway, I work in events. It was something I always wanted to do but I didn’t have the financial capability or the storage options and stuff like that until recently. And a friend was selling a sound system and it was a good opportunity. It was a good price. I’ve actually found myself a little bit despondent with the lack of sound system activity in Brighton, and I was winging about about it. You know, people promoting events as sound systems and it not being a sound system. Thinking it’s a bit cheesy and seeing these other cities like Bristol have these amazing sound system scenes and Brighton’s hardly got anything. And just at the point that I built Roots Garden’s system, we’ve seen an upsurge in sound systems, we’ve got the amazing Heavytone Hi-Fi, who have built a set, Buster Hi Fi as he calls himself, another young guy, has built a set, Dende, Niceness have built a sound system now as well. But I felt like, instead of me complaining that there isn’t a sound system culture, I should be leading by example and doing something!
I imagined you’d had a sound system longer than that. Like when I’ve seen you on, I dunno, Hove Lawns or wherever. That was someone else’s gear was it?
It was always with Nations Vibration sound system. I toured around Europe with Nations Vibtation 2003 to 2006, we did tours of Spain, and have done stuff all around the UK them. It was always like Roots Garden as the promoter with Nations Vibration and me DJing with them, but it was always Nations Vibration. Like at Kemp Town Carnival. And now Darren calls himself Jamtone because he no longer works with his partner who lives in France and he rebranded because his record label’s called Jamtone and it makes sense. He was sort of my musical mentor in terms of teaching me the trade. And also going back to the guys Ben and Phil, from Good Vibes Uprising – Phil later started to DJ with me as Roots Garden throughout the early noughties, up to about 2009. He was playing regularly with Roots Garden and doing events with me and stuff. He’s another person I would say who taught me a lot about the music and the business and the sound system elements.
And so more recently you’ve been doing these Late Night Blues parties. I’m jumping about, I’m gonna have to jump back to ask about all the record releases, but… you’ve done these great blues party nights. Who did you have? RDK and Downbeat Melody?
Yeah. From Bristol.
So that’s all up in the air at the moment. Did you have another one of those planned?
Yeah, we were planning to do like three or four a year. The concept of it, and the reason I’ve called it a blues party is because I didn’t want it to be… I feel like clubs aren’t what they used to be for our generation. That they don’t feel, you know, for want of a better word subversive spaces or places to be. Nowadays clubs are very locked down with CCTV and you know, security guards in stab vests and smoking areas and… there’s not much freedom in a club. And then that sort of works against the ethos of what reggae sound system culture is about and the spirit of it. So although these aren’t blues parties in the traditional sense, we hire a private venue, as you know, in a secret location. I mean, everyone knows where it is, but the idea of not advertising it is because, you know, it’s not a club and we want it advance ticketed. It’s not about exclusivity, but we don’t want a walk up random crowd because that’s not the type of event it is. We want it to be a responsible crowd that comes for the music and for the vibe, you know, not just some sort of a booze up.
The venue we’ve got is amazing, the staff there are amazing. It’s a fully licensed bar, it has a really great smoking area. Security is minimal and there’s no noise restriction, most importantly, and it’s an acoustically treated space. So it’s the perfect space. I love it. I don’t care that he’s only 200 capacity. We can’t make much money out of it from a commercial point of view, but it of feels like the natural home for Roots Garden and it feels like a lot of our crowd feel quite at home there.
Yeah. It’s great. I understand exactly what you’re saying. Alright, so let’s go back, let’s talk about how you first hooked up with Nick Manasseh and that first record you put out on Roots Garden label which was the Johnny Osborne one right?
Yeah. So Nick had been DJing at the club. We’d booked him from very early in the late nineties. So we’d already been booking Manasseh and he was basically the most popular guest at Roots Garden. Nick’s an amazing DJ and he loves Roots Garden. Roots Garden loves him. He would play a couple of two or three times a year. And we really championed his music and over the years became good friends. I was wanting to start a label for a long time. We had lots of links through the club with lots of different producers and singersand artists. It felt like a natural progression – I had lots of good contacts, people making great music I wanted to put out.
Essentially I wanted to do a label and the concept I had for the label was that it should represent what Roots Garden was about really, I guess, in that we’d always been quite successful in promoting roots music. Also managing to capture the attention of a f broader audience by not pigeonholing it too much, or playing the cultural references so strongly that people from outside of it didn’t really understand it, not too esoteric. And I’ve got my own taste and Roots Garden’s taste was quite broad in a reggae sense, I suppose. I didn’t want to start a hardcore dub label sort of thing or a dancehall label, you know, it was anything that I wanted to do representing the club.
Quite a variety of styles have come out on the label.
