Interview with Ranking Joe
When Ranking Joe and Jah Screw arrived in the UK in August 1980 with Ray Symbolic’s sound system, DJ music was not that popular. A bad run of average DJ tunes albums and singles had left the reggae music follower indifferent to the man who must nice up the dance. It was to be the lull before the storm. Within a matter of months the DJ’s of Jamaica had come back, not only to liven up the DJ scene, but the whole of Reggae music.
This event had been predicted by Dennis Alcapone, who was in at the first DJ storm in the late sixties and early seventies. It seems that whenever the singer has nothing to sing about, the DJ has something to say… Operation Nice Up The Dance… Ranking Joe.
“FORWARD AT THE DANCE”
When were you first interested in sound systems and DJ’s?
It was from early age, when I was small from ten years old, going to school. Listening to U Roy, Dennis Alcapone and I Roy you know. Like the Father give I a talent. Start follow sound system, and listen to them man. And buy record. It start from an early age, start play sound system like El Paso. The sound system that Dennis Alcapone used to play, before him left to come England. Play a lot of sound system. Then I buck up on Ray Symbolic, where I met Jah Screw.
In the early days what sound did you follow?
Smit The Weapon and El Paso. Then I made my first record in 1974 for Studio One – ‘Gun Court’
What rhythm was that?
‘Love Me Girl’ (note: it’s the ‘Mean Girl’ rhythm).
Did you approach Coxsone or did Coxsone approach you?
I approach Coxsone. In the early days you have to approach the producer. They don’t know what your talent is like. You have to go there and wait for him. And more time it’s ‘come back tomorrow’ and then the next day. And then you go through and get a chance.
How old was you when you made ‘Gun Court’ in 1974?
Was your tune based on the general theme of the other ‘Gun Court’ records by people like Derrick Morgan etc?
How successful was it Joe?
It was a big thing for me, as a first start. From that I gain some recognition. Other producers start to check me. Like Enos McCleod who I did ‘Z For The Dread’. And start work with Micron Records do a tune name ‘750’ and do tune for Watty Burnett named ‘Psalm 54’. And start to deal with Joe Gibbs.
Was it with Joe Gibbs that your first album…
No it was with T.R. – Prince Tony – ‘Best Of Ranking Joe’ and a hit single ‘Mr Finnegan’. After that I do a hit single for the Mighty Diamonds ‘BMW’. Natty drive him BMW park it, and don’t trouble you. And then I do ‘Babylon Bridge’ with Culture for Joe Gibbs, and ‘Leave Fe Girl Arleen’ and an LP for Joe Gibbs – ‘Natty Superstar’ released in Miami.
So the album for Prince Tony only got released in Jamaica?
Yeah in JA.
Then you worked for Joe Gibbs?
And one or two small producers.
And the Greensleeves album?
‘Weakheart Fadeaway’… that was Channel One.
What soundsystems was you working with during this time?
Ray Symbolic – from the Prince Tony album.
Was Jah Screw with you?
Yeah, Screw was working with Ray Symbolic before me. When I met Ray Symbolic, I meet Screw also. We start work and people like the combination between me and Screw. He play good records and I go along so. So we stick together. Then we leave Ray Symbolic. We have some argument and leave and go Stur-Gav. Then we build up Stur-Gav with U Roy, make it the No1 sound like Ray Symbolic… and we have some argument and Ray Symbolic beg for us to go back. Then we came to mash up the town over here.
That was a great success.
Yes that was the first JA sound to come to the UK. And at the same time I do an LP for Dennis Brown called ‘Round The World’ released by Ital Records.
Before that in 1978 you had another hit with a version of Gregory Isaacs ‘Soon Forward’ – ‘Stop Your Coming And Come’ for Sly & Robbie. The end of the Ray Symbolic tour of the UK was tragic. What happened Joe?
Ray went to New York, and we was over with the sound. Then he went to Jamaica, and that’s where he got killed.
There were rumours in this country that it could have politics. Or was it just a car crash?
It was a car crash.
So what happened to the sound after that?
