U Brown interview
U Brown owed a lot to his tutor U Roy the Godfather but made his own way out in the end to be what he is today; a very skillful deejay and well-known for his stage-presence, you could say he still ‘kicks it’ in a live show. He is one of few vintage deejays I still enjoy immensely from the albums that came out in the late seventies, doing his thing on top of the hottest Bunny Lee riddims of the day by classic singers such as Johnny Clarke, Cornell Campbell, Leroy Smart, Ronnie Davis or Horace Andy. Not to forget his own productions like the Jammy-mixed ‘Badness A Madness’ – the first on his Hit Sound label, and some saw the light of day on Virgin’s prestigious but short-lived Frontline label at the time.
“MR BROWN SOMET’NG”
I caught up with Mr Brown in London, October ’03, to discuss his place as a foundation deejay in the world of reggae music, and although he is a bit tired the day after a party in the company of fellow London resident Dennis Alcapone, he had a few things to say. My thanks to Huford, Steve Barrow, Mike Turner, John, Tim P, Bob Schoenfeld and Michael de Koningh.
The family background please Mr Brown.
I was born in Western Kingston, Jamaica. I’m born up in the bottom of Trench Town. I didn’t have much sense about it until I went further out in West Kingston which is like Denham Town, which is just another adjoining area to Trench Town, right. And living on Bond Street, which is just – I live on 37, and Duke Reid was 33. Yeh, I live near by that studio an’ from those days I get to realise that (it’s) something about it that attracts me. So, it’s in me but I don’t know how far it went (chuckles) or how far would it go. ‘Cause I can remember as a young youth living in Bond Street, as I said two doors from Treasure Isle studio which is Duke Reid Records, I can remember when my mum send me to the shop, whether it’s on a Sunday or during the week passing Duke Reid, always seeing him with people who is involved in the music. Is singers who come in for audition or musicians taking out their instruments who go upstairs in the studio, at Duke Reid studio. And I always stop and take some time out to take a look. Even though my mum is waiting on me to bring what she send me to buy at the shop, y’know. Yeah, and sometime I get in trouble for that! But, y’know wha’ I mean, I wasn’t coming from a rich background. But at the same time, them time my family keep it together the best way they could.
How big was the family?
Oh well! At the time, ca’ my mum is my dad’s second wife, and with my mum my dad had seven children, and he had four in his first marriage. So, is eleven sisters and brothers of us.
Was any relative involved in the music business before you entered it? Like you had it in the family.
Well, not that I can remember. It not been known to me. You know, I don’t know but the only t’ing about music with my father is that he always go to bars. In Jamaica they always call it the bars, and in Europe they call it the pub, y’know. Is the same place where you go for a drink an’ you have jukebox playing music, an’ t’ing like that. But I don’t know (if) my father or any other member of the family involved musically, deeper than that.
As with most Jamaicans you went to church, singing in a choir. But you never did practice with a group before you gave deejaying a try, singin’ harmony or any such thing?
Yeah, yeah, but I wasn’t in no vocal group or anything like that. No, we jus’ go to church normally and the whole church singin’ and you sing your part, but everyone just sing together. But it wasn’t that I was involved in a specific choir or anyt’ing like that, y’know what I mean. And then, along the way, like I say growing up around the music in like Waterhouse, beca’ I leave from that part in Western Kingston up to West Central, which is like a place up in Waterhouse, Kingston 11, where King Tubby’s, (Prince) Jammy’s, and another sound system back in the days called Sounds of Music, you know, all those sounds was around. And by going to the dances and listen to music and then the person who really capture my attention at the time was really U Roy. Yeah, and with the sound King Tubby’s, y’know, because I was living in the same community as U Roy. At the time, where I was living up in Waterhouse, when I leave from… down by Western Kingston up to South Central Kingston, y’know wha’ I mean?
What time are we talking now? Late sixties?
Yeah. No, well, that was like about… late sixties. Mid sixties, like ’66/67. Even ’68, coming up to ’69. Those time I start to penetrate the dance an’ would sneak out the house an’ try to go to dance and coming (back) late and sometimes being locked out, because I went out without any permission.
Yes! Couldn’t resist!
Entering a dance in those times compared to now, what’s the main difference there apart from the music itself, how do you view it?
Well, the difference now – the difference is with the music, with how the music has been played, not only with the type of song itself, but how the music been selected. And with how the environment and the people, ca’ in those days most people would (be) dancing together, it was like fun going out to a party. ‘Cos sometimes even when a man have his woman at home, he would still go out to the dance an’ by himself, beca’ he know that when he goes there an’ certain music starts to play, he is going to try to find a girl, chat up a girl to get a dance an’ whatever (is) upfront there. So what really happen is that it’s a different environment. Today’s dances is more like everybody is (in) this macho kinda attitude – even the girls! Some girls, I wouldn’t say all girls, ’cause even some girls behave like they are the… jus’ like some man would behave. Like to come around in posses, and try to profile like men! Not like in the sense of dressing up like men, but is like… holding corners an’… you know wha’ I mean?
Yeah… flex, like?
