Text: Seb Carayol
Photos: ©Bordet Etienne Photographie
Iration Steppas are a Leeds institution, active for over 20 years as a sound system and production unit composed of Mark Iration and Denis Rootical. The pair first met in 1993 at a time when sound system culture and music in the UK was changing, from the militant vibrations of Jah Shaka towards a broader future that would encompass not only the roots of the music but also new interpretations. Iration’s own production style was nicknamed “Year 3000 Dub” in reference to its ability to straddle both the past and the future. As for the Iration Steppas system itself, it remains one of the UK’s best loved, a wall of sound that continues to bring to life generation after generation of British dub and bass pioneers.
The following interview with Mark and Dennis was conducted in the late 2000s by Seb Carayol at the now defunct Tribute venue.
Mark, how did you discover music?
Mark Iration: Being UK black with Jamaican parents I heard reggae at family reunions: Culture, The Abyssinians, U Roy… The first disc I bought was “Wet Dream” by Max Romeo. At school our Religious Education teacher brought a record player and asked us to play music from our culture of origin. Then we started hanging around the youth centers to see local sound systems play: Genesis, Emperor, Magnum, Ambassador. Naturally you ended up getting involved with the local sound to give a hand. We built carts to transport the speakers, we called them “boogies,” and they needed to be really sturdy because at the time boxes were double or, worse, carved out of a block of wood!
With my cousin we would run out in the night to check out sounds. The “blues” wouldn’t start till 2AM. After that I really became part of the sound in my neighborhood. My first job was holding the sleeve of a 12”! Someone held out a disc, you looked at the track title, the artist and you put it back in the right sleeve. You stood proud because you were with the crew. At the end of the ‘70s in Leeds we began to hear talk of Shaka, Tubby’s, Quaker. Then I witnessed my first big sound, Jah Tubby’s.
What were the differences between Tubby’s and the local sounds?
MI: The power, the music they played… But really the professionalism in the “chanting.” That evening, Tubby’s had two really good MCs on the mic: Freddy and a guy called Horace. Then I saw Jah Shaka in Sheffield, before Gregory Isaacs. Talk of a warm-up, the crowd was boiling! The people who have seen Shaka in the past ten years can’t imagine what it was at the time: a black ting! Really warrior, he’s calmed down now.
Dennis Rootical: It was like walking into a football stadium. He put on “Gates of Zion” by Michael Prophet and… It was really the gates of Zion that opened! Pure worries.
MI: The vibe was really different. Musically, the dubplates were less integral: if you had a 45 before the others, you killed everyone. “Locks Wife” by Prince Alla, “In The Right Way” by Rod Taylor… Mash up the place! It was busy, this was before pirate radio. For me they’ve done as much good as bad: before pirate radio the only way to hear our music was to go to the sound.
From these legendary sessions you got the idea to build your own sound?
MI: In the middle of the ‘80s I was first with Kooler Ruler: we played parties, discos, weddings. I bought reggae, dub, hip-hop, r&b, house… Even lovers rock. We were four or five selectors, each with his specialty. Gradually I moved towards dub. With my friend the late Sam Mason we put together Ital Rockers, strictly roots. By the end of the ‘80s in Leeds there was only us and another sound, Jungle Warrior.
Ital Rockers it was 10 friends who pooled together five pounds per week. After that some of us started being like, “I can’t pay this week. I’ll give you 10 pounds next week.” Sam got fed up and launched Iration Steppas. At first we borrowed speakers from local sounds (Jungle Warrior, Ras Batta) which just lingered in garages before building our own in 1990. Quickly we played against Jah Trinity and then against our mentor Shaka! Nothing too bad, no insults: “my sound… straight to your neck!” However when Coxsone and Shaka clashed it got verbal.
I remember a dance, Blacka Dread on the mic, “Bwoi, Shaka you idiot! You run fool dub def. Play a vocal tune!” Shaka, unflappable, launched his next tune. A dub. Blacka got mad, played sirens over the music. But the crowd loved it, they sung to Shaka. Blacka was furious, “You fool fool people! Drum’n’bass is teaching nothing!” Shake remained imperial, “I doubt.” Ran another, heavier dub. It was a certain time, there were skanking and dancing contests.
DR: I’ll always remember Trinity, a cool and funky guy but also a little weird. He bent over in two and then launched himself by kicking you in the ass, shouting, “Yes I!”
MI: Kicker, he was a great skanker. But as soon as he lost, the people around him understood his nickname. Today, there’s only a handful of real steppers left like them.
It’s at this time that you both met?
DR: No, it was later, in 1993 during an Aba Shanti dance at the House of Roots (in Vauxhall). I wrote dubs that I sold to sounds, Iration already existed and I learnt Mark was looking for a particular track. It was one of my dubs, it had no name. We started working together on Iration and other things, notably Kitachi, a fusion/electro project for the React label, we opened for The Prodigy and collaborated with Roni Size.
Is that were the calls of being unorthodox come from?
DR: People confuse our projects perhaps. Iration remains dub. We push the boundaries and that’s what shocks but where’s the problem? Growing up in England, you’re exposed to tons of different music and even if reggae remains your favorite, these different influences are felt when you play. I’m sure King Tubby or Lee Perry heard the same things in their time. We aren’t doing anything different: we assimilate a foundation and push it towards another dimension. That’s why we call our music “Year 3000 dub.” When we release a track we want it to still sound fresh and exclusive in ten years.
Iration Steppas make their American debut on April 7 at the 2017 Oulook NYC Launch Party alongside Liondub, Grand Ancestor, Anna Morgan, Screechy Dan and Dub-Stuy Sound. Pre-order tickets now.