Dennis Brown: The Prophet Rides Again! (The Interview)
In January 1983, Dennis Brown returned from a three week journey through “The Promised Land”, Ethiopia, where he spent time touring the country and entertaining the people. He visited Shashamane, the land given by Haile Selassie to the Rastafarians, made many friends and resolved to return. Fans say that since that trip Dennis has never sang better or written better lyrics. His latest A&M LP, “The Prophet Rides Again”, contains songs deeply influenced by what he saw in Africa and learned there. And he has emerged, on record and on stage, with renewed strength and vitality.
“DENNIS BROWN: THE PROPHET RIDES AGAIN! (THE INTERVIEW)”
Dennis Brown is already established as one of reggae’s top vocalists, the author and singer of so many top hits and LPs. At age 27, he’s been in the business for 18 years. He began performing at age 9 and his first release came out when he was only 13. Over the years that followed, Dennis has worked with a variety of producers and labels, gradually gaining recognition. Now, on his third LP for A&M, Dennis Brown is still working hard on his music and increasing his popularity all the time.
You were singing professionally at the age of nine. How did you get started?
Well, there used to be this band called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. They used to have alot of shows around the country in Jamaica. Used to have this wine called Tantone Tonic Wine, like they used to sponsor the shows and I used to be a part of that. It wasn’t really hard work as such because I enjoy what I was doing.
For years, Byron Lee, a popular band leader, toured the island playing traditional calypsos for a middle class and often tourist audiences at resorts and nightclubs. His records were all good sellers and his influence was great enough that he was selected to represent Jamaica’s music at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Byron Lee shared the stage with the young Dennis at the “Smashville ’68” concert in National Arena, where the band leader was first struck by the talent of the youthful singer.
How did you and Byron Lee get together?
I used to be part of a group called The Fabulous Falcons. Well, I tell you how it really get started: There used to be this club, a youth club in Jamaica – Seaga used to affiliated with this club – so they were having a conference at the arena. Each year when they have these conference, they have an entertainment segment. It so happen that in this particular year I happen to be on that show. When they encore me they was stoning me with money. That’s how I bought my first suit.
Your father was involved with entertainment as an actor and scriptwriter. Did your parents encourage you in this field?
You know wat Mom and Dad are like – They’re always encouraging you to go back to school and take up some profession. But I was too much inclined musically that nothing else interested me.
Did you have any musical training?
No, it was just an inborn thing.
What was your first record and how did it come about?
Well, it was with The Fabulous Falcons one night working at a club called Tit For Tat. Coxsone Dodd, Downbeat, he was passing through this Saturday night. He knew the managers of the club, so he set something up so we could go to Downbeat and record. That time he had the Chosen Few. So, we went down Monday. We didn’t bother to go through anything like somebody listening before. We just went straight in. That record wasn’t with the Falcons. It had Leroy Sibbles on bass, you had Carlton Manning – Carlton and The Shoes – playing rhythm guitar, Horsemouth was playing drums. We did a song called “Love Grows”. We did a few tunes like “Are You Gonna Break Your Promise” and another Delfonics tune “No Man Is An Island” and that was the first one released. “Love Grows” was released later on an LP.
What did you and Coxsone part?
Simple. I thought I wasn’t getting the exposure I needed. So I said maybe it would be better for me to go off and freelance. During that time I worked for people like Prince Buster, Randy’s, Derrick Harriott, Winston Holness, Lloyd Matador – “Things In Life”, Herman Chin-Loy – “It’s Too Late”…
This freelance period was an especially creative one for Dennis. Perhaps his best remembered, from this time, for his string of hits with Winston Holness, “The Observer”, which includes classics like “Cassandra”, “West Bound Train” and “No More Will I Roam”. Several compilation LPs of these tracks exist like “Deep Down Dennis Brown” on Micron and “West Bound Train” on Third World and a brand new release of older tracks. Although still a youth, Dennis was a superstar in Jamaica.
You were still quite young then. Wasn’t it hard to deal with producers at that age?
I was about 15, 16. You see, what happen then, true we didn’t have much knowledge about the business, what we do is like, charge a producer X amount of money, whether the song sell or not.
Didn’t all the touring and recording interfere with your schoolwork?
Well, funny enough, I manage to cope with the schoolwork, cause at the time, while we were having shows around at the clubs and all, I still managed to come first in my class when it was exam time.
Were the other children in school impressed by your career?
Yea Man! And I have alot of friends and I always had girls following me asking me to sing certain songs.
The song “Money In My Pocket” was originally recorded by Joe Gibbs in 1972. Released locally, it sold very well and became a hit. Then, in 1979, Joe Gibbs re-released the song with a different bassline and other changes. This time around, as well as topping local charts a second time, the song cracked the British charts and, from there, spread across the whole of Europe. This one song became such a giant seller that Dennis was invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The subsequent live LP of this performance did not sell well but gave Dennis international exposure.
Your real boost came with the song “Money In My Pocket” which you recorded for Joe Gibbs. How did you and he get together?
Well, it was while working with Niney (Winston Holness). Niney was working with Joe Gibbs (as a resident producer). We had a song called “West Bound Train” that was tearing down the place. That was around ’73, ’74. After we did that song, Joe Gibbs wanted me to do an album for him but I used to stay away from him cause at the time I thought the guy wasn’t a nice guy. Well. we managed to work together and work out a deal and then he bought an album for $2,000 Jamaican (“The Best Of Dennis Brown”).
