Renegade Soundwave - In Dub
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Renegade Soundwave were completely ahead of their time. British trio Gary Asquith, Danny Briottet, and Karl Bonnie (who later left the group) incorporated booming techno and hip-hop beats, dub bass lines and production techniques, early sampling technology, riffing guitars, and even sneering Mark E. Smith-style vocals into a mind-blowing melting pot of industrial, punk, and electronica that was hard to categorize at the time (the band’s first single was released in 1987, and they sounded their final note less than a decade later) and haven’t gotten any easier to pigeonhole since then. Outside of the equally unheralded Meat Beat Manifesto, no band has been as massively influential (name checked by such luminaries as Autechre and the Chemical Brothers, among others) and yet so criminally ignored at the same time.
While RSW’s 1989 debut album, Soundclash, was a groundbreaking album in its own right, their sophomore effort, In Dub, is where the group really started shaking things up. Ostensibly a remix album comprised of radically reconstructed and dubbed-up versions of tunes from the debut, (“Blue Eyed Boy” became “Black Eyed Boy,” “Traitor” morphed into “Holgertron”), pre-Soundclash singles (“Cocaine Sex” mutated into “Recognise And Respond”), and a handful of brand new cuts that grew from existing sonic seeds into entirely new tracks, In Dub is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Vocals were wiped, the beats and bass were turned up to 11, and the productions got increasingly deep and wide.
It's the very concept of In Dub that stands as the most remarkable thing about the album, however. Inspired by the productions of King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and other Jamaican dub producers, Renegade Soundwave brought the remix album idea to the electronic landscape. It’s important to remember that in 1990, your average “remix” was usually nothing more than a longer version of a tune, perhaps padded out by some early st-st-st-stuttering sample effects and extended solo parts of all the main instrumental tracks. RSW took the concept to its logical extreme—and back to its Jamaican dub roots—by totally deconstructing their tracks and rebuilding them from the bottom up. The remix album may be a common sight on today’s shelves, but in 1990, it was downright revolutionary. Beyond even that leap into the future, this album was the first to fuse the stylings of Jamaican dub with European-style electronica, a style taken to heart years later by the Basic Channel label, Maurizio, and Pole.
As impressed as I was at the time with the results of the album blowing out of the speakers of my dorm room, during my sophomore year of college, I had a life-changing musical experience: I got the chance to see Renegade Soundwave lay it down live. Contrary to the report on Allmusic.com—which states that RSW played their first-ever live show in 1994—RSW made a short jaunt across the U.S. in the winter of 1990-91, and a small but devoted bunch of Oberlin College students (including me, of course) piled into someone’s sister’s car and went to the Phantasy Nite Club in Cleveland to check out the action. As a bonus, Detroit techno figurehead Derrick May—at that point at the height of his powers—was scheduled as the opening act. How much better could it get?
That’s not what we were saying to each other after about three hours of standing around the club. It turns out that May saw the Cleveland show as an opportunity to get to his hometown of Detroit a day early and never showed up. It’s just as well that he didn’t, as the crowd of maybe 100 people would likely have been a letdown for his ego. On the plus side, Mute Records was there in force, and featured a table giving away free stickers, cassettes, posters and buttons. The most coveted button was actually an RSW tie-in—it read “Women Respond To Bass,” after their song of the same name, and my choice for the best electronica song title ever, hands down. So between May’s no show and the free swag, the count was about even.
When the show finally started, however, sides were quickly drawn. Roughly half of the already paltry crowd just didn’t get it and departed immediately. Perhaps they, like me, had spied a very inebriated Gary Asquith hanging around the club for hours earlier and just weren’t expecting much. The other half of us had our minds turned inside out with the musical possibilities expounded by RSW’s set and never looked at music the same way again. I was part of that second group.
The group took the stage and right away we knew something was different: the band was five members strong, but this wasn’t like any line-up we’d ever seen. Asquith was front and center behind the vocal mic, the most standard piece of the group. Flanking him to his right and left were two drum kits: one traditional wooden kit and one laden with electronic drum pads. Behind them was a third, higher drum riser home to a DJ and two turntables. And way off to stage left was Danny Briottet behind what looked like a small mixing desk, twiddling the knobs live as they played, but close enough to the action to be one with the band.
