Interview with Tony Chin
Where: Dub Club, Echoplex, Los Angeles CA
When: April 15, 2023
Reporter: Stephen Cooper
Photos: Courtesy of Stephen Cooper, and the respective record companies (labels/sleeves)
Editing Interview Video : Teacher
Copyright: 2023 – Stephen Cooper
Tony Chin: “Reggae music is a message. It always has a message.” (The Interview)
Legendary guitarist Tony Chin has played on countless hit songs—songs sung by Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and innumerable other members of reggae’s royalty—and he is unquestionably one of the greatest guitarists—not only in all reggae, but in any genre of music.
Having interviewed Tony extensively already—on several occasions—about his work with the legendary Soul Syndicate band, as well as his solo career, and having kept in touch with Tony ever since, I’m proud to call Tony a friend. As any reggae journalist and any reggae fan with any sense would, I’ve of course continued to follow Tony’s music with extreme interest; I take note each time Tony releases a new work, such as his super-irie new solo album—released April 1—called “Karma.”
Just two weeks later, on April 15, I was blessed to be Tony’s guest at a historic show held at the famed Dub Club in Los Angeles: Legendary singer Sister Nancy backed by the Soul Syndicate, the best studio band in Jamaica in the 1970s during reggae’s “Golden Age.”
During a break in the sound check for the show, I interviewed Tony about: the significance of Sister Nancy performing with the Soul Syndicate—for the first time in history; the span of time during Tony’s career when he played with California-based reggae band Big Mountain (including the critical part Tony played in making Big Mountain’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” such a giant, global smash hit); and finally, Tony and I talked about his righteous newly released album, “Karma.”
What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. Embedded throughout the transcript are links to Tony Chin’s music, exclusive video clips, images, photos, and more. At the end, there’s a link to the complete audiotape of the interview—available on YouTube.
Tony, now that I have my recording devices on, I want to begin by telling you officially, though I’ve known you a few years now—and I’ve interviewed you before extensively (reggae lovers can easily find those interviews online)—every time I’m blessed with this opportunity to communicate with you, I’m just so thankful because I know I’m talking to one of the best guitarists in the world. A legendary guitarist in reggae music history. Tony, in addition to yourself, I have of course interviewed legendary drummer Santa Davis—who’s here [tonight]—extensively, [and] along with your blessed help, Earl Chinna Smith [too]—all members of the legendary Soul Syndicate band. Which as I’ve written about many times “Was, Is & Always” will be, in my opinion, the best studio band in what ‘nuff people call reggae’s “Golden Era.” And so of course in all those past interviews—I hope people will locate and checkout—there’s already been a ton of reasoning about ‘nuff subjects about the Soul Syndicate history. And there’s no need to rehash any of it. We talked extensively—you, and Santa, and I—so generously you guys told me about the “Stalag” riddim already—so famous and used in so many tunes. And the single, solitary question that I have even remotely touching on the Stalag riddim—it would be incompetent for me not to ask you this question tonight, of all nights: How does it feel Tony to be here at the famed Dub Club in Los Angeles about to perform with the legendary Sister Nancy, whose massive hit song “Bam Bam” was one of those tunes that made that Stalag riddim so world-famous?
Yes. ‘Nuff love and respect. This is very historic. Sister Nancy’s been here many times. And we have never played with her on those shows and tings. She’s never had the original members that played the original riddim “Stalag” on [a] show with her. And tonight at the Dub Club—it’s very historic. It’s the first [time that the Soul Syndicate] band is backing her up. The three members of the original band that played that riddim—Santa [Davis], Fully [Fullwood], and Tony Chin is backing her up on “Bam Bam” tonight.
I’m very proud of this one. This is my 8th [solo] album.
Yeah. And it’s funny that you mention that, because Selecta Jerry said that on his “Sounds of the Caribbean” radio show recently—when he played one of your songs. And I wanted to confirm that in fact it was your eighth solo album—
—so I’m glad you [confirmed] that. Now before I bring that up, before I start jumping into “Karma,” because I have interviewed you so much—there have been [some] things that I’ve missed though. And one of the important things that I missed was your work with the California-based reggae band “Big Mountain” for a spell. And of course, you and Santa, and I believe [keyboardist] Michael Hyde (who I of course know works with the Soul Syndicate [a lot]), played for a while with Big Mountain. True?
