Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Birth of the NYC Ska Scene: Interview with Sean 'Cavo' Dinsmore of The Toasters & Unity 2

I regularly attended NYC ska shows held at CBGB's, the Cat Club and The Continental in 1987-1988 and that time period is owned by The Toasters, who were just about to rocket out of the New York scene to begin touring and preaching the gospel of ska around the U.S.. The Toasters line-up during that time period was among the very best the band ever had and the band's musicianship and stellar showmanship had everything to do with their growing success. The NYC Ska scene of the mid-80's had energy and style in spades (see Second Step, Urban Blight and Beat Brigade) but it was two particular individuals -- Sean 'Cavo' Dinsmore and Lionel 'Nene' Bernard -- better known as the Unity 2, who may have embodied the look and sound of the 80's NYC ska scene the best.

Its one thing for me to write about seeing The Toasters in the mid-80's and another for you to experience it for yourself. Below are two very rare live video clips from The Toasters performing 'Little Hidden Secrets' and 'Pool Shark' at the Cat Club in New York City in 1986. The band had been gigging together 3 years at this point but was in transition. The original core of the band that Rob Hingley had recruited from the Forbidden Planet comic book store was still in place, but the addition of the Unity 2 as additional vocalists had taken the band to a whole new level and their live shows rivaled any band performing at the time. Interestingly, this show features the original bassist Vicky Rose as a vocalist and may have been her last show with the band.

While Dinsmore and Bernard brought a stage look and showmanship to the live performance, they also added a new dimension to The Toasters evolving sound. Indeed, when the band's album 'Skaboom' first hit the racks back in 1987, it (along with Fishbone and The Untouchables in L.A.) signaled the dawning of a new era for American ska. The album features the high energy writing and singing of band founder Rob 'Bucket' Hingley, well supported by the Unity Two (particularly on 'ABC's'), who's stage antics were being worked into the lead on new songs in the studio. The songs feature guitar and keyboard driven skank accompanied by a delightfully raw horn section. Each track paints an atmospheric picture of life in mid-eighties NYC, hanging out in the East Village shootin' pool with the sharks at Blanche's and playing gigs at CBGBs.

However, the 'Thrill Me Up' album may be The Toasters at their peak capturing the full contributions of the Unity 2. Vocals and songwriting on this album were split between Hingley and Dinsmore (who holds his own as a lead vocalist) with Bernard taking lead turns on 'Haitian Frustration' and 'Johnny Goes Ska'. The album is filled with Toasters classics like 'Decision at Midnight', 'Go Girl', and the title cut, not to mention fiery instrumental 'Frankenska' which used to open all their live shows.

The strength of The Toasters live show was being fueled more and more by the Unity 2 and the popularity of 'Thrill Me Up' led to a higher profile for Dinsmore and Bernard who placed a song called 'Shirlee' on a compilation album of reggae/hip-hop called 'The Funky Reggae Crew' while still with the band. The song became popular quickly and Unity 2 split The Toasters to sign their own deal with Warner Brothers Records in 1989-90. Their first album 'What Is It, Yo?' placed them squarely in the hip hop/reggae scene of the early 90's and the duo put together a band of New York ska and reggae musicians and were off and running. My band Bigger Thomas opened a show for Unity 2 and De La Soul at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ in the early 90's (another inspired pairing by club promoter Randy Now). I remember a close to sell-out crowd turning out to welcome them. They had a great live sound that successfully incorporated a DJ.

Dinsmore and I both attended the same high school in New Jersey (a few years apart), and it has spawned an unusual number of musicians and bands (e.g., Spin Doctors, Blues Travelers). I was able to reach him in Shanghai, China were he now lives and works as a producer and DJ. He was kind enough to take time to share his memories of the New York ska scene and The Toasters, Unity 2 that has lead to regular work as a leading producer and DJ with the Dum Dum Project.


