I am chatting, as you do, to the lead vocalist in a metal band about a 19th-century chartist protest march in South Wales.
On this occasion, it’s because Dub War – the Welsh group whose pioneering mix of metal, punk and reggae has seen their influence far exceed their commercial progress – are about to release their first album of new material in 25 years. And Westgate Under Fire takes its name from the last large-scale armed protest in Great Britain, seeking the right to vote with a secret ballot, which took part in the band’s hometown of Newport in 1839. The Westgate Hotel was where the chartists were held by the police; outside soldiers were ordered to turn their arms on the crowds, killing 22.
“For what it stands for – this is the beginning of democracy,” that vocalist, Benji Webbe, tells me from the Newport council estate he still calls home.
“I just thought to myself when we were writing the songs, all these things are going on and all these things started on my doorstep and people don’t even know it. In Newport it started – people were killed for the first time for standing up for themselves. And I think it’s something that people need to know.
“And I thought that with the name Westgate Under Fire it would bring attention to that. It’s something people need to know, where democracy started and where the battle for democracy started in the UK and spread throughout the world, and I think it’s a good thing to celebrate.”
Ironically, though, Webbe himself doesn’t vote.
“I don’t bother with it, bro. I just live every day as it comes ‘cause these liars and thieves and f***ing burglars – they’re not in the end of my street, they’re in Downing Street. But do you know what? I’m not gonna complain about them either. If I’m not gonna vote, then why the f*** am I complaining?
Has this chronicler of democracy’s origins never voted?
“Not once, no. Oh, the Kerrang! [magazine music awards], maybe.”
In recent years 55-year-old Webbe has been better known for his band Skindred and a new Dub War album was never planned. Like much else, it came out of lockdown, when the prolific writer penned new material, was in touch with his old bandmates and found that recording remotely worked for them. Not least because, knowing that all his drummer friends in bands “were doing f*** all”, he could call on the likes of Mike Bordin (Faith No More), Roy Mayorga (US rockers Stone Sour) and Tanner Wayne (Swedish metal band In Flames) to guest, recording remotely and being added in later.
“The good thing is it wasn’t ‘oh, I wonder if he’ll do it’ – everybody I asked was a Dub War fan before so they were excited to do it,” says Webbe. “For something which started as an accident it’s come out pretty strong, you know?”.
The subject matter is as political as the title. First single Blackkk Man (“basically a cry from my heart”) with its jagged guitar, furious rhythms and tough vocals, is a pretty stark sign of what’s to come.
“These are not things which have been happening in the past couple of years, you know, this has been going on for thousands of f***ing years. So I addressed that issue,” says Webbe.
“There’s a lot of people stuck at home doing nothing and I just wanted to encourage people to know that what we’re going through at this time, we won’t be going through forever. You know, we won’t be feeling that pinch forever. And I think that’s important, especially living in a council estate still. I can’t state that enough – I live in a council estate not because that’s where I am, I choose to live here ‘cause I want to keep grounded with people and I think being in that vibe… you’re still grounded in your lyrics, and I think that’s what made that song socially aware, you know?”
“You have to make your own mind up out of it. But all I would say, in the song Blackkk Man the lyrics say ‘no-one chooses the skin they’re in/Does the skin you are in make you win?/Double standard society/It’s the same for you as it is for me’. And that’s the way I look at it – it’s like, you know, it’s up to you, how you see it. I mean, some people hear that song and they get offended. They go… as a black man, what do you keep saying that for? Because it’s my perspective as a black man on how this situation has arose.
“I’m just inspired by watching life and living life, you know? I look at it like I’m a layman, trying to express my feelings in the world. ‘Cause I ain’t no f***ing college student, you know?”.
Webbe is well aware that as a black vocalist in the overwhelmingly white world of metal he’s unusual but, he says, it comes from having grown up in a very multicultural world in Newport.
“Fortunately, right, being a black guy in Wales, I’ve lived in a community which is very multicultural, and that’s been a trigger throughout my whole life,” he says.
“It hasn’t been like, black, black, black – I’ve lived with Somali people, Arab people, Irish people, Italian people, and we’ve all lived in the same community. So I’d say that’s been a blessing in having that multicultural thing. Bands like the Specials and the Clash and stuff like that – that’s what I was drawn to as a kid growing up.
“I felt like I wanted to be in a band which was not for black people as such, it’s not black music or it’s not white music, it’s people’s music, you know? And I think growing up in this community in South Wales, it’s really gave me that. ‘Cause it wasn’t about the colour of your skin, it’s about your attitude and the way you carried on as a human being.”
One of the most special moments of the new album is the last recorded appearance of Ranking Roger, the legendary Beat vocalist who died in 2019 at just 56. He appears on a punk cover of the Max Romeo and the Upsetters classic War Ina Babylon.
“For it to be the last recording of Ranking Roger done, that’s so special, says Webbe. ‘Cause as a kid growing up, I remember watching Top of the Pops and seeing Ranking Roger and the Beat doing their thing… I bought that straight away.”
And what of the Newport scene more generally? For many the city is still synonymous with the 1990s, when a flurry of alternative rock bands saw it briefly hailed as “the new Seattle”.
“The scene in Newport is not like ‘the new Seattle’,” says Webbe.
“There’s a lot of MCs, but this f***ing GLC band [comedy hip-hop troupe Goldie Lookin Chain] – when you think of Newport and you think of MCs you think of GLC and I think a lot of great MCs from Newport who are flying the flag, they get dragged down into that GLC world and people think it’s a joke thing, but there are some serious, good urban artists in Newport.”
I hadn’t thought about Goldie Lookin Chain for about 15 years, I say. “Unfortunately,” says Webbe, “the w***ers are still going”.
● Blackkk Man is available to stream now. Westgate Under Fire is released in August