In which livewire dancehall MC Miss Red hooks up with Ninja Tune dub prof The Bug to serve up one heck of a debut album. Talk about blowing the bloody doors off. They’re calling it future dancehall and who are we to argue?
Israeli dancehall reggae MC Miss Red remembers the precise moment when her music career crystallised into something real. It was at a live show in her home country, one that would launch her fruitful collaboration with Ninja Tune dub king Kevin Martin, aka The Bug, who is notorious for his prolapse-inducing sub bass, acid bleeps and distorted ragga beats.
“It was a mad thing,” says Miss Red, whose real name is Sharon Stern. “I was just starting out in music. People were like, ‘Yo, The Bug is doing a secret show in Jaffa’. I went there and he was playing his new shit. My brain was melting. I didn’t know what to do. He broke a mirror in the club with the bass from the speakers.
He literally damaged the place. When he came to go off the stage, I went up to him, and he looked at me, like, ‘What do you want?’, and I said, ‘Gimme the mic’.”
Miss Red’s lyrical skills impressed the Ninja artist so much that the next day they went into a studio and cut the tune ‘Diss Mi Army’, a lyrical incendiary dedicated to the Israeli infantry. Stern was doing compulsory national service at the time.
“I was just dissing the fuck out of them,” she declares. “From there, Kevin said, ‘I have a show in London so do you want to come? You could get on the mic’. I was like, ‘Fuck, yes’.”
The Bug’s dreadnought bass barrages, 303 squelches and abrasive, distorted drum machines, mixed with Miss Red’s patois-laced rhymes and reggae vocals, are a lethal compound. First compiled on her 2015 mixtape ‘Murder’ (along with productions from dub-savvy beat makers such as Mark Pritchard and Mumdance), her raw ragga style is distilled further on her debut album, ‘K.O.’, which has been released through The Bug’s Pressure imprint.
‘One Shot Killer’ is a slow creep of machine beats and synths that loom like an evil cloud, while Stern unleashes her sing-song chatting style, dominating the dub space. On ‘Alarm’, the dancehall sound is dislocated, as the rhymes are soaked in reverb and seem to echo around a haunted warehouse, while on ‘Come Again’, Stern navigates a snaking acid bassline and crisp, echo soaked percussion. ‘War’ is distinctive for her diversion into a more melodic singing voice, its oppressive minimalism and the line, “Make you swim fast in it like a sea bream”. It’s a record with the heaviness and club appeal of the original Jamaican dancehall sound, but with a hypermodern and overdriven electronic edge.
“Working with Kevin was natural because we knew each other and we know what we like, what kinds of things we want to do,” notes Stern. “It’s always exciting actually. We’re full of enthusiasm to go to the studio and wondering what is going to come out.”
Kevin Martin views ‘K.O.’ as an affront to the bland nature of mainstream music in 2018, a record that aims to capture the lightning of their live performances together.
“We knew it needed maximum impact and total intensity,” he says. “The album was undoubtedly influenced by the punk-as-fuck adrenaline rush of our louder-than-loud live shows, where we seek to generate maximum electricity.”
Born to parents of Moroccan-Jewish and Polish heritage, raised in Haifa, in north Israel, and now based in Berlin, Miss Red is far from a typical dancehall artist. Though she’s not from the Caribbean, her passion for reggae is fiery and genuine. Stern’s accent may sound similar to her favourite Jamaican vocalists, but she has an unconventional take on the genre reflective of her cultural background and of influences outside of reggae, such as drum ’n’ bass and dubstep.
“I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere,” says Stern. “I felt like no one else was going to do what I want to do, which is adventurous, which is futuristic, which is much more of me than anybody else.”
Stern discovered reggae through her older sister and quickly became obsessed, fixating especially on the 1980s dancehall sound.
“In Haifa, there was not much going on, it’s a very quiet city,” she says. “In Tel Aviv, everything is going on, but you really have to push to get people out in my home city. There was a little sound system called Easy Rider and the DJs were a bit older than me. They used to have a little ‘cave’ next to the Capoeira Centre, and in this cave there were turntables and lots of records. I started to really get into dancehall then. They used to play only 80s rub-a-dub music. That was unique at the time.”
There was a rebellious, outsider element to the music that Stern identified with, and she also found solace in some of the transcendent lyrical messages.
“Mainstream music was sounding shit and I was only looking for exciting stuff,” says Stern. “So it really fulfilled that place for me. It also gave me that extra element I needed for my spirituality.”
In particular, Stern admired the female MCs of dancehall, a vocal minority in the genre, citing Lady Saw, Sister Nancy and Ranking Ann as the artists that first inspired her to pick up a microphone. Latterly, she has been influenced by Warrior Queen, the rapper who has worked with The Bug, and dubstep artists such as Skream.
“Any kind of woman who put her voice on reggae made me feel more connected to it,” notes Stern.
“Something that women are talking about is more interesting to me and it’s also more liberating. Because in pop music, women talking about make-up is just not interesting, so anybody who would be a bit more outrageous and a bit more out there, a bit more edgy, that’s what I like.”
Motivated by the creative freedom and the harsh temperatures of her current home city of Berlin, Miss Red is already planning her next creative endeavour.
“It’s cold here, the winter is most of the time, so it’s harder to maintain,” she signs off. “But there are new experiences, which I am always up for. I’m going to record more, travel more, keep on doing the shit I’m doing.”
‘K.O.’ is out on Pressure