Thursday, May 27, 2010

Exclusive: Interview with Felix Hall - Up and Coming U.K. Reggae DJ

If you were lucky enough to see The Specials during their most recent tour, then you were treated to an opening DJ set by Felix Hall and his partner Trevor Evans. Felix is the son of The Specials singer Terry Hall, and along with Evans has been warming up fans of the band in the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Australia and Japan with their pre-gig mix of Dub, Punk and Ska DJ sets. Hall who lives in London has been DJing strictly reggae for about 5 years with a concentration on reggae from the late 70s and digital reggae from the early 80s.

I had the chance to connect with Hall, who answered questions about his burgeoning DJ career.

Where did you grow up?
Was born in Manchester, lived near Coventry for a while and currently in North London.

What are your earliest memories related to reggae, ska, rock steady and dub music?
I first heard a compilation when I was about 7 or 8 in the house and it had me hooked.

Do you remember the first reggae or dub album you ever heard? Do you listen to other types of music or is it reggae all the time?
One of the first records I remember hearing and picking up that made a big impression was Know Myself by Junior Reid on Greensleeves, it's a faultless record. Late Night Blues by Don Carlos, Let Go This One by Anthony Johnson are some of the first records I remember that really made a mark on me too. Mostly yeah I also listen to some Hip Hop, MF Grimm, Kurious Jorge, Kool G Rap, that sort of stuff.

When did you start to DJ?
I first played out around 5 years ago at a night I sort of fell into in London.

Who are some of your favorite reggae artists? Based on your DJ sets it sounds like you might prefer 60's and 70's artists?
I wouldn't say I have a particular favorite artist or even producer, there are certain records that I pretty much play consistently at every gig and listen to a lot at home and always sound brand new. I suppose Echo Minott, White Mice, Steve Knight, Barry Brown are among my favorite artists if it comes down to it. Era wise the late 70's towards early digital is my preference over all.

You spin original 45's when you DJ right? Do you prefer vinyl to using MP3's on an iPod?
I'm all for the greater sound quality and there's a real sense of pride in what you play with vinyl too. Can't deal with anything else!

Where do you find most of your vinyl? Online or crate digging? What's your latest find?
Quite a lot online recently, I get a lot of records from Out on the floor in Camden Town, Peoples Sound in West London and Deadly Dragon in NY. I picked up Raggamuffin Soldier (Steve Knight) and No Peace Until (Roman Stewart) the other day at Out On The Floor.

How do you and Trevor Eavns work together when you are doing a set? Do you take turns? Has he been an influence on you as a DJ?
We sometimes play 1 for 1, or we split it into two separate sets, Trevor plays a lot of Ska and early Reggae, he's always there on the mic also. Yeah I've learnt a lot from him.

What were the two UK 30th anniversary tours like?
Great fun man, a lot of the gigs felt like being in a time warp, the atmosphere was brilliant.

Can you share any unusual experiences from The Specials tours so far? Where have you gotten the best response to your DJ set?
New Zealand was a really memorable set, and playing in New York is up there too. It's just been an amazing opportunity to experience the world, and to see the reception the band receive out of the UK.

What's it like to be on tour with your Father?
It's cool, just like going to football with him or something like that.

What is your favorite song by The Specials?
I'm not sure, maybe 'Do Nothing'.

Have your heard the new 'Mos Dub' project by Max Tannone? He's mixed Mos Def's vocals over classic reggae and rock steady tracks? Great stuff.
I've heard of it but not actually listened to it yet, I shall check it out man.

Hall will be back in the U.S. and Canada later this summer when The Specials return to play New York, Boston and Toronto and may spin a few of his own DJ sets in each city. In the meantime, if you want to hear Felix do what he does best, click the link below to download a DJ set he did when he was in New York this past April.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

BBC 'Rock School' 80's TV Series Teaches Millions About The Roots & Rudiments Of Reggae

Anyone who came of age in the U.K. or U.S. in the early to mid-80's should remember the show 'Rockschool'. In that long ago time before the Internet and You Tube made everything immediately accessible, it may have been one of the coolest educational television shows about the history of modern music that also happened to demonstrate how the bands and musicians you loved did what they did. It was so cutting edge when it was launched that it was reviewed by the venerable New York Times.

The series was certainly a lifesaver for me as I fumbled and struggled to teach myself how to play ska and reggae on a cheap Sears catalog bass guitar. Indeed, the episodes on reggae (including interviews with Dennis Bovell, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) were my first proper introduction to both the history of ska, rocksteady and reggae as well as the technique of one-drop, stepper riddim and other reggae styles and how to play them. Needless to say, after watching the reggae episode I quickly went out to buy albums by Black Uhuru and LKJ which furthered my musical education.

For the uninitiated, the 1987 show produced by the BBC (which was exported to the U.S. and broadcast on PBS) was hosted by three British musicians (Henry Thomas, Deirdre Cartwright and Geoff Nicholls) who patiently explained how-to-play a variety of music (Rock, Funk, Heavy Metal, Reggae) and also introduced a generation of young minds to a world of syn-drums and MIDI guitars. I owe much of my early understanding of the rudiments and technique of how to play reggae music to Thomas, the show's resident bass player.

Below is the episode on reggae. Its definitely worth a watch for the clips with Bovell and Dunbar alone, though the hosts are dedicated and enthusiastic guides and their patient earnestness remains sweetly engaging throughout. While the series is long out-of-print (and a bit dated in terms of musical technology) its still a fantastic look back at one of the most fertile periods in modern music history. I've seen copies of the entire series (and the corresponding books that were sold as part of the program) floating around on EBay.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Exclusive: Interview with Bob Fingerman - Comic Book Artist Who Created Iconic Album Art For The Toasters and American Ska Comps

The look and visuals of 2-Tone and American ska album cover art have been as much an inspiration for me as the sound of the music itself. Indeed, among the most satisfying experiences I've had writing this blog has been the chance to meet and interview the talented artists who were as much responsible for its overall success and legacy as the musicians who wrote and performed the songs. As a frustrated graphic artist I have always loved learning about the inspiration as well as the science and technique behind album art work.

