Interview / Rob Smith / Smith And Mighty

Mixing Hip Hop, Rare Groove, and Soul, with the bass boom of Soundsystem / Soundclash culture, Rob Smith and Ray Mighty helped to define “the Bristol Sound”. Friends and contemporaries of Massive Attack and the Reprazent crew, with break beats for percussion, they laid down the blueprint for Drum & Bass, Dubstep and Grime. 

November saw Smith & Mighty mark three decades of music-making with the release of The Ashley Road Sessions 88-94. A set of archival material selected in collaboration with Pinch`s Tectonic, and Peverelist`s Punch Drunk labels.  

Are you from Bristol originally?

Born and bred. 

Are you still based in Bristol?

Yes. 

When did you first encounter Reggae and Dub?

My older brother had a great record collection which included artists from Motown, Trojan, and people like Gino Washington, and some island music, but I don’t think I distinguished which of these styles were Reggae until I was about eleven years old, in around 1970. Some of the older Jamaican girls at my school often played Reggae 45’s during the lunch hour and I’d listen in.

When did first encounter Hip Hip culture?

In Bristol, in the early eighties. Some of my friends were circulating cassette tapes of radio shows sent over from from New York. 

How did you meet Ray? 

I first met Ray in the Punk era, when we were both at a Rock Against Racism march in London – but I’m not sure if he remembers! We met properly a few years later when some of my friends asked me to join their band – called Sweat. Ray was the keyboard player. When the band eventually split up, Ray and I decided to team up as we both had an interest in linking sequencers and beat machines via midi, which was relatively new technology at the time.

Did Smith & Mighty operate as a soundsystem?

No, not as such, although the Three Stripe Soundsystem was already in place, which Ray was a part of when I met him.

When did you first start producing music? When you first went into the studio, which artists were you listening to? Who might have been an influence on those early productions? 

I started to produce music in around 1983, while I was playing guitar in a local Reggae band. Someone heard some of my production mixes that I`d made on a 4-track cassette system and gave me a job recording and producing a Dominican Reggae band who were based in France. I moved to Paris for a while to record and mix the album. At that time I was into a lot of Reggae stuff – U Roy, Big Youth, King Tubby, etc., and also ON-U Sound, Adrian Sherwood, The Slits, Mark Stewart, etc., and later things like Scientist, Jah Wobble, Holger Czukay.

Which artists are you listening to right now?

Now? Um.. I really like Boofy’s last release and Hugo Massien’s Ice Cold Trax.

The legend of the “Bristol Sound” always mentions The Dug Out. Where was The Dug Out, and how important was it? 

The Dug Out was a basement music club / bar which was open seven nights a week, situated kinda midway between the posh end of town and the ghetto end – so it had a very mixed clientele. I think it was important because people from many different scenes and tribes came, and different ideas about music were exchanged. Many Bristol bands were probably formed through people meeting each other at The Dug Out.

Did you DJ at The Dug Out?

No.. I didn’t really start DJing properly until 1994.

How important were other factors, such as Revolver Records, and Mark Stewart?

Revolver Records was a good store to buy pre-release Reggae and ‘new’ music as well, like Punk, etc. Revolver also had a distribution business, and we distributed music from our 3 Stripe Record Label through Revolver.   

I first came across Mark Stewart when I went to see The Pop Group play in the late seventies. He had his ear to the ground as far as new music was concerned.. through him, I got to know about music by Ari Up, New Age Steppers, as well as the things he was doing with ‘Mafia’ and Adrian Sherwood.

How did you end up producing Mark Stewart`s Stranger Than Love?

Well.. long story!  Ray and I played our first show in 1986 at an event in Bristol called ‘The Apres Ski Party’ – the event had nothing to do with ski-ing! We were playing sequences and multi-track recordings from gear which we had brought with us and set up on stage. We played our cover version of Erik Satie’s Gymopédie No. 1 and during the performance, Mark Stewart jumped up on stage and shouted at me “This is fucking brilliant!” He then pulled Tricky up onto the stage. Tricky – who at that time was an unknown MC – grabbed a mic and began rapping over our tune.This was apparently his first live performance too. 

