Lovers Rock, The second chapter in director Steve McQueen’s lauded Small Axe film series for the BBC, tells the story of a romance that blossoms against an unconventional backdrop: a West Indian house party in early-‘80s London. Racial tension hovers at the outer edges of the characters’ lives, but it rarely encroaches, for the most part because McQueen’s film embraces the music, culture and beauty of Black Britain as its focus. And the dance floor, after all, acts as an oasis from the repressive ills of the outside world.
Or so it seems: When the party’s sound system DJ twists up Janet Kay’s sensuous reggae ballad “Silly Games,” the camera roves among the swaying dancers and, as the music begins to fade, everyone in the room continues to sing along. It’s a pivotal scene that captures a sense of community at its most uninhibited—and that moved Dennis Bovell, who wrote and produced the original song, to reconsider its context.
“When Steve called me to have a look at writing some music,” Bovell recalls from his studio digs in London, “I noticed that he had suggested ‘Silly Games’ as the focal piece in that scene. And it felt to me like he had taken those words, ‘We’ve got no time to play these silly games,’ to a political aspect—like a widerranging, community despair. And I thought, ‘Wow, that hadn’t occurred to me.’ You know, this was a love song, but those words just ring true as a social comment, too. And I welcomed that.”
Bovell himself actually appears in the scene—you can spot him as the nattily dressed older neighbor Milton, crooning in his signature baritone—which is only apt because he happens to be the de-facto godfather of the romance-heavy reggae genre known as lovers rock. But it’s also just one facet of Bovell’s illustrious history as a songwriter, musician and producer, captured for posterity on his sprawling Trojan Records set The DuBMASTER: The Essential Anthology.
“It’s taking me back home,” Bovell says, referring to the early sides he recorded with his group Matumbi, which signed to Trojan in the mid-1970s. Bovell first emigrated from Barbados to England in 1965, when he was only 12, and, by the time he was 15, he was playing guitar and singing in rock and reggae bands— eventually embracing reggae as much for its consciousnessraising message as its rhythm. “Matumbi started out being quite political, but record companies wanted love songs. I actually sang the lead on a cover of ‘Brother Louie’—that was a Hot Chocolate song that made a pretty strong political statement, but Trojan didn’t seem to mind, so they took it and we signed to them.”
Along the way, Bovell took a keen interest in the mix controls at Gooseberry Sound, a small 16-track studio in Soho that became a proving ground for up-and-coming reggae artists. Before long, he was taking the reins as a producer, building lush, layered sounds behind such future legends as The Slits, whose debut Cut stuck like a shiv in London’s post-punk circuit, and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who released a string of albums—starting with Dread Beat an’ Blood and its devastating follow-up Forces of Victory—that gave voice to a burgeoning civil rights uprising in Thatcherite Britain. He also started recording with his own groups and under a number of different aliases, including Dennis Bovell and The Dub Band, The 4th Street Orchestra and the mysterious dub-mixing persona Blackbeard.
The DuBMASTER charts some of this journey, with one disc devoted in large measure to Bovell’s work as a singer and multi-instrumentalist and the other highlighting his work as a producer. “When I was making this music, I set out to disprove the theory—well no, it wasn’t a theory, it was a myth—that reggae could not be made in the U.K.,” he explains. “It always seemed as though reggae in the U.K. was looked upon as inferior. And I set out to prove that it was actually a hybrid. It was a mixture of a lot of things that, unless you were musically astute, would go above your head.”
Nuggets like “Silly Games,” melodically complex in its lovers rock guise, and Errol Dunkley’s mystical roots groover “A Little Way Different,” as well as Bovell’s own rock-and-funk-tinged “Pow Wow,” are just a few of the standouts. After repeated listens, what emerges is a sonic field that connects the roots and dub sounds of Jamaica with the tech-savvy dub, punk, soul and electronic funk of postmodern London. And Bovell’s still going strong today, with remixes for the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Bobby Gillespie, Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke’s The Smile, Animal Collective, Spoon and more all hitting in the past few months.
“It feels like I’ve climbed a mountain, you know?” Bovell says when asked what it means to him to be anthologized. “After 50 years of making music—to be able to put most of your work into physical pieces—that, for me, is a landmark. And I’ve got enough material that we can do another one—so look out!”