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Website Focus: ON THE WIRE

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In 2002-2003 I was living in Beijing, studying Chinese and enjoying life in the city. Certainly one of the more interesting aspects of the city was its burgeoning music
scene and nightlife. It was at one such nightlife event that I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Barker (The Wire, On the Wire), who was playing dub records at a local club. It was the same evening that I met Christian Virant from fm3. Steve was immediately friendly and we met again on other occasions. Most memorable was playing music at a local club, along with my friend Doug (Lord Dubious) who was visiting Beijing. It was dead in the heart of the SARS outbreak scare, so there was a strange vibe, but it was a good night nonetheless.

Steve knows his reggae. But he also seems to be up on a lot of other kinds of music, and when you talk to him you can tell he has a love for it. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me. His radio show, On the Wire is now fully online, and contains hours upon hours of high quality music. The dub alone makes the site crucial.

In honor of On the Wire, Lord Dubious and myself recorded a mix that is available at the bottom of Steve’s interview. The mix was done back-to-back style on a Saturday afternoon with the under lying theme of the mix being “dread”. The mix features much bass flavor.

Big up Steve for the interview, the writings and the music.


So Steve, could you tell us a bit about the history around the On the Wire radio show? When did it all get started?

A. On the Wire’s first edition was 16th September 1984, with Adrian Sherwood and Keith LeBlanc as guests in the studio. The show was born out of a previous programme called Spinoff (bad name!) that had run for about four years. Before that I worked as a reviewer – the first album I reviewed was Abyssinians “Forward to Zion” back in about 1978. OTW went out on a Sunday afternoon between 2 and 5, a perfect time for a radio show back then as the airwaves were truly a sonic desert..

Who all is involved in the show?

A. Lots of people. Jim Ingham now takes care of the show in UK whilst I am in China. He engineers, produces and does some presentation and selection. Also Fenny, who has worked with me for about 20 years now, as have Pete ‘Big Man’ Haigh and Andy ‘MadHatter’ Holmes who run a regular Funkology section, the Baked Goods boys from Manchester have been contributing for a couple of years now - they are longtime big friends and have a really neat distribution company out of Manchester and an online shop ( There’s also lots of others passed through, but especially great previous engineers Jethro (known to On U fans as ‘Culf) and Mikey Martin (the i-riginal sparksman!)

Is there a theme or philosophy behind the show?

A. The philosophy of the show has tended to mutate over the years but has always been a blend of different, but not competing, aims. Firstly, it was just great to have a radio show and play what you damn well please, also not to bow to any pressure at all – other than to sacrifice the freedom to use bad language without needless and extended contextualization. Also, when we started it was all about access, there was no reggae on radio, no hip hop, no avant garde weird shit, then no house/techno etc etc, no one playing old doo wop, rockabilly, gospel, country blues, especially no one playing all this shit within the confines of one show. Radio was bland, now it’s all corporate ghettoisation into demographically packaged meaninglessness – with the exception of great stations like WMFU in New Jersey. I like to think On the Wire was a kind of miniature freeform radio before WMFU – although without the whacky DJs! So, in the beginning it was all about access; but now anyone can access anything thanks to the web – so the emphasis is back on selection, especially as we only have 2 hours a week now whereas we used to have three hours live chaos.

I imagine there have been some pretty great moments on the show. Who are some of your favorite guests who you have had on?