And that was the plan from the outset. But, you know, I didn’t have an initial plan to just work exclusively with Manasseh necessarily or with anybody specific, I just thought, I want to start putting out some music. I’ve got lots of links to great artists, so the first track, the Johnny Osborne we’d been playing on dubplate since the late nineties. It was a track that Manasseh had recorded with Riz records. One of the last tracks they did. They did two vocals for them, one was called Rise Up that got released on a seven and then Black Starliner. It had never been released, but we had it as a dubplate and every time you played it people would ask what it was and it would mash up the session. Everybody loved it. Other sounds were playing it, you know, quite a few other sounds. Nations Vibration played it before us, probably where I first heard it. I think Foundation in Norwich ran it as a popular dub, alongside some others. So I always loved the tune and always thought it deserved a release. So I approached Nick and said, I’m starting this label, would you want to put it out? Nick’s approach was that he’d made it quite a long time ago and it was a raw dub plate style version with minimum arrangement. Didn’t have much melody in it, or additional sounds other than the skank and the bass. And he said, I’m up fo releasing it, but give me a go at remaking it, bringing the production a bit up to date and, essentially making it into a release rather than a dub plate.
So I very much valued his experience of releasing records, about making considerations what you’re trying to achieve. The distinction between a dub plate and a popular release, which are two different things really. You know, as a reggae head, you want a dub plate but is that what the buyer in the shops is looking for? It’s not always the same thing. So I went through his recommendation. He went away and did work on it and came back with what was the first release. Which I funded from a Prince’s Trust grant that I got. I didn’t have any money, the club wasn’t bringing in loads of money, so, you know I didn’t have any income. I think I borrowed about £3000 from the princess trust. You know, I was under 30 and eligible.
I got my first Apple computer out of them.
I’m very proud of it. They got it back, you know. They gave me some mentoring, some business courses and things that were useful I guess. But that’s literally how it was made popular. And that came out on a 7 inch, straight away went into the Dub Vendor reggae or roots chart in their weekly mail out, which was still a physical mail out then, and was in the back of Black Echoes magazine. It was up on the wall in the shop at the number one spot I think in the first week. It was hugely popular. Manasseh hadn’t been doing any roots stuff for a while. He’d been doing some more dub albums for Hammerbass in France or slightly left field releases, I guess. I think people were really ready for another Manasseh record. You know, it ticked all the boxes. It was a really solid roots vocal from the legendary Johnny Osbourne, killer rhythm, and we pressed a thousand copies and sold out I think in the first few months.
Cool. Uh, so we could go on for a long time talking about lots of different releases, but suffice to say, apart from Johnny Osbourne there’s been several notable Jamaican recording artists on your releases; Luciano, Vin Gordon, Cornell Campbell, which I’m particularly fond of, Earl 16. How has all that happened? How have you made those contacts?
So, Nick Manasseh went on a trip to Jamaica in 2007, with the intention of recording lots of reggae artist for Roots Garden actually. Which was something he wanted to do… but we’d done four releases by then and they’d all done well, it was gathering momentum. He built the Levi Rhythm and we had the showcases in mind and some other rhythms, and he said, I want to go to Jamaica, I’m gonna record loads of artists. And he just went off and did it. I can’t take any credit for it, he came back with Freddie McGregor, Luciano, Jah Mali, Chezidek. We’ve got the others that are unreleased, a couple of them, that might come at some point. From that, from that same trip. So yeah, he was out there for like five, six days, I think, only. And they recorded at Gussie Clarke’s legendary Anchor Studio, booked studio time. He had a really good guy who was fixing the contacts for him, for the vocalists.
So that initial pack is really down to Nick, and that really put us on the map. So when he came back, we did the Levi Rhythm, which is one of my biggest hits that Luciano and Jah Mali featuring on that, as well as the UK Artis Ava Leigh. Ras Zacharri was another artist I’d met through Roots Garden, based in Brixton, but from Jamaica, he was living here at the time. The Luciano track is a great vocal but I felt with the subject, it wasn’t, I don’t know … I thought that maybe it would work better as a combination. So we enrolled Ras Zacharri, which worked out really well. So that’s how those came about. And then with Earl 16, he’d always been great friends with Nick, they go right back working together, before Natural Roots on Riz, I think before that they’d done some projects together. And we’d also booked Earl for Roots Garden in about 96, I think, and Earl 16 always says to me, that’s the first flyer that he ever had his picture on. A little black and white on a brown Roots Garden flyer. That was the first time he ever had his picture on a flyer he reckons, which I was very surprised about, for such a legend in the seventies. He played with us several times.
