Tarrus Riley is about to release his fifth album, the rocksteady inspired Love Situation, on February 4th.
It’s a tribute to the sweet sounds of the mid to late 60s at Treasure Isle – featuring rhythms sampling and updating the Melodians, the Conquerors and Alton Ellis, with guest spots from U Roy and Big Youth.
Angus Taylor spoke to Tarrus and his manager Shane Brown about recording, rocksteady and the reggae revival. Tarrus’ musical director Dean Fraser even put his head into the room to answer one question at the end.
Shane – your great uncle is the great Duke Reid and your father was engineer at Treasure Isle. Tarrus – your father Jimmy was in the Uniques. Would it be fair to say you both have rocksteady music in your blood?
Tarrus: The story started long before we were on earth when our parents were doing what they were doing in this reggae music treasure. We just inherited and carried it on.
Shane: So it was as God would have it. It’s like two people working together before they were born. It’s more spiritual than anything else. Right now it is very important to pay tribute to our roots. As I always say, a tree cannot survive without roots. If you cut off a branch it will grow back if the root is alive. We don’t see our generation paying enough respect to the roots so we have to lead and set an example. What we are doing – we won’t even call it piracy for someone to follow us.
Tarrus: It is the right thing.
Shane: Because this genre of music cannot and will never die. Everything that has stemmed from it is branches and as I said, you can cut off a branch and the tree will still push out a different branch.
Tarrus: And the rocksteady branches are reggae, hip hop and all derivatives from those. So if you love hip hop music you have to love reggae and if you love reggae music you have to love rocksteady.
Shane: But even if you love hip hop music a lot of people don’t have the knowledge to know where it’s coming from. That’s why I would say Tarrus Riley is not a reggae singer or a rocksteady singer or a dancehall singer – he is an artist. So who better to do this than someone that has embraced all the musical genres? Because Tarrus has the youths’ ears. It’s not like they will say “Oh, Tarrus is an old time artist” or whatever. One of the biggest songs in our careers is My Day which is a dancehall song and you have Good Girl Gone Bad which is a next dancehall song. So we have the ears of the youths tuned in. This project can give knowledge. Because without your past you don’t know where you’re going.
What was the genesis of the idea to make a rocksteady inspired album?
Tarrus: The genesis of the idea was when I recorded a song called Young Heart on my second album released on VP Records, Contagious. That was my favourite Tarrus Riley song up until To The Limit which we just released. I really loved the song. I really loved the music. And then travelling, everywhere we would go, especially England we got a lot of love and support for this kind of music. Also, I’m no stranger to rocksteady music because people like Delroy Wilson and Alton Ellis used to come to my house and I used to see them. I used to go to Heineken Star Time with my father and I experienced the rocksteady experience in my little time.
So after we finished Mecoustic, me and Mr Fraser were talking about what kind of concept for the next album. Because I believe albums should have concepts. I don’t think you should just put a collection of singles on an album. To me that’s not an album. Anybody can do that. An artist can have a concept and say “OK, this is a rocksteady tribute album with the music all original songs, all lovers vibes, let’s try to be creative and make it exciting”. So it really started by travelling and then me and Mr Fraser bouncing ideas and me remembering some of the things I listened to growing up.
Tarrus, with Mecoustic you made an acoustic album with a difference. It wasn’t just someone sitting down with a guitar. Likewise with Love Situation you haven’t just sung over old rocksteady rhythms. You’ve embellished them to make something both old and modern.
Tarrus: Yeah man, we did it on purpose. Because, listen, a lot of people think acoustic is just guitar. When everybody thinks of acoustic they think of Bob Marley playing Redemption Song with a guitar or Buju Banton playing Untold Stories because they are classics and they set this big standard and platform. But the reality is the whole point of acoustic is to get personal and intimate so you can hear the words and the melody in a sincere form. Sometimes music drowns out the lyrics. You listen to a song and it’s going boo-boom and you miss a line. But with acoustic and the intimacy of it: it’s more mellow, smoother to the ears and it’s a song in a different fashion. So we did that, not trying to follow who was on the radio but just to show you the songwriting so you could hear the songs in a different style. That was the purpose and that’s why it’s written “Mecoustic” because it was me – acoustic.
Shane: The good thing about that album as well was that naturally Tarrus could be in his back yard vibing a song with his guitar. The intimacy of it – you get people to feel like they were there. They are a part of the inception and can see where the music started from.
