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Interview: Black Roots (Part 2)

Interview: Black Roots (Part 2)

Interview: Black Roots (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - Comment

"Bob Marley brought reggae music twenty years forward and dancehall put it twenty years backwards"

Sampler

Read part 1 of this interview.

In Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Black Roots they tell Angus about their work with Mad Professor, their decline into inactivity in the 90s, their return via Makasound and Bristol Archive and why for their next album they’re going it alone…

Black Roots

How did you meet the Mad Professor who produced your next five albums?

JABULANI: We knew Mad Professor through the work he was doing. We met him when we were playing at Dingwalls when he came there one night and gave us his card and said that he’d like to work with us, so any time we felt free we should come and see him. At the time we never really wanted to work with anyone so we never took that up but a couple of years later when we were doing the All Day All Night album we asked him to come in and help us produce it, so we started to deal with him.

Did he want to you to work for Ariwa at the time?

JABULANI: In the early days he wanted us to come and record something for Ariwa. I don’t know if it was one tune or an album because we never really pursued that.

Your first album with Prof, 1987’s All Day All Night, had Vin Gordon on trombone – what was he like?

JABULANI: He used to live here in Bristol. He used to live amongst us here. He was up here for a good ten years or so but unfortunately it never worked out for him because he had some form of problem with visas and kids and all – the usual thing.

Tell me how you founded your label Nubian Records?

JABULANI: Nubian Records was founded by Black Roots and our manager Alfredo Vasquez. Alfredo was the administrator who did all the nitty gritty and the groundwork, getting deals with SRD to distribute it and all those things. He did most of the organising to get it to spill out.

How important was it to have your own label?

JABULANI: It was important at the time because if we didn’t have a label we wouldn’t be able to get anything out. In those days it was hard because once they had got one reggae artist on a label there was no way they were going to have two. That’s what we were never interested to go with EMI because they had Aswad so they were never really interested in pushing two reggae bands. Virgin came along and signed up everybody and did nothing. Virgin just sat there. So that didn’t make sense neither.

Mad Professor mixed your 1988 live album Live Power – which the fans demanded you do. Did Prof mix it live?

JABULANI: Every time we played they were asking “When are you going to do a live album?” We had a little stall at every show selling merchandise and they used to come up and ask us “When are you going to do a live album?” We recorded it at the Moles Club in Bath and Prof came and set up the studio business and mixed it there and then.

In 1991 you released the first of what would be a series of dub albums – In A Different Style was mixed by Professor. How did you decide to do a dub album?

JABULANI: Actually Mad Professor was the one who told us it was wise to do some dub albums because people would buy it. We were never really into that. We were just into doing our music. But he said “No you should put out some of these tunes in dub” so we started doing it on advice from him.

Were you worried the political and spiritual aspect of your music would be lost?

JABULANI: We never really thought about it. In those days we just thought about music and lyrics. We never thought about dub. In those days you used to have dub plates on sound systems but nobody would buy it until Keith Hudson started to release some dub albums and then people started to want dub albums. The sound systems used to play dub but growing up in that era we were never into dub until Mad Professor introduced us to it on a commercial level.

We were never into dub until Mad Professor introduced us to it on a commercial level

Did you let Mad Professor do his thing and bring it back to you for a listen or were you leaning over him saying “change this” “do that”?

JABULANI: We sat in the studio with Mad Professor, he’d set up everything and say “Bwoy, I’m going for a take now – you like?” and we’d say “Wicked man, just gwann do what you a do”. He didn’t take anything down without saying “You like?” and a man might say “Bwoy do a little more bass up here”. It was a co-operative thing really but mainly instrumental by Prof. 

During the time of your music Margaret Thatcher was in power. How did her policies affect you and the content of your music?