(A note about the DJ: While hip-hop DJs had certainly been seen on stage at this point in time, they certainly weren’t seen playing with a band. Certainly not an electronic band. And definitely not a white electronic band from London. To say this was a bold musical choice is putting it mildly. Sorry to break it to you, Bizkit fans, but Fred Durst did not pioneer the concept of having a DJ scratch records onstage with his group.)
Anyway, the band charged into their first two numbers—“Cocaine Sex” and “Space Gladiator”—like a crazed elephant given six or seven large bong hits to soothe its nerves. The bass frequencies made our fillings rattle; the drum kits played off of each other like a sequencer never could; the DJ dropped in the samples live directly from the original vinyl sources; Asquith delivered his trademark sneering vocals; and off to the side, Briottet was riding the mix in monumental fashion, dropping echo here and delay there. It was a nuclear warhead of sound. Un-fucking-believable. And then, things really started to get weird.
Immediately following the conclusion of the vocals on “Space Gladiator,” before the band actually finished the song, Asquith walked off stage, never to return. It didn’t actually seem that odd, as the next tune up was the instrumental “Thunder,” but suffice it to say, it was just the tip of the iceberg.
The now-four-piece RSW finished their savage rendition of “Thunder” with a bang, and immediately kicked into the next number, a revved-up take of “Ozone Breakdown.” The band were flying at this point, each piece moving in tandem with the next like the proverbial well-oiled machine—the amazing thing being they were doing it live. But the antics weren’t over—about halfway through the cut, the drummer on the standard drum kit stood up and walked off, also never to be seen again. Now, we were starting to wonder what the hell was going on.
What was now a trio onstage—turntable, electronic drum kit, and the mixer—turned “Ozone Breakdown” into yet another tune, which, for the life of me I couldn’t name. There was no distinct break, but you could tell that the song had changed direction. About three minutes in, Briottet stood up and left the stage—say it with me now—never to be seen again. Curiouser and curiouser.
The duo of electronic drums and DJ were now engaged in a fierce battle of rhythms that was truly the most amazing DJ-instrumentalist interaction I have ever witnessed. The pair volleyed back and forth for a few minutes before the drummer finally had enough. He stood up and walked off the stage, leaving just the DJ.
The DJ—and I’ve tried for a decade to find out who he was to no avail—proceeded to let the groove run out and began mixing in a vocal sample from the intro to RSW’s cut “Mash Up,” a hispanic-sounding voice intoning “Renegade Soundwave” in the manner that you might hear someone say “Badges? We don’ need no steenking badges!” He ran the intro on one turntable, then the next, playing the whole of the sample. “Renegade Soundwave, Renegade Soundwave.” Then, he started to cut them faster. “Renega-Renegade Soundwa-Soundwave.” “Ren-Renagade SoundRenagaSoundRenagadeSoundwave.” He was flying between the two decks and the mixer. Eventually, he had the records playing nearly simultaneously, yet was still backspinning the cut each time. It was positively superhuman. The crowd, down to about 40 people, many of whom were very confused at this point, proceeded to give the DJ a standing ovation. The last cut ran off, and the whole thing was over. It took a little over 30 minutes.
But in that half-an-hour, Renegade Soundwave managed to blow every preconception I’d had about electronic dance music away. They had literally deconstructed the very essence of electronic music right there on stage in front of everyone. It was pure magic. They literally took the music down, piece by piece, brick by brick to its barest essences, and it still rocked the house the entire time. This was the ultimate statement of a band’s musical purpose. That night, Renegade Soundwave showed me the future of electronica—hell, the future of music in general—and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out they were right. Turntablism, trip hop, bass overload, sampling, fusion of genres, remixing, general fucking up of shit—they did it all and got next to no credit. Remember that next time you listen to a “revolutionary” or “groundbreaking” artist like Kid 606 or Aphex Twin. Nothing I’ve heard since that night has opened my eyes to the creative possibilities of music as much as those five men did that night. It’s all been done, my friends.
In Dub may not capture the experience of that night as accurately as I would like it to, although surprisingly enough, it doesn’t sound all that dated. But the roots of RSW’s message and purpose are contained in those grooves, and they are even more important today then they were at the time. Post-modern? Try fucking post-future.