A : Yeah, flex, the kinda flexing thing, which is… Nutten wrong with flex but to me is not a female flex, from a ladies point of view. But otherwise, as I said things change an’ things never remain the same, so that’s how it goes.
It have to change.
Yes. Ca’, jus’ go with the flow, y’know, try to.
So you wanted to try as a deejay. After King Stitt and Count Machouki had made it, U Roy showed up and everybody felt the appeal of his style, his jive talk. He had an immediate appeal on or to you?
Yeah, wha ‘appen, ca’ like I said U Roy at the time was one of my mentor, my main mentor, along with Big Youth and people like Dennis Alcapone, y’know, and Prince Jazzbo an’ the late I Roy. Yeah, people like those was great influence to me. One that really catches me most it was U Roy and one of the reason is that U Roy was more closer. In that sense like King Tubby’s sound system was from that side of Jamaica, in Waterhouse, I was living in Waterhouse area and U Roy was living in the same Kingston 11 area, which is Waterhouse area. So it’s like it was easier to hear him an’ see him more, so him grow on me more.
What was – or still is – so attractive about U Roy’s style, in your opinion?
Well, is a whole lot of things ’bout U Roy that attracts me. You know, is that the way how U Roy sound musically, the way how him come across introducing the songs that he is about to play on the turntable because those were the days when the deejays usually performed live in the dance in Jamaica, playing the sound system. So each record you’re gonna put on the turntable you will see right now – the spots now or you’ll say something like this: ‘The man Linval Thompson walks away and now the spots shines on the man Johnny Clarke!’ You know what I mean? You know, you jus’ played a Linval Thompson song so you want to let the public know that you’re moving from Linval Thompson showcase into Johnny Clarke, and then you’d also introduce the title of the song, t’ings like that. And I did really (get) captured by that kinda introduction, and also U Roy’s flexibility towards life at the time when I just started know ‘im and up until this day still. Because he’s just a humble person, really. Humble person and just go about him business, do wha’ him haffe do and him carry himself a certain way. Him dress up just like someone would see Michael Jackson and like how Michael Jackson dress or whoever, jus’ like U Roy carry himself, period. And him sound an’ everything. So that really take a capture to me, y’know.
And U Roy got a lot of followers, copyists or simple imitators like most of the happening artists do. How did he react and/or respond when your name came upon the scene, carrying so obviously the sound he had created?
Yeah, well, I wouldn’t call it ‘imitators’, I would call it… is a form of inspiration t’ing, yunno. Beca’ the thing is like as the old saying is ‘each one teach one’, right? Sometimes you don’t literally have to check someone and say ‘hey, this is A and this is B’. But in someone – it’s that feel within themselves and just need something to pull that out of them, that is what I get from U Roy and many more artists like Brigadier (Jerry), Josey Wales, y’know wha’ I mean, who come across and come within let’s say within that school, it’s just that we love how U Roy come across and we just take to that. We like how other deejays sound as well, like Big Youth, I Roy, Prince Jazzbo. But is just something about that style that we like, is just that. And U Roy never feel any way about that, is not like today when you hear a man try to sound like Bounty Killer dem having problems. You know, verbal conflic’ between each other, or someone try to sound like Capleton, or Beenie Man – that kinda thing. I don’t say it never happened, like people didn’t feel a way about a man trying to sound like him. But in those days it wasn’t as much people getting aggressive with each other like today, like sometimes you’d read it in the paper that this artist an’ that artist are arguing an’ so I think you come across them things. Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, we never into them kinda thing.
Still, Jazzbo and I Roy had a feud, even though it was more like a gimmick. Nothing really serious, like what you have now.
Yeah, well – tell you what! That wasn’t a thing like how Bounty Killer an’ Beenie Man did have their thing. Because it come to a point where violence came up, with I Roy an’ Prince Jazzbo, it was like a gimmick t’ing to sell record. Maybe Beenie and Bounty could be doing that to sell record as well, because I wasn’t so close around them to really know how far it goes. But from my point of view, it don’t appears to me like it was gimmick, or maybe if it was gimmick them take it in a different way. With I Roy and Jazzbo, to me I know it was a gimmick, beca’ I can tell you something; on one of the Prince Jazzbo tracks I was the one who did the introduction on it. Yeah, when Jazzbo seh – like how I say to Jazzbo: ‘Wha ‘appen Jazzbo?’, an’ when me a say… I say to him, seh: ‘Bwoy, me hear di bwai I Roy a call up yu name, yunno!’ An’ Jazzbo would say in the song: ‘That’s how they stay, they try to call up my name to get promotion!’ I was the one who say that. That time I was maybe about the age of 15 or 18 years old, yeah, in King Tubby’s studio. So I know for a fact that it was more gimmick, an’ both a dem was recording the tracks for Bunny Lee at the time, and Bunny Lee was a strong person behind that, influencing dem each others to pull gimmicks on each other. Yeah, yeah. Yeah man.
Part of the marketing thing.
Yeah, yeah. Part of the marketing t’ing, yeah.
The public bought the whole concept for it still, I mean literally.
Yeah, yeah – from outsiders. And it was the same t’ing a go on with Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan, in them days as well, y’know wha’ I mean. But they wasn’t fussin’ each other or fighting each other an’ dem kinda thing.
