Interview with Reggae photographer and author Beth Lesser

by Dec 8, 2019Articles, Interview

Beth Lesser

“REGGAE QUARTERLY & BEYOND”

When: 2009
Where: Toronto ON (by phone)
Reporter: Ray Hurford
Photos: Beth Lesser
Copyright:  2009 – Ray Hurford

Beth Lesser is a Reggae photographer and author from Toronto, Canada, who followed the birth and rise of the Jamaican dancehall movement in the ’80s as she and Dave Kingston regularly visited Kingston, Jamaica. She published a book on King Jammy’s and then “Dancehall – the story of Jamaican dancehall culture”, which is full of many beautiful photos. Furthermore she has written a biography of the legendary singer Sugar Minott called “The legend of Sugar Minott & Youth Promotion”.

“REGGAE QUARTERLY & BEYOND”

When did you first become interested in Reggae?
Oooh, some time in the ’70s. I think the first people who introduced me to reggae were a band called Limbo Springs in Toronto, and they actually used to play a lot of reggae, along with their rock stuff. But what was interesting was, and this is where the Reggae part came in, Ernie Smith had just come to Toronto with Babsy Grange. She was managing him at the time I guess, because of the government that was in power. They came to Toronto and when they first came up they didn’t know people, they had no one to play with and I guess they heard this band was playing some reggae and they used to show up and Ernie used to jam with them sometimes, so that was where I first saw and heard a real reggae performer live.

And what year was that Beth?
Good question…it was probably 1977, that’s my best guess and from there when Ernie Smith had his own band and stuff, I would go and see them and that was kind of my introduction to it.

Can you give us an insight into the reggae scene in Toronto in the early 1980s.
It was very big in the early 80s, a lot bigger than it is now. You know it’s such a short flight between Kingston and Toronto, it’s not even 4 hours and there were cheap flights then, people were back and forth all the time. I can’t tell you how many people we even talked to (like) Bunny Lee for example, “Oh, I’ve got a wife up in Canada with a couple of kids”, Merlene Webber of the Webber sisters was his wife in Canada and he had a couple of kids up there. People were just back and forth all the time so it was quite a big scene.

On the dancehall side of things it was like New York in that sense, you had the Sunshine label, Jerry Brown didn’t you? You also had Oswald Creary with the Half Moon label, but I didn’t know it as Half Moon then.
Half Moon, I can’t remember either, but I remember Jerry Brown quite well.

King Culture (1982)

King Culture (1982)

On the dancehall side of things it was like New York in that sense, you had the Sunshine label, Jerry Brown didn’t you? You also had Oswald Creary with the Half Moon label, but I didn’t know it as Half Moon then.
Half Moon, I can’t remember either, but I remember Jerry Brown quite well.

Then you had King Culture didn’t you?
Yes, there were quite a few producers doing music as it got on later, there was Bunny Gemini and then there was that guy Preacher who did some Earl 16 productions. There were tons of people.

Who put out the releases from George Phang?
Darcell and some people, there was a store called Jam Can, Jam Can Label that was Darcell (Darcell Grant), I don’t remember what their connection was to Phang, but they were the connection and that’s why Phang started putting out his stuff up here, like right away, some of his early stuff.

There’s some Echo Minott stuff that came out quite early on.
Yeah, and Thriller and other people who I can’t remember now, but yeah some of that early stuff they put out here right away and that’s why he was up here before he travelled to other places because there was such a back and forth.

You also had people like Willi (Williams), Johnny Osbourne and Jackie Mittoo?
A huge number of people. I mean Stranger Cole and Ronny Bop had been here for so long. There was an unbelievable amount of people here. I mean even for the really old days like old Pluggy Satchmo and all those people, there was a huge scene here, Owen Gray, there’s quite a history here.

In 1982, you launched the highly acclaimed Reggae Quarterly magazine, how did this come about? Well (before that) you’ve got to first talk about Live Good Today, haven’t you?
Yeah, yeah, you already know that, yes.

