Life Has A Way: The Smith & Mighty story

By in Features





The music world is full of so-called ‘unsung pioneers’ – artists who helped shape musical directions and never received the dues their work deserved. Whether or not Smith & Mighty fit this bill is a matter of opinion. But for those in the know, the duo laid the foundations for the Bristol sound that would make superstars of Massive Attack and bring bass into UK dance music like never before.

With a new appraisal out now collecting previously unreleased recordings from their spiritual home on Ashley Road, Smith & Mighty met Oli Warwick for a stroll through St Pauls to reflect on the twists and turns of their life in music.

There’s an awkward moment near the end of my interview with Rob Smith and Ray Mighty about their 30-plus-years in music. We’re sat in a scruffy bar in Bristol, and a young artist has been unsubtly eavesdropping on the winding conversation about ‘80s and ‘90s production methods, the perils of major label record deals, second comings, and the many curveballs life can throw at you.

“Do you record straight to tape?” the hovering bystander finally pipes up.

“Nah, we used to,” replies Ray.

“What is your band?” the stranger asks. An awkward pause follows.

“Uh… it’s not a band, it’s a DJ kinda thing… Smith and… um, Mighty…” Ray finally, uncomfortably explains, positively playing down any weight their name might carry.

“Smith and Mighty. Cool, I’ll look you guys up,” the stranger amicably replies.

By rights, Smith & Mighty shouldn’t need to explain themselves, not least in their hometown. While they might shrug it off, the pair laid the blueprint for many of the major musical movements to transmit out of Bristol with their canny mixture of contemporary beats and sound system dynamics. They produced Massive Attack’s first single, broke the top 10 with Fresh 4 and set up a studio where local D&B legends DJ Die, Suv, DJ Krust and many others found their feet as producers. Despite all this, their legacy is less storied than that of Massive Attack, Tricky or Roni Size. It’s not uncommon to get a blank look when you mention Smith & Mighty to someone, even in Bristol, but those that know generally nod with solemn reverence for two masters who defined the rugged, bass-heavy modernism of the city’s music culture from the late ‘80s onwards.

Producers Peverelist and Pinch have long cited the pair as a huge influence on their own trailblazing routes through dubstep and beyond. Now their respective labels, Punch Drunk and Tectonic, have teamed up to release Ashley Road Sessions 88 – 94, a gathering of 10 unreleased Smith & Mighty cuts to commemorate 30 years since the Bristol sound first crashed the charts with a cover of Dionne Warwick. It felt like the perfect opportunity to reflect on their mammoth musical imprint, with a particular focus on the era the compilation draws from.

Blues, Sweat and Gear

It’s a damp but bright November morning when I link up with Rob and Ray on Ashley Road in the Bristol suburb of St Pauls. As we walk through their old stomping ground, Ray is pointing out different houses that used to be blues clubs – unlicensed bars synonymous with Afro-Caribbean communities, where a house or flat would reverberate to the sounds of dub, roots, lovers rock and more over a mammoth sound system. Ajax and Gwyn Street are among the more infamous spots that get mentioned.

“You had to keep your wits about you a bit,” says Ray when I ask what the mood was like at those parties.

“It was mostly beer and weed, nothing like today,” says Rob. “There weren’t really many class As. It was alright. I liked blues clubs. For me it was probably the first time I’d ever heard reggae played like that, on systems rather than just on a record player.”

Rob and Ray were moving in similar circles in various bands around Bristol, but it was when they both ended up in a band called Sweat they discovered a mutual appreciation for drum machines and synthesisers.

“We liked MIDI,” says Rob. “That was the fascination really, that you could put two machines together and get them to play each other. Then later on came sampling, which was all pretty new at the time.”

We’re not walking for long before we reach the far end of Ashley Road and the building where Rob and Ray had their studio for nearly 15 years. The first floor was where the majority of their music was made. At varying times, depending on their fortunes, they rented the ground floor and threw occasional parties in there, and for a time they ran a “Studio B” on the top floor.