So you started your deejay thing at the Silver Bullet sound?
Yes, the first sound system that I really take a microphone an’ start to deejay, it was Silver Bullet. The owner of that sound – I know him as Jack, we called him Jack. He was a cyclist, y’know, a pedal-cyclist – not the motorcycle, a pedal-cyclist. Yeah, he was a cyclist in Jamaica at the time an’, y’know, he own the sound system and it was a sound in my community, so… Maybe about a year or two years I stayed at Silver Bullet, because it was just – that’s where I started and it was just a small sound system, not big like Tubby’s or Jammys at the time. Beca’ a lot of people don’t even know Jammys original sound system from the sixties.
Yes, he was that early.
Yes, Jammys! Yeah man! Jammys had sound system from about 1968/69, Jammys did have a sound system. I can tell you, I can remember quite clearly ‘cos I usually go to a lot of dances that Jammys play. Yes man, Jammys was rammin’ up dance, man! Jammys was rammin’ up dance.
By the way, who was resident deejay before you came to Silver Bullet?
Well, at the time there was no name-deejay because those guys that I even… that was there. I tell you the truth, I don’t even know where they are right now, I haven’t seen them for a long time, it’s like they just bust out of the business for whatever reason I don’t know, ca’ I haven’t seen them for a while.
Silver Bullet wasn’t ever involved in production?
No, he never produce any record, never produced any record.
After Silver Bullet you hooked up with the Sound of Music crew, Winston Scotland used to be resident deejay there, wasn’t he? The man who cut the classic ‘Buttercup’.
Yes, Winston Scotland was deejaying for that sound system at the time, he was deejaying two sound systems, like between Soul King – a sound from Jones Town, and Sounds of Music. But it so happened that sometimes Scotland is not available to deejay on that sound system. So it’s like the owner Phillip Monroe for Sounds of Music would ask me to fill in, y’know. I would pass through as a young youth an’ (they) would like our sound and I keep following the sound until one day U Roy met an accident and someone called me, introduced me to Tubbys an’ Tubbys seh they must bring me to let him hear me. And I went to the dance – the first dance, an’ messin’ about. That’s the first time I met Dillinger, an’ Tubbys also like how I sound, and then I start to deejay on King Tubby’s sound. From there Tubby say well, I can keep come around the sound, an’ that’s how I get to meet him.
As a youngster being around experienced people like Tubbys and U Roy, what encouragment did you get while being among them at that point?
Well, the inspiration now around them… Well, U Roy usually say a few things to me, yeah, in a sense of direction, but towards the music… Being around them they didn’t have to open their mouth an’ tell no individual what to do or what to say, beca’ the inspiration from them was good enough for you to learn, as long as you’re interested. Like sometimes you’re around someone and they don’t have to tell you that this is negative and that is positive. By seeing how they’re moving and how they’re administrating, you know the negative things from the positive things. They don’t have to really tell you, beca’ the inspiration was just so clear enough for you to see.
So after U Roy had the accident, you became resident deejay for Tubbys?
Yeah, beca’ in those days you didn’t have three or four deejays on a sound system, it’s just one. Then it was Dennis Alcapone on El Paso, Big Youth on Tippertone, U Roy on King Tubbys, and that’s how it went. I didn’t have a established name as a big deejay then, that was where I start make my name. But it was because of a sound like U Roy at the time as a young youth, they give me the privilege.
What happened to Winston Scotland?
No, well, I usually saw Winston Scotland up to the early part of the eighties, it was about 1980/82. After that I haven’t seen him for a while.
He lived in Waterhouse too?
No, he was living in the Jones Town area – Kingston 12.
But you wouldn’t drop him as an influence in the early days?
No, well, to be honest with you, all a those elder deejays, it’s something about some of them that you like, but the one that really have the influence on me most was U Roy, and Big Youth. Then I Roy along with Dennis Alcapone, an’ Prince Jazzbo.
What is Olympic Gardens like, where U Roy come from? What sounds come from this area?
Well, in Olympic Garden you have a sound named Kentone, you have a sound name Antone (the Killer), an’ you have a sound named Earl’s Disco – that’s from down a the bottom of Waterhouse, where Jammys studio is now situated, down that side. And you also have Jammys that time but Jammys wasn’t living there, he was living further up on the main – up on Balmorgy Avenue, and Silver Bullet and Sounds of Music. An’ Tubbys as well, ca’ Tubbys was from that area, Tubbys was living on Dromilly Avenue, which is Kingston 11, another part of Waterhouse.
Then you had to shift sound again after a while.
After Tubbys? Yeah after Tubbys, what ‘appen, U Roy – I think someone was keeping a dance and want U Roy come back to deejay on the sound, and he came back and started play Tubbys and I leave Tubbys and went to a sound called King Attourney, which was bought by a political activist called Tony Welch. And he changed the name to Socialist Roots.
How did the family support your movements in the music business? It wasn’t exactly what they expected or had hoped for the most, right?
