Dennis Alcapone: Foundation Deejay (Interview)
Towards the end of the 1960s in Jamaica, a new form of music was in the process of creation. Deejaying, Its origins were many but it was two men who popularised this new form: U.Roy and Dennis Alcapone.
The style of deejaying now is different from your style of deejaying. Is that the problem you’ve had, that record companies don’t want your style anymore?
I wouldn’t think it’s that really. You see U.Roy’s still selling.
He’s changed a bit.
A little bit, but not much, the trademark is still there, but you see the reason is the change of rhythm really. When I and U.Roy used to work, we used the rock steady rhythm. Right, but the rhythm changed. As you can see now with this militant drumming, and it’s mostly drum and bass effect. Big Youth changed that, the deejay style. If you noticed he’s started to fall back into my bag. That album, that he did for Klik ‘Dread Locks Dread’. Dillinger now, had that style for a long while. He used to be with me. back home. When I used to play the sound system El Paso, Dillinger used to come along, and I used to give him the mike. I was cursed for it, people used to curse me, ‘How can you give this little boy, the mike?’ They’d say, they’ve come to see me.
Was that before you made records?
At that time, before I did a record. Trinity now, he used to imitate me a lot, before he went on record. He used to follow my sound. And then Dillinger went to record for the Upsetter. I can remember the first day, ’cause I was there, Lee Perry had him doing a whole heap of tape, just keep running and running, and there was no hit come out of it.
Didn’t he use a bit of it on the ‘Blackboard Jungle’ album?
Yeah, I remember it, but I said why is he doing so much record, because there wasn’t a deal, but you know, Dillinger wanted to get inside the business. Scratch said, “Go on then, go inside the studio, working, working. One tape after the other. And you know, I think he done about twenty tune that night (laughs). Well anyway, the changes now. Dillinger was adapting to Big Youth’s style. After U.Roy there was me. In all, there was three deejays that come out of Jamaica, three different styles. U.Roy’s, my style, and Big Youth’s style. I.Roy imitated U.Roy; Dillinger, Trinity, imitated Big Youth right.
I don’t think you’ve been imitated yet?
There was a guy who called himself the Young Capone, You see the cross over, a touch of me, a touch of U.Roy, a touch of Big Youth.
Some styles are more difficult to copy than others. Your style was more skillful.
A lot of people try to imitate, right they sound stupid in a sense.
Did you have any influences, when you started deejaying? What deejays were about when you started with El Paso?
When I started U.Roy was and still is my number one deejay, right. And there was this guy named Pampado who played a sound named Kentone.
Would that be Prince Pampado of ‘Money Can’t Buy Life’ fame?
I don’t really know. Pampado was playing Kentone sound. I used to listen to him, and I just liked the way he deejayed, especially his action, you know what I mean. There was a record that came out last year. ‘Happy Go Lucky Girl’ – Wayne Wade and Prince Pampado, what I’m saying is, is that I don’t know him as Prince Pampado, only Pampado. I left Jamaica three years before that record came out, I don’t know what’s been going on since, but I have a strong feeling that it’s the same one, ’cause after he kinda got wasted. The sound he was playing packed up, and he didn’t bother with it no more.
Back in 73/74 you were having a good run and people like U.Roy were having a difficult time… (before the question could be finished, Dennis was up and searching for his Gold Cup!)
This was the first cup that a deejay ever get.
Dennis gives the cup to Geoff to look at. He reads aloud “1971-72”. The year Dennis won the cup. Who gave it to you Dennis? ‘Swing Magazine’?
No, ‘Record Retailer’ (Rupie Edwards’s Jamaican music paper) That was the first cup a deejay ever get in Jamaican music. They didn’t have anything for deejays and Rupie said ‘The deejays are selling more than the singers, let’s do something for them.’ This was the result.
Do you think deejaying is finished?
No, it can’t finish really, deejaying in Jamaica cannot finish. You know why? The jive the deejays give is different from the singers. For instance, if there’s a dance going on, and there is an ordinary vocal record playing, the deejays have to get involved somewhere, somehow. And when the deejays do get involved, you notice the people in the place, they generate a little more.
That’s good deejaying.
