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Interview: Ranking Joe

Interview: Ranking Joe

Interview: Ranking Joe

By on - Photos by Charles Le Brigand - 1 comment

"Certain producers they'd be wanting to try to change your style from what the street people want"

Sampler

Ranking Joe (born Joe Jackson, 1959, Jamaica) grew up around his father's dances in 1960s Kingston. Bitten by the bug, at the age of just 15 he became resident deejay on Dennis Alcapone's El Paso Hi Fi, when the elder talker migrated to London. His began his recording career at Studio 1 in 1974 under the handle Little Joe, which led to him voicing for Bunny Lee, Joe Gibbs, Sly & Robbie and many others. A name change to Ranking Joe (suggested by the producer Prince Tony) and the development of his various vocal trademarks (like his legendary superfast "tongue-twisting" introductions) consolidated his status as one of the great mic-men of the late seventies and early eighties - adapting to the new decade's musical developments (including more risqué lyrics) with continued success. At the same time he undertook a parallel career as a producer, issuing his own music as well as other artists like Barry Brown and his schoolfriend Earl Sixteen.

In 1980 he and his production partner Jah Screw took the Ray Symbolic sound system to London, giving the city a taste of what they'd previously only heard on tapes. Joe then settled in New York, where he remains to this day, although he still tours, impressing audiences worldwide with his wonderful way with words and sounds. "Privilege" is one word Joe uses a lot when discussing his life and music and it is the most apposite term to describe the opportunity Angus Taylor had for a brief chat at Reggae Jam festival. There they discussed his music: from Studio 1 to his recent work on vintage rhythms with Clive Chin, which could see an album release very soon...

Ranking Joe

Sound system is quite literally in your blood isn't it?

I grew up literally on a sound system in dancehall music. Because my father is a man who used to go around and play domino games, like tournaments with friends, people from friends' clubs, and the big sound systems would play and entertain them during the daytime. You'd have kids and everyone during the day and cook and eat food until it reached a certain time in the evening when the kids would have to go home or people would come out of the dance and then have to start paying to come back in! If they wanted to stay they would have to pay the gate man when he comes around then that was a different thing but the deejay would hold the mic and say "All for free... go to the gate and pay him a lickle rate, yunno... that would be great... it's all for free" - so that was when the dance began to officially start. So I got a privilege to see a bit of that and then a bit of the dance starting - then I would have to leave!

How did you get on to the mic?

Growing up my dad would buy a little speaker box and amplifier inside the house with foundation rhythms and records and things - and I would catch my practice that way. We didn't have a mic but I would use a telephone receiver to put into the input of the amplifier and I would deejay through that. People would gather round and say "Yeah, yeah, yeah you sound nice!" and I when I'd see father coming in I'd have to plug it out and run! (laughs)

I would use a telephone receiver to put into the input of the amplifier and I would deejay through that. People would gather round and say "Yeah, yeah, yeah you sound nice!" and I when I'd see father coming in I'd have to plug it out and run!

You were at school with Earl Sixteen, Winston McAnuff... Did you ever consider being a singer?

No, I was just concentrating on following U Roy's footsteps. And I Roy, Big Youth, Dennis Alcapone, Scotty and Dillinger.

So how did you get first opportunity to record?

The first opportunity came through studying the Better Dub LP, the Mean Girl rhythm, and practice in school shows and school concerts and things like that. I had the privilege to win a talent show at Bohemia Club on Hagley Park Road at the time - where you'd have different contestants. But then I took my talent over to Studio 1 and then stay for days after days from leaving school and try to beg Mr Dodd to listen to me audition.

I was just concentrating on following U Roy's footsteps

Did you get auditioned by Mr Dodd himself rather than one of his musical aides?

Yes. But when those producers were coming through the gate people were running behind them! They'd say "What you want?" and you'd say "I just need a little chance to have a song. They'd tell you "Let me hear it" and then you'd have to just be sharp and ready! But from just practising on that rhythm, although I didn't have that rhythm with me I did have the lyrics. So when he said come back and check him I didn't know what he meant but when I did check him I got the privilege to go back behind to where the studio is. Because before we were just out in the front yard under the mango tree with a lot of different artists waiting for a break and then around foundation artists who already had their break but you had to sit with. So when you went through that gate you'd go "Well... something ago happen!"