Your mum never like them kinda thing. My mum always want her son to be a lawyer or a doctor or something up in society, just a part of society. We never expect that we could deejay a sound system and we become something progressive for us that we could make a living from it. Maybe not a big living but, like, how Sean Paul and Beenie Man dem did making it now, but we never knew that it would be taking us so far. We were just doing it as something – as a fun thing, we were going through the motions at the time. We didn’t take it up on ourselves ‘oh, we’re gonna make a career out of this’, and ‘I’m gonna buy a house out of this’, or ‘buy a car from this’, we just do it. You know, because of the love of it at the time, beca’ we never have it as a profession.
Well, you more or less had it as a hobby in the evenings and a regular job in the daytime. That’s how it goes for most of them I believe, even after you get a break.
Yeah. Jus’ like a hobby, yeah. No, ‘cos at the time I was in my teens – young boy, and I was living at home an’ my mum usually pay all the bills and everything so I didn’t have to worry. I might buy the odd pieces of clothes if I need it. As you know every teenager want to wear sneaker for a hundred and something pound and if mum can’t afford it then what you should do is like if you can make a lickle pocket money then you can go buy that for yourself. But mum would still buy these things. Yeah, and that’s how it went.
So after you left school you had a job during the day and deejayed at various sounds at weekends, shifting between at least two or three sound systems for that period?
Yeah, after that I start to learn trade and then like, like moulding. Moulding something that we make, like dutch pots to cook in, an’ things like that. Yeah. And then from there I was usually working in the Post Office service as well. Yeah, in Jamaica.
You tried a few things then.
Yeah, yeah. I was even working within the legal system at one time, y’know, in the court system. But only for maybe about a year.
For how many years did you work on a sound before you got an offer to record?
Well, um, I can’t remember definitely but it take me a couple of years, y’know, some five years, something like that. The first producer that really give me a chance was a guy named Winston Edwards.
How did that come about?
Well, I was down by the studio an’ Tubbys was telling him about me and then he decided to record two tracks with me, one titled ‘Jamaican Tobacco’ and the one called ‘Wet Your Pants Foot’. And then the next producer I record for was Yabby You.
Yes, that was ‘Dem A Wolf ‘.
Yeah, ‘Dem A Wolf ‘, right. And then after Yabby I record numerous tracks for Bunny Lee. Yeah, Bunny Lee was the first man who released and produced an album with me.
But Edwards was essentially the first man who decided to give this a try in the studio with you? No one before him then, like things that never came out?
Yeah, the first opportunity… How it come about was Tubby introduced me to him, like saying that ‘This guy is my young lickle deejay that play on the sound an’ him sound alright’, and Winston decide to give me a try. Because at those days the only cost it will cost a producer is to pay for the studio time to record me, is not that he had to pay me to do it – like today. Because those days we’re just doing them t’ing an’ don’t know where it gonna take us.
You didn’t think too much about money at this time in other words.
No, money wasn’t the main factor, the main factor was to record songs an’ hear your songs playing, and know that you have done that.
But it was three tunes for Winston Edwards that came out on his UK label Fay Music?
Two! Two, two – ‘Jamaican Tobaco’, and one called ‘Wet Up Your Pants Foot’.
What about ‘Jah Jah Whip Them’? Also for Edwards.
‘Jah Jah Whip Them’? I never did that song for him.
They never came out in Jamaica, those two tunes?
No, in London – UK.
And you got paid for it?
No, I never get paid for them songs, yunno! Never get pay for them songs up until this day (chuckles)! Yeah, never get pay.
And the link with Yabby?
Yeah, by doing that it’s the same thing again I come across and Yabby You came to the studio and see me and I think he asked Tubby who I am, an’ Tubby told him who I am and he recommend me to him as well. And he decide to do a track with me, beca’ that was Yabby You. Yabby You is a man who try to give young talents a try as well.
Speaking about dealing with King Tubby on a private level, how did you experience Tubby in private?
Yeah, Tubbys is an OK person, easy to go along with as long as you show him respec’ and know how to deal with him as a person, is just OK to socialize with an’ communicate with.
A man of a quiet nature, the reserved type.
Yeah, he was quiet, man. Tubbys was a quiet guy, man.
Not the one to brag and boast about his achivements.
No, no, no. Tubbys just – any braggin’ Tubbys do, Tubbys make the music do the bragging, or let something do the braggin’! By playing the better music and the better quality.
Then from Yabby you hooked up with Bunny Lee, and eventually you did the ‘Satta Dread’ album. Did it come out without a picture and even without the name on the cover, was it? I think I’ve seen the cover of it somewhere but I don’t remember in detail how it looked like, looked more like a mysterious dub album from what I can remember.
Yeah, ‘Satta Dread’. It came out with the name but without a picture, ‘cos at the time when they decide to release it, they didn’t have a picture with me.
That’s kind of bad, you knew about that at the time?
No, I didn’t know about that at the time, after I came to London I know about that. I had mixed emotions, happy to know that ‘yeah, you got the songs released’. But at the same time the returns or the income from it, I wasn’t happy about it. But when you don’t understand the business they tell you all kinda different things, y’know what I’m saying?
Sure, to take as much advantage of that as possible when you’re new to things.
Yeah, yeah, some do it intentionally and some jus’ do it because they feel like they should do it.
What was the payment like in those days?
