Thursday, June 11, 2015

Portland In Dub: Sound System Seekers

Gulls Rhythm Force
Here's an excerpt from my Bandcamp profile of Portland, Oregon's Boomarm Nation label, which delves into the City of Roses' thriving indie dub and electronic bass movement. Read the full piece over on Bandcamp.

The stereotype is that on a visit to Portland, Oregon, you can expect to drink robust coffee, experience drizzly weather, and see a city teaming with single-gear bikes. But you can add another, perhaps unexpected, distinction to the City of Roses: dub capital of the United States. That’s right, the sound of Portland ripples with echo, and hefty bass loops emanate from studios, music venues, and living rooms all over town.

How did a musical style that originated in Jamaica gain a zealous following in the Pacific Northwest? Like London, Paris, and a few other locales, Portland has gradually developed a tight-knit community of dub and sound system culture-influenced labels, producers, and club nights. Portland natives have also embraced Jamaica’s DIY approach to studios, distribution, and dubplates. Visit PDXInDub, curated by Portland DJ Craig “Monkeytek” Morton, to find a cadre of imprints, podcasters, graphic designers, mastering engineers, and craftspeople, all making the dub heartbeat pump.

It’s also fitting that the city, which has a thriving, grassroots, indie/punk scene (think house shows, alternative venues, collaborative artist projects), would adopt an avant-garde approach to the genre. Theirs is dub music on the razor’s edge: a confluence of styles affected as much by Adrian Sherwood’s post-punk-influenced On-U Sounds or London dubstep crew Digital Mystikz, as it is by African music and the legendary Jamaican producer King Tubby. These sounds, along with drum & bass, UK steppers dub, garage house and other hybrid bass-driven musics, are unified under the international umbrella of “sound system culture,” a movement that galvanizes Portland’s disparate dub practitioners. Along with eclectic global influences, PDX producers embrace old and new technology, and formats, too—releasing tracks digitally, as well as on 7″ vinyl and cassette.

This expansive environment proved the ideal space for multi-instrumentalist/producer and Portland native Jesse Munro Johnson (a.k.a. Gulls) to launch the Boomarm Nationlabel in 2010. Founded as a blog two years prior, Johnson drew inspiration from similar sites devoted to exotic, worldly sounds like Awesome Tapes From Africa and Glowing Raw, along with emerging labels trading in global dance beats, such as Bersa Discos,ZZK, and Dutty Artz. Johnson juggles running the label with raising two sons, working his day job as freelance mixing engineer, performing live, and working for a friend’s food truck.

“I started the label as a means to release some of my own music in a series of 12″ records,” says Johnson. “Our first official release in 2010 was Gulls’ Mean Sound 12″, and as a label we very quickly grew into a more collaborative international affair.” Back in 2011, Boomarm collaborated with Portland’s Sahel Sounds and brought together a crew of producers to remix the Music For Saharan Cellphones compilation. Some of those producers, like Turkey-based El Mahdy Jr. and iSKELETOR, would later release solo projects on the label.

Continuing their international outlook, Boomarm Nation’s latest release,Her.Imperial.Majesty, is by mysterious Filipino collective Seekersinternational (SKRS), and exemplifies Johnson’s knack for finding subversive talent from anywhere in the world. Her.Imperial.Majesty is chock-full of arresting sound-clash samples, tape snippets, and skittering electronic beats—anchored by errant bass programming that somehow keeps the whole swerving concoction on the rails. Even the album’s title is subversive, taking a reverential reference to Ethiopian king and Rastafarian patriarch Haile Selassie and transforming it into what Johnson calls “a respectful nod to the power of the feminine energy and its root within us all.” Continue reading on Bandcamp