Well after a while it did get monotonous, cause at one time, I didn’t know where all these deejays come from. It really marvel me as well, because when I left Jamaica, come over here. I left, Big Youth, U.Roy, U.Roy Jnr, Shorty The President. I left in 1973, went back over, come back in 1974, with Sly, Dennis Brown, Skin Flesh & Bones, the Maytals – The Jamaican Showcase. Went back to Jamaica, come back in ’75, then I didn’t leave until last year. There’s a lot of things going on. Like for instance, the new deejays come up, cause you see what really make a deejay is practice on sound system. You have to be accepted by the people as a sound system deejay before you can be any good on record. With a lot of these deejays, it’s just a hustling thing, they don’t have a root.
How about Mikey Dread, what do you think of him?
Well, Mikey is a radio DJ, it’s something new. They have never gone so roots before. Until he came along. He’s less talking and more of the rhythm. Like I was saying there was four deejays – U.Roy was playing King Tubby’s. I was playing El Paso, Big Youth – playing Tip-A-Tone. This is the background. Dillinger did stand in for me. So he still get his practice. A lot of them they just…You had a few producers who just get into the studio and talk. And called themselves John Brown or Tom Stroke or something. You know what I mean. For instance, at one stage you had vocalists deejaying as well. Jamaica is based upon one thing: As long as there is a living, everyone would get involved. If a record is selling you see a certain amount of people go into the studio to make the same record. They say they’re riding a bandwagon.
So all this brought the music down?
Right, right that’s it. You have some deejays, I won’t call any names, but how they sell, I don’t really know. That’s the thing about deejay records, you have so many amateurs that don’t really have the feeling for the record, don’t write their lyrics, and make it make more sense before they go into the studio.
How much time did you spend on your lyrics?
What really happen, before I go into the studio, right, I write my lyrics. I know it’s going to be a hit, but sometimes I’ve been rushed by Bunny Lee. When I was going on my first tour, British Guyana. I remember I was leaving on Monday, and I was home Sunday. And Bunny Lee came and said I’ve got to get an album done. And you can’t leave the country till you’ve done the album. So he took me down to Dynamics to do the ‘Gun’s Don’t Argue’ LP. I don’t hear back a track. It just a rush. I went into the studio… I wasn’t satisfied with a lot of that music.
‘Guns Don’t Bark’ was on that album.
Yeah, that was the first tune I did on the session, that was alright because the lyrics were already written for that, but otherwise, he just run the rhythm, and two spliff and ting, you know what I mean. And when I’ve finished, I say ‘Can I hear it back?’ When you don’t hear it back, you don’t have the basic idea how to go back and do it the right way. Him say, ‘Don’t have no time for that – next rhythm.’ And when I come back to Jamaica, I didn’t hear nothing of what I’ve done. Sometimes deejays make a mistake, and don’t like to correct it – “Cho, it’s alright man, it’s just a version. Producers as well, they make mistakes, but a man like Duke Reid, he’s one who’ll cut five or six stampers for one record, just to get it perfect. You can’t see a fault in it. A producer is a hustler really. Right, it cost him a lot of money to cut a stamper, even if there’s a fault it’ll go on the streets, the same way, but Duke now, he could afford it really. Any fault, any fault at all, it’s got to be done good.
I think it shows in his music.
It’s of high quality. You listen to the records from Jamaica you can pick out the few producers that give you something genuine. You have a lot of producers back home that have a lot of faults in the quality of the sound. When a producer owns a studio he’s got a big advantage. He can afford to give you something special, on what you buy, but the man that is going to hustle, his money is limited to pay the musicians and he might book two or three hours. And would want to make three albums, for that three hours.
How come you got to work with Duke Reid then?
Well, I was working with Keith Hudson.
Was your first record ‘Spanish Amigo’?
No, it was my first hit. ‘El Paso’ was my first record, it was the name of the sound. And that’s how I used to get the lyrics together. It was record, but it wasn’t on record. It was a craze going around with the kids – “One Time, El Paso, One Time.” Well, Keith Hudson wanted me to do it for him, but the rhythm he had, he already had some rhythm he had recorded with Delroy Wilson. ‘One One’ and Ken Boothe’s ‘Old Fashioned Way’ in that period of time. ‘El Paso’ was done on a rhythm that was not for the tune. The rhythm for it was a special rhythm, a Duke Reid rhythm – ‘You Don’t Care’ by the Techniques. It was a different bass line, so people still go out and buy it. So you can imagine if I done it on the proper rhythm. ‘Spanish Amigo’ went to No.6 in the charts. I was recording in my real name at the time, Dennis Smith, I left and went to Coxsone, and did another version.
Did he approach you – Coxsone?
