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Friday, 3 July 2015

** No Signal Sound Mix #2: Sunday Service #1 ** Bionic & The Politics of The Unnamed Mix **

          On Atlantic Road in Brixton, two doors down from Simply Fabric and next to Shaza Chicken, Bionic can be found most days sitting in his booth, a space just about big enough for two people to sit in (i've only ever seen him share the space once and that was with his wife...) Bionic has been on Atlantic Road for decades, he told me last year that Atlantic Road and the joining Railton Road used to be known as The Front line, a place where people would sit out day and night listening to music being blasted out of speakers up and down the stretch. In the 80's, Bionic worked with Front Line Sound, a south London reggae soundsystem, recording dances and distributing his recordings on cassettes to the local community from his spot on Atlantic Road.

        Today Bionic sells reggae compilations on CD-R's - they're the best compilations you'll ever buy. Taken from a number of huge CD wallets he brings up from beneath his feet in the booth, the man will play you tracks from the hundreds of compilations he's made for you to decide which ones you like best. The style is strictly soundsystem, with Bionic working the EQ's and singing along as he goes, waving to the locals as they pass by. Over the past three years, the price for mixes has stayed at 3 for £10 - more for the specials, which are kept on the top shelf above the proprietor's head and are comprised of tracks that are especially rare and impossible to find anywhere else. The CD's might have "£20 Exclusive" or "Rare Dubs" written on them in permanent pen but most of the time Bionic will do you a good deal on the more expensive ones. Once you've decided which ones to take, you go away for 15 minutes while Bionic makes you copies from his originals, marks them up and puts them in their plastic wallets ready to take away.

Bionic's 'Roots 127' mix

        Bionic has given me the best introduction to reggae I could ever hope for. No book, blog or commercial compilation could ever come close. The quality of tunes i've heard over the thirty or so CD's i've bought so far has been consistently amazing, pretty much all completely new to my ears and as i'm now finding out - a lot of the music is incredibly hard to come by. These tracks are not on youtube, unlisted on discogs, untraceable by shazam - not even discussed on reggae message boards where people post fragments of lyrics in the hope that somebody will be able to identify the tune they come from - they're black holes in the bright white atmosphere of the digital age. On 'Roots 127' for example, of the 19 tracks, i've only been able to find out what 11 of them are, i've hit a brick wall on the remaining 8 and only a miracle is going to shed light on them.

        Bionic's compilations raise an important question though: What are the implications of valuing the sources of our art? Not knowing any of the artists, or any of the track names didn't decrease my enjoyment in listening to my first Bionic mixes a few years back, headphones on, cycling from Brixton to Brockley in the soft early morning summer heat. Bionic's unmarked mixes can be said to put us in a place of unanchored Godliness, closer to the music, liberated from the imposing influence of the recognisable and recognised producers of sound, some of whom have disappeared into the dust whilst others having become cultural totems, subsuming the light and energy of their fellow creators by way of the damaging external influences of the commercialization of their art as cultural product. This phenomenon is one felt in art galleries worldwide, as visitors can be seen literally running to works of art by more established names, not even glimpsing, let alone stopping for a moment to comprehend, works by 'minor' artists of which they had rushed past, on the pathway to the totems.

The horror of the spectacle of the Mona Lisa

       In Lloyd Bradley's amazing book on the history of Jamaican Music in the 20th Century, 'Bass Culture', the author argues that this was certainly the case with Bob Marley. Upon his death in 1981, key record labels (operating largely outside of Jamaica) exerted a huge amount of pressure on Jamaican musicians to deliver a 'new figure' - a singularity by which reggae-music-as-product could continue to be sold worldwide as an understandable and easily-assimilated cultural product. This, Bradley argues, had a detrimental effect on the culture itself, as innovation and originality became side-lined in order to secure commercial success in a country suffering sustained poverty and socio-political instability throughout the period. Lee Perry's cover to his 'Judgment In A Babylon' single, released the same year as Marley's death, puts the point across razor sharp. In it, Island Records boss Chris Blackwell quite literally, has become a vampire.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry's Judgement In A Babylon / One Drop, 1981

       So, in tribute to Bionic, this latest mix, alongside all others on this blog, will go out with no tracklisting. I hope that this form will capture the excitement and disorientation i feel whenever i listen to a new Bionic mix. The decision to not list artists or track names doesn't reflect a belief that understanding where art comes from has no value, it's more a matter of using form to attempt to question how cultural knowledge is used and abused in the social environment in which we find ourselves. I chose these tracks with Sunday morning in mind - that's the church opposite my bedroom window on the cover - good music is God's music so enjoy and next time you're down in Brixton, make sure you go and visit Bionic!