After the show, Mark asked me if he could have a cassette copy of the tune. I gave him a copy, and then a few weeks later we found out that he`d recorded his own vocals over our recording and released it as Stranger than Love! 

What was your involvement with Movement 98? 

Stranger Than Love was basically remade as Joy And Heartbreak by Paul Oakenfold`s Movement 98, with a new vocal by Carroll Thompson. As I mentioned, the main melody was from Erik Satie’s Gymopédie No. 1. Paul knew that we`d recorded a version of it and asked us if we would also remix his take on it.

What was your relationship with The Wild Bunch? 

We were all friends. We often attended the same parties. I’ve known Grant – Daddy G – for many years.

Who came up with the idea of mixing heart broken Soul with Hip Hop? Which came first, Wild Bunch`s The Look Of Love, or Smith & Mighty`s Anyone? Which sounds like a Lovers Rock reading of Chaka Khan, and Rufus, over a Vintertainment record. 

I’m not sure if anybody consciously came up with a ‘Lover’s Hip Hop’ idea, it’s just the way things happened. Wild Bunch`s Look Of Love was released before Anyone, but Adrian Sherwood had a release with a similar format some time before Look of Love – also sung by Shara Nelson – called Aiming At Your Heart.

The idea sounds as if it might have started with DJs doing live mixes with acapellas. 

It wasn’t an acapella thing for us. We invited my friend Jackie Jackson to our studio to record some vocals. She sang Anyone Who Had A Heart and Walk On By over the same beat that we had running on a multi-track tape. She was a big fan of Dione Warwick and those were her favourite songs.

How did you end up producing Any Love, which was Massive Attack`s first single?

Grant called at our studio one day with Carlton.. he said he had an idea for a tune… so we put it together and Carlton sang the lyrics. After recording Any Love, we worked on a few singles, and an album with Carlton.  

Part of Smith & Mighty`s music was about fusing Dub with B-boy breaks. Did you / do you have a favourite break? 

My favourite breaks are Hot Pants, Funky Drummer, Soul Pride, and of course Amen!

Why do you think that Massive Attack went on to become a household name, Nelee Hopper a super star producer, while Smith & Mighty have remained relatively “Underground” and out of the limelight? 

Who knows why things happen the way they do? Remaining underground was probably the right thing for us. Everyone has their own path and I’m really happy and grateful about mine. I’ve travelled the World, and met amazing people, and have made great friends because of music. Life has been very sweet and continues to be. I have no regrets and I carry no envy. I know that Ray feels the same.

Are you still in contact with the members of Massive Attack now?

I see Grant, Daddy G, from time to time, and I met Mushroom in a supermarket two weeks ago.

Did you make any money when the Fresh Four record went into the charts? 

Yes, but as it was a cover song, there are no publishing royalties to collect. 

Fresh Four included Suv and Krust. Have you had any interactions or collaborations with the Reprazent collective? 

Suv, Krust & Flynn are very good friends of mine. I’ve worked with them all on various projects since Fresh Four.

What did you mean when you said that “Bass Is Maternal”?

Our friend John Lawrence wrote the line ‘Bass is maternal, when it’s loud I feel safer”. He discussed the idea with me that when we are in the womb as unborn babies, we only hear bass frequencies, and so now maybe we feel a familiar comfort when we listen to and feel bass music.

Did you have any interaction with Soundsystem-influenced artists from outside of Bristol, such as Soul II Soul, Pressure Drop, and The Orb in London, or Rob Gordon at FON in Sheffield? 

No not really. For a long time things were pretty insular in Bristol. However, we`d often attend the dance when soundsystems, like Jah Shaka, Abashanti, etc., came to play.