Rob 'Bucket' Hingley' is properly credited with popularizing and spreading the gospel of a uniquely American-styled version of ska via The Toasters. And in doing so, he also picked a uniquely American visual art form -- the comic book -- as the graphic vehicle for The Toasters early singles, EPs and albums. Hingley managed the New York City comic book emporium Forbidden Planet during the early days of the band, so its no surprise that he reached out to up and coming graphic novel/comic book artist Bob Fingerman to develop the look of The Toasters early album covers and American ska comps that Moon Records released.

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a copy of The Toasters first self-titled EP at the Rutgers University radio station. Having been raised on 2-Tone album art, I was struck by the album cover that featured caricatures of the members of the band standing in front of CBGB's. It was the first in a series of strikingly detailed graphic covers that Fingerman would design for the band which speak to his talent and the foresight Hingley had to create a comic book look for the band that was distinctly New York and particularly American. Fingerman designed The Toasters first single 'Beat Up' as well their first EP 'Reciminations', 'Ska Boom', 'New York Fever' and the compilations 'N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run', 'Ska Face' and 'Spawn of Skarmaggedon'.

I recently connected with Fingerman, who is a successful comic book artist, graphic novelist and author. Best known for his comic series Minimum Wage (Fantagraphics Books), as well as the graphic novel White Like She (also Fantagraphics), Fingerman’s contributions to the world of comics have been many and varied. Below is the interview about his work with The Toasters and Moon Records.

Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in design and illustration?
I grew up in Rego Park, Queens. I always drew, and for a time thought that being an illustrator was what I wanted to be. I did illustration for magazines and periodicals for a number of years and seldom found it very gratifying. So, I even though I’d always done comics, I made those my primary focus from about 1990 onward.

Who influenced your design style?
Early influences were some daily strip cartoonists like Charles M. Schulz and Walt Kelly. A lot of the MAD artists. They did⎯and still do⎯inform a lot of my aesthetic. Guys like Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Mort Drucker and Sergio Aragones. Later⎯in my early teens⎯I discovered Heavy Metal magazine and my mind was blown. This was when it was new and had all the greats: Moebius, Richard Corben, Enki Bilal, etc.. They turned my world upside down. And of course Robert Crumb and some of the underground guys.

How and where did you meet Rob 'Bucket' Hingley?
Rob was manager at Forbidden Planet, back in its original location on the corner of 12th Street and Broadway. I was still in high school when they opened and we met. It took a few years of me buying up the European import comics, but he noticed that. I guess not too many American teens were as fervent about the French and British comics as me. We got talking and became friends. I always enjoyed hanging out with him. The Lower East Side was a different animal back then. He and a bunch of roommates had this duplex on the east side of Tompkins Square Park. I briefly flirted with moving in, too, when a room became available. That would have been interesting. It would have warped my tiny little mind. I met a lot of interesting people because of Rob. He was kind of the nexus of comicdom in those days. Everyone knew him and I’d meet them at parties he threw at the duplex.

You have designed the covers for a number of important American ska records. Did Bucket give you any direction or did you have free reign with the album designs?
I don’t remember much direction. Certainly not in terms of style and execution. Maybe concepts. I think the first one I actually drew⎯as opposed to Beat Up, which I merely completed the inking on⎯was the one where they’re all in front of CBGB. I think my direction was simply, “Draw us in front of CBGB.” Skaface I think Rob said, “Something gangsterish.” Maybe he suggested the scar spelling out the title. I can’t recall. It’s more than half my lifetime ago. But it was pretty free reign.

Has the fact that you are not a fan of ska been a help or a hindrance in creating designs for one of the most popular American ska bands?
Neither. I’m a pro. Ha. That sounded arrogant. I used to like it more than I do now. I don’t want to alienate any of your readers. I enjoyed going to Toasters shows. And I still can listen to some old UK ska, but it’s not a genre I like. And I loathe reggae. I always used to say, “Someday I’ll do cover art for a band in a genre I like.” Never happened. And now I don’t really care.

Where did the inspiration for much of the design work you created for The Toasters and other ska comps come from? The images are so striking and memorable.
I did some sketches and there the images were. No major epiphanies. Sorry.

Can you explain how everything was actually created? Did you hand draw all the designs? What was the actual technical process for creating all the art?
Yeah, these covers were done ages ago, way before digital anything. These covers are all very analog (does that give them a warmer sound?). I mean, the two-color covers even used handcut Rubylith overlays for the second color. That is old school. The color seps for Skaboom were hand done in gray airbrush, one for yellow and one for magenta to create the explosion. I used a feeble version of Richard Corben’s had-sep method. A nightmare. But the results were half decent. Then the full-color ones were done with the black on one plate and the color painted on a blue-line process. I had to get full-size negatives shot of the line art and create with nasty chemicals the blue-line layer to hand paint. I do not miss any of these process-oriented approaches. I like the digital age. Much easier and more predictable.

Can you share any unusual stories behind any of the designs?
Sadly, no. Not because they’re too titillating to share, I just don’t recall anything interesting. Which is probably for the best.

What are you working on now and where can people see more of your work?
These days I’m doing a lot of writing. My second novel, Pariah, is coming out this August from Tor. It’s a zombie-themed piece set in Manhattan. I presently have a new graphic novel out called From the Ashes, from IDW. That’s what I’ve dubbed a “speculative memoir” starring my wife and I in the post-apocalyptic ruins of New York. People interested in seeing work more recent than twenty or more years old should check out my website,

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is this Jerry Dammers Original 1966 Vox Super Continental Organ? If So, Why Was It Sold Last Year?

I'm always amazed when iconic pieces of musical history (like Gold Records) end up in someones garage sale or on eBay. The music business is a tough one and many a musician on the top of the world one moment can quickly find themselves back where it all started without a penny in their pockets. Sadly, when times are tight, that Gold Record may help to pay the rent.

That said, I'm usually saddened when I hear about musicians selling their own instruments. Though inanimate objects, guitars, drums and pianos can take on lives and personalities of their own, making them very hard to part with no matter the personal crisis. So imagine my surprise when I learned that what appears to be Jerry Dammer's original Vox Continental organ had been legitimately sold last year by a reputable music wholesaler in Coventry.

The buyer recently posted a note on The Specials community page looking for some further proof on the authenticity of the instrument he now owns. Turns out when he opened it up to do some repairs on the 1966 organ, he discovered service notes from 30+ years ago that led him to believe that he might indeed be in possession of Dammers iconic instrument. That and Jerry's name and S AKA (Special AKA) written on the inside! His note said:

I own a 66' Vox SuperContinental MkII Organ, and I suspect it was the very same model owned and used by Jerry Dammers during his time in The Specials.

