Johnny Osbourne: “The riddim give me a feel, and that’s what I sing” (The Interview)
When: August 23, 2022
Where: Minneapolis MN
Reporter: Stephen Cooper
Footage: Stephen Cooper – Edited by Teacher@ReggaeVibes
Photos: Courtesy of Stephen Cooper unless otherwise stated
Copyright: 2022 – Stephen Cooper
Legendary Jamaican singer Johnny Osbourne had just finished a wicked, irie, energizing performance at the first “Word. Sound. Power. Music & Arts Festival” in Minneapolis when I approached him, humbly, for an interview.
Johnny was tired from traveling and performing, moreover, he had food on the way, but, even though the act on the main stage was so loud we could barely hear one another, Johnny — seeing how badly I wanted to interview him — acquiesced to walking with me, several hundred yards away, to the upper floor of the Taproom at 56 Brewing where it was slightly less noisy.
What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. Embedded in the transcript are links to Johnny Osbourne’s music, exclusive images and photos, and more. Additionally, at the end, there’s a link to the audio recording of the interview, available on YouTube.
Johnny, officially on behalf of Reggae-Vibes, I want to start off by saying, it’s just a tremendous honor to connect with a legendary singer like yourself — “The Godfather of Dancehall,” “The King of the Dubplates” — and one of the most righteous, conscious, roots singers, ever. I just want to thank you so much for the time. How do you feel about headlining the first ever “Word. Sound. Power. Music & Arts Festival?”
Well it’s an honor. And, you know, I feel honored. And it’s the very first time I’m coming to Minnesota, and so, you know, I really wanted to see what Minnesota was like. Especially because of George Floyd, also, I said, “Let me — I want to come to Minnesota.”
I came this morning about ten o’clock, and I don’t know, it’s such a quiet Saturday morning—such a quiet city—Minneapolis.
Yeah. Do you like the vibes?
I like the vibes, and the people at this little festival — they are full of vibes, and, you know, good energy. I must let the people know that I [did] enjoy myself, and I salute the people of Minneapolis.
Do you think that festivals like this one can bring growth, and expand sound system culture in the United States?
Of course. And then it can bring people of all different cultures together. Because music is a universal language. And people can really interact with each other through music. Because this music has a direct vibe that brings people together.
Johnny, you perform all over the world. Where would you say right now, from your experience, sound system culture is the strongest — in the world?
I think sound system culture — the strongest in the world that I really feel sound system culture in the world is [is in] Europe.
Yeah. Whereabouts in Europe, would you say?
I can’t tell you exactly where because, when I do sound system, sometimes I do a band tour — I’ve got a band that I tour with called the “Homegrown Band” from Paris. And then I do a sound system tour. But everywhere in Europe you go, if it’s a good sound playing, and it’s the right sound, and the music is playing right, the people are coming out. So it’s not like — wherever I go and do a sound system thing—
They love it?
—they love it—
— all over Europe. Japan also has a good sound system [culture, too].
Johnny, I love so many of your songs, and I regret just because of time [limitations] I can’t ask you about more of them. But perhaps my favorite Johnny Osbourne song [is one] that was featured in the Marley documentary, that came out in 2012, that was in the movie theatres—it’s definitely my wife’s favorite song. In fact, I had only been married to her a few years when we watched the film in the movie theater. And she said, “Who’s singing that song!?” And I was supposed to be the guy who knew all about reggae—
—and I didn’t know it was you. My wife at the time—this is why I knew I chose a good woman—she insisted to know, and she called the movie theater. And she said, “I want to know who is singing that song.” And it is through her I found out that you were the singer of that song. And I know that that song—the song that I’m talking about is “We Need Love”—
(Nodding) “We Need Love.”
—and it’s off of your 1979 “Truths and Rights” album, the first album that you cut for Sir Coxsone Dodd, which is one of my all-time favorite reggae albums — ever.
And that’s one of my favorite Johnny Osbourne albums, also.
