Earl Gateshead looks back on the Battle Of The Dubplates
”How dare you come here and swear in front of the little children!”
Battle Of The Dubplates compère Earl Gateshead laughed uproariously as he recalled the most improbable of soundboy killings; whilst the memory of one of UK Reggae’s grandest elder statesman grinning and making theatrical cutthroat gestures had him chuckling with delight. Earl is a man who loves his job.
In 2013 he introduced the first Battle Of The Dubplates with the line “Tonight under a tent, in a field…massive sound clash!” He has been associated with One Love from the very beginning and had known about the new soundclash element since its inception; but there was still an incredulous quality to his announcement.
In the UK Reggae has always been urban music. At its peak it was the soundtrack of the inner city and I found Earl himself in extremely urban surroundings when we convened for an interview. Earl’s Tower Block Sessions radio show is broadcast from the twenty-fourth floor of Balfron Tower in Poplar.
“I did the first One Love Festival. It was down in Sussex in a forest, a very beautiful setting. The set was in a caravan and it was really chaotic. It was the sort of chaos I was in tune with. The MCs Superfour and Jah Buck were as well. We started playing to nobody, got a big crowd up and had a load of fun. We did it for petrol and a few quid. I thought it would be a laugh and it really was. I’ve done it every year since. I do it and it takes an enormous amount out of us; I get one day off and fly to Rototom. Then I do four days at Rototom”
Festival commitments dictate that a measure of time is spent away from Balfron Tower during the summer. Tower Hamlets Council has sold the iconic brutalist social housing block to a developer. Prior to a major facelift, there has been a scheme to move artists and other creative types into empty flats. Eschewing all cynicism Earl has seized the opportunity with gratitude. A deejay who approaches life with enthusiasm and optimism has become linked with the architecture of socialist utopian ideology; and you have to say it suits him.
In 2008 Dan Wiltshire had a utopian dream of his own; to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s One Love Peace Concert by organising a Reggae festival in the south of England. The forces of conservatism were never going to make this an uncomplicated process and turning it into an annual event has taken great dedication and effort. Earl Gateshead has witnessed its evolution. For the last two festivals Battle Of The Dubplates has been the big Sunday night climax at One Love. Despite the unlikely prospect of staging a ‘massive soundclash in a field under a tent’ in rural England, it has been something of a triumph. After an initial experiment with the format in 2013, it already feels like the finished article.
“It felt settled in 2014: The sound was better, the tent was better and the crowd was better. Last year was a lot of people’s first soundclash and they didn’t know what to expect. This year they knew that it was a whole process. They focused on it, saw everything from the start to the end and understood the implications of everything that was happening; you get a huge vibe off that”.
Reigning battle champs Sir Coxsone were back to compete with fellow UK legends Fatman Sound, young guns Natural Affair and the all-conquering, world class German crew Sentinel.
There is a hardcore international soundclash scene, but Battle Of The Dubplates is definitely not part of it. In fact the host isn’t even a fan.
“I don’t really like soundclashes. I think that clash tape crew are weird; stay in the house and listen to clashes all night. They know this dub and that dub and which sound has got which version. That’s a very specific area; it’s very narrow. The One Love crowd aren’t like that. We’re just Reggae heads really, but know enough to understand the clash. I really like the way they enjoy the music. The vibe is right for me. The people at Battle Of The Dubplates are knowledgeable, but in a different way. They wouldn’t normally go to a clash but they understand the principles. I’m not a fan of soundclashes but I like the way we do it, where the sounds tend to play the whole tune. I don’t just want to hear the first five bars. I’m not interested in that or the continual aggressive dissing of each other. It’s so boring”
Earl laughs when I contend that Battle Of The Dubplates still has squabbles and banter in abundance
“Yes, but the atmosphere is different, more jolly, it’s less cutthroat generally. There were a lot of Jamaican families that had brought kids. You wouldn’t get that at a normal clash would you? It’s a family atmosphere. The crowd know their music, not much about clashing; but they definitely enjoy the excitement and the argument”
It isn’t the latest trend or a passing fashion. Reggae music in its various forms has been influencing British culture for over fifty years. The evidence of this is all around you at The One Love Festival – it’s in the people who go there.
Of course the global symbol of Bob Marley looms large; but as an English Reggae festival, One Love has its own story to tell. Britain has the biggest Caribbean community and more mixed race families than anywhere else in Europe. Inner city comprehensive schools and youth clubs spread the word about Jamaican music to those who hadn’t already heard it from family or neighbours.
As the decades past different pathways emerged that guided people towards Reggae music. The Jamaican rhythm was discovered in mod clubs, at carnivals and record shops, danced to by suedeheads and skinheads, heard at blistering volume at blues parties, played at punk gigs or Rock Against Racism, read about in Black Echoes or the NME, collected on sound-tapes, broadcast by John Peel, David Rodigan and Tony Williams, became an illicit pleasure on pirate radio, at squat parties, free parties and festivals and lead onwards from Post-Punk, Rave and Jungle. It’s not the history you’d go to Jamaica for, but it’s a history all the same.
Earl Gateshead personifies this wandering story. For thirty-five years as a deejay he has been helping to smuggle Reggae into the British consciousness. In his idiosyncratic way he has taken the music where it deserved to go; and into places it could never have expected to reach. Just like the One Love Festival he is unique, unashamedly English and Reggae through and through.