Well, I tell you the truth, I can’t remember about payment. Because there was no such things as payment.
No talk about a straight royalty on a regular basis, right?
No, no, no, no. If you don’t know nothing about those things, sometime you do a song for someone an’ after they give you some money it’s like you never go back to get any more. It’s not until late, about late seventies going into the eighties that I start to realize that there should be a thing called ‘royalties’. Some form of returns supposed to be coming from the song, from the sales of the record.
What about this exchange between you and U Roy of the slot at the Solar Tone sound, who had that sound?
The name of that guy was Rupert Brown, we called him Rupie.
And Ranking Trevor was deejaying on that sound too.
Yeah, Ranking Trevor usually be on that sound. That’s where (it’s) the first time that I start to deejay with another deejay on the sound system.
This is the late seventies, can you recall that you got filmed and featured in the ‘Roots Rock Reggae’ documentary (by Jeremy Marre) in 1977? Which sound is it you deejayed for at the time?
Yeah, yeah, where I was deejaying Jack Ruby’s sound system? Yeah, Jack Ruby’s sound in Ocho Rios, yeah.
You’ve seen the film yourself at some point.
Yea, I saw it a couple of times. I think U Roy is on it as well.
Yes, that’s right, live on stage with a band. To you, what does it take and what makes a solid deejay?
Well, first and foremost you have to have a musical instinct. Yeah, you have to have a feel for it. Well, in todays world you haffe be born with it, you can’t just ‘develop’ the feel, ‘cos a lot of things is machinery an’ you a record with computer and they can take out certain part of the song, an’ things like that, so…
The theme of lyrics in the deejay world always go with a trend, they all belong to the ‘selling themes’ of the time.
Yeah, yeah! It was part of the trend but what really happen is that – tell you the truth, y’know, original things (will) always be there. Once from it you see things that done properly and have a certain thing about it, it will always be there.
Some switch theme according to the times, but some don’t.
Yeah. You see what really happen, you see the system is made up in such a way that you see the thing named money, money becomes like the main factor, the key to open almost everything on the face of this earth. Because if you have money most naturally you can go on live anywhere, you can buy almost anything, y’know what I mean, whether it’s real or false one or whatever, and then it becomes so powerful that people change. Because what really happen, the system stick you up for money and sometimes some people can’t hold their own because them responsibility is so high, people like Burning Spear, those guys used to the long suffering, so they will never change what they believe in. Burning Spear been singin’ about Rasta fi years an’ never change, no matter how much them try fe change the music in… I love girls, yunno, and when you love someone you need to tell them that you love them, in the most way an’ the best way you can, but at the same time you can’t just keep singin’ about one thing without certain things, beca’ without certain t’ings love cyaan feel the way it supposed to feel, even amongst people. So that Burning Spear always a sing the same song an’ when him try fe change the business to ‘girl I love you’ and hip-hop songs an’ drum machine music, Burning Spear still own his authentic t’ing same way, because of what him believe in. And he never would let anyone change him beca’ if Burning Spear have ten loafs of bread – great! And if him have one, it still great same way because him know how fe satisfy, and him never try fe hang one above whe him cyaan reach it. And you have a lot of people who do that, which sometimes might even include myself and I don’t realise. And then what happens because of the responsibility now you try you haffe change beca’ you have to make some money back to the t’ing how whe me a tell you – money! So people change and do anything, sing anything, make any kind of music and feget whe dem coming from just to achieve. Which is good in one sense but it bad in the other! Because you have to try to achieve but at the same time is the way of how you achieve, is just like drugs. Because people can make more money out of crime an’ becomes more financially powerful, them do anything and everything and more bad things to achieve than the good thing. The good t’ing might take longer, but at the end of the day it more genuine, it lasts longer. ‘Cos if you go out and get a proper job and if you get a proper salary and you put your money to use, you don’t have to worry that the police a go arrest you an’ come and confiscate your house. But when you go out deh and sell drugs or you rob someone some money and buy a big house and a big car and people look fe you, as soon as they get you – if they don’t kill you an’ you lose it, the police hold you an’ (you) go to jail and once they have the evidence that the stuff that you bought with what you have stolen, then they can confiscate it an’ you end up lose it same way.
True. Concerning lyrical content at the time, the mid seventies was so violent in general – in JA, did the producers have any objections on what you’re gonna talk about? I mean, regardless how they feel about things politically, no one wants to end up in trouble for a record. Like if you say something negative about the current policy or something.
Who? Oh, the producers? Yeah, well, not in most cases but very rare. And maybe they might ask you to change the song a lickle way different or something, but… I never have any problem with them, is that because before I ask them what you want me to record, what type of song you’re looking for – from me. I have to ask you for an idea of what you want so I can try to put that together, and present it to you and if it is satisfactory enough, if so then there’s no problem.
What was the procedure like for those who don’t know the whole recording process for deejays in JA, it’s not like you got a tape of the rhythms a producer offered you, then you went home and wrote and practiced over them (chuckles).
No, no, nothing so. I tell you, them tell you to come down to studio tomorrow and ‘we have two tracks an’ we’d like you to do something on it’, an’ they play it and you have to try to work something out of it there and then.
It went that fast, you had to be really alert and loaded with lyrics to make it.
