The Slits earned a place in rock history the hard way, enduring sexist taunts and even the occasional stabbing as an opening act on The Clash's "White Riot" tour. But after only two albums, including the feminist classic Cut, the band crumbled under internal tensions and an industry that sought to "crucify" it. Leader Ari Up, meanwhile, disappeared into self-imposed exile and reemerged in Jamaica as a dancehall sensation, her dreadlocks and unruly style earning her the nickname "Madussa." Now, 25 years after The Slits parted ways, Up has reunited with bassist Tessa Pollitt—as well as a new gang of twentysomething girls—trying to "get it right this time," releasing Revenge Of The Killer Slits and touring America. Speaking from her Kingston home, Up recently told The A.V. Club about her part in a revolution, why she loves the Japanese, and how there will never be another her.
The A.V. Club: Why a U.S. tour now?
Ari Up: I think America will respect The Slits and will put The Slits where they deserve to be. If anyone can do it, America can! Europeans, especially English people, try to be super-cool, then fuck it up by choosing the wrong coolness at the wrong time. Americans are more like, "This band is supposed to be a legend. Let's welcome them." And if we fuck it up, then Americans will just say, "Whatever, we gave them a good shot."
AVC: What's the connection between punk and dancehall?
AU: Dancehall, for whatever reason, has been totally misinterpreted. It should be a big part of punk. It has a political sound, and the sounds it carries are very threatening. This is why I like the Japanese, because they know there's a musical revolution happening. They are a huge part of dancehall in Jamaica, without imitation, just taking part in the scene here. They don't care if it's the middle of the ghetto or if it's only black people. They don't give a shit.
AVC: You were about 14 when you formed The Slits. There are a lot of 14-year-olds trying to enter music now, but they're more of the pre-packaged pop variety. Why do you think there isn't another you out there?
AU: I know, isn't that a shame? It's because I'm a rock 'n' roll baby. I was one of the last actually born into rock, in the middle of it. My mother was a promoter, so I grew up with rock stars. When I was little, people like Jimi Hendrix were walking around in the living room.
AVC: So you think it's unlikely for another you to come along?
AU: It's impossible. You can't recreate that. That's why no one ever sounded like The Slits or looked like them, no matter how many people tried it, or were influenced by it. There will never be another Sex Pistols. There will never be another Clash.
AVC: You knew The Clash and the Sex Pistols in their heyday—Joe Strummer gave you your first guitar lesson, John Lydon is your stepfather—and you worked with Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Pop Group. Have you guys ever reunited for a big punk-rock tea party?
AU: No. [Laughs.] Because we weren't like that! We grew together, like a family, then separated into different places and times, did different things. You can't explain a bond where you've shared a revolution and were colleagues in that revolution. We shared this time of the whole world just going against us, and we shared so many of the hardships that you get when you're in a revolution.
AVC: In "Typical Girls," you wrote, "Who invented typical girls? / Who's putting out the new improved model?" What do you think of today's "typical girls" who follow, say, the Paris Hilton model?
AU: Oh, exactly! [Laughs.] That's what's happening; isn't it funny? It's all happening: millions of them, one after the other! Who would have known that something we wrote about then would totally be coming true now?
AVC: So who did invent them?
AU: The same people who have always invented them: the messed-up music industry, the sick corporations, people that just have no clue about music, or interest in anything but making a product. They say what a woman must be. There has to be space for men and women like us. And if there isn't, then it becomes off-balance and one-sided, where you only see the product—these lifestyles made into product—instead of something more real. You should leave a little more space for women like us.
AVC: You left home for Borneo and Belize back in the '80s after The Slits ended, reportedly because you were fed up with yuppies and their music. How do you feel about returning to the music scene now, especially with that kind of outsider perspective?
AU: The 1980s were such a shock for me. I was really young, obviously, and The Slits were just mutilated. We were totally sabotaged to such a point that we were put out in exile. So that was the best way for me to spend the '80s: in the jungle, naked. Maybe there are more options now, and there's more girl groups. The only thing good that came out of the '80s was breakdancing. Music didn't really hit me again until the '90s, when the dancehall scene got going. The '90s were perfect for me. I would have really liked to have had The Slits out in the '90s again, to do tours and albums, because I think the '90s was a brilliant decade for music.
AVC: So what stopped you?
AU: We were born ahead of our time. Don't forget that the riot-grrl scene had a lot to do with making The Slits a legend, and that didn't happen until the early '90s. We couldn't get together before then, because the legend hadn't been built yet. In the 2000s, we've become bigger than life in that way. It's become really important for The Slits to be here now, but idealistically, we should have done it in the '90s.
AVC: A lot of people would argue the other way around, that The Slits and other female punk bands had a lot to do with forming the riot-grrl movement. Do you agree?
AU: I think we helped, but I don't think we're totally responsible. But you know, all the bands said it, that we did. Even Courtney Love said that. Anyway, Courtney called her band Hole, get it? Slits? Hole? So it's pretty clear we were an influence on all of them, but I'm not really sure how far it goes. I was on a different planet at the time.