Sound System Seekers

Jesse Munro Johnson, Gulls by T. Harrisonphoto by T. Harrison

“Music is an ancient act that will live longer than any of our collective or individual egos. Having faith and patience in the musical process is crucial. Things take time to develop, and it’s often worth the wait.”

The stereotype is that on a visit to Portland, Oregon, you can expect to drink robust coffee, experience drizzly weather, and see a city teaming with single-gear bikes. But you can add another, perhaps unexpected, distinction to the City of Roses: dub capital of the United States. That’s right, the sound of Portland ripples with echo, and hefty bass loops emanate from studios, music venues, and living rooms all over town.

How did a musical style that originated in Jamaica gain a zealous following in the Pacific Northwest? Like London, Paris, and a few other locales, Portland has gradually developed a tight-knit community of dub and sound system culture-influenced labels, producers, and club nights. Portland natives have also embraced Jamaica’s DIY approach to studios, distribution, and dubplates. Visit PDXInDub, curated by Portland DJ Craig “Monkeytek” Morton, to find a cadre of imprints, podcasters, graphic designers, mastering engineers, and craftspeople, all making the dub heartbeat pump.

It’s also fitting that the city, which has a thriving, grassroots, indie/punk scene (think house shows, alternative venues, collaborative artist projects), would adopt an avant-garde approach to the genre. Theirs is dub music on the razor’s edge: a confluence of styles affected as much by Adrian Sherwood’s post-punk-influenced On-U Sounds or London dubstep crew Digital Mystikz, as it is by African music and the legendary Jamaican producer King Tubby. These sounds, along with drum & bass, UK steppers dub, garage house and other hybrid bass-driven musics, are unified under the international umbrella of “sound system culture,” a movement that galvanizes Portland’s disparate dub practitioners. Along with eclectic global influences, PDX producers embrace old and new technology, and formats, too—releasing tracks digitally, as well as on 7″ vinyl and cassette.

This expansive environment proved the ideal space for multi-instrumentalist/producer and Portland native Jesse Munro Johnson (a.k.a. Gulls) to launch the Boomarm Nation label in 2010. Founded as a blog two years prior, Johnson drew inspiration from similar sites devoted to exotic, worldly sounds like Awesome Tapes From Africa and Glowing Raw, along with emerging labels trading in global dance beats, such as Bersa Discos, ZZK, and Dutty Artz. Johnson juggles running the label with raising two sons, working his day job as freelance mixing engineer, performing live, and working for a friend’s food truck.

GULLS RHYTHM FORCE by T. HarrisonGulls Rhythm Force by T. Harrison

“I started the label as a means to release some of my own music in a series of 12″ records,” says Johnson. “Our first official release in 2010 was Gulls’ Mean Sound 12″, and as a label we very quickly grew into a more collaborative international affair.” Back in 2011, Boomarm collaborated with Portland’s Sahel Sounds and brought together a crew of producers to remix the Music For Saharan Cellphones compilation. Some of those producers, like Turkey-based El Mahdy Jr. and iSKELETOR, would later release solo projects on the label.

Continuing their international outlook, Boomarm Nation’s latest release, Her.Imperial.Majesty, is by mysterious Filipino collective Seekersinternational (SKRS), and exemplifies Johnson’s knack for finding subversive talent from anywhere in the world. Her.Imperial.Majesty is chock-full of arresting sound-clash samples, tape snippets, and skittering electronic beats—anchored by errant bass programming that somehow keeps the whole swerving concoction on the rails. Even the album’s title is subversive, taking a reverential reference to Ethiopian king and Rastafarian patriarch Haile Selassie and transforming it into what Johnson calls “a respectful nod to the power of the feminine energy and its root within us all.”

The 10 songs on Her.Imperial.Majesty mischievously blur lines between hazy minimal techno, future dub, and uninhibited sound art. Experimental electronic artists like Pole, Sandoz, and Kit Clayton may have laid the original groundwork for this approach in the ’00s, but SKRS appear to be working off of their own blueprint. “The SKRS production process is a total mystery to me,” says Johnson. “Often I can’t tell if what I’m hearing is a sample.” He notes that because SKRS music is so multilayered, it is revealed more thoroughly upon repeat plays. “Each time I listen, I hear new moments and gestures buried in the mix, and the samples start to feel like familiar ghosts. Their music has a deep mystic quality; it is loose, alive, and inspired. Those who feel it know it.”

The illusive crew’s kaleidoscopic dub fits easily into the Boomarm label aesthetic, which also boasts heady post-house and dub-disco material from Natural Magic, Elite Beat, and Gulls Rhythm Force, among many others. It’s a catalog of releases that has resonated with listeners from afar, as well as with Johnson’s Portland peers.

Boomarm was born just as the scene around them was flourishing with like-minded, sound system-influenced experimentalists; there were labels like Lo Dub, ZamZam, Heavy Pressure, and Community Library pumping out vinyl and cassettes, as well as club nights like Lowbrow Dub Sessions and Signal. “The dub and bass music scene in Portland is small, but very passionate and full of a diversity of folks from all manner of music backgrounds,” Johnson explains. He credits Ezra Ereckson (a member of pivotal PDX dub band Systemwide and BSI/ZamZam label co-owner), along with mastering engineer Alter Echo and PDXInDub’s Monkeytek, as key figures. Johnson goes on to say, “They have been flying the flag here for many years. And as world-class artists, DJ’s and producers, they set the standard for West Coast sound system music and culture.”

Jesse Munro Johnson by T. Harrison Jesse Munro Johnson by T. Harrison

Johnson believes a common thread between Boomarm Nation artists is a desire to make great music in service to sound system culture. “While we all swerve in and out of the territories and confines of genre, I feel strongly that each Boomarm artist is growing his or her own unique voice. We’re connected by the hypnotizing power of a sound system, and with Boomarm Nation I hope we can present some new musical ideas into the conversation.”

Ereckson adds, “There is a ‘Boomarm Sound,’ but it is difficult to define. It encompasses dub, experimental electronics, dancehall, techno, ambient and new age textures, and North African music, but it’s much greater than the sum of these parts. Boomarm is special, because they approach dub as a methodology—a world of approaches—as opposed to a genre. All of their artists and releases have assimilated dub techniques and aesthetics, but tend to deploy them in less obvious ways.”

That deployment, and the reach of the label, continues via forthcoming Boomarm releases by Hama, a Tuareg synthesizer player and beat maker based in Niger; an E3 and El Mahdy Jr. collaborative single; plus new works from Elite Beat and Johnson’s own live project, Gulls Rhythm Force. But even as his label gains international recognition, Johnson maintains a distinctly Portland point of view—one that sets art ahead of self-importance and should ensure that Portland’s dub heartbeat remains strong. “Music is an ancient act that will live longer than any of our collective or individual egos,” he says. “Having faith and patience in the musical process is crucial. Things take time to develop, and it’s often worth the wait.”

One Comment

  1. Posted June 9, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    fell so lucky to live in a town with so much great labels / dub selectors

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