I think Cornell Campbell was another link that came through the Soothsayers, he was over here on tour and Nick booked him. Then some stuff we’ve done remotely, where we send rhythms out to Jamaica. In fact the Josie Wales was recorded on that same trip to Jamaica, but it wasn’t released until much later when Richie Phoe remixed the vocal. And then the same thing with Vin Gordon, he was … Nick is very good friends with Charlie Night Doctor from the legendary UK band that Vin Gordon was in, when Vin was also working with Aswad, late seventies, early eighties period. Charlie lives just up the road from Nick and they’ve worked on music together for years, so that was the link to Vin Gordon and Charlie. They started a new band and beams and they asked Manasseh to record the album. So we started talking about whether they were interested in Roots Garden releasing it. So that’s how that project was born. I think we did the single first which wasn’t with the band.
Yeah. I remember seeing that Vin Gordon show at The Blind Tiger.
Yeah. When he came and did the sound system show with Nick. Yeah. That was after the single, after we’d done the Music Tree single. Maybe 2015 or maybe earlier 2013. Something like that. So generally with the artists, we do some remote stuff where we will send rhythms to artists, but I think the thing about Roots Garden, the way Manasseh works and the way I like to do stuff, is that we like to book sessions if we can where the artist and the producer are together in the same room. It’s more collaborative and I think it’s just more of a creative process. But yeah, we sometimes do the remote thing and Nick will send a rhythm, but it’s rare. Even with Johnny Clarke, which I think we did in 2017, we recorded in London and Nick arranged for him to come down. So that’s generally as it happened. Some of the time Manasseh will just have an idea for a project and he’ll make a tune and send it and see what I think. And then he’ll record a vocalist – usually I hear a rhythm before we choose a vocalist. Sometimes we’ll have a concept like the Levi Rhythm. I said, let’s do something that’s a bit of a homage to Jammy’s and it’s more collaborative. Other times we work with an artist, like with Tiawa, and with Cate Ferris to some degree, where the song comes first, or the idea for the song, and we’ll work around that.
What have been the biggest sellers on the label?
I think the Levi Rhythm has being one of the longest enduring sellers. Cate Ferris Blaze Bright has been pretty much one of the biggest hits. Yeah, the Levi rhythm, Ava Leigh Over the Bridge, the Luciano and the Res Zacharri track have been really big. I think on radio, the Richie Phoe and Robert Dallas did really well. Through Nick we got two tracks from Etherealites, which are dub tracks, El Toro was a massive crossover hit because it’s an electronic ska tune. So that had a different audience and sold really well on vinyl, sold out very quickly. And the Richie Phoe tune was more rubber dub than anything else we’d done, the Robert Dallas one. So that had a crossover appeal. The Earl 16 album has done very well as well.
I noticed on Spotify that all your tunes are up apart from the Brother Culture stuff. Somebody has reissued that album haven’t they?
Yeah that was licensing deal. I licensed it from Brother Culture on a short term lease. And he had contact from another label and I said it was fine. The whole Sound Killer project, he self-funded that whole production with Manasseh. It was his, he self produced it with Manasseh. It was the same with Darker Side of Town, which was our second release. So yeah, Roots Garden doesn’t own the rights to the master recordings, that’s just one of the anomalies on the label. The same with the Earl 16 project. That was something he put together himself that I later licensed for release on the label because I loved it so much. But generally I try to avoid the licensing scenario. It’s more project based.
Are there any tracks that you put out that you thought were brilliant and didn’t get the reception they deserved?
Maybe the Cornell Campbell slightly went off the radar a bit because we released a lot of tracks at that time, and we also had Blaze Bright out at a very similar time. So that’s the Cornell Campbell you like. I would say that was one of them. Hmm, I’m trying to think… perhaps the Bob Skeng Writings from the Wall track, and another one on the same rhythm, Cate Ferris, Minus 2 Degrees. I think that track is a little bit overlooked ’cause we had three vocals on the same rhythm at the time. Yeah that can happen. We’ve always tried to avoid having too many versions and not… you know, by the mid noughties it got to a point where people were doing sort of 20, 30 cuts of a rhythm; which starts way back in the seventies, but between the mid nineties and the mid noughties it got ridiculous. That’s just the cynical economics of Jamaican producers trying to extract the most surplus out of it as you possibly can. We never wanted to do that. I was never into that thing of having loads of cuts. Whereas with the Painkiller rhythm, we did two cuts. We wouldn’t do more than that now unless we’re really feeling it. That doesn’t feel relevant.
I approve of the two cuts approach. It’s just overwhelming when you see 16 versions of something on the same release.
Yeah, exactly. It waters everything down and it means that the people could miss the really good one that they would have liked. It’s not really relevant to the way music is consumed and screamed now as well. The transition that most people are discovering it by streaming platforms.
Has it become harder for the label? I was looking down your list of your releases on Discogs. Sometimes there’s been a bit of a hiatus and then there’s a flurry of activity. There’s been quite a lot in the last few years.