- The organ (or a ringer!) appears in the 'Message To You Rudy' video
- I bought the organ from a wholesalers just outside of Coventry
- When I opened up the organ for a technical adjustment, I noticed it's signed 'J. DAMMERS. S.AKA'.

Comparing the pictures the buyer shared above and below with video screen grabs it sure looks like he is the proud owner of a piece of 2-Tone musical history. If it is indeed the original, which has toured the world and been featured prominently in iconic videos for 'Message To You Rudy' and 'Gangsters' then it raises all sorts of questions. Why did Dammers sell the organ? The timing for the sale would have been when his former bandmates kicked off their 30th anniversary tour without him. Perhaps he offloaded the instrument in a fit of anger? Maybe it reminded him too much of the tour taking place without him? And if the organ could talk, what stories would it have to tell?

With the fundraiser for the 2-Tone Central Museum scheduled for this weekend, it might be nice if, once the buyer authenticates it was owned by Dammers, that he donate the organ for short visits to the museum for all 2-Tone fans to see. More on this as it develops.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Return of Blue Riddim!: Band Readies First New Album In 25 Years

It is with great excitement that I'm able to announce that Blue Riddim Band is readying the release of their first new album in 25 years! For those of you in the know, this is truly an achievement for a band that has persevered and stayed true and devoted to its love of reggae. For the uninitiated, read on and join the celebration!

While reggae has become a global phenomenon, the idea of an American reggae band has often been hard for a lot of music fans to comprehend. However, very few groups have played reggae as convincingly as the Blue Riddim Band who hail from Kansas City. Drawing on influences from Coxson Dodd's Studio One label and Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label, Blue Riddim has flourished for four decades by mastering the rhythms that are the basis for all Jamaican music. While other non-Jamaican reggae bands have fallen into the trap of trying to reproduce the crossover sound of Bob Marley and The Wailers, Blue Riddim became students and later experts who could play a range of ska, rock steady, and rockers reggae like the originals they pay homage to on their new album.

At their height in the early 1980's, Blue Riddim had the distinction of being the very first American reggae band to be invited to play at Reggae Sunsplash. Their blazing set of ska and reggae covers and originals as dawn was rising over Jarrett Park on August 15, 1982 is legendary. They earned two encores from the crowd of 20,000 Jamaicans who were mesmerized by their 'blue eyed reggae.' Their Sunsplash performance was recorded for the LP 'Alive In Jamaica' released in 1984 which was later nominated for a Grammy for best reggae album in 1985 (see video of the band performing 'Nancy Reagan'). Let that sink in for a minute. The band was nominated for a Grammy!

Shortly after achieving the validation that came with a Grammy nomination, the band was hit by a series of trials and tribulations that made it almost impossible for them to build on the momentum that should have made them household names and stars. Indeed, the reggae historian Roger Steffens has said, "All the attention that UB40 ever got, it should have been lavished on Blue Riddim." Sadly is was not to be. First the band fell into a legal dispute with unscrupulous management that left them broke and unable to use their band name. Then the band was hit by the untimely death's of its co-frontmen Bob Zohn and Scotty Korchak. Lesser band's may have given up. However Blue Riddim has persevered and their legacy as the best American reggae band of all time remains intact.

Now 25 years on, the band have finally regained the right to use their name again and they have re-emerged with a brand new album. 'Tribute' is a complete re-birth for the band, who have linked up with producer Kyle Dykes (A.K.A Leonard Dstroy) who urged them to record new material. Dykes father Jimmy had played in a few Blue Riddim Band spin-offs (Nu Riddim Band and Strategic Dance Initiative -- and appears on the new record), so he had an in with a band that was still reeling from the death of its long time front man Scott Korchak who passed away in September 2007.

I recently connected with the band's bassist Todd 'Bebop' Burd who filled me on the new album and the band's plans to celebrate.

Which original members of the band are featured on this new recording? What's the line-up of the band that recorded the new album?
The guys from the original band are Steve “Duck” McLane (drums) and Jack “Blacky” Blackett (sax). I play the bass and joined in 1983. Jimmy Becker (harmonica) makes a cameo appearance on the CD (he played on the 'Alive In Jamaica' album) .

The band also includes:
Keyboards : Dan Burgner, Joe Miqulion
Guitar : Jimmy Dykes
Trumpet : Jack Lightfoot
Trombone : Chris Bartak
Vocals : Edward Turner

What was the inspiration behind the newly recorded 'Tribute' album?
The inspiration behind 'Tribute' is simply that, a tribute. A tribute to our fallen comrades in our own band and to the originators of rocksteady and dub. All of whom got little or no recognition. This is our tip of the hat to our brothers and mentors. Also, we want to make the point that there is at least one band that can re-create music from that era (`65 to `69) without assistance from computer programs.

This whole project was not planned. Nothing about it was planned out. The new CD, its all something that seemed to come about on its own. To keep an air of rawness, the band was not informed what songs were to be recorded prior to the actual recording session. I kept the air conditioning off and we used a minimal amount of mics. My thought was that recording conditions should be a bit physically uncomfortable to re-create some of the conditions that existed at Studio One and try to catch a vibe that way. For the most part, it seems to have worked.

Where did you record the album and who produced it?
The CD was recorded, mixed, and mastered all here in Kansas City. It was produced by me and Leonard Dstroy. Leonard also engineered and mixed it.

What songs did you select to record and why? Who were the original artists that recorded them?
After a thorough scouring of the archives, (i.e. Studio One/Treasure Isle), we arrived at the following selection of songs.

1. Mr. Dub is a Channel One instrumental version of a Horrace Andy song. Original title track unknown
2. Black Stick Rock is originally 'Love Without Feeling' by The Heptones.
3. Only A Dub is an instrumental version of the classic, 'Only A Smile' by The Parragons.
4. Skaravan is a ska version of the classic 'Caravan' by Duke Ellington.
5. Ba-Ba-Boom is by The Jamaicans.
6. Money Maker is an instrumental version of The Heptones, 'Fatty Fatty Riddim'.
7. Ramble is by Rico Rodriguez
8. Drifting is an instrumental version of the “Mudie” label classic 'Drifter' by Dennis Walks.
9. Dub and Learn is an instrumental version of the Alton Ellis classic ;Live and Learn'.
10. Queen of the Rub is originally 'Queen of the Minstrel' by Cornell Campbell.