A. This could be a long answer ….. To name but a few: by 1984 I had stopped going out on the road interviewing totally bored by interminable soundchecks, so most guests were in the studio. Perhaps the most recalled On the Wire’s shows were those that we did with Scratch, two three hour live shows, I don’t think anyone else has done that before or since ….? On the first show in December 1984 I had just met Lee and he seemed very old but must not have been fifty then, my mate Roger Eagle had loads of old Perry tunes and he shuffled through them ticking those he remembered with a blue biro!, but amazingly there were great tunes there he had forgotten making! – he’s much younger now! Just when we were thinking he was out of it the show started and he changed, and grew in confidence as we went on. He asked for the microphone during a dub version of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police & Thieves’ and delivered an impromptu rap of such wit and clarity, it amazed us – along the lines of “This is a message from the Earth’s Rightful Ruler ….” (still got that on tape!) The second time he was on the show it was with Sherwood; Adrian spent most of his time distracted watching football on TV. More recently Jah Wobble has been a regular guest, he’s a joy; I feel like handing him the mic and going home to listen, he has so many great stories – it’s a pity most of them are not repeatable on radio. I remember bringing Freddie McGregor on the show, a great gentleman and totally underrated (his recently reissued ‘Bobby Babylon’ cut for Studio One is a stone classic. Also, a few years ago we ran some acoustic studio sessions, in amongst them was one from Kelly Joe Phelps, I think it was after his first album for Rykodisc, a stunning performance. And not forgetting Mark E Smith who has been on the show a few times, its like riding blindfold sometimes!, in fact we had the Fall perform a live (free) concert for us, 2,500 people turned up and there was one policeman….

How long has the show been online?

A. The show is online thanks to two people – Jim Ingham and Alex Fenton (Fenny’s son). They have done all the work for no pay, incredible. We have no budget for a website but we have been running one on goodwill, tin cans and pieces of string for about five or six years now, although I forget, time is blurring everything …….

Do you find being online has changed the show at all?

A. Not consciously in terms of selection, only how it’s accessed. Nowadays we get feedback from all over the globe but even in the 80’s cassette tapes of On the Wire’s dub and reggae shows found their way around the world. There is a sort of ‘amateur hour’ feeling about the whole thing because basically we are all just punters let loose in the studio and it does get a bit shambolic at times, so having a website is an appropriate contradiction for us!

You are living in Beijing now. How do you do the show these days? Is it hard to live there and still do the Wire reviews and the show?

A. Yeah, its tough living in Beijing, eating at all these great restaurants, going for foot massages with your mates, not getting the usual barrage of media detritus that litters most TV and radio these days etc etc. As I say I rely on Jim in the UK and in China I have a good friend, Christiaan Virant of fm3 (ref: Buddha Machine fame) and we record at the BBC Bureau here, also play a few little dub and dubstep (!) gigs now and then. We are looking forward to Kode9 visiting in November - and hopefully Scratch and Sherwood too after they play a Tokyo gig. The Wire reviews can be done from anywhere, people are starting to send me tunes to China!

Can you talk a little about your impressions so far living in China?

A. Having been in Beijing now for 4 years I find I am a stranger in a strange land wherever I go – if that doesn’t sound a little too theatrical – even when I go back to UK now I find it difficult to settle. Of course, most people outside of China have no idea what it’s like a have an ‘imagined China’ in their head. When you are actually here if you are unable to deal with the country’s many contradictions then you get pissed off quite soon. Otherwise it’s a wildly exciting, frustrating, beautiful, polluted place.

How have you enjoyed learning about the Chinese music scene?

A. Not really, it’s part of the frustrations. I love a lot of the minority musics here and a small number of new young musicians – but all this is against the tide. Minorities are seen more of a quaint curiosity by most and the underground music scene is either very small or housed within the same confines of academia. So that means it needs support. If it weren’t for people like Yan Jun in Beijing and Lawrence Li in Shenzhen/Guangzhou supporting and promoting China within a wider global context as well as internally it would be a pretty sad picture. On another level there are lots of new punk and post punk bands and also an apeing of the No Wave scene from NYC in the 80s – so it will be fascinating to check where that curve leads.

It seems like Reggae is pretty popular right now. I hear it out a lot, and the whole Dancehall and Reggaeton thing is more and more on popular radio. What are your thoughts on the state of Reggae nowadays?

A. Fairly depressing, its all done and gone let’s face it. Reggaeton might have a bunch of great jump-up tunes, ass shaking it may be but earth-shaking it ain’t. The dancehall and hiphop connect keeps the DJs in the light, but the real legacies of sonic innovation lay elsewhere these days …

I know you are a Dubstep fan….