Who did the production on “Money”?
It was Errol Thompson, cause Errol Thompson and Joe Gibbs have been together from way back. Errol is really the man – Joe Gibbs, he knows a little about the board cause he’s into electronics. But he’s not really the man behind the music. He’s more the financer.
You must have realized that you could get a better deal elsewhere but you stuck to Joe Gibbs.
Yea, cause there are times we could have worked out a better deal but each time we work together it’s always hits. So I didn’t want to rush off and work with another producer. But there came a time when he and I had some dispute so I would cool him off for a while.
You began working closely with Sly and Robbie. How did that relationship get started?
Sly and Robbie were getting their Taxi label together so we decided to jam and see what we come up with. And the first thing we come up with was “Sitting And Watching”.
So that song was really the result of an accident?
I was only passing through the studio one Sunday and I was dropping off a friend of mine and I went in and I saw Sly and Robbie working and I said, “I have this little thing here”. I find a vibe offa it and I start singing. We just went straight in and recorded it – one take.
You’ve continued to work with Sly and Robbie. How are they to work with?
We, as musicians, are like family and working together, we have good vibes. After we did “Sitting And Watching” we did “Have You Ever Been In Love”, then “Hold On To What You Got” and then “Revolution”.
What producer would you liked working with best?
You have quite a few people I like working with, like Niney, Clive Hunt, Willie Lindo. You see, I don’t just love to stick to any one particular thing but keep moving and changing producers or musicians to create a brand new sound. Cause you don’t want the new record to sound like the last one.
You also do some producing yourself.
It’s something I just try. Cause I never know about producing as such. But being in the business and being around producers I thought I would try to do the same thing for myself without any help.
When you start your D.E.B. label?
That was in 1977. That started in England, recording the tracks in Jamaica and releasing them in England.
What was the first release on that label?
“Life’s Worth Living”. Then, “Lately Girl”. We also had a group called 15, 16, 17 and we had a group called You and Me and we had some Gregory Isaacs stuff. We had almost everybody – Tamlins, Junior Delgado, Errol Dunkley.
Is that label still in operation?
No that label is no more. We are concentrating on another label, Yvonne Special.
Warner Brothers was the first major label to become interested in Dennis Brown. Through Lazer, a division of Warner Brothers in England, several LPs were licensed from Joe Gibbs. In England they were issued on Lazer while in Jamaica they came out on Joe Gibbs. Under this arrangement fell “Words Of Wisdom”, Visions Of Dennis Brown”, “Joseph’s Coat Of Many Colours”, and the live Montreux album. The Lazer release of “Spellbound” was followed by the A&M release of “Foul Play”, signifying his switch to A&M. The same arrangement was instituted where A&M released his LPs in America and England while Joe Gibbs still produced them and handled them on his label in Jamaica. Since “Foul Play”, Dennis has also released two more LPs with A&M, “Love Has Found Its Way” and the new “The Prophet Rides Again”.
How did you get hooked up with Warner Brothers?
That was just a one off. They were just distributing. I wasn’t signed to Warner Brothers. This was coming through a guy called Allan Davidson who has a label called Lazer. He used to have a label called Lightening.
What about A&M?
This comes through Joe Gibbs again. Cause Joe Gibbs started doing business in Miami and he met a guy who said he could get us a deal from a record company. So he and Joe Gibbs chat and worked out things. I went in the studio and completed a few songs and take the album to the record company.
How did your LPs for A& M compare to the ones you did before joining a major label?
More commercial. Joe Gibbs thought he knew the market, but A&M wanted to get me extra commercial. Like the new one is deep roots on one side and the other side is more commercial. I didn’t know how the public will accept this album.
You still do albums for other producers. For example, you just did “Satisfaction Feeling” for Tad’s.
Tad’s is a brethren I have known for a long time. I used to give him my personal productions for distribution and you find that he knows the minority market. That market is there so why not take it?
Several songs he released with you last year were big hits.
Yea “If This World Was Mine”, “Easy Take It Easy”, “I Like It Like That”.
Yvonne Special – Does that label belong to you or your wife?
It’s her’s really but I administrate it. I set up the music. We distribute it ourselves independently. That’s why we work with Tad’s so much. Right now we are just building up our catalogue.
How many releases do you have on Yvonne Special?
Right now we have alot of discos. the LP “Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow” was on Joe Gibbs but it was supposed to be on that label. You have, “More Dennis Brown”, you have “Stage Coach Showcase”, you have “Wolf & Leopards”. They are supposed to be on Yvonne Special.
You mean you are trying to get the rights for those albums back from Joe Gibbs?
Do you plan to produce other artists on Yvonne Special?
Yes, cause that is what make a label.
Have you felt pressure from all the talk of you as the successor to Bob Marley, as the next “King Of Reggae”?
Yea I felt the pressure. But talk is cheap.
Since your trip to Ethiopia, fans are saying you sound better than ever before.
I wonder why… I wonder why…
(This interview was originally published in Reggae Quarterly Vol. 1 No. 4. The PDF of the Magazine can be viewed or downloaded HERE.)