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Interview: Spiderman from Jah Observer

Interview: Spiderman from Jah Observer

Interview: Spiderman from Jah Observer

By on - Photos by Karen Campbell & Angus Taylor - 1 comment

"Once upon a time it was all about the music, it’s now about who’s got the most power"

Austin "Spiderman" Palmer is the founder and selector for the Mighty Jah Observer sound system. He started his sound as a youth in the late 1960s and has continued through the various trends in reggae, preserving his unique approach to music all the while. Two characteristics mark out his system from all the others who play in Europe and the UK: firstly, his rig is still valve-driven; and secondly, he eschews the "boof boof" dub played by his contemporaries in favour of the more soulful cultural vibes of yesteryear. For three decades his spot at Notting Hill Carnival has offered a refreshing relief from the ear-bashing found on corners all around, but now things are about to change. Spider is playing his final Carnival in 2011 and then quitting the business to move back to Jamaica. Angus Taylor returned to the subject of his first ever interview, who gave a no holds barred appraisal of the scene and why he's getting out...

Austin Spiderman Palmer - Jah Observer

Why is the time right to retire now?

I’m getting older. I’m 55 next year and I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 75. I’ve been here my whole life and I want to have a new experience. I want to go back and take care of my mum, my dad’s not well, and I’m the oldest and the only one out of my brothers and sisters willing to go back there to live. Then there’s the way things are with the music at the moment – with sound systems. Once upon a time there was a lot of love between the sound systems – believe it or not! – but now everyone wants to be top dog. That one doesn’t want you to play with him, dog eat dog. Some of these people call themselves Rasta but when European sounds come over here they turn around and say to me, “these guys, they’re “Rasta” but they’re not Rasta” – they can see they don’t live it. They have the locks, they play the music, they shout it, but it doesn’t come over. So it’s a lot of things. If I could stay young forever then yeah, but I can’t just stay here for the sound system – even though a lot of people would like us to! – when I’m in Jamaica I don’t miss the sound system or England.

What are you going to do with your rig?

Well my sons – none of them would want it. One’s a fireman, one does something in law, one’s a Seven Day [Adventist] and the youngest one’s into rap and jungle and whatever you call it. So some of the boxes I’ll probably sell, the amps I’ll keep a couple for myself because I’m going to have a little rig. I’ll take about six cabinets to Jamaica with me if customs don’t charge me too much! And I’ll leave a little rig here for my brother Steven who, when we do dances, is there with me. But he’s more into computers and flying model planes and go-karts whereas I’m into the music first.

Will you play any music over in Jamaica?

I’ll have to see how that goes because here I’ve grown with people, I know people and I know what the runnings are. But the rig I’m carrying to Jamaica is just to play on my veranda in my front yard for my own gratification. I’ll be rocking in my rocking chair saying, “Yes! Remember this tune I played in Hackney on such and such a day!” (laughs)

What do you think is wrong with the UK scene? Is it that there isn’t enough money in it?

This is just my opinion but in my eyes, where once upon a time it was all about the music, it’s now about who’s got the most power. Who’s got this box, who’s got that box, it’s all technical this, technical that – glorified PAs. Austin Spiderman Palmer - Jah ObserverAnd to make it worse, the guys are producing tunes themselves – nothing wrong with that in itself – but because they’re all digital they haven’t got melodies and they’re flat. And if you’re not playing that kind of music it’s like you’re not dealing with Jah and not dealing with roots. I call it European reggae. In the old says people used to come to the sounds because they wanted to hear the real thing. The proper thing. But now the sound systems say, “There’s loads of students. Let’s shake off their heads” by playing the techno-reggae. And if you’re not playing the techno reggae you’re not part of the scene. Mine is a valve sound system and some guys are playing with more power on their tops than on my whole rig. But it’s what I have and what I wanted to do. I don’t want to spend thousands of pounds on new Mosfet amps and equipment. For one, I didn’t have it, and two, I discovered people wanted to hear mine.

A lot of UK music is called “UK dub” instead of “reggae” or “roots”. To me dub is half of a 45. It’s 50% of the equation. It’s on the B side of a 45. Now a lot of people seem to put dub on the A and the B side. Is this a part of it?

