The Irish reggae scene: ‘People have been building this for years’
Dublin isn’t widely known as a hot spot for Jamaican music, but the top acts Dirty Dubsters bring over to record here are always pleasantly surprised
Jay Sharp and Bazza Ranks aka Dirty Dubsters: “Our styles complement each other in a way that fell into place quickly”
Bazza Ranks and Jay Sharp are raising Ireland’s profile in a most unlikely field: reggae. As Dirty Dubsters, they record and perform with a network of artists from Jamaica, the US and the UK. But as co-founders of the record label Irish Moss and the Rub-a-Dublin reggae festival, they’ve been finding ways to keep that music connected to home.
“At the beginning, people would see we were based in Dublin and say ‘what the hell?’ ” says Bazza, otherwise known as Barry O’Brien. “Most people don’t even think twice about it now. Reggae is a world music and there is a lot of it being made in Ireland at the moment. It’s hardly been known as a hot spot on the global stage, but the acts we bring over are always pleasantly surprised. It’s not a hard sell.”
To get the right feel for their music, the duo approach vocalists they want to work with – among them Burro Banton, General Levy and Turbulence – then present them with instrumental tracks. Once a song has been developed, the artist flies in to Dublin to record the vocals, shoot a video and perform at an Irish Moss club night – all in the same day. That kind of efficiency is crucial, O’Brien says.
We are in his basement studio, where records and old concert posters line the walls. A whiteboard above the keyboards is covered with scribbles about upcoming club nights, festival appearances and contacts that need calling. Making a living from this means seizing as many opportunities as possible, he says, whether it’s launching a line of T-shirts or playing six-hour DJ slots.
A sample for Starbucks
O’Brien recounts a wake-up call for the label when it received an offer to use one of its tracks in a Starbucks ad. What caught them off guard was that the song featured a sample that hadn’t been cleared.
“It made us realise that these kind of opportunities can arise at any time and you need to have your affairs in order,” he says.
“There have been a lot of challenges,” says Jay Sharp, whose real name is Jason Rymer. “We had some difficult times, especially during our first album [2013’s Fire It Up], to the point that it forced us to become much more careful negotiating work.”
The most frustrating instance concerns an agent in Jamaica who was being used by Dirty Dubsters for dubplate services: obtaining exclusive versions of tracks to play in clubs. The contact claimed to represent Sizzla, an artist with whom they wanted to work, and he agreed to organise a recording for a Dirty Dubsters track.
“It was clear from videos and so on that they knew each other so, stupidly, we sent him money via Western Union upfront,” says O’Brien. “After about six or seven months, the agent stopped answering calls and emails. Then one day he came clean and said, ‘Look, I used that money to visit my mother in the US’.”
He shakes his head, laughing. “We never got anything back and, since we went public with it, loads of people said they had similar experiences. So there are obviously plenty of cowboys in the voice-recording game.”
At the same time, an artist in Florida who had agreed to collaborate also disappeared. “It got to the point where we were sending half-threatening emails,” says O’Brien. “One day he finally resurfaced to record the song for us, full of apologies, explaining that he’d been in jail the whole time. We decided it was best not to ask too many questions about that one.
“But there were so many setbacks in terms of money and time that myself and Jay were getting quite strained towards the end of that process. We thought it’d be the only album we’d ever make. Thankfully, we hired someone to help with the label’s administration, and it’s been pretty smooth sailing ever since.”
Pod was the place
O’Brien and Rymer met in 2005 at Dublin’s Pod nightclub, where the former was handing out gig flyers and the latter was handing out mix CDs of breakbeats. They teamed up for a new club night in Kennedy’s called Break-Down, playing a mix of house, hip-hop, reggae and drum’n’bass. Gradually they began making music of their own to blend into sets.
“Barry’s good with making different beats and doesn’t follow a set formula,” says Rymer, who is originally from Sydney. “I’d be more looking at the structure of a song, melodies, basslines and things like that, so our styles complement each other in a way that fell into place quickly.”
Reggae proved to be the most popular element of their live sets, but creating their own take on it had never been the plan, adds Rymer. It simply teased itself out as they honed their production techniques.
“Given the way we spread the sound, it’s more reggae-influenced dance music,” says O’Brien, who is from Malahide. “At the moment our set is made up of all sorts of music that samples reggae and has a similar vibe.” He pauses. “But it’s all over the place in terms of tempo and style. If we played a pure reggae club, they’d probably hate us.”
In 2011, O’Brien and Rymer founded Irish Moss, named after a drink popular in Jamaica, as a way of combining traditional sound-system culture with contemporary bass music. It has since evolved into an international roster that includes Steppa Style (Russia), Capitol 1212 (Scotland) and New Yorker Bluntskull, who is based in Vietnam.
Special Request, Dirty Dubsters’ new album, is the label’s 34th release. It’s a mish-mash of genres, eras and MCs that benefits from the lessons they have learned along the way.
“Focusing on music while also managing the business end is a continual challenge, whether it’s the different chemistry you have with each artist or their varying levels of organisation,” says Rymer. “That caused a lot of headaches on the first album. It felt forced. This time everyone we worked with already knew us, which made things so much easier that it really shows in the songs.”
Airplay and tours
Dirty Dubsters’ first album garnered airplay on the BBC and led to tours of Europe, the US and Canada, but Rymer says support in Ireland was relatively sparse. Recently, however, reggae-based music has been expanding here.
Independent labels such as Echobus and Roots Factory Records have sprung up. There are sound systems in Cork and Limerick, and younger crews are getting involved all the time, O’Brien says. Weekly sessions such as Worries Outernational in Dublin continue to thrive.
This year’s Electric Picnic was Dirty Dubsters’ fifth consecutive appearance at the festival, and they believe its Trenchtown stage is a great showcase of the quality of emerging Irish reggae.
“People have been building this for years without getting a look-in, but it feels like the tides are slowly turning,” says O’Brien.
“We’ve been on a run of festivals in Ireland, from Belfast to Valentia Island, where reggae is at the forefront. It seems to be everywhere now, and it’s a great time to be part of that.”