David Hinds Speaks on “Mass Manipulation”: Steel Pulses’ First Album in 15 Years
Photos by Patrick Niddrie &Mike Martinez
“It’s really hard not to be influenced by Steel Pulse’s music and by what they’ve done and accomplished. They’re still so vibrant and alive; and touching people in such a way. So many people haven’t really been able to see and experience what an authentic reggae band is because they’re not around that much anymore. All these new reggae artists that are coming up get to experience a touch of that.” —Citizen Cope @ California Roots Music and Arts Festival
Last spring, David Hinds called me and told me that he was giving me the scoop of the year.
Steel Pulse was finally ready to release their first album in 15 years, and that I was going to be blown away by it. With excitement in his voice, Hinds told me that the album was going to be as good as Steel Pulse classics, “Handsworth Revolution,” “True Democracy,” “Earth Crisis” and “Babylon the Bandit.”
Hinds was right. As soon as it was released via RootFire Cooperative on May 17, I downloaded “Mass Manipulation” and listened to it on the train on my way to see Steel Pulse perform at the California Roots Music and Arts Festival in Monterey, CA. I could not believe what I was hearing. From the first track, “Rize, “Mass Manipulation” took me on a roots and dub journey, from the Black solidarity movement of the seventies, to British protest songs of the eighties, to the dancehall and hip-hop revolution of the nineties and back to the digital and EDM vibes of the millenium. I was convinced that tracks such as “Stop You Coming and Come,” “Black and White Oppressors “Justice in Jena,” “Cry Cry Blood,” “Human Trafficking” “Don’t Shoot,” and especially “No Satan Side” would make “Mass Manipulation” a Grammy contender.
“Mass Manipulation” is indeed a journey and a biography of a reggae band who has taken their licks and survived in an unforgiving industry. Incidentally, “Mass Manipulation” was being recorded as Steel Pulse was putting together their upcoming documentary and biography, “Dread Town.” “Mass Manipulation” features Hinds’ signature ethereal tenor (a voice that has been studied and emulated by many bands) combined with the talents of top notch musicians and producers such as Selwyn Brown and Sidney Mills (keyboards), Amlak Tafari (bass), Wayne “C Sharp” Clarke (drums) and David “Cirious” Elecirri. Hinds’ two sons, Baruch and Sankara Hinds are guest vocalists, showcasing the new generations of Pulsers.
“Mass Manipulation” has a clear theme. At Steel Pulse’s live shows, after performing crowd favorites such as “Rally Round,” “Soldiers,” “Babylon Makes the Rules,” “A Who Responsible” and “Stepping Out,” Hinds often announces that he cannot believe that the band is still rocking against racism after all these years.
“On top of the world/Cause we got the herb/A good name is better/Than diamonds and pearls/Mi seh Death!/To black and white oppressors… “What about the half that’s never been told/Their looting my silver and robbing my gold/Mi seh/Death!/To black and white oppressors.”
July 5–During Fourth of July weekend festivities at the Marin County Fair in San Rafael, CA, Hinds, on electric guitar, chants these words during mid afternoon sound check. Attracted to the pulsating beat, a few revelers start to dance near the front of the stage. A five year old girl is hooked. Reggae fever! Caught ya! By the end of the show, the little girl has broken away from her mother and made her way to the stage and she is jumping up and down and doing the two-step with Amlak Tafari and Hinds during “Roller Skates.” The crowd roars. After Steel Pulse’s set, fireworks explode at the fair.
“You could a Twelve Tribes/Or Nyabinghi/Or Junior Coptic or even Bobo Shanty/It was Promised by His Imperial Majesty.the birthrights of Shashamane/Ehh/Stop you coming and come!”
Aug 31–As Steel Pulse performs “Stop You Coming and Come” at Terrapin Crossroads, a posh waterfront venue in wealthy Marin County, CA, out of nowhere, a gust of wind literally blows the top right off of a VIP tent near the stage and sends it sailing. People scramble. . The band stops to observe the commotion, then starts again. Reggae fever. Caught you.
