In August's feature we talk to the original Mr Big Toe and long time friend of Dub Studio, John Farrugia, about sound-system business, music and culture, in Scotland and his native Canada.
Its all good - Big Toe's HiFi with LHT Sound System
How did you guys get together?
Well I am originally from a farm in Ontario, Canada and I had been living in Canada two thirds of the year and St Lucia, West Indies for one third of the year throughout the 1990s. After arriving in Scotland back in 2003 to pursue art and music, I set about building speaker boxes and sculpture, and Big Toes Hi-Fi came to life. The name Big Toes was a handle I got whilst DJing in a wee fishing-village dancehall in St.Lucia in the late ‘90s. I had broken my big toe on my right foot earlier in the week playing football with some kids. So needless to say my toe was all black and blue and swollen. During the course of the dance that night, a Rastaman singer stepped up and took the mic, he had riddim & style… but he couldn’t pronounce my surname, and while attempting to big up the selector Johnny Farrugia, he looked down at the ground… saw my big swollen toe and declared - Big up to the BIG TOE!!!
So after getting to Edinburgh, I started building the first version of the Hi-Fi and running dances at Edinburgh College of Art’s venue called the Wee Red Bar. I met mates Ben Rhodes (B-Dawg) Colvin Cruikshank (C-Biscuit), Dave Mclean (Jockass) & Arron Juares (Pappa Lucca) over my time at Edinburgh College of Art. Mikey Slifka (Splifka) who was living in Glasgow was a friend that I had known back in Canada. I linked up with Daddy Scotty & Pappa Zeb the first dance I ran at the art college and they have been part of the crew ever since. They are long-time veterans of reggae music in Scotland. Both Scotty and Zeb come from Scottish/Jamaican backgrounds. The first dance I did at the art college, I think I had one speaker box built, which was clad in gold and had tassels and trim with proportions and dimensions loosely based on the Hebrew ark of the covenant dictated by the old testament. Like I said I am a sculptor and the sound system has always been as concerned with aesthetics as with sound. The sound system has been constantly growing and progressing. We have worked with lots of great friends and people over the past 6 years. People living in Edinburgh as well as folk just passing through the dance. Singers like Ras Ista, George Prophet, and Dangerman, some crazy white German dude that killed it for a couple dances and then vanished. Lil Nat, Figgs, Baaba Scum and whole heap a singer!!!
Your blend of reggae is different to most of the other stuff around, where does the inspiration come from?
All over the place. I got memories of falling in love with different types of music going waaaaay back. Memories of music that go back to the earliest things I can remember. Like throwing hay bails on our family farm in Canada in the early ‘80s, hearing Eddy Grants Electric Avenue pumping on the radio... having a love affair with ‘50s doo-wop when I was 10… and then the phase when I was 13 when I wouldn’t let anything else be played on the family car stereo that wasn’t selected from my new found glory hole of music… reggae. All these things and many more have contributed to the music that I am listening to today. So in a sense inspiration comes form all over the place. Reggae music and sound system culture is central to what we love and do. But we are not orthodox about playing anyone particular strain of reggae.
What's the reggae scene like in Scotland?
The reggae scene is Scotland is all good. Some quality reggae-centric/bass music coming out of Scotland over the past while. As far as people running sound systems in Glasgow, you have Mungos Hi-Fi which are releasing loads of great music on there Scotch Bonnet and Scrub a Dub label as well as The Mighty Bass Warrior Sound System. In Edinburgh there is long time roots advertiser Messenger Sound System and us… Big Toes Hi-Fi. There are lots of really talented singers and deejays that regularly touch the mic at dances - singers like Daddy Scotty, Ras Ista, Pappa Zeb, Figgs, George Prophet, Dangerman and the likes of Soom T & Lil Nat from Project Bona Fide. The UK is a great place where people really love there music, but even over the 6 or so years I have spent over here, things are getting really bunged up in terms of where you can run a sound system and noise complaints and by-laws, etc. This side of things is in dire straits compared to other places in the world, and doesn’t help sound system culture at all. Events like Notting Hill Carnival and Leeds Unity Day are bright shining examples of brilliant UK-based musical expression, but they are few and far between, and the frustration from trying to run a sound system in the UK can seem daunting at times.
When I see a massive sound system like yours, I expect to hear just roots, tell us about the stuff you play.
