Midnight Raver meets Barrington Levy inna Kingston Town (EXCLUSIVE interview!) | MIDNIGHT RAVER
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Midnight Raver meets Barrington Levy inna Kingston Town (EXCLUSIVE interview!)

It was during my recent trip to Jamaica in December that I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Barrington Levy and talk with him about his life, career, and his new album. I received the phone call from Doctor Dread in my room at around 2p.m.

“Raver…grab your stuff and come on over.  Bull is here and he’s ready to talk.”

Having spent much of the last twenty-five years living and recording in the UK, Barrington is now living in Clarendon, Jamaica’s third most populous parish. The interview is a rare one for Levy, a man who would rather let his music do the talking.  Doctor Dread vouched for me and I guess that was good enough for Barrington.  Sitting in a hotel room at the Hotel Four Seasons in Upper Kingston, Levy is relaxed and engaging, and pulls no punches whether he is discussing his career or railing against the state of reggae in Jamaica.

Barrington has been very outspoken about the quality, or lack of quality, in the reggae music being played on Jamaican radio these days – music that he has characterized as “disposable” in a previous interview. So fed up is Levy with the lack of quality reggae music being played on Jamaican radio airwaves that he decided to invest in his own radio station, constructing a radio tower in Clarendon for Roses FM.

Having the opportunity to sit across the table from Barrington Levy is something I never considered in my many years as a fan.  However, I was not going to squander this opportunity by asking the standard fare, lightweight questions I see in so many interviews done to promote an album or upcoming event.  He was not shy when answering the questions, answering all my questions with an honesty and directness that was authentic and refreshing.  He truly is “Broader Than Broadway” and he doesn’t seem to care whether you like him or not.  I left the room a bigger fan than I was when I walked in.

MR: So I hear that life is good in Clarendon and that you’ve been giving back, investing money in the local community where you live?

BL: “Yes, that where I live. I live in the country where the fresh breeze a blow and de bird sing. I’ve donated things to a local school that is next to where I live. I donated a new computer fi dem. They now trying to get 20 tablets for the students to use. I buy books, and pencils, and things they need. I put a likkle money together to buy it. I also just had a radio tower built too. For my radio station called Roses FM. It’s an app available for Iphone now and Android too.”

MR: I heard a fascinating interview with you not too long ago. You’ve been very outspoken about the lack of quality reggae music in Jamaica. You referred to it as “disposable” music.

BL:  “You seem like someone who have a catalog of music at home. Someone who likes reggae and knows reggae. What you think about what is highlighting now in my country? I want your honest opinion. We speaking honest here.”

MR: Well, the quality of reggae in general has been underwhelming to say the least.

BL: “When I look at where I come from in this reggae business, you know where I started out and have to fight for everything I get, I never would have thought that one day I would see what I’m seeing in my country now. Every country I go to I can see the next band. I can see a Slightly Stoopid…I see a Rebelution…I see a SOJA and they doing it better than us. You go Japan and see the same thing too. The next generation must look back to the root. They are the limb. No, not even the limb. They are the leaves. They need to look at the root and then look where it is today.

The music is not evolving. It is devolving…going the other way. You know the most loyal fans to reggae is white people? I don’t care what dem think me say dat. I go out there and I see it. It is true. The white people dem show more support to the reggae music than its own. Reggae would be no more if not for white people support.

Dem don’t support reggae inna my country. Dem seh I should not say that. But it is the truth and when me speak de truth don’t gimme no bread. Don’t give me no dinner. Lock me out mi house but I’m going to speak di truth. So dat deh is what dem don’t like ‘bout me. Me talk truth and speak me mind and dem seh ‘Barrington Levy him a trouble maker.’ Why dem fi seh dat? Cuz I talk de truth? Well God seh him love di truth. I can’t go to bed with something on my chest. Dem don’t like me for dat. So good luck.”

MR: Since being here I’ve had the chance to watch some of the music videos of the artists that is popular on the island and I am not impressed. They can’t sing. Everybody’s voice is modulated.

BL: “Thank you…and dem seh these youth are di big star. When I see dem I share di love though. I seh ‘Look if you guys let dem foreigner take away the music your generation is going to have problem. You need to get back to the studio and mek some organic music with some musician who know how to play.’ What di youth dem do though is dem watch BET and MTV and dem…don’t get me wrong y’know, I listen to all type of music. Indian music. Chinese music…Because once I hear a melody I’m good. RnB….hip-hop…ZZ Top. It just a shame you know for such a small island and to have such a powerful music and it not get appreciated by those in Jamaica but it embraced and celebrated by foreign. I talk to fans and dem talk ‘bout reggae uplift dem and make dem feel good and strong. That is why I think in the US, and Europe, and in England reggae should be played on the radio at all time and any time, not pushed to the back bench where you can only hear at 11pm on a Sunday night. Dem have radio station down here that don’t even play reggae music! Irie-FM have a station called ZIP. Them don’t play reggae music, just dancehall and hip hop and that’s it.”

