Sugar Minott – Original Godfather Of Dancehall
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Today, ten years ago, on July 10th, Lincoln Barrington Minott, popularly known as Sugar Minott, died at University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Here we pay tribute to the man who’s gone, but not forgotten!
Sugar who? That could have been a typical response from reggae fans around the beginning of 1978. Reggae music is like that. You can be enjoying the current sounds or waiting for something due, and out of nowhere an artist will just come along and change everything. Sugar didn’t do that. That honour went to Barrington Levy. And the reason for that is simple. The timing of Sugar’s debut album on Studio One — “Live Loving”, released in the UK by Peckings – was out by about a year. It wasn’t until the end of 1979 that people were into recutting old rhythms with new songs, or in the case of “Live Loving” re-voicing original rhythm tracks.
SUGAR MINOTT – THE ORIGINAL GODFATHER OF DANCEHALL
Now, with hindsight, you can say this was Coxsone at his best. Then it just sounded a bit strange. Studio One did not have the same fascination then as it does now for certain people. Yet apart from this, it is still a very good album. Old rhythms and melodies are taken by him and redefined. Sugar’s voice just seems to float in and out of these rhythms with such ease, that you start to wonder how hard it is to sing over such rhythms. Although really and truly when you come across this effect in any art form, you know you are experiencing something special. If someone knows what they’re doing, it should seem easy.
Sadly, the “Live Loving” album didn’t do a lot for Sugar. This is another common experience of Studio One artists. More often than not they have to have a hit with another producer, before they get a hit with Coxsone. The best explanation for this would be that Studio One with its highly defined style does not always fit in with current trends.
Lincoln Barrington Minott emerged towards the end of 1978, as one of JA’s gifted. His years at Studio One, with whom he made many tunes including “This Old Man”, “Vanity”, “Peace Treaty Style”, and the “Live Loving” album, provided him with the ability to make outstanding records like “Man Hungry” (Black Roots), one of his first tunes on Black Roots.
The same theme was pursued in a belated Studio One release, “Oh Mr D.C.”, which told a vivid story of a typical encounter between the Police (District Constable) and a small grower up from the country to sell his herb. “Hard Time Pressure” (Sufferers Heights) seems to put the whole situation in perspective with its unforgettable line, “Babylon ah put on the pressure, Hard Time Pressure.” Cultural awareness also figures in Sugar’s lyrics, and a better example couldn’t be found then “River Jordan” (Black Roots) although “Rome” (Black Roots) comes close. “Every Little Thing” (Mandingo) returned his thoughts to oppression, which continued on to “World Of Sorrow” (Lightning). Studio One then issued “Love And Understanding” featuring a new Studio One rhythm, which must rate as one of Sugar’s best.
A production from Mikey Dread, “Bright And Beautiful”, also did well. If any doubt of Sugar’s ability remained after such a steady stream of success, it must have been dispelled with “Lovers Rock” (Black Roots) recorded here in the UK. Lyrically, the record was soaked in emotion. The rhythm though was something else. It proved that, with care, UK reggae musicians could play up to the standards of JA musicians – something which certain UK players had always claimed, yet there was very little proof of it. All that was needed was care and attention to detail. And Sugar gave the record that.
Which brings us to Prince Jammy, his kingdom still many tape reels away. Jammy then was just looking for a sound, or a style. At the time, no one producer had a grip on the market, so Jammy with his new-found link with the Ballistic/Warrior label was very well placed to move into a good position.
The sound he came up with for the “Bitter Sweet” album was a very slow rockers sound supplied by Sly & Robbie, along with a lot of other talent, that had a production built around selected phasing. It was an interesting sound, but Lee Perry’s wilder use of the phaser had made it too familiar. You really do need a totally new sound to make major breakthroughs. Even so, it was a good sound that Jammy had produced. It had a style. On the singing/songwriting side, Sugar didn’t let him down at all. Every song on the album is well up to standard. With the better tracks being “Never Too Young”, “I’m Not For Sale” and the stunning “This World”. Jammy and Sugar worked very well together on the album, and it was a shame that it took so long for them to do so again.