You grew up in Princeton, NJ like me right? Princeton High School seemed to be the source for a lot of future musicians (The Spin Doctors, Blues Travelers, etc.).
Yes, I went to PHS. Don’t forget guys like Andrew Weiss and Sim Caine from Henry Rollins Band, or Adam and Charlie Roth who played with Jim Carroll, Del Fuegos, etc. Chris Harford was on Elektra…the place was a hotbed of creativity! (Dinsmore's Princeton High School yearbook photo is below. I wisely did not include mine).

When did you first get into music? Do you remember the first record you ever bought? Who introduced you to ska and reggae?
Always was into music, my mother sang opera. I declined piano lessons (much to her dismay) in favor of sports, but made her happy by joining the glee club and choir, so I became a singer. First record I ever bought with my own money was the Apple 45 ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ the b-side to ‘Old Brown Shoe’ by The Beatles. First time I heard reggae I was hooked…I was getting high in my bedroom with my next door neighbor and he told me it was Bob Marley and The Wailers and that they believed in ganja. The next day I stole two Wailers albums – ‘Catch A Fire’ and ‘Babylon By Bus’

When did you discover that you could sing/chat?
I used to get up with my friends’ bands cause I could mimic lots of stuff, like Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster. I didn’t do it for myself until I jumped up with The Toasters at Danceteria in ’84 (Joe Jackson on sax was the hook). I joined the band after that, and brought Lionel Bernard in for the next one.

What brought you to New York City in the early 80's?
I lived in New York City when I was younger, and had an apartment on the Upper West Side all through high school, so I was always in the city going to shows and hanging out – it was a natural progression. Finally I started going to CUNY (City University of New York) in 1982.

Tell me about how you and Lionel Bernard met and started the Unity 2. Were you doing your own thing before you joined The Toasters?
Well before CUNY I was kicked out of a small college in Ohio. I was there in 1981 and one of my friends went to Kenyon College down the road, and was friends with Lionel there – so we met and we were all into ska and reggae. Lionel and I both knew we weren’t going back there, so we joined forces back in New York in summer of 1982 and started up our St. Mark’s Place Rude Boy Crew…haha. It was a blast. We hung out in front of the Holiday Cocktail Lounge and then ended up at Mudd Club almost nightly – because the DJ’s there would spin ska for us late night. Constant was there too. We always talked about starting a band, but were too into partying and having fun until I met Bucket (Rob Hingley) and jumped on stage with The Toasters, which of course was also just about partying and having fun.

How did you meet Rob Hingley and when was your first show with The Toasters?
I met Buck (who Lionel and I named by the way…because he used to carry a loaded .38 pistol in the back of his jeans – his ‘bucket kicker’) in Blanche’s on Avenue A. We got along instantly. He had a good job and always had beer money, plus he knew Joe Jackson. I was greatly impressed by this.

The addition of Unity 2 to The Toasters took the band to a whole new level. The energy of the live show was amazing and the diversity of vocalists and musical styles really made The Toasters the premiere U.S. band of the time. How easy was it for you and Lionel to be integrated into the band?
I was much less impressed by The Toasters the first time I went to see them at CBGB’s in 1984. They didn’t look like a ska band at all. Buck was kind of ska-billy, which was something Roddy Radiation from The Specials was also trying to do then, but the rest of the band looked like thrift shop manic panic types. When Lionel and I joined we started really pushing the ska look and feel. The second or third gig we ever did I invited the Urban Blight horns to join us cause they were my favorite band and also our boys, and it was a total transformation – Buck could see we needed a horn section. Then it just took off. I also started writing songs and singing more around then, so I would write in vocal parts for us as Unity 2.

