Kingston, February 2006
I had promised myself I’d never produce albums again. Too much energy was spent, too much of my own money was risked, and too little reward was in the cards. Voices (caustic or acidic howls, rather) of too many armchair critics, from too many experts and similar toxic creatures had finally convinced me I wasn’t cut out for that.
Instead, I got involved in a legal fight on behalf of Jamaican recording artists, assisting French lawyer André Bertrand, who singlehandedly crusaded against a coalition of evil forces and their richly paid lawyers and against all odds, prevailed. This epic (and pyrrhic for André) victory forced European copyright and performance right societies to shell out a record $5 million to Jamaican recording artists and musicians in 2005.
Jamaicans are often and unjustly accused of being selfish and devoid of gratitude but it is just not the case with the ones I have met since I started dealing with them. When they received their share of the settlement money, they invited me to Kingston to record music for me. It’s the kind of offer one cannot refuse and I happily broke my promise. So here I was again in February 2006, on an airplane bound for Kingston.
I had produced Horace Andy’s very successful “Mek It Bun” in 2000 with Guillaume “Stepper” Briard and thought it was a good idea to get this talented French musician involved on this new Horace Andy project. Stepper’s instrument of choice is the saxophone and he was selected by Sly & Robbie to replace the mighty Dean Fraser in the Taxi Gang 10 years or so ago.
This time, we were going to work with the legendary Sly & Robbie on drum and bass, Ansel Collins on organ, Robbie Lyn on keyboards, Dougie Bryan on lead guitar, Sticky Thompson and Skully Simms on percussion, Dalton Browne on rhythm guitar at the superb Harry J studio, where so much fantastic music has been recorded by Bob Marley, Third World, Toots and other reggae heroes…. Although I had told Stepper that it was no use preparing demos because Sly & Robbie NEVER listen to those, he insisted on preparing demos. Fine, go ahead…
So Stepper and I arrived in Kingston in early February 2006 with a list of songs, demos that never got to be listened to as predicted, photographer Wonder Knack and videographer (does this word even exist?) Jean-François Julian.
The sessions were supposed to start on Monday at 1pm. Starting 12:55 (Robbie Lyn, the ever-on-time one), musicians arrived at the studio with Robbie Shakespeare arriving last. Late, yes, but not as severely late as when he and Sly got to the studio two (yes, 2!) days late for the session with French rappers Neg Marrons in 2001…
So by 2:30-3:00, everyone was in the studio, ready to rock and roll. Everyone? Well, actually no. Horace was nowhere to be found. I tried the umpteen phone numbers I had for him and nobody knew where he was. What the heck? I had spoken to him a few days before arriving in Kingston, everything was great, he had songs ready, he was psyched, and now, no Horace…
No problem, the musicians started working anyway. We had ideas for tracks and they recorded the riddims for those. Plus, this was not the first time they had been working with Horace, so they knew exactly what type of music to record for him to write to. We put about 10 tracks in the can over a 3-hour period. Now, 10 riddims done in 3 hours, that is fast!
What’s absolutely mind boggling with Sly & Robbie is how quickly they work. They record (flawlessly, needless to say) wicked music while at the same time they look like they’re procrastinating or like they are lacking interest or concentration in what they’re doing. The session starts late, they’re chitchatting, taking cigarette breaks, making phone calls, munching on food, watching television, and yet, they get the job superbly well done, in record time. Every freaking single time.
The following day, same scenario: no Horace in sight. He finally arrived at the end of the day and explained that he had been robbed at gunpoint on Sunday night on his way back home from a dance and that his money, his phone, his US and UK immigration documents and his car had been stolen from him. He had spent Monday recovering from the shock and Tuesday going to the police. He was in no condition to record but insisted that he was, so we continued recording riddims with him singing his ideas in the studio for about an hour, before he took off.
He had uttered some lyrics and a melody that would develop into the superb “I’m alive” song on his “Livin’ it up” album. That inspired Sly, Robbie and Dougie into creating a riddim that was mind blowing. The musicians were really into it, almost as if onstage during a concert, when they extend songs to dub them live. They played on and on, improvising in total harmony and ended up with a majestic riddim that lasts close to 8 minutes.
While they were recording this delightful instrumental, I kept hearing Gregory Isaacs on the riddim.
