Roots Radicals: Righteous Reggae According to Steel Pulse

Sometimes it's who you know. Radical anti-establishment attitudes, anti-racist/colonialist establishment attitudes, that is, made it difficult for reggae upstarts Steel Pulse to score a gig in the clubs of their native Britain during the band's formative period of the late-'70s. Punks and the would-be leaders of the early-'80s new wave movement took the young black musicians under their wing, however, and Steel Pulse found a home on stage with the likes of The Police, XTC, and the Clash.

The band took off shortly thereafter with releases on Mango (notably, Handsworth Revolution and Tribute to the Martyrs) and later, Elektra Records (look for True Democracy). In the two decades since, and not without their share of lineup changes and less-than-inspired songwriting lapses, the group has steadfastly elevated themselves to become senior and respected members of the international reggae community. They unsuccessfully strayed toward pop-rock in between, but following a successful 1992 live album, Rastafari Centennial: Live in Paris, Elysee, Montmarte, the band revisited its roots and, ahem, rediscovered themselves.

Leader David Hinds, a Brit with strong family ties to the genre's homeland, gave not only an enjoyable recap of the band's first quarter century, but an illuminating lesson (watch the attached video, mon) that thoroughly covers the roots of reggae, ska, rock steady, and mento. Irie. David, tell us a little bit about what Steel Pulse has been up to in the last couple of years.

David Hinds: Well, in the past couple of years we've had a few albums out. We released Rage of Theory, which was our last [studio] album. Then we went on to do a couple of "Spirit of Unity" tours, which was a package tour with a few other reggae bands, including Third World, Maxi Priest, and Buju Banton. Then we went on to record another album but this time it' s a live one that was done over 3 different countries: Puerto Rico, Holland, and France. And we've toured the States and made a pilgrimage to West Africa. What do you have planned for the future?

Hinds: We're in the studio doing some work with some French artists. And then we go and do our own studio album again. In between the production work of the album, we'll be doing the art festivals throughout Europe and the U.S. And the album [should be released by] the early parts of 2001. Steel Pulse has a long history. Could you please give our younger readers a brief history of the band?

Hinds: We came out of England, the band was formed in England, and the original members come from as early as 1975-76. There are three original members left. Our transition through our career has been by 1976 we were asked to do shows with a lot of punk rock acts, in London, where we teamed up with a lot of acts like Generation X, The Stranglers, Ian Drury and the Blockheads , just to name a few. By 1977, we opened up for Burning Spear. We were signed to Island Records, at that time. Island Records saw us in their favor and they signed us up also. So, we recorded our first studio album in 1978, and went on to put out our first renowned single titled "Klu Klux Klan." We went on to tour with Bob Marley and the Wailers in Europe. Actually, a tour in France and Holland is where we really took off, as far as recognition in Europe, with Bob Marley and the Wailers. We first came to America 20 years ago, and we've been touring here ever since. We've got a total of about approximately 13 albums or so under our belts right now. We've been Grammy-nominated several times, and managed to win one for the album Battle of the Bandit. You toured with Marley; you've played with Burning Spear?

Hinds: Yes, just to name a few. What did you learn from those legends of reggae?

Hinds: What we learned from Marley is that he had a lot of energy. I think one of the things we learned about him was that no matter what stage of the tour you're at, try and give that 100 percent energy, as if it's the first show. Obviously, when you're touring, as each day goes by, your energy's drained. This man managed to stay in such an energy, that was one of the things we learned from him. And also when things weren't working in your favor on stage 'cause it's not all the time you're getting a good sound on stage, there's times in halls it's so echoic, you can't hear anything, not even the next man close to you because of the actual acoustics. It's the whole idea of just conducting the whole thing on a professional level and giving it all you've got. Perseverance: That's what we've learned from Bob Marley. And a lot of discipline. And making each night better than the night before. I'd say that's what I learned from touring with Bob Marley and the Wailers. Can you give us, the same way you just gave us a brief history of your band, can you explain the time-tables of reggae music?

Hinds: I could tell you from my British standpoint. I mean, obviously I was born in England, and the whole world knows that reggae music really evolved out of Jamaica. But, having said that, my parents were immigrants that left Jamaica and came to England in the mid '50s. During that period of time, they came over with the form of music that was happening on the island at that time, which was Calypso and blue beat. Blue beat was more like a be-bop type of thing, a form of jazz. At that time, Jamaicans tuned into the New Orleans radio stations and it had the little grooves where the bass line is very much jazz orientated, that was blue beat.

Then that music sort of transformed into ska. I sort of got affiliated with the different forms of music that was happening in Jamaica, at that time, because of my brothers and sisters that were coming over each year, as my parents could afford for them to come. So, they came over with the latest forms of music and blue beat slowly came into ska, which was more of an accented form. Then ska became more of an accented type thing where the bass line had more of a variation as opposed to the be-bop.

Then when you get into the ska era, Bob Marley came on to play with his type of songs. And then that transformed into rock steady, which was more, instead of going on the upbeat, you go on the downbeat. So, blue beat went into ska, and then ska into reggae, as we all know it today. This is where Bob Marley, once again, along with Burning Spear, The Abassynians and Third World, just to name a few, those guys sort of evolved out of that kind of a period. Along with the music format, there was also a spiritual connection with it, where people were talking about the whole philosophy of Rastafari and also the ideology of Marcus Garvey, the "Back-to-Africa" movement.

So, like I said, we had the rock steady and then it became reggae, as we know it. Now along with the reggae there was a lot of spirituality, as far as the lyrical content, and it was also the political attribute as well. At that time, in Jamaica, what was happening politically with the governments was a big issue, where one like Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, and all these others, were airing their views and literally using reggae music as a vehicle to air their views. So, as a result, the music slowed down in tempo somewhat from ska. I think it was an essence where the bass line became more hypnotic. It became slow in tempo so that one could get a chance to digest what's said lyrically, because of the political attributes.

Reggae, as we know it, was very popular for a good 15 years, I'd say from the turn of the '70s right into the mid-'80s. Then after Marley passed on, it became dancehall, where things became a lot more up-tempo, the rhythmic side of things, especially the rhythm guitar. It started to lose its popularity when it came to the dancehall strain of the music, where strictly drum and bass was concentrated on with samples. And also the lyricist, the ones who said things vocally, melodically, the singers, were also phased out and the DJ started to come in, and they started bouncing around a lot of rhythms that were faster in pace, so to speak. So, from my standpoint, that's the evolution of reggae.

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