Following reggae legend's death
Sugar Minott

Following his untimely death, ClashMusic present the full transcript of our interview with Sugar Minott.

Miguel Cullen spoke to the singer in February of this year for a feature which you can read HERE, his introduction serves as a very apt scene-setter for this full transcript of their interview

"For a big man, Sugar Minott moves pretty fast.

"When ragga turned up, Sugar was at the start line waiting. When digital reggae arrived, he was standing there too. After his ‘Black Roots’ album carved a place for him in the reggae pantheon halfway between Studio One and Motown, he even found time to outrun dancehall - he pioneered the singjay genre - so it’s safe to say that when he talks, the scene listens."

What are you up to at the moment?
Hey. I'm in New York, just been doing some shows in Florida, in Fort Lauderdale

Going back to your youth in Maxfield Park, Kingston, when was your first experience of the dancehall?
We'd break in into the sound system party - when the sound system was installed we pretended to be bringing the equipment in with the team, or if that didn't work we'd have to make a hole in the side of the dancehall and put stuff there so nobody would notice it during the day. I was born beside a dancehall man - it was called Champagnie Lawn. All the dancehalls were called lawns. That was in Maxfield Park, the ghetto where I grew.

Prince Buster was the god of dancehall when I grew up. He might have been called the prince, but he was the god of the dancehall. We used to have the young artists like Delroy Wilson, Toots & The Maytals, The Skatalites.

You were hanging out with Tony Tuff [went on to be a prolific reggae artist] back then right?
We used to hang out in a big old broke down Chevrolet car outside a dancehall called Daffodill Lawn, with Tony Tuff - he would sit in the car and play guitar - they got fed up of us there so we ended up in a graveyard. Every night we were there among the tombs making noise, with people shouting at us 'get out of the yard!'. There was nobody to run us there in that graveyard, and there were some ghosts up there that we made happy!

So did you go straight into music?
No, I was more of a sports man. I was a goal tender. I was shy with singing. When I used to go to auditions I used to go last! Like when I was auditioning for Coxsone Dodd. I used to enter amateur festivals with other kids and I was singing with two big strong girls while I was tiny, and the judge would say - 'you're good but your gyal dem sloppy'. I was in a band called Telstar when I was a kid...We never released a record...

How did you grab Coxsone's attention with the African Brothers?
Coxsone is a man that drinks - so now and again he would make a stop at Daffodill Bar to have a drink, right. We were round the back practicing [African Brothers], so Coxsone came around and we did a song for him. He said, all cool. "Yeah you're not bad you know...I must check you out some time..” That's the first time I met Coxsone face to face.

I wanted to get on Studio One because I was a selector [DJ], and that's how I came to know the Studio One beats, as a DJ. I was the first person to take the old Studio One beats and use them again over new vocals. That was my style, to use beats by people like Alton Ellis, the king of rocksteady. Our first song was No Cup No Broke [breaks out into song]

What was your first audition like for Coxsone?
When I first did my audition for Coxsone Dodd, I told him - you don't need to record a new riddim [beat] for me, because I've got the riddim already. He was like 'what?' - and I was allowed to take the song I recorded away with me, so I could promote myself better and practice. Then he began to cut rhythms and give them to me.

What was the recording of your seminal Black Roots album in Channel One studios like?
Back then there were so many musicians hanging around on the street corner outside Channel One - the best studio ever built - in the ghetto - including Leroy "Horsemouth”[star of seminal reggae film Rockers] Don Carlos and Steely Johnson [prolific reggae producer], so we would pay them half the price to perform. I had a great relationship with the musicians, because I was a youth like that - everyone kind of loved me like that. I was the first person to carry Steely Johnson into the studio and Style Scott, the famous drummer from the Roots Radics. He was the drummer on Hard Time Pressure.

Youth like Horsemouth used to hang around and get run out - they were youth that wanted to play and weren't so good, so when the big man come...however I wanted to help them. Now I gives to charity - with my youth project Youth Man promotions.

