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Interview: Curtis Lynch on Gregory Isaacs

Interview: Curtis Lynch on Gregory Isaacs

Interview: Curtis Lynch on Gregory Isaacs

By on - Photos by Andrew Thompson - 1 comment

"Mr Clarke never opens his catalogue to anyone. I was like a kid in a sweet shop"

Sampler

In the last few months Curtis Lynch Junior of Necessary Mayhem has been sequestered away tinkering with a deeply personal project. It’s a remix album of songs by the late Gregory Isaacs, based on productions by Lynch’s hero and mentor Gussie Clarke. Like Coxsone Dodd before him, Clarke isn’t known for giving out his rhythms freely and easily, especially for an artist such as Gregory. So it’s understandable that Curtis would consider 'Necessary Mayhem Presents… Gregory Isaacs Remixed' a serious undertaking; fine-tuning everything from the music to some extraordinary stained glass inspired artwork by Israel’s My Lord. Having emerged from the catacombs, with the CD on its way to record store shelves, Lynch spoke to Angus Taylor about the need to meet, not just his own standards, but those of his father, his stepfather, Gussie Clarke, Gregory’s fans and the great man himself…

Curtis Lynch

Can you remember when you first heard Gregory Isaacs?

Top question. My first memory of Gregory was coming from school and seeing my dad sitting in a chair, one leg on top of the other, fingers locked together, with this really satisfied look on his face. All that was missing was the glass of whisky and ice and a cigar! He was playing the More Gregory album, which took pride of place on the turntable for months. My dad wasn’t a man of many words back then but the satisfaction with this Gregory album being in our home meant “This is safe. If Dad’s alright with it then it’s alright for us!”

When did you first see Gregory in person?

Around 1997 or ’98 Gregory and Dennis Brown were over for some shows and were doing some recordings at Groove & a Quarter where I started as an engineer. Two of my heroes were in studio with the producer of whatever tune they were doing and I was Tape Op – manning the tape and pressing the buttons for the Head Engineer. That was when we had different jobs whereas now the engineer is singing, dancing and doing it all! He was a man of few words as well! He just went in the booth, did his job and left. I know I must have had that star-struck look but I didn’t say much to him apart from “Again” or “How are the mic levels?” and he was like “Whatever man, I just want to sing this song and get out of here!”

Mr Clarke is, to me, the benchmark of what a producer should be – the way he’d got everything catalogued

Have you ever had the chance to talk to him on a personal level?

No, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t speak to him. There are so many wonderful stories of him both good and bad but sometimes you meet your hero and they turn out to be horrible. It’s very rare that you run into one of your heroes and they’re actually cool. So I’m glad because if I did speak to him and didn’t get on with him I don’t think this album would have been made. This project was done as a fan and I like that I’ve remained a fan.

What does Gregory represent in Jamaican culture?

For me, something massive. He’s been described as the Jamaican Frank Sinatra – and you don’t get bigger than Old Blue Eyes! In his early years, his songwriting ability, as far as I was concerned, far exceeded his own years in terms of his Rastafarian beliefs and the struggles that were going on around him. Then came the transition when his love songs really made him known worldwide. We sent the album to the Gleaner and their response was like “Wow, he’s an icon” and they were only too happy to mention it.

And later on with the song Rumours, reggae historians have suggested the success of that roots song in a digital style as the possible beginnings of the cultural revival in the 90s. His audience has grown with him.

Every decade he was able to change. He might not have done it in as obvious a way as more mainstream artists but all artists have to change their style, whether it’s their image or their music, every five or six years or so. In these times it’s probably every album! But he went from the Cool Rebel to the Lonely Lover and back again, mixing the two with a whole new sound.

In his final years his voice when performing live wasn’t what it once was, but he still had the stage presence and people still flocked to see him.

I totally get why. I noticed vocal changes when doing this album towards the end of the period I chose. His voice wasn’t the same for many reasons we could go into, some obvious and some could be down to age and a lot of work on the road. Your voice is your tool and if it’s not looked after correctly then things will happen to it. My professional head says maybe Gregory could have looked after his voice more and my creative fan head says “Leave him alone – he’s Gregory”.

I had been watching a lot of Agatha Christie and other ITV Murder Mysteries

What was the genesis of this project?

It started off when I did Champion Sound with a whole load of artists who were the Necessary Mayhem All Stars at the time and when the tune did well I got a call from VP who wanted the track for Reggae Gold. Then I got a call from my good friend Joel who is no longer with us saying “Mr Clarke needs you to send the parts of that tune because he thinks you sampled it. I told him you didn’t”. I sent all the parts and Mr Clarke couldn’t believe it that I’d replayed all these parts! It just started from there. Report To Me was one of my favourite tunes and I was doing a project with Blackout at the time so I asked if he would let me have just one part – the chorus - and he did! So I started a project based on tracks Gussie had produced but with new artists.  I finished it - there’s a whole finished album sitting there waiting to go - and I flew from New York to Jamaica to play Mr Clarke this project and he loved it. So I said “Why don’t we do a Gregory Isaacs remix project?” and much to my amazement he said “OK, cool”. Apparently he never opens his catalogue to anyone but I had the choice of what I wanted. I was like a kid in a sweet shop.

How did you choose which songs to include?

