Barrington Levy interview
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On April 30, 1964 Barrington Ainsworth Levy was born in Clarendon, Jamaica. Here’s a throwback interview to celebrate the reggae dancehall icon’s earthday.
In the late summer/early autumn of 1979, Barrington Levy, with the help of his producer Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes, and Jah Life, reshaped reggae music to how it is known today.
This kind of fundamental change occurs in the music every five years or so. What took everyone by surprise with this change was its speed. Other eras had been slow stop/start processes. For example, Channel One’s domination of the rockers sound took at least a good year to get going, and, during that time, the music could have gone in any number of directions.
So, what caused the music to change so quickly? The only possible answer can be Barrington Levy. If Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes had voiced anyone else over those Roots Radics rhythms, at that time, it is unlikely that the effect would have been the same.
“THE DANCE HALL STYLE ORIGINATOR”
Barrington gave those rhythms an edge. He was young, only 17 at the time of release of the albums, and seemed to have elements of different vocal styles without having a direct influence. In other words, he was original. That originality also came out in his lyrics. He had an interest in all aspects of life. From the cultural implications of “A Ya We Deh” to the more basic observations of the “Shine Eye Gal”. Lyrically, he was never content with just simple explanations. If he made a statement about anything, he would usually back it up with a certain amount of detail.
When he did do over a song, he also picked material that was very close to his own. So many young singers end up singing the classics. Instead of that we find a selection, that although still classic, were not over cut. Songs like “Moonlight Lover” and “Skylarking”. And even they were recreated into something new using ‘The Style’, which although he didn’t invent, he must be credited with being the first to bring it forward in a format that won massive popularity.
You started in a duo?
Heckle and Jeckle, that was like a joke ting, a name picked by Barry Biggs. We didn’t pick that name for ourselves.
And who was in this duo with you?
Me and my cousin, Everton Dacres.
Did you ever record?
Yeah we did two songs, as The Mighty Multitudes, “My Black Girl” and “A Long Long Time”, just two songs and then the group split up.
And that was for Dynamics?
Yeah, the first one was for Dobby Dobson. Dobby Dobson was living in America, so we couldn’t tag along with him. It was just a one-off thing.
When did you record those tunes 75/76?
Yeah, about then.
Tell me about the Mighty Multitudes?
There’s not much to tell. We just did two songs.
You recorded for Sonia Pottinger?
No, Dynamic Sounds, and Dobby Dobson, that song has never been released in England or Jamaica, just America.
How did you meet up with Junjo?
After the group split up, we started to go to studios. We went to Joe Gibbs for around six months, just keep going and going. Then I decided to start sing at dances and clubs and things like that. That’s how it started.
So you actually sung on Sound Systems, before you met Junjo?
Before I met Junjo, yes. Junjo hear me on a sound and said to come and call him.
What sound was you on then?
I was on loads of sounds, but the sound that I started on was Burning Spear, but in them times I was on every sound. I was working, and people started to hear about me on cassette. And then Junjo come over, and said “You think you can be a big star” and he come up with some rhythm tracks, and we do “A Yah We Deh”, and after that we do “Collie Weed’. That was the big one, it mash up the place. It was then that we made the album “Bounty Hunter”.
You had released at the time two albums “Bounty Hunter” and “Shine Eye Gal”…
It was the same album, but a different title.
How about the connection between Jah Life and Junjo, who are both credited as producers on the album?
I was just working for Junjo, but Junjo do a deal with Jah Life, for America. And then do a different deal for over here in England.
How do you feel about the “Bounty Hunter” album now, because with that you started the Dance Hall Style and all the fuss it has caused since then?
Well the people who are doing Dance Hall Style now, they don’t want to give no credit. They are biased.
So you would say the music has been fought down?
No, I would say they have tried to copy the pattern. Which for me, I think that’s good, because at least I’m doing something good, for them to follow. I think they have followed me, more than I have followed them. I have to create things you know. The Dance Hall Style was going before I was born. It is an international music. Take for instance “Here I Come” is a dance hall music. And “Here I Come” crossover. So dance hall music is nothing that should be looked down on. The lyrics now, they should be looked down on. The DJ’s what they are calling Dance Hall is not Dance Hall, it’s slackness.
That’s a different thing.
Oh, but they can change that. If they got together, and write some sensible lyrics, riding the rhythm on the same melody, they would be safe…
What gave you the inspiration to bring in R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me”?
Well that song was right for the style of the song. We are talking about pushing the dance hall vibes all over the world, and it fits. [Barrington starts to sing it] I did like the song from when I was little anyway.
It really is what the Dance Hall Style is all about, taking one thing, mixing it up with something else and creating something new. You have worked with a lot of producers, how did you get on with Junjo?
Junjo was alright, but I enjoy working with Paul Love (aka Jah Screw). He look on it as a career, and not as a hustling you know. Junjo was a different person when it come to that. He was more interested in how much money he could make, rather than what he was going to use to make the money.
Junjo seemed like more of a vibes producer. How about other producers, you did a lot of work with Linval Thompson.
Yeah, Linval is alright.
How about your own label B L Sounds. Your first own production for it was “Deep In The Dark”, which got a very good response, was that an original tune?
It was a cover, but no one seems to know that song.
Most of the reggae fans know your cut. They don’t know where it come from before. [Barrington laughs] Why didn’t you follow it up?
Well you see I can’t keep up with it, to press and distribute and also write song, it’s too much.
How’s your brother?
Michael, he’s alright.
Is he still in the business?
Yeah, yeah he’s still in. He’s in Jamaica at the moment taking care of some things for me. He’s supposed to being going to Canada. He’s got a song out called… You know the “Spanish Harlem” song? He’s changed the lyrics to that.
Is it released on Lipstick
No, it’s on Jah Life.