Yes, well I joined Big Mountain in 1993. And I played with them until 1998. And I think I did 4 albums with them. One of the main albums was an album called “Unity.” That had “Baby, I Love Your Way.”
And Tony, in preparing for the interview, I was on YouTube and I was watching Peter Frampton—who I didn’t know that much about. But I watched Peter Frampton—I googled up his song, the original “Baby, I Love Your Way.” And he’s in concert—it’s July 2nd, 1977. He’s playing in like—it looks like a football stadium-sized thing. And it’s so wicked—
Let me give you a little history about that song. We were doing the album “Unity.” We were in the middle of the album when Bruce Kaplan, the manager of Big Mountain, came to us and said that this producer, Ron Fair from RCA, would love this group to record this Peter Frampton [song], “Baby, I Love Your Way.” So Bruce Kaplan, the manager, gave me the tape of the live version of Peter Frampton.
Is it maybe the one that I’ve been talking about?
I have no idea. But a live version. He gave me the live version to listen to. I am the guitarist really. I work out the sequence—the chords of the song, the arrangement of the song and ting. And then the producer wants—Bruce told us that the producer want[ed] us to make a demo of the song. [So] they can hear it before [we] record it. So we were at a house in Ventura—we have a studio there. I recorded the song. I love that intro with the guitar—that acoustic on the guitar—and then he started to sing the verse. So when we were recording, they said let’s use the guitar intro. The key of the song was in “F”—I found out on the original. It was “F.” So when we made the demo, recording it, I told [Joaquin] “Quino” [McWhinney]: “Don’t start with the verse. Start with the chorus.” That was my idea.
[Singing] “Ooh, Baby I love your way—”
I said start with the chorus, and then go to the verse. And then they gave the tape to Ron Fair, and he loves it. And we went to the studio to record the song. Lynn [Copeland] was the bass player, and Lance [Rhodes] was the drummer—we were in a studio in L.A. recording it, and Ron Fair didn’t like how the band was playing it. So he said: “That’s not gonna work. We have to get different musicians.” I said, “Okay, let me call my bass man Fully [Fullwood]. I tried to call Fully, [but] I didn’t get him. So they get this bass player—very famous bass player—I forget his name. But this wicked bass player. And get a different drummer. And a different keyboard player. And all of them have music sheets—reading. I can’t read music. I’m used to recording with the song. And I didn’t make no mistakes. But the drummer and the bass player, they keep stopping. And Ron Fair came to me and said: “Listen, Tony, you’re a fucking machine.”
Because what he don’t understand—what Ron Fair didn’t understand—this is my genre. This is my music—
This is what you know.
—this is what I know.
The riddim—I was playing the riddim. I didn’t make any mistake on it. They have to keep stopping. I have to wait on them to catch back, and the only difference is, I got the song—the arrangement that Ron Fair did—he did a good arrangement. But instead of him play the song in “F,” he played the song in “E.” So we recorded the song in “E.” But then he modulated the song back to “F.”
You see, when we were making the demo, we didn’t have any modulation. We just played that straight thing. But Ron Fair arranged it, and modulated it back to the “F.” So that’s all his idea and ting.
This is amazing, Tony. Because I was gonna ask you—the next thing I was gonna say—because while I watched that Peter Frampton [version]—then when I go listen to the Big Mountain [version]—
—which is—you “reggaefied” the Peter Frampton [version]. And my question for you, which you just answered, was [gonna be] how did you make it so awesome? Because I think the reggaefied version, as much as the Peter Frampton—I’d never even really seen [or heard] that one before. I mean, I respect [it]. It’s kinda wicked from what I saw on YouTube—
You know—remember Ron Fair, the producer—
And Ron Fair, too.
—he’s the one that arranged the song mostly. But the arrangement that I did on the song, I told Quino: “Don’t sing the verse. Sing the chorus.” That was my arrangement.
This song is such a giant song.
