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Q&A With Emch: Subatomic Sound System, Mad Geniuses, and Dub-Opera

Q&A With Emch: Subatomic Sound System, Mad Geniuses, and Dub-Opera

By toksala
December 15, 2010

Producer Emch has been one of the main hands at helm of Subatomic Sound System since it began to coalesce a decade ago. Since that time he has been part of countless hip-hop, dub reggae, drum and bass, and dancehall adventures involving a completely surreal — and often legendary — cast of collaborators.

Among the organization’s many accomplishments is the recently released the NYC-2-Africa EP, an intense piece of collaborative brilliance produced by Emch and Nomadic Wax’s Benny Beats and featuring the vocal talents of Pupa Bajah of the Dry Eye Crew, Jahdan Blakkamoore, and Anthony B.

The politically charged Anthony B track, “Dem Can’t Stop We From Talk,” was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica as gun battles broke out during the US-requested extradition of politically influential alleged drug trafficker Christopher “Dudus” Coke. We kind of had to get the story on that one.

In our Q&A we discuss what went down in Jamaica, the proper pronunciation of Emch, and why dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry isn’t really crazy. Frankly, someone should make a Buckaroo Banzai-style movie about this guy’s life.

We also got the man to explain exactly what sort of musical juggernaut Subatomic Sound System is. The short answer is that Subatomic Sound System is Subatomic Sound System — but the long answer is well worth reading on for.

Photo: Subatomic Sound System

What does Emch stand for and how do you pronounce it?

A friend of mine called it the primal phoneme, but I got it from my family and it’s just pronounced how it looks, like speaking letter “M” plus a “ch” sound on the end. People tend to either find it confusing or enjoyable to say it. I’ve had some weird situations in life where someone will just repeat it over and over to themselves, often at inappropriate times: teachers, friends’s parents, strangers. The other night I was hanging out with Lee “Scratch” Perry after we had played this Dubblestandart gig in Germany and he looked at me suddenly and said, “Emch! Em-farash! Emperosh! Rastafari! Rastafari! Rastafari!” and then threw his head back laughing and clapped three times. I wasn’t sure if he was casting a spell or tracing my name back to some sort of semantic roots in Ethiopia. Then he said “Underground atomic energy!” which I liked because I think of it like Einstein’s E=mc2 formula, Energy = Music times Creation to the power Hope: Emch.

Is Subatomic Sound System a record label or a band?

Subatomic Sound is the label, and a radio show on both Brooklyn Radio and Radio New York, and Subatomic Sound System is a band of sorts, but it’s based on the Jamaican sound system concept. It’s an effort to adapt 1970s Jamaican sound system culture and dub reggae studio techniques to current music genres and forms of live performance. Since the ’60s producers and labels in JA typically spread their music live by doing sound system performance, which was a DJ and vocalists plus stacks of handmade amps and speakerboxes. That same culture later gave birth to rap music when Jamaicans relocated to the Bronx. Being based in NYC and drawing on reggae and hip-hop as well as electronic music, we wanted to build on that. Subatomic Sound System often also includes instruments in a live show as well as vocalists and instead of just DJing, thanks to computers, it’s a full mini dub studio, so ultimately, when we bring the full crew, Subatomic Sound System is a DJ and band at the same time.

What was the hardest part of pulling together the NYC-2-Africa EP? Connecting three artists and three labels had to be challenging.

Just making independent music is challenging these days on many levels and we are all working on different projects simultaneously, but with NYC-2-Africa, the paths we are on just led us here, like it was part of our mission. It happened naturally over time and the pieces fell into place, and each piece made it bigger. So what made it go so smoothly was that all the artists involved are working towards parallel goals, and share a commitment to conscious forward thinking music that is still connected to its roots. We had built up friendships and connections as a result. It started with the beat, with Benny Beats from Nomadic Wax recording in Senegal, which was completed in NYC with Subatomic Sound, and then we started playing the music for the vocalists and it caught fire from there.

Who was there filming Anthony B recording “Dem Can’t Stop We From Talk” in the studio?