I had met the Cool Ruler a few years before, when I produced “We sing Gregory” with Bravo and Flabba Holt. That album was a tribute to someone I consider as the greatest artist and one of the most talented songwriters from Jamaica, along with Bob Marley. He had been so happy that someone produced a tribute to him (I was the first one to put together a Gregory tribute album, V-am-P-ire did another one many years later) that he had asked to be part of it. And when Gregory Isaacs is telling you he wants to voice tunes for you, you just don’t turn him down!
Later, he voiced the only good song on my ill-fated “Big men” project, a financially ruinous musical ode to over production and poor taste that Martin Meissonnier had produced for me (as Robbie Shakespeare often says: you pay to learn). It took me years to figure out why Sly didn’t want to play on it when Martin and I came to Kingston to record the Jamaican part of this album. It later dawned on me that he knew how crappy that thing was and probably didn’t want to be associated with it. Interestingly enough, the only song he did was the one with Gregory. The only good song…
After this ill-fated project, Gregory had kept in touch with me, coming to the studio every time I was in Jamaica to say hi or to voice something. He invited me to his house, the only building looking solid in a shantytown neighborhood. My brother from a different mother Bravo (see him below)
had driven through a maze of poorly paved, narrow streets in a dark and definitely intimidating ghetto and after what seemed like hours of zigzagging through the ghetto we had reached Gregory’s place. The house looked like the headquarters of a “community leader”. And actually that’s what Gregory was, in a way, providing assistance, food, clothes and what not to the poor and disenfranchised in his neighborhood. Men from his crew were sitting there, many of them looking utterly stoned, while Gregory Isaacs’s music was blasting. We were ushered to his “office”, and there he was, sitting at a decrepit desk that, miraculously, did not crumble. I still made sure not to lean on it! We sat there for a while, exchanging pleasantries between somewhat awkward moments filled with silences.
He wanted me to produce his next album. I told him that much as I loved recording tunes with him, I was reluctant to do a full album because I thought it was highly likely that he would release 2 or 3 other albums at the same time as mine and promotion would have been a nightmare. But still, things were cool with him. He smiled and said pensively, laughing at the same time, “Yeah mon, everything alright still”.
He then took us to what he called his new “studio” in the room next to his “office”. There sat a tired looking Mackie board with ridiculously cheap speakers and very little equipment that didn’t look too professional. No sound padding on the walls or carpeting on the tile floor, you gotta wonder what got recorded there. Demos, maybe… He played us tracks that he assured had been recorded in this room and they sounded surprisingly fat and nice. Jamaican productions will never cease to amaze me.
The man was truly a good guy. His cocaine problem was sad, though. But I never saw him get cracked out, so at least I didn’t have to be part of this in any shape or form. The Gregory Isaacs I remember was cool and almost shy, very pleasant, not very talkative. He didn’t give a fuck but did give a fuck at the same time. He was very intelligent and aware and read through people. His half smile showed that he knew. He knew. He was nobody’s fool, nobody’s clown, and, as he sung in the 70’s, he was nobody footstool…
While the musicians were recording the riddim for “I’m alive”, and although it was for Horace, I decided to pick up my phone and called Gregory. He said he’d be at the studio later in the afternoon. He came quickly to Harry J in his immaculate red Bimma, with a nice brown hat, gold chains, khaki pants, black mesh shirt under a nicely pressed shirt… The whole shebang. Sure, years of abuse had taken a toll on top of the normal aging process we all experience and he didn’t look too bright eyed and bushy tailed, but he had this aura, this presence and attitude: unmistakably he was a star.
He walked slowly from the parking lot to the door, from the door through the entrance, to the studio room itself, stopped and hailed everyone with an almost unnoticeable nod like a true don. He then stood quietly in a corner, by himself, listening to the riddim on the big loudspeakers. He asked to listen to the other riddims, and of course I obliged.
Everyone present in the studio was hypnotized by his charisma and respectfully stayed away from him, trying not to look too much in his direction. Not that he would have done anything had we acted differently, it was just the way it happened all the time: he would motion towards you and engage, not the other way round, for some mysterious reason.
