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Interview: Niney The Observer (Part 1)

Interview: Niney The Observer (Part 1)

Interview: Niney The Observer (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I was the first man who knew U Roy and Tubbys"

Winston “Niney” Holness was in many ways the early 1970s’ quintessential reggae “personality producer”. He may not be as well recognised by the more general music dipper as his contemporaries Lee “Scratch” Perry and Bunny “Striker” Lee - yet his work with Dennis Brown is considered by those who count to be among the Crown Prince’s finest. Niney was also an artist: rated for his proto roots hit Blood and Fire and numerous lesser known classics such as I Soon Know - where he calls out the world for pretending to be Rasta.

Niney got his soubriquet due to the loss of one of his fingers in a factory accident. He has also felt the sharp end of the music business in the form of rivalries with other singers and producers - some of which still sustain today. He began in the industry as a jack of all trades - witnessing the birth of reggae from behind the scenes before finding his calling as one of the key makers of its rhythms. His distinctive production style, utilising the jagged sound of the Soul Syndicate band - through Tony Chin’s threshing rhythm guitar and Earl “Chinna” Smith's spiky lead - was often imparted to the musicians via the medium of dance.

Tracking down Niney for an interview in 2012 proved to be a yearlong dance in itself. He canned a VP Records press event in January, backed out of another meeting at Stingray Studio in May, rescheduled and finally cancelled at Rototom Sunsplash in August. So when United Reggae was approached in October by Bolygo Music, who were promoting Niney, for a fourth attempt at London’s Rough Trade shop, hopes were not high. However, Angus Taylor found the reluctant genius in great spirits. First there was an in-store Q&A where Niney answered questions from Bolygo’s Andrew Chapman. Then Niney obliged Angus by entering the Rough Trade recording booth for a one hour freeform chat. Since it occurred Niney has gone back to Jamaica, launched his own new studio and given several revealing interviews – but we like to think we softened him up first!

Niney The Observer

Getting involved in school bands as a youth

“When I was at school we had a school band. Because you had the school split into certain divisions. Our side was Nightingales, because they formed the politics sides in names of birds.

Every month the school decided the best people who can keep the school going would get prizes. So when it came to the holidays we would have concerts. The teachers would charge classes, where everybody would get a penny to come in before the school broke up.

We used to have guys who played the bamboo sax, guys who played the comb, guys who knocked the drums and so it got big. I was the one who kept it going and made money for the class. So we got started and from that I knew I was accepted to be the leader of the band, I was accepted to sing, I was just the all-rounder.”

From Derrick Morgan I caught my experience

Moving from Montego Bay to Kingston and meeting Derrick Morgan

“Derrick Morgan was the first man who I was really around as a musician. When I came to town and ran around with Derrick there were a lot of ideas. Derrick carried me to studio and recorded me. The first songs I did were for him. We called ourselves the Groovers. From Derrick Morgan I caught my experience.”

Being an ideas man

“I was rehearsing all the while and writing songs and ideas. So that’s why I had a lot of singers around me. Even great singers used to come and get ideas. Because there are a lot of things I see, so every talk I talk they see it as lyrics. I used to run with all of them – from Stranger Cole to Monty Morris - everybody.

I had a lot of singers around me. Every talk I talk they see it as lyrics

I had everything in front of me – I never knew what to choose. I could arrange music or do whatever with it. From when the engineer Linford Anderson came down I wrote those things and knew what to do. I could shut my eyes and do things.”

Apprenticeship with the engineer Linford Anderson – whose Pop A Top is hailed as one of the foundations of dub

“Linford Anderson. Great guy. People don’t see him in the business and they don’t talk about him but he is the one who built everybody. He built Bob Marley, Lee Perry – every artist he built. Because he was the engineer and he had great ideas.

Linford Anderson. Great guy. People don’t talk about him but he is the one who built everybody

When someone is singing the engineer has to listen. Because sometimes you have guys singing and their diction is not right. When you were around Linford Anderson you would hear the “t’s” and the “d’s” differently because he would say “Hey that is not ‘run’ it’s ‘ran’” or “that is not ‘stand’ it’s ‘standing’. If he was mixing a song and you pronounced something with an “s” as “st” he would cut it out. He would know how to splice that out.

These people, nobody gives him any credit. He left from the recording business and went to the broadcasting station RJR and he was big there too. He made songs with himself and produced a lot of songs and I was the one who was selling those songs for him in those days. When I came first as a music man he was the first man I worked for as a salesman. Linford is a great guy and he has all the history. If anyone could find him and sit down with him he could just be a whole book of history. Somebody has to talk about it.”

Witnessing the birth of reggae

“There was a fish man in Washington Gardens who called himself “Reggae”. Me, Fams, Glen, Reggie called themselves the Reggae Boys before they changed their name to Hippy Boys. 

The reggae beat was created by Lee Perry, Clancy Eccles and Linford Anderson. Linford said “Let’s go to the 7 day Adventist Church.” Linford was one of the main creators of the reggae! Because he was the one who took us – Scratch, Clancy Eccles and the whole of them – and he had his tape recorder. He was the one who went to the church when the people sang “Hallelujiah! Hey Great God!” (claps in reggae rhythm) and he taped those things. That is why Scratch could say “Woy, woy, people funny bwoy!” (claps in reggae rhythm) – that was the same church song Linford recorded and Scratch decided to go that way! Afterwards Scratch recorded People Funny Boy and Monty Morris recorded Say What You’re Saying. When Monty Morris was singing Say What You’re Saying – I could bring in Clancy Eccles to record it then go back and sing the harmonies. Clancy called it “streggae” first. Lee Perry hated the reggae name. Clancy and Andy were the main inventors.

