Grammy award-winning reggae band Steel Pulse have been true to their roots for over 35 years. One of Bob Marley’s favorites, the band has maintained a sense of fierce integrity as it strives to get the message of love and justice across to all people.
Steel Pulse was formed in 1975 in Birmingham, England, specifically the inner city area of Handsworth. The founding members were schoolmates David Hinds (the primary songwriter as well as the lead singer and guitarist), Basil Gabbidon (guitar), and Ronnie “Stepper” McQueen (bass). All of them came from working-class West Indian immigrant families, and none had much musical experience. They took some time to improve their technical proficiency, often on Roots inspired material by the Wailers, Burning Spear and several other prominent Jamaican artists. McQueen suggested the group name, after a racehorse, and they soon fleshed out the lineup with drummer Steve “Grizzly” Nisbett, keyboardist/vocalist Selwyn “Bumbo” Brown, percussionist/vocalist Alphonso “Fonso” Martin, and vocalist Michael Riley.
Steel Pulse initially had difficulty finding live gigs, as club owners were reluctant to give them a platform for their “subversive” Rastafarian politics. Luckily, the punk movement was opening up new avenues for music all over Britain, and also finding a spiritual kinship with protest reggae. Thus, the group wound up as an opening act for punk and new wave bands like the Clash, the Stranglers, Generation X, the Police, and XTC, and built a broad-based audience in the process. In keeping with the spirit of the times, Steel Pulse developed a theatrical stage show that leavened their social commentary with satirical humor; many of the members dressed in costumes that mocked traditional British archetypes (Riley was a vicar, McQueen a bowler-wearing aristocrat, Martin a coach footman, etc.). The band issued two singles — “Kibudu, Mansetta and Abuku” and “Nyah Love” — on small independent labels when they then came to the attention of Island Records after opening for Burning Spear.
Fast forward a long seven years since their previous album, Rage and Fury, Steel Pulse would return yet again, this time with African Holocaust, and yet again have their ranks dwindled. Core members David Hinds (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Selwyn Brown (keyboards, backing vocals) are the only ones to remain from the band’s original line-up, but they more than hold their own and they’re joined by a deep roster of supporting musicians, a list too long to list. As always, the music is what’s most important, and on that count, this Steel Pulse lineup indeed makes the mark. Granted, it did take them seven years to get the album out, but still it won a Grammy Awards Nomination for Best Reggae Album of the year. There’s really not too much else to say about African Holocaust. Longtime fans will know what to expect. Newcomers should know a few things: above all, Steel Pulse are known for performing well-written, Afrocentric songs that are rebellious without being negative or inflammatory, and though the band membership has changed over the years, the type of songs hasn’t, nor has the steady move away from dancehall that was apparent on the band’s previous album. the message and music remain true to the band’s principles and vision.
Steel Pulse is one of Britain’s greatest reggae bands, in terms of creative and commercial success. Steel Pulse started out playing authentic roots reggae with touches of jazz and Latin music, and earned a substantial audience worldwide. Their 1978 debut, Handsworth Revolution, is still regarded by many critics as a landmark and a high point of British reggae. By the late ’80s, Steel Pulse had won a Grammy and were working full-fledged crossover territory. They subsequently returned to a tough-minded, rootsy sound and have added touches of dancehall and hip-hop along the way.