Shane, Duke Reid’s music is a big part of this album. What was he like as a man?
Shane: Duke Reid was my grandmother’s brother. He was a policeman and a businessman. He had a liquor store but the greatest love he had was music. Duke had his studio on top of the liquor store and he was very militant, very serious and he loved guns. So when my dad and Clive Hunt were upstairs doing their music, if Duke was not happy you could listen out for a gunshot! Not to kill anybody but to just show passion. It was just his passion coming out that way.
Yet at the same time it led to some of Jamaica’s sweetest music.
Shane: Yeah man. Sometimes you have to have violence to have peace! (laughs) So he was a man who was very passionate about music and a businessman. So I am just very happy to be part of the whole movement. And as you say, with Tarrus’ dad and where my family are coming from, it’s only right that we are touring with a great man like Dean Fraser and that we should be the ones to lead out from Jamaican soil with this movement of rocksteady.
Tarrus, there are rhythms on the album that have been sung on by Alton Ellis, John Holt and the Melodians. But you also include a modern day cover of the song Lesson (Story) of Love by the Uniques written by your father Jimmy.
Tarrus: That’s me exposing my father’s music to my age group. It’s definitely a great song and I feel like my father is a great songwriter. Black Mother Pray, Love and Devotion and Version of Love (My Story) – I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as a songwriter. So if this is how I can make you hear the song – a song I grew up on and love – then why not? It’s the only [cover] song like that on this. I have done covers before of Michael Jackson and so on, so why not? (laughs)
Tarrus, you already mentioned Peckings, who co-produces the track Burning Desire recorded at London’s Stringray studio. What is it that you love about London?
Tarrus: The first thing I love about London is how they show me love. When you get love you give love and when you give love you get love. I have some great memories of concerts in England. I remember hearing about the great Brixton Academy and seeing a crowd long like here – all the way to the country! And when I came on stage I couldn’t even hear myself sing! And on the same trip we met Peckings. Him and Dean are brethren for years. And we linked up with a whole heap of my father’s friends. It’s just like Jamaica but of course you know you are in a different place. So the UK I have to big them up because they show me a whole heap of love.
You mentioned the song To The Limit. Konshens is on that song. You and your brother Wrath were on his album on the remix of Rasta Impostor – which was on another Treasure Isle rocksteady rhythm by Freddie McKay – now you return the favour.
Tarrus: Ahhh! Konshens is an original youth you know. He is one of them that loves the roots of the music like myself. When Damian Marley talks about young veterans – Konshens is a next young veteran like myself. But apart from that me and him are close friends. We will be doing music continuously. Whenever the vibes are right we just make music because he’s my brethren.
The rocksteady era was an era of singers. But U Roy got popular on Treasure Isle rocksteady rhythms. So it could be seen as the gateway to the deejay era and the rap era. On this album you have surrounded yourself with deejays like U Roy and Big Youth as well as rappers like Mr Cheeks. How did they all get involved?
Tarrus: I just reached out to them. Because a man like Big Youth and U Roy in my opinion are the definition of what we call today’s Swag Generation. When we talk about swagging – these men are super cool! When you look at U Roy and Big Youth: how they dress, how they walk, how they talk – it’s just exciting and entertainment. So I respect them to the top top top! But I also know the roots where it started and where it began – I can’t hide that. So when I’m doing a song I am definitely going to reach out to Daddy Roy and to Jah Youth for a tune.
Now as far as the rapper goes – the Lost Boyz had a big song named Rene that I remember from the 90s. Now there is a song on this album Five Days that has a similar story about a man who meets a woman and then she passes away so it had a similar kind of vibe. So I said “You know what would be cool? If we got Mr Cheeks” and we just reached out to Cheeks, he said “Yes” and we just flew to Queens and recorded him. It was real smooth and real natural. This shows the people who think that rocksteady has to be one way that it doesn’t have to be one way. You have different kinds of styles and different kinds of singing.
Shane: We show you how the rocksteady evolved into hip-hop naturally.
Tarrus: Music influences music and music comes from music. We should highlight these things instead of trying to hide it – so here is Mr Cheeks on a rocksteady rhythm. We also have one of my favourites named Burning Desire where the style of singing is not a typical Tarrus Riley style. It’s like singing, kind of rapping, kind of chatting, but the melody’s cool. It’s real creative. I’m always trying to be the most creative I can be.
