Reggae Legends Steel Pulse Take Ownership, Release First Album in Years Through Non-Profit Rootfire Cooperative

Patrick Niddrie
Steel Pulse

On May 17th, Grammy Award winning veteran reggae outfit Steel Pulse released their first new album in 15 years, Mass Manipulation, as a joint venture between their Wiseman Doctrine imprint and Rootfire Cooperative. Produced by Steel Pulse's lead singer/songwriter/guitarist and founding member David Hinds, and co-produced by keyboardist/vocalist Sidney Mills and lead guitarist David Elecirri, Mass Manipulation establishes a 21stcentury benchmark for politically charged reggae, its motivating messages are beautifully sung, lushly arranged and effectively propelled by the band's dazzling musicianship.

Hinds, who celebrates his 63rd birthday on June 15, still possesses the supple, passionate vocals that characterize Steel Pulse's classic albums, including their impressive debut Handsworth Revolution (Island) and 1982's True Democracy (Elektra). Hinds incisively addresses headline generating topics including "Human Trafficking," and the succession of police killings of unarmed civilians on "Don't Shoot." The stunning "Stop You Coming and Come," urges Rastas to uplift one another, especially those living in Rastafari's ancestral homeland, Ethiopia, and the outstanding "No Satan Side," decries the raping of African resources by outsiders. The video for the current single, "Cry Blood," filmed at Pinnacle, Jamaica's first Rastafarian settlement, denotes the atrocities adherents of the faith have endured over the years while "Thank the Rebels," honors those who have inspired Hinds to write the progressive songs that have rendered Steel Pulse as standard bearers in using their music to advocate for social change.

Equally remarkable is Steel Pulse's decision to release Mass Manipulation, the band's 12th studio LP, with Rootfire Cooperative, a full service, non-profit label that is working towards becoming a 501 (3)(c) (that is, an IRS approved tax-exempt charitable organization.) Rootfire Cooperative offers artists interest-free micro loans to cover the costs of production, manufacturing, marketing as well as administrative services. The loans are primarily financed through profits made by Rootfire Cooperative partner, Ineffable Music Group, which manages several (American) reggae artists, owns venues across the United States and has vast talent buying and festival production divisions (including the California Roots and Arts Festival, May 24-26, Monterrey CA, among the largest reggae festivals in the US, with Steel Pulse performing there on May 24.) The loan amounts are determined by a project's specific needs, as well as an artist's proven track record, and can range from $8,000 to upwards of $50,000. Artists have 12 months to pay back the loans and once they do, they attain full ownership of their music and receive all revenue generated from it. 

"We recoup directly from the distributor and report the recoupment to the artist on a quarterly basis; when we have fully recouped, we turn the distribution keys over to the artist, give them the password, change the bank accounts, and the money is theirs forever," comments Reid Foster, General Manager, Rootfire Cooperative. "An aspect we are working on developing is bringing in more smaller contributions from different people so we can get the fans directly involved with helping the artists. The greatest obstacle for many bands is access to capital so we realized through underwriting and some private contributions we can really move the needle on artists' ability to put money in their pockets from their own music. I would like to turn this platform into a grant funding program, similar to what is available in other countries, where artists can apply for grants and never have to pay them back but that's a giant leap forward from where we are now."

Rootfire Cooperative was founded in 2016 by Seth Herman who previously managed several American reggae bands; Herman saw how difficult it was for artists to make money from traditional record deals and sought to change that dynamic. Rootfire has released 10 albums since debuting with The Movement's Golden in 2016, which topped the Reggae Album chart, as have four additional titles issued by the non-profit. But Steel Pulse is by far the best-known act to utilize the innovative platform. As David Hinds told Billboard in a recent interviewSteel Pulse's relationship with Rootfire Cooperative represents a 180-degree pivot from their previous interactions with record labels, which include multi-album deals with Island, Elektra and MCA. 