Some people don’t know the meaning of dub in the first place. There’s techno people called dub-this. There’s music called dub-that. Now when a man makes a tune in his bedroom it’s a dub. I remember when you used to hear a Johnny Clarke vocal which you knew, and the B side would be called a dub. But the sound system man would get that and have it remixed and it was just a rhythm. Now and again you might hear a “ching ching” or the singer’s voice come through. Imagine a whole night of hearing different tunes where you knew the vocals but you never heard the vocals because that’s what it was. Either you were into soul or into reggae, and if you were into reggae there were two genres: lovers rock or everything else was dub or roots. People take things, and change them, try to make it their own and call it something different. It’s like I remember hearing a conversation once with people saying, “Who invented ska?” “It was the Specials!” “Nah it was the Two Tones”. No one said it came from Jamaica or anything like that! (laughs) And one day you’re going to hear a similar conversation about who invented dub!

How do you see your sound in relation to others?

We don’t play with a lot of other sound systems because we don’t play the techno. Our tunes are mostly old fuddy-duddy's tunes but there are people that like that. But it's got to the stage now where if you don't play techno, you're not playing roots. People who are just coming into the music, Europeans or young kids, they don't know any better, so they must be thinking "that's the roots scene". I remember when that wasn't the scene. That was reggae for Europe. That wasn't our reggae.

It's got to the stage now where if you don't play techno, you're not playing roots

But at the same time you play a lot of dances in Europe. Why are things better in Europe for reggae than in the UK?

They appreciate it. They love it and they can't get enough of it.  It's like the seventies and eighties out there. Germany, Poland, Israel - all places have big dances going on. Right now all the big artists are all in Europe doing festivals because that's where it is. We've been spoilt. We've had it but we haven't passed it on to our kids. We've thrown it away and other people have picked it up and run with it.

In Europe in the seventies and eighties very few people would have grown up with reggae in the house so there's an excitement about it without it being labelled "parents music".

That's exactly right. At first they'll hear all the bashment and the new singers but then afterwards they realize there's something else before that and they start to collect certain tunes and rhythms. Nowadays you've got people like Sizzla and they discovered them and they liked them and realized there's something else they try to hunt down and can't find. I suppose a lot if it's to do with Carnival with us because when they come to carnival and see the boxes and the valve sound, some of them don't know what a valve is. I hear them and they say, "What's that? What does that do?" and I say, "It's a valve". They're fascinated when I tell that's how sounds used to be with valves, just one turntable, and foam and sponge and wires all over the place, and our boxes are not PA boxes. They're handmade and we'd get little chisels and saws to cut them up.

What are the advantages of a valve sound?

The only advantage is the way it sounds. It's a warmer sound. It's something that puts a warm blanket around you rather than hitting you with a plank of wood! (laughs)

Isn't it quite difficult and expensive to replace the valves?

It's not difficult because you can go on the internet - there's a place in Chelmsford where you can go and get them - but they are expensive. The cheapest ones are about £12 each and they go up to about £50 each. I get mine at about £25 because I get a discount!

I'm not a dj, I'm a sound system. You're a roadie, a sound engineer, all these things all rolled into one

Valves or not, it's difficult to play out with a sound these days.

If I was a club dj I could carry a little bag with all my cds, go in there, play my cds and then I'm off to the next club down the road to play for an hour. But I'm not a dj, I'm a sound system. Most of the djs have had sound systems so they know what it's like. You've got equipment to take care of, repair, fix or buy. Then you've got to ship it around and put it up. You're a roadie, a sound engineer, all these things all rolled into one.

A lot of people complain about the behaviour of the new generation of roots and dub fans coming to dances. At your sound at carnival last year people were taking laughing gas. Do you think the new generation need to moderate themselves?

Some of them just don't know any better. Let me put it simple. Once upon a time when you went to a dance it was 99.9% black people in that dance. So if you were a white guy who liked the music coming into that dance, you'd come in and see what’s there, accept what's there and take it all in. You used to learn from the guys around you. Now, when you have dances, a lot of the sound systems that play roots dances attract the student element, and when you go to the dance it's 99.9% white guys. So there are no black guys to look at to say, "How are they dancing? How are they moving? That's what you do, ok, ok...."

So what do they do instead?