Yeah. And I think that you said—there’s a reggae journalist who I respect named Angus Taylor, and you told him in 2018 that you thought the “Truths and Rights” album was maybe your greatest album to date. Now you have so many albums. Can you talk for just a moment about why [the] “Truths and Rights” album to this day, in your view, why is it such a wicked album?
Alright, the reason why I think it’s such a wicked album, I migrated from Jamaica [in] 1969 to Canada.
And I was out of the music scene after I made my very first album, “Come Back Darling,” [in] 1969. I lived in Canada for ten years. Came back to Jamaica. And I always wanted to get my foot in the door of Studio One, because that’s my “Jamaican Motown.” And Clement “Coxsone” Dodd is my Berry Gordy of reggae. So I did not want to live this life, and don’t have an album recorded at Studio One, 13 Brentford Road. So I went back to Jamaica [in] 1979, just to give my career new life. So that was—this album becomes “Johnny Osbourne’s second-coming.” Because “Come Back Darling” was my first introductory album. And then [I] was out of the picture in the Jamaican music [industry] for ten years. And I came back, and I decided to stay. And I stayed like from the summer of ’79, and I left back — actually I didn’t leave Jamaica until December 1980. So I was there and I didn’t plan anything, I just wanted to do some songs for Studio One. And this is what I felt just by my vibration—what comes out.
Johnny the songs on [your iconic “Truths and Rights”] album—all the songs are so great. Did you write all the songs for the album before you showed up at Studio One—
—did you have all the songs written?
No, I didn’t have all the songs written. But when I was in Canada, I was listening to all the riddims that I want[ed] to sing [on]. I hear some riddims from Studio One, and I’m saying, these riddims are not finished yet. Because it can never be finished until I have my voice on them; they are not finished recording with it. So when I go to Jamaica, I went to Studio One, I went to Mr. Dodd, and I told him, I really wanted to do some songs for Studio One. And he [asked] if I know his riddim. I said, “I been listening to dem riddims, and study dem from when I’m in Canada.” And I picked out my riddims, go to tape them with dust — take them out, dust them off, pile them up; ‘cause some tapes only have two riddims, some might have one. And bring them and pile them in the—
Did you choose all the riddims [for the “Truths and Rights” album] yourself?
I choose my riddims, because I’[d] been listening; I’d been in Canada and [I said] when I go to Jamaica, I’m gonna sing on this riddim—that riddim—that riddim. So when I go and pick them out, I don’t play [them] for a while, and then my mind just — I didn’t write them on paper. I listened to them. And I go in the studio. But I listened to them, so I’m vibing in my mind. And I go in the studio, I just sing whatever — the riddim give me a feel, and that’s what I sing. “We Need Love” gave me a — it has a very spiritual, a kinda spiritual bounce like in negro spiritual churches who play that uptempo music. So I wanted a song that have that uptempo, you know, Black church feel.
I want to ask you about that—
It’s a negro spiritual feel that I had. I mean, even the church, when I was a young boy, I used to go to church every Sunday. Because my grandmother—not because I wanted to go. But my grandmother mek sure you going.
Do you remember the name of the church where you went — where you had to go.
My grandmother is a [believer] of the Afro-Caribbean church called “Revival.” There’s a revivalist church. And the revivalist church was beside — besides where my grandmother live[d]. So, it [was] next door. And, you know, it was a revivalist church. Some Jamaicans call it “Pocomania.”
Right, so that’s the kinda church my grannie [was] into. And it was clapping, and drum[ming], and singing. So I liked that. So this song gave me a nice uptempo feel like that, so I had to make a song like that.
Anyone who has studied closely the lyrics [of] “We Need Love,” they know — I mean it’s truly such a lovely, warm, autobiographical kinda tune. It’s almost like a poem.