I asked him how he became the master of ceremonies at Battle Of The Dubplates.
“The promoter Dan has used me as a sort of anchor on the main stage between acts. I’d Deejay, talk a bit and bring on someone like Dennis Alcapone or Tappa Zukie. I MC and DJ. I think Dan likes it and so he thought I’d be the man for the job”
It was a safe bet that Earl hadn’t rushed off to immerse himself in the hyped up oeuvre of the typical clash host. He chuckles at the notion.
“I always do everything the way I want to do it. I have done from the start. That’s the way I deejay. I’m not interested in how other people do things. I do it how I’d like to see it done.”
The Host of a clash becomes its referee and mediator. In 2013 the organisation of the contest caused some controversy. A vagary in the format meant at least one sound that had already lost was guaranteed a place in the final.
“They were going to do something like that again but I took advice. I asked Musclehead from Saxon what he thought and he produced a better system. He wrote it down on paper and I changed to it half an hour before we were due to start. So this time there was a round where nobody got eliminated and they could play and enjoy themselves. Three of the sounds got to play in three rounds and that was good as well. Every sound broke the rules by playing a rhythm that another sound had already played; which was a headache for me. Fortunately every sound did it, so they couldn’t complain! I didn’t have to disqualify anybody but you should really stick to the rules exactly. I was lucky I had Mark Iration there and he kept giving us advice on what to do when they broke the rules. He said “just talk about it and if you have any problems ask the crowd, then there’s no comeback”. That was why I asked the crowd if they wanted Fatman disqualified for coming late. Coxsone is funny man; when Fatman was coming through the crowd he was saying “I’m starting, I’m starting, I’m on now!” I said “No Coxsone, you’ve got to let them play, they’re not disqualified”. Coxsone told me later he’d loved it. That was because everybody was enjoying themselves, everybody was laughing”
Allowing Fatman Sound to participate after their dramatic last gasp arrival was a momentous decision. The North London legends went on to win the competition.
“Coming late was accidental, they didn’t do it on purpose but it was fantastic theatre. I made the most of that on the mike, I built it up. I thought that having turned up like that, they might win, because of the drama of it.
Fatman had something; it was like they fitted right in. They were perfect for that crowd, that place, that time. They absolutely took control. Isaac Natural on the mike destroyed everybody really. As soon as Sentinel went out there was only one winner.”
Sentinel were the first sound to be eliminated. This happening to ‘Europe’s top sound’ and former World Clash winners will have surprised the hardcore clash fans. However the majority of the One Love crowd were probably unaware of their reputation. They needed to win the British Reggae/Roots audience over.
“Sentinel had the wrong vibe. They blatantly could have been the best; they had great music, fantastic. The first round they did was stunning, it was perfect. “We’re excited to be here, what a pleasure it is to play for you”, they should have kept that up. Just chat up the crowd. I think they probably know that now.”
The start of their first round was a consummate and untouchable parade of custom-built specials. However a succession of technical troubles threw them off course.
“Technical problems set off their difficulties really, but they fell foul of the crowd. They didn’t do the right thing swearing, stamping up and down kicking things. In a lot of clashes that would have been the expected thing to do, but it was too aggressive. I don’t think people wanted that at One Love. They lost their sympathy and Isaac Natural turned on them; he did such a good job!”
Earl tilted back in his chair and cackled as he recalled what happened next. I wondered if someone who professed to dislike seeing a sound get dissed was relishing this a little too much.
“The way Isaac did it was funny, so you forgave it all. If people are funny you don’t care really. There were a lot of little kids running about and Isaac pointed it out didn’t he? “My nephews are here and you swore in front of them!” It was a real knockout that was! There was no coming back from that. Isaac came over as the big sensible father and that was right for the clash”
Meanwhile Fatman himself, the venerable grandfather, of British Reggae was vigorously making cutthroat signals to the crowd; they got the message.
Sentinel may have suffered a ritual sacrifice but they did enough to impress Earl.
“I’d have them back next year and they’d maybe win. They were bloody good. world-beaters aren’t they? Natural Affair were terrific as well and should have got to the final really. They did ever so well. I hope they come back. A right good young team; just keep it up boys. They were great”
Natural Affair’s non-appearance in the final can only be explained by the crowd’s sentimental attachment to Lloydie Coxsone. Even the formidable Isaac Natural didn’t attempt to disparage the London legend.
“It would have been a mistake to attack Coxsone. Isaac’s clever, he knows the crowd love Coxsone, they’re his constituency; he’s a hero to them. Coxsone represents British Reggae more than anyone. Fatman just had to make sure that they were better than Coxsone – and they were. They used personality and kept control without talking too much over the music. That’s what the crowd wanted”
Here is a message to all sound boys. Until you come to One Love and win the Battle Of The Dubplates you can’t truly call yourselves the champion. It’s all very well to be the talk of the town, but can you be the talk of the country? – Under a tent, in a field.
At the UK’s No1 Reggae/Dub camping festival, when there’s four big sound inna one big tent, you’ll need to come correct. You have to be versatile to get a forward from the crowd at One Love.
Here is my advice: Don’t shout at the crowd and don’t talk over every song, let the music play and don’t keep pulling up after a few bars; and whatever you do don’t swear in front of the kids!
via One Love Festival.