Nick Manasseh helped set the precedent for a new UK dub and roots reggae scene in 1985 when he launched the Manasseh Soundsystem with a bunch of old school mates. It led him to join forces with the artist, Scruff to conceive the original collector’s album, Sound Iration in Dub. Rare dub plates and unreleased demos that no one had even heard emerged from out the blue: they were the tunes that inspired an entire generation – and which continued to inspire even more two decades later when the album was re-released in 2010.
From the launch of his first label, Riz Records – to the exposure of the most powerful and sophisticated roots music on regular Kiss FM shows: Nick Manasseh has dedicated his life to keeping alive the sacred spirit of Jamaican roots music in the UK. By the time he returned from Jamaica in 2005, Nick was fired up to begin something new so hooked up with Jon Jones to start Roots Garden Records. Even the rise of acid house couldn’t stop the torrent of label releases from the likes of Brother Culture, Earl 16, Capleton, Chronixx, Dubkasm and many others to boot. For Nick Manasseh though, it’s all about bringing conscious music to the masses – that kinda’ beautiful music that people could listen to in their living rooms with their kids.
He’s also an old-school veteran of the Sunrise Celebration and was there last weekend to churn out out some of the best in British and Jamaican roots music. Anu Shukla managed to catch up with him for a little chat about his contribution to this vibrant scene…
Hey Nick – thanks for making the effort to connect. How you doing and what’s the latest?
Oh gosh – I’m massively overworked and have too much to do. Looking forward to the summer and enjoying the weather though! Quite a lot of festivals on the agenda… I’m going to Japan for the first time to do Fuji Rock Festival; then immediately after Sunrise, I’m going to Turkey to do a little festival called Sunsplash. There’s also Boomtown.
It was great to hear you play at Sunrise Celebration! Nice to hear some good quality conscious music…
Sunrise is my favourite one and I’ve been involved with it right from the start. I’ve played on the new site before for the Big Green Gathering, it’s really nice and I like it a lot.
So before we dive into the nitty gritty, tell us about your name: Manasseh and where it comes from.
The name Manassah comes from a friend of ours – when we started the sound system back in the early eighties. Her mother came from an ancient Persian-Jewish family. The family name was actually Manasseh, and we really liked the word. Subsequently I found out what Manasseh means, and there’s a reference to it at the beginning of the Bible where Joseph calls his first child ‘Manasseh’ because the child made him forget his ‘sweat and toil.’ It’s exactly what we wanted to achieve with the sound system. We didn’t even know about the meaning, we simply liked the word, so it was like a cosmic coincidence!
That classic Jamaican sound is what inspired you back in the day… What was the initial response when you first belted out those rootsy tracks? Did it appeal to the white community as much as to the black?
I mean as you know, with our background, we’ve obviously played to multicultural audiences from day one, and that’s really important for us. Nowadays, people are much more aware of what reggae roots music is. But at the beginning, back in the 80s, people really didn’t know much about roots music. Our radio show on Kiss.FM was very keen on making roots reggae music as accessible as it is now. It was very strong in getting that sound out there. Today, with Youtube and other channels, it’s so much easier for people to find out about it than it was back then.
I hope that we’ve contributed to the amazing race-relation that we have (by and large) in this country. We don’t always have it, but mostly we do – specially in comparison to most other European countries. We live in an amazing society and I hope that Manasseh has made a very small contribution to that. But sure, it always amazes me y’know – I was playing at the Lambeth Country Show at Brockwell Park in Brixton last year and it always strikes me that there’s no country that has race relations quite like the UK anywhere else in the world.
Tell us what first drew you to roots music though – much of it has a strong message: political, social and even spiritual. Was it the message, the culture or something else that attracted you?
I’ll tell you… it was to do with the ‘other-ness’ – the deep roots music that I heard – Burning Spear, The Congos – it was so different from anything else anywhere: strongly attractive in its minor key, in its mystical warmth – there’s as nothing like it. And also from a sort of social point of view – to me that kind of music represented a very complete rebellion and separation from mainstream pop culture. It worked on lots of different levels – but I would say that is one of the important ones.
And now, as a 47-year old, I can think more about where that music was coming from. When I was 20, or more accurately, when I was 15, I couldn’t really… It just sounded like it was from another planet. We’d never heard anything like it. But even still, bands like the Specials were very important to me, as were the Clash in bringing me into reggae music. I remember the impact when I bought the Congos’ album – Heart of the Congos – that was like nothing else. The feelings from those records were incredibly powerful.
You could say that by 1982, I was hooked. And then later on around 1987, I went to Jamaica for the first time, which deepened my understanding of what it was all about. Reggae and the ‘scene’ is a very welcoming scene. Once you’re in, it’s a very wonderful scene, very non-corporate, very natural and organic. Since we started, there’s a little roots thing happening in almost every city in the world. People who work with me, Brother Culture and others – we just go and play all over the world, it’s just crazy. Where did I play? (laughs) I played in the most absolutely crazy places!
Let’s talk about the label a bit – tell us about the prime motivation behind Roots Garden records and what you aimed to achieve with it.
Roots Garden was a really nice natural thing that evolved because Jon, the guy who runs the label, had a very long-running night called Roots Garden. It continued from a label that I had in the 90s called Riz Records – so it was a nice continuation from that. Also for me, artistically, roots garden was an opportunity for me to kinda go back to doing proper reggae roots music. I’ve done a series of records that were quite out there and still dub music, but the nice thing was I started working with singers again in a big way. On Roots Garden, we had great releases from Brother Culture, Frank McGreggor, Cate Ferris etc… The label is going great and I really love it.
Any small scale record label is very much an artistic expression that reflects the synergy between the label owner and label producer… Jon and I have a very close artistic relationship in that way – we like similar records, we’ve got the same attitudes to what we think it’s all about. And our sound isn quite distinct, we don’t do very much hard core styles – it’s more about soulful records. It’s an expression of what we’re into and we’re trying to form that particular vision of what we’re all about. Both Jon and I have a thing for a good song from a good artist, which turns us on more than anything else.
We haven’t sold any CDs – so all physical copies on Roots Garden Records are vinyl. A well cut vinyl is still a very beautiful way of listening to music and it’s particularly well-tuned into the human ear. I don’t worship vinyl, but it’s still a very nice format for DJing cos you have a visual recognition of what you’re playing instead of looking for a little entry on computer. So I love that, but the turntable has to be well set up.
What are your thoughts on the future of roots music and the challenges that we face in keeping that spirit alive in light of the mainstream media bullshit that targets younger generations.
I don’t think there’s any problem keeping conscious music from being released – that will happen, cos people want it, it’s not a struggle. A lot of young kids go through the pop sausage machine and they come out of that interested in finding out about more interesting music, it’s a natural thing. I think underground music, in a funny kinda way, goes hand in hand with the mainstream – like yin and yang – without the overground, you cant have the underground.