Youth Promotion was the biggest step forward for artist control since Derrick Harriott decided to form his own record label back in the early ’60s. Youth Promotion stood along with Freedom Sounds, and Tapper Zukie’s Stars, set up as something that is positive in ending producer rip-off’s. All of them have had a great deal of success. It shows it can be done, and in a society where opposition means open warfare, not just a word in the ear of a pressing plant manager.
Then it was early days, but to become established doesn’t mean you become better. Only Studio One has survived intact from the early days. Although Youth Promotion is not as active as it was and Freedom Sounds is gone, their achievement still remains. It is possible to set up a record Co-Op that can act for the good of the community. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, apart from making money. To have more control when the money is made, and to use it positively for the good.
Sugar Minott in his bedroom studio – 1985 (Photo: Beth Lesser)
“I started singing when I was about 12, in an amateur talent festival, near where I live, Maxfield Park, in Kingston. Reached the final with two others, but didn’ t win, it gave I some encouragement to go on really. Stayed home from school and ting, I was just following up this music thing all the way, cause from when I was young, I used to make up sound box and.. . I use to always talk about music and dream of doing it. Admired people like Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown, Delroy Wilson, to youth them was our idol. So I met this brother named Tony Tuff and Derrick Howard and we formed the African Brothers. That was in 1972, but it was a struggle. The funds that came in were really meagre, and they had to be split three ways and it was small already. That’s why we decided to each try individually as solo artists.”
When did you make that decision?
“Well about 1974, we did a tune for Mr Dodd, and the group broke. And from then he (Coxsone) know me, and so he get new guys to sing over old rhythm track, I had this music ‘Love Me Girl’ by the Heptones and he like it, and gave it some more listen. I guess the main aim of Coxsone to have those rhythms, and feel that they was from the past, and it would be nice to provide them in a different form. I’am not saying the same thing. I have to write some different lyrics to the same melodies, the same rhythm. I signed a one year contract with him, and even after the one year contract, I was still trying to build a form of reputation, because through them time you see, if you do some tunes for everybody, nobody, will promote you, I decided to stop with Studio One and bear out all the rough going, but I then reached a stage that I cound’nt see nothing coming out, I was getting famous, still financial wise… I decided to get some musician friend, knew a long time, and pay them on trust, I didn’t even have no money to pay them, that’s the way I get to do this album “Ghetto-olgy”.”
How many tunes did you cut for Studio One?
“Quite a few, enough for another album.”
“I get together with a bredda called James Brown and Keith Hartley an form a company called Black Roots Production and Youth Promotion. The Youth Promotion Organisation is really to help youth from going through the same struggle like me. You see, them is a whole heap of youth, like Captain Sinbad, Little John, Tony Tuff, Barry Brown, Rod Taylor, Michael Prophet, Ashantiwaugh, Freddie McGregor, Albert Malawi, Barnabus, Michael Ashley, Earl Walker, Sangie Davis, Tony Chin, Arnold Brackenridge, Roy Grant, Triston Palmer, Henry Frncis, Earl Sixteen, Madoo, Don Carlos, Lacksley Castell, and last but not least Trevor Hartley. We team up right as an organisation, we get fund raising dance, and get help from sound like Stereograph U Roy’s sound, Socialist Roots – Trevor Ranking. We get funds you know, we can buy shoes and pants, for the people of the ghetto that can’t afford it. The Youth Promotion them a band also, but really we don”t have the instument as such you know. We use studio instrument.”
Sugar doesn’ t mind being a spokesperson for Youth Promotion, but he will not accept any form of leadership. He is a part of Youth Promotion. All the time, he wants to remind me of the fact. So explanations of the wider role of Youth Promotion are personalised. He can’t say what a wider role of Youth Promotion is, would, or could be, other than it promotes sports and art.