JABULANI: Margaret Thatcher was a strange woman. It was not only we that Margaret Thatcher came to destroy. She came to destroy the miners. She destroyed the youth. When I was a youth in school in England we used to get a quarter pint of milk. All the kids. A lot of kids used to come to my school – white kids and European kids – without any breakfast. As a young boy even if you did not have any breakfast a quarter pint of milk could keep you until dinner time. Margaret Thatcher and came and wiped that out saying “No more of that”. She started from the babe and suckling first. The sufferers had to suffer more before the rich could feel it. So I never had a lot of time for Margaret Thatcher. I always wrote against her in my lyrics.

KONDWANI: But in certain ways Margaret Thatcher made us stronger because most of the music we did in those times, the lyrics tell you some of the things that were happening in that time when Margaret Thatcher was in power. What she was doing gave us a lot of ammunition to put back to the community and the people.

Margaret Thatcher made us stronger. What she was doing gave us a lot of ammunition

But at the same time that all this was happening politically a lot of Jamaican and UK Jamaican music was about sound systems and emcees rather than singers and live music. Was it lonely treading that path in those times?

JABULANI: At the time the music was going through a bit of a change. The roots content took a backseat and the dancehall came to the front page. That’s why most roots bands in those days kind of dropped out and off the reggae music map. The audience weren’t there, the promoters were really dealing with the dancehall quick fix thing and the substance wasn’t really there anymore. It was just hype and entertainment and no content. Nobody was dealing with…

KONDWANI: Roots.

JABULANI: No kind of leverage then. To uplift through entertainment or educate with entertainment. It was just…

ERROL: Slackness.

KONDWANI: Most of the time the sound system would play when we were growing up. Because a lot of us didn’t have record players and all so we would go to the sound system and listen to music and what the lyrics would be telling us was how we would learn about everything. Because we could play records at our house because our Jamaican parents were brought up in a Christian community so we’d feel like we had to get out and listen to sound systems and go to a blues and get inspiration from all those singers – that’s where we got our thing from.

JABULANI: And that element changed when the dancehall came. That’s why artists like Burning Spear weren’t so prominent. Culture weren’t so prominent. The sound system stopped playing that music and started playing the dancehall.

KONDWANI: That’s why people stopped going to all those places because they weren’t telling you knowledge. They were just telling you about the jump and I just didn’t want to hear that.

JABULANI: In my opinion and in my view that put reggae music twenty years back. Bob Marley brought reggae music twenty years forward with the rest of them and dancehall put it twenty years backwards.

As a Bristol band what was your view on the London reggae scene?

JABULANI: The London reggae scene was the lovers rock scene. But that’s not really a London thing, it’s a Jamaica thing. London might say it’s their thing but it’s not their thing because as a little boy growing up if you check Jackie Edwards or Eugene Palmer it’s lovers rock they used to sing. You see how London says they created it. It no go so. It’s a Jamaica thing same way.

But did you feel welcome in the London scene?

JABULANI: Yeah man. Anything that breeds progression is good and it’s not so negative as the dancehall. Not all of the dancehall thing is negative because you have some cultural people within the dancehall element. But it’s not like in the early 70s where every music that came from Jamaica, everybody had their own identity. You had Heptones, you had Gladiators, you had Wailers, Maytones – everybody was distinctive. But with the dancehall element you say “Who that?” Everybody is the same thing. Everybody just rides upon one rhythm like a free ride with no structure.

In 1989 there was a line-up change.

JABULANI: Black Roots was never doing any live work or recording. One member left in 1989 – that was Charles. He left because he was kind of frustrated with the lack of progression. He thought it should have been moving quicker than it was moving. It’s just frustration innit? You go on all these years and you still can’t feed your kids.

Why did you decide to stop touring after your sixth album - 1990’s Mad Professor production Natural Reaction?

JABULANI: The work dried up. Through the dancehall thing the promoters just started to deal with mainly hip hop or dancehall. Because at the same time hip hop was still fighting the same crowd as the reggae crowd so the promoters thought it was easy to have a man come in with a PA and a tape recorder. Just plug it in and play and it’s cheaper for him. So the work dried up for live bands and that’s why we kind of eased off of it.

But you carried on recording. What did you do in place of touring?