After a few minutes, he said he had 2 tunes ready. Foolishly, we asked him if he needed to write the songs, rehearse, etc… He looked at us with a smile in his eyes, and said, me ready man.
Totally cool as a cucumber, he walked to the recording room, went to the microphone, put on his headphones, and asked for the first riddim, singing: “Are we ready now?” The engineer Steven Stewart played it, pressed “record” and Gregory started to sing. He did the whole song in one take, lyrics coming to him as he sang. At some point, he started smiling as he sung, because he spotted me across the glass window separating the recording room from the control room and I was borderline hysterical with joy. The song was soooooooo badass and the riddim seemed tailored especially for that particular song.
(note: this photograph was taken in 2009 during the sessions with Brinsley Forde)
The whole musical cosmos seemed to have found a perfect alignment at that very time. I was ecstatic, it was “THE” perfect moment: my favorite singer, killing, no, slaying a perfect riddim conceived by my favorite musicians, right in front of me. What more could I want out of life right then and there?
To top it off, the whole thing was filmed in HD by a super professional, Jean-François Julian, who had been very lucky with Gregory. When I asked him at first, Gregory didn’t want to be filmed. Then during the listening part, he realized he’d misplaced his car keys. Luckily, it was Jean-François who found Gregory’s car keys, and Gregory allowed him to film him as a thank you gesture…
“Poor man in love” was thus born, recorded and filmed.
Here is the video of the recording
Gregory Isaacs walked back to the control room to double check his take, asked if I liked it and after getting a big enthusiastic yes from me, went back to the microphone and asked for the next riddim.
I’ve always been flabbergasted that superstars in Jamaica always ask the person paying for the session if they have done fine. When I first started producing, my reaction was who am I to tell this guy that he didn’t do that part right, or needs to redo this line, etc… But that’s what a producer is supposed to do: no matter how much he reveres the artist, the producer has to stop being a fanboy and take charge, focus on the song, serve the song: is the music right, is the singer doing the best he can to make the song the best song possible??? Jamaican artists (at least those from the old school, I don’t know how the dancehall hype machines function) respect the fact that you’re hiring them to do a job you commission, and they expect you to tell them what you want, no matter who you are, very democratically in fact: they will deal with Quincy Jones the same way as Guillaume Bougard. They do get irritated by wannabes who have no clear idea what they want. Their attitude is very Anglo-Saxon and very professional: each one is supposed to know what they are doing and is supposed to just do it.
He voiced the other song in similar fashion: one take, no lyric sheet, perfect.
During the four minutes he spent recording that second tune, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no money to pay him for his work. Ouch! Jamaican artists usually get paid the minute they finish a song. On top of that, we had totally forgotten to go through the quasi-ritual of discussing the fee before the recording session. So not only did I not know how much Gregory wanted, but also I had no more than a couple hundred dollars on me, by any stretch of the imagination nowhere near what he would charge me.
So my stress level shot up to a very unhealthy level at the end of the second song…
Harry J has a little space in the lounge area, close to the door of the control room, where two people can sit and discuss privately. So Gregory and I went to what we called the office. We quickly agreed on his fee, which was surprisingly friendly for me. I must have been white as snow from stress when I then confessed “Look Gregory, I don’t have the money on me”, fearing some nasty reaction on his part (legend has it that he held a loaded gun to Dr. Dread’s head on some occasion, and I didn’t want this to happen to me). For a split second, he looked surprised, and quickly regained his poker face and smiling ironic eyes. He said, “I’ll come back tomorrow”. And without further ado, he got up to walk back to his car, with me trailing him like the groupie I was/am/will forever be, profusely apologizing, thanking him for being so understanding, blablabla… After posing with me for this photograph,
he quickly gave me his various new phone numbers as he was starting his BMW and then drove away with the sun setting and the sky turning into a cornucopia of oranges, purples, yellows and reds. Total cool ruling gangster stylee.
He came back as promised the following day and voiced a third tune, thereby making a bit more money, which was cool by me. You can be sure that this money didn’t stay long in his pocket and that it went to help someone in need, and Lord knows there are many in his area. He was like that, generous, putting others before him. All the while he showed total respect for the Horace project, making sure not to infringe on Horace’s recording time, waiting for his turn outside the studio so as not to be in the way. Very gentlemanly.