Below is video from earlier this year of the band performing the track 'Ba-Ba-Boom' from 'Tribute'.

The band just recently secured the rights to use its name again. Can you share a little bit about the long legal battle over the band name and how you finally got it back?
As far as the legal battle concerning the use of the band name and how we got it back. One word: Attrition. We won because we are the last men standing.
Are there any plans to re-release your back catalog including 'Restless Spirit'. 'Alive In Jamaica' and 'Nancy Reagan'?
The new CD will be released on “Riddim Records” our own record label, with some celebration in late July or early August. I’ll let you know once we get the exact date. We’re also going to re- release Restless Spirit, Alive Jamaica, and A Major Label-EP on the same label.

Is the band playing any shows to celebrate the release of the album? Are any tour dates planned?
The new release will help to rekindle interest in the band, welcoming a new audience while rallying our established fan base. We have been playing around Kansas City, MO every eight weeks or so, and have recently headlined the Prairie Vibrations reggae festival in Lincoln, NE. Although no major tours are scheduled they are certainly not out of the realm of possibility . We are hopeful that the new project will help create touring opportunities. Roger Steffens is writing the liner notes, and Carter Van Pelt is writing an updated bio. We are going to start with cd`s and the digital download thing. We might go ahead and press a limited amount of vinyl as well. Since we are financing thing thing ourselves, it is a matter of acquiring the capital as we proceed.

You can download two free tracks from 'Tribute' -- 'Mr Dub' and 'Only A Dub' from the band's Web site.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ska: An Oral History: New Book To Tell The Personal Stories Of The Musicians Who Invented It

As ska has moved farther and farther from its original birthplace in Jamaica to become a world wide phenomena with multiple sub-genres (e.g., 2-Tone, Ska-Punk, Ska-Core), the stories of the musicians and producers who invented the sound we all love have have slowly begun to fade as they themselves have passed away. While their spirits will always live on in the songs and music they wrote and recorded, their individual stories provide a window into one of the most interesting, fertile, dynamic and competitive music scenes ever invented. As a serious student of ska music history, I'm a firm believer that in order to know where you are going you need to know where you've been. So does Heather Augustyn, who is about to publish one of the first oral histories of ska music later this year.

In a project that has spanned nearly a decade, Augustyn is about to realize a long held dream that has become a personal mission: to ensure that the stories of 30 key ska musicians who have played a key role in its invention, development and ongoing success are captured and preserved. I recently connected with Augustyn who shared some of her own amazing stories that came out of the recording of the personal stories of a who's a who of ska musicians.

How did you get introduced to ska music? What are your earliest memories related to ska music?
I first heard ska when I was a kid and watched The Young Ones on MTV. I remember seeing Madness perform 'House of Fun' with Neil, Vivian, and the boys. I thought it was kind of silly music but really fun. Then of course I saw 120 Minutes and was a huge fan of The English Beat and General Public because I thought Roger and Dave were just the coolest combination ever. Then came Fishbone and the Toasters and I realized that this music had a rich history. I had no idea. My father raised us on great classic music, like real rock ‘n’ roll, and he is a huge Bob Marley fan and a huge reggae fan, but I never knew there was a connection with this music I was raised with, and the music I had discovered later in my youth. When I put the two of them together and realized they had the same roots, it was like an explosion for me and I had to know more.

Do you remember the first ska music you ever heard? What was the first ska album your ever bought? First show you ever saw?
The first ska I ever heard was Madness. But I think the first ska album I ever bought was I Just Can’t Stop It by The English Beat. The first show I ever saw was The Toasters. Even though I grew up an hour away from Chicago, I am from a small town in Indiana and led a pretty sheltered life growing up, so I didn’t get out to too many crazy ska shows until later in my youth!

What inspired you to decide to write a book that tells the history of ska music? What made you decide to make it an oral history told by the musicians themselves?
Well I decided to write a book on ska history when I got out of grad school in 1996 and realized there was nothing out there on it. I went to the library to read more and there was nothing there. Sure, there were tons of books on Bob Marley and reggae, and maybe a few of them would have a half a chapter on ska or rocksteady, but then that was it. I was dumbfounded. To me it was just wrong. This was back in 1996 when the Internet was just starting to boom, so I found some stuff online, through FAQs and stuff like that, but there was just as much misinformation out there in that arena as there was information. So I felt it was my duty. Then I realized, who the hell am I? I’m just a little white girl from Indiana! Who would ever listen to me?! But if I could get the story from those who were there, the artists themselves, then that would be the real story. I don’t think I really thought it would be an oral history until I had interviewed a bunch of these folks and found that their stories were so rich that they would be the focus of the book. I did a whole bunch of interviews and the project got to be so big that it was too daunting for me. I put the tapes in a box and they just sat, that unfinished project, as life happened. I had kids, I moved a bunch of times, and I became a journalist and honed my skills. Some of the artists I had interview begun to die, one by one. I realized that I could not let those words go unheard. It again was my duty to pick the project back up and finish it. So in 2007, on my 35th birthday, I decided to go full force. I re-interviewed many people, I interviewed new people, and I wrote every single day for a year and a half until it was done. These musicians never gave up ska music and I couldn’t give up on them.

Did you have the book deal before you started this project? How did you sell this to your publisher?
No. But I promised myself I would not self publish. There’s nothing wrong with self publishing and I’ve done that with two books before. But I felt this was too important for that. I owed it to these artists to do it right. So I found a literary agent in New York City. He helped me tremendously. He helped me to write a fantastic book proposal, which is like writing a book by itself. It’s like 50 pages long and analyzes everything from other books on the market like it, to potential audiences, numbers, etc. I spend a long time writing that and hired a friend to design it and I tell you, that proposal kicked ass. I had all of the big literary houses telling me they loved it, they loved me as a writer, but the book wouldn’t sell more than 1,000 copies. I couldn’t argue with that. I mean, it’s not a book about vampires and werewolves falling in love. It’s ska. There is a hardcore fan base for ska, but to a Houghton Mifflin or a St. Martin’s Press, they just don’t do niche markets. So after I was with my agent for a year and a half, I decided he had exhausted to top tier of big guns, and it was time for a little DIY action. I fired him. Within two weeks, I had my publisher, on my own. I found McFarland, an academic press in North Carolina. I found my editor, Charlie Perdue, who got it. He just got it. He said he had been looking for a book like this for the six years he had been with the publisher. He had his own reggae show in college and numbers weren’t as important to them as was a quality product about a great topic. It was the perfect fit.