We did River Jordan, which was a hit, Man Hungry - all done by Steely! Because I was friends with the musicians so I could get them to play for almost free. Also I had to sing for Channel One songs to get studio time, and used to break into the studio at night when the boss was gone, we would bribe the watchman to open it up, and wake up the engineer. We couldn't afford it. We came up hard in the music industry

Was it all done on a shoestring?
With Never Gonna Give Jah Up on Ghetto-ology album, I was round at King Tubby's studio King Jammy was the engineer and he was giving me some time. He said 'OK you can only have one cut - if you miss, that's it. I can't afford to stop, you only get one chance. So the song started - [sings] "I never gonna give you up" and I had to sing the song right through with no mistake. There was a little part where I wanted to try some slow ting, but I didn't do that, and that was one of my biggest hits! Nuff pressure helped me. The studio people helped me out a lot. Let's say I had to pay $60, they would take $30 from me, yu know?

How did Island get involved with the Black Roots album?
We didn't know the business side of things so much when we were making music. When I did Black Roots album a guy from Sonic Sounds introduced me to someone from Island, so I did get an advance, but still - Island Records owe me so much money - it's like my music career has always been so hectic that I can't attend to the business side of things. Right now I'm trying to pick up the pieces of my business and get my money together.

How was your Black Roots sound different from Abyssinians-type roots reggae?
It wasn't much different - that's the school that I'm coming from when I'm talking about roots. My thing came with a more youthful approach . The Abyssinian rhythms could have passed for Studio One - they were top class. I was coming from this school, listening to these guys, Carlton and the Shoes, Dennis Brown, the god.

After Dennis Brown and Horace Andy, I am the new generation, I'm taking the sound from the Studio One and mixing it with Motown. Even the Black Roots song is originally another rhythm. So the flavour is coming up from them, and I'm putting my own style to it. There was no album like that before.

Beres Hammond was mainly soul, and my thing was 'roots lovers' - lovers rock, with roots! - the rhythms is real rootsy, with lots of deep bass, and the singing is lovers rock! So it was a Motown flavour with that rootsy Studio One. I never tried to follow many people - I searched for ideas.

Was song-writing purely a money-making exercise?
I was never thinking of making hits - I was thinking of making songs - I was never thinking - ok this is going to be a hit - most of my songs are non-fiction. Sometimes it's all in the mind that you imagine, you're wishing for something.

How did the singjay genre, which you invented, come about?
After a while, I found that the songs that I was making that were hits were the dancehall ones. The deejays [confusingly in Jamaica, deejays are emcees] were taking over everything, and singing wasn't selling.

So I thought - how can I find something to fit? The first thing I did was when Kaz from Kaz records came from Jamaica with a rhythm from King Tubby's studio. At that time the DJ style was going crazy, with Yellowman and Josie Wales. I took lyrics from all different DJs, the toasters. So I formulate all these lyrics together, and get the first singjay style.

What about Rub A Dub Style, a prototype-ragga song?
Well, when we were making it we didn't think it would come out like that but it just comes out like that.

And Herbman Hustling, the first use of a drum machine?
Herbman Hustling is the first computerized machine rhythm, although most people think it's Under Me Sleng Teng, I was using a mechanical rhythm section, although Lee Perry was the first with the rhythm box.

What's your style at heart - roots, dancehall or lovers rock?
I am a balladeer man - period. I'm Nat King Cole, Johnny Martin, I'm Sam Cooke. If I had a chance to choose what I sang, that's all I would sing about. But because I grew up in the ghetto, where the sound was really rough, I didn't get inspired to sing songs like that when I was young, I sang all like 'Oh the black man, the struggle, my album Ghetto-ology, but after that when life get easier I sang 'Good Thing Going' [laughs]

What was the lovers rock scene like when you came to London?
When I came to England there was no lovers rock - there was Doctor Alimantado, there was Jah Woosh, there was Dennis Bovell, collie [weed] man style - all hard music. I used to go down to Chalk Farm studios and create balladeer music, but there was no lovers rock. The biggest sound was Gregory Isaacs. I got English people to make my music. People who would try and make music like it came from Jamaica but it wouldn't work - nobody would buy it if they knew it if it was made in the UK.

So we came and changed all that by making music in Easy Street Studios in Bethnal Green. We all recorded there - Sugar Minott, Carol Thompson, Winston Reedy, Black Slate, all of that sound came from that studio. English kids tried to make reggae like Jamaicans, but it didn't come out like that - it came out with a different sound.

