Steel Pulse

Published on May 2nd, 2013

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Mykaell Riley, speaks about the early days of Steel Pulse in Birmingham on Episode 24, Birmingham UK

Steel Pulse is a roots reggae musical band, from the Handsworth area of Birmingham, England, which has a large majority of Afro-Caribbean, Indian and other Asian migrants. They originally formed at Handsworth Wood Boys School.

Formed in 1975, their debut release, Kibudu, Mansetta And Abuku arrived on the small independent label Dip, and linked the plight of urban black youth with the image of a greater African homeland. They followed it with Nyah Luv for Anchor. They were initially refused live dates in Caribbean venues in Birmingham due to their Rastafarian beliefs. Aligning themselves closely with the Rock Against Racism organization and featuring in its first music festival in early 1978, they chose to tour with sympathetic elements of the punk movement, including the Stranglers, XTC etc.: “Punks had a way of enjoying themselves – throw hordes at you, beer, spit at you, that kind of thing”. Eventually they found a more natural home in support slots for Burning Spear, which brought them to the attention of Island Records.

Their first release for Island was the Ku Klux Klan 45, a considered tilt at the evils of racism, and one often accompanied by a visual parody of the sect on stage. By this time their ranks had swelled to include Selwyn “Bumbo” Brown (keyboards), Steve “Grizzly” Nisbett (drums), Alphonso Martin (vocals, percussion) and Mykaell Riley (vocals). Handsworth Revolution was an accomplished long-playing record and one of the major landmarks in the evolution of British reggae (Executive Producer Pete King). However, despite critical and moderate commercial success over three albums, the relationship with Island Records had soured by the advent of their third album, Caught You (released in the US as Reggae Fever). The band made their U.S. concert debut at the Mudd Club in New York in 1980. Tom Terrell, who would later serve as their manager, was instrumental in masterminding a Steel Pulse concert on the night of Bob Marley’s funeral, which was broadcast live around the world from the 9:30 Club, 930 F Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. on 21 May 1981.

They switched to Elektra Records, and unveiled their most consistent collection of songs since Handsworth Revolution with True Democracy, distinguished by the Garvey-eulogising ‘Rally Round’ cut. A further definitive set arrived in Earth Crisis. However, Elektra chose to take a leaf out of Island’s book in trying to coerce Steel Pulse into a more mainstream vein, asking them to emulate the pop-reggae stance of Eddy Grant. Babylon The Bandit was consequently weakened, but did contain the anthemic “Not King James Version”, which was a powerful indictment on the omission of black people and history from certain versions of the Bible. Their next move was of Hinds of Steel Pulse to MCA for State Of Emergency, which retained some of the synthesized dance elements of its predecessor. Though it was a significantly happier compromise, it still paled before any of their earlier albums. Centennial was recorded live at the Elysee Montmartre in Paris, and dedicated to the hundred year anniversary of the birth of Haile Selassie. It was the first recording since the defection of Alphonso Martin, leaving the trio of Hinds, Nisbett and Selwyn. While they still faced unfair criticism at the hands of British reggae fans, in the United States their reputation was growing, becoming the first ever reggae band to appear on the Tonight television show. Their profile was raised further when, in 1992, Hinds challenged the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission in the Supreme Court, asserting that their cab drivers discriminated against black people in general and Rastafarians in particular.

A Grammy award was awarded for their 1986 album Babylon The Bandit Steel Pulse has received nominations for Victims (1991) and Rastafari Centennial (1992). In 1989, the group contributed I Can’t Stand it to the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing. In 1994, the group headlined some of the world’s biggest reggae festivals including Reggae Sunsplash USA, Jamaican Sunsplash, Japan Splash and Northern California annual Reggae on the River Festival. In 1986, Steel Pulse contributed an ethereal version of Franklin’s Tower on Pow Wow Records’ Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead compilation. They covered The Police’s “Can’t Stand Losing You” for a reggae compilation of Police tunes that appeared on the Ark 21 label. The band is particularly proud of Rastanthology, a 17-song collection of Steel Pulse classics (the 1996 compilation was released on the band’s own Wise Man Doctrine label).

In 1997 the band released Rage and Fury, with some of their most potent lyrics to date. A striking example of protest, “The Real Terrorist” challenges the CIA’s clandestine policy of political disruption over the years, while “Black and Proud” celebrates Pan-Africanism. “We’re not here to start a physical revolution, we’re just here to open everybody’s eyes and let them check themselves and continue in a very educational mode to change things on that tip”, Hinds explains. “We’re losing ourselves and I think it’s very important for us to realize that. Too many of our youths have been lost to drugs, or by the gun, or not having the education needed to persevere and move in an upward direction. I think Rage & Fury will contribute to their enlightenment.” Until February 2001, it had been many years since Pulse had performed in their hometown of Birmingham. They decided to perform at the Ray Watts memorial concert, which was held at the Irish Centre. Pulse shared the stage with Watts’ band, Beshara, along with other artists from Birmingham.

In 2004, Steel Pulse returned to their militant roots with African Holocaust – their eleventh studio album. With guest appearances by Damian Marley, Capleton, and Tiken Jah Fakoly, the album is a collection of protest and spiritual songs, including Global Warning (a dire warning about climate change), Tyrant,a protest song against political corruption, and No More Weapons, a classic anti-war song. Also featured on the album is the Bob Dylan classic George Jackson.

In 2007, Steel Pulse collaborated with Driftwood Pictures on a music video to accompany ‘Door Of No Return’, a track from African Holocaust. The video was shot between New York City and Goree Island in Senegal and premiered at the 51st Times BFI London Film Festival.

In 2010, they released a single Hold On 4 Haiti – 100% of the proceeds go to Haiti – to solar electrify health clinics through the Solar Electric Light Fund and Partners In Health. The song is available for download exclusively at holdon4haiti.org. The band continues to tour, and is working on another studio album and a feature length documentary, both slated for release in 2013.