Recently, off topic, we just did a soca song with Bunji Garlin. Now’s that’s a totally different conversation. But that’s what we need to do. We need to keep the music interesting. Because when it’s not interesting it becomes boring and when it becomes boring – what’s the sense? We want to keep you excited. To say “What is he going to do next? He did Mecoustic and now rocksteady. Who knows? Is it a soca album? A dancehall album? What is he coming with next?” Just like how Kanye West and everybody as an international artist does it. We have to do that in Jamaica as reggae artists. You look at Billboard and see Bob Marley the great – he sang every kind of music but his message is his message.
We’re excited about this rocksteady project big time. Just to see how people will react. Because a lot of people are afraid to do a record like this too, because it’s not heard on popular radio. A lot of people try to do something new but they are afraid of rejection. They are afraid people will say [puts on pompous outaged voice] “What are you doing? How dare you try something new?” But somebody has to try something new, right?
You both made headlines when you made your working relationship official last year – but your association goes back further than that. Tarrus, you sang Start Anew on Shane’s Nylon rhythm but Shane, you also mixed the Parables and Contagious albums and your father Errol was engineer on Challenges. So where did the story start for you two?
Shane: When I met Tarrus he wasn’t professionally singing as yet. I was a lad learning to be an engineer at Tuff Gong when Dean Fraser was working with a singer by the name of Bascom. Tarrus was always with Dean.
Tarrus: Singing background!
Shane: Singing background and helping out doing everything. Now, being the ambitious person he is, he would always say “You know me a singer now? I can sing!” But he was not ready yet – because the focus was on Bascom at that time.
Tarrus: So I tried! (laughs)
Shane: (laughing) One time I said “Let’s see what go on. I’m going to put on a riddim”. It was not even my rhythm because I was not producing then and we just messed around in the studio. But throughout the years we have always stayed in contact.
Tarrus: Serious contact!
Shane: Because only a few people can laugh and then argue but then laugh again at the end of that argument. So that is special. Growing up and growing together in the business we would bounce ideas off each other as we tried to move forward with our professional careers. So we’re talking about from when Shane was learning engineering and Tarrus was too shy to sing. That’s way back.
Shane, when you mix an album do you like to mix alone or with feedback from others?
Shane: Everything we do – it is a movement. You have an engineer by the name of Romel Marshall who is our touring engineer. Old time people say “Two heads are better than one so imagine if you have three sets of ears listening to one project? Because we are not hypocrites amongst ourselves so even a baby can say “Shane, I don’t like how that sound” and believe me I’m going to take a listen. So I never like to mix alone because everyone has an opinion and your humility comes out the most when you are criticised.
Shane: I always put myself and my craft at the forefront to be criticised. It can only make the end result better. So it’s better I have an open mind to try something and someone says “Yow, why you don’t just try it this way?” than I am locked up alone saying “I am the man, this is how I’m going to do it”. And a strange thing, because a lot of people don’t like it, is I will mix in a room when everyone is chatting. Because I want to make sure when something is being played on the radio, even in conversation you can say “Listen to that little percussion thing” that comes through the radio over or beneath the voices. So mixing alone is not my style.
Shane, you have been involved in albums like Busy Signal’s Reggae Music Again. Tarrus you have been singing reggae your whole career. What do you think of the international perception of a “reggae revival” in Jamaica based around younger artists?
Tarrus: I don’t think about it too much. I know people are playing a lot of reggae music on the radio now and in the dance more and it’s cool. But as far as I’m concerned my first popular cd that bust me to the world named Parables was released on October 31st 2006. I have been playing reggae and rocksteady music and I would say that I have a successful career and haven’t been going anywhere but upward. So for me to say I’ve had a revival would be unfair to the people supporting my work and what I’ve been doing. It’s funny because – and the more I talk about it the more I check it out – I don’t think you can have a revival with new people entering. I think that elders would have to say they were having a revival – the people who laid the ground. I don’t think you can have new artists having a revival. It’s their entrance in the music. But it’s not something I really sweat because “tomayto, tomato, revival” same thing. We’re doing well. We’ve been doing reggae. And a lot of people have been doing reggae and been successful so it’s unfair to them to make it appear like reggae needed a revival. Now, that’s no disrespect to the people trying their thing but I think it’s really unfair to a youth like Jah Cure, Tarrus Riley, Etana, I Wayne. You have a whole heap of youths making reggae songs that have fans and tours and everything. Even Busy Signal did a reggae album as a deejay and Shane put it out and produced it. That is popular music today, so what is being revived?
