Reggae has always been a genre shaped by the daring and innovation of its producers. Men like Jack Ruby, King Tubby, and Henry “Junjo” Lawes all helped shape the inside-out bass-and-hi-hat sound that became Jamaica’s musical calling card throughout the world. One of the most enigmatic and complex of these figures was Clement Dodd. Not only responsible for giving the original Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer) their first real break in music, he had a stable of talent working for him at his downtown Kingston studio that reads now like a hall of fame: Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, the Gladiators, Joseph Hill from the group Culture. Heartbeat Records will release Nice Up the Dance, a stellar compilation of Dodd’s work, on March 13. But from the girls and rude “bwais” at Kingston “blues dances” of the late 1960s to aficionados scouring vinyl bins in New York and London today, he remains known by another moniker: Sir Coxsone.
“It was the name of a British cricketeer,” he says. “He played the same position I did when I was at All Saints School.”
We are sitting in his record shop- cum-recording studio, a small green storefront in the shadow of the elevated J-M-Z subway line, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. “Coxsone’s Music City,” the awning outside proclaims. Row upon row of vinyl LPs and 45s are stacked in piles behind the shelves and rise majestically from slots in the wall, and the only clues that a legend owns the building are the distinctive one-drop beat flowing from its open door, and the jacket photos of album after album of reggae icons. Men like the great horn player Roland Alphonso, who often sat outside the shop playing dominos and reminiscing about when he played in the greatest of all ska bands, the Skatalites. Alphonso died in 1998, and the shop’s owner sorely misses him.
Coxsone’s dapper goatee has gone salt-and-pepper, and he now moves with a slow, almost grandfatherly deliberation, but his story is, in many ways, the story of reggae itself—and by extension, the musical tableau of a nation.
Born to roughly middle-class parents in Kingston in 1932, Coxsone began operating a sound system (a portable outfit of speakers, amplifiers, and turntables) in Jamaica’s capital city in his early thirties, after a stint as an agricultural worker in Florida, where he had discovered American r&b. As a canny way of providing himself with local material that none of his competitors (such as cocky, pistol-sporting rival Duke Reid) could access, Coxsone slowly got involved in the recording of local artists. Soon, he had named himself president of not one record label, but five. At least.
“It was much more than five,” he shyly corrects a visitor, explaining that the multiple imprints were a ruse to hide the extent of his labels’ output, not from competitors, but from radio DJs who grew tired of being bombarded with Coxsone releases. By the time radio stations realized who was behind a track, it was already a hit.
And this was only the beginning—when Jamaica was still basking in post-independence euphoria, before a kid named “Nesta” Marley appeared at Coxsone’s studio one day. Herbie Miller, former manager of Peter Tosh and now a lecturer at the New School, speaks rhapsodically about the time when reggae was in its prime. Miller sees the era as a time of new consciousness and great political awareness—a time, though it was still violent, when Jamaicans were learning to love themselves for who they were—not as Africans, not as faux-British colonials, but as a nation with a shared history of pain, slavery, and oppression.
Based loosely upon the teaching of Marcus Garvey, the Rasta faith first appeared in Kingston in the 1940s, preaching a back-to-Africa credo and proclaiming the divinity of Ras Tafari Makonnen, crowned Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia. At the same time that Jamaica was gaining independence from Britain and solidifying into a two-party state, the Rasta movement became a real presence in the ghettos. A curious dynamic developed among the sacred, criminal, and musical elements of these communities that would deeply affect the words, sound, and power coming out of Coxsone’s studio. The locksmen (as Rastas were sometimes called, due to their dreadlocked hairstyle) and city clans such as the burra were all moving into one another’s space.
“The burra people were not a spiritual people, but they were a drum-playin’ people. They came from places like Back ‘O Wall and Dungle and the most dreadful slums,” Miller explains, referring to the ghetto subculture prominent in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “They smoked weed and played drums and chanted. . . . Guys who were incarcerated or made a living hustling on the waterfront. Many times there was a burra session to celebrate someone getting released from prison. . . . The Rasta people had a natural affinity for these burra men, but the Rasta are a peace-and-love order; the burra people were a bit more lawless. What really united them was music.”
Here, one finds early confluence of the spiritual and the more earthy and desperate elements that spawned reggae. Early Rasta musician Count Ossie would cross west from East Kingston to hang out with the burra, and his incorporation of the burra drum was a defining moment in the development of Jamaican music. Don Drummond, the great but troubled trombonist who led the Skatalites, refined Ossie’s vision with mournfulness, loneliness, and loss, mirroring the dislocation of an entire people.
Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, later a percussionist for the Wailers, recommended that Bob, Peter, and Bunny (who then called themselves the Juveniles) audition for Coxsone in 1964. Coxsone turned them over to Joe Higgs to firm up the group’s rough, sloppy harmonies. Higgs and Roland Alphonso, Coxsone says, taught the young group “how many beats to a bar, how to count the bars, so that you would know when to come in after the introduction.”
“Peter was extremely witty, which is one aspect of his life that has been completely overlooked,” Herbie Miller remembers. “He had a lot of strong opinions, on everything in life. . . . But he was really pretty easy to get along with.
“Bob presented a more complex personality. He was, in a way, shy, but he was bold in another way. He wasn’t as outgoing as, say, Peter was, but in a situation where he knew everybody, he was fun. But he was, I would say, a little less approachable. He was a bit more ready to sum up anyone who approached him, though he was quite inquisitive and wanted to know things.”
Bunny, Miller says, was “more suspicious of his surroundings and the people in it. More careful in everything he did. And he survived.”