“Everyman can’t be a musician. If you study Reggae music, it’s always crying out for something, or it can’t stand something. It’s just what the people feel, you see the atmosphere it so, that it’s “Feel Tough”. Everytime my inspiration come, it always something like that, you see. Always something cry out, man hungry, can’t stand the pressure, directly what’s happening. ‘Rome’ you know. You see a man deal with vibration and inspiration that go on most of the time. If you write a love tune, and you not in love, you’re dealing with an imaginary thing, see, or, you imagine a next person situation, it just kinda hard sometime. I wouldn’t expect a man too… do a tune like ‘Man Hungry’ , if him no hungry see, so him no hungry it don’t appeal to him really, but if him check it again, him see brother and sister… No matter what colour, man is just man. When I talk about black people and dem a suffer, but I feel against this prejudice business, man is just man and God make everyman. Right now we need a whole heap of help, no one to offer no help towards the youth… and boy I really feel for youth and youth, the inspiration I keep getting I can’t reject them you see. Once a thing come into my mind. It’s hard for me to push that aside, and say I won’t sing like that, it will just keep coming back, all the while.”
As stated, Sugar couldn’t define the wider role of Youth Promotion, but he had no hesitation in stating that –
“I & I organisation is strictly non-political, even rasta religion, we naw try ram it down no one throat, if you want to accept, that’s up to you, but if you try and and force it on people, it never get them. I and I are rasta, but not everyman can accept it as so, that’s why you have so much blame on rasta now. Whole heap of man say him a rasta, just dread up you know, and they just go on and do all kind of wrongs. It just fall upon next man.”
He also sees Youth Promotion operating outside of Jamaica. His use of the Birmingham band Aaara was criticised by some, although Sugar maintains though that someone must give the youth a chance.
“Otherwise you just keep going over and over, someone must take that risk.”
And that’s what the “Ghetto-ology” album was about, promoting a whole new line up of talent, as well as Sugar of course. It was released on Trojan in 1979. How Trojan Records became involved in anything as forward as this had a lot to do with the people who were running it then. Those involved were Dave Hendley, Chris Lane and Clive Stanhope. With this album and other Youth Promotion produced albums, which include Tony Tuff and Barry Brown, they showed that the company could be a major force in the music again.
More importantly, Youth Promotion/Black Roots were given a chance to get their music released outside of Jamaica. The “Ghetto-ology” album was successful on every level. In terms of production, it showed that the talent YP/Black Roots could draw upon was as talented as anything that the major producers/labels could put together in Jamaica.
Due to the large line up of musicians though, they didn’ t have a sound, which is a plus and a minus. Nearly every track has its own sound, but most albums released by major producers have just one sound, due to the album being recorded with one set of musicians. Thankfully, with the music in a state of flux, due to the incoming “Dance Hall Style”, most people welcomed the wide variety that can be found on the album. And it is pretty varied. On how many albums can you find Freddy McGregor on drums for instance! Great contributions also come from ‘Chinna’ who along with the Soul Syndicate band also made a contribution.
Quickly following the “Ghetto-ology” album was the “Black Roots” album released by Mango Records in the U.S., also in 1979, This was really “Ghetto-ology 2” in every respect, it had the same varied sound, and more or less the same incredible line up of talent. Youth Promotion at the time was made up of the following talent; Don Carlos, Lacksley Castell, Ashanti Waugh, Jah Lee. These are the artists named on the “Black Roots”. You can also add Tony Tuff, Barry Brown, Captain Sinbad, Little John and many many more. That was why everyone was so excited by the release of Sugar’s albums. The reasoning was that if Sugar could breakthrough, so could the others
Included on “Black Roots” were two of Sugar’s biggest hits, “Hard Time Pressure” which Sufferers Heights released in the UK on 12″ and “River Jordan”, a very big hit on 7″ in Jamaica. The rest of the album was really built around these tunes, it was real roots music. With two YP/Black Roots productions now out, the next thing that needed to happen was for an album to actually come out on the label. And that finally happended in 1980 with the release of a showcase album (6 tracks) “Roots Lovers”.