What was the New York ska scene of the mid-80's like? I always got the impression that it was a very tight knit scene.
Very tight, very small…but really started growing around 1985-86 (See picture of Dinsmore with Remi Sammy from Second Step above) . I remember going to see The Untouchables at Irving Plaza around that time and going backstage to meet them and they had heard of us! I was shocked. But all the local bands, like Second Step, NY Citizens, etc. were always playing on bills together, so we all hung out and partied together too. Around 1986 The Toasters started touring incessantly, mostly clubs and colleges up and down the east coast.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable?
Buck will kill me, but once we were playing in Chicago in a big union hall for like a thousand kids and he used to do this kind of Chuck Berry duck walk thing sometimes, squatting down and hopping on one foot while playing his guitar. Anyway he had on some very tight black jeans, and the whole ass seam broke open, exposing his royal highness to the crowd. I was right behind him and cracking up. He got up and was also laughing while trying to keep playing…he spent the rest of the show facing the audience.

Another memory that always stands out was the first time we played in Los Angeles. For most of us, we had never been to the west coast before (1987) and we were headlining an all ages show at the Receeda Country Club in the Valley. We had no idea what to expect, but when the bus pulled up to the venue at around Noon we saw our name in huge letters on the marquee and a line of at least 100 kitted out scooters in front of the club. We were like ‘whoa’, because nobody in New York had a Vespa, cause it would get banged up or stolen. That was so impressive.

Tell me about recording 'Ska Boom' and 'Thrill Me Up' with The Toasters. You helped to write many of the songs on both albums. What was it like working with the legendary Joe Jackson who produced?
By the time we were ready to release ‘Skaboom’ I was starting to write songs. I was always coming to Buck with song ideas, horn lines, funny concepts that would work live. Usually it was ‘Unity 2’ based, but he was always cool about that. We had signed with Celluloid Records and it was time to make an album, so we just used the songs we had in the live set for ‘Skaboom’. We did it all ourselves in a little 16 track studio in Chelsea.

By the time we got around to ‘Thrill Me Up’ I was writing a lot, as you can see by one of my songs being the album title. We had matured a lot as a band and were touring constantly, so we were tight. We recorded the basic tracks at a studio in Bedford Stuyvesant called Charlie’s Calypso City, which was always funny when we piled out of the van, a bunch of 2-tone, East Village Rudies in the middle of Bed Stuy. Then Buck brought Joe Jackson in to mix it in a proper 24 track studio in Manhattan. It was a clear step up! I remember as we were listening to the soul song ‘Keep On Going’ for the first time, and Joe looked at me and Buck and said ‘Do you really want the bass to sound like that?’ we both said ‘no!’ like, ‘make it anyway you want Mr. Jackson sir!’

Why did you and Lionel leave The Toasters? The Toasters seemed to have tremendous potential with the two of you.
The short version is we were growing apart creatively. We didn’t want to be in a ‘ska band’ anymore…you can see it from what we were writing: ‘ABC’s’ had rapping, ‘Keep On Going’ was a soul stomper, ‘Haitian Frustration’ was almost dancehall, and ‘Don’t Blame Me’ was reggae calypso. I had already written the track ‘Shirlee’ for the funky reggae crew compilation as ‘Unity 2’ so we were ready to bust a move. Also we had been touring non-stop for 4 years and were tired of always being in this ‘ska band’ fishbowl. I used to talk to the Fishbone guys about this, and they felt the same way – it was very constricting musically.

How would you describe the Unity 2 sound you and Lionel were aiming for after you left The Toasters?
Reggae hip hop, but it never ended there…we had all these other influences that came out too. We definitely produced the record more like a full band record and not a hip hop record.