A. Not just the music, also the attitude. I like the way the so-called genre can encompass so many individual sub-strains. Also the guys doing this (there are no girls yet) are mostly very young and so all sound sources seem fresh to them and they treat them as such. Every week there’s a critical new tune with whomping sub-bass the only common factor. Burial’s album is definitely the one of the year, it’s like the approach that created the Detroit techno landscapes twenty years ago are reborn afresh inna South London. Only yesterday I was playing great tunes from CDRs from people out of nowhere. If it all ends tomorrow, then will be the legacy of some top hardcore tunes.

I know I am always looking for new Reggae and it is sometime daunting with the amount that is out there. What are five records you think everyone should have, but probably don’t?

A. It’s difficult to answer this one without being a total trainspotter! You have framed the question so that I can only answer by giving you some of some of my favourite 45s that impossible to get other than collectors markets, like:

‘Musical Air Raid’ by I Roy on Chanan Jah
‘African Root’ by Roy Dobson on Black Pearl (version to ‘Our Roots are in Africa’)
‘Inflation Version’ by Drumbago & the Rebel Group on London (version to ‘Inflation’ by Tony Brown)
The Ethiopian Eunuchs – ‘East African Herbs Vendor’ on Thing (version to ‘Weeping’ by Junior Byles)
And an easier one to snag ‘This Land is For Everyone’ by the Abyssinians on Clinch

But I could just as easily say check out the great Rhys Chatham reissues on Table of the Elements or there’s a great Moondog rarities CD out at he moment …

When are you coming on your US dj tour? The people are requesting.

A. Well, I would love to come to play. I have a nice little box of wicked 45s with me here in Beijing. I could plan my own route starting in Seattle and running through Portland and down into San Francisco – see a few mates - then I need help between there and Chicago ….. It’s a nice dream, maybe one day reggae people will unite …!

Thanks so much for taking the time out to answer these questions. Big respect.

A. Mei guanxi!

Selectors: Lord Dubious & Municiple
Recorded August 2006

01. Creation Rebel – Threat to Creation – Cherry Red
02. Roots Radics w/ Scientist - Forward this ya Dub - Selena
03. Digital Mystikz – Haunted - DMZ
04. Shackleton - Tin Foil Sky - Skull Disco
05. Testrack – Test Pilot Sequence - (white)
06. Kode 9 - 9 Samurai - Hyperdub
07. Miles Davis – Mr. Freedom x - Columbia
08. Plug - Tuff Rinse- Blue Angel
09. Ghislain Poirier – Embargo Riddim – Chocolate Industries
10. DMT- Future Plans- Stray
11. Milanese – Barry Dub - (white)
12. Bush Chemists - Cymbal Rock - Conscious Sounds
13. King Tubby’s – Whip Them Jah – Blood & Fire
14. Dillinger - Ku Fu Fighting - Virgin
15. Disrupt – Kozure Okami – iD.EOLOGY
16. Dub Ghecko – Asunder - Dubhead
17. Loefah – Root - DMZ
18. Loefah – Ruffage - DMZ
19. Vex’d – Crusher Dub – Planet µ
20. Black City Dread - Dub in the Arena - Tanty
21. Amen Andrews – Amen Andrews (edit) – Rephlex
22. Meat Beat Manifesto - Re-Animator Pt. 4- Wax Trax
23. Dubadelic – High - Wordsound
24. Spectre- Kaos is and Always will Be- Wordsound
25. 8 Bit – Under Me Sensi (forum mix) – (white)
26. Skream- Morning Blues- Tempa
27. Squarepusher – Plastic Flex Out - Warp
28. Ammon Contact - Cruisin_- Eastern Developments
29. Dabrye/Waaheed/Ta Raach – Pressure - Ghostly
30. Anthony Red Rose – Tempo - Firehouse
31. Noah House of Dread – Murderation – On U Sound
32. The Drastics - High Fidelity - Jump Up
33. Poets & the Roots – Command Councel Dub – Front Line
34. Jah Warrior - Dub from the Heart - Jah Warrior
35. Distance – Fallen - Boka

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