On “Ghetto-ology” and “Black Roots”, Sugar really concentrated on message music. On this album, he displays once again his great talent for putting over love songs. The three love songs on the album truly are exceptional. “Lovers Rock” is the huge UK hit, recorded in the UK, with overdubs at Wackles (possibly the first occasion he worked at the studio). It took ‘Lovers Rock’ the style, up a step. “My Love Is True” comes from a Studio One session, and is a superb example of late seventies Studio One, “My Devotion” was cut at Channel One with a mix of the YP and Studio One bands. Of the reality tunes, the most interesting must be the tune cut with Amara in Birmingham, England, “Death Trap”.
Out of all the Youth Promotion/Black Roots albums released during this time ’80/’81, “African Girl” seems to be the only one that is lacking not only lyrically from Sugar, but in the production style that made the other albums special. The reason or reasons for this are hard to define. “African Girl”, the title track, is the only track with an edge to it, and was a hit in the UK on 12″, and fully deserved to be. It being a phaser mixed cut of “Shank I Sheck”. The only other tune with the same kind of energy is “Penny For My Song”. Outside of that, only “Ghetto Youths” is in the least bit memorable, mainly due to the chorus. Thankfully better music was to come.
The next stage of Sugar’s career was going to see him move into the more traditional role of the artist, rather than artist/producer. After four self-produced albums for Youth Promotion/Black Roots, perhaps he felt he could help the organistion more by stepping aside, or going low profile.
His first stop was the Channel One studios of the Hookim brothers. They were also on a very good run around the time (1983). Sugar recorded the “With Lots Of Extra” album for them. Don Carlos, Sammy Dread and Barry Brown all were working with the studio or already had music released by Channel One,
With the Radics on the rhythms, Solgie and Scientist on the board, and Niney producing – who had only recently been installed as the producer for the studio, the album could only really be successful, and it was on every level. Sugar provided excellent songs including one of his most powerful reality songs “No Vacancy”, just one of 9 superb tracks.
By 1984, a new force in the music was coming up to challenge Junjo and the Radics, who were still in full control of the music, and were now even more powerful with the very popular Volcano Hi—Power sound system. The challenger of course was big George Phang and his Powerhouse label. Somehow, he had enlisted Sly & Robbie and the Taxi gang, and then managed to get a totally new sound out of them.
George Phang – 1986 (Photo: Beth Lessser)
Sugar, in his new freelance role was a perfect artist also to have on his label. Others included at the time Barrington Levy and Echo Minott. George would have been the most raggamuffin producer Sugar had yet worked for with regards to albums, and he responded with a very rough and tough album. A six track set it is a mix of Dancehall anthems like the title track “Buy Off The Bar” and thoughtful songs like “Dread Upon Your Head”, and the album is a joy from beginning to end.
Another direction Sugar took then, saw him working in New York at the Wackies studios of Lloyd Barnes. Wackies had released some truly excellent music from the early ’80s, and yet were still running into the mentality that ‘Real reggae can only be made in Jamaica’.
Sugar Minott and the “Wicked Ago Feel It” album finally buried that attitude. What Sugar could do in London, he could also do in New York. The wonderful, deep, rolling sound of Wackies was perfect for Sugar to work on. Lyrically, you get a mix of love songs and reality songs all set to the sound of Wackies. The album is one of Sugar’s best, and was certainly one of the best albums of that year.
After three albums for other producers, Sugar went back to self-production for the “Herbman Hustling” album, released on the Black Roots label.
