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How UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey created ‘cuddly reggae’ by banishing bass

ub  featuring ali astro mickey interview photo by rob o connor
Rob O'Connor

“Reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been on contemporary dance music all over the world.”

If there’s one style of music that can be considered truly universal, it would have to be reggae. No matter where you’re from or what walk of life you follow, the sweet, sweet riddims and low-end grooves of reggae connect with … well, everyone.

And if anyone could speak to the effects of that global reach, it would be Ali Campbell, vocalist and founder of the U.K.’s premier reggae act, UB40, who have sold over a staggering 70 million albums to date — and they’ve also racked up similar numbers on Spotify and other streaming services.

“That’s the secret to our success, and to our longevity — the fact that we chose reggae as our music,” Ali admitted to Digital Trends. Added the band’s original toaster/rapper/percussionist known as Astro, “Reggae is the universal language that pulls all people together.”

That said, UB40 — named after the acronym used for the U.K.’s unemployment benefits form — have experienced some tense times in recent years, with the band having split off into two factions as a result. Ali’s brother Duncan Campbell now fronts the version known simply as “UB40,” while Ali and his mates are now billed as “UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey.” (Mickey is the band’s longstanding keyboardist, Mickey Virtue.)

The Ali contingent has been received quite warmly the world over, having touched down in locales from Nigeria to Dubai to New Guinea, and they’ve also sold out multiple headlining shows at London’s massive O2 Arena. They continue to lay claim to being the most-traveled U.K band ever. “We’ve toured more than the Stones — more than everyone, including (British rock royalty) Status Quo!” Ali observed.

Ali’s UB40 Featuring faction recently took a huge chance with how they reinterpreted the 16 songs on their current release that’s been dubbed Unplugged — out now in various formats via UMe — by stripping away the bass, the most crucial element of most any reggae track. And yet it all works quite beautifully – mon — due to the aforementioned universality of the songs and how well the musicians connect with them. And only this version of UB40 could nail each track to a T, ranging from the stripped-down recasting of their monster hit Red, Red Wine, to guest vocalist Pato Banton blowing it up on Baby Come Back, to Astro’s cleverly revised toasting on Rat in Mi Kitchen, to Ali’s impassioned, turned-around take on Prince’s Purple Rain.

Digital Trends sat down with Ali and Astro in midtown Manhattan earlier this week to discuss the importance of bass in reggae and dub, why they continue to thrive in the streaming era, and their influence on modern EDM. Can’t help falling in love with what they do, babe.

UB40 Featuring Ali,Astro, & Mickey/Facebook

Digital Trends: The thing I find most interesting about Unplugged is that you did these songs originally as radio sessions with no bass involved. Did you consider that to be a risk since bass is such a critical component of reggae and dub music?

Ali Campbell: Well, it’s unprecedented, isn’t it? But I think it works. I didn’t even consider it, actually. I didn’t even think about the fact that there wasn’t going to be any bass. After we’d done it, we realized, “Wow, we just made a reggae album without any bass!” (all laugh) It’s a contradiction in terms!

Mickey Virtue’s keyboards help with the melodies, and they also help carry the tunes along in place of the bass.

Ali: We found you start listening to different parts of the melody, and different parts of the song.

Astro: They jump out at you differently.

Ali: What I’ve said about it is we’ve discovered a new genre of reggae called “cuddly reggae.” (all laugh)

“America started rock & roll, but at our shows, we’d get asked, ‘Can you turn the bass down?'”

Oh, you’ve gotta trademark that term before somebody else takes it!

Ali: We really should, yeah! The thing is, especially in America over the years, we’ve been asked to turn the bass down many times at our shows. America started rock & roll, but we’d get, “Can you turn the bass down?”

The bass was really heavy on early records of yours like Signing Off (1980) and Present Arms (1981). There was almost too much of it, especially if you played them on vinyl.

Ali: There was too much bass then, yeah. The needle would jump up out of the groove.

Astro: That’s because we didn’t have a clue how to mix in the early days. All we knew was there had to be some heavy bass on there.

Ali: Growing up, we had listened to reggae at blues dances, and the bass used to make the windows rattle.

Astro: We listened to reggae music on 19-inch speakers and heard a lot of bass, so we tried to put that feel on our own records.

Ali: What wound up happening was our songs had one-third the volume of the other songs you’d hear on radio because ours had to be muted and squashed down.

Astro: They really had to be compressed.

Ali: That was a learning curve for us. Because we’ve always done our own production — and still do — we had to learn it wasn’t up to us to put the bass on the records. It was up to the listener to get it by turning up the knobs on their own systems.

Is there one record of yours that you’re most satisfied about how the bass content comes across?

UB40 Featuring Ali,Astro, & Mickey/Facebook

Ali: (no hesitation) Silhouette. [Released in 2014, Silhouette is billed as being from “Ali Campbell The Legendary Voice of UB40 Reunited With Astro & Mickey.”] You can play that record on most anything, any service or playback system, and it sounds OK. It’s chugging away, you know what I mean? The bass drum and the bass guitar levels are so — well, that’s our 30th album, so we should’ve gotten it right by now! (laughs heartily)

UB40 is one of the biggest bands I’ve seen in the Spotify universe — for one thing, Red, Red Wine has over 71 million listens. How do you feel about people streaming your music?

