Search this blog

3 April 2008

Jah Screw Biography

Roots Radics Meets King Tubbys - More Dangerous Dub
Mykal Rose - Nu Carbon
Barrington Levy - Here I Come
King Tubby and Roots Radics - Dangerous Dub

“We never had any physical confrontation… we’d let the music play and the deejays talk.”
Paul ‘Jah Screw’ Love

A while ago when ‘dance’ music seemed to be ubiquitous and its presence and influence all encompassing ‘real’ musicians reacted angrily stating that ‘a deejay is not a musician’. It’s not strictly true although there is an element of truth there somewhere… but in the case of Jamaican music it is definitely not true. The role of the Sound System including the owners, the deejays and the selectors to the furtherance and development of reggae can never be overstated. The Sound System is where and how it all began and practically everyone who has ever been involved in any way in the history of the music either began or worked in or with a Sound System at some stage in their career. Countless people first became involved with Sound Systems because they loved music but, more importantly, it was through the Sounds that many came to really know music.

Jah Screw, one of the music’s best and best known selectors and producer of countless hit records, tells his story here in his own words. Over the years many people involved in reggae music have promoted themselves in front of the music and many careers and reputations have been built on the flimsiest of foundations. Other much more important characters in the history of reggae music have preferred to play a more background role. There’s no need to talk up Jah Screw’s involvement in the music’s destiny and history. The facts speak for themselves.

Born Paul Love in Kingston, Jamaica on the 9th of February 1955 Jah Screw grew up in the Greenwich Farm area and attended Denham Town School. On leaving school he was originally an electrical engineer by trade but “music was in my blood and I’d make my own turntables and speakers from old ‘phones.” At a local Sound System named Echo Bell run by a man named Dexter young Paul would “rally round and help do things” when they held their weekly sessions. Paul would pass the records to Dexter, put the records back in their sleeves and observe all that went on in order to gain a full understanding of what was required to run a Sound System. One day “the guy was unable to select” and Paul took over and was able to put into practice the skills he had learnt by helping Dexter. “There and then I got the people’s approval” and it was not long before he left his trade and started work full time on Ray Symbolic (The Bionic) Sound System. “I was seventeen when I came into the business” and Paul, now known as Jah Screw, augmented and amplified the reputation of Ray Symbolic.

“I used to go with him and they’d give you a little play… then along comes Ranking Joe. Up until then it had been a ‘disco sound’ playing all types of music but with my selecting skills and Ranking Joe (on the mic.) the two of us got big and we played all over the island.”

Joe ‘Ranking Joe’ Jackson had already established a name for himself as Little Joe deejaying live on Smith The Weapon and El Paso Sound Systems and initially recording for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. Unlike many of his contemporaries who had made the transition from Sound System to recording studio Joe never left the Sound System world and, as Ranking Joe, proved to be the first deejay to be as popular on record as he was on live Sound System cassette tapes. Screw recalled “then along came Sturgav” and the pair worked together on ‘deejay daddy’ U Roy’s Sturgav Sound. Sturgav’s approach was rooted in the classical Kingston Sound System tradition and with the addition of Joe and Screw it soon progressed to become one of Jamaica’s top Sounds.

By the Autumn of 1979 their formidable reputation, through word of mouth and cassette tapes, had reached England where Jamaican vocalist Errol Dunkley was enjoying a U.K. National Chart hit, eventually reaching number eleven, with his buoyant interpretation of John Holt’s ‘O.K. Fred’. Many Jamaican deejays had toured the U.K before to perform stage shows but, until now, a Jamaican Sound System crew had never travelled to the U.K.. Errol went to U Roy to put his proposal to bring Sturgav Sound to England but, by this time, Screw and Joe “were no longer with the Sound” and were back with Ray Symbolic. Errol specifically wanted Jah Screw and Ranking Joe and “we never wasted any time” and so it was Ray Symbolic that became the first ever Jamaican Sound System to play out in the U.K..

The tour was a revelation to the U.K. Sound System world where the full on upfront approach of Jah Screw and Ranking Joe was a completely new experience:

“We put the Sound so you could actually see Ranking Joe on the mic. and Jah Screw selecting. So we made the crowd a part of it too.”

Their popularity was overwhelming and Stafford Douglas from Mafia Tone Sound System in Birmingham was brought in to help out with organising more appearances.

“In Jamaica we’d play Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Tuesday was the only night we didn’t play out. We’d play all the sounds. Some gave us a little competition but not much. When we came to England there’d be big gaps when we didn’t play and it wasn’t good for us and so Stafford started getting us dates. The English sound men welcomed us and really appreciated what we were doing: Unity, Coxsone, Jah Shaka, Frontline…”

Their importance to the smooth running of a Sound System is often overlooked but for a selector to be successful he has to know and understand music fully. This knowledge is essential… especially when you’re playing in a competition against another Sound.

