Complicated Dread: the Mikey Dread interview
The Clash were already toying with dub reggae by the time Mikey Dread produced "Bankrobber" on February 1 and 2, 1980, singing the aaahs and the ooohs of the refrain. But that song marked the legendary band's first full immersion in the depth-probe sonics of contemporary Jamaican music. Joe Strummer had originally written the tune as a rock song, but Dread "persuaded the Clash to push the song in the direction of slow, heavy dub reggae," writes Marcus Gray in Return of the Last Gang in Town (Hal Leonard, 2004). As Dread himself remembers it, in the exclusive Q&A below (in anticipation of his Saturday live show at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis; more here), he couldn't understand Strummer's words at the faster pace.
To Bill Price and Jerry Green, who assisted on the two-day marathon sessions at Manchester's Pluto studios (and later worked with Dread apart from the Clash), the deejay-producer brought the jolt of Jamaican authenticity to the band. "Mikey Dread got a really great vibe in the studio," said keyboardist Micky Gallagher in the liner notes of Clash on Broadway. "He knew what he was going for. With all the facilities of the studio, he would make little rhythms by shaking a matchbox, or using a squeaky toy. He would make the hi-hat sound he wanted with his mouth. He would play it back to us on this little cheap tape recorder and everybody would jam along."
According to Kosmo Vinyl in the same liner notes, CBS wouldn't release the single at first. "They said it sounded like all of David Bowie's records played backwards at once." Which suggests how radical roots reggae must still have sounded in the UK Top 20 in 1980.
Dread had only a few years earlier brought the real underground sound to Jamaica's own airwaves. With a voice like Howlin' Wolf on helium, Michael Campbell (born in Port Antonio on June 4, probably in 1948), hosted Kingston's first roots-reggae radio program, Dread at the Controls (a.k.a. DATC, a.k.a. Dread at the Control), late nights on the now-discontinued JBC (Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation) as "Mikey Dread," between 1977 and 1979. Dread played exclusive dub plates out of the studio run by his friend King Tubby (located in Tubby's mom's house, at 18 Dromilly Avenue). Dread mixed his own original radio jingles at Tubby's before dabbling in recording himself, and establishing Dread at the Controls as his record label in 1977.
"It was Tubby who encourage me to get into recording," Dread told Lloyd Bradley in This Is Reggae Music (Grove Press, 2000). "I went to Tubby's in 1977 to cut [a jingle] on a riddim that he had called 'Psalm of Dub' ... Tubby hear it and say, 'Bwoy Mikey. That sound like it longer than a jingle, I feel you're gon' make a record of it. Why don' jus go in there and finish it?' So I go back inside the studio and finish it as a full-length track, and Tubbs tell mi, 'All right! All you need now is to make your own label.'"
Tapes of Dread's show were well-circulated enough in the UK to come to the attention of the Clash, who enlisted the toasting deejay as a live opener and encore guest* in January of 1980 (Dread's warm-up set was later booed in L.A.), and as a collaborator on "Bankrobber" and the triple-album masterpiece Sandinsta!, years before Public Enemy and other rappers began sampling Dread's promos for their records. Dread had studied engineering and physics before radio gained him entry into popular music, and technical mania gave him something in common with Tubby. "Most recording engineers in Jamaica at that time could tell you waht every piece of equipment did and how it would work in your system," Dread told Bradley, "but Tubby went far beyond that because he knew what every component in every circuit in every piece of equipment did. The greatest engineer I have ever known in my life."
Relocating to the UK for the '80s, and later to Florida, Dread put out a series of classic albums, and kept working in television and radio, later acquiring something rare and prized among Jamaican artists--control of his own recordings. (See complete links at the bottom of this post for more.) Speaking with me over the phone from Jamaica, where he's recording away from his home in Florida, Dread says he still tours and performs while working in film and television. He'll be bringing a band to the Nomad on Saturday as part of the Minneapolis club's Reggae Festival, which also features Innocent and the International Reggae All-Stars on Friday.
Let's start at the start. What's your birth date?
Ah, man, that's a hard one. June 4, but I don't want to give my year out. I'm a Gemini.
You were pretty young when you moved to Kingston, right?
Yeah, man, I was in my early early 20s. I came to Kingston to go to college. It's now called the University of Technology, but at that time it was called the College of Art, Science, and Technology, so I was doing electrical and mechanical engineering there, but I really wanted to get into electronics, and they didn't offer electronics. So after two years there I went to apply for a job, like a real hands-on situation with JBC [Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation]. The opening that they had at that time was technical operator, and I just get in by doing that.