I was there in Kingston with Devon, the head of People’s Records. Devon was one of the first producers to record Anthony B back in the day and has known him for years. We didn’t plan to record video because we didn’t expect him to hear the beat and write it on the spot. Anthony B was really inspired when he heard it and we ended up using whatever cameras we had because we couldn’t miss capturing that feeling. It was extraordinary. Everyone in the room felt it. Chills up the spine.

What did you think the first time you heard the song?

Electricity. It was like he was capturing a moment in history with this song, like lightning in a bottle. Chills. We had given him a few beats to listen to and when the NYC-2-Africa beat came on, that was it. End of story. He heard the African drums and got really focused, stopped talking, and immediately started chanting over it, rewinding the track, and starting over until he finally shouted to the engineer to cue up the recorder. Honestly, it was one of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve ever had, knowing the long path that music had taken to get to him, and then seeing his reaction. It was like the beat had walked such a distance on a dusty road and finally found its home.

Last year, Subatomic Sound put out a Dubblestandart album featuring Lee “Scratch” Perry, the late Ari Up, and David Lynch. Which one is the craziest genius?

Well, we like to use the word “eccentric” over here at Subatomic Sound and of course there is a fine line between genius and craziness. All three were on the Return from Planet Dub album which we followed up with Dubblestandart’s “Chrome Optimism remixes” release that brought together David Lynch and Lee “Scratch” Perry and we released a 7″ “Hello, Hell is Very Low” b/w “Bed Athletes” combining Lee “Scratch” Perry and Ari Up of the Slits with Subatomic Sound System that unfortunately would be Ari’s last recording to be released during her life.

Certainly Scratch has the biggest reputation for what people call crazy, but I think it is more an irrepressible creativity than craziness. When people see a 74-year-old Jamaican man with multi-colored hair and beard, ornately decorated hats, boots, and clothes, their first reaction might be to think he is crazy, but people who know him would recognize that he is a walking expression of his art.

To me Scratch makes sense, he is wise and visionary. Sure, he claims that he intentionally burned down his famous studio, the Black Ark, at the height of his success in Jamaica and most people thought that was pretty crazy, but even that he explains as a strategic move to act crazy to protect himself and scare off negative people. So perhaps it was a genius move.

When I was hanging out with him the other night, he was watching a Chinese comedy and a vampire movie dubbed in German even though he doesn’t speak German. That seemed a little crazy, but then we got down to a serious interview about the jungle, kung-fu, aliens, Egyptian pyramids, 2012, his favorite superheros, nuclear energy, financial conspiracy, a sexual fitness regime, and positive thinking. Very few artists can be funny or crazy and still be taken seriously and I think that speaks to his genius for sure. I have to say that all of three of them, Scratch, Ari, and Lynch, address very serious topics as well as being funny, it’s an unusual balance if you think about it. I think the source of the crazy and the genius stems from maintaining a strong connection to their inner child and not letting that be broken down over time by life’s pressure, being able to maintain the wonderment and curiosity about the world and all the things we still don’t know about it. Einstein even said that once.

How did that even happen?

Dubblestandart out of Vienna really connected the dots. I knew Ari Up from NYC and had done some work with her, but Dubblestandart has been doing their thing for 20 years in Europe and really built respect and relationships over time. They made the connections with Scratch and David Lynch. They also have strong ties in Jamaica with People’s Records and different artists they toured with over the years. I started playing guitar and melodica for them on some tour dates, then doing remixes, then putting out releases for them. It became a family affair.

Even your core group of players in Subatomic Sound System is pretty large and diverse. Is there ever such a thing as too many collaborators?

No, as long as you can maintain your own identity. Collaborators should push one another. It’s how we grow. It’s the future of music in the absence of a corporate major label environment or any source to nurture, fund, and support music. We support each other and that actually makes more sense. It’s more democratic and I feel like the collaborations are building bridges between us, creating community globally, a network, and helping evolve the sound. It’s the difference between being each other’s critics but supporters as opposed to just haters that pull each other down like crabs in a bucket. It’s like we’re part of an underground resistance movement.

Pick one: The stage or the studio.

Studio is the source and the results are forever so that is number 1, but I love bringing it live and some of the moments sharing the music with people live and feeling the energy of their response are the most unforgettable.

What sounds are inspiring you the most right now?