That was a Pablo thing?
We were in touch with (Augustus) Pablo. We got to know him because we knew a gentleman by the name of Daniel Calderon. It was Cheer magazine, a tip sheet like a DJ pool. He was a bit like a go between, he would push the records a bit. He would get the local records when they came out, and he would give a copy to each person in his DJ pool and they would come pick them up every week. He was the one who actually got us in touch with Micko McKenzie, who was one of Pablo’s best friends and worked with him. Micko’s wife was in Toronto and he would go back and forth, so when he was in Toronto we met him, that was how we got connected so when we went to Jamaica we could meet Pablo and start doing Live Good Today. The title of course we got from the song by Prince Jazzbo, I think it’s on the Ital Corner album, “Live Good Today”.

Augustus Pablo (1983)

Augustus Pablo (1983)

It’s a good title.
Jazzbo was always a big influence for us.

But that Live Good Today was exclusively Pablo. Didn’t you tell me once that Pablo encouraged you to expand it out?
Yes exactly. When we went down there and we met him he said, don’t just do me and my artists do a magazine with everyone and put us in. On the one hand that was a humble thing to say but on the other hand very practical because it would probably reach more people if it had a wider circulation… so we did that, then the first issue of Reggae Quarterly had a lot of Pablo’s people in it, but with other people too.

A classic edition and remains so to this day.
But what was interesting was that we had gone down to Jamaica looking for Pablo, and when we got there we found out that what was happening was Dancehall. It was just so obvious, we just didn’t hear about it in Toronto, but the minute you got out of the airplane and you were in Kingston, it was all dancehall, it was just dance cassettes, Jack Ruby and Bobby Culture, Jah Love and Briggy, that’s all people talked about, I mean Pablo was respected and popular, but not dancehall.

It’s one of those sort of shifts that you get.
You just didn’t know in Toronto as a white person. There was a huge dancehall scene in Toronto, but it’s not like Britain, there was no crossover whatsoever.

Can you tell us about the Reggae Quarterly, Reggae showcase radio show?
Well Reggae Showcase started in 1981/82 and went for 10 years and that was Dave (Kingston). It was shifted around in a timeslot, but the longest period of time was between 9-12 on Fridays, so whenever a promoter had a show coming up, they would always have the artist come down to the show to prove they were in town because there were so many rip offs. The artists would come to the show between 9 and 12 and go to their dance afterwards and the crowd would come because they knew they were in town. I was looking through some of the old tapes of the Reggae showcase shows and they’re all fun because he would have people doing things live.

That’s where I heard Screecha Nice before I even heard him on a sound system.
A really good one was the Youth Promotion, one where Dave didn’t even talk. Basically he just let them go straight through for 90 minutes DJing with Sugar and all those guys.

Screecha Nice (1985)

Screecha Nice (1985)

The Jack Ruby one is a good one as well if I remember rightly, when he had Jack on the show.
Yeah, there were some classics.

When did you first visit Jamaica?
1981? Yeah, must have been 1981 because then the magazine was out in 1982.

Can you relate some of your experiences there?
Hanging around Youth Promotion was always fun, cos they were just like a bunch of kids and they just wanted to play. Yami Bolo was a little kid then and he’d be climbing trees and there’d be all of Sugar’s kids around, and there‘d be these guys like Blacka T and Daddy Ants and everyone and they weren’t much older than kids themselves, well maybe Daddy Ants was a bit older, but Blacka T was probably still a teenager and they had nothing to do but hang around and have fun and talk and joke. Such bizarre things would happen, the police coming looking for ganja and taking people away and, you just remember these things, I think Blacka T was walking with this guy once, and he looked really sad and we said to Blacka T “Where are you going” and he said “This is my friend and he’s just killed his sister and I’m taking him down to the police station to confess.” You know, things would just happen out of nowhere, I can tell you that one time we were going up to King Jammy’s in a cab and the taxi driver, when we were just turning off of Bay Farm Road or something, got into an argument with another cab driver, or somebody in another car, you know just one of those driving arguments, and then our cab driver just reached down next to him and pulled out a gun and pointed it at the other guy and eventually, luckily, they settled the argument but he just put the gun back under this cloth under the seat and turned to us and said “Oh don’t worry, I’m an off duty police officer! It’s legal. Don’t worry.”