Yeah, but remember now a next part of it, the bass player and the drummer did not play on the Big Mountain version. But Quino and his brother James McWhinney—me, Quino, and James, I think—I’m not sure if Billy [“Bones” Stoll] the keyboard player—only the three of us from Big Mountain is on that track.
Thank you so much for telling me the history of this song and, I wanted to ask you, just [one] last thing about Big Mountain. Why did you—you toured with them—I think you guys did Jamaica Sunsplash—
We did a lot of tours
You did Jamaica Sunsplash, I think, with them.
[And] Japan Splash.
You did a lot of things. How come you guys—it was you and Santa—
No, no—originally it wasn’t Santa.
Okay, but then you toured with them?
Listen, originally, Big Mountain—before I heard of Big Mountain—they have this song named “Touch My—” I never knew who Big Mountain was. They have this song, “Touch My Light.” And Fully told me, he said that a brother named “Bruce Kaplan” is looking for me. Because what happened, what I get to find out, the guitarist—[Big Mountain was] on tour. They were doing a USA-Sunsplash tour. And [their] guitarist end up in jail.
And they need a guitarist [who], without a lot of rehearsals, can come and fill in. And they heard about me and ting, and they said Tony Chin is the right man to come.
How come you, if I could ask—Did you stop working with [Big Mountain]? Because they still perform, they’re still touring, they’re still on the scene—
Yeah, yeah, I know—
—did you just, at some point, stop working with them?
But are you on good terms with them still?
Yeah, I’m on good terms with Quino. The way the business goes, I have other projects and tings. But I played with them a long time. I did about 4 or 5—I think it’s 4 albums that I did with them.
Yeah, I was looking at that.
And I’m the person that’s playing both the riddim and the lead on all the albums dem.
Folks can see ‘nuff videos of you online of you playing with them.
Yeah, I’m not playing the solo, but I’m the riddim and the lead guitar, I’m the one who’s doing both.
Big Mountain – Monkey See, Monkey Do
And even Tony Chin have some songs that I sing on some of the [Big Mountain] albums. I did a song named “Monkey See, Monkey Do.”
Oh? I’ll have to go google that one.
Yeah. And I did a song named—(humming)—I did a song named “Wante Wante.”
Oh, that one I think I’ve heard before.
Yeah, it’s an up-tempo song.
Now Tony, because I know time is short and you need to relax and get ready for this show, I want to move to “Karma.”
Thank you so much for giving me the CD for this tonight. This is a super-irie solo album you just released. And I’m so excited to talk to you about this. And Selecta Jerry [host of the respected and popular “Sounds of the Caribbean” reggae radio program], like I said, he mentioned [on his show] this was your 8th solo studio album. And he recently played one of the album’s scorchers—I think—“Dem Say.” And first, one of the questions I want to ask is: None of the songs on the new album are actually titled “Karma?”
Alright, for example, Bob Marley has an album “Uprising.”
And he didn’t have a song on it named “Uprising.”
So what happened, “Karma,” if you notice most of the songs [on the new album] dem—I think it’s only one, two tracks on it—two tracks on it that are not singing about Babylon. Or Rastafari. A song named “Lonely Road.” I wrote that song when I was about 16-17 years old. I wrote that song and I remembered it, and just record it. Never record[ed] [it] before. And the first track named—
“Ring-A-Ling.” That’s a dance song.
That’s a party song. That’s an upbeat, party song. But the rest of the songs dem, the second track—[singing] “If you want to be on the right track—” with me and—
I have [a few] questions about that [song].
I didn’t write that song. That is a song written by Hopeton Lewis. And Hopeton Lewis sings it with a woman named Phyllis Dillon. That was a big rocksteady song in Jamaica that I grew up loving, and I finally get to do it. And the bass player on that track, a brother named Mike Irwin, he was the one that mixed and mastered the album [at Rough Sounds Studio]—Mike Irwin. Mixed and mastered the album and get it to sound like that.
Now Tony, what is this on the album cover? You always have to ask this question, because [album] artwork can sometimes be important. And I just wondered if there [is] any particular significance to the use of the butterfly [on the album cover]?