“We had enough equipment to make a little studio for people who wanted to make some tracks to come in and just do it for free,” says Ray. “If someone was keen enough to learn, it was there for them to go up and do their thing.”

“Roni [Size] used to use it a lot,” says Rob. “Suv, Krust, DJ Die… The whole vibe of the place was, try it out and see what happens.”

In the scene

As we turn the corner onto Stokes Croft, Rob points to where the punks used to hang out in the Demolition Diner, and to the Carriageworks, a derelict three-storey edifice which has been at the centre of heated local debate over its redevelopment into flats and community spaces.

“We built a skateboard park up there once,” Rob recalls looking up at the scaffolding, “and we did some parties up there. We weren’t really skaters. It was just somewhere to go where no one was watching. DJ Die was a skate hero – he was really good. Suv, Krust, Flynn, they were all skaters.”

Rob and Ray’s depiction of life in ‘80s Bristol is one of a tight-knit community of young music lovers exploring their passions in a laid back but proactive fashion. Years before they would help shape Bristol’s jungle scene, Suv, Krust and Flynn were part of Fresh 4. Their 1989 hit ‘Wishing On A Star’ reached number 10 in the UK singles chart, and it was Smith & Mighty behind the beats. The year before, Rob and Ray had already launched Three Stripe Records with their debut single, ‘Walk On’, which featured their friend Jackie Jackson on vocals singing a cover of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’. It wasn’t the first of their productions to hit wax, though.

In 1986, when they were still getting to grips with their studio hardware, Rob and Ray were invited by a friend to perform live at Vision Factory Apres Ski Party, a low-key night in a snooker club in Bristol City Centre. Using a rack of hardware as though they were at home in their studio, their set was interrupted while they were performing a mutant, go-go flavoured cover of Erik Satie’s ‘Gymopédie No. 1’. Mark Stewart (frontman of legendary Bristolian post-punks The Pop Group) intervened in a fit of enthusiasm and thrust a then-unknown Tricky onto the stage for an impromptu freestyle over the top of the track. At Stewart’s request they gave him a copy of the music on cassette, only to discover he had sung over the top of it and released it on Mute Records as ‘This Is Stranger Than Love’ in 1987. Fortunately Rob and Ray were credited as producers on the record and reimbursed after the fact.

Defining the sound / London calling

It was ‘Walk On’ and the follow-up single ‘Anyone’ that cemented the arrival of Smith & Mighty. But along with their production for Fresh 4 and the first Massive Attack single, ‘Any Love’, it took a long time for them to be satisfied with their sound.

“We were really picky,” says Rob. “’Anyone’ took ages to mix. We’d program out the basic thing, but then we’d have to rehearse mixing it, almost like a live performance. We were using sound system boxes as monitors for quite a while. The needles were always in the red.”

“We were mixing how we wanted to hear it out,” adds Ray. “We didn’t know how to mix flat.”

Perhaps it’s that ‘in-the-red’ attitude that gives Smith & Mighty’s sonic legacy a weight others can’t reach. In their completely self-taught approach, they simply aimed for what sounded right to them in the context they understood – the sound system. The punch of the bass on ‘Walk On’ and ‘Anyone’ is hard to refute.

Alongside their fusion of hip hop and electro-indebted rhythms and reggae dynamics, they dabbled in the emergent acid house scene under the name R+R with the limber 4/4 bleeps and choppy, gated samples of ‘Acid Off A Way’. In the initial run of releases on Three Stripe, it seemed like the possibilities were wide open and the ideas were flowing freely. As they came to discover, the results when they went to professional studios in London failed to capture the vibe of their own environment on Ashley Road.

After a high-profile remix gig for Neneh Cherry’s top five single ‘Manchild’ in 1989, Rob and Ray eventually signed with FFRR, and their first job was producing Bristol-based singer Carlton’s debut album. The resulting record, The Call Is Strong, failed to make an impact on release, but is generally hailed as an overlooked British soul gem. For Rob and Ray though, the memory of the record is mired by creative differences with the label, the pressure of trying to write and produce in a sterile studio environment in London, and the breakdown in their relationship with Carlton.