That’s one way to do a bit of moonlighting…
Yeah, OK, I won’t worry at all, I’m driving round with a crazy guy with a gun, I’m not going to worry.

What was the most memorable occasion… what sticks in your mind?
I guess getting married…

Junior Byles (1986)

Junior Byles (1986)

Can you tell us about the special day, Junior (Byles) was there, that must have made it pretty special, with his big branch, I remember you said to him, you can’t chop people’s gardens up or something like that.
(Note from Beth: We ran into Junior Byles when we went looking for Sugar’s mother’s pastor, “Bishop” Reid to marry us. He was taking flowers and plants out of someone’s yard – someone neither he nor us knew) Yeah, I said you can’t just go and tear up people’s gardens, and he said “I’m not tearing up people’s gardens, I’m chopping them up!”

Of all the dancehall sessions you attended, which one stood out for you?
Other than our wedding…? Each one was memorable in its own way and there were some amazing ones, you know it was really interesting on the one hand to be in something like. There was a dance with Sturmars that Skeng put on. Very intense, very cool, a real different atmosphere, and then there would be where Barry G playing with Wah Dat, you know, uptown and there were a million hordes of people swarming the street and him up on this thing in the middle of the swarm of people, so there would be so many different kinds of dances and atmospheres and then there’d be the normal cosy kind of Youth Promotion dance at Sugar’s house, and it was just friendly and relaxed.

Tubby wasn’t operating when you was down there was he?
No, but we had the extreme good fortune to see Augustus Pablo working in Tubby’s studio with Tubby mixing when we first went down to Jamaica. Pablo just stuffed us all in a cab and said we’re going up to Tubby’s.

Did you ever see Rockers Hi Fi play when you were in Jamaica?
No, we saw Gemini, Youth Promotion, Wah Dat, Sturmars, Sturgav etc… I can’t remember who else.

Tippatone, did you ever see them?
No…

Your first book was a great insight into the everyday running of the King Jammy sound system, how did the book come about. I could answer that one…
You do that one… you know more about that than I do, it just happened.

You wanted to make a contribution to the next Small Axe book, and you said, I’ve got something I can send on to you, the next thing I’m looking at a stack of photos about one inch high, god knows how many, and your original manuscript that was about half inch thick, and I thought how could I include that? The only way would be to cut it down and I wouldn’t dare cut it down! Then I called Colin Moore and said this has got to be a book, he agreed… and I started typing it all in. Tero (Kaski) just loved the idea of it cos it matched perfectly with the Junjo/Volcano book. You couldn’t get two more insightful books, I could never thank you enough for sending that on. I know Tero and anyone who ever saw it was impressed. Can you tell us about some of the artists/characters who were around at the time, do you remember when you were telling me about Lloyd Hemmings, he was a bit like a teacher there wasn’t he?
Yeah, he was quite amazing because sometimes he was more lucid than other times but he was just amazingly creative and he was an artist and educated in music and to see him with some of the younger ones at Youth Promotion and he would just be using the wall and writing out with chalk like music notes and scales and trying to teach people, absolutely phenomenal.

Tiger (1987)

Tiger (1987)

I remember you said that cos you said he was like the next Junior Byles in a way, in the sense that kids could follow him around.
Yes, when he didn’t look like he was in the best shape, but he had such paranoia about him. Another character was Tiger, he would run around with his video camera videotaping everybody and everything cos he was so fascinated with gadgets and electronic stuff.

I remember that picture you’ve got, if it wasn’t cameras, it was keyboards and all sorts of weird looking things.
Oh yes, whenever he went on tour he would pick up all these weird electronic gadgets and in his house he had all videos of cartoons and comics and from his style you can just picture him watching cartoons, he was almost a cartoon character himself, it said so much about him that you would go to his house and see these racks and racks of cartoon videos.