JABULANI: We started doing little things in place of touring. We started doing a little bit of promotion. We did a little bit of producing – one or two little things that never really progressed. We produced some local artists like Triads who were some local singers from the area. We produced the album With Friends which was BB Seaton from Gaylads and a couple of other Studio 1 artists from London. We tried to do quite a few little things but they never progressed.

How did you meet Dub Judah who kind of took over the production role from Mad Professor for the album 1994 Dub Factor 2?

JABULANI: Dub Judah was a man we knew from long time. He used to come down here with Shaka and through Rastafari and through music and the runnings we got to meet Dub Judah. We did the thing with Mad Professor but then we decided “No we don’t want to go down the same way, so we’ll do a thing with another man this time” so chose Dub Judah.

How was working with him different from Prof?

JABULANI: Dub Judah was always a musician first. So it was kind of smoother working with him because he knew exactly what you were thinking. With Mad Professor it was a little fight because he was set in his digital kind of thing.

Black Roots

Why did you decide to pause the group in the mid-90s?

JABULANI: We never really stopped Black Roots. We were just never interested in doing any more live work because it wasn’t financially viable any more. Until we did the thing with Makasound from France.

How did you link Niko from Makasound for the reissue compilation On the Frontline in 2004?

JABULANI: Even before we did those tunes he had been around. We used to run a record shop in St Paul’s called One Stop Records. He used to phone us up every two weeks wanting us to come to France and do some work and let him release some work over there. I would always tell him “Yeah, probably next year” until after this had been going on for five or six years he decided to come over. We had a chat with him and he said he could do a lot of things in France for us so we said “Alright then”. We gave him those two albums to release and that’s how it started all over again. Once he released them the people in France wanted us to come over and do live shows.

Apart from the record shop what kinds of things were you doing to survive in your quiet period?

JABULANI: Most of the band were always working from day one. It was never a full time thing. We would always have a 9 to 5 job to go to. That’s why it was so hard when you are having kids and they are growing up and the missus is grumbling that you are going away to play and you would come back with no money again. You only work for three days and the work money is short also so you have to play and nothing is compensating. We decided we had to do something. We would either be broke or unbroken. We had to stay down and feed the kids. So we had to put the band aside for a while and do the 9 to 5.

It was never a full time thing. We would always have a 9 to 5 job to go to

What kind of work have you been doing over the years?

JABULANI: We did all kinds of work. I used to do labouring, I used to sweep shop floors, spray drum cans, any kind of casual labour I would do.

KONDWANI: I used to do painting and decorating and doing caretaking jobs.

ERROL: I was a welder and then I did some things in the supermarkets.

JABULANI: General labour because we had no skill. Music is our skill and when we were supposed to be doing our apprenticeship we were thinking about music so we never bothered with that (laughs).

So the Makasound reissue renewed some interest. How did you then link with Mike Darby of Sugar Shack and Bristol Archive records?

JABULANI: While the Makasound was a France thing Bristol Archives was this guy Mike Darby from Bristol. He came to us about 5 years ago and said he’d like to do a Bristol compilation archive of the 80s. We gave a couple of tunes to put out on his compilation and through that he came back and said he wanted to do another one because it had sold. We did another one and then when the second one sold he said it was best to just do one on our own so we did another album just with Black Roots and not as the Archives. That sold well so we just decided to do a new album.

Was it a big decision to come back and do the On the Ground album?

JABULANI: The decision to make On the Ground was because we had a lot of things going on with the old stuff. Fans were buying them and things were going so we said “We’re still selling and people out there still want them so let’s give them a new album”.

ERROL: Something fresh.

JABULANI: Something new and we would see what happened. That was how decided we were going to sit down and write some material for the new album.

So you didn’t have any material lying around? It was all written for the new album? What kind of timeframe did the writing take to generate?

JABULANI: The writing of the album took about a year and half. From nothing to when it reached the chord structure and things. To record the album took a week. But the work to make it take a week took a year and a half! (laughs) We did mainly box thing and then we got a rehearsal room, rehearsed for a week and then went into the studio.