Yes! Yes, and sometimes you just – it’s the things that you feel. You see, that’s why the music, reggae music, have such feeling. Because sometimes you go to the studio and you never plan nutten for the track an’ you hear something just come to your head and you try it and it works! And sometimes you have to sit down and pen something, and in today’s deejay (scene), the business becomes so competitive that you need to do is sit down and concentrate a lickle bit more. That’s what the more writing come from but at the same time you have to feel some inspiration to start write and know what to write.
In the later part of the seventies, you had a whole heap of Bunny Lee albums out in the UK, like ‘Revelation Time’, ‘London Rock’ – which I believe was the first, and ‘Starsky & Hutch’. Some of these were recorded while on visit to London, or voiced in Jamaica?
No, we record in Tubby’s studio, most of the tracks was recorded in Tubby’s studio.
Should these be considered good enough for a reissue? I have only heard ‘Revelation Time’ and that is certainly strong enough, you sound on form there.
Oh well, all things are good enough for reissue, beca’ when I look out deh there are some things that are reissuing today that are not worthwhile to human race! You know wha’ I mean? So I don’t see no reason why, see no reason why it shouldn’t reissue. And it still happen because Virgin is reissuing even another album that is titled ‘Weather Balloon’.
Oh yeah, ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’ – the same album.
‘You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’, yeah.
Did you get any compensation for the CD reissue of that album?
No, I didn’t get any proper compensation beca’ they’re trying to put me through a lot of shit! You know, beca’ once on the first time they’re giving you a lickle money an’ you sign a contrac’ which in any way – a lot of us don’t understand certain t’ing in the contract, to be honest with you. But because when we come we come with the intention of trying to make some money, see where we can get some money, and you sign a paper but you didn’t know that you were signing away your rights an’ giving away your things and have people trying to buy your things from you, in that diplomatic way. Like it’s a contrac’ between you and them over a period of time an’ at the end of the day they’re trying to tell you that they own the product – for life! And they only give you a certain amount of money, no matter how much you don’t have no sense over the business, you can never sell it for that! And if you get royalty from them, they’re trying to tell you that they don’t recoup that money yet, and they don’t even give you a 3000 pound for over twenty years! So how come you can’t recoup 3000 pounds over twenty years? Why!? And you still come again and you reissue the stuff an’ still can’t pay me no royalty, so… I don’t know what’s going on.
How did that two-album deal with Frontline/Virgin come about in the first place?
Well, the first one, the soundtrack was recorded in London.
So it was like this, you had the ‘Weather Balloon’ LP for Gorgon (run by Neville Lee, Byron’s brother) in Jamaica, and then came to London and got the deal for these albums when the title track was a big hit, they signed you on that merit?
No, it was released in London first, and then take it back to Jamaica. Because what happen in those days a lot of the guys didn’t want to take songs that is already been released in Jamaica unless it becomes a monster seller so that they need to release it in London. But normally them mostly want fresh product that they first released, and Virgin first got the album and they got it to distribute worldwide away from the Caribbean. And that’s how it was released on Gorgon in Jamaica, Gorgon which is a part of Sonic Sounds.
But that was a big hit, perhaps your biggest seller, ‘Weather Balloon’.
Yeah man, was a big massive hit, man.
And the single was issued on the Hit Sound label. Your own imprint I should say.
Hit Sound which is my label. Yeah, about ’78 or ’79.
After this Virgin released ‘Mr Brown Something’, done with co-producer Fatman on some Jammys tracks.
‘Mr Brown Something’ through Fatman, yeah.
Do you think Virgin plans to put it out as well?
I don’t know, yunno. Because they never tell you nutten until you see they do it. Because like I said it awkward, it’s their own produc’ so they don’t have the discipline to phone you and say, “Hey, we’ve decided that we gonna do this again” – they just do it! Then when you see it and try to get to someone about it, they’re always pissin’ you around.
Looking back on the deejay style of yesterday, in particular the seventies era, a lot of that has stood the test of time remarkably well. How do you look back on it now?
Yeh, you see what happen people was more relaxed and people were working on a more spiritual level. Now it’s more competitiveness, and people striving not only to do their bes’, but only to be more competitive, more competition, and to be competitive you have to be aggressive! Not necessarily, but in this market place today it calls for more aggressiveness, some aggressive people come in different ways. It’s just like when you’re playing video, they’re constantly playing all the time. They might not be aggressive in the sense of violent, but they’re aggressive in a way that they keep on pushing it, pushing it, pushing it in front of your face until it grows on you, and you go out and buy the record and the artist becomes the saviour. And in those days people were more on a spiritual level and in a more relaxed form, even if they’re suffering it come across in a more spiritual way, and a more real way. Beca’ a lot of the things that a lot of the guys are saying now, they’re not living that way.
Of the modern deejays we have now, is there anyone in particular that you check for?
Well, I check fe a lot of them, yunno, but there are some outstanding ones that are really making me feel like ‘Yeah, me and them could work together’, that we are in the same type of category. Like Louie Culture, Prezident Brown.
Now he is pretty close to you, your ‘protegé’, like – Prezident Brown.
