Like King Jammy and Scientist, Philip Smart was a student of the late great Jamaican dub pioneer KING TUBBY, who gave him the chance to learn the art of sound engineering. At Tubby's he mixed classics like Johnny Clarke's "None Shall Escape the Judgment" for producer Bunny “Striker” Lee, who gave him the title "Prince Philip." But unlike Tubby's other students, Smart relocated to the U.S. in the late 1970s, taking classes in multitrack production and radio in New York. After working for various producers in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Smart established HC&F Studios in Freeport, Long Island, which rapidly became the center of New York's thriving reggae scene.
As I walked into the studio in the f-r-ee-zing NYC weather Philip Smart is laying on the couch taking the weight off his feet waiting for us to arrive. Unfortunately the drive down had taken a detour as the sattelite nav got confused with directions. After initially ending up on Freeport the 'street' in Brooklyn we finally made our way to Freeport the 'area' in Long Island!
But eventually we arrive and we’re really lucky to have caught Philip as his voice was super croaky. He soooo needs to be at home keeping warm and not hanging out in an air-conditioned studio with dancehalll beats on loop—in the middle of a session. But he's a man of his word and everything is irie.
Philip has a lot of knowledge to share but that doesn't mean he's automatically gonna give it all up. I am humbled at being at his legendary studio and frankly I think he sees this and decides to let me into his world—I feel privileged.
The first project recorded at HC&F was Monyaka's "Go Deh Yaka," a crossover hit that charted in the UK. JAH LIFE recorded many of his most important projects here including BARRINGTON LEVY's "Murderer" and CARLTON LIVINGSTON's "100 Weight of Collie Weed," which inspired hip-hop hits like BDP's "100 Guns" and JA RULE & FAT JOE's smash "New York."
New York dancehall was often viewed with a certain skepticism by reggae purists, but HC&F soon earned a reputation as the best studio in New York to get the authentic Jamaican reggae sound. Artists like SUPER CAT, SHABBA RANKS, and SHAGGY all made some of the most important music of their careers at Philip's studio.
Wha gwan Phillip?! That’s the opener to our convo—and we are off! Looks like I hit the jackpot becaus Phillip decides to start his story right from the beginnng: ''I am born in JA''—whoop whoop—we got next!
“I started collecting records when I was 12 yrs old, and by 14 I was paying for half-hour studio sessions,” he says.
That’s when you know what’s really up! I for one had no idea at age 12 what I was gonna be doing as an adult. Some of my fantasy career occupations have ranged from pharmacist (more parental pressure than fantasy) to Playboy Bunny (complete fantasy) but Philip was SMART from the get-go I guess, So listen up as one of the pioneers of the NYC reggae scene tells his own tale.
GETTING STARTED IN MUSIC
“My dear friend who has passed away now, Augustus Pablo, we got together and started to produce some songs... Pablo had his mobile disco; I had mine, and that’s how we got together and started to produce.”
“Pablo plays piano and melodica and he has a piano at home, so he worked out the songs at home—and we’re still in school, we’re in high school. Save up some lunch money, book a HALF an hour in those days.
What can you get done in half an hour?
“When you rehearse it with the band first you can get a lot done. The first song that we put out was called “Swing Easy” on the Hot Stuff label originally.”
What was everybody else doing at that time?
''I had no idea. Cause when you’re in music, it’s a world by itself. We put so much time and energy into producing a song or learning how to mix a record or whatever it is that you don’t have time for anything else.”
“That would be a lesson to kids now: if you don’t start from early I don’t think it makes sense to start because if you’re 21 and you’re trying to get into the business it’s already late—unless you’ve got tons of money to push what you want to do through.”
THE KING TUBBY CONNECTION
''We started to take the mixes and then go over to Tubby’s and cut them on acetate to play them on the sound. That was the connection. I used to go there every evening and just stand there and watch. Until one day him say ‘Jackson, take that voice!’ So I had to just get behind the board and record the voice.
Did you feel scared?
''Yeah I was scared when him say that. I never knew he would ever say that. He was also evolving. His business was expanding and he actually needed someone to fit in while he dealt with the business. So that’s where I came in. And I got behind the chair and started to do sessions.”
“He actually taught me to cut a dub. I broke a few number of needles, which made him mad—needles cost money and they were hard to get. But once I got it down we were cutting dubs like we were pressing records.”
How do you cut a dub?
“Well to cut the dub is simple. But Tubs is an electronic engineer. He tweaked his dub cutter to sound better than everybody else’s. He worked for Treasure Isle before he had his own thing, so he knew the machine. He knew how to adjust the bias, the curve.
What's the secret to cutting a dub?
There is no secret to actually cutting. The secret is in the electronics. The music is in your style. That’s what creates engineers in that era, was the style of mixing that you had.
How would you pinpoint the King Tubby's sound? If you had to summarize it in a few words, what made his sound so different & special?
The bass. One word is the bass. Everybody came to him for that bass. His mixing is superb. Too many hit records under his belt. He created his own style and everybody had to come there because they wanted their record to hit.
MAKING TIME FOR THE GIRLS
“After I graduated school I went full time, learning how to play my sound, learning to repair amplifiers—stuff like that. I was about 18. I go to work at 10am every day and I don’t leave till 3 in the morning. You didn’t know that’s where you were gonna end up, but that’s what you enjoy. We worked around the clock. And a lot of half-hour sessions.
