Steel Pulse: Grooving on Reality, Natural and True to Themselves
An exclusive chat with legendary bandleader David Hinds
Fifteen years ago, Steel Pulse released African Holocaust, an album that opened with “Global Warning,” a track that urged people to get up and stand up against the environmental degradation that was approaching.
Sad to say, the situation in the world today is just as bad – some even say finding an answer to the crises is even more urgent. The band’s new record, Mass Manipulation, is their first recording of new material since. It’s also their first on their own Wiseman Doctrine label. It faces up to today’s problems with 17 new tunes, marked by the band’s usual uplifting grooves and politically insightful lyrics. The foundation is still roots reggae, but they’ve added touches of funk, Latin, jazz, Arabic music and even rap, to their menu.
Lead singer, songwriter and bandleader David Hinds and keyboard player Selwyn Brown are the only players that have been with the band since its beginning in Birmingham, England. That was in the mid-70s, but the younger musicians they’ve added play with the same fiery conviction that’s always been the band’s trademark.
The Globe spoke with Hinds to get his take on the new album.
Why did you choose Mass Manipulation as the album title?
Steel Pulse always tries to give the records dramatic titles – Rage and Fury, Handsworth Revolution, State of Emergency. We look at the events taking place over the years the songs are being written before we select the title. When I wrote “Mass Manipulation” with my friend Dafney Fortunate, it struck a chord, so I ran with it.
What have you been doing in the years since African Holocaust?
I’ve been working hard with my new band mates. We had a recording studio that we worked in for a long time. We tried to buy it, but it wasn’t for sale, so we had no studio or record label for a long time. We did some concerts, but there was often a hiatus between gigs. We tried to stay visible in the media with some singles. “Barack Obama 2012,” to celebrate the first black president, “Put Your Hoodies On” a plea for justice that talks about the slaying of Trayvon Martin and a cover of Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” released on the 50th anniversary of Hattie Carroll’s murder. We put our own spin on it and called it “From Natty to Hattie.”
We were always touring and making recordings, but we had no money to put out an album. We cut 26 songs in various studios in various countries. At the same time, we were raising money to put out a record and finish up Dreadtown, a documentary that tells the story of the band. We had to finance the album on our own, going slow to make sure the album had the same quality as a major label release. We took our time and did it right.
We selected 12 songs to record but, by the end of 2017 I looked at them, and what was happening in the world, and didn’t think we had the right songs to conclude the album. I quickly wrote “World Gone Mad,” “Rize” and “Stop Your Coming And Come.” A friend suggested covering Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” We retitled it “Rasta Love.” We thought Winwood would record with us, but because of our schedules, it was not to be.
What do you look for in a musician?
Good players I feel a connection with. I’ve come across great musicians, but they have selfish egos and that reflects in the music. I’d rather record with people who have half the ability that I can get along with. Being a guitar player myself, I never pick anybody below my standard. A lead guitarist has to be more effective than me, with a good ear. I like musicians that can anticipate what I’m looking for, so I don’t have to tell them, note for note, what I want. I have youngsters in their 30s and early 40s and they’re sharp. If I say, ‘ABC,’ they can complete the alphabet. They have a lot of intuition and know what I’m talking about, before I finish the conversation.
Was recording parts of “Justice in Jenna” at Tuff Gong Studios inspirational?
Yes, knowing it was the studio that Marley had built, gave it an aura. It has nice sound in it and the price was fair. When it comes to the sound of the bass, there’s nobody in the world that can record the low tones like the engineers in Jamaica. We used a couple of bass players from down there on some of the tracks. Once you have those low Jamaican bass lines down, you know a track is going to be exceptional.
Your son, Baruch Hinds, raps on “Higher Love” and “World Gone Mad.” Does he perform with you regularly?
Sometimes, on the songs he’s into. He improvised some of the words on “Higher Love” and “World Gone Mad.” As a rule, he doesn’t write out his lyrics, but the style of rapping and political commentary I was looking for is not what he usually does. I made him think outside the box and I was blown away. It would be like asking me to write a love song.
The arrangements the band came up with include the sounds of ska, funk, Cuba, Africa, the Middle East and jazz. It even sounds like there’s an oud on some tracks.
Our friend, guitarist and producer Jimmy Haynes, came in to record with us and produce certain sounds. He tunes his guitar to Eastern scales from Morocco and Algeria and plays major and minor arpeggios. That’s where the oud-like sounds come from. I’ve been to Ethiopia and they use a lot of Eastern scales in the music. When you hang around with Ethiopians, you learn some of the scales. I used some of the ideas I got in Ethiopia on the arrangement of “Rize.”
AUDIO: Steel Pulse Mass Manipulation (full album)
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