Yeah, yeah, well, we get inspiration and we grow. We hang out in the same kind of community for the last couple of years and he get inspired from me as a younger youth, just like how I get it from U Roy. With people like Tony Rebel, Sizzla, Buju Banton, Capleton. Anthony B, Determine, y’know, me listen to them. Although me is an older man to them, both in age and in business, me still can listen to them. People like Josey Wales, Brigadier Jerry, and even the same Charlie Chaplin, y’know wha’ I mean.
Do these youngsters respect you as one of the elder deejays, or what kind of attitude do you get down in Jamaica now?
Well, some do, some don’t. It’s a mixed attitude, all kinda different attitude. Good, bad and indifferent, all you can think of, y’know. You have some who is not like that, and some who are like that, and some who pretend that they’re not like that, but they are! Some people they have funny attitude, but when they see you they smile but deep within themselves they’re not with you. So at the end of the day, I don’t pay them no mind. I deal with them I can deal with. If I can’t deal with them I don’t have nothing against them, I just leave them and try to focus on other important things.
As producer, forming your Hit Sound label in ’77, what did you set out to achieve, who did you want to work with then? Anyone in particular?
Well, tell you the truth, yunno, we do work with anyone who me can work with who might spread the technique to work with. Because I’m just working and producing records, anything I hear. Because some times when you’re producing record, it’s a different time from now. Now you can sit down and seh ‘I would like to work with that man and do an album with that man’. But in those days you just work with people and it depends on what develops from there, then you can say, y’know, ‘Yeah well, then I would like to do an album with this person an’ that person’.
Who was the first artist you produced for Hit Sound?
How did you link with him, it was down by Randy’s again?
We usually hang out down by Chancery Lane, by Randy’s, and I met him through Trinity.
How much did you record with Al at the time?
I record about… wha’… two albums with Al Campbell, yunno.
None of these came out on Hit Sound?
No, different labels. One came out on a label – I forgot the label, but it’s called ‘Mr Con Man’, and another one came out called ‘Rainy Days’ on the Hawkeye label.
They did well for you and Al?
Yeah, they was OK, man. They were satisfactory enough, y’know.
Do you think there’s a possibility to reissue them? Should be of interest for any of the labels reissuing the music in Europe I think. Al Campbell was great in that period.
Yeah, well, y’know, the thing is not only if I get the request but if I can, ca’ you know everything is… you will have to have more capital to deal with it. And when you have the capital you must also have the outlet, people who you can deal with. Because everything become political now, and sometimes some people know that the records is good but they don’t want to sell it because you and them is not friends. That’s how it goes, they wanna buy the record and try to stifle you.
There’s a good anthology of your Hit Sound productions on the French Tabou1 label titled ‘Hit Sounds From Channel One’, some great productions contained therein.
Yeh, thank you.
I did an interview earlier this year with Carlton Livingston where we spoke about your hit song with him, ‘Please Mr Deejay’ aka ‘Play This Song For Me’, and after this there was no real follow-up to the success. You didn’t really deal with him anymore afterwards, which could be considered a bit strange, doesn’t it? Why don’t make an album around the hit and strike while the iron is hot?
No, is not to say that I couldn’t in any way deal with him anymore, the thing is… But you see wha ‘appen, no, let me tell you what really happened: I should’ve really do – I did some more tracks with him, I did do about four tracks with him, but what happened is that…
He felt you dealt too much with Al Campbell at the time so there wasn’t much space left for him or any of the other artists you worked with.
No, is not ‘dealt too much with Al Campbell’. The thing is, I was an artist at the time also and I have my career to deal with as well, and I am the one who have to go out and work the money to bring in the money to produce the records with him, or Al Campbell. So, what happened, I was also involved in travelling up and down the place doing three different sets also. So, y’know, to be honest with you, an artist cyaan be a producer who produce himself an’ other artists and – is too much!
Yeh, you get too busy and something is gonna get messed up in it. So, unfortunately, right now I am sorry that I really didn’t (do) an album with him, but is just that I never get around to do it.
Not enough time and space, isn’t that how it always is.
Not enough time and money.
What about some of the other acts you produced, apart from Al and Carlton there was Sugar Minott.
Yea, Al Campbell, Sugar Minott, we work with Prezident Brown.
Even at that time..?
No, not at that time. And I worked with…
A guy called Vincent Taylor?
Who was that?
Vincent Taylor is from a group named…? Jack Ruby had some groups like… Foundation.
You mean The Revealers?
Revealers, yeah. But they changed their name from Revealers to – another guy did leave the group, so they form a different group, and I think it’s called Jah Messengers (also known as Earth Messengers), or something like that, from Ocho Rios. Jack Ruby produced it and I think other songs were released by the Heartbeat label.
And you did some productions with the late Delroy Wilson. I like that one which is included on the Hit Sound album, some good Wilson on there.
Delroy Wilson, yea. I did an album with Delroy Wilson but the master tape… I lost it, ‘cos there was a flood in Jamaica and it messed up the house.
That’s a pity indeed! You did some songs with the late Freddie McKay too if I’m not mistaken, I think he’s on the CD out of France.
Yeah, I recorded a song with Freddie McKay, we did with Ernest Wilson.