In fact, you know, I think, I think you said before that your music career, how you got started, was in the church. Is that—
Yeah, yeah. Because, what I’m saying, I had to go to church by force — [my] grandmother [said], “You have to come.” And by being in the church with my grandmother, sometimes, when I just started going, I wasn’t enjoying it. I was kinda bored because it was not where I wanted to go. I wanted to hang out with my friends on the street running up and down. But my grandmother [would] make sure [I] go. So I had to find a way to make myself comfortable inside the church. And other kids are there with their grandmother and their mother and they’re singing and clapping, and jumping. So to make myself comfortable, I learn a few songs — uptempo songs.
Now I understand that your mom sent you to the famous Alpha Boys School. And I think, I believe you even played the trumpet, but the—
I was learning trumpet in [the] Alpha band, you know, because my mother had to board me at Alpha to get me off of the streets. Because she think I might get with bad company, and get in trouble. So she want[ed] to get me off of the street. That was one of the best things she did.
What did your mom do for work to support you and your family — your brother and sister?
Oh, well, my mom — at the time that I was young, my mom was just an office maid inna — at the ministry — at one of the government ministries; she was being an office maid.
And was your mom, or anyone else in your family, a talented singer or musician?
My grandmother go to the church and sing, but — and she was a good singer, that’s all I know. Nobody else in my family.
Before you left Jamaica in 1969 to live in Canada for ten years, you recorded an album called “Come Back Darling” — as you mentioned — for Winston Riley’s “Techniques?”
And you recorded this, I understand, on the very day you left [Jamaica].
Yeah I finished that recording on the very morning when I was migrating, and I left in the afternoon.
Were you already then immersed and familiar with the Rasta way of life — and Rasta beliefs — already?
Yeah, well, I lived in western Kingston, so from a little boy I’m interacting with the Rastamen dem, and the Rastamen dem style. So I took on that Rasta style; even before I dreadlocks, I was Rasta.
So before you went to Canada though, even before you went to Canada—
I say, even before I wear dreadlocks, I was Rasta because that’s what — I was following the Rastaman’s traditions from early [on]. I stopped doing a lot of things that Rasta don’t do, even before I had dreadlocks.
Now, are there any particular people perhaps, like Rasta elders or Rasta musicians who really influenced you in that early way in your life — to take a look at that way of life?
I want to tell you, when I was young, and Rasta — Rastas been living in Jamaica — I just remember some elder Rasta — the Rastaman that I was more close with [was] called Mortimer Planno.
You were close to him?
Yeah, because I lived close by [to him].
I used to, you know, just stop by Mortimer Planno’s.
So would you reason with him, and talk—
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because I used to, I live[d] in Jonestown — Jonestown and Trenchtown are coming like the same town. Over that side — over there — so I [was] always going over to First Street, Second Street, hanging out with Bob, and Bunny, and Peter, Vision, [and] Rita. And Georgie. So from there then we’d go to — we’d stop at Planno’s sometimes, [because] Planno [didn’t] live too far from me, you know?
Do you remember when Selassie visited Jamaica and what your thoughts were?
Johnny Osbourne: Listen, 1966, when His Majesty visited Jamaica, I rode a bicycle to the airport right onto the—
Onto the tarmac!?
Right onto the tarmac. And I was underneath the plane. I touched the plane. When His Majesty’s came out of — when His Majesty’s niece came [out of] the plane — stepped out and looked out — it was like she was astonished at what [was] happen[ing]. I was at the bottom of the steps.
You’re blowing my mind, Johnny.
In 1966, I was about 18-19 years old. So, I remember good.
Wow! Johnny, unlike many singers and musicians who have complained publicly about the way that they were treated by Coxsone — even if they respect[ed] him — many of them, even ones I’ve interviewed, have complained about him. They were working for him at the same time that you were. But you have been — it’s clear from my research, and from looking at it — you’ve been very clear that you don’t have complaints about Sir Coxsone—
No, I don’t have complaints about Sir Coxsone. Now, just in my thoughts, this is not [the] Gospel, this is not something that I know, but, it’s my opinion that the reason why I don’t have any complaints is because I did not record for Coxsone when I was just coming up in the business and trying to be an artist. When I record[ed] for Coxsone, I [had already] established myself ten years before. And make an album for myself, [“Come Back Darling”]; and make a name for myself. So when I went to Studio One, I was ready. Coxsone didn’t have to help me or mold me into an artist. So, I wasn’t working for Coxsone. Like most artists that [were] there were working every day—
You were more on the same level [as Coxsone]?