Under Coxsone’s tutelage, the Wailers recorded some of their most memorable compositions, including “Simmer Down,” “One Love,” and “Put It On,” reflecting a political acumen previously rare in Jamaican music. Horace Andy, one of reggae’s great singers and now a vocalist with British trip-hop collective Massive Attack, began recording for Coxsone a little later, as did Freddie McGregor, whose 1978 Bobby Bobylon album is a landmark of conscious reggae.
Political killings and gang warfare es-calated in Jamaica throughout the 1970s, and the Jamaican political parties became more intransigent and extreme in their opposition to one another. In contrast to the elected officials, it was gunmen like Bucky Marshall and Marley acquaintance Claudie Massop who functioned as spokesmen between the ghetto poor and the “big mon dem” leaders. Jamaican Labor Party leader Edward Seaga, in particular, was rumored to be an enthusiastic patron of gangs that would, over the years, branch out into large-scale cocaine smuggling rings, known as posses.
Almost on cue, out of Coxsone’s Studio One came a Willie Williams song called “Armagiddeon Time,” describing the urban battles in terms of an end-of-time struggle.
“The story behind the song was that we had this great musical track that we released as ‘Real Rock,’ ” Coxsone remembers. “But the track was so strong that I realized putting some lyrics to it would be a good idea. . . . We got in the studio and we came up with the Armagiddeon idea. After we finished with it that evening, I realized that we had something strong. No looking back. . . . It was right for the time to be comin’ biblical.”
In 1978, a People’s National Party-affiliated attempted purge of 14 Jamaican Labor Party gang members on a beach outside of Kingston resulted in the death of five. Sensing the approach of anarchy, the gunmen themselves, not their patrons, called a truce. A host of Coxsone alumni played the One Love Peace concert, at which Bob Marley actually got Prime Minister Michael Manley of the PNP and opposition leader Edward Seaga of the JLP to clasp hands above his head onstage. Peter Tosh, dressed all in black, delivered a relentless, mesmerizing set in which he often departed from the music to excoriate the two leaders seated only a few feet before him for their contribution to his country’s misery.
The implications were clear. Manley had lost the ability to control and unify the militant and moderate wings of his party. The area around Coxsone’s studio in the capital became a war zone as Jamaica was crushed under the weight of its foreign debt. And a sinister element was being introduced: cocaine. The drug was pervasive in the ghettos during the 10-month campaign leading up to the elections of 1980, and many think its presence contributed to the paroxysm of violence then. 800 people died.
“The election was like a civil war, man, it was a war,” affirms Herbie Miller. A war that ended—much to the newly elected Reagan administration’s pleasure—with Seaga’s defeat of Manley and the installation of a right-wing regime in Jamaica. “Nineteen eighty,” Sir Coxsone pauses. “That’s when I knew I had to leave.”
So he relocated his operations to Brooklyn. In his absence, dancehall, the style once described by Flo O’Connor of the Jamaican Council of Human Rights as “IMF music,” came to rule the airwaves with tales of guns, “dons” (gang leaders), and “punany.” “With the current music,” Coxsone weighs in, “these producers, when you look at them you see that they are reducers, not producers. The dancehall music of today lacks creativity, that musical arrangement and the lyrics. . . . Well, poor lyrics, nothing constructive.”
Marijuana, in many ways a very spiritual and communal drug in Jamaican culture, was replaced by cocaine and crack. Dreadlocks were shorn and replaced by jheri curls. People replaced African-inspired attire with American-style clothing. The music that Coxsone had championed was being pushed aside.
“Lost in the midst of the cargo gold, the jheri curls, and the crack pipe, was any real remembrance of conscious reggae,” journalist Laurie Gunst, author of the posse history Born Fi’ Dead, says. “And obviously Bob’s death had an enormous amount to do with that. You’ve got that whole matrix after 1980: Marley’s death, the rise of dancehall, the horror of the 1980 election. . . . The loss of memory, as it were, because all you have to do is kill that many people in a generation and look what you’ve got.”
Also lost to violence were some of reggae’s brightest lights: Peter Tosh, King Tubby, Garnett Silk, Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty, Pan Head, Dirtsman. “Tubby’s death was left unanswered,” Coxsone says. “Coming around to Peter Tosh, it was just a pity. Because of politics, people got more vicious. When you heard of a murder or violence in the old days, it was the talk of the town for two or three years until something else happened. But now, every week something occurs that’s worse than what came before. I just hope that it will come back to normal, because it’s no good for nobody and a lot of innocent people are losing their lives.”
But personally, at least, he seems somewhat satisfied: “I would say I have no regrets. I’m happy for everything over the years. You have a lot of jealous people in the business who try to put me down, but God knows, I’ve been very helpful to artists and musicians. And I’m still here for them, you know? And I’m really thankful for the artists and musicians I’ve worked with over the years. In the meantime, I just praise God and try to do the best I can.”
Coxsone estimates that 60 percent of the tracks he’s recorded are still unreleased, and he is now releasing and repackaging material through Heartbeat Records. He is also still putting out releases on his own Studio One label, including an excellent disc by veteran Jamaican singer Glen Washington emoting new lyrics over vintage Studio One rhythms. In the meantime he maintains his Brooklyn record store and recording studio, making the occasional trip back to Jamaica. Of the original pioneers, he is one of the few who remain.
Thoughts turn to the curious half-smile you see on some old photos of him, when he was just another young reggae producer. One thinks of the singular tricks he was able to pull off by his role in the music’s history, at once omnipresent and invisible. Perhaps, finally, being an elusive figure was Coxsone’s way of never being defined as a target. Of maintaining and, finally, surviving.