No, you see, Coxsone had some rhythm that I like for a long time. Duke Reid also had some rhythm that I like for a long time, but U.Roy was Duke Reid’s stable. So I just go by Coxsone. Well, I went up there and I did ‘Nanny Version’. Well, when I did that one, I just ask him to call me Dennis Alcapone, ’cause that was my nickname back home really. So he used that, and that was an instant hit. Most people think it was U.Roy, even Duke Reid himself! Because Duke Reid called me and asked me if U.Roy help me do the record. I said no, he said, “Yes mon, U.Roy help you do it”. I said no. I can remember going on a bus one day, a week after the record came out, no, it wasn’t a bus, a pick-up truck. And some guys was in it, and they didn’t know me really. So one of them said to the other one – ‘Did you hear the new U.Roy record?’ The other one said no. So the first one said ‘Yes man, U.Roy have this bad record out ‘Nanny Version’ man.’ I didn’t say anything.
Anyway, I did ‘Home Version’ for him, and ‘Forever Version’, then the album followed – ‘Forever Version’. There was no reward that come from Coxsone really. It was like a wild goose chase, to collect, you know. He is not there or when he is there, he tells you ‘Oh Jackson, check me out tomorrow.’ Tomorrow – ‘Well, I didn’t get round to it, to do your statement, but I have someone looking into it, come back Monday.’ Monday – You wait all morning there, he don’t come. I did ‘El Paso’ for him because Slim Smith did a version of ‘You Don’t Care’. So he had the rhythm. The engineer at Duke Reid was Byron Smith. He used to do his own producing on the side as well. He hear the record, and he had the original rhythm with Nora Dean ‘Barbwire’. He was the one that put out ‘Barbwire’. I was to do it for him. And, well, I went down there I do it. ‘Mosquito One’ on that (‘Barbwire’). He called me El Paso, and that one sell well, but even today it would do more if he put on it Alcapone instead of El Paso. At the time I let it know that I was Dennis Alcapone. Then I leave and went to do ‘Better Must Come’ for Bunny Lee. Who was more a friend than a producer, and that sell a lot.
Then one Sunday, I was at home, and a guy come to me and said Duke Reid wanted to see me. So I went, and Duke told me he had a tune for me to do. The rhythm was ‘Sister Big Stuff’ rhythm. He told me that U.Roy was trying to do it, but it wasn’t U.Roy style really, couldn’t feel it enough. So he said I might as well see what I can do with it. Anyway, I did ‘Teach The Children’ and that was an instant hit. It spent four weeks on both radio stations. “When I finished recording, Duke Reid called me and gave me two hundred dollars in pure dollar bill right (laughs). It’s a lot of money, I never really like the tune honestly. And that’s how most of them hit. The tune that you like most of the time they don’t hit. I never did really like it. To me, when I get the two hundred dollars, I feel like I was the one who get away with robbery.
Chukki Starr & Dennis Alcapone (Photo: Teacher)
Is it true Duke Reid said that no Rasta lyrics were allowed on his records?
Yes, that was true. He was no Rasta himself. He have no Rasta belief. Duke Reid was more or less the man that Rasta lick up against. Duke Reid one day told me that he was Babylon. Duke said – ‘Myself, I am Babylon’ Because he was the Police, you know. Most of the time in Duke Reid liquor store, it full of Police. He was a Police. Him have a lot of money and a big record store, you know what the Police is like, as long as you can give something they will always be around. Most of the time he have the inspectors and big brass inside the liquor store. He administrates like Police as well. He has a rifle that he walks with. His hip gun, his hand grenade.
He told me point blank, him don’t want no Rasta lyrics. That was the main reason for the downfall of the Treasure Isle studio in the later years. The Rasta lyrics were revolutionary and that was the lyrics that selling at that time. I said, Duke, let’s go along with what’s going on, right? If you don’t deal with Rasta on the record, it’s not going to sell, because the youth nowadays are looking upon Rastafari. And if this record not have Rasta lyrics, most people them not want to know. So I write a tune for Junior Byles. So I said to Duke I write this tune. ’cause at that time I was more or less a writing man. So I said let Junior sing the tune. Duke says fair enough let’s make the rhythm. when he make the rhythm, Duke hadn’t heard the lyrics. So when Junior was practising the lyrics – he hear it. “Selassie ah go beat down.” Him say no. Him don’t want that kind of lyrics to come out of Treasure Isle. And Junior get upset, and him and Junior have a fuss and Junior walk out, ’cause Junior was a Rasta and to hear Duke say those things upset him.
