Steel Pulse - Positive, Righteous Reggae
Steel Pulse has always been one of my favorite roots reggae bands from outside of Jamaica. I've tried to see the touring band anytime they grace us here in California with their music, most recently in San Diego. It’s always a playful, party jam – their upbeat production and melodies keep the crowd grooving while their righteous conscious messages come through loud and clear. It’s invigorating and a challenge to stay off your dancing feet!
Without question one of the best reggae acts to come out of England, Steel Pulse was originally formed in 1975 at Handsworth Wood Boys School in the ghetto area of Birmingham, England, by schoolmates David “Dread” Hinds (the primary songwriter, lead singer and guitarist), Basil Gabbidon (lead guitar, vocals) and Ronnie “Stepper” McQueen (bass). Coming from West Indian immigrant families, the guys had little experience but great vibes ran in their blood and they definitely had something to say! It was McQueen who suggested naming the band after a popular racehorse at the time.
Rastafarian and protest-minded, they had a hard time getting gigs because their message was thought of as “subversive”, but the band appealed to U.K. punks whose movement was gaining momentum at the time. Steel Pulse opened for punk and new wave bands like Generation X, the Clash, the Police, the Stranglers and XTC on Rock Against Racism bills, establishing themselves in the club scene and building an audience. By now, the band had expanded to include Selwyn “Bumbo” Brown (keyboards), Steve “Grizzly” Nesbitt (drums), Fonso Martin (vocals, percussion) and Michael Riley (vocals).
Their debut singles Kibudu, Mansetta and Abuku and Nyah Love were done for small labels but their opening performances for Burning Spear ultimately brought them to the attention of Island Records. Their first release for Island was the Ku Klux Klan single, their attack on racism. And, in 1978, Steel Pulse released Handsworth Revolution, which was the pinnacle of British reggae, and the title song became their signature tune. One of Bob Marley's favorite bands, Steel Pulse became one of reggae's most successful bands in the late '70s and early '80s.
Artistic differences and ongoing grievances caused moves from Island to Elektra, resulting in the release of Tribute to the Martyrs and True Democracy, and then to MCA. Some of Steel Pulse’s most powerful anthems came out during this period, like Macka Splaff, Prodigal Son, Sound System, Soldiers, Rally Round and Not King James Version, a powerful indictment on the omission of black people from certain versions of the Bible. 1982's True Democracy became their first LP to break onto the US charts, making both the pop and R&B listings.
As the '80s wore on, smooth synthesizers and elements of dance and R&B gradually crept into their sound, even as their subject matter stayed on the militant side. By this time, Riley, Gabbidon and McQueen had departed, being replaced by guitarist Carlton Bryan and bassist Alvin Ewen. Their cross-over style appealed to reggae purists and a wider international audience, resulting in a Grammy award for Babylon the Bandit in 1986 and nominations in 1991 for Victims and in 1992 for Rastafari Central. Founding member Fonso Martin had now left the band, reducing Steel Pulse to a core trio of Hinds, Nisbett, and Brown. Their backing band still featured Ewen and was also anchored by guitarist Clifford "Moonie" Pusey, keyboardist Sidney Mills, and drummer/percussionist Conrad Kelly.
While making concessions to contemporary music trends in dancehall and hip-hop, Steel Pulse returned to their serious rootsy sound and conscious messages. In 1993, at the request of the Clinton Administration, Steel Pulse became the first reggae band ever to perform during a U.S. President’s inaugural celebration at the White House in Washington DC. They also became the first reggae band to appear on television’s The Tonight Show. And 1997's Rage and Fury earned yet another Grammy nomination.
Their inventive blend of straight reggae with tinges of salsa, African and calypso along with their message of hope and activism and their pleas for social reform made them a success with music lovers worldwide, especially in Europe and the USA, where they continue to tour today. Steel Pulse has headlined many of the world’s foremost reggae festivals and over the years they have performed live with the likes of Bob Marley & the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Sting, INXS, Santana, Robert Palmer, Herbie Hancock and Bob Dylan.
Currently, Steel Pulse tours with a 9-piece ensemble that usually includes long standing musicians Hinds on lead vocals, guitar and harmonica, Pusey on lead guitar, Brown on vocals and keyboards, Mills on vocal and keyboards, Amlak Tafari on bass, , and Wayne “C Sharp” Clarke on drums and percussion. Some of the band members remain committed to their Rastafarian beliefs. Backing up their views, Steel Pulse filed a class-action lawsuit against the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, charging that drivers discriminated against blacks and particularly Rastafarians.
In 2010, they released a single "Hold On 4 Haiti" and 100% of the proceeds go to Haiti, to solar electrify health clinics through the Solar Electric Light Fund and Partners In Health. The song is available for download exclusively at holdon4haiti.org.
SteelPulse’s flow is relaxed and their lyrics are righteous. May they continue to share with us their commitment to fighting social injustice and promoting positive messages through their music for many years to come!