The reggae beat was created by Lee Perry, Clancy Eccles and Linford Anderson

When they went that way they called it the “reggae” because reggae was an uptempo beat. We were trying to go uptempo in those days because Coxsone was doing rocksteady like Nanny Goat.”

Getting the name the Observer

Niney The Observer“When I came in and I decided to start, the competition was so hot that me and Lee Perry and them were on a different groove. Even though I was working with them and working for them, it got so rough that it became a tug of war between them and a competition. Bunny Lee down the bottom was named the Aggravator. Scratch was down the bottom calling himself the Upsetter but Linford Anderson was named the Upset first. It was not Lee Perry who was the first Upset setter. Linford Anderson was the Upset and then Scratch added it to it as the Upsetter.

These guys never wanted me to start you know. These guys wanted me beside them for the strength. When I was with Bunny Lee, Scratch would try to do a thing to get me beside him and when I was with Scratch, Bunny Lee would do a thing. So I was just like a football between them until I said no, broke out, broke off and decided to go do my own.

First I came with the name Destroyer with Joe Gibbs. Because for the first half I was the one who built most of Joe Gibbs songs for him like Nicky Thomas Love of the Common People which became a chart hit number one up here. So I said Destroyer until one day I said “No, no, no, I could be Destroyer but who am I destroying? I can’t destroy people and I can’t destroy myself”. So I came with a different name saying I am observing what is going on observing all these people. I took on the name Observer and did Blood and Fire and threw it upon that label and it signed on from there.

For the first half I was the one who built most of Joe Gibbs songs for him

That was why I had to write Blood and Fire. Because it was them – him, Lee Perry and Bob Marley in those posses. Like how when you see the deejays in posses now. So those three cliqued themselves and made songs like Big Tree Small Axe. That is why I had to come and cut them down. I chopped down the whole of them. I blood them up. That was the thing that caused me to say “I don’t want to see no other guys. Me strong enough to be on my own”.”

Fighting with Bob Marley over the similarity of Blood and Fire and Love Light

“Prince Buster went to the guys and said “How come you are dreadlocks and a baldhead like Niney sing that song?” Buster was looking at it like Bob Marley was in the category of a Rastaman– they were the ones who were supposed to put that message there at that time so they shouldn’t make me put that message out. Buster never meant to say I versioned his song. But Lee Perry looked at it the wrong way and went and told Bob Marley “Hey man, Niney versioned some songs of we” and Bob Marley came. He had a song named Love Light.

My song was down at Bunny Lee’s playing and there was a crowd gathering listening – some Rastaman – and then big bad Bob Marley sent some men who said “Bring that song” while I was never there. So when I came I said “Where me song?” and they said the song had gone round to Beeston Street. I went round the top of Beeston Street and Orange Street and heard the song playing in Bob Marley’s shop and all these massive were there listening to it. So I just walked right past them went inside and grabbed my song. So he said “Why you a gwaan like you a badman?” and “You mashed up my needle” and started coming into my face. So I said “Why you a gwaan like badman?” and screwface so he screwed up his face. He pointed in my face and I pointed back in his face so he chucked me and I chucked him back so a fight started. Me and him rolled on the ground but then I got a stab here and a cut there and started to bleed but it was never him who did it. It was just some little guy running in wanting to prove to Bob Marley that he is a blood or whatever.

But it was nice because I went to hospital and came back and Bunny Wailer came and looked for me with Peter Tosh and they chatted to me. When I started my business they used to come upstairs and sit with me at 118 Orange Street because I was the man by then taking on certain things. But I never continued in the singing. I just said I was going to produce artists. So that was it.”

Bob said “Why you a gwaan like you a badman?” and “You mashed up my needle” and started coming into my face

Working behind the scenes for Joe Gibbs and producing the first cut of Dennis Brown’s Money in My Pocket.

“I met this guy and he had this tune so I decided to record him. I went to Joe Gibbs. We had the beat and I decided to record it with Soul Syndicate – Fully was the one who played the bass. But when I went round to Joe Gibbs to voice this song – because we already had the rhythm – the guy couldn’t sing it the way I wanted him to. He couldn’t manage it. So I said to Joe Gibbs “We have to give the guy some money” because we didn’t know about publishing. When we gave him some money I got Dennis Brown to sing the song.

Anyway, no money ever passed and we called in Dennis Brown to do the song. I signposted how I wanted the song to be and then Joe Gibbs said he would make Big Youth do a part – because he was the one reigning at that time. So we brought in Big Youth and threw Money In My Pocket out there and the song hit. I noticed the song was still selling so I said to Joe Gibbs that I didn’t get any money and he started to make a problem. He had his and Dennis Brown’s name on the song - at that time we still didn’t know about publishing so I never rushed that. So when I was down on him he decided “Oh man I’m going to do over back the song”. I still didn’t know about publishing because if I did I would have said “Hey this is my same music you do over”. But he did it and said “You see it? I’m not selling your one”. My one was slower than his one - he got Lloyd Parks and did back over the rhythm.

So me and the other guy never made any money back on it. Dennis Brown never knew about those songs – Sonia, Money In My Pocket. They were a country youth’s things. I helped the youth arrange up the things and arrange the verses. It came down between me and the guy as writers. It was my rhythm. It wasn’t Joe Gibbs’ rhythm. We did it in his studio but it was never for him. So him and Dennis Brown copyrighted it or whatever and it is them getting the money off it. But you know, that guy is still living and I am still living, so the greatest thing is life! Although they own it and took it, neither of them is here to inherit it still. It’s just how the world goes.”

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