How did you go about setting up interviews with all the original Jamaican ska musicians like The Skatalites’ Doreen Schaeffer, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, and Lester Sterling; Derrick Morgan and Patsy (Millicent Todd); Lyn Taitt; Laurel Aitken; Toots Hibbert; Millie Small?
Back in 1996, I saw that The Skatalites were coming to the University of Chicago for a show. I had seen them before, and since, but knew that this venue may provide some more intimate time for an interview. So I contacted their manager at the time, whose name was Shay, and contacted the university student group putting together the concert and got them to agree to let me do the interview back stage before the show. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, one I will never forget, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Roland Alphonso is perhaps the sweetest man in the world! My husband knows I have a fondness for old men (nothing creepy, I just think they are cute!), but let me tell you, Roland was the best of them! He was warm, and his spirit just radiated. They all were great. Lloyd Knibb was a true professional, telling me the details of his drumming style; Lloyd Brevett had a quite, soft whisper of a voice and he slipped from time to time into a little patois to keep me just on the edge of his world, letting me in when he wanted to; Lester was ready to get to the show but was friendly and helpful; and Doreen was a sweetheart. I interviewed her again 12 years later by phone. Such a generous soul. All of the others I interviewed over the phone, although I did see them at the shows to photograph them with permission, like Laurel Aitken. Lyn Taitt I interviewed about two months before he died via phone. He really didn’t want to talk but gave me just a few words. Millie Small was an interview I conducted via interview with her manager, after being told no a bunch of times and refusing to give up. Patsy called me one day after I gave my phone number to her through a friend, Brad Klein and is the sweetest lady in the world. She had a whole different perspective and hadn’t talked to anyone about ska in like 35 years, except for Brad, with whom she did the Legends of Ska show that he is turning into a documentary. Derrick Morgan was so generous, talked forever on the phone, and his son, Courtney, even sent me materials to use afterwards, like photos and additional interviews, although I used only my own interviews in the book. Toots is a funny story. I had tried to arrange a time to interview him via phone, but then one day my phone rings. It’s a Sunday morning, 8 a.m. and there is this thick Jamaican voice on the other end saying it’s him! I about died. I went flying for my tape recorder set up (all of these I recorded with a little jack thingy I bought from Radio Shack for 15 bucks) and had him holding the line, in Jamaica, while I got my butt out of bed and ready to interview! That was nuts! We talked and talked.

How were you received when you explained you were writing a book? Did you travel to Jamaica to conduct the interviews?
I have never been to Jamaica. I hope to go there someday, but the places I would want to see are likely long gone or turned into tourist venues, so it’s really not the same. When I told musicians I was writing a book, everyone, everyone was helpful and friendly and talked and talked and after they talked they gave me another number or two for another person, and it snowballed like that. It was like a family. There was only one exception. I had conducted an interview with Prince Buster. I told him what I was doing and everything. But then years later, when I actually had the publisher, he demanded money from me. He wanted 90% of my profits!! Crazy. I told him I expected to make little if any money off of this academic work and he said for that reason alone he couldn’t give me permission to use the interview. So I, of course, couldn’t use it. I never paid any of the other artists and they knew that. This was a labor of love. I never pay anyone for interviews. I have interviewed many people in my days. I was the last to interview the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut before his death; I have interviewed heads of state in Asia; I have interviewed former directors of the CIA; I have interviewed Eric Schlosser who wrote Fast Food Nation; and I have interviewed the original promoter of the Beatles, and other musicians for The Village Voice, to name a few. None have ever asked for money, ever. I couldn’t. It would ruin my integrity as a journalist to pay for an interview. If money were involved that would taint the story, taint the truth. I figure it’s an interesting story of greedy Jamaican producers being alive and well today!! I still love Prince Buster, love his work, love his contributions, just don’t love his greed, but boy that’s part of the whole picture too, so I guess I have to accept that part too!

Can you share any unusual stories or anecdotes about the early days of ska that you learned from the interviews you conducted?
Well you’ll just have to read the book! Cedella Marley shares some of her father in the foreword. Lester Sterling shares some about Rita Marley in the studio while they practiced. Derrick Morgan shares one about writing a song for a rude boy who ended up murdered two days later. Lloyd Brevett shares one about Don Drummond murdering his girlfriend Margarita and how he thinks Drummond actually died in the mental institution. Patsy shares one about why she and Derrick really split up their music partnership, one Morgan never knew until 35 years later. I could go on and on! Really, everything that comes out of these guys’ mouths is fascinating!

You also interviewed a number of 2-Tone era musicians like Dave Wakeling, Ranking Roger, Roddy Byers, Pauline Black and Buster Bloodvessel. What is their take on the ongoing popularity and longevity of ska?
They looked at it as a whole new thing. They were inventors and creators in their own right. They were kids. They were just combining everything they loved. And it was all so fast, it was like a powder keg, it just ignited. They were celebrities instantly, and it ended just as fast as it started, because in England, music fans are fickle, and the next best thing came along, the New Romantics, and in America it never took off right then. What amazes me is that they all never gave up. They continued to perform. After all, they are all musicians. That’s what they do. Sure, some of them ended up in mental institutions or tried to off themselves, but the lot of them continued on and when fashion came around again they were ready to go, older and wiser. I think the common elements here with all of them, the common threads through their stories, is that they honestly love the music and they honestly love their fans. They really do.