Was the lineup for On the Ground any different from the classic Black Roots lineup?

JABULANI: The original bass player [Derrick King] he passed away about four years back. And the original drummer Trevor [Seivwright] is out in Wales somewhere and he wasn’t interested to come back because he’s doing his own painting business now.

But you got in one of the UK’s top horn sections to come in as well for the album – Ray Carless on sax and Patrick Tenyue on trumpet.

JABULANI: It was just like on the All Day All Night album. We got a horn section to come in because we usually like to hire in a horn section. They are never a member of the band – just session workers.

It was recorded at J&J studio which is part owned by Jim Barr from Portishead. Lewis Beckett mixed it and you co-produced with Jeff Spencer. In terms of what went down in the studio how did it work?

JABULANI: The studio was Portishead’s studio and the engineer was Jim [Barr] who is the bass player. He was the one who got us our first gig in England at Alexandra Palace when we had just come back. It was the same day when Amy Winehouse died (23 July 2011). Then the other J is Jeff who is a really good musical engineer and technician. Whole heap of praises to the two J’s because they helped us a lot. They gave us a good opportunity to get some money to go and do the album. If we never did that Alexandra Palace show the album wouldn’t have started. Louis now is a brother that I know from long time. As an engineer he worked with Culture and many artists so we knew him and asked him to come in and help us mix the album.

You said earlier that Margaret Thatcher helped you a lot with your writing. One of the songs on One the Ground, Pompous Way was inspired by David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the time of the London Riots and the banking crisis.

JABULANI: Pompous Way came through the credit crunch. They blame everybody and anybody. When they had this march in London when they shot this guy in Tottenham?

Mark Duggan.

JABULANI: They had a march to protest against the police treatment. Cameron went into parliament and said the youth are gangsters and thugs. So we’re saying that’s all in the pompous way because it’s not really thugs – you are having a rebellion against something. If you are in authority then you arrest somebody. You don’t shoot somebody. It’s only gangsters who shoot people. Police are not supposed to shoot and ask questions after. Only gangsters behave like that. So that’s how the tune came – through that. That incident there and what he said in parliament was what inspired us to do that song.

Police are not supposed to shoot and ask questions after. Only gangsters behave like that

Tell me about the song Militancy where you say “Militancy is necessary, maliciousness no necessary”.

JABULANI: That’s the same vibes as well. Some part of militancy is necessary because the youth march to protest against the shooting. That is militancy and militancy is necessary. But the other part of it now is the riot. That is never necessary. You have the authority over a barrel because he is wrong because he shoots the guy unlawfully but then you go fight and riot and through that all incident is out of the window.

ERROL: It makes no sense.

JABULANI: The world stops looking upon the focus that caused that and starts to blame you now. Because what do you do? You go riot and burn down the place. Unnecessary. That is not really called for. Poor shop people never do you nothing.

Then there’s the song Long Long Ago which is about memories of your birthplaces in Jamaica. Do you go to Jamaica much?

JABULANI: Not much. The last time I went to Jamaica was 1991. They [gestures to others] have gone back lately. But if you grew up in the country of Jamaica those memories don’t leave your head. That song came about through the things we used to do to get things financed.

KONDWANI: Everybody together.

JABULANI: Because long long ago in Jamaica if you called on them the whole community would come to work with you that day. In Jamaica when I was growing up you didn’t pay people to work. My father and his father and a whole heap of fathers would give you a day. Today is your day and they would work for you that day and tomorrow is another man’s day and they would work for you. It wasn’t really a job thing where they charge you. They’d just go round and work for each one when they needed it.

In reference to another song about home Oh Mama Africa – have you ever been to Africa?

JABULANI: Not in the physical structure. But in the mind I am in Africa right now. Mentally.

Mad Professor has been putting on a festival in Africa.

JABULANI: Yes but he never invited we!

(they all laugh)

Now that Margaret Thatcher is gone, how do you assess her legacy?