We take care of the sound, carry it back to Jamaica. We give it his brother. And him take over the sound, and change its name. People naw accept him, because him should have give us the sound. Seeing we go with the sound. So people don’t follow him, and the sound is like a flop. So there is no Ray Symbolic. That was the end of it. I still play sound in Jamaica, like Emperor, Taurus and Gemini. And I do my own production.
You have had quite a bit success, ‘The Tribute To John Lennon’, ‘The Disco Skate’ and ‘Dangerous Dub’. That was the first time Tubby worked the board for years, how did you manage that?
Scientist go to Channel One, and he have no one to do the work. So he have to do it, and he checked for and Jah Screw.
Did you ever produce an album, where you and Screw would be at the controls?
Yes, it will be released soon. We just done the work on it. It’s called ‘Atomic Dub’. It should come out on Copasetic label, but if it’s not on Copasetic it will be somewhere else. I have my new album out soon called ‘Armageddon’ – wild. You have a roots track, and tracks for children. So they can sing along. It’s not a slackness album.
Are you happy with Copasetic?
Everything looks good so far, right. In the future we hope it to be better still. I’m producing for myself and get them to distribute. In Ja, I’m not dealing with some people. But Channel One is a nice place. So everytime I produce a tune, I leave to distribute, you know.
He’s well set up Jo Jo?
Yeah, he have a place in New York.
Joe then expressed a preference for working with Channel One, Sly & Robbie and Studio One. And reports that Studio One has a new studio in New York. Joe and Screw’s productions began with the ‘African Ting’ single, then the ‘Shaolin Temple’ album on their own Sharpe Axe label. Released just before the tour of the UK with Ray Symbolic.
Everything been going good so far. Right now, I’m not doing any gigs. Just concentrating on doing some work. When the right time come I’ll do a portion a gigs. We are working on bringing over a next sound system. It will be the number one sound system in New York called Papa Moke Hifi. We captured the New York audience. All over New York. Boston, Manhattan, Jersey, Brooklyn, Bronx. I appeared on the television, and play on the radio live. It’s a big thing for me in New York right now.
Ray Symbolic Hi Fi with Ranking Joe – Bionic Club, 38 Hagley Park Road, Kingston 1977
Who have you produced recently Joe?
We have an LP with Earl Sixteen, supposed to be released by Prince Tony. We have done an LP with Tony Tuff, and LP with Barry Brown released by Tads. And a Ranking Joe showcase released by Tads. And we work with Triston Palmer and Hugh Griffiths. I had a number one tune here ‘Mr Walker’ by Hugh Griffiths. ‘Fussing and Fighting’ by Triston Palmer released over here by Art and Craft.’ I’ve also done an album with Hugh Griffiths, ‘Mr Walker’ released by Tads. In the future I’ll be working for myself, try to do the distribution for the Sharpe Axe label. I’m looking forward to producing a whole lot of different youth.”
Joe’s views on DJ’s are clear.
DJ is a thing the people should respect. Some producers don’t respect DJ. And DJ reviving back the whole music. Most of the time of the year, DJ outnumber the vocalist. DJ have to be creative… fast and quick thinking, you have to ride the rhythm. Ride it in keys, in tune. Not everyone can DJ. They say everyone can’t sing. DJ is a hardworking thing. Some people just DJ, just blah blah blah.
Are there any DJ’s you like, that are not known yet?
We’ll still have a lot of little DJ’s, who come up still. But some of them just imitate people’s lyrics. Someone’s always ready to follow you. Like when I was up here on tour. Ranger was following my footsteps. Ranger away now… Yellowman. But you see the whole of them respect me. I appreciate that still, when they talk good about me. The only DJ I naw like, is if they just come into the business and they try to fight against those who paved the way road already. Cause me never fight against Dennis Alcapone, nor U Roy, or I Roy, or Big Youth. I appreciate them and me still have them collection I play.
At the end of the interview, Joe expresses his desire for unity thus.
London and England is here for everyone to come and see for themselves, that it’s not paradise. Come and struggle and build up the foundation for everyone to live in love and unity. You know enough DJ to come up – Lee Van Cliff, Toyan, Yellowman and Fathead, U Brown and Ranking Trevor. Lets build a form of DJ Team.
Interview by Ray Hurford | Published in the “More Axe 4” book | Muzik Tree.