Yeah. The butterfly. I love butterflies. I’m a peaceful, loving type [of person]. But first, I gotta let you know what “Karma” means.
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry.
Karma. We have a saying in Jamaica, “What you sow, you shall reap.” Like if you sow bad seed, you’re gonna raise bad seed.
The good you do will follow you.
And the bad you do will come back and get you.
So that is what karma means. Karma means the wickedness that you’ve been doing—the evil people doing—it gonna come back and bite them.
All of them gonna have to say “Jah Jah” on Judgment Day-time. And give account. Accountability for all the evilness that they’ve done on this earth. I mean what’s going on the world with Putin, and Trump, and all the man dem. Some of the evil—
[They’re] [p]laying “War Games?”
Yeah, that’s right “War Games,” man.
Yes, ‘nuff respect. I’m gonna ask about that [song].
Now Tony, before I jump into a few of the songs [on “Karma” like “War Games”]—I want to ask you about some of the songs specifically that you’re talking about—but let me ask you first, did you produce the album yourself?
Yeah, I produce it—between me and Mike Irwin. But I am the main producer.
Nice. And then also, can you tell me who are—obviously you handled, I assume, the bulk of the guitar duties on the album—
Yeah, all the guitar [and] vocals. Guitar and vocals.
What other musicians should we know are heard on this album?
Fully [Fullwood (bass)]. Santa [Davis (drums)]. [Style Scott (drums)]. [Horseman (drums)]. [Michael Hyde (keyboards)]. [Tony Bird (keyboards)]. [Lai Hee (percussion)]. [Glen Holdaway (horns)]. [Liam Robertson (horns)]. [And] Mike Irwin [was] the engineer. The engineer is very important. He mixed the sound and mastered it [at Rough Sounds Studio]. No matter how good the song is, you’re not gonna get any good sound [without a good engineer]. ‘Nuff love and respect to Mike Irwin. And every song on it is original, except “Right Track.”
Like you were saying, I kinda was going through the album [to] figure out the composition of the songs [on it]. And there really are a lot of diverse and dynamic, and really cool songs on “Karma.” There are upbeat songs [such as] you mentioned: “Ring-A-Ling.” There are songs about hypocrites. Such as “Dem Say.” And “Come and Go.”
And wickedness. And also love songs. And there are songs about Judgment Day. And even spiritual songs, I would say too.
Alright, the love song on it named “Lonely Road”—
Yeah that’s the song you say you wrote when you were—
16-17 years old. I was just learning to play guitar. Now I go to the movies a lot, and when I—when I was going to school I read a lot of fairy tales. You know fairy tale-books like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I’m a very romantic person. So that song, the lyrics I think came as a fantasy, romantic, and walking down a lonely road playing my guitar. Singing some love song. And I saw this beautiful lady sitting on the side of the road. I say, “Man, Lady, I got to know your name.” She’s so beautiful. Now on the original version that I wrote, I mentioned the word “gay.” I saw this lady and “her face was so bright and gay.” I took out the word “gay.” Because in Jamaica, “gay” means happy—happiness and tings. But when I come to America, I find that “gay” is homosexuals and everything. So I took out the word “gay.” So I change up the words a little and tings.
So that’s—that’s a fantasy song.
The rest of the songs dem now about—“Dem Say”—Jamaica—I’m speaking about the foreign Rastafari—you have a lot of dreadlocks—Rasta going around with dem dreadlocks. But to me, it’s a fashion for them. They always say, “Yeah man, mi love Jamaica. Boy, me love reggae and mi smoke ganja.” But deep down inna dem heart, dem no mean anything. Dem just a follow[er], because dem a fashion-dread. It’s better they go shave dem head.
You know “Come and Go” means only God, the man who create life, can take life, and can tell you if you’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell.
So only he knows if you’re gonna come, or you’re gonna go.
And a lot of people, dem say that dem are the righteous people dem—spiritual dem, and righteous. But dem a worship Satan. Dem a do evil things. I have a song on an album—I don’t remember what album—“Behind Close Doors.” You know a lot of these people go in church, and preaching the gospel and this and that. But dem a hypocrites.