“Poor man in love” is the best song I’ve ever produced. Produced is too big of a word to describe my role in this, quite frankly. I just had a nice reflex to get a hold of Gregory, because he was the one who came up with lyrics, intonations, singing, and Sly and Robbie and Dougie Bryan were responsible for the fantastic drum pattern, the head banging bass line, and the totally awesome guitar phrase. Robbie Lyn’s part is so simple yet so effective, too. Back in Paris, I had Tyrone Downie add some clavinet parts and last but not least, I contacted Wally Badarou, who overdubbed magnificent synthesizers parts that only him can come up with. Great teamwork involving the greatest musicians on earth…
I then sent the multitrack recording to my favorite sound wizard Godwin Logie. Godwin’s resume is so long and prestigious that rather than trying to summarize it, I’ll advise the reader to “Google” or “Bing” him.
Godwin mixed the song perfectly (hard, heavy and yet musical) and as a bonus he crafted a lethal dub version that should rock any normal or abnormal reggae dance when the record comes out sometimes in 2015. I recently asked my other favorite sound genius, Paul “Groucho” Smykle, to mix the tune and dub it his own unique way, but he declined because he had so many great memories of Gregory from the Night Nurse era that he thought his emotions would get in the way of the mix. Instead, he produced two murderous dub mixes of Bunny Rugs’ and Chezidek’s songs on the riddim, which is cool by me… Those mixes are part of the fantastic “Dubrising” album that came out in November 2014 and has been hailed as the best Reggae album of the year by many.
By the way, a record sounds only as good as its weakest link, and quite frequently, poor mastering literally kills the magic that takes place during the recording and the mixing phases. Mastering is key and you need experience, good ears and a good heart that’s able to feel the song’s emotion and vibe. Bruno Sourice has all of these qualities in spades. He is so good that since Sly has heard of Bruno, he has decided to send him his latest productions. Now that is globalization for you, isn’t it?
Jacques Golub produces wonderful roots Reggae records on his Kingston Connexion label. He also specializes in lathe cutting vinyl records. This technique is excruciatingly difficult to master and usually lathe cut vinyl records sound awful. Jacques has spent years perfecting his craft and he is now a lathe cutting Jedi Knight, one of the few individuals on this planet capable of cutting frighteningly good sounding records. He cut 25 copies of my “Dubrising” album, and just did 50 copies of the sound-system mixes of “Poor man in love”. His records are cut so deep and wide that, sound wise, they blow the regular, pressed vinyl records out of the water by a wide margin.
I’ve used this riddim for Horace Andy of course, he did a super song called “I’m alive”
My true (and sadly missed) friend Bunny Rugs recorded a fantastic cover of Gregory’s “Rumours” during a memorable 3-day stay in Paris in 2011. Third World had a week off during a tour in Europe and rather than sit in his hotel room doing nothing, he asked me to come to Paris to record songs. Talk about some work ethic.
Chezidek did “Devil You Cah Bully We Out” for his I Grade album in 2009 (mixed by Godwin Logie) and Stepper “Occupy downtown” on his “Stepper takes the Taxi” album, which I had the privilege to release in 2013.
Other singers I frequently work with have declined to voice the riddim, probably thinking they wouldn’t be able to touch Gregory’s and Bunny’s songs. Wally’s parts make a very nice synth-strumental too. I’ve told Wally he is more than welcome to use that track for his own projects. Mi casa, su casa, dear friend…
But the wickedest song on this riddim is undoubtedly, unquestionably and forever Gregory’s “Poor man in love”. This song has fantastic memories attached to it. It is one of the few tunes I’ve produced that I can listen to with as much pleasure and raw emotion as when it was first mixed.
When Gregory passed, I was truly thoroughly devastated. Jamaica had lost its greatest ambassador, however reluctant Gregory was to take on the role of a leader. He was too humble for that. I decided that I wouldn’t release the tracks I had done with him. It took me years to overcome this feeling. I found an acceptable solution to calm my (probably silly, but that’s how I’m wired) scruples: profits derived from the sale of “Poor man in love” will go to charity. It will not bring Gregory Isaacs back from where he is now, but it will, in a modest way, continue what he did all his life, help the poor and the needy. Blessed is the one who considers the poor! (Psalm 41)