Although it was very good to see Sugar working for Youth Promotion again, this album didn”t have an overall concept that the first albums had. The hit tune of the album was naturally the title track “Herbman Hustling”, that should have been the theme to the album.
Instead Sugar took a more mixed approach, which doesn’t really work. Love songs, Dancehall lyrics and reality lyrics don’t really mix very well. Sadly, it was the same with the production. It’s a mix of digital, digital/human, and human. Sometimes such a mix works well, but more often than not it ends up sounding like a collection of singles, rather than an album.
Much, much better, is “Rydim” – another production from George Phang. Originally released on Powerhouse in Jamaica, such was its popularity that Greensleeves picked it up for release in the UK.
The reason for it being much, much better is the single production style, and a balance of songs (6 of them) that is more traditional. Once again, Sly & Robbie and The Taxi Gang provide the rhythms, which are strong, and have a fresh and modern sound, but are simple enough to allow Sugar to work his lyrics into them. “Nuh Go To South Africa” is perhaps the best track on the album, with “Old King Cole” coming not far behind it. Its overall strong point though is that its an album that can be enjoyed from beginning to end.
Around the mid eighties Sugar started to work with a multitude of producers. Wisely, he made sure that he had rights to release anything he recorded for them on album, the result is “Slice Of The Cake” released on Heartbeat in the U.S. This is a true collection of singles, some hits and some that should have been hits but weren’t. The best track on the album is the title track. If my memory serves me correct, this was done for Germain, but with very little production information on the sleeve, it’s possible that I’m wrong.
Also to be found are other real classics like “No Vacancy”, “Poor Man Pickney” and “Harbour Shark”. On the Dancehall side we get “Level Vibes”, “Inna Dance Hall Style” and “Buy Out The Bar”. The only problem on the album is “How Could I Let You Get Away”, the song doesn’t really suit Sugar.
By now Sugar was truly ‘International’ – always on the move from Kingston to London, from London to New York, and from New York to Tokyo, and all stops in between. On a visit to London around 1986, he was to start working on his first all digital album, for long time producer Bunny Lee. The late Jackie Mittoo had built a number of rhythms for Sugar and Bunny, at a new studio called Rock Studio in north-west London. The studio had already enjoyed great success with Horace Andy’s “Elementary’ album released by Rough Trade.
Sadly, Sugar’s “Leader For The Pack” is not up to the very high standard of that album, although it is still very good. The production and rhythms are superb, the problems start with the weak lyrics Sugar has added to them. The best track on the album is “You And Me” which is a wonderful recut of Alton Ellis’s “Rock Steady” rhythm. If the album had a few more tunes like that on it, it would be a classic.
Sly & Robbie are well known for taking their time when it comes to releasing music. Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs have both been held up in Sly & Robbie’s Taxi. Sugar Minott, was to be treated no differently. “Herbman Hustling” and “Devil Pickney” were both very big hits, with the promotion at the time they could have broken Sugar into a much wider audience.
This is not Sly & Robbie’s fault, that is just the runnings, but they could have released this album “Sugar And Spice” a lot quicker. When it did come out on Ras it contained dubs, but it wasn’t a Showcase album. Even so it is a great album, something that all concerned can take great pride in. Its overall sound is one that Sugar really gets into, and responds accordingly.
When we get to the 1986 Heartbeat album “Inna Reggae Dance Hall”, we move back into the singles collection format again. Most of these tracks come from Youth Promotion, which does make for better listening. A problem though comes with the selection. One of Sugar’s best tunes from this time is “All Kind Of People Come A Dance” who he did this for escapes me for the moment, but it should have been included on a album with a title like this, at the time. Thankfully “Four Wheel Wheelie” (with Charlie Chaplin) is included. The weight and the power of the rhythm on this tune is unreal. And with Sugar and Charlie in combination and in great form, it is an all-time Dancehall classic. A really good sleeve makes for a interesting overall package.