So many. NYC is about to boil over! I do a radio show on Brooklyn Radio and Radio New York that always features the latest inspiring favorites and most of it ends up being from New York and by artists and labels we know and work with. People need to tune in to find out! You can get there from The playlists are online and we have a Subatomic Sound podcast on iTunes too. The LionDub International label and the Sub Swara crew have been really turning it out lately. All the people involved with this NYC-2-Africa release are putting out great music: Anthony B, Jahdan, Bajah and The Dry Eye Crew. Subatomic Sound as a label has been enlisting all our favorite producers, musicians, and singers on our releases this past year for originals and remixes. The Dubblestandart Chrome Optimism release is like a top list of our favorites.

Compared with when you started, are people’s minds more open to the panoply of rhythms that Subatomic Sound System seeks out?

Absolutely, New York has such a massive breadth of music and culture that this has been a perfect place to grow Subatomic Sound. That’s because people are generally familiar or open to the many elements we combine, but worldwide people are starting to open up to all different sounds. I think the divisions between genres is less of a concern to a generation that never shopped for music by going into a physical record store that was divided into sections by broad bland genre names like: rock, pop, world, classical. We’re finally getting past that. It’s one of the goals of my radio shows on Brooklyn Radio and my live DJ sets, to help dissolve those boundaries.

What’s your next big genre-melting project going to be like? Who do you want to bring together next?

We recently teamed up with People’s Records from Jamaica and put out a release called “Vampires & Informers” by Elephant Man that features some of our favorite electronic producers from around the world re-imagining a song by one of the biggest vocalists in Jamaican dancehall in all sorts of unexpected genres from dubstep and reggae to polyrhythmic styles like “barefoot” and beyond.  That release and NYC-2-Africa are the start of many more like it where we hope to expose people outside of reggae to the talent of Jamaican artists, but at the same time respect the foundation enough to still connect with reggae listeners. The NYC-2-Africa instrumental has inspired MCs from India to Canada to Colombia to the Middle East to send us their own songs they have written on the beat, NYC-2-Africa-2-India for example, so it’s almost like we planted a seed here that is growing on its own: culturally cross pollinated music that is self-aware and has something to say.

As far as the future, we have so many things in the works right now, both live and recorded projects. The full length Subatomic Sound System album Emergency Dubcast Signal will be coming out in early 2011 that will be combining all kinds of artists and sounds. We’re going to continue digging deeper into all our roots. We will continue working with Lee “Scratch” Perry. He was just nominated for another Grammy and at age of 74, he is still relentless about experimentation and pushing things forward. As the godfather of dub, which is at the core of Subatomic Sound System, his music and attitude is inspiring. Keeping with that spirit, Subatomic Sound, the label, will also start cultivating and releasing music from more up-and-coming or unknown genre-bending artists, like April White, who you might have heard as a remixer on the Chrome Optimism release.

One of the most unique live events we are working on is an outdoor dub-opera multimedia project in Dubblestandart’s hometown of Vienna where we hope to bring together Lee “Scratch” Perry and David Lynch live, plus elements of a classic Orson Wells film The Third Man, dancers, live musicians, visual artists and more. We have done several projects over the years at places like the Whitney Museum in NYC and even warehouse spaces with the video artists Water & Light Project, but this would be taking that to a next level!

We plan to take our ongoing Planet Dub tour to more stops around the world with Subatomic Sound System, Dubblestandart and special guests. In the past two years we took it to Asia, Europe, Canada, and the US with guests like Lee “Scratch” Perry, Ari Up, Jahdan Blakkamoore, and others. We’re looking to go to Japan and France early next year. This year we also plan to work with Ken Boothe. He is like the Frank Sinatra of Jamaica, but not known much to the younger generation now. Oddly, the biggest hits by Boy George & Culture Club in ’80s when MTV first became popular were covers of Ken Boothe songs. When people hear his voice they fall silent. It’s a force of nature, like an angel singing.

Let me just end by finally answering your question: Two musicians we hope to bring together in the near future are Tom Waits and Blondie. Imagine that!

Anthony B Emch Dem Can't Stop We From Talk

Emch with Anthony B in Kingston, April 2010 Photo: Subatomic Sound System

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