Did you learn most of what you learned about electronics there?
I knew a little going in there from what I gathered on my own, but I didn't have any formal training in electronics. I was trying to get to be a transmitter engineer, so that was my entry. But I just stay in radio, man. I didn't go back to the transmitter stuff, because the people who were supposed to get me to begin my training, I don't know what happened to them, they never come back for me. So I stayed where I was because I was happy.
Was it decent money back then?
It was worthwhile. I was doing it because of the love of it, and not for the money.
What was the year you first came to Kingston?
I can't remember. My impression of town started in the '60s, because I came on a school trip, and schools around the country, especially the high schools, they have from the country a busload of kids, maybe 40, 50 kids, going to Kingston. They'd go newspaper companies, they'd go to radio stations, they'd go to ice cream companies, they'd go to the zoo. I came on one of those trips and JBC was one of our stops. And I like what was going on in the studio. They be coordinating the commercials and the music, the time, outside broadcasts, international news. It was chaotic, but it could be coordinated if you knew what you were doing, and that fascinated me. While in school I was focusing on maybe mathematics and physics and chemistry and biology as my primary subjects of interests, because I really wanted to join the technical world. But when I saw what was happening to radio, I did a paper for my college, and I wrote about reggae and the music industry. I went out to interview the artists and wrote a dissertation about where the music was coming from. I was surprised that even though I love it so much, and I used to be a sound system operator, and I had to play certain people's songs to make people want to pay to come in there, I realized that something need to be done for the reggae industry to help it.
So when I got that job, the radio used to sign off at midnight and there would be nothing on the radio until the next morning, like 4:30. They'd have a gospel program and then "The Good Morning Show" start at 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., yah? So my supervisor let me do midnight on because nothing was happening there. So I started working midnight 'til 4:30, Monday through Saturday. Then we also had a lady called Freddie Rodriguez, and she used to work as an announcer. So she was the announcer and I was the operator, and just used to play the music. It was a good thing. This is when I start to make my jingles. People been using my samples from my radio show, like Mobb Deep, Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, all of them borrowed samples from my album, African Anthem, an album with jingles from my radio show mixed in with my music.
Was it called Dread at the Controls right away, or did it have a different name at first?
Well my show was called Dread at Controls. They put on Freddie because they didn't want reggae. They wanted two or three reggae songs, and then you play some other. But I was really focused on helping the Jamaican music industry to grow, and I was targeting a certain kind of audience, an audience like, for example, people coming from the countryside, market people coming in to sell their produce early in the morning, driving overnight, people working overnight, taxi, food stands, people coming from parties. Those people. Because I know that there was a lot of activity going on at night in the country. And my show also cut the crime rate. Because a lot of police and detectives used to come by and say, "Bwoy, Mikey, the streets are quiet because everybody listening to your show." [Laughs.]
This show started in 1977?
I started in '76 but the show started in '77.
Just so I'm clear, the show you started with Ms. Rodriguez was a precursor to Dread at the Controls?
Let me break it down. Me and her would go Monday to Thursday. And then we have two other guys who used to work. One of them would come on a Friday night, his name was Norman Marsh, and he play a variety, like funk and some reggae, but he ain't going deep in reggae like me. And then there was my show on a Saturday night, midnight 'til 4:30. Three of us. So three operators used to do our thing. But I gave mine my own name, Dread at the Controls. So we had little names we used to use. And then another guy came on Sunday and he used to play soul music and rhythm and blues.
Were there any all-reggae shows before yours on Saturday nights in Jamaica?
Nah, mine was the first one. There was no talking, just music, jingles, and sound effects. Brand new music to oldies, this continuous loop going on.
But Jamaican music had been on the radio, right?
So here the deal is now. Within that time, I had to go through a lot of struggle, you understand? Being suspended, being laid off for what I was doing. Because the people who were studying broadcasting, they studied in your country and they studied in the UK. And when you study in those countries, they're going to give you a format, like you play a couple of oldies, and then you go to a current hit, and then you can slash back to something which is obscure. So they come back here, and they play middle-of-the-road music, they play country and western, they play R&B, and then they might play a reggae. But the kind of reggae they would play is not the kind of reggae that my audience would like. Cause there many different kind of reggae. You have a commercial kind of reggae, which is like Top 40-radio kind of reggae. It's something that maybe foreigners can get into, yah? And then you have the roots reggae, which is what we go for as Jamaicans. I don't want to call the names of the bands who make the commercial radio, 'cause I don't want to label them, but I'm saying, I would be listening to some Dennis Brown or some Gregory Isaacs, where other people might be listening to some Fabulous Five or something else. And it's a totally different music. So my show was strictly the other element of reggae that was never being exposed, like the dub, the dub plate. Some people know it, but because I was affiliated with King Tubby, I have direct access to hits that other people couldn't have for a year or six months. Plus I was making artists come along and say their name, and I would make it into jingles for my show, like Big Youth. I'd incorporate artists into my show, and don't charge them. Because we don't believe in payola, so I never charge no man. But the management at my station never liked it. The people who liked it were people from England, and different people in Europe. And they send for me to start training their people to do a show like mine. So I quit my job in '79 and I move on with that, teaching British kids.