Well I guess it comes from lots of places but most importantly it comes from a love of sound system culture and a yearning to contribute and interact with others. Initially Big Toes was just myself, but as it grew and began to include and incorporate others, it in turn projected the tastes and stylings of the crew members. I myself love reggae music across the board. I got an all day craving for Studio 1, at the same time I will be loving early Elephant Man circa Scare Dem Crew days. But my favourite of all favourites has to be ‘80s rub-a-dub. Producers like Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and the work he did with the Roots Radics and his Volcano label never cease to amaze me. I think sound system culture is very closely linked to roots and dub music over here in the UK, and roots music has developed into its own UK strain of dub music over the years, reggae based offshoots such as dubstep have a UK centric feel to them. I cut my musical teeth in a different environment than this in Canada and the West Indies. A lot of my influence as far as how I run the sound and play/program music and how the singers/deejays and selector interact is influenced in equal parts by what is going on around me here in Europe/UK at the present as well as by the time I spent in St Lucia and Canada. My very first foray into DJing culture came in the late ‘80s early ‘90s when I was living in Canada and got really hooked on all types of music like hip hop, chicago house, Detroit techno, and the first wave of the French touch, acts like Super Discount, Boombass, MC Solar and the likes. The impact and impression of playing in dancehall/yards in St Lucia and the vibrancy of the people and their relation to the music that gets played, the West Indies left a very big impression on how I run the Hi-Fi. I also gained a lot of insight into how reggae music was released and distributed in the West Indies, in regards to the versions and the 7 inch format. Living in the West Indies was a real wealth of knowledge and information for me when it comes to reggae and collecting reggae music.
Who does the album art on your singles?
Each single has had a different artist do the art work. I have always looked at the 7 inch vinyl record as a very physical thing (there’s the sculptor in me coming out). This approach takes into account both the audio side of things but also the visual aspects. Being heavily involved with visual arts in Scotland, I am surrounded by loads of really talented artists. I usually ask someone who’s art work has made an impression on me and whom that I feel could do a good job.
BT001 Cupids Revolution/Phoenix Hendry artist: Tessa Lynch
BT002 Shoot to Dub Maffi/Listening to the Champion Sound artist: Shona Handly
BT003 Lukey Demus/Coki Demus artist: Nisha Mathews
BT004 Everybody move like Robot/Where I’m At artist:
BT005 Sound System White Noise/Addicted to bass Remix artist: Colvin Cruickshank
You like dress up for the dances, what's your favourite DJ apparel? Got any photos?
Ha ha. We get asked about the costumes so often its hilarious. Ya we had a penchant for the theatrical a few years back. Not to say we wouldn’t throw ye ol' wig and fake moustache nowadays, but it seems like it was something that we did a lot back in the day. I guess running dances at the art college had something to do with it, but also, we jus wanted to have fun. When I look back at the reasons why I started building Big Toes Hi-Fi, I always come back to the fact that I wanted to surround myself with a crew of like-minded folk and have fun playing, listening and promoting the music we loved. I remember when the whole dressing up thing didn’t go down so well. Once I was playing over in Zurich at a good reggae/dancehall night called All Killer No Filler, and me and the crew dressed up in some seriously wack costumes….I mean Splifka was dressed up as a Turkish goat herder whilst I was sporting some sort of African moomoo dress. Needless to say we had not accurately gauged the Swiss sense of humour and the costumes started to feel mildly uncomfortable... but you live and learn and most importantly have fun with it.
My personal favourite - Ed.
Hottest dub in the box right now?
Hottest dub, hmmmmm... I would have to go with Toni Tuff’s dub of First time I Met Big Toe, which is a dub of his track First Time I Met You. Same riddim as Toni Rebel Fresh Vegetable and Beres Hammonds Tempted to Touch. Simply one of my all time favorite singers and one of my all time favourite tunes. Our Daddy Scotty tracks always seem to get a great reaction to. Tracks like Listening to the Champion Sound on the Joyride riddim always brings the roof down.
[Tempted to touch is one my all time favorites, what a classic!] What's your most caned dub?
Probably our Jr Demus dubs. The cut that you did Henry gets played out loads. As you know Big Toes has always used Dub Studio to cut our tracks, dubplates & remixes. But it wasn’t until we sent you the Jr Demus files that you cut your own mix and put it on our dubplates. There is a great sense of space on your cuts and the old school dubbed-out effect works well. I wish I had asked you to do that to all of our dubs from the beginning. Ya, so I would have to go with Jr Demus with his gravel voice and wicked play on words and space/silence. I remember talking with you a couple years back about Jr Demus and you described his stage show act as close to performance art. The limp and swagger coupled with that wickedly intelligent wordplay. Our Wayne Smith dub of Under Me Sleng Teng called Under Me Big Toe is a close second.
What was your best gig of 2009 so far?
We were playing at a festival about a month back down near Lancashire that was all good. It was on a sound system called Bushrocker Hi-Fi, that was a good show. As was the Sibin Festival just outside of Dublin. But to be honest a lot of the smaller more intimate dances we run at the Wee Red Bar in Edinburgh are my favorites.
Most memorable clash?