After ‘Teach The Children’ went to number one, I went back to Coxsone and did ‘Power Version’ for the Studio One label. I doubt if that record was released in this country, which is a pity really, cause that record sold a lot in Jamaica, but at the time I did that record, there was some dispute between Downbeat and Bamboo really, because Bamboo was going down at the time. To me, I still love that record more than any other of my records. It was the Clarendonians rhythm ‘You Can’t Be Happy’, an old rock steady rhythm. It was the one that was made from ska to rock steady, cause it have a little ska in it as well.
In 1976 I was on my way out of Jamaica, coming to England. And there was some talent scout coming to Jamaica, and we passed on the way. It was when Virgin started to take an interest in the business. There was no money going into it at the time until Bob Marley break and then Island started to put some money into it and signed Burning Spear. And it’s here my misfortune lies. I was here not doing anything. Everything you do need a bit of luck. And I count my luck very bad as far as music is concerned. I didn’t make any money out of it. I never have. When I was in Jamaica, I used to drive a car. I used to have a few dollars in my pocket, but that was as far it went. As far as the business is concerned I started a label. Delroy Wilson and Dennis Brown recorded for me, but the producers, the big producers kept me down.
What was the name of your label?
I can’t remember, it was a temporary thing, but Delroy’s came out on Uprising. DIP released it over here in the UK. When it came out in Jamaica, I took it to Randy’s the leading retailers. They made an order, and I supplied the records. When I went back to them to see if they want any more of the record, they said yeah they want some for export. And the price they want for Export is ridiculous really for what I have to pay for the record to be pressed. And I know what they do, they buy the record at export price and sell it in their shop, the export price would be about 30p. So I said no, and they didn’t buy no more of the record. So it just fade away.
Any artist that make money, it’s this country they make it from, England. As far as Jamaica is concerned it is the headquarters for reggae music. Everyone who goes into the studios in Jamaica they’re thinking about England. England has more sound systems than any other country, more blues dance. Records that you hear in this country, you don’t hear them in Jamaica. A producer call you “Come do this record for me.” You do the record and ask if he’s going to put it out. The producer say yes man. You listen hard and you don’t hear the record. Him going to tell you he can’t find the money to put it out, or it’s not the right time. All the time the record has been out in this country. When I came over here, I hear this record that shouldn’t be out on the streets. For instance, I was in the studio, done two tune started a third, but couldn’t get into it. I said alright if I come back and finish this one. And I hear it over here, just hustling.
Do you think things have changed?
It has since 1976, from the artist’s point of view. When I went to Jamaica last year the artist is still… but I see changes. A lot of artists have their own label, which wasn’t like that before. And like I said, I think it’s between Island and Virgin that help to make that change when they signed some of the artists. Up until that time a producer just bring up his material to his producer over here. The artist wasn’t even involved, and this producer might rip off the producer, and by the time he got home, he wouldn’t have nothing left for the artist.
What deejays and singers have fought the system successfully?
Big Youth, hit underworld. Things that Big Youth have on his records, the radio stations wouldn’t play. He was just from the sound system to the record counter. That’s how his records used to sell. It was when he did ‘S.90 Skank’ that he start to get radio play and was recognised. Things that the Youth say most would fear to say. For they know they wouldn’t get no radio play. and the greatest way to sell records is through the radio – without that it’s impossible. Until Big Youth showed them that it was possible.
How powerful are the producers?
In the early sixties, Duke Reid had made it already. Coxsone as well, because Coxsone is a man who exploit people. These people were making money from the early days. And Jamaica is a place where as long as you have money…! It’s not like England, where if you commit an offense you would be charged, and it don’t matter how much money you have, you can end up in prison. If a little producer make a record, these guys can tell the radio station not to play it. And you pack up unless you’re very lucky. At one stage you only have two producers – Dodd & Reid. Then you have the man Leslie Kong – Beverleys, a Chinaman. And in Jamaica you don’t really see a poor Chinaman. It’s either a coolie man or a black man. These people have a lot of influence. When I started up the label, the first tune went down, and the second tune went down. And then Big Youth started to come up. And was clamped down, when he started to do his own stuff, but he was kinda… strongarm stuff. I’m kinda soft, I was the soft guy, I don’t really tell a producer I’m going to chop off his head or going to shoot him or lick him with something. He don’t respect you.