“The album took forever and ever,” says Rob. “The label kept saying it wasn’t good enough. It could have been a lot better. Just recently we pulled out some of the DATs. If you listen to some of the mixes we did before we went to London, they’ve got a much better vibe to them.”

As well as struggling to get through producing The Call Is Strong, Rob and Ray were also locked into a five-year contract to deliver their own debut album to FFRR. Ray describes those years as a wilderness littered with rejected submissions and a label that failed to understand the importance of sub bass in the Smith & Mighty sound.

Breaking free

Through the grind of the FFRR years, Smith & Mighty’s output slowed considerably. There was however one key record that saw the light of day in 1992, confirming the duo as forward thinking protagonists in the emergent British dance music culture. Steppers Delight EP still rolled at the slower tempo synonymous with the earlier Smith & Mighty output, but the rolling breakbeats of ‘Killa’ in particular fed into the emerging hardcore zeitgeist that would go on to sire jungle.

“We went to a rave and heard a DJ playing [Killa] at 45 when it was cut at 33, and we were like, ‘fucking hell!’” says Rob. “It was quite a slow tune wasn’t it?”

Rob and Ray finally broke free of their contract with FFRR and set up their own label, More Rockers, in 1994. As well as being a separate artist project to explore the emergent sound of jungle, More Rockers provided the platform for their debut album, Bass Is Maternal. The hefty 15-track record drew on much of the material they had been gathering over the years of friction with FFRR. Although their confidence had been knocked by the major label wrangling, the final result was a bold artistic statement.

The opening track, ‘Hold On (Strange Mix)’ veers in with a back-sliding, squalling guitar and airlock-sucking kick. Ray describes it as the result of a trick borrowed from their days in Sweat, when they would swap the tape heads over after recording something to see what it sounded like in reverse. The full track, ‘Drowning’, played forwards with Felix on vocals, is an equally unexpected cover of U2’s ‘Drowning Man’. Elsewhere the unmistakable break from ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ drives ‘Accept All Contrasts.’

War was a favourite album of ours in the studio,” states Ray. “’Drowning Man’ had a dub feel about it. It was definitely a dubby bass line. Not so hot on the band, but I still love that track.”

From the ethereal, downtempo synth meditation of ‘Closer’ to the heart-wrenching ‘Time’, upfront rollers like ‘Jungle Man Corner’ and the spaced-out mélange of 4/4 kicks and tightly clipped breaks on ‘U Dub’, Bass Is Maternal is an album that encapsulates the crossroads electronic music culture was at in 1995. If you were to pick apart the individual ingredients and influences, the list would be long, but really it was a genre-agnostic distillation of Rob and Ray’s broad cultural roots, and what made sense reverberating through the walls of their studio on Ashley Road.

It was around this time they also brought Peter D Rose into the fold, a fellow Bristolian producer who had been working with Massive Attack on their early forays into production. The final mix of ‘Drowning’ on Bass Is Maternal is his, which seems like a big responsibility to hand over for two producers so precious about their sound.

“Pete had a similar sound to us,” says Ray. “We basically could afford the same crappy equipment, so we had the same kind of limited skills in mixing. It had that eight-track, lo-fi, shit sampler sound!”

Having returned to the fray on their own terms, Rob and Ray found their fortunes changing. They were approached to record an Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1, which aired in November 1996 and featured predominantly Smith & Mighty and More Rockers productions. German independent label !K7 heard it, and asked them to record an entry for the burgeoning DJ Kicks series. It was the start of a reciprocal relationship that gave Smith & Mighty the stability and support they’d missed at the start of their career.

Signing with !K7 propelled Smith & Mighty onto the international gigging circuit, and led to them recording their second album, Big World Small World, in 1999. It was a marked progression for the duo, featuring a broader sound palette but still driven by the same dubwise mentality and understated swagger that has defined them since the beginning.

Big World Small World was a more confident album,” admits Rob. “We were pretty much left to it. And we were definitely more skilled, studio wise. It’s a more accomplished album.”

