20 Years of Dobie’s Soulful Hip-Hop Classic “The Sound of One Hand Clapping”

Dobie

The evolution of black music in the United Kingdom is a long and winding path that runs through the country’s tensions around race, economic class, and culture. Starting with the British Nationality Act of 1948 (a law that extended citizenship and right of entry to people from British colonies, most notably, Jamaica), England began reforming its immigration policy. With the newspapers of the day optimistically “welcoming the sons of empire,” Britain had officially opened its ports to people of African descent.

Despite this apparent progress, not much had changed when it came to white British attitudes toward its growing black population. Pushing through the daily indignities of racism/anti-blackness and the general struggle of immigrant life, black Britain’s jazz, reggae, ska, and soul music thrived creatively, enriching and deepening English cultural life. By the time hip-hop made its way across the pond, a rich reggae/soundsystem culture had taken firm root in the U.K. Given rap’s practice of repurposing the whole history of recorded music through technological experimentation, black Britain’s musical blueprint was forever altered, splintering off into a number of self-contained scenes and microgenres.

British producer and DJ Dobie was born in the midst of this cultural moment. The son of Jamaican expatriates, Dobie grew up in the Stoke Newington section of Northeast London. Describing those creatively rich days, Dobie explains, “I’m of Jamaican descent. The thing that got me into making music was hip-hop. When the music and the culture hit the U.K. back in the later ‘70s-‘80s, it was like a cultural bomb going off. It pretty much got under the skin of most young kids at the time, no matter what race. You were seeing the breakdancing, the graffiti, DJing, MCing, and the style and swagger of hip-hop just appealed to us over here and [the reason for that] was based in soundsystem culture. We have a large Caribbean community here, so it was easy to get our heads around hip-hop,” Dobie says. In those early days, as hip-hop 12”s, films, and mixtapes continued to transmit signals direct from New York, the mecca of hip-hop culture, British youth rushed to pick up turntables, microphones, aerosol cans, and flattened cardboard boxes to experiment with, and build upon, this new cultural movement that was growing rapidly.

Like many kids, Dobie began to actively practice the art form, getting his start as a DJ. “I was drawn to the DJing side of things the most. Seeing The Supreme Team in [Malcolm McLaren’s] Buffalo Gals video and hearing scratching on early hip-hop records and the few mixtapes that were floating around from the U.S., the sound just had my ear,” he says. “I just said to myself, ‘I want to learn how to do that, DJing hip-hop style.’ […] I had a friend named Paul Sunmon who showed me what a drum machine was. Paul had a Roland TR-606 drum machine, not sure how well he knew how to use it.”

It was this curiosity and penchant for experimentation that formed the foundation for Dobie’s later work as a producer. His time spent in the ‘80s working in London’s developing hip-hop scene would lead him to a meeting that would change his life. “I had other friends who were MCs who were trying to make records and doing studio sessions,” he says. “I would go hang out at their sessions, do cuts for them on their tracks or help them with beats. Fast-forward a couple of years and a friend introduces me to Jazzie B and the rest of the Soul II Soul crew. Soul II Soul was still a soundsystem then.” At the time, Soul II Soul’s soundsystem was known for their legendary Sunday night parties at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden, where the crew would rock crowds with sets that obliterated the boundaries between hip-hop, funk, reggae, soul, and electronic music.

Once Dobie and Soul II Soul made the transition to bigger stages from clubs and warehouses, they entered the studio and recorded Club Classics Vol. 1, a milestone and transformative moment in the history of black music in Britain. With its optimistic vibe, heavy breakbeats, tasteful string orchestration, and powerful vocals, the album was reflective of so much in African diasporic culture, and it sold millions. Soul II Soul became superstars; Dobie had established himself within the music industry for his prowess working behind the scenes in the studio. As the ‘90s progressed, U.K. street soul and the blueprint it had established in the ‘80s grew darker and more bleak. The joyfully cosmopolitan sound of Soul II Soul, characterized by the band’s unofficial motto “a happy face, a thumping bass for a loving race”—had largely fallen out of vogue in favor of a darker, more tense aesthetic with the unfortunately non-descriptive name of “trip-hop.”