Did you start recording yourself while you were hosting the show, then?
Yes, I did a single called "Love the Dread." That was my first song. It's on my album called Dread at the Controls/Evolutionary Rockers. That was the first album I released, in 1978. And it was re-released in England on Trojan in '79, and now it's back on my label, so I just re-released it.
You got the rights back to all your music. What was your first hit record?
"Barber Saloon" was the biggest one. And then there was a famous one called "Friend and Money." You know the Dennis Brown song called "Money in my Pocket"? I did a version of it called "Friend and Money" with him.
You basically came from this academic background into radio, and then suddenly you're talking to all these stars. Was that different for you? Was that exciting?
It was exciting because I love the music. I feel like I should do something for these people in the industry, because they're struggling. Hold on--[inaudible conversation with somebody else]. Go ahead, father.
Had you heard of the Clash before they got in touch with you?
Nah, I'd never heard of them. But I went to England in '79 in November and December, and I did, like, PR in NME, New Musical Express, and Sounds Magazine, and Melody Maker. So I guess those guys may have read about me being there. But by the time they contacted me, I was back in Jamaica. I never know what punk was.
How did they get hold of you?
That's a good question. I still don't know.
Do you remember meeting them?
I remember going into the studio to make this track ["Bankrobber"]. And when I heard the track, I wasn't sure about the track, because it was too fast. I couldn't understand what Joe was saying. So I told him to slow it down, and we could make it reggae style. And I showed him the beat. And then they didn't have a keyboard player, so I asked them, I said, "Reggae has to have a keyboard," it can't just have two guitars and drum and bass. And they get Micky Gallagher, and I used Micky Gallagher to play the keyboard.
So when I met them, I didn't know them, I didn't know their kind of music. [Dread disputes Marcus Gray's account of him meeting the Clash a month earlier, saying he toured with the band only after recording with them.] I just decided that if I was going to do something for them, I wanted to do something that they would be able to play by themselves, and it would be worthwhile for me to sit there for hours and mix it.
Was that you singing in the background of "Bankrobber"?
Nah man. I'm joking, it's me.
It sounds so different from your deejay voice.
I just wanted to be a part of it, man. You ever seen the video?
I'm at the mixing board mixing it, and shaking the tambourine.
What were the Clash like, interacting as people?
They were the nicest people I've ever met. Me and Paul were basically tighter friends than maybe the others, but me and Joe and Paul were cool. Mick was alright, but Mick was not somebody who would go out and socialize. Like, me and Paul would hang out. And then you have the drummer, he was cool. Everybody was cool. But mi feel like, I love the bass thing, so me and Paul spent a lot of time talking or listening to music or practicing some ideas. He's the most talented bass player I've met since I was in London. Yeah, [people] no give him no props, he's very good. And Joe's great, too. Me singing on those songs, that was Joe's idea, like, "Yo, Mikey, come here and sing."
Did you work on Sandinista! in Jamaica?
Yeah, we did one song there, "Junco Partner," in Channel One.
Did you go to Electric Lady in New York to work on the other songs?
Yeah, because after a while in Jamaica, people were surprised to see some white guys playing reggae in Channel One, which is like almost into the ghetto. They could have maybe gone to a different kind of studio Uptown, but the Clash wanted to go to where I was recording, so they came to the ghetto, and the ghetto people go, "Wow, we've got to see this." So they come up in great numbers. I couldn't even see the Clash in the studio, so much people. They sell beer outside.
The Clash told this story about how there were gangsters after them or something. Was that just a lie?
Ha, there were no gangsters after them. There were some rude boys around, but nobody was going to hurt them, because them people I know. Them people know me, but they weren't going to hurt nobody. There were bad boys there, but they just get some beer. It became like a party, where people say, "Yo, Mikey, get me a beer." They were inside the studio, man. The studio can't fit 20 people, and you've got, like, a hundred people.
Had you heard the New Orleans song "Junco Partner" before that?