Can you share any unusual stories or anecdotes that you learned about the 2-Tone era from the interviews you conducted?
Hmmm, well I think Dave Wakeling’s insights on music videos in America are pretty interesting. He talks about what MTV allowed in the U.S. versus England and how they even put drops in his eyes to make them bluer so he’d be more attractive to TV audiences! He has such a fun look on it now too—he never takes himself too seriously and is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. I think that comes across in his interview too. One thing that is interesting that is not in the book is that Jerry Dammers sent me a letter that everything Roddy says in the book he has issue with. Dammers wouldn’t let me have license to use any of the song lyrics he wrote because he said the things Roddy said weren’t true. It was like a four page letter going line by line on the things Roddy and I had said in the chapter. I wished him luck and went ahead without changing a word. Roddy is so honest, brutally honest, and it’s no secret the two don’t get along. Hell, no one gets along with Dammers. But again, ultimate respect. Artists can be temperamental, can’t they?!

You also interviewed a who's who of American ska musicians who were influenced by the first and second waves of ska. Do you think there is a uniquely American style of ska?
Absolutely, and I think I try to make that argument in the book pretty clearly. America is a melting pot, and so is American ska. Ska came here at different times and blended with different forms of music. So I interview Angelo Moore of Fishbone who talks about his influences and flavor, and Tony Kanal of No Doubt who talks about his influences and flavor, and the same for Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bucket from the Toasters (who tells the true story about why Moon Ska Records folded), and dozens of others. It’s all a big melting pot. It’s ska and soul, it’s ska and hardcore, it’s ska and pop, it’s ska and everything under the sun.

Many have wrongly predicted the death of ska many times. Why do you think it continues to survive and thrive?
It’s the fans. People who love ska love it to death. That’s it. Once you’re hooked, that’s it. A friend of mine, Dave Simon from Deal’s Gone Bad, has a saying that “if you used to be punk, you never were,” and I guess I feel the same for ska in a way, that those who really love ska always love ska, forever. It’s just that kind of music that never grows old. Sure you might get sick of a sing-song Night Boat to Cairo every now and then, but put that tune back on in a year and it’s just as good as it was the first time. It’s happy music that never dies. And as the new generations come along, so goes ska. My two sons love it. My five year old son hums Guns of Navarone all day long. I’m not the only parent I hear say this. It’s the kind of music someone age 7 or 70 can enjoy, together. So the next generation is just getting ready for the next incarnation. I don’t think it ever dies. I never use the terms “first wave,” “second wave,” or “third wave” in my book, ever. I think I quoted one person who did, but I don’t. I don’t see it that way. There are just a variety of incarnations of it, but just because popularity ebbs and flows doesn’t affect the music in any way other than to breathe new versions into it, which is true of any art.

When will the book be out and where will people be able to buy it?
The book will be out this fall. I’ll let you know when I have a more definite date. We just finalized photos, most of which I took at shows. They are copy editing now. We just settled on a title, after many ideas. The original title was The Voice of the People: An Oral History of Ska Music in Jamaica and England, which is a beast of a title, too long, and then that Prince Buster thing. Then came An Oral History of Ska Music, but that was clunky. Then was Foundation Ska: An Oral History, but that was determined to be confusing. Then the final is Ska: An Oral History, so that librarians and school folk will know right up front, when they see it in a catalogue, what it is about. Short and sweet. You can buy it through McFarland or on, either as a physical book or an e-book for you techno-nerds out there.

You can pre-order a copy of the book from the McFarland Web site. There is also a Facebook page for the book.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The English Beat to Release A New Album in 2010?

Are The English Beat about to join The Specials in releasing an album's worth of new songs in 2010? According to an interview in Billboard Magazine, Dave Wakeling says the band has demos of 17 songs ready to go, including 'How Can You Stand There', 'Said We Would Never Die' and 'The Love You Give Last Forever' which have become staples of the band's current live set.

I heard many of the new songs listed above at the show my band played with The English Beat last Thursday at the Sellersville Theatre in Sellersville, PA. The new ones are a melodic mix of Wakeling's best pop ballads which would sound at home on a follow-up to the band's last album, 1982's 'Special Beat Service' (e.g. no hint of ska) as well as a top-notch selection of upbeat and catchy 2-Tone ska tracks that highlight and feature the band's energetic MC, Antonee First Class. Below is live video of 4 new songs that the band plays as part of their live set, all of which could be likely candidates for inclusion on the new record:

According to Billboard, "Wakeling says he's also considering putting out EPs rather than albums, mixing new songs with live and acoustic tracks. "I'm tempered by realism," he explains. "A lot of my friends, the '80s peer group, have brought out albums 'cause they think that's what you're meant to do, but they forgot to check if there's an audience there ready to buy it. I never fancied making a vanity record. I don't want boxes of CDs in my garage or people embarrassed to talk to me about my new record. I think it's presumptuous to just put out a CD and wonder where the limo is at the airport."

Given the amount of time Wakeling and his band are spending on the road touring (the band's bassist Wayne Lothian told me they would be on the road 10 out of 12 months in 2010), they are cultivating a built in audience that is very likely to form the core market for a new release. With the right promotion and tours (including one planned with a re-formed Squeeze later this summer in large outdoor arenas) the band can also count on more casual fans who come out to hear all their old favorites but may end up enjoying many of the new one's that are being road tested now.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Haiti Special - The Specials Re-release 'Message To You Rudy' To Raise Money for Haitian Earthquake Relief

If you have had the good fortune to see The Specials perform over the last year, then you have likely noticed what a great horn section they have touring with them. It turns out the musicians who make up the touring section (Jonathan Read, Drew Stansall, Adam Birch, Tim Smart) are all among the top ska horn players in the UK and most of them call Leicester (which remains a hot bed of ska in the U.K.) home.

When trumpet player Jonathan Read is not touring with The Specials, he's the head teacher at the Moel Llys Short Stay School for children ages 5-11 with emotional and behavioral difficulties. As someone who works with children, Read was particularly impacted by the January earthquake in Haiti. He decided to do something to make a difference and keep people focused on the ongoing relief efforts. As a result, students at the school have teamed up with Lynval Golding, Roddy Byers and Neville Staple to record a song to help children in earthquake-hit Haiti. The students added their vocal skills to create a new version of ‘Message to you Rudy’ along with a new song written by Read who helped to organize the whole effort.

I was able to connect with Read (who was also a member of The Specials Mk 2 band of the mid 1990's) to learn more about his other life as one of the top ska brass players in the U.K., as well as the inspiration for the single.

When did you first pick up the trumpet?
My dad bought me home a battered old trumpet when I was about 8 years old. Grew up in the brass band world, youth band then senior etc. Got my first flugel at 14.