Through these changes, Dobie continued to hone his hard-edged production style. He put his stamp on the decade with a flurry of high-profile productions and remixes for London Posse, Björk, Tricky, and many others. “Remixing is funny because you never really get to meet the bands/artist you’re remixing,” he reflects. “Most of the time it’s off the back of something you did before that the artist or A&R heard and liked, or your name making some noise out there in the atmosphere.”

In 1997, he began work on a project where he could utilize his sonic experiments in service of his own unique vision. “A lot of my time in music has been spent working on other people’s projects, helping them get to where they want to get musically. So when it comes to my own projects, I just run off into ‘Dobie world,’ wherever that takes me,” he says. Originally released in 1998, Dobie’s debut album The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a missing link in U.K. hip-hop’s history, created during a time when European artists raised on underground club culture and electronic music sought to take the mainstream world by storm. They signed major deals and crafted full-length albums that were equally as enjoyable for at home listening as they were for the dancefloor.

“I was going for an album you could just put on and let run. Not an album just about club tracks. Something that had a mood to it and moved around a bit. You could say a coffee table album,” Dobie says. Soulful, diverse, and idiosyncratic, the album showcases Dobie’s uncanny ability to concoct a blend of hip-hop beats, atmospheric synth textures, and deft string arrangements that rival the more well-known works of contemporaries like Portishead and Massive Attack.

With its jazzy bassline and heavenly vocals, “Love Song,” featuring Helena Paul, represents a momentary return to the early ‘90s street soul sound that Dobie had a hand in creating. Equal parts rugged and smooth, the album sways back and forth between moods and sounds. “Connectivity,” featuring U.K. rap legend Roots Manuva, is a heavy street anthem complete with electronic bleeps and neck-snapping drums. The sweetly spun chorus of “Love & Hate” recalls the breezy lovers rock reggae sound that was wildly popular among Jamaican diasporic people in the U.K. in the ‘70s.

At the album’s emotional core is “Way Over,” a gorgeous instrumental tinged with classical influences yet is sonically akin to Kool & The Gang’s cosmic jazz masterpiece “Summer Madness.” After initiating the track on the classic Akai MPC sampler/drum machine, Dobie found a way to develop it, blending his street-sharpened hip-hop sound with sophisticated musical arrangements. “With ‘Way Over,’ I decided to keep it instrumental and add more music to it,” he says. “So I’d hook up with [famed London keyboardist/composer and arranger] Neil Palmer, and we’d start working out keyboard and string parts for the track and lock down the arrangement a bit more. I’d spend a lot of time chasing sounds… a good piano sound, pad sounds, synth sounds, strings.”

In 2018, the musical mood of The Sound of One Hand Clapping still sounds crisp and poignant, synthesized into a tough yet elegant whole. “Cloud 98,” featuring Ninety 9, melds beautiful vocals with a dreamy A Tribe Called Quest-style groove. “Consider,” featuring Rodney P, from the 2013 reissue/update, is a dramatic B-boy jam, underpinned with contemporary-sounding synth chords. Still playable 20 years after its release, The Sound of One Hand Clapping remains an underrated classic in Britain’s black musical family tree, with its rich, amalgamated immigrant sound. It’s both the product of an impossibly fertile music scene and of one man’s insatiable musical curiosity, filtered through a rich and deep historical continuum.  

-John Morrison

2 Comments

  1. maxfletcher2015
    Posted August 5, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Never heard this before but it’s love at first listening, right up my proverbial street, taking me back to my musical roots

  2. Posted August 4, 2018 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Great article. I’m always on the look out for information on the global hip hop scene and this article was informative. Dobie’s history and credentials with hip hop are impressive. I’ll have to see if I can find a CD (do they still make those) of his music.

    Rindge Leaphart

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