Shane: For me, that “reggae revival” talk, someone like you in Europe you’re supposed to laugh at that. How can you revive something that is not dead? But we have a next saying “A king is never honoured in his own country”. The music is like the king and even here in Jamaica they have sidestepped the reggae music. You have artists like Tarrus Riley but they are playing a selected few artists. You always had a Tarrus Riley playing and for years Tarrus Riley is doing reggae songs. So now you have some younger youths coming on and we are thankful and if they want to call it revival or whatever, it is good. But don’t make it look like this music was dead. I think we should more say we had a “Jamaican ears revival”! It’s like the Jamaican ears were deaf to the reggae music and now the ears got revived.
Tarrus: (laughing) And check this – just to add to the reggae revival and show that it’s nonsense, look at people internationally like Bruno Mars and John Legend, Justin Beiber and Rihanna doing reggae songs topping Billboard charts selling millions of copies. So where is this revival happening? It has to be in the ears like he says. People are – and have been – making authentic reggae music successful today.
Shane: And I don’t even think the ears have revived to where they should be. Because you have stations in Jamaica that say they are the most popular station that – would you believe? – don’t play reggae music at all.
Tarrus: They are not allowed to.
Shane: And if a DJ plays even 20 minutes of reggae he gets a call because his job is on the line. They are not allowed to play reggae – the music of the country.
Tarrus: Imagine if you couldn’t speak in your native tongue in your own land!
Shane: And you know what happened to Jamaicans? Now I don’t want to do nothing like I’m knocking my country or my island. Our attention span is almost like babies. So even though the other day there was this big talk of reggae revival – it is over. So for us to be making this bold move of doing this 100% rocksteady album…
Tarrus: Look if the revival hits them!
Shane: If the revival hits them it is going to big it up here in Jamaica. And we are ok with it because many are called but few are chosen. So this talk of reggae revival I will entertain it just because I am glad that the reggae deaf ears are being opened. We are not fighting against dancehall music because we embrace it as well but we are saying give the reggae music a chance. Because they are all our music. How can you be a teenager growing up in Jamaica and you don’t know who is Toots Hibbert or Jimmy Cliff?
Tarrus: But you know Michael Jackson or Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke!
Shane: And you know Tommy Lee that just came out. You see the difference? They know the older people from the R&B but they think reggae is Bob Marley. So when you asked Tarrus about the deejays on this album? These kids don’t even know who those are. They’re going to wonder if this is a brand new artist who Tarrus is doing a combination with.
Tarrus: They’re going to think me and U Roy is the same age! (laughs)
Shane: So where is the revival really? I like the young youths that come up and we are embracing them every day and hoping more young youths would come up. Not even the singers alone but even the players of instruments. You have a great man like Dean Fraser. Who is aspiring to be the next Dean Fraser? So you can’t bust revival talking about a few popular songs. You have to deal with the whole thing.
Tarrus: Where is the next Sly Dunbar? Where is the next Robbie Shakespeare?
Shane: So if you want to have a reggae revival let us really have a revival and then I’ll say “Yes! Here comes the reggae revival!”
Final question: can you each name one classic rocksteady tune that sums up why you love that music?
Shane: Wow. That is a hard question. If you check my iPod playlists I am stuck in that genre you know. I’m going to get Dean Fraser to answer that question. Dean? Come in.
Dean: Melodians – Come On Little Girl.
Tarrus: Delroy Wilson – Rain from the Sky.
Shane: This rocksteady movement is not about Tarrus Riley or Shane Brown or Dean Fraser. It’s about giving back to the music that we are here enjoying. Because the success we are enjoying, so many people that started this music are not enjoying as much as we are. Even from a royalty point of view this is giving back. We have Dean Fraser and so many great musicians so we could have made all original tracks so easily. So it’s giving back to the music financially plus educationally. It is really a joy that we have cut off on my side of the world whereas people on your side of the world are more educated and more aware. We need that old sound that never gets old like good wine. We need that authentic sound with modern voices so it is not being played as “oldies” because it is still relevant and current today.