Nah, I never heard it.
It's interesting to me, because that was an old New Orleans song, a James Booker standard [actually written by James D. Waynes, a.k.a. James Wayne, a.k.a. Wee Willie Wayne], and I know New Orleans radio made it to Jamaica, but I've never heard of a Jamaican version of that song.
Nah, man, I thought it was a Clash song.
Why did they just do the one song there?
There were so many people, the drummer couldn't even lift his arms to play the drums. There were people all around everywhere. And I couldn't go anywhere because each day I leave the studio, and some guys would wash the rent-a-car, and somebody wash them and make them brand-new clean again. And then he came to me, "Yo, Mikey, somebody needs to pay me because I just washed the car." And I'm paying to get the car washed. So I came to the Clash, "Yo, I paid for this guy to wash the car." And then when we're leaving, another guy said to me, "Yo, Mikey, it was me that was watching the car, that nobody break into them. So I need to get some money. You understand?" So each day we had these bills to pay. It was getting too crazy, man.
What were the sessions like in New York?
I can't remember New York. I just remember walking down those streets and seeing what I saw.
Was that your first time in New York?
Nah, it was my first time in that part of New York.
I don't want to comment on the place where I was because I don't want to upset anybody, or people think I'm bashing anybody or nothing. It was just a new experience for me as a foreigner. I'd never seen that before. Because of where the studio was located--I don't want people to think I'm gay-bashing or nothing like that. People are people, people do what they want to do. [Dread is on the record elsewhere saying this was his first exposure to, for instance, a man walking down the street with another man on a leash, though Dread's remarks were hardly homophobic.]
You co-wrote a lot of the songs on Sandinista!
Yeah, man, especially the ones that you hear me on. I have trouble right now from Sony and those people, because from 1980-81, I never got my writer's share, and that's the only thing about the whole Clash thing that really pisses me off. I just sent Mick Jones an email. I'm on the live track of "Armagideon Time" on From Here to Eternity, and I never got paid. My track "Radio One," the Clash used as a b-side for the single "Hitsville U.K." [All in all, by my count, Dread had direct involvement in at least nine Clash tracks in 1980, and his influence is pervasive on Sandinista!, which was also recorded at Wessex in London.]
A couple more questions about Jamaica. You worked at Treasure Isle in the '70s. Was Duke Reid still alive then?
No, he had died before. But I recorded Culture there for the High Note label.
Was there anything else you wanted to say about King Tubby that you haven't said before?
He's a great person, and he was the one who was giving me exclusive dubs, too, to keep me ahead of the sound system people. I had all the dub plates that no sound man could play. Tubby was one of the first person I see with a closed-circuit TV in the studio. He had a camera on the building, and he could see from his room who was at the gate. He had an electric buzzer, he could buzz you in, and the gate would open. The man was advanced. It's just been since the 1990s that people start using the camera. This was a man way advanced of technology. He never came to America, so he never bought it from you guys.
You were working with rappers in Miami, right?
Yeah, but not big-time rappers, just kids who'd come to the studio and need some help. Local talent. Actually, I take that back, I work with KRS-One for Warner Brothers, in about 1990.
How did you come to Florida, was that for school?
No, I had a job to be the program director for a new television network called the Caribbean Satellite Network. And it was like the first Caribbean television channel on satellite, and my job was to program all the music that was on the air. And then after a while it faded out, and I went back to school after that. I live in Florida, still, a place near Gainesville, near the University of Florida. My wife goes to the university and I'm here to support her.
What have you been up to in recent years? Are you still in TV and radio?
Privately. I've been working with a group out of Jamaica called the Maroons. I'm doing a documentary on them. They're from where I am in Jamaica, and I want to share their history with the world. And I'm in Jamaica recording my next album called Backstage Pass. I've got Sly and Robbie working on this. It'll come out on my label. I've had my label since 1977, and I got control of my recordings in 1999. I'm bringing some of the guys who play in the studio in my band to Minneapolis.
*At one recorded show, Strummer introduced Dread as "Dread at the Control Tower, Mister Dread Campbell, Mikey Mis-control Mikey!"
Mikey Dread links:
Dread at the Controls label
Mikey Dread Wikipedia entry
Video: The Clash play "Bankrobber" with Mikey Dread at Youtube.
Mikey Dread at Roots Archives
Releases by the Dread at the Controls label at Tapir's Reggae Discography
Mikey Dread at CD Baby
Clash links at complicatedfun.com
The Sandinista! Project blog
"It's just the beat of time, the beat that must go on": London Calling