Between shows this summer, I sat down with Hinds, Steel Pulse’s co-founder and frontman, for an in depth conversation on “Mass Manipulation” and the state of the world.
Island Stage: Lyrically and melodically, “No Satan Side” is one of the most powerful songs on “Mass Manipulation.” What inspired that track?
David Hinds: As a matter of fact, if someone was to say, you’ve got one song that you need to represent what Steel Pulse is really doing in its totality on this album, it would be “No Satan Side,” because I am outraged over witnessing the third rape of Africa. There was slavery that began back in the 1500s and then colonialism that started in the 1800s. And now, there is post-colonialism, which is what I call it, where everybody is dipping in and having the Diaspora sign on the dotted line, painted in a corner, snookered, backs against the wall and are signing away all of the minerals, the land masses and what have you. I’m outraged at how this is allowed to happen in this day and age.
IS: I thought you were ad libbing, then I realized that you were singing the words “no sit deh,” don’t sit there, at Satan’s side.
DH: Actually, “No Satan Side” comes from an old reggae song that I used to listen to back in the day in the ghetto over the sound system: “No sit deh no sit deh no sit deh, a Satan side…” I decided to just pump it in that direction, where the song says, love Rastafari and live. Because we believe, when it comes to the energy of Rastafari, Steel Pulse has been the most pronounced advocate and the most passionate about the disproportionate deals that Africa has been getting over thousands of years. This is why we chose to capitalize on that particular song and we made it our own.
IS. Who is responsible for the expansive basslines and ketchy guitar riffs in the song?
DH: I played bass on that track. The guitars were played by myself and Cirious. Believe me, that song had so many bass lines attached to it; and I found that the bass lines were getting in the way of the message. So, at the last minute, I decided to go into the studio and and re-do the bass to suit what I thought made the lyrics come through. I’m amazed, I feel delighted that (“No Satan Side”) is one of the most talked about songs on the album so far.
IS.: What does the phrase “Stop You Coming and Come” mean?
DH: “Stop you coming and Come” is a term that Jamaicans often use when someone is wasting your time and promising to be available or promising to be present at a particular event or situation. That’s a terminology that’s used often when someone is gonna be taking a long time, dragging their feet to turn up at a particular occasion. I decided to use the title in this particular situation, because it’s been a long time that Rastafarians and many of us in the Diaspora have been saying that we are going to return to Africa or going to see Africa, and we’ve never arrived. So, I thought it was an ideal catch phrase to use for the circumstance that we’re in right now in terms of not being present in the lives of Africans and what they’re about economically and politically. When someone says, yeah, mi soon come, we say, stop you coming and come!
IS: What inspired your remake of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love?” Is it EDM?
DH: Yeah, the album was virtually completed, but when I listened to it, I thought there was something missing. I thought; we’ve got songs of protest. We’ve got political songs, we’ve got songs about poverty; we needed a song about peace and prosperity. We needed a song that, despite all of the negativity that’s happening on the planet, would leave everybody hopeful. We thought it was best to put together something that was already out there as opposed to creating one ourselves and capitalize on what it really means. “Higher love, Rasta love” (sings). We actually wanted Steve Windwood to do the second verse in that song, but he wasn’t available. It was one of the last songs written for the album and the notice was so short for so many other musicians. We had Grace Potter in mind as well; her management heard the song and loved it but Grace was committed to something else at the time. We needed to release the album. I didn’t want the album to spend another year from the rest of the world.