JABULANI: Margaret Thatcher is just a needle in a haystack. Margaret Thatcher is just one person but Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is still going right now through Cameron. He is the new Margaret Thatcher. If you check the tune it says “The Iron Lady’s returning because they see that I’m hurting”. She is reincarnated in Cameron.

Thatcher is reincarnated in Cameron

KONDWANI: Labour’s gone and that’s kind of why the group is getting back into it to let people get back on to the right direction and not to fall back and do all these things like what they say. We want to say “This is wrong and this is right”.

Reggae music is probably bigger now in this country than it was under Labour. Does reggae music have more to say under a Tory government?

JABULANI: Labour when they had Tony Blair was just a watered down Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair was just another conservative. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s really a Tory but he hid under Labour clothes.

How do you assess the current climate for reggae music?

JABULANI: I would say reggae music in this country is not very good compared to what it was in the early 70s. It is nowhere near. And it hasn’t progressed as it should. If you remember in the early 70s to the mid-80s reggae concerts used to sell out up and down the country.

KONDWANI: And it used to play on the radio.

JABULANI: No, only the great John Peel used to play it on the radio. Peter Powell and the Canadian one [David] Jensen used to play Black Roots too but anything John Peel would play they used to play it.

You and Louis Beckett recently made a dub version of On the Ground. How did making this dub album compare with the days when you used to make with Dub Judah or Prof?

JABULANI: It’s on the same kind of level because we did in the same kind of way. Louis would string up his thing and then he’d do his thing and say “W’happen? Everybody happy? You ready for go and take a one take now?” and we’d say “Yes” or “That no sound right” or “There’s too much of that” and he’d redo and so on. It was a cooperative thing. When we do something like this we are not a dictator band. We give the engineer a little leeway to do his thing. So that was all Louis mainly.

What’s next for Black Roots? When is the next album coming?

JABULANI: Things are looking up for Black Roots. It’s not like we’re stagnant. Things are moving as before and even better than it was before. Recording-wise we hope to do some new material because we’ve got most of it already. We hope to do a new album in the next 18 months.

Will it be coming out on Sugar Shack or Bristol Archive?

JABULANI/KONDWANI: No.  

ERROL: Definitely not

JABULANI: It will be coming on our own label. We don’t want to belittle anyone but no-one shows you the interest that you show yourself. If we do anything with any record company, they always have their own priorities. That doesn’t work in the music business. You should sell the music on its merits. I’m looking out there when we play live now and again and we get a lot of people asking us to record when we play live. So it shouldn’t be a problem selling it. So if a man has a problem selling us, something must be wrong from his end – not from the band end. (laughs)

Do you see it as a problem that people haven’t wanted to pay for recorded music as much as they used to?

JABULANI: I don’t see that as a problem. You might lose ten percent of your sales through the free download thing. But the genuine reggae followers, even if they go online and take the free download they will still buy it to have the physical thing.

Everyone needs money but money’s not all

So you’ve done a vocal album and a dub album. Are you going to do another live album?

JABULANI: No, not in the pipeline at the moment. But it’s a possibility. Who knows what’s around the corner? But we don’t have that in mind at the moment because the finance to do a live album is quite heavy because you have to bring in certain different equipment. It’s like a mini studio to record live so it’s not so easy financially and we’re not so blessed with finance at the moment. (laughs)

Bristol is known around the world as a music city. Do you feel a part of that?

JABULANI: Yeah we feel a part of it because we are musicians from Bristol. You have Massive Attack, Portishead, Tears for Fears, Roni Size, Talisman, whole heap of local people who contribute towards that. So yeah man, it’s nice.

We give thanks to everybody who followed us through the years and supported us, who keep us in the limelight and help us to progress to the stage we are now. We don’t forget that because without them we wouldn’t be here. We’re not making a great living but we give thanks that they even listen to the work we are doing. Everyone needs money but money’s not all. Even if you just soothe someone’s mind when they are listening to their music you give them a better peace of mind. That’s more of a reward for me.

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