Do you think he picked up on Screecha Nice’s style or was it something of his own?
It’s possible, cos that style was just there cos Screecha spent so much time at Jammy’s.

I’d never heard it till Screecha popped up.
Yes that style was unique. Although there was this song by this man called Wild Man Jackson (could be Carey “Wildman” Johnson – WCTD). (Beth’s note : the song is “Keep On Knocking”) like a ’70s DJ who I know nothing about, who really has a tone of voice a lot like Screecha.)

How did the people around Kingston take to someone coming in and photographing them and documenting their everyday life, did you ever feel intimidated?
Not really, most of the time, when you go around places like Youth Promotion or Jammy’s, artists are hanging around waiting for their turn to voice, they’ve got nothing to do and somebody comes round with a camera, what could possibly be more fun than posing for pictures? There’s nothing else to do when you’re bored, sitting around in the hot sun waiting. It was like, take a picture of me with this car, or this person, it was fun and I always brought the pictures back. As soon as I took the negatives back to Toronto I had the photo place make doubles of everything, then I would separate them into little packages and when I went back to Jamaica I’d hand them out to people. If they knew me they knew they’d get a copy. It was fun, cos you got to see their reaction when they saw the photos and they would just be laughing, it was so much fun to watch their reactions.

That makes sense, Pablo said that Dave and Beth are loved in Jamaica, and I said that makes sense… Do you still remain in contact with any of the sound systems to this day?
Some, yes, a few… It’s just too complicated to be in touch with everybody, but I’ve been in touch with Stitch lately cos as you know he needed some money for some medical tests. I was talking to WCTD (Who Cork The Dance) about raising some money for the tests. We got a great response from people and a lot of them donated money. He has one more test according to him, he’s facing possible colon cancer, that’s why he needs one more colonoscopy, they’ll then know whether they need to operate or not. It got mixed up, I thought it was a heart problem at first because he needed iron tablets because he was short of breath and having problems and that confused me with the blood question, it turned out he’s deficient with iron because he’s bleeding internally and that’s why they’re looking for colon cancer, so I’ve been in touch with him. I’m also still in touch with Jazzbo, because he’s a friend of ours, we’ve been in touch with U-Brown.

Trevor Castell (1984)

Trevor Castell (1984)

Briggy?
No, not much, but it’s interesting though I’ve spoken to him now and then. When I’ve spoken to him, he has always been very sweet and responsive and very open, and I think we have a good relationship with him but it’s just not close like it is with Jazzbo.

A final question, your most recent book… “Dancehall, The Rise Of Jamaican Dancehall Culture” comes highly recommended.
I find when I go on the internet there are inaccuracies and I think if they are left to develop over time, people get a really false idea of what went on, like Trevor Castell was always called Trevor Junior and he’s not Trevor Junior. Confusions like that.

Is that Lacksley’s brother?
Yes, hence his idea I was referring him to you for, he wants you to write a book about him and his brother, he’s a nice guy… I also noticed with the internet there’s a skewing of history because you get more focus on people who have internet capacity or internet friendly. So you find that the people who are going to be remembered are the people who have Myspace or something where somebody else was more important, but they’re sitting in Jamaica and don’t have any royalties and don’t have a computer…

Or they’re dead.
Or they’re dead, yes, or like I was talking to Barnabas the other day, now Barnabas did everything, he had a huge impact on the music, he was a deejay, engineer, a drummer, and god knows what else, He did producing in all these groups and he’s not on the internet, nobody is going to remember anything about him

I don’t think we ever tracked down his album, Ranking Barnabas, and that’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about.
Meanwhile, some guy you know that was nobody and had no impact on anything, has his big beautiful webspace and Myspace and everything, and people think he must be a rich and famous artist, so I was really trying to get more balance in things by writing the book, hopefully. The book wasn’t about facts as much as it was about balance, like who really was important at the time, for example artists like Bobby Culture. In 1982 Bobby Culture was huge, almost bigger than Briggy. Nowadays you’d never know. The book is about trying to show people how it really was at the time.