Have you had any direct interactions with UK-based modern Roots / Reggae producers and collectives, such as Abashanti-I, and Jah Shaka? Or Alpha & Omega, Bush Chemists, Congo Natty, Mad Professor, The Disciples, Manasseh, Roots-man?

We have great respect for these artists. I’ve worked with Mad Professor, and recorded my first 12″ single with him at Ariwa studio. I’ve worked with Congo Natty. I’ve toured with Shaka in Japan, played with Manasseh, and The Disciples.

Given that Reggae and Dub seem to be your major influences, how do you feel about being referred to as “Godfathers of Trip Hop”?

It’s really great to be recognised in any way, but to be honest, artists in Bristol generally don’t like the term “Trip Hop”. It’s a journalistic term started by a writer, who didn’t really understand the scene, named Dom Phillips. Around the time of Tricky’s first album, we, Smith & Mighty, played a show with him in London, to a big audience. When Tricky came on stage, he asked the crowd, “Who likes Trip Hop?” Some people cheered, and shouted “Yes!”, and Tricky replied, “Well fuck off home then!”

How did Acid House influence the music that you made? Do you think there are similarities in the way that early Chicago House, and Jamaican Dub Reggae, use space in their music? What did you make of Rave?

That’s a good point. Some of the early Acid tunes were quite sparse and dubby, and I tend to view music from a “Dub” perspective. We tried to make our own combination of House and Steppers Reggae, and made some tunes that incorporate aspects of many styles –  including House, Steppers, breaks etc. While we were working in London we`d often attend the outdoor “orbital” raves that were going on around the M25. 

The Dub-influenced scene in Bristol seems pretty active right now. With Peverelist`s Punch Drunk, Pinch working with Adrian Sherwood, and Miles from Bokeh Versions just moving there. How did you meet Pinch and Peverelist?

I used to shop in Rooted Records in Bristol. At that time Tom (Peverelist) was running things there. He knew me from Smith & Mighty, and one time he asked me if I had any unreleased material. So I brought in a CD of different tunes and pieces for him to check.. He really liked them and asked if I was up for releasing on Punch Drunk. He eventually chose Corner Dub and Pretty Bright Light to release as a twelve. I don’t remember the first time I met Pinch, but I was talking to Mala after we`d both played in Fabric, and Mala asked me if I knew Pinch and told me that I should check him. Pinch started the Subloaded and Dubloaded nights in Bristol which quickly became very popular.

Rooted Records

Are there any clubs, parties or events, that you regularly attend, or DJ at? 

No not really. I play all over but nowhere as a regular event.

Is soundsystem culture still a big part of Bristol? Who are the current sounds to catch?

Yes it is… Dubkasm’s regular “Teachings in Dub” held at Trinity Church is really popular. also at The Black Swan where veteran sound Lokko still play.

(Can anyone kindly ID the track Dubkasm are playing here?)

Which new Bristol-based artists should we be listening to?

I just heard Guido’s new single, End Point, which is really nice. I like Boofy, as I already mentioned. Gemmy & Slowie are kicking it up right now.. in fact any one on Durkle Disco, Livity Sound, Idle Hands is worth checking for sure.

You obviously still record, largely as RSD. Are Smith & Mighty still active?

Yes, still active. This year we’ve played together in Bristol, One Love festival, Salzburg in Austria, Stutgart in Germany.

Is there more to come from the Smith & Mighty archive? Is there new music on the way from Smith & Mighty?

Yes.. we’re planning a release of more material in Japan, and recently we’ve been recording new songs with Tammy Payne.

I know you visit Japan fairly regularly. When are you next due over, and where are your favourite places to play?

I love to visit and play in Japan! I hope to be back in the Spring. I have many friends there, and many favourite places.. I particularly like to play at Rajishan in Shizuoka.

You can order a copy of Smith & Mighty`s Ashley Road Sessions directly from Tectonic / Punch Drunk.

There are a few of my favourite Smith & Mighty productions here…

**When I put the mix together, I couldn’t find my copy of this…

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