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MR: What do you think about these artists like Protojé and Chronixx – the so-called “reggae revival” artists?

BL: “I love Chronixx. I love Protojé. I think there is definitely a place for these guys. I love where they are taking it too. Only thing I would say is that their lyrics are too revolutionary. It is not a bad thing you know. Bob Marley was very revolutionary. I study a lot my friend and I see that Bob come with some powerful lyrics mon, very powerful you know. And then dem get rid of him. Dem don’t want you fi sing bout serious political t’ings. Dem want fi hear sex and guns. Cuz dem don’t want to uplift the consciousness of the people. But I don’t know if society is ready fi what dem sing about you know.

I look at you mon and I don’t see no difference between we except you have a lighter skin. But we still breathing the same air. We still haffe eat. We still go to the toilet. If I wake up tomorrow and I want to date a white girl dem seh ‘lawd what him?’ I don’t care! I don’t have any racism in me. Some in Jamaica dem seh ‘oh white people do slavery.’ Man, these white people walking the earth today dem didn’t do slavery! The ones responsible for slavery been dead and gone long, long, long time. See what I am saying? Man you can’t worry yourself to death with all these things. You will end up with stroke just like Half Pint. Half Pint him get stroke because he worry about Illuminati and all dem ting.”

MR: So a little while back, maybe last year some time, you performed with Chronixx in NYC?

BL: “Well it was Chronixx’s show at SOBs in New York City. You know why I like Chronixx? His father. His father Chronicle used to sing out every one of my songs and send Chronixx to school singing them too. So when you hear Chronixx listen to him sing closely and see if you don’t hear me in Chronixx. And I respect Chronixx as a youth who have him own sound. Him have a sound. Not like Christopher Martin and all those other youths who sound like so many American artists. When I come in the business I have my sound…Sugar Minott have his sound…Dennis have his sound…Eek-A-Mouse have his sound. Nowadays everybody wanna sound the same. And that is why I like Chronixx. That is why I give him thumbs up, and I don’t play…dem no like me cuz I’m black. I not gonna rub no ting on my skin to make me something else. I’m black. Dem no want to look at me? Don’t look at me cuz there is beauty in this beast.”

MR: So have you taken any of these young artists under advisement and give them guidance, you know, sort of show them the ropes?

BL: “No, no. I don’t do that. I tried that. The youth dem turn out to be a thorn in my side. All dem talk about is how you rob dem. I say wait a minute. I used to keep a big show every year in St. Elizabeth until Beenie Man and Bounty Killer come and mash it up by didn’t turn up. That’s when me say no more. The year Shaggy sell Diamond…his album Diamond, Shaggy leave from the US and pay his own fare come and play my show for free. Shaggy. I respect that kid. He don’t even know that. Him don’t know how much respect me have for him to help me in that way. That same day Beenie Man and Bounty Killer didn’t show up he come and he perform for free and he give the wickedest show man. And him call me pon the stage and we stand in unity. So if Shaggy ever need anything from me I do the same for him. Because Shaggy is like me…him love the music and him love to do what we do. Nuff youth dem just in it because dem think they going to get rich. Nuff a dem say talent don’t work no more, it’s all about image now. That’s bullshit. Talent is the t’ing. If you born to do it nobody can stop you.

John Holt died the other day. But if him didn’t die and him go onstage today him sound the same! John Holt didn’t lose his voice, him have it the same today. So many of these young guys they enter the studio and have to go through a whole rigmarole and use the auto-tune on their voice and dem twist and turn and…OK it work deh…Then dem come on and say they are a star? Hell no, I say you are a gleaner. You no goddamn star. When we come in this business we haffe struggle. These youths dem no have struggle.”

MR: So you’ve got a new album that is slated to drop in April?

BL: “The new album is acoustic. It have all my greatest hits plus four or five new tracks. It is beautiful because I go back in the studio and sing those old song again. Doctor Dread when him hear it him ask me if I recut the vocal for those songs. So I said yes I go back in the studio and sing them once again those songs that were hits all those years ago. Because when him hear the album he think it’s the old vocal tracks and when I tell him he say my voice sounds just like when I sing them then.”

CLICK HERE to read my review of the album…

MR: Does the album include any tracks from the Linval Thompson era when you worked with him, or is this the Jah Screw stuff?

BL: “Yeah it is the Jah Screw stuff you know like “Black Roses” and those songs. I work with Handel Tucker on the album. He help with the guitar work you know, how to change the guitar for the acoustic aspect of the ting. We recorded it at Mixing Lab.”