“All the time the records are playing and it’s on my mind. You had no to time to listen to a record so I had to know all the records in my box. If we were playing one drop, four drop… every record. I used to have to remember all the dubs and be able to find them.”

Like any self respecting Sound System the Ray Symbolic crew had recorded many ‘specials’ specifically for playing on the Sound. These were not like the specials that Sound Systems would later play in the eighties and nineties where singers and deejays adapted the lyrics of their current or best known songs to promote a particular Sound System.

“We used to play specials on the Sound. We used to produce songs with Barry Brown, Triston Palmer, Tony Tuff, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs… anyone who was happening. Our specials were ‘real’ songs but most of them were never intended to be any more than specials that you’d never hear unless Ranking Joe and Jah Screw played them.”

The specials were mixed and voiced at King Tubby’s Dromilly Avenue studio.

“We worked at Tubby’s through the Sturgav connection because U Roy and Tubby were close and Sturgav Sound played like Tubby’s. Tubby would mix specials for us… he used to take a special interest in us and he supported me as a young man in the rub a dub business. We used to book hours and hours mixing dub and that’s how ‘Dangerous Dub’ came about”

Jah Screw employed The Roots Radics, architects of the emerging dance hall style, to lay the rhythms for their specials. At The Radics’ core were The Morwells’ rhythm guitarist Eric ‘Bingy Bunny’ Lamont and bass guitarist Errol ‘Flabba’ Holt along with Wycliffe ‘Steely’ Johnson on keyboards and Lincoln ‘Style’ Scott and Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis on drums along with veteran keyboard maestros Gladstone ‘Gladdy’ Anderson and Ansel Collins and on guitars Noel ‘Sowell’ Bailey, Winston ‘Bo Peep’ Bowen Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith and Dwight Pinkney. Their raw and uncompromising approach was to bridge the gap during the transition from the roots based music of the seventies and the digital takeover of the mid eighties. Working as a session band for various producers they gradually refined their sound and by the time they began working for Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and youth singer Barrington Levy in 1979 their highly individual approach defined the sound of the dance hall style.
“The Roots Radics ‘Dangerous Dub’ album came about after the Sound System had toured the U.K.. King Tubby was mixing for me and he was my mentor. I’m a rub a dub specialist and he taught me a little bit of mixing. His board was easy to work on as it was only four tracks and we’d get the ideas and make these dubs. ‘Dangerous Dub’ first came out on the Copasetic label on vinyl and people loved it. A few years later compact discs came along and Chris at Greensleeves said why not put this on a CD? It’s done well on vinyl and we can sell more on a CD.”

The dance hall style is presented in its raw, pure and undiluted form on ‘More Dangerous Dub’ where The Roots Radics’ interpretations of foundation rhythms including ‘Run, Run’, ‘Old Kent Road’ and ‘Darker Shade Of Black’/’Norwegian Wood’ demonstrate their ability to move these templates in an entirely new and different direction. This reissue contains ??? bonus tracks in addition to the original ??? and demonstrates reggae’s unerring ability to blend the old and the new. Although an entirely new style was being created here its origins were rooted deep in Jamaica’s Sound System culture and musical history. Jah Screw not only worked with King Tubby but alongside many other established stalwarts of the Kingston scene.
“The new producers had to learn off of the old school… most of them are gone now. When we worked on Ray Symbolic Coxsone Dodd used to come and hear the Sound and he gave us his blessing because we were holding it down at a time when things weren’t good. King Jammy used to mix for me at King Tubby’s when he was still Prince Jammy. Gussie Clarke used to cut dubs for us and sell us records, Errol T and Flick Wilson at Joe Gibbs also used to cut dubs for us…”

Following the success of ‘Dangerous Dub’ Jah Screw continued to produce records in partnership with Ranking Joe for release on their Sharp Axe label:

“Our first label was Sharp Axe run between Jah Screw and Ranking Joe. In those days the records used to come out first in England then later in Jamaica.”

But after Ray Symbolic had toured the U.S.A. Joe decided to return to America and Jah Screw returned to the U.K. and settled in London.

“Time One Records was born in England after the U.S.A. tour. We’d spent some time in Jamaica and it was originally in partnership with Joe but he decided to live in America and I decided to live in England as I’d met my wife there and that it was ‘my time now’. I called it Time One in a tribute to Studio One.”

Time One went through the typical trials and tribulations of an independent record label but things took a dramatic upward turn when Jah Screw met Barrington Levy who had recently been voted Best Male Vocalist at the 1984 U.K. Reggae Awards. He too had relocated to London and his work with Jah Screw for Time One finally placed his music well and truly in the mainstream.