Tell me about recording the 'What Is It, Yo' LP? The single 'Shirlee' was originally part of a Toasters song right? What was it like to work with Keene Carse from Urban Blight who produced the record?
No, ‘Shirlee’ was something I wrote for the ‘Funky Reggae Crew’ compilation for wb. But we used to try out some of the lyrics live at Toasters shows in the freestyle sections. Recording it was a blast…we just got a bunch of money from Warner Brothers and made a record with our friends, Keene Carse from Urban Blight and Sydney Mills from Boogie Down Productions, plus the Urban Blight guys, and lots of people hanging out in the studio like KRS-One, Shelly Thunder and Frankie Paul. It was like a month-long party. Keene is a great musician and had lots of great ideas, and we tried to explore them all. Sydney is Jamaican, and he really transformed our remake of ‘ABC’s’

Is it true that the actor Matt Dillon directed the video for 'Shirlee'? What was it like to work with him? Was he a fan?
Matt used to introduce The Toasters at live shows sometimes, and Lionel and I became good friends with him. The funny thing is that when he suggested directing the ‘Shirlee’ video we were initially hesitant because we wanted someone with a music video resume, he had never done one before. When Benny Medina (our A&R guy at Warner Brothers) heard about it he told us we were crazy and so we said yes to Matt. In the end Matt did a great job, along with Drew Carolan who was another of our downtown homies.

How and why did Unity 2 end?
Again you can say creative differences. Our second Warner Brothers album was all over the place…we recorded with Lamont Dozier (of Motown fame), Bobby Konders, Freddy Bastone, Skatemaster Tate, David Kennedy…and it was kind of a mess. Finally Warner Brothers was through spending money on it and suggested we release a single first, but everyone knew there was no album to follow it with yet. I wanted to move to Los Angeles and try acting, so we said no to Warner Brothers and just broke up. I did move to L.A. for six months but never became an actor, ha ha!

What have you been doing musically since the end of Unity 2?
A lot. After Unity 2 split I produced Sha Liv for Blunt Recordings, worked with other alternative hip hop guys like 1000 Clowns and Mickey P in LA. Then started my own group Supercuz back in NY, which was very loopy and psychedelic stuff with a sitar in the band. Then I went to India and came back to make Indian/Bollywood sample albums under the name of Dum Dum Project. All the while I was DJ’ing, and finally I moved to London in 2001 to tour around with the Asian Underground DJs and make more DDP albums. We had a big hit on the Asian scene there in 2003 with a track called ‘Punjabi Five-0’ that was on tons of compilations and even a Bollywood film. After touring in Asia and living in Bombay for a while, I finally settled in Bangkok for 3 years, and now am in Shanghai for the last 4 years. I’m still remixing and producing. In 2009 I produced an album for MC Yogi which has been on the iTunes world charts for over a year. We are recording some new DDP material as we speak…it never ends. It will end when I stop having ideas I guess.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The Toasters and the NYC ska scene of the 80's?
Too many! So many great times and laughs. For Lionel and me it was always about humor and having fun – The Toasters too. We were never ones to take ourselves too seriously. Certainly I remember headlining The Ritz after we got back from our last Toasters tour, and it was sold out. We had played there the year before for two big shows with Fishbone and Murphy’s Law (maybe the best shows we ever did) but now it was our house…that was an incredible feeling. Ironically I think that was our last gig with The Toasters.

You can read more about Dinsmore and the Dum Dum Project on their MySpace page.


Steve from Moon said...

Great interview with Cavo, Marc! I'd heard stories about how Bucket's nickname came about (he would never tell anyone himself), but the truth is now out there...

(BTY, how did Cavo get his nickname?)

johnnyreggae said...

haha chuck berry duckwalk


Steve from Moon said...

And, of course, there is the great "Chuck Berry" track off of "Hard Band for Dead"...

dublinsax said...

Great interview Marco, shame they left when they did, The Toasters' first 2 albums (with them) were their best.

Steve from Moon said...

At the time the Unity 2 broke off on their own, The Toasters were one of the best live bands you could ever hope to see. I saw them play several "Thrill Me Up" era shows (headlining at The Ritz and and playing at a Cajun-themed club called The Big Kahuna or something like that) they were some of the best gigs I've seen in my life.

Eve Siegel said...

Sean just produced the Asian Hiphop compilation for Vibe Magazine - it's excellent. 15 tracks from lotsa countries - China, Mongolia, Korean, etc. Respect!