When did you fit the girl action in?
I fit that in when I went to parties. Remember I was playing King Tubby’s sound. When U Roy have to go on tour, we had to go and make sure it’s playing right. And we’d use other DJs like I Roy and U Brown. If you are a star selector, the girls come...
Then Inner Circle invited me to play in their breaks when they’re playing as a band and they take their break, I was playing the records.
When I chatted to Skatta Burrell recently he was saying that if you are a producer you give your life to music so you don’t have time for good girls. You only have time for bad girls. Cause good girls take too much time.
The standards have changed. From the ’90s onwards, the bad girls is the standard. But back in the ’70s and ‘80s you had to have some kind of talk to entice a woman to want to go out with you. Guys get it easy now, like: Ay girl, wha gwan?
CROSSING THE BORDER TO AMERICA
It sounds like you were having a good time on the island. What made you decide to move to the U.S.?
“I got tired of working with just four tracks. I wanted to learn more about multi-tracking, and also about radio. I did a radio stint in Jamaica on JBC FM. I had a half an hour segment of the hottest American hits. I said ‘I like radio,’ so I came to America to do a class in radio for like three months and get my certificate. Plus my mother wanted me to get my green card before I got too old."
“So I came up, did that. And then I went back home and worked back for Tubs again. After that I said, ‘Bwoy, I still need to learn more.’ Plus I met my wife before I left in New York. So I came back up and got married.”
“I worked for various producers at various studios. I started building a clientele based on my credits. There was a record store in the Bronx named Brads. He used to produce a lot of records. He used to pick me up every night. Luckily the studio was close to my home in Brooklyn. And we did multiple albums. You ever heard of an album called Macka Dub? We did that one together.”
BUILDING A STUDIO
“It started in my brother in law’s basement first off. We had a mixing board, a dub cutter, and a drum kit. Then the neighbours started complaining about the noise. So we had to move. We opened HC&F Studio in Freeport in 1982.”
“I wasn’t the first in New York. WACKIES was there before me. And there was other people there before me. I wasn’t trying to copy anybody’s sound. I was just trying to make my own sound. You have to get it close to Jamaica or else they won’t work here. So we try and get it as close as possible until we had the hit.”
“After Monyaka, that was like a crossover hit, so let’s put that to the side and look at [Barrington Levy’s] ‘Murderer’ or [Sister Carol’s] Black Cinderella... When what’s his name held up the album on TV—DAVID LETTERMAN — and he said ‘Check Sister Carol’s Black Cinderella album out,’ it flew out of the stores the next day. We felt good. We said we’re making a mark in the industry in New York.”
What makes a good producer?
“Well I think, in my estimation, a good producer can feel, he can hear, he can see a hit record before it happens—from the first note.”
So he has to know when something is playing in the studio, that this is something that the masses are going to go crazy for?
“Yeah. And my first experience with that was when I worked with BUNNY STRIKER LEE on ‘None Shall Escape The Judgment.’ I said ‘Yo, this record is hot.’ He said, ‘Alright if you’re feeling it, mix it off and I’ll put it out.’ I said, ‘Yeah!!’ I felt it, and it was a big hit for JOHNNY CLARKE . They started to trust me more from that point. And as a producer, I started to trust myself more too.”
And you weren’t only a producer, you were also a radio personality, right?
“I had one of the most popular shows on radio. I used to play the latest songs out of Jamaica and New York, and I would blend them together so people didn’t know which one was from New York and which one was from Jamaica.
“Every producer was sending me records to play cause we had that kind of popularity. I’m friends with almost all the producers in Jamaica, like STEELY & CLEVIE. We broke the [Dawn Penn] record ‘No No No’ and [Shabba Ranks] ‘Ting A Ling,’ We played that without authority and they had to put out the record. The company called Steely and they said, ‘I heard that record playing on the radio. We didn’t want to put that out.’ The radio show combined with the studio made it work for that era.”
ARTISTS WHO USED THE STUDIO
“SUPER CAT had his reputation from JA already, so when he came through the place he was bring the joint credibility.”
Also SUPER CAT was friends with the hip-hop star HEAVY D, who was a New York man but Jamaican born. Heavy came by the studio to work on dancehall releases.
Eventually Jamaican producers were booking us for our sound. MIKEY BENNETT came from Jamaica to work with SHABBA RANKS. Shaggy did most of his hits at HC&F. SHAGGY basically had the studio locked up for years.
HC&F NOW AND WHAT’S NEXT
“Everybody’s searching right now for that new sound. I don’t think anybody has really found it. We’re searching too. We still do the staple—the bass and drum songs, the one-drop songs. We do the dancehall songs. But we’re searching for something that’s gonna be different. And then maybe it will become a new era of reggae.”
“I like what MAVADO is trying to do. I like what SEAN PAUL is trying to do. All these things is to try and gain an audience. If Mavado does 30 straight dancehall songs, it’s gonna sound like the next one, so he has to try something different. But there’s a couple of records that he has done recently that I like. It’s not your regular record that you would hear in the club, but it sounds like a radio-ready record.”
The studio is still in operation and Smart continues to work on new productions as well as culling his bottomless archives for unreleased gems. He remains the best-kept secret of New York dancehall.
Watch the full interview below...
Part 1 ''...music has been my life ever since.... and I’m still in it today''
Part 2 ''...we were cutting dubs like we were pressing records''
Words by Reshma B