Even though they were still working from their home base on Ashley Road, the trajectory towards a more polished sound continued with the Life Is… album, released in 2002. It was smoother than previous efforts, albeit still rooted in bass and broken beats, and arguably loaded with more crossover appeal from the rabble-rousing 2-step flex of ‘B Line Fi Blow’ to the melancholy stepper ‘Flash Of Joy’. It seemed like they were finally into a steady routine of albums and touring, only for everything to come to a pronounced halt after Life Is….

“Family life changed a lot of things for Ray and me,” explains Rob. “We both very fucking weirdly became single parents, so for me that completely overtook everything. I had three to bring up, Ray had seven. I was working all night and then getting up to sort the kids out. Maybe catch an hour of sleep in the day time, and then same again. It was quite difficult really.”

It’s the kind of curveball turn of events you might never have expected for two pioneers of UK dance music culture, but it has a strange synergy with the home-rooted humility Rob and Ray have operated with throughout their career. Understandably Ray had to dial back his musical endeavours given the size of his family, although now he’s back into a regular routine of producing at home. Rob managed to continue solo with an accomplished album on Grand Central, 2003’s Up On The Downs, his more roots focused Blue & Red alias, and later his acclaimed forays into dubstep as RSD. What’s striking about the latter is how naturally it fits in with the whole Smith & Mighty narrative – you can hear the echoes of dubstep in earlier material, on the Ashley Road Sessions 88-94 release as much as anywhere.

“People used to suggest that,” says Rob when I point out the foreshadowing of dubstep in Smith & Mighty’s sound, “but I didn’t want to fall into that trap of thinking, ‘Oh yeah, that’s ‘cos of what we did.’ We just liked our slow beats, we liked our basslines, so I think the elements were similar.”

“When I first heard [dubstep] I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I’ve been wanting to hear,’” says Ray. “It’s reggae, but really what we used to call crusty beats, which was the sound we wanted to get.”

In tune

What’s heartening in the exchange between Rob and Ray is how, after so many years and a textbook tumultuous ride through the music industry mill, they’re still completely in tune with each other. No matter the subject, they agree implicitly, unanimous in their appraisal of the highs and lows of their career and the culture around it. When asked if they consider themselves overlooked in light of the huge success of so many of their Bristol peers, the comment doesn’t compute.

“If you think about what we were doing and what our ambition was in the beginning, it’s just been bonus all the way,” says Rob. “Part of it is down to our attitude. We didn’t jump into the limelight.”

“We didn’t reach too high so we didn’t fall too far,” agrees Ray. “Not overlooked, no. From what we wanted – something on a bit of vinyl – we’ve surpassed everything. The fact that we go out places and people still chat about something we released 30 fucking years ago is like, wow. We had our little major deal. A lot of accomplished musicians and bands don’t get anywhere near what we got. We had our day in the sun so to speak. Then it rained!”

They both laugh. The deal with FFRR might have hampered them just as their career was getting going, but Rob points out so many artists got snapped up with lucrative deals in the early ‘90s, only to crash and burn into obscurity. In the end, they put their passion in front of the money, and with an air of artistic stubbornness shaped out a sizeable rough diamond of a discography.

Following the first round of unreleased archive tracks, it looks promising for more material from the Ashley Road studio to get released in the future.

“We’ve got bags of DAT tapes,” says Rob. “We definitely had a sound in Ashley Road, and so we’ve been pulling off bits and pieces that fall in line with that sound.”

It’s painful to think the unfettered, home-brewed mixes of the Carlton album might never see the light of day – their mere existence is a tantalising hint at how great The Call Is Strong might have been – but the project remain too sour in both Rob and Ray’s memories.

“We agreed a long time ago, the two people that have got to like our stuff is me and Ray,” says Rob. “If anybody else liked it, that was a bonus.”

As proven by their uncompromising path since first joining forces in the mid ‘80s, creative consensus is the first and last principle in Smith & Mighty.

Smith & Mighty – The Ashely Road Sessions 88-94 is out now.

Photos courtesy of Smith & Mighty