Yeah. I came [in the studio], and I did what I [did], and then I’m gone.
Now I know you have said that he treated you like family before—
Yeah, of course.
Was he also fair to you on the business side of things?
Well, listen, it’s what I’m saying. My time [with Coxsone at Studio One] [was] a different time [than others had]. And I’m telling you, I don’t care who says [Coxsone] didn’t treat them right, I cannot get up and say the same thing, because I don’t know how he treated them. I was not there. I was not working for him when they were working for him. So I come to do an album, a few songs, so, we were on a different page.
Johnny, if it’s okay, I just want to ask you about one other favorite song [of mine, and many other Johnny Osbourne fans, too]. And I want to thank you for being so generous with your time. I want to ask you about the first song you sang today. This is one of my favorite songs, and [that of] so many [other] people[, too]: your massive dancehall hit “Buddy Bye” on Jammy’s “Sleng Teng” riddim. This is a song that, unless you’re dead, you have to sing and dance whenever it plays.
I was shocked when I learned that — I didn’t know this [until fairly recently] — that “Buddy Bye” is not actually what you’re singing in the song. And it’s actually “put it by.”
“Put it by number one.” (Singing) “Put it by—put it by—put it by number one. Put it by, put it by, put it by.” So when people hear it, they think they hear “Buddy Bye,” “Buddy Bye,” like it’s a—
Like a gunshot?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like [firing off] a blank. “Put it by—put it by—”
They’re saying like “encore”-
—bring it back.
So after a while I start[ed] saying that too, because it works good for an encore.
I mean the tune is so hot. And you have to put it in the top — you have to highly rate it. Can you describe or say how it is that you came up with this scorcher? How did you — when did you decide to — you know, you let the name of the song — the official name is “Buddy Bye.” Did you say “fine” — how did it come that the song became [officially] named that?
No, well, maybe the producer just hear the people dem say “Buddy Bye,” and just put “Buddy Bye” [as the official name when it was released].
And how did you come up with the song?
I listened to the riddim, and the riddim just say, “say that.”
I hear the riddim, and — I listened to the riddim a few times, and that’s what I hear in my mind; I just come up with it. That’s nothing that I wrote [ahead of time]. I just came up with it [spontaneously].
Johnny, the call and response going on in “Buddy Bye” is so original, and it’s so dope. And to this day, any audience will go wild with that call and response in “Buddy Bye.”
Yeah, true. So true.
And I read that you said — or maybe I watched you say somewhere — that you got this idea to incorporate this call and response from slave songs? True?
Wow. Johnny, I don’t have any more questions [right now]. I know you need to go eat some food. I just want to say to you that it’s just truly a blessing — it’s a great honor to talk to you. I’m perhaps your number one fan — you may not know this—
Alright, well I feel honored to know that I’ve done this for you, because you know, you’re interested in the music. And it’s for the music. It’s not for me, it’s for the music.
I so appreciate you. And Johnny, the last thing I want to ask you, before I turn of the recorder is, do you have any — so many people love your music. I mean, we learn from your music. “Truth and Rights.” We have gotten so much from you over the years. What message do you want all of your fans, who are all over the world, who listen to everything you say so closely, what do you want them to know right now?
I want them to know: Why do we fight each other when we can live together? The world is big enough. Everyone’s got — a piece for you, and a piece for me. Because everybody is family. Why do we fight each other when we can live together? [That] is all I want to say.
Respect. Respect. Thank you so much, my friend.