By Ben Rowley
VANCOUVER — “We’re gonna keep it ‘night-time’ for a bit then slowly ease into the morning,” echoes Michael Red over his dawn-breaking set at last year’s Bass Coast. There’s a reassuring elegance to his sentiment; a reflection only a seasoned performer could make, reminding his audience to refocus the moment, let go and bask in the warm, 4 a.m. afterglow of their individual experiences. “This tune’s for the future,” he declares. One can almost taste the sweat cooling on their upper lip.
Red is the co-founder of one of Vancouver’s most enduring artistic institutions, Lighta! Sound – a collective of ‘sound system’ DJs (namely Michael Red, Max Ulis, Self Evident, Tank Gyal, Taal Mala, Cure, Calmalka, Mandai, Tusk, Daega Sound and The Librarian) widely credited as among the first to bring dubstep to Western Canada. Ten years after its inception, Lighta! remains patently grounded in their signature electro-intimacy. “We all share a common love and understanding of true sound system culture and the people who carry on that spirit,” says Red of his crew, which has propelled several notable careers in its wake (Tank Gyal, Max Ulis and Self Evident to name a few). The climb towards artistic sustainability can be quite gruelling – and with Vancouver’s current boom of D.I.Y. collectives emerging, Lighta!’s success should serve as a beacon to any artist in search of career longevity.
“Lighta! originated with a short-lived sound system night that Red was doing at a club called Lick around early 2005,” recalls Lighta! artist Tusk. “Everyone in the crew was attuned to the ‘rude’ quality of the sound – the immanent quality of grit, impact and sensual intensity.”
Being first-wave pushers of any sonic movement, however, there was bound to be resistance. “I remember early on seeing dudes at house parties dancing awkwardly… counting-out the beat when I was playing,” he recalls, “loads of people asking me to play something faster or ‘fun.’”
“There was for sure some hesitancy from people,” Red elaborates. “Part of the joy was being a part of the transition – that learning – and people teaching themselves how to interact with this brand new thing.”
Dubstep gained considerable traction following Lighta!`s initial expositions, further solidifying their presence at the forefront. “Halloween 2007 at Open Studios with Benga and Hatcha was a turning point,” recalls Tusk. “It was completely rammed and mad, the crowd was storming the stage… I remember Max (Ulis) crouching with me behind the decks and we were both kind of in awe of it all. I also recall Benga turning to a few of us and saying ‘I’m going to tell people about this place.’”
Red traces his electronic roots back to high school, when he worked at Halifax’s CKDU FM. “That’s where I discovered bands like Orbital and a whole bunch of other great music.” Faithfully submerged in the underground, Red inevitably would discover Jamaican sound system culture – DJ groups founded on ska, reggae and dub, which eventually transmuted into D&B and Jungle in early ‘90s Britain – a provocative blend that would evolve into dubstep and subsequently serve as Lighta’s bedrock. “Dubstep was the first slap-in-the-face, fresh, exciting musical movement to happen to me with such immediacy in a long time,” he reminisces. “There was an ecstatic elation everyone shared at the time – an electricity – but also a strong and powerful weighty-ness or ‘vibe’…what some call the meditational component of the music.”
Mainstream producers gradually took notice as similar movements incubated across the globe – but for loving ambassadors of its culture, does it bother them to hear dubstep influence predominating the radio?
“The mainstream is useful for observing and tracking larger collective socio-cultural currents and trends,” explains Tusk. “Musically, the dead-end-rubbish-heap of interesting ideas can become bloated and grotesque versions of their initial impulses.”
It’s evident that respecting those initial impulses has allowed Lighta! to focus on what’s undoubtedly sustained their decade-long run: community.
“What else is there?” Red considers. “There might not be anything else, actually. You could say it all starts and ends with people who share it with each other.”
“I got a fortune cookie years ago that said, ‘talent is not talent unless it is shared.’ The same could be said about music,” he expounds. “Maybe art is worthless, even to the creator, if it isn’t witnessed or participated in by others.”
With similar ideals so prevalent in Vancouver’s flourishing underground, one could assume that Lighta! paved the way for future bass scenes like Chapel Sound and Mountainous Collective, but he remains markedly humble.
“You’d have to ask them,” responds Red. “Personally, I don’t think so, not so much – if only to give those guys the full credit they deserve. I can’t wait to see where Mountainous take things in the coming years.”
So what does it take to sustain ones cultural footprint?
“Get crazy. Experiment. Don’t be afraid to explore. Don’t be afraid to imitate others as a tool for learning/developing. Don’t feel pressure for public output if you need to develop/hone techniques behind the scenes for a while. Remember the importance of ‘play’ and taking breaks. Study and know the history of the local and global scenes. Enjoy.”
“Be organized and strategic,” Tusk adds. “Do exactly what you want to do. Simultaneously, offer your community exactly what they need – whether they are ready for it or not.”
One survey of this crumbling, post-oil-spill landscape and it’s immediately evident that yes, we’re ready for it indeed – perhaps now more than ever.
Lighta! Sound hosts a full crew open jam at Open Studios December 6.BC, British Columbia, Lighta! Sound, Open Studios