What happened inside?

Ranking JoeI told him the rhythm and they searched for the rhythm and I got a chance to record it. When I was there voicing the rhythm and thinking I'd finished, he'd just say "Ready Jackson, ready to take it!" I had never even been in a studio before! When he said "Ready now" I was like whoa... But it was a chance I got and when that record was released, named Gun Court on the Bongo Man label, one of Studio 1's labels, it went big. Because Mr Dodd had his programme on the radio where he played the latest songs for month or this week or couple of weeks. Then from that it was just history because different producers started saying "That's you Little Joe?" and I said "Yes" and started going down Randy's to Idlers Rest, Chancery Lane, where all the artists would be hanging out and people would come and buy records - you'd have Randy's, you'd have Chancery Lane and you'd have Joe Gibbs, you'd have Winston Riley Techniques Records in the lane. So all different artists would be coming through and when you can hang with the big boys - it's a privilege!

Coxsone said "Ready Jackson, ready to take it!" I had never even been in a studio before!

So we've heard how you got into deejaying. How did you get into production?

I got into production by seeing sound systems and seeing the trouble you'd have to go through to record a song for producers! Because I used to check Duke Reid before I checked Coxsone but I got through with Coxsone. Once I got through with Coxsone producers started it to check me and it made it a little more easy because you can say "I did that. I did that song". But then I started to see that from playing on sound systems, some of the lyrics that the people would start to react to or dance to, when you'd go and check certain producers they'd be wanting to try to change your style or change your ways from what the street people want. So that's why you'd just go in the studio, build a rhythm or makeover or revamp back that rhythm into a different style into what the people want. So that's how I got into the business and starting producing artists like myself, Barry Brown, Tristan Palma, Sugar Minott to name a few.

Winston McAnuff is in France, Earl Sixteen is in London. Why did you go to New York?

From being on one of the first sound systems to go to London in 1980. We toured England and the UK and it made a great impact - that was the birth of some of the fast talking deejays like Smiley Culture, Papa Levi and all those guys. So from being in London we got a call to go to New York by Mikey Jarrett which is one of the best deejays there, so I got a visa and we go to New York playing on a sound named Papa Moke HiFi. And it was history again, because Ranking Joe and Jah Screw, we left from England after the death of Ray Symbolic, the first sound to travel to England we went to New York which was the next place. And by keeping so much history there by making dances in New York I kept going back and forth until, seeing a lot of work needed to be done there, I started to base there while going back and forth to Jamaica. I had my Ranking Joe label, working alongside General Lee, High Power, who manages things and we live like brothers, doing my production alongside High Power Music.

You got your start at Studio 1 but you're also friends with the British singer Alpheus who was one of the last people to be signed by Coxsone himself and has put out one of the great albums this year, using revamps of Studio 1 rhythms.

Yes! He was one of the last. Alpheus and Glen Washington, they were some of the last people there. I met Alpheus by him coming to New York. When he'd come to the studio we'd all just say "Yes, you sound good" and we'd exchange a lot of experience tactics about the business and approaching the business so that's the way you have to go about it and keep up the good works. I'm proud of him today that he really hung in there and he has a great album right now, a very, very brilliant album with Roberto Sanchez. You cannot tell the difference between that album and Studio 1 because they are such great productions.

You cannot tell the difference between Alpheus' album and Studio 1 because they are such great productions

Finally, you've been doing a bit of work with Clive Chin in 2011 that's caught international attention - is there an album in the works?

Yes, with Clive Chin, a great producer, and some of the foundation rhythms from Randy's. To get the privilege to do that was a dream come true. So we worked on a couple of tracks and we have some releases already on the Cheater rhythm and the Java rhythm. Great producer and great productions so we are looking forward to finishing an album. We've done half already so we need to buckle down already but I think what Clive's going to do is release some singles and get more out there first.

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Read comments (1)


Posted by Madawa on 02.01.2012
"You cannot tell the difference between that album and Studio 1 because they are such great productions."
Yes! Crucial album.

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