Yeah, I mean, it’s very much a part time endeavour, it’s not a full time job financially, but we just started a publishing company so we can handle the publishing of the artists we’ve recorded and the tracks they’ve recorded. We’ve started a sub publishing deal, which is a move from the label’s point of view to secure more longterm relationships to the artist and invest in projects, and to offer more to the artists so that we can actually invest in LPs and not just be doing individual tracks. We’re trying to get to the point where we get to release more music and there’s more revenue coming in. I think it’s in a better place than it’s ever been, the label. It has got better, the catalog has grown, we’ve got a good amount of tracks now.
A lot of tracks. I started throwing them all in a Spotify playlist this morning with the albums and showcases and there’s a lot of tracks in it. How many is it now?
It must be about 150 tracks if you include the dubs, We’re getting close to that, something around that figure. There’s about 30 singles, five albums, not including the showcases. So, we’re just getting to that point, x percentage, when people are streaming and they discover more of your material and there’s more links to the artists. It’s just constantly evolving. It is a transition. We were good on the download thing, we were early to that, and I’m just trying to make sure I keep my foot in the door with the streaming side of things and making sure that I’m understanding the trends with that and making the music is available where it needs to be discovered. Streaming’s now significant, you know, it’s catching up with the downloads.
And how’s the downloads compared to the physical vinyl sales?
The vinyl is an immediate return, it’s a faster return, I think, in the long term you’re selling the download for forever. The vinyl does well. But where we were pressing a 1000 singles now we’re only pressing 500 but we sell them for twice the profit margin we used to, as everyone does. So the vinyl market’s never going to come back. It’s only for people with disposable income. Vinyl’s great but it isn’t for your everyday music fan. Back when I started the label in 2005 you would get reggae fans that finished work on Friday night and would take thirty quid into Dub Vendor and they’d buy 10 brand new singles, you know, pre-releases from Jamaica. All of those types of music listeners, probably the majority of them, who just want to hear the latest tune, now they can stream it on YouTube or Spotify. They didn’t really care about the vinyl, they were’t that committed I don’t think, and a lot of that market is gone, the physical. So you just have to accept that. But I will always do vinyl. Obviously, given the current circumstances and the whole Covid-19 crisis, we’re being a bit tentative at the moment about the market and how much money people will have to spend. How it’s gonna affect buying. I’m not sure yet.
Reggae is probably the strongest bastion of vinyl out of all genres isn’t it?
I think that’d be fair analysis. Yeah, I agree. I think the is. There’s a hardcore … and that’s because of the sound system culture thing, you know.
So what’s on the horizon?
Well, obviously the new LP is out, so I’m just really focused on that. To get that out, there’s going to be a vinyl release with it, with some dubs of a few of the tracks. I won’t give it away too much. So that will be available from mid June. Then there’s going to be another visual from the album that we talked about. That’s exciting, and there might be some more additional mixes and stuff coming off the album and dubs. We’ll see how the response is. We’re already getting inundated with requests to have it on vinyl. There will definitely be some other vinyl other than the 12 inch, but we’re just being a bit tentative due to the current scenario really. It’s very early days to see. We’ll just have to see what the feedback’s like over the next couple of months. And then after that, I’ve got some exciting singers that we’re working with; some previous artists from the label, some projects from them. Possibly an EP from one of them, and I think there’s a longterm goal really that we want to get back to Jamaica. I’d like to go this time. There are lots of friends I’ve made now through the label who live there, and musicians and stuff, one of my best friends is there. It’d be great for me and Nick to raise some funds for it, but to go on a recording mission and potentially get some new talent and try and support Jamaican artists where the music comes from. There’s so much talent in Jamaica and I’ve never been, so it’s a good excuse to go there as much as anything! So I think that’s definitely on the horizon once things return to some normality, hopefully a trip, a recording trip that’ll bear some fruit. And also expand the publishing side of things and start to get Roots Garden’s catalog more… trying to secure some good sync licensing potentially for film or, or advertising or whatever. As far as we can make it reach really. I think especially the new album is very well suited for that. It’s very cinematic. My friend said when I played it to him years ago, he thought it was like music from a Mike Leigh film.
Hmmm, I’d have to think about that one!
But, I think it’s got potential to get some sync deals. Really in terms of revenue for labels, sales and screaming are great but as a long term thing, publishing and performing is really where people are making their money. And to expand in the way that I’d like to, to take Roots Garden where I want to, to fund recording artists and stuff, and to record the big name artists. To do the kind of work we want to do costs a lot money for studio time and musicians and the rest of it.
Cool. That was a really interesting chat. It was really good to hear more about the history of the Brighton scene and all sorts of stuff in there.
Thanks a lot for giving us a feature I really appreciate it.
Buy the Manasseh Meets Praise album on Bandcamp
Spotify Playlist of Roots Garden catalogue.
Roots Garden Radio show is on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month 8-10pm on 1BTN. Listen again on Mixcloud