As you can hear, my son, Baruch, actually rapped on that song. I’m very proud of him. I’ve never really told him to his face, maybe you can tell him for me. I’m proud of him, because usually when people write lyrics, it’s based on what they normally do. Luther Vandross sang about making love and you would not hear him sing get up, stand up for your rights. My son’s general rap game is about violence and weed smoking, gun slinging and being bad in the ghetto; you know, things like 50 Cent and those guys would wanna do. Now, all of a sudden, he’s been asked to sing something constructive and can be food for thought. Lo and behold, he comes back with these lyrics. The same with another song Baruch rapped on; “World Gone Mad.” That’s another political song where he managed to put the lyrics together all by himself. We rushed him along with certain parts and syncopations, but he did 95 percent of the leg work, and that’s what I’m proud of him about. He’s capable of being more diverse with his lyric writing than I am. For me to get up and write a love!song, I’d be thinking and thinking about it. This kid just flows; he just has it.
IS: You and Steel Pulse are the only ones who can make racism danceable. I’m listening to the way you bounce and roll your R’s on “Justice in Jena.”
DH: (Laughs). Well, that song was written quite some time ago but was never recorded. The idea of writing it came about almost immediately after the Michael Bell incident, where this kid where this kid turns up and sees a bunch of nooses hanging from a tree in Jena, Louisiana. As you know, he got arrested and then you had your Jesse Jacksons and your Al Sharptons protest marching about how justice was badly dealt with in regards to the kid; and they are not look at the big picture that, hey, racism is coming back; and it came right back, as you can see in 2019. It’s more evident across the right globe, when you think of Brexit, when you think of slavery and human traficking. That’s all about racism. “Justice in Jena” is the tip of the iceberg compared to what’s going on. “Let me tell you ‘bout a story that’s been in the news/you think it will be done but we’re still singing the blues/Tied up to a tree and in the shape of a noose/Racism is hot when it’s gonna stop?” It was easy for us to bring other songs back, no matter how long ago they were written, because Steel Pulse puts songs together that are always timeless. We’ve got a unique style in how we deliver these songs as well. Even if the subject matter are similar to other reggae bands, Steel Pulse has a different spin on executing that particular subject matter. There is more substance in what we are saying politically; with us being the Windrush generation, which is mentioned in the song “Rize.” If you are not familiar with Windrush, it was once a war ship in WWII. After WWII was finished, Britain and other European territories wanted to bring their colonial subjects to the European territories to build the countries up because of the devastation from the war. A ship named Windrush was used to transport those from the colonies to the United Kingdom to rebuild the country; for the cheapest labor you could find. During that colonial transition, there were a lot of youths who came over to the United Kingdom on their parents’ passports. At that time, their names were written, but photographs of them never existed because they were still subjects of Britain. Now, they were offered citizenship after a period of time, and Britain decided, we’ve got a problem here, prove that you didn’t come here illegally. And we said wait a minute, our parents are long dead and gone and the passports are from 60 or 70 years ago and could not be found and they could not find anything. Another big problem is that Jamaicans and many people from the Caribbean never renewed their passports and many of them never left the UK to go back to the Caribbean, not even for a visit. So there was no need for many of them to have passports, so to speak. That’s where the problem started. So, we are the Windrush generation. We’ve talked about redlining in “”Rize” as well. Redlining was putting blacks in certain areas, and they could not purchase property or qualify for bank loans. They are all political maneuvers, and we’re saying, “Rise!” I thought it was significant for us to mention these issues because they are still running our lives now. This is where we ventured into the political arenas, where a lot of Jamaican acts could not do so, because they have not been following the patterns of what’s going on in America and the rest of the world the way we have been. We’ve been doing this from the get go. That’s why America and African Americans especially, gravitate towards Steel Pulse, because of us being so on point on what the American politics have been about over the years.
IS: Last question, what are you wearing to the 2020 Grammy awards ceremony, because “Mass Manipulation” is a contender!
DH: (Laughs). I haven’t looked that far, in all honesty. Who knows, it may be a suit with the album sleeve printed on it. I’m hoping that we are nominated. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and my toes, and we’ll see what happens.
Fun Facts About David Hinds: in his spare time, he paints landscapes and portraits of historical figures. He is addicted to the Netflix series, “The People Vs. OJ Simpson.”