All dem a-go do is rob people with their “donations.” And then they have their big house and their Mercedes dem—and a Rolls Royce car—and take from the poor. So only God knows who fe come and who fe go. So that’s exactly what that song’s about.
‘Nuff respect, Tony. After that first song “Ring-A-Ling” makes me “jump and prance—”
—the next two songs—you’ve mentioned [them] already, but I have to bring them up—“Right Track” [and “Babylon Pressure”]. Because I love DJ [Dennis] Alcapone, as you know. So you had me at DJ [Dennis] Alcapone. [With all those Dennis Alcapone] samples.
Ah, watch it, after “Right Track”—that is the vocal of the song. But the riddim, the music is so good—I love the music. Now on the original “Right Track,” Hopeton Lewis—Dennis Alcapone is not on it, you know? So I love the riddim so much that I wrote lyrics on the riddim. On the original riddim. And called it “Babylon Pressure.” Because we nah bow to Babylon. Rastafari is not gonna bow to Babylon. Because Babylon, they want to take we freedom. But we not bow. We have to stand up strong and fight. And I have [another] song [on the album] called “Mental Youths.”
Oh, I love that [song]. An instrumental.
A guitar instrumental, right.
It’s so wicked.
Yeah, because if you notice the melody of the guitar ting—like I said, I watch a lot of movies. Western movies. Clint Eastwood movies.
They call it “Spaghetti Westerns.” And him always have these kinda sounds. The guitar kinda [played along] on the soundtrack. So I have a guitar playing like a movie soundtrack, but you know, it’s about guns. But the song really is about a “mental youth,” who I say that him have to get help. And him must throw away his AK-47. And that’s still going on now—people shoot up schools.
Enough people shoot places up and all these things.
It resonates right now.
Come And Go
—where you call out the dirty politicians. And their war mongering. And you even call Vladimir Putin out by name.
Yeah man. Call them out, man.
This song is so fierce. ‘Nuff respect. I guess it’s obvious, but still, was there something about the war in Ukraine especially that inspired the song? And when did you decide to write the tune, and include it on the album?
I wrote the song a few years ago. Because I watch the news a lot, and see how much there is war [all] over the world. Especially in the Middle East. And then when Putin started the war [with Ukraine], those words [I added to the song to] make it more up-to-date. Because a part of the lyrics of the song that are very touching to me is the part that, “I can hear my people crying out. They want another Moses.” (Singing) “I can hear the babies crying out for their mama’s breast. But mama is lying dead. Shot down in the street by a sniper’s bullet. Warfare tragedies everywhere. Leaders of the world? They don’t care.” But none of dem want to take the blame. Because you see Putin don’t want to take the blame that he caused the war. Him a-blame Ukraine.
Tony I didn’t plan to ask you this, but have you ever played reggae in Russia before?
Yeah, with Big Mountain.
Wow. Can you tell me about that?
Well it was a show one night—we did it when the Berlin Wall came down.
Wow. You played there with Big Mountain?
Yeah, I played there with Big Mountain. In Berlin. I think it was Berlin—
Do you remember where in Russia you were?
I don’t remember exactly where, but—was it Russia? I think it’s Russia.
Did the people like the reggae music?
Do you think reggae could become a thing in Russia—
If it did, if reggae became a thing in Russia, would Putin survive?
Um, now listen, I’m not even sure it was [in] Russia [that I played with Big Mountain]. It was somewhere in Europe, behind the—
Behind the “Eastern—
Yeah, I don’t remember if it was Russia, or on the other side, but—
—don’t you think if reggae music played there, that that could be a great thing for the Russian culture.
Well I think a lot of bands [have] played there already. I think I saw UB40 [played] in Russia. Maybe Steel Pulse [has] played there, too. And then a lot of European bands [have] played in Russia already. But I know that—and we’ve played Berlin. And I’ve played Poland—I went to a show at a [former] concentration camp.
A [concentration] camp in Berlin named “Dachau.” I’ve been there.
Well, Tony, I know you’ve been all over the world, but I’m so happy you’re right here tonight. And you’re gonna be on the stage with your Soul Syndicate brothers [backing] Sister Nancy. And this is such a historic, wicked occasion. The vibes here in the Dub Club—they already are circulating. And so I just want to tell you that—I want to wish you all the success. Your new album [“Karma”] is just wicked.