"[Before Roofire], we had these corporates firing at us, and it was all about small percentages, they held on to a good portion of our publishing and copyrights without any reason; why should they own something that we created? We made about 30 cents per album on our first few albums and that was shared between seven people." The rip-off margin increased with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, Hinds recalls. "An album cost $12.00 and a CD cost $17.00 but we were still getting the same percentage. They said CDs cost more money to manufacture, but the reality is they cost a lot less so once again, these labels were getting over on acts like us. That's how it was back then, we never reaped any benefits." 

Because Hinds and Steel Pulse have made so little from their catalogue over the years, they were understandably suspicious when their tour manager Derek Gordon brought the Rootfire prototype to their attention. "When I first heard about Rootfire, I thought, nah, there's got to be a catch, so I walked away from it," Hinds shared. "For this album, we were approached by other labels and corporations, but they said it has to be a 50/50 thing, which didn't make any sense. Where were they during the past 7 years when I was working my ass off, writing 40, 50 songs to choose 15 for this album? We had meetings with other labels and corporations, but when we analyzed the stench, we backed off. So, I went back to Rootfire to see if those guys were really about what they say they are about and, they are, so we went with them."

Reid Foster recalls the first meeting with Steel Pulse principals, Hinds, keyboardist/vocalist Selwyn "Bumbo" Brown, who joined the band shortly after its 1975 inception, and keyboardist Sidney Mills, a member since 1988; one of the first questions they asked Foster was, ‘Are you for real?' "Of any artists considering this platform, I would expect Steel Pulse to be the most skeptical, because Rootfire Cooperative is the polar opposite of their experiences with major labels," notes Foster. "That's what's so satisfying: the tools now exist where Steel Pulse can take control and own their music. We are grateful that they've entrusted us with this great work; it's an incredible opportunity for us to show the world what we are doing."

Formed in Birmingham, England's economically depressed community of Handsworth, Steel Pulse signed to Island Records in 1977, and released three albums for the label including Handsworth Revolution, which issued a clarion call for unity among Britain's black population on its title track, denounced racism ("Ku Klux Klan") and established the band as a British reggae powerhouse. Initially shunned from performing at Caribbean venues in Handsworth and nearby communities due to their Rastafarian identity and rebellious messages, the band was readily embraced by UK punks who felt a kinship with roots reggae's defiance towards the "Babylon" system. Steel Pulse shared bills with The Clash on Rock Against Racism shows across England and opened for The Stranglers on a tour that also included a then unknown white reggae trio called The Police, all of which, reportedly, pushed sales of Handsworth Revolution to over 250,000 copies within the first year of its release. In 1978 Steel Pulse were the opening act on the European leg of Bob Marley's Kaya tour, which brought them an even larger audience.

The band made their U.S. concert debut at NYC's storied Mudd Club in 1980, signed to Elektra Records in 1982 and built a stateside following through extensive touring and such albums as True Democracy and the 1987 Grammy Award winning Babylon The Bandit. Hinds calls Bandit "a milestone for us, but not necessarily our best album." After being dropped from Elektra, they signed to MCA in 1988, for whom they released three studio albums and a live set. Their major label affiliations brought them greater exposure: in 1992 they became the first reggae band to perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and in January 1993 they made history again as the inaugural reggae band to perform at a Presidential Inauguration when Bill Clinton took office.

Hinds and Brown are the only members from Steel Pulse's late 1970s roster (drummer Steve "Grizzly" Nisbett, who joined the band in 1977 and retired in 2001 due to health reasons, passed away in January 2018);  the balance of the band is Elecciri, Mills, drummer Wayne "C-Sharp" Clarke, and bassist Amlak Tafari. Despite the changes, Steel Pulse has returned to optimal form with Mass Manipulation: from its introductory call to action, "Rize" to the concluding danceable unification anthem, "Nations of the World," they've crafted, arguably, the finest album of their 44-year trailblazing career, while their decision to try a new approach and claim ownership of their music will undoubtedly prompt other musicians to take similar actions, and then thank the rebels. "The beautiful thing is Rootfire didn't try to influence what we created and it's great to have total control over our music," offers Hinds, "so I would expect other artists would want to be a part of this platform."