Take Joe Gibbs. He started with no track at all. I remember part of the Joe Gibbs story. He had a little shop in downtown Kingston where he sells his records. Nicky Thomas carried the records and things for him. I remember the day now when Nicky Thomas got the news that he was in the British charts. Right, we was standing up by Randy’s, me and Peter Tosh and someone else. And Nicky came round and said: ‘Look pon dis’. Me and Peter Tosh were talking. Nobody knew that Nicky Thomas were recording. As far as I was concerned he just help Gibbo in his shop. Nicky said: ‘Look pon dis”. He was excited and Peter look him and say “XXXX”! So Nicky say Wailers have never been into charts. Wailers have never done this.” So Peter says it again. And Nicky went off with his chart thing, showing everybody. Next thing we hear Nicky Thomas is in England.
Sometimes I’m sitting here and I’m really amazed at the things that have happened after a short space of time. Take for instance Trinity, I know him as Glen. Everybody was talking about this Trinity. One day I walked into Shelley’s shop, and see an LP cover. I couldn’t believe it – I say “It’s Glen!” Out loud, Without even knowing it’s Glen. He started when I left. He didn’t give himself the name Trinity until the movie. There was this movie called Trinity that came into Jamaica. This guy was ever so bad, badder than Clint Eastwood. That’s how he got his name, because it’s like Alcapone. Prince Far I, I know him as King Cry Cry, back home he used to play sound on and off, not a regular deejay. Jah Stitch, he used to follow my sound, even when it went into the country, just to follow me. A lot of friends I ask for, them say they shot him, they’re shot. In a short space of time everything change.
The deejaying now, you’re having a few drinks, the music is going and someone will get up and make a shout. It gets to you. It uplifts your spirit. In the early days Skatalites were making records like the ‘Guns Of Navarone’, ‘Alcapone’, ‘Burke’s Law’. All these were deejay records. there was this guy in the background going, chicka, chick, chick – a deejay thing, (Dennis shouts) “Gun the man seven ways from sundown! Still they didn’t get no credit. They didn’t mention any deejay name. It was just Skatalites or Baba Brooks, whoever. You didn’t hear nothing about deejays until Lord Comic who did ‘Skaing West’. King Stitt came along long after, and deejayed for Clancy Eccles. He did ‘Virgorton Two’ and ‘Fire Corner’.
‘Fire Corner’ was the first, the first big hit from him. But still, nobody recognised deejay. You hear that King Stitt done the record and that was it. Until Keith Hudson took U.Roy in the studio to do ‘Dynamic Fashion Way’ with the same rhythm I did ‘Spanish Amigo’ on, but the record was only selling hard to underworld, the radio didn’t play it. And then he did ‘Wake The Town’ for Duke Reid and if you do a record for him, you know you’re going to get recognised because his label was top. A man would go into a shop, he always ask if they have anything new on Treasure Isle, Duke Reid, or Duchess label. When that record came out the deejay was needed. The singer wasn’t really coming out with any good lyrics or rhythms at the time, because the rhythm had just changed, right and rock steady, playing it at the time in the dance hall you realised that this is what they want. At the time I was playing El Paso, we had dubs playing. We would go into the studio and get the raw rhythm, and play it, but we had to be careful because with a few juice to the head, a few spliff to the head and the rhythm so nice!
Can you imagine this record ‘Moonlight Lover’, you kept hearing it. Then one night you hear the introduction, and you’re supposed to hear the vocal next, and you hear the bass! It was excitement, pure excitement!! The people went wild, then they hear the deejay start toasting to it, and it make them even wilder. That is is how this thing catch on so much. ‘Wake The Town’, that record sold like hot bread. Worse when he (U.Roy) did ‘Rule The Nation’. People line up outside his (Duke Reid) studio waiting for the record to come off the press. People who owned record shops in those days licked their fingers. On a weekend they know they could sell 10,000 U.Roy. It was something new. And how U.Roy put over his lyrics was completely different from King Stitt. King Stitt was more or less a shouter, he was riding… but U.Roy gave the rhythm more jive. And I come with a sing talk. So people could sing along.
Did you have any idea at the time how long it would last?
No way, at first it was just playing a sound system enjoying my music, enjoying the girls, and that was as far as it went. Until Keith Hudson said let’s do a thing. It was more or less wake up in the morning, up to the camp (where they sell the herb), ideas come, write them down, to the sound in the night, sometimes to the studio, pick up a few girls, on the beach, go to bed, wake up, get a few dollars from the producer. All I wanted to know, was that I was living. I had money in my pocket like Dennis Brown says, just pocket money. It can buy a few spliff and a box of beer. Put gas in your car, go down to the beach and listen to the waves coming in.
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