I’m very proud of this album. I’m very proud of it.
You should be. And I hope that people who listen to this interview will immediately go and check out that album. Tony, so many fans love you and appreciate you around the reggae community, and the world. They know that you’ve been on—you’ve played on so many tunes—and so many legendary songs. You can’t even count them, it’s just—
It’s a lot, yeah.
It’s unbelievable. And even just recently, I found out that you played—because I’d never seen the credits before [until recently]—but I saw the original vinyl for the “Roots of Dub” album. And it was—it blew—it kinda gave me a meltdown when I saw your name on the [back of the] album.
Alright. You ever hear Bob Marley sing a tune named “Small Axe?”
Yes. And I know about “More Axe.”
Ah! See I know—
The original. A lot of people don’t know that Bob had an original axe—“More Axe.” Before “Small Axe.” And I am playing on the original “More Axe.”
And then you played on “Dreamland.”
I played on “Dreamland”—the original with Bunny Wailer.
And you played on [Bob’s] “Mr. Brown,” that was initially—
“Duppy Conqueror.” But they changed it to “Mr. Brown.”
And then, I tell every single person I ever meet that I know the guitarist—the rhythm guitarist—that played on “Sun Is Shining.” Which has got to be one of my favorite Bob Marley songs of all time. Because every time I hear the song, it puts me in a good mood. And the fact that I know the rhythm guitarist—
Well, me and a brother played on it—a brother named Cleon Douglas. He was our first vocalist for [Soul] Syndicate back in the days, you see. So you see, he played on “Sun Is Shining,” too. So those are very historical [songs]. And we played [on] a lot of Gregory Isaacs [songs]. I did a tune with Gregory Isaacs—a [track] the Roots Radics played [on]—“Love Is Overdue.” And “All I Have Is Love.”
So many [big] tunes [you’ve played on]. [Tunes with] Dennis Brown—
Oh, a lot of Dennis Brown—[such as] “Cassandra.”
And that’s why I hope people will—there are enough interviews, and people don’t have to necessarily read mine of you. They can read whoever’s they want. But we have talked about these things [before]. And I want people—people need to go and learn who the foundational players are—
Yeah, yeah. Check out “Karma.”
What else do you want to tell them?
Reggae music is a message. It always has a message in the music. And then you can dance and sing to it, just like my first track [on “Karma,” “Ring-A-Ling”]: “Clap your hands everybody. Clap your hands and dance.”
“Jump and prance.”
“Ring-a-ling-a-ling.” So you know, reggae music is a very constructive music [and] message. One of my greatest inspiration in reggae is Bob Marley. Everybody knows that. When I’m writing, I’m thinking how Bob would write and stuff. And then some of my inspiration is Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, Max Romeo, Beres Hammond. All the greats. Listen, I am not a singer. I can sing.
You can sing.
But I’m not a singer. [A] [s]inger is Dennis Brown. Beres Hammond. Freddie McGregor. Sugar Minottt. Barrington Levy.
Tabby Diamond. Dem men, they are singers. But I can hold a few notes. My thing: I love to write. I want to write original music, and spread the message I love. Spread it, you know? Reggae music is the message I love. And all of the youths dem who a-come up and love reggae music, you know what I mean? [They should] continue. Because sometimes people a-go try to keep it down, but fight. Fight it. I just wrote a new song that don’t come out yet.
Was that the one I heard you singing [during the sound check]?
Tony, it was so [wicked!]. I have a video of it. Oh man.
(Singing) “Fight Natty, fight. Fight for your rights. Rise up and fight. You’ve got to survive. Go dey, Natty, go dey. Don’t let dem stop you from Jah works. No! Roar Natty, roar. Like a lion protecting his turf. Natty Dread forward. Forward Natty.”
I just wrote it. It hasn’t been recorded yet. That’s gonna be on a single.
Wow. Tony, you’re being called over by your Soul Syndicate band member[, Santa Davis]. Tony, ‘nuff respect. Thank you so much for the interview, man.
Alright, yeah. Yeah man.