“One day I bucked up on Barrington Levy: ‘Are you Jah Screw from Sturgav?’ We both knew Jah Life from New York and Barrington knew that I had a rhythm with the ‘Afrikaan Beat’ horn line. He was happy to meet me because he said ‘I have something for that rhythm!’ and he checked me at my yard with ‘Under Me Sensi’. I liked the idea about him singing about a Sound System because we’d been through that period. My wife said ‘You can’t use the last of our money to make that song!’ but I said ‘He’s singing back what I went through’ and we went to Eddie and Joe at Easy Street Studio because their sound was like Channel One. It was a massive hit in England. Mr. P from Jet Star (the major U.K. distributor) would be ringing me up: ‘Guv’nor? Can you do me another five thousand ‘Under Me Sensi’ for Sunday morning?’ and I’d have to get up early and deliver them. It was voted ‘Record Of The Year’”

And while ‘Under Me Sensi’ was massive the follow up ‘Here I Come’ was an even bigger hit:

“And then me and Barrington went back to Easy Street and made ‘Here I Come’. By now ‘Under Me Sensi’ had taken off in America and I’d had to fly out to New York. The same day we made ‘Here I Come’ Barrington did a show at the Brixton Academy and sung the song on stage. The next thing Mr. P was ringing me in America: ‘When are you coming back to England? I have orders for twenty thousand ‘Here I Come’’. I hadn’t mixed the tune yet! So I came back to England, mixed the tune and put it out. David Rodigan from Capital Radio told me ‘The record has been playlisted and your life is going to change now’ but at that time I never understood about the National Charts. He was right! London Records came in and the record made the U.K. National Charts.”

‘Here I Come’ reached Number 41 in February 1985 and Jah Screw then decided to record Barrington on ‘Too Experienced’ one of Bob Andy’s best ever compositions from his time at Studio One:

“Then we did ‘Too Experienced’ over in Bounds Green. I always admired Bob Andy and used to play his ‘Song Book’ album every night. It wasn’t really a popular song but being a sound man I let nothing pass. I cut the rhythm with Carlton ‘Bubblers’ Ogilvie. I knew what I wanted and I know what a rhythm should sound like and I got Carlton to play the bass line on the keyboards. Barrington wasn’t sure about it but I was determined… a couple of days later Barrington was ready to record but I wasn’t there! And that’s a fact…”

Time One was well and truly established by now and hit followed hit but as the decade progressed the business gradually changed and the U.K. reggae market was no longer as important as it had been in the seventies and eighties. Record sales were falling in the established market but the crossover audience too proved impossible to reach for it was difficult to obtain airplay away from the specialist radio programmes:

“The B.B.C. would say my songs have too much bass to make the A list and you’d end up on the B list… but you’re not getting anywhere on the B list.”

But Jah Screw, Barrington Levy and Time One had already made some very valuable points:

“All of the Time One hits were created in England and we proved that you could make real reggae outside of Jamaica.”

Unfortunately it was a case of diminishing returns and it eventually proved uneconomic to continue with Time One in the U.K..

“I realised this when we put out ‘My Time’ and Mr. P only ordered a hundred copies! It wasn’t the same any more and I said to my wife ‘We’re going back to Jamaica’ and so we returned. In 1979 we had met Chris Sedgwick and Chris Cracknell at the Greensleeves shop in Shepherds Bush, West London and when I decided to return to Kingston they took over Time One. I’m still with Greensleeves now as one of their oldest producers.”

Jah Screw together with Barrington Levy and a host of top name artists including Dennis Brown continued to make records that made the grade. “We did ‘Dance Hall Rock’ and put Cutty Ranks on it” and reached Number One in the reggae chart and the 1995 long playing release ‘DJ Counteraction’ proved very popular as current name brand deejays including Bounty Killer, Beenie Man and Cutty Ranks recharged eleven of Barrington Levy’s and Jah Screw’s finest moments. The album was recorded at Gussie Clarke’s Music Works, Jack Scorpio’s Black Scorpio studio and King Jammy’s Waterhouse studios. “Chris Cracknell and Chris Sedgwick at Greensleeves gave us hope. We did the remixes in Jamaica and they dealt with it in the U.K..” Barrington’s ‘Living Dangerously’, a duet with Bounty Killer, was the biggest selling record of 1996 in Jamaica.

“But since 1996 I haven’t produced fully… the business had changed and Chris and Chris at Greensleeves were the only ones who supported what I was doing and what I was putting out…”

The recordings that Jah Screw made over the years are now regarded as classics of the genre and his entire career was all about the positive power of music and never about making records for the sake of it. The good news for music lovers is that Jah Screw is now exploring his superb back catalogue once again:

“I wasn’t getting the vibes to do any more production. I didn’t feel it and I’ve only been to the studio a few times this year. It’s expensive but I’ve never made enough money to build my own studio. I’ve always been a 100% producer and I give thanks that I could go somewhere in the business. Ideas are still running through my brain. I’m taking care of the tapes, even the twenty four tracks, and I’m keeping track. Luckily I still have most of the dubs on tape… my daughter recently sent me loads of two track tapes from England and Gussie Clarke has them now. We’re transferring all of the tapes over to CD.”

We can all look forward to the forthcoming fireworks.