Roots Man - Jah Observer MCOne thing I notice is when students come in a roots dance they'll all sit on the floor. Now in days gone by the only time you'd see anybody on the floor would be if someone had passed out - and even then they wouldn't be on the floor because someone would have picked them up! There's no one to say "This is what you do" because it's all about getting people through the gate and getting their money. The students come in and all they know is "Yeah! The music's loud!" and they might pop two pills or whatever they're popping and freak out. But to me a roots dance is not about freaking out. I would play a roots dance and there's a section of the roots dance where I'd play tunes that are slow so you could dance with a girl to them but if you listen to the lyrics that the man's saying, he's singing something conscious. But because it's not a hundred miles an hour certain people and certain sound men won't class that as roots. Dur dur da da da dur dur diggy da. It all gets the same after a while.

I call it dub wallpaper.

(laughs) Exactly! But don't get me wrong - there are some good tunes. There are some very good productions and I've got some of them myself. But if I go to a record shop nowadays I've got to wait and listen and wait and listen and then go, "Yeah I'll have that one" where before I'd have a great big pile.

The students come in and all they know is "Yeah! The music's loud!" and they might pop two pills and freak out. But to me a roots dance is not about freaking out

There's definitely still good roots music being made in a modern style.

And I listen to all of it. Last week I was in Brixton in a club called The Beach. It was all youths in there and I just wanted to know what was going on now - what tunes they were playing and how they reacted to certain tunes. But it made me laugh because what they called "Back In The Day Tunes" were only about three or four years old!

A lot of sound systems play their own productions now in Europe. What do you think of this?

On the one hand I understand it, because if I was pressing up my own music I'd want it to be heard by as many people as possible. But the dance becomes sterile because you're only hearing one person's productions. So the man who does it thinks he's doing the right thing because he wants people to hear his tunes but he's also forgetting to entertain the people. They've paid to come through the door. I'm not saying they shouldn't play their own productions at all. It's just a modern version of when people used to play their specials in the old days. "No one can play this. Only I can play this". But now a man can play the whole dance with just his music. Aba Shanti's changing a bit because he used to do that. Purely his productions. Earthquake does it in Birmingham as well and you get tired of it because it sounds the same after a while.

Where can people check you before you go back to Jamaica next year?

Next year I'm going to do some farewell dances in the UK. Then we're going to play one last Carnival and then someone else is going to be playing there.

In your spot.

It's terrible that spot! It's like there are people who own sections of pavement! There are certain crews that stand at certain places. One year I moved the four faces across the road from the wall to near the jerk van and it was pandemonium! "Nah man! Yuh cyaan move my box dread! Yuh haffi put it back!" (laughs) So the next day we moved it back! Certain people stand in certain places and kids have grown up there. I remember the people who used to bring their kids when they were little and now the kids are big, they still pass through and say hello, listen to the music for a while and move on. I'm like, "Bwoy, yuh turn big. I remember when your mum would sit you on the van and ask me to watch you while she went somewhere." But they still pass through. So if adults treat kids in a certain way rather than as if they're the enemy then we'd get more out of them.

Society treats kids like the enemy

What do you mean?

Society treats them like the enemy. I remember when I was coming up it was like we spoke a different language to our parents. They didn't understand a thing we were going through and I confess I don't understand what the youths are dealing with. But society backs them in a corner where the only way they can express themselves is how they do. That's why their music's very angry. I don't blame them. I blame us. The way parents handled us, we didn't know it was good for us, so when we had our kids we always said, "I'm not going to treat my kids how my parents treated me". Then society's come in and said, "You can't slap your kids. You can't do this, you can't do that", and now kids can call the police and they'll come and lock the parents away. So it's gone too much the other way. The kids have got too much power. And that's because we said we're not going to do the things our parents did for us. If you think of all the things parents did to you, nowadays we'd say that's parental cruelty, but at the time it made a lot of us rounded people. I'm not saying that kids weren't going astray back then - they were - but I realized I couldn't get things that other kids had. I had to get a paper round or I had to make it myself. I couldn't afford an amp so I went on an electronics course so I could know how to build amps and preamps. If you said to a kid now, "Come one, get a sound system" they'd say "Where is it?" He wants it ready built. He doesn't even want to plug it in. And these kids, what are they going to do with their kids? I haven't got the answer, but, that's how I see it.

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Posted by Skarl on 03.31.2011
Good interview Gus, a lot of truth in what he says.

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