Dennis Bovell: The dub master

Dennis Bovell is back, promising some full-on reggae. He talks to Tim Cumming
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"Our school had a recording studio, in the old swimming pool. It was quite a thing for the Sixties. The building's still there - it's a listed building, used to be a hospital during the war, the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building..."

The British reggae legend Dennis Bovell talks as easily and as prolifically as he works; and he hasn't stopped working as a musician, producer, writer, arranger and engineer on countless reggae, dub, punk, pop and rock albums for the best part of 40 years. His production credits range from artists such as Fela Kuti and Alpha Blondy to The Pop Group and Bananarama.

His contributions to reggae are huge - he was one of the original architects of lover's rock, a movement that put British reggae on the world map. His dub albums were an inspiration to the likes of Adrian Sherwood and the Mad Professor. A batch of those seminal LPs is due for release on EMI's Frontline label, alongside Bovell's first solo album for more than a decade, All Around the World.

It was recorded in a small Stockholm studio, with his International Dub Band, in a couple of days - about the same time he took to record Poet in the Roots, the first instalment in a long collaboration with the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, in 1978. The new album includes re-recorded versions of choice cuts from throughout his career. "We recorded everything analogue, on two-inch tape, to keep that natural sound of a single performance," he says, after a lengthy diatribe against modern-day digital studio technology.

And, indeed, these new performances have the same cohesive energy and freshness of the recordings of Matumbi, the pioneering British band he co-founded in 1971.

"We were put down for being a British band instead of the real deal," he recalls of their early days. "I'm sure rappers get it now. But what happened was, Jamaican singers would leave their musicians behind and pick up a band here. We had to be as good as them. We had to throw it just like them, but with a twist on it."

He'd formed his first band at school in 1968, three years after joining his parents in Wandsworth, south London, from Barbados, where his uncle Sam had given him his first guitar lessons at the age of nine. Matumbi broke the mould by being a self-contained group who insisted on writing their own material, rather than buckling to the industry practice of just turning out reggae versions of pop tunes from the charts.

By 1973, they were big enough to open for the Wailers' London debut at an Ethiopian famine relief show, at the Sundown, in Edmonton. The band, to their horror, upstaged the headliners. "We'd had a sound check, but they didn't, and it didn't really work for them. The press thought we were much better, and we felt terrible because they were our heroes."

As well as touring and recording with Matumbi, Bovell had set up his own sound system, Sufferer's, to compete alongside Coxon and Duke Reid for the best crowd-pulling "version" of the latest tunes. "There was this competition over who had the newest cuts. They'd do recording in Jamaica and then preview it by issuing dub versions and each sound system would have a different mix. This is where remix culture came from, and the crowd would judge which of them they preferred."

He spun his own tunes into the mix, pioneering the latest dub techniques both in the studio and on stage. "Dub was just coming up in a big way, and I knew how to do it."

At Matumbi's live gigs, Bovell began the firstlive dub. As regulars at the notoriously tough Four Aces club, they earned a reputation as the only band able to do a full set on a Sunday night, "because most bands would do two or three tunes before the audience helped them off - by booing". At the Four Aces he struck up his partnership with the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. "Linton had come to interview us at the club. I knew about his writings and being an angry young man. He'd come in and watch me in the studio." They went on to record Poet in the Roots in three days. Almost 30 years later, their work together remains as powerful and unprecedented as ever, over a series of classic albums that were a bridge between reggae and punk.

Bovell has been in constant demand as a producer and on the international touring circuit - roles that have precluded much solo work. It's been a long time since he played in London, making his rare, one-off gig at Cargo tonight something of a homecoming. "I want to play lots of dub," he says. "Dub is free. You can't schedule it. You can stop or refuse to stop at any time, hang onto one chord for as long as you like. The song falls through a mineshaft, then you go back to it, and it's great to whip up that different feeling. As long as you get out of it where you came in." He laughs. "As long as the audience doesn't boo."

Dennis Bovell plays Cargo tonight with guests; 'All Around the World' is on EMI Frontline