How were you first introduced to ska? When did you first start performing ska music live?
Got into ska in 79 when a certain band hit the headlines, then I got heavily into reggae when I was about 18. Played in reggae bands for a few years then in about 1990 got called into Leicester favs Skaboom and never looked back. Joined the Mk 2 Specials in about 95, I knew Adam the trombone player, also from Leicester. Toured with that outfit for about 3 years.

How did you end up performing with the cream of the crop of Jamaican ska and rock steady artists in the UK like Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Alton Ellis, Derrick Morgan, Owen Gray, Rico Rodriguez and Symarip?
When that finished I almost immediately got an invite to play with Prince Buster, again through a Leicester connection. I still play for Buster now although he's not gigging as much as he used to. Also played for Laurel Aitkin and Derek Morgan. Laurel lived in Leicester and was responsible for the healthy ska scene that still exists to day in the city. My own band Kingsize has been going now for about 10 years, and often sit in with Drew's band El Pussycat.

Its quite an honor to be invited to tour with The Specials. How did you get involved with band? You toured with The Specials Mk 2 in the 90's right? What were the two UK 30th anniversary UK tours like?
Over the years I have kept in touch with Lynval and Roddy and back in 2008 Lynval called and asked if i would like to play at a party with him and Terry and Neville playing a few Specials songs. Didn't need to be asked twice, bought Tim in on trombone for this. Nik was also involved on keys. Then a good while later another call about playing as surprise guests at Bestival, this time with the whole band (minus Jerry). I can't say how amazing this was, only three songs with brass and a half hour set.

Following this the call finally came for the first of the UK tours. The build up was quite incredible, the guys worked really hard to make the show what it is but I don't believe anyone really knew what the reaction would be so when Newcastle came, myself, Drew and Tim were at the side of the stage as Do the dog kicked off and we had to pinch ourselves to actually think we were going to be a part of this. A very proud moment.

Can you share any unusual experiences from the tour so far?
Many memorable moments from the tour but an unusual one for me was getting stopped at customs in New Zealand for having 2 tiny jars of honey in my suitcase. I was hauled off, given a ticking off and a $200 fine. Had to get on the bus to the amusement of all. Drew had reminded them that my nickname back in the day was Honey boy!!!

Another embarrassing moment was again in New Zealand again when I messed up the fanfare (normally before Longshot) before Too Much to young, not once but three times. After the third effort Terry introduced me as the ex trumpet player. Took a while to live that down.

What is your favorite song to perform live with The Specials and why?
My favourite tune to play is 'Man at C and A' closely followed by 'Stereotype'. 'Man at C and A' has one of the best brass riffs going.

Tell me about the 'Message To You Rudy' recording by Haiti Special. How did it come about? What has the response been so far? Where can people download the song?
Message to you for Haiti came about when Lynval came up to stay for a weekend and we were talking about the school where I work and that I wanted to raise some money with the children for Haiti. So before he could get away he put down the harmonica and vocals. Then Neville and Roddy came over,(they don't live too far away) and put their parts on. Later in the week all three came to the school to record the video. A great time was had by all. The song is available on itunes under Haiti Special and you can see the DVD on youtube. All money goes to UNICEF to support their work in Haiti. Response has been really good making national and local press and the DVD played on a morning TV programme. Another big thanks to the guys for their support. Looking forward to coming to the States in the summer. Had to miss out last time due to work commitments in the UK.

The track is available to download from iTunes in both the U.K. and the U.S. Proceeds are in aid of the UNICEF effort to help children in earthquake-hit Haiti. You can buy the song on iTunes here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Interview with Max Tannone: Remixing Mos Def With Reggae Classics To Create The Reggae Album Of The Year

As much as I love 2-Tone ska and spend hours scouring the Web for tid-bits of information about long-forgotten British and American ska bands, I also try to keep my ear to the ground for new sounds that keep the ska and reggae genre alive and kicking. Earlier this month I found one that has taken up regular residence in my iPod.

Following hot on the heels of the fantastic and inventive 'MJ A Rocker' mix by The Drastics last summer, comes 'Mos Dub', a wildly creative and highly addictive mix of classic reggae tracks re-imagined by the remix artist Max Tannone. Where The Drastics recorded faithful rocksteady reggae studio versions of Michael Jackson's well known songs before dropping his original vocals on top, Tannone has matched the acapella vocals of hip-hop artist Mos Def to classic dub and roots reggae classics. The result may be one of the best reggae recordings of 2010.

Some may be familiar with Tannone's earlier projects, including 'Jaydiohead', which combined Jay-Z's vocal vocal tracks over Radiohead songs or 'Doublecheck You Head' which mixed Beastie Boys vocals over instrumental tracks the band recorded for the 'Check Your Head' disc. While I have enjoyed both of those recordings very much, the 'Mos Dub' recordings are on another level. Perhaps its because I'm a old school reggae fan at heart or because I'm a frustrated remix artist myself. Either way, I find myself drawn back to the songs Tannone has created. Though I'm not a huge hip-hop fan (I know Mos Def more for his acting career: Be Kind Rewind is one of my favorite movies), his lyrics and vocal stylings are tailor made for reggae and dub. Tannone has wisely highlighted the hooks of the many well known tracks he employs to give listeners ears something familiar to hang on to (hooks from The Slickers 'Johnny Too Bad' and Desmond Dekker's '007') while taking the tracks in completely new directions.

Only 23 years old, Tannone has already established himself as a talented hip-hop producer who also understands the nuances and feel of reggae. Here's to hoping he continues to explore the genre. Below is a interview I very recently conducted with him.

For the uninitiated, can you describe what you do? Would you call yourself a producer? Re-mixer?
I guess technically I'm a remixer and beatmaker, although the term producer is broader and more widely used. Music producers usually work with other artists developing their projects in a studio setting - I'm more of a remix artist, since I'm making these projects usually without the input of the original artists. However, producer is still accurate, and a lot of beat-makers and remixers still call themselves producers.

I'm most known for my remix projects. I've done 3 so far. You may be familiar with the term "mash-up", which somewhat fits what I do. For example, in my project "Jaydiohead" I combined Jay-Z with Radiohead.