Probably some meeting between us and the Worries Outernational Crew from Dublin, Ireland. We are not a clash sounds system in the true sense of clashes today. I like to collect dubs and what not, but don’t really dig a lot of the shouting and screaming and negativity that you get with a lot of clash competitions today. I guess that word ‘competition’ sums it up… I have never approached running sound systems as a competition. Sure, you get inspired and egged on by others that are operating in the same discipline and field of play, but our interactions and meetings with other sounds systems is often on a vibe of unity and positive collaborative effort. We have had some great dances with the Mungos HiFi (Glasgow) as well as High Pressure (Leeds).
You have a tour coming up soon, tell us about that.
I have short tour in Canada coming up in early September, and then some dates in continental Europe in October. But to be totally honest the thing I am really looking forward to doing in Canada over the next couple months is completing the building of a 2nd sound system which will be based out of Ontario, Canada. I would like to start spending more time in Canada in the near future and as such want to bring the sound system side of things over to there. There is loads of great reggae music being made in Canada, but there is no sound system culture to really speak of. Toronto and Montreal and other parts of Canada produce some great reggae/bass music as a result of such strong waves of West Indians immigrating to Canada over the years. VP released a tribute a while back that celebrated this link. People like Johnny Osborne, King Jammy and many others established themselves for over a decade in Canada during the late ‘70s early ‘80s when political violence was escalating, and as a result there is a tradition of reggae music in the great White North that has grown over and developed over the years. When in Canada this summer I will be linking up with the reggae producer Dubmatix who is making a great name for himself at the moment with his album renegade Rocker, as well as the Version Xcursion crew who hold down a great radio show/podcast along with their night Dub & Beyond. Also I’ll be linking up with good friend Ghislain Poirier, Megasoid and Maysr in Montreal… but really I’ll be spending most of my time building cabinets and speaker boxes on my family farm.
I had heard of the Canada connection (certainly a lot of LPs seem to be printed there, and a lot of dancehall artists claim to be "big" there), why is the sound system scene not bigger?
Good question, I am not sure to tell you the truth. In places like Toronto and Montreal... reggae music is BIG , dancehall is BIG, soca is BIG, dubstep is massive in Vancouver... but not a lot of folk building boxes and running sound. Sound system culture has a history and vibrancy that is very rich in the UK. Canada also has a rich relationship with reggae music and an interesting history of how it has developed, but it just seems to be expressed in a different way. Canada has always been a popular destination for Caribbean immigration. In the past it was a hotspot for record distribution and pressing. Producers like King Jammy & singers like Johnny Osbourne all made Canada there residency for over a decade during the '80s. Its proximity to New York and other cities probably doesn't hurt either. My favorite Canada-phile reggae song has to be Peter Metro's Canada Cold.
What's in the pipeline release-wise?
Next up we will be releasing a 7 inch single by B-Dawg (Ben Rhodes) featuring Danny Diamond. Ben & Danny are based outta Leeds and have been cranking out the collaborations. The tracks are called Complicated Minds & Midnight Surgery. After that we want to release our first riddim track, which will probably be a track Jockass came up with called the Machine Riddim. It’ll get released as a 10 inch with 4 tracks on it. 3 vocal tracks and 1 riddim track. So far we have voiced the riddim with original hip hop ragamuffin Daddy Freddy and with Pappa Zebb, Dangerman and Daddy Scotty soon to voice it as well.
What do you make of the current situation with reggae vinyl? People are saying Jamaica is stopping producing vinyl and that legal mp3 is the savior of reggae. Is that true?
Reggae never needed saving, and mp3 sure ain't that savior in my opinion. I think like any development in technology, there is going to be a lot of hype and claims made about how it will revolutionize the way we all will interact with music and recorded sound, boolocks to that. In my humble opinion vinyl is such a great thing in itself that there need not be any improvements. Mp3s are a different thing all together, they have their pros and their cons. They are really convenient, they allow people to get there music out there a lot easier, they sound shittier on reggae sound systems hands down. There is no physicality to them, no tactile nature other then typing on a keyboard. These things might not be important to some people and the convenience and other factors might make the mp3 the format of choice for lots of DJs, but for me personally I have no desire to play mp3 over vinyl. They simply don't cut the mustard.
I guess that the dawn of mp3s in Jamaica, much like all over the world, allows for a great density of music to be accesable to more people, but I think there is also an arguement for saturation markets and quality control that is instilled in the very labour intensive process of getting music pressed on vinyl and released. There is a whole other area of this debate that I find myself usually harping on about too, which has to do with the entire visual side of things when it comes to vinyl records. I feel that there is so much information both visual and audio that I enjoy and appreciate, from working with vinyl and collecting vinyl. I love all the art work and design elements of releasing a record, and have exercised this interest with all of our releases on our Big Toes Hi-Fi label. I feel like a lot of this is lost when all you get is an image attachment with your mp3. Again a different thing, just not for me.