DD: How did you come to write “Black Roses?” What were the circumstances surrounding that track?

BL: “I was actually writing about this girl. But for me to justify her I have to call her ‘Black Roses.’ You know because nobody can find no ‘Black Roses.’ At the same time, I was smoking some weed so ‘Black Roses’ was my pipe as well…it was the weed. I was smoking and looking at the weed as it burn and I sing ‘Black black roses in my garden.’ We make the riddim at Channel One. I go in and just start think over the riddim as I smoke my weed. I smoke my spliff it keep me focused. Whenever I smoke weed it keep me focus on whatever is on my mind. You know ‘Black Roses’ is a cover version of Dennis Brown’s ‘Revolution?’ My favorite singer growing up was Dennis Brown. Also Michael Jackson.”

MR: The writing on “Black Roses” is brilliant.

BL: “Yeah, (sings) ‘black black roses in my garden…to keep and care it you got to water it.’ I didn’t write all my stuff you know. I tell you…Jah Screw know all these songs like “Too Experienced” by Bob Andy. He knew a lot of songs because him was a selector on the sound system. So when I was in England working with him he introduced me to all these great songs I never heard you know. I never hear “Too Experienced” but Jah Screw knew that song and he knew that my voice would suit the song. I also like the songs by Marcia Griffiths and John Holt, those artists.”

MR: Let’s talk a little bit about Bounty Hunter…such a landmark album for you and for reggae. There are so many stories around about how that album came together. Some say that you did the album strictly with Junjo and then some say Jah Life produced some of the tracks?

BL: “No, no. I did that album for Henry ‘Junjo’ laws. Jah Life met me after that album was recorded with Junjo. I’m what you call a ‘buck-up.’ You walking down the street and you didn’t have say Doctor Dread in your head and you just see him and say ‘Hey Doc!’ That is a ‘buck-up.’ So Jah Life come down here from New York…him come with Linval Thompson and him buck-up inside of me and Junjo give him the album to release in the States. I don’t know Jah Life. Him come here and him see me and him hear what we a do and him buck-up and say ‘Whoa I want to be a part of that.’ So I don’t know what kind of business deal they have but Jah Life release it in America and Junjo release it here on Jah Guidance.  The album that his brother put out on his label…”

MR: Teach Me Culture? [Delroy Wright released Barrington Levy’s Teach Me Culture on his own Live & Learn label].  That is my favorite album.

BL: “Yeah! I produced that album myself. He put it out on his label like him produce it but I produced that album. I make that album and I give it to him. I spent all my own money to make that album and them don’t even have the common courtesy to put my name on it.”

MR: Your name is credited on that album for sure. I think you are credited as producer and Delroy as executive producer?

BL: “I don’t know. At one time my name was not credited. I give him the album and him give me a likkle change and I don’t see nuttin’ after that.”

MR: On the way from the airport yesterday we were listening to a mix of your stuff from the early 1980s and there was a performance featuring you and Hugh Mundell live on Volcano Sound in 1983. You knew Hugh Mundell. What was he like?

BL: “Hugh Mundell was a good vibe youth you know. Him always cool when me see him. We shake hands and talk from time to time and see each other in the studio. He was around you know. The youths today dem see you and dem look away and dem not try to engage you. Or they come look like this (putting on a scowl). So I say ‘what wrong with you youth man? Come say hello to the veteran you idiot.’ It’s a different vibe with these youths today.”

MR: How did you come to be involved in music?

BL: “Look boss, Barrington Levy only know one thing. I was at my mother house and dem send me to school and they say dem want me to be mechanical engineer. All I want is music. Seen? I was born in Kingston but my mom take me out to Clarendon and we live there where she is from. I run away from home and return to Kingston. And from when I was in the country I been saying to dem ‘I can be a singer,’ I can be a singer.’ We used to have this herring pan with strings and you could play two chords on it. I never see it as a herring pan, I see it as guitar. Dem all look at me play the herring pan guitar and I was so deep into it, into the music.”

MR:  So the story goes that Trinity was the one who put you on-stage for your first live performance. Any truth to that story?

“Trinity is the first one who give me a shot and put me on-stage during a show with David Isaacs and Barry Brown down at the YMCA on Camp Road. And when me go me was so skinny! Me wasn’t broad. But Trinity hear me sing and he like my voice. So Trinity said ‘Youth, don’t worry yuself mon. Dem cyan’ sing like you. You a kill de place.’