Astro: You’ve got to live in the present and deal with where things are now.

Ali: Well, the first thing is, UB40 have been bootlegged all throughout our career — in China and Russia, and places like that. If anything, it seems like every household in Russia has a copy of [1986’s] Rat in the Kitchen — but of course, we never did a record deal there.

You might need to change that album title to Red in the Kitchen, then. (all laugh)

“Downloads put an end to the CD-selling world, and we have to adapt — or die.”

Ali: The thing is, it’s a different world now, different from the CD-selling world. Downloads put an end to that, and we have to adapt — or die. It hasn’t been so bad for us because we’re a live act, and people know us as a live band. People who weren’t known as live acts and only just sold CDs have kind of disappeared.

Seeing us perform live now is what people are happy about, and that’s why we’re experience a bit of a renaissance at the moment with the three of us back together. The last three years, we’ve been touring, and selling out. People did want us to get back together, and we did.

We could never really reunite with the “other” band anyway. That could never happen because —

Astro: (interjects) Because we’re too good. (laughs) We’d be taking a step backwards if we did.

Ali: We would, yeah. At the moment, I’d say we’ve got the hardest-working band on the road in the world, just because we play so often. We do so many gigs and festivals.

You’re flexing that road muscle, so to speak. And now we’re seeing UB40 as a big influence on modern EDM, wouldn’t you agree?

Astro: (nods) We reach really far into that kind of music.

Ali: The thing is, reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been on contemporary dance music all over the world. And when we go all over the world, we listen to the music of the streets — in Africa, Australia, Austro-Asia, New Zealand. Everywhere we go, contemporary music is informed by reggae, and by dub.

Reggae truly is the universal language.

Ali: It is, yeah! That’s why we’re still here. Reggae is universally loved, and we’re lucky we chose it as our music. It was the youngest form of music in the world at the time we took it up — it was only 11 years old in 1979 when we started, as reggae had really happened in 1968 after rocksteady and ska music.

What was the very first reggae song you both heard growing up?

Ali: Reggae in Your Jeggae, by Dandy Livingstone (1969), was my first one. Red, Red Wine was a very early one as well [the 1969 Tony Tribe version of Neil Diamond’s 1967 classic original]. That was a ska number I heard when I was about 7 or 8 years old.

Astro: For me, it was 007 (Shanty Town), by Desmond Dekker [released in 1967].

“Reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been on contemporary dance music all over the world.”

Ali: (nods) Desmond Dekker and The Aces — we used to rejoice in our house whenever Desmond Dekker would get on TV on Top of the Pops.

And that was why I started UB40 — because I loved reggae so much. But I realized when I went to secondary school that not everybody loved reggae. I was in a niche. I thought, “If I can fucking get a band together, I can promote reggae!” And that’s exactly what UB40 was all about, for me.

Astro: We were on that mission together.

Ali: When we did the Labour of Love series, the three albums of covers — those were the songs that got us into reggae in the first place: Red, Red Wine, Cherry Oh Baby, Kingston Town, Many Rivers to Cross — those were all songs we grew up listening to and loved.

[Note: Labour of Love IV, released in 2010, does not feature Ali as the vocalist, but rather the other aforementioned UB40 faction led by his brother, Duncan Campbell.]

What we also find on Unplugged is the strength of your voices working together.

Astro: One reason people really love the Unplugged album is because of Ali’s diction over the years, Now, they can better hear the words. It’s interesting to hear what people think he’s been singing all this time.

What’s the craziest line you’ve heard people think you sing?

Ali: “I have a one-inch head.” (all laugh) Or “I carry a bird in a cage,” instead of “I carry a burden of shame.” It’s because of being from Birmingham, and we all talk like this (mumbles a few words). People don’t understand it.

Well, Ozzy Osbourne’s from Birmingham, and so’s Jeff Lynne [of ELO], as well as a bunch of other rockers. There must be something in the water, as the saying goes…

Ali: Acid, I think. Or LSD. (all laugh)

You’re carrying on quite the legacy for the younger generation. What artists have spoken to you about your influence on them?

Ali: Well, there’s a band called Goldie Lookin Chain, who are Welsh nutcases. One of their lyrics goes, “I wouldn’t know what dub was if it weren’t for UB40” — which makes me happy. I think it’s generally accepted, especially in England, that we helped promote dub too.

You’ve sold over 70 million albums worldwide. That’s a staggeringly huge number, isn’t it?

Ali: What I think about that is, one of my favorite artists ever is Miles Davis. He made Kind of Blue (1959) — basically, the biggest-selling jazz album of all-time, at 6 million copies sold. And our first two Labour of Love albums sold 8 million plus each! It’s daft, isn’t it? It’s amazing, really.