What are your earliest memories related to reggae, rock steady and dub music? Do you remember the first reggae or dub album you ever heard?
The first reggae album I heard was "Legends" by Bob Marley and the Wailers. It always seemed to be playing at barbecues and parties that I would go to with my parents when I was younger. I got into ska a little more with Operation Ivy, and also got heavily into Sublime who I still listened to. Sublime is my biggest early influence. It wasn't until years later that I began to discover the original tunes they were covering or at least inspired by. I also discovered the dub artist Scientist through the video game Grand Theft Auto 3, his tunes played through the in-game radio station "K-Jah." From what I've read Scientist got ripped off by his record label Greensleeves, who never compensated him for the tracks they licensed to the GTA people. I was sorry to hear that, but I'm certainly glad I got to hear those tunes in the game.

Who are some of your favorite reggae and dub artists? Producers?
Other than the Easy Star All Stars, I'm not very familiar with modern reggae and dub artists or producers. I like Damian Marley, and am excited about his upcoming project with Nas. Other than that, its pretty much older stuff. Scientist is my favorite dub artist. I listen to all of the greats though, King Tubby, Lee Perry, Prince Jammy, Culture, Dennis Bovell, Dub Specialist, and many more. I'm reading this great book about the history of reggae, "Bass Culture", and am discovering a lot of artists.

Explain how you do what you do from a technical standpoint. What kind of equipment do you use and what is the process involved in creating track from scratch using acapella vocals and combining them with musical backing tracks? How long does it take to complete a song?
I make everything on a laptop computer. The process is pretty simple. I find an acapella and a song I want to sample. Next I chop up the original song into short pieces so I can re-arrange it, and from here I build the track around the vocals. Once the skeleton is completed, I began adding drums, FX, other instruments, edit the vocals, etc. Really just making it as you go.

If I'm doing a totally original remix, without sampling, I usually start with the drums and a basic melody. Again I build this beneath the vocals, and build up from there until it sounds full and ultimately finished!

The length really varies. Sometimes the tracks come together quickly and sometimes its a little tougher. On average though it takes me 1-2 weeks for a track, from nothing to fully mastered.

Your earlier remixes were hip-hop focused (Jaydiohead and Doublecheck You Head). What was the inspiration behind pairing Mos Def with a variety of classic reggae and dub track. His vocal cadences seem well suited for reggae.
The dub tunes themselves inspired me. Just hearing these great riddims, grooving so deep and steady. I thought they would sound great sampled for a hip-hop track. Mos Def was the first artist that came to mind. His lyrical content is thoughtful and the dub tunes are a great backdrop for that. There are a few other artists I think would sound good over this type of stuff too. I'm still doing some experimenting.

How did you decide which reggae tracks to use in the Mos Dub project? I loved that 3 of the tracks are based on classic tracks by The Slickers, Desmond Dekker and Johnny Osbourne. I also noticed that you went with iconic reggae producers Scientist and Lee Perry.
I just love those songs and artists. The Slickers track and the Dekker track, I heard those when I discovered The Harder They Come, like 10 years ago. Great movie, even better soundtrack. They are just incredible tunes - it was a personal challenge to re-interpret them in a fresh and respectful way. I wanted to do justice to all of the original tunes. That was my aim with Mos Dub. I could never do a remix project of artists I didn't enjoy. It be too much like work.

What kind of response have you gotten to the 'Mos Dub' project? How has it been received in the reggae community? How about the hip-hop community?
Overwhelmingly positive. I've only seen 1 or 2 negative comments out of hundreds, so that was very encouraging. The music blogs, reggae, hip-hop, and even some indie rock blogs, have been very supportive - which I'm thankful for. Not to sound corny, but Mos Def is a musical hero of mine, as well as Scientist, King Tubby, Lee Perry, the authentic old school dub producers. I hope its a fitting tribute to them. I was honored to work with their material, even though its all on my own and I wasn't asked to do this or anything like that. Most importantly, I'm honored people are enjoying it.

I've noticed that all of your musical projects have a distinctly New York approach considering you have used all New York-based artists. Is there something about New York artists that is inspiring?
Its just what I'm familiar with, what I listen to. Radiohead obviously isn't from NY, so I'm not 100% Empire State. I have no bias about where a group is from, NY just happens to have produced a majority of the best hip-hop. I love music from everywhere though.

Have you heard The Drastics 'MJ A Rocker'? Its a skinhead reggae take on Michael Jackson. They dropped Jackson's original vocals on top of rock steady tracks of Jackson 5 and solo songs that they recorded. Very inventive stuff.
No I haven't, but as soon as I'm done with this interview, I am going to check it out. It sounds pretty cool. I'm especially curious about the ones they did with the Jackson 5 tracks. There is another reggae/rap remix album that I love. Its called Bobb Deep and mixes Mobb Deep with Bob Marley. Its produced by this guy DJ Swindle - he's dope.

Do you have plans for any more reggae projects? With The Specials blowing up again, I would love to hear what you could do with some of their classic tracks. The song 'Ghost Town has some great sounds on it.
I'm considering it. There are a few hip-hop artists I still want to do projects with. I love the Specials, and yes, Ghost Town is a really cool song. I actually considering using a Specials track for Mos Dub but ended up going in a different direction. We'll see though...until then keep enjoying the tunes!

Below is a track-by-track primer which breaks down the vocal and backing tracks Tannone used to create each song:

01 Johnny Too Beef (»Beef« X »Johnny Too Bad« – The Slickers)
02 History Town (»History« X »007« – Desmond Dekker & The Aces)
03 Ms. Vampire Booty (»Ms. Fat Booty« X »The Mummy Shroud« – Scientist)
04 In My Math (»Mathematics« X »Your Teeth In My Neck« – Scientist)
05 Travellin’ Underground (»Travellin’ Man« X »Underground« – Lee Perry)
06 Shroud The Stars (»Bright As The Stars« X »The Mummy Shroud« – Scientist)
07 Mr. Universe (»Next Universe« X »Mr. D. Brown Skank« – Observer All-Stars)
08 Summertime Running (»Summertime« X »Running Dub« – King Tubby)
09 Kampala Truth Work (»Work It Out« X »Truth & Rights« – Johnny Osbourne)
10 Hurricane Black (»Hurricane« X »Black Moon« – Third World All Star)

You can download the entire mix for free at the Mos Dub Web site.