So me have only couple songs back then. It was ‘Shine Eye Girl’ and ‘Collie Weed’ was my only two song. So him tek me to de show. I had sing on sound system and t’ing but never pon stage like dis one. So I see the crowd and I was nervous…so nervous. I was a NERVOUS WRECK! But this likkle man Trinity God bless him he say ‘Likkle youth don’t worry yuself mon. Dem cyan sing like you. Cheer up yuself mon.’ But it easy for him to say! So when me go down there is U-Brown and Blackbeard, that is Tapper Zukie’s brother. Dem a tease me say ‘Trinity what you do with dat likkle forkhead brother mon. Barry Brown a go murder dem tonight.’ But dem don’t even know what time it is.

So David Isaacs was on de stage and then he come off and Barry Brown go on. While Barry Brown was on de stage dem send me up. Me a just sing one note and you should have seen it Doctor Dread mon it a just mash up! (laughing) You know Trinity him was a big star. Dat guy was like a groupie! At the pinnacle of the top of a groupie him was like so proud! Me a sing ‘Shine Eye Girl’ and once I see how de place go dat when the confidence come now!

So here Blackbeard to Trinity now ‘Trinity de youth him can sing. Why don’t you bring him to de studio so we can voice him?’ And Trinity say ‘No mon…remember de youth him a forkhead. Him nah sing nuttin’ fi unu.’ And from that day…me a runaway doin’ everything on my own and Trinity he no leave me nowhere. Him tek me and bring me to him house and bring me wherever he go. Back then they wear a lot of gold chain. Trinity tek him gold chain from around his neck and put it around me neck. I respect Trinity mon. Trinity I say thank you for believing in me.”

MR:  Such a great story.

DD:  That’s the real story you just heard direct from Bull himself.

BL:  “Trinity he also lose a friend over me too. There used to be this sound over on Payne Avenue it called Burn ing Spear Sound. Leroy Smart used to go there. Trinity used to go there. They used to smoke them pipe and drink and t’ing, you know. Leroy Smart was a big star you know…and nobody know me. So Leroy Smart a go there every night and he would sing and the crowd would be nice and everyone have a good time. I live next door and one night I go in there and ask when will Leroy Smart sing because I want to see him perform you know. And Trinity bust through with him pipe and seh ‘Likkle youth! Come mon!’ Him grab me by him hand and seh ‘Wha’ you want to drink yute?’ So me seh ‘Me want a soda.’ So he seh ‘A soda?’ (laughing) You drink a beer mon!’ But I didn’t want to drink any beer. And me neva forget mon he put on this album that Studio One have…this dub album called High Fashion with “Party Time” and “Real Rock” and all a dem..and he play de riddim to “Shine Eye Girl” and him seh to me (whispers) ‘Gwan yute and mash up de place.’ And dem put me ‘pon the mic.”

DD:  How many people were there, just a handful?

BL:  “Just a handful. It was just a small neighborhood t’ing dem do every Friday. So I sing (sings) ‘A shine eye giirrll’ and I swear to God Almighty Doctor Dread de mon place full to the rim. People come out in their nighty…it was a night you know…and dem seh ‘who dat yute (unintelligible) Barrington Levy own de place ram.’ Leroy Smart start to hate now. So Bones, de owner of de place, disrespect me in the wickedest way mon. Him look at me and seh ‘My yute come outta me yaad mon, come outta me yaad.’ So I look pon him shocked you know.

So Trinity seh…all de people behind me know…’where ya go mon?’ So I seh ‘Boss said come outta me yaad mon. Him seh me said bad t’ings about him ‘pon de mic. Me no seh no bad t’ings about him ‘pon de mic.’ And Trinity tek me and him bring me back to de sound and him seh ‘Boss yuse a puyhole…me seh if him can’t come back in here me nah come back here…a blood klaat mon dis yute a bad mon here (unintelligible) de yute him no argue you him a de future dat yu hear?’ Trinity…I love that Trinity mon…that’s my nia right there right now.”

MR:  So you have a new album coming out soon? An acoustical album?

BL:  “Yeah mon. The album title AcousticaLevy. I work with Handel Tucker on the album who is also the producer. The album will come out on Doctor Dread’s new label Doctor Dread Records. Look fi dat one.”

As we wrapped the interview a tall, unassuming bredren showed up.  Wearing beat-up jeans, t-shirt, and baseball cap it appeared that he had been doing some construction work.  He hails up Barrington and Doctor Dread as we walk to the car to go grab lunch at Devon House.

“How’s the renovation on your house going” asks Doc.

“Constant worry and problem, Doc” the man replies.

As we take a seat in the back of Doc’s car he outstretches his hand to introduce himself.

“Ya mon, how it go.  Me name Jah Screw.”barrington

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Comments

  1. Fabricio says:

    Congratulations for this wonderful interview
    Barrington is such a down-to-earth guy, besides the fact he´s a extraordinary singer

    and concerning the owner of midnight traver blog, thank you so much, your page is simply THE BEST REGGAE SITE ALL OVER THE WORLD

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