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Interview: Maxi Priest

Interview: Maxi Priest

Interview: Maxi Priest

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"It’s very easy to get lost, but I’m getting some love"


Listeners to commercial radio who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s will have fond memories of Maxi Priest – whose smash Close To You with Soul II Soul reached top tens around the world. Yet look deeper at the success of this gentle crooner with his youthful, vulnerable tone and palatable transatlantic reggae-soul-pop fusion and you will see why it was so important.

Musically it might have seemed a far cry from the UK sound system roots that young Max Elliott started singing or the deejay detonation of his time on Saxon International. But Maxi was at the vanguard of an era when reggae would find an unprecedented voice in the mainstream. Particularly English reggae, long treated as an echo of what came out of Jamaica, until the flowering of lovers rock the previous decade.

Maxi Priest

And while some of it appears commercialised to the rock music fan or analogue purist, London’s reggae scene of the 80s was buzzing with possibilities. Many Jamaican singers made it their base of operations and fresh talent exploded off the sound systems to major label interest. Papa Levi’s Mi God Mi King became a hit in Jamaica. Tippa Irie performed on Top of the Pops. Barrington Levy was unwittingly booked to sing a song about sensi on children’s TV. And Maxi, a singer when most were emcee-ing, signed to Virgin Records, and gradually ascended both the UK and US charts in a way Bob Marley only managed once he had passed.

Sadly, it was not to last: after a sales dip in the 90s Maxi stepped out of the spotlight. The industry he came from has been walking backwards ever since.

In 2014 Maxi Priest has returned from a 7 year hiatus with his new album on VP Records, Easy To Love. It features collaborations with familiar faces like Beres Hammond and Sly and Robbie – alongside contemporary names such as Agent Sasco. Angus Taylor spoke to Maxi in Manchester while he was promoting the record about where it all began, where it went and where he is now.

Growing up in Lewisham, South London how did m usic first reach you as a child? Was it through a radiogram? Through church music?

First of all through church music, then through records that my brother used to play. You have to understand that out of the nine of us, four of us were born in England, so by any means necessary my brothers and sisters that were born in Jamaica, they had to get the music in the house. I guess that’s really how I first got into it.

When and why did the family move? To make a better life?

My parents came to England probably late 50s. Yeah, the same reason why I guess most of them left and came over here. Just looking for another way. They came from countryside, Saint Elizabeth, hard-working farming. They had an opportunity to come to this country that they heard so much about and thought it would be a better way of life for them. They’d had kids in Jamaica as well, like I said, so just a better opportunity, I guess.

Did you sing in the church?

Not directly. I mostly sung for my brothers and sisters, they were doing most of the singing in church, in the choir or whatever. When my mum would start in the church, trust me, you’d know! The whole church would know! My mother is a staunch missionary, dance around the church on one foot spirit. Those who know her, know exactly what I mean. We as kids would hold onto my mum’s front-tail and be walking down the street at all hours of the night home from church. Or, everybody would pile in the good old Bedford van and everybody got dropped off at various places. That was the foundation of our unification in this country when our folks first came here.

The music was a part of you and that helped us create our own identity

It sounds from what your siblings played, secular music was allowed in the house though, right?

Um… not really (laughs). It’s just my brothers would play the music, then you would hear somebody going “Turn off the music! What kinda music that play out?” But kids being kids and obviously they were yearning and missing something, so I guess they gave them leeway. Probably not so much as they have now in this day and age, but they did their thing and after a while they become big enough men to work and support their own situation and buy their own little box kind of gram and put it in their room and play the thing, but they had to play it at a certain level. It’s funny that you would say that. They would play those Tighten Up kind of tunes like “I love you Fatty”, (laughs) and then the whole house would be in uproar! I can remember when my dad just took that and broke it in two, and my mum was very supportive of breaking that in two! I guess you’re intrigued about the whole culture, and growing up here you’re searching for this identification of “Where do I stand in all this? Where am I from?” with Jamaica kind of going “Ah, you English youth” and “You foreigner” and then over here they’re telling us we’re foreigners as well. The music itself, you felt like the music was a part of you and that helped us create our own identity.

Which sounds were around when you hit your teens?

When I