It was in 1979 - 1980. People like Leonard Chin played a big part. When I came to London I could do what I wanted - I wasn't in the ghetto again. I tried to make sound like that in Jamaica people would say [mimics a thick gruff Jamaican acccent] 'No iya. That a soft ting iya. It's an id-yat [idiot] ting" That what they used to say to me when I used to carry a soft sound like that. The first time we went in that studio in Bethnal Green they were playing punk rock. When we played it was the first time they'd heard reggae - and then all those punk rockers turned reggae.

You flexed some pretty good moves on Top of the Pops with Good Thing Going...
I used to win dancing contests for that you know - my mother would say to me: "You get that from me you know. My mother is like ninety you know. I go to modern dances now, and every now and then I give them two moves and they're like 'woah!' Because me a big man too so people extra special surprise, yu know?

You're known for your conscious lyrics....
I'm a community person you know - I run a thing called Youth Promotion, most of the youth in Jamaica have passed through it - Junior Reid, Garnett Silk, Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty.

Tell me about how you helped Garnett Silk...
Well Garnett Silk was such a talented youth - he was good already. He told me: "Look father - me just want to hear me voice on one of those thing there" pointing to a record! So he put out a record called No Disrespect, recording as Little Bimbo. Once he got that, the rest is history.

And Junior Reid?
Junior Reid was a kid who was working with singers, one of whom died in a hail of gun shots one day - he was a young man on the stray, on the loose, following gangs and suchlike in Waterhouse. I saw the potential for him, and wanted to take him out of the ghetto

What's your view on the plight of reggae?
They've killed the singing out of reggae. They've taken the singing out of reggae - there's no mainstream anymore. If you could say who's the top reggae artist right now? - and it would say Shaggy or Sean Paul.

Where do you stand with the homophobia in dancehall?
We grew up like that - religion, Rastafari, Christianity - we always against things like that. It's not because people are coming up with it now - we always been like that. Jamaica's like that. Myself - I don't condone violence - people trying to kill people because of their lifestyle - or whatever. We have to live together

Anyway. I would say - leave them to Jah. I even recorded a song - just for the fun of it - then we decided 'no man we can't put this out'. It was know what....when all this nonsense came out I didn't bother to release it.

How did it go?
[Laughs "If you see a chi-chi man then run - then send bottle and stone after him. Run chi chi man run, with bottle and show coming after him". It's really funny - that's what I'm saying! I'm not thinking that people's gonna take it serious - like they're really gonna do that! I thought - that's a trend - 'let's do something with it.'

But it was just for fun, yu know? Stop taking it so serious! Jamaicans say 'Boom Bye Bye' [Song by Buju Banton that details shooting gay people in the head] just for fun, they're not actually gonna boom bye bye nobody. I'm saying leave it alone. I've never committed violence against anyone who wants to live the way they want to live.

Run us though how you made the track you're most famous for, Hard Time Pressure...
Story behind that - I walk into the studio and see the kids - Style Scott [who became famous as the Roots Radics' drummer] and dem - nobody wanted to use them, but they thought they were good enough, so I said - come let's do a little riddim. I got the vibes from Hopeton Lewis. I got the feel from living in our ghetto Maxwell Park and there'd always be police raids, we couldn't stay on the corner - we had to be running from the cops every day.

What are your happiest memories?
Happiest years? The English years - lovers rock - there were times we didn't have to sing about our rough old lives, that we're from the ghetto - they were happy songs, a breath of fresh air, with Musical Youth and others.

And your worst?
The worst part of my life is now, nobody remembers you, remembers what you do, they don't call you up. It's a sad period of music for singers. Reggae's going down. Other people are surviving, country is surviving, calypso is surviving. Just that the old presentation of reggae has broken down. If Dennis Brown was here everything was alright. Nobody's good enough anymore. Now they need Bunny Wailer and people like that to help. Nobody's keeping us together, despite the free downloading situation. Gregory Isaacs is done, Dennis Brown is gone, everyone is finished. It's not nice.

Interview by Miguel Cullen

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