Ernest too? So how did this compilation with Tabou1 come about?
Well, it wasn’t – it never came out that well, it never came out well to be honest, never came out well. But those are some of the things that you learn (from) doing business. You learn good things and you learn bad things, bad experience and good experience.
I heard this company went down.
So you didn’t get any proper money from it.
No, didn’t get proper money and I need to get my stuff back from them as well so that in years to come he don’t have it in his possession to do something else with someone, and then when I see it I have to go through five or six different people to get any justice, ca’ that’s how the tape business go, yunno.
What about your own Hit Sound LP from 1979, the ‘Repatriation’ album should come out as well.
It’s also released, yunno, Patate released it. Patate in France is doing that, Patate Records in Paris.
Yeah, he is doing reissue on that.
Is it out there yet?
Yes it is, with added tracks on it as well. Yeah, bonus tracks with all other people on it. Yeah man.
Overseas tours for you in the early days, you went to the States with Jack Ruby’s sound in the late seventies. Where was it?
Yeh, that was early, early years ago, man. In New York it was.
What became of Socialist Roots owner Tony Welch, is he still in the music or left the musical activities a long time ago now?
He’s in Jamaica, man. Involved in music still? No, not that I know of.
Welch was one of the ghetto dons in that time, would you say this contributed to the dances being as violent as they were in those times, especially when you are so obviously involved with one of the parties as he was?
Yeah, yeah, violence. Because violent people take violence anywhere, yunno, anywhere they think that the person that they are against, y’know wha’ I mean, or they take it anywhere. If they know you’re in the church they come in there for you anyway! That’s how violent people are, yunno. If they’re against you and they know you’re sitting in the church or hidin’ in the church, they are going in there for you same way.
You never experienced any form of ‘political label’ that got you in trouble back in those days?
No, no, no. I always try to get myself away from that. People might try but it never sticks, never sticks, no.
So you never really experienced any of the more ugly things some artists talk about; blackmail, threats of different kinds? Like you have to take side, get ‘involved’.
Well, I experienced certain things and that was enough for me to know that ‘hey, don’t try and let things get worse’, y’know. Because even if you don’t involved in it you still don’t experience it, ’cause you’re living around it, you’re living into it. So even if they don’t come at you, but when it happens around you it’s like it’s at you same way because it still affects you. Because if you’re living in an area and something goes bad there, you know it still affects you even though it’s not you, they do it too. But it affect the area and because everybody’s looking down, and more pressure, and you have to go through that as well.
If you would sum up your career so far, are you pleased with how things have been for the most part?
Yeah, but give thanks each and every time, yunno, it could be worse. It could be worse, and that’s how I see it. A lot of man come in the business and end up worse off than me, so… Give thanks for that, and I give thanks and I hope better will come, y’know.
The great Mr Brown went on to discuss his latest work in conjunction with Bunny Lee, doing something that seems to be the trend among vintage artists currently, laying new vocals over seventies tracks. This is being produced in Striker’s studio in Kingston. He continues to produce on his own, the latest being an album for Jet Star, ‘Still Standing Strong’. He has also done albums for Jah Warrior and Dub Vibes a while back, and not to forget some strong mid nineties recordings for labels like Roof International and Barry O’ Hare’s X Rated. And finally, he took to press what should’ve been pressed on a 45 years ago, the brilliant ‘Don’t Cuss Rasta’ by Carlton Livingston on the Hit Sound imprint. Try to find that one if the Tabou1 CD becomes too difficult to locate.
One problem as with so many of the older artists is that the work is getting increasingly hard to find, and U Brown is no exception. A good introduction to U Brown in the now 49-year old deejay’s heyday (“I’ve been doing this two thirds of my life and the work isn’t getting easier”, as he puts it) is the Blood & Fire-anthology ‘Train To Zion’, which is based around the original ‘Satta Dread’ album, his 1975 debut on Joe Sinclair’s Klik label, along with some obscure singles. There is a treasure trove of U Brown singles for various producers that has never been collected up to now, if anything this Blood & Fire project could be the best example of how it should be done. And Mr Brown deserves a similar compilation out there. Meanwhile, the ‘Repatriation’ CD out of France is well worth a listen, extending the original 1979 self-produced Hit Sound LP with vocals by Al Campbell and others.
Unlike most of his peers, our deejay survived the transition from rockers to the rub-a-dub era in the eighties remarkably well, hitting big with ‘Tu Sheng Peng’ and the album ‘Jam It Tonight’ in 1983, which has seen reissue in a rather dubious way on the ‘Black Princess’ CD in recent times. U Brown says he is trying to slow down the pace a little bit now, at least productionwise, focusing on performances, such as being a steady guest on Blood & Fire sound system for the past eight years. My wish for the future is that Bunny Lee starts a new reissue program of some of his Attack albums, just like those Ravensquire LP’s that appeared out of the UK twelve years ago. That was a good move. Now we need to see more of the same on vinyl, such as U Brown’s Third World/Count Shelley-released ‘Starsky & Hutch’, ‘Tribulation’, ‘Revelation Time’ and ‘London Rock’ albums, complete with original artwork. How about it, Mr Lee?