Curtis LynchA lot of them are my favourites and that’s why I believe the album is very important. Because if you look across the album there aren’t many of his massive tunes. A lot of them are the album tracks that I grew up listening to which seem so obscure now that they almost feel like brand new tunes or unreleased material. Temporary Lover is the only track that’s never been out. I just didn’t want to go for the obvious ones but there was also that slight fear that when you’re trying to recreate something that to me is already brilliant and magnificent then it’s quite difficult – so I chose tunes where I had ideas of what I could add to and change.

You’ve been locked away alone doing this for a long time. I heard rumours you had grown a beard! Describe the process of making the album.

(laughs) There were so many different stages. You had the parts coming over, then the engineering section where I had to get the parts, the timing and the key and the tempo right, then I could go into creative mode and play around with the material that was there. First of all I chose the tracks and Mr Clarke would send them.  He is, to me, the benchmark of what a producer should be – the way he’d got everything catalogued. If I say “I want this tune” he knows exactly which tape it’s on and where all the parts are. So that process didn’t take long. The longest part was getting the files sent over via the internet. There are fifteen tracks in 24 track and you could hear the code on the tape and everything! After that I built my music around his stuff. There are some tunes where I sped the tempo up slightly because where back then it was ok to have tunes in a slower tempo now it’s a quicker tempo. So some of the tunes like Report To Me were in a different key and some of the things I had to do were really tedious and took ages and ages. But I loved it. I took out all of the drums and the bass and replayed most of those things. The piano and some synths I left in from the originals but everything else is more or less replayed from top to bottom.

I did this project as a fan. It's not a money making exercise

Macka B appears on two cuts of Jealousy. Why is he the only contemporary voice?

Last year I was working on the Rasta Soldier album and I guess his tone was in my mind. So with Jealousy I thought it would be good to have the 70s style where you had the singer singing at the beginning and the toaster at the end and the only person I thought could carry it off would be Macka B. It was really funny when I sent the tune to Mr Clarke because he said “Wow, Macka B, I hadn’t heard him for a while! It sounds like he was on the original!” and he does – he sounds like he was supposed to be there.

On Let Off Supm it sounds like you used the drumroll from the start of Edwin Starr’s War.

It’s really weird you asked that. The truth is I had been watching a lot of Agatha Christie and other ITV Murder Mysteries for various different reasons and I had got this new string package programme. So it was in my mind that I wanted to make a kind of classical piece at the beginning for the intro and I took it off a sound effects library. But now you say that I see what you mean!

I wouldn't look at this as changing him. I am trying to enhance what is already brilliant

Now, of course, some people are going to say “Why change Gregory?”

My response to that is I have three critics who are three fierce Gregory Isaacs fans. My Dad, my stepdad and Mr Clarke and I played it to them every step of the way. Between them they are the three most critical people I know about everything and all has been good with them. I did this project as a fan. It’s not a money making exercise. I’m a fan, they are fans of the music. I’ve been in the game long enough to know you can’t please everybody but this for me is more of a labour of love than anything else. And especially with this project, I would never put out anything I wasn’t satisfied with. Some people might hear things differently but I say this now. I wouldn’t look at this as changing him. I am trying to enhance what is already brilliant.

What was their feedback?

Every track my father would look at me as if to say “Ok, you chose this one”. But by track nine he said “Wow, he sounds so clear”. Now you could say “Your dad liked it. He’s biased because he’s your dad” but I don’t have that kind of dad! (Laughs) Dad liked it, my stepdad liked it, and Mr Clarke is actually really pleased with it and that’s what matters to me the most. Sir Gussie once took me to meet Beres Hammond at the studio. Beres said “What is it with you and Gregory? And Gussie said “I just love him. For all his faults and everything he was just Gregory” and they both laughed. So for this man to let me have the catalogue and work with it – that was nice. He told me many a time “You’re the only man capable of doing this and I’m really pleased with the outcome”.

You could say "Your dad liked it. He's biased because he's your dad" but I don't have that kind of dad!

So when is your other project using Gussie Clarke productions and modern artists coming out? And what else can we expect this year?

I’m not even sure it is coming out. As a creative person I’m sure you have a few interviews that may never see the light of day but you’re still proud of them. I will shelve that project. I will be the only one that knows about that project. That’s something I will keep for myself. I’m working on a Mr Williamz project. I’m working with some new artists like Ny, and been doing a lot of stuff with Shola Ama. There’s going to be some more dub and another trip to Jamaica. When I go to Jamaica anything can happen. When I last went to Jamaica I came back with this Gregory project. We’re going to be even more busy, if that’s at all possible!

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Posted by CK on 04.13.2013
For me Gregory Isaacs is the greatest. Not only in reggae - He is the greatest of them all. With that said, I looked in to this project with suspicion, and not a small portion of it. That was a couple of months ago. But after that I listened to the mix of Private Beach Party I was real glad and anxious to end up in April when the CD should be released. I booked the CD on the day of the release and now I'm sitting in Sweden and counting hours to get my copy. Love this project! I'm glad that the songs on it is not the "common" ones. But I, on my hand, would love some others of Mr. Isaacs great catalogue of tracks mixed for a new generation. This project is worthy. And Gregory is worthy it. And more. More Gregory!

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