When did you set up the Lipstick label then?
I’m going to introduce Lipstick to England soon. Well say I’m going to introduce London. I’m going to put out some songs, not just mine other people’s music. Cutty Ranks, Michael, and that’s about it. Like I said I don’t have the time to sit down and produce records with people, when I’m busy with my own career.
Tell me how you come to write certain songs. Like ‘One Foot Jo Jo’, because that was an amazing song?
That song was about a man, with one foot called Jo Jo. He was my friend, Sammy Dread’s father. He never want to do nothing when he come in from work, he was a one foot man, but he works. He would come home with his money, and go to the bar and get drunk. And when he come home he would just chase out everybody out of the house. Joe Joe died now, about five months now.
How about “A Yah We Deh” that was an interesting song.
What it means is that here we are, giving thanks and praise, praying to god. The things that you do, the father is watching you, everything you say he’s hearing you. What the song is saying, is that just live up right. That is what “A Yah We Deh” means.
All your songs have little stories within them. “Here I Come” is a great example of that.
“Here I Come” is a reality song. It is all about what these young girls are thinking. They want to have fun, they want to have boyfriend, but when they get pregnant, they don’t want no kids to tie them down. They want to have fun. They want to live life to the fullness. Until they get older and they are thinking of settling down. I make that song from a girl.
So it’s based on a personel experience?
It’s a real thing. After she had the baby, she find out that she can’t do what she used to do. She had to start to think about her kid, and she can’t leave her kid to go raving. She didn’t have no babysitter, so she started to get mad. And I take the baby to him and leave the baby at the baby’s father’s mum’s house. Then one day, me and him was walking, he buck up upon her and he said to her “Why don’t you go home and look after our baby?” She said “Yeah, I must go home and look after baby, while you go out and have fun. I’m still young.” And that is how the idea came to me, and I make the song from that.
It is a great song with a lot of attention to details, like the lyrics about the lift.
If the lift doesn’t work, run up the stairs and come. Like she called me up and said, “Well the baby is here now, you must come and see your son.” So I grab some rose and started to run.
And yet in “Here I Come” there is another song within a song, the bit about describing Volcano.
When you come to Volcano it’s like a stage show, you have man that sing, deejay and blow. It was the only sound you had hornsman blowing in a dance. Junjo originate hornsman blowing in a dance, on live rhythm. It mashed up the place.
The big hit before that was “Under Mi Sensi” which was also recorded for Jah Screw and Time Records.
That one has a story behind it as well. “Under Mi Sensi”. There is this sound, Junjo’s sound, Volcano. It was one of the top sound in Jamaica, and when it played out the police always came and tell it to turn off. And they always pick on the dreads. They said the dread always have the weed. And one of them “A you where you come from, A dread where you a come from.” So me take off me dread hat, so me observe and me observe and then I say – “Hey natty dreadlocks where you come from, you must have two stick of sensi, under your tam, I said no officer, you must be mad, I only smoke cigarette… but I put in the shag as well, so it was I only smoke cigarette and strictly shag.” Basically all them stories are what happened in real life.
Then there was “Money Move” for George Phang’s Powerhouse label, what inspired that?
A that in Jamaica, when I make “Money Move” everybody was coming out with “Shoulder Move”, “Body Move”, this move and that move. So I said everybody is making moves, I hope they make the right move, and make the money move. At the time we did need money. Kids have to go to school, lights have to pay. So I come with “Money Move” and it was a hit.
More recent success has come from doing over a couple of Bob Andy tunes “Too Experienced” and “My Time”. What made you want to recut those tunes?
It come to a test, or should I say it come to a stage, where people were into these foreign artist songs. And the reggae that was coming from Jamaica was just foreign artist songs. And I was sitting down and thinking that I like that song. and well, why not do it, and make some money for the older artists. If you do over a song from someone who’s got a couple of million in the bank, it doesn’t make sense. Help out the reggae industry, because we do need new equipment and new studios. We need proper promotion, we need more money in it, but you see Sanchez and most of those guys, they are doing over foreign artist, and they don’t need the money they are safe. And at the same time, there are many older artists, they don’t have no money. And yet they have kids to send to school, and family to look after. So I did it to help me and to help them as well, and then at least they can get something from the publishing. Bob Andy is quite happy for me to do over his song, I see him the other day and we was talking, and he said “It was nice man, lovely”. And since I did that, everyone has gone over his tunes, and other old artists.
Are you planning to do any more old reggae tunes?
Yeah, I see Alton Ellis is the other day, and he was saying to me “Yeah man, go ahead do some songs”. John Holt said, “Yeah go ahead”. “Too Experienced” went 13 weeks at Number 1 in America, 13 weeks. And “My Time” went 9 weeks at Number 1. This latest song with Cutty Ranks. “Dance Hall Rock” is at Number 2. While it’s Number 1 here.
It’s a very good tune. It seems whenever you go away, you always come back even stronger.
That’s why I call the album “Divine”. Its a mix of my material and other people’s material, I’m quite happy with it.
The album looks like it was really worked on. There are credits for a number of studios, in Jamaica and London.
Most of the good reggae artists now like, I won’t call no name, they are drifting. They are just doing the poppy, reggae thing. And most of the heartical reggae artists are switching, changing. Someone has to defend the music. Someone was asking me, I was doing an interview — “Who is going to be the next Bob Marley?” But there will never be a next Bob Marley, Bob Marley is Bob Marley. Someone’s got to push the music, but it’s got to be pushed in a different direction to Bob. If anyone is trying to be the next Bob Marley, they are stupid. What are they going to do grow dreads, and… that’s crap. You don’t have to be dread to push the music, just do the right thing, and do it properly.
(Originally published in the Small Axe Files #11, 1992.)