The first Wackies album “Wicked Ago Feel It” was an excellent set. On it Sugar sounded at ease, comfortable, but never complacent. Some artists seem to work best with a wide group of musicians and studios, Sugar always sounds better when he is working with a small team. So it was very pleasing to find that once again, the Wackies label had brought the best out of Sugar. “Jamming In The Street” contains all that made “Wicked Ago Feel It”, such a great album, plus a lot more. Two tracks deserve special attention or merit. The title track is one of the best tunes Sugar’s ever recorded, it should have been a big 12″ success, but it wasn’t. “International Herb” was originally released on a 10″ on Dougie’s, and was produced by Douglas Levy in 1983 at Wackies. It sounded well forward then, and it still sounds just as fresh today. The rest of the album is quite close to the standards of those tunes, but they are really extra special.
“Jamming In The Street” gave Sugar’s career a boost, thankfully his next album release followed the trend. Hugh James, aka Redman, really took the music by storm around ’88/’89. His first batch of album releases included works from Frankie Paul and Gregory Isaacs, and took him to the top, When people started wondering if he could maintain the pace, he released this album from Sugar, plus a load of other great albums.
Strangely part of Redman’s initial attraction was his use of traditional instruments, in this case played by the Roots Radics band. The Radics had been written off years ago, for being too limited in the sound they could produce. This album proved them wrong. It was a powerful but fluid sound, not built around heavyweight bass and drum. Once again Sugar responded, producing his best overall set for many years. Every song is a message. “Them A Wolf” is Sugar and the music at its very best.
“Dance Hall ’87” released on Youth Promotion seemed to come out of nowhere. Meaning that it wasn’t so much released, as it was here and then it wasn’t. For instance, was it released in ’87? When this happens with albums, it usually means that the album is either very popular, or that someone is trying to undermine its release. It would be nice to think the former, but the latter seems more likely. Whatever, it is a very good album. This is pure Dancehall from beginning to end. The sound is so different, that it could be the first album from the Youth Promotion studio, that had taken years to come together. Best track on the album is “Indika” – murder…
Interest in Sugar’s time at Studio One has always been great. Like nearly every artist on the label, there are stories of unreleased material, much better than anything released. With an artist like Sugar, it didn’t really seem to make much difference. Sugar always had something in production, or was releasing something. Yet for some people unless it’s on Studio One, it’s not the artist’s best work. Normally such comments could only be dismissed, but “Collectors Item” featuring 5 tracks from Studio One, and 5 tracks from the African Brothers, must rank as one of the best albums of Sugar’s work.
On Sugar’s side alone, you get two classics, “All Kinda People”, Sugar’s cut to the Wailing Souls’ “Mr Fire Coal Man” rhythm; plus “You Tried To Hurt Me”, a wonderful cut of The Heptones “Tripe Girl”. On the African Brothers side, you just cannot get better harmony than on “Youths Of Today” – excellent.
Heartbeat, in the U.S. released Sugar’s next album “African Soldier”, which returned him to his reality lyrics. By all accounts, this is a concept album, and every track is message based. The music and the world needs such albums, anything that makes for better understanding must be encouraged. And yet it seems that in the course of the production of the album, the desire to get the message over, has caused the album’s musical side to become very standardized, almost over produced. Some tracks stand out strong, “Mandela”, which originally was released on a 12″, with production coming from Prince Hammer is the best track, mainly because the rhythm is so strong. Perhaps the album just needs a good remix, for the idea is a great one.
With “Smile” we get another mixed up album, with productions coming from a variety of producers including Redman and Steely & Clevie, and possibly Skengdon. This one though is a lot different from the Heartbeat releases. The selections here seem to be considered, the running order thoughtful. The reality tune “Ghetto People” is for me the best track, it’s saying something, it’s got a message, and it’s also got a great rhythm. Of the other tracks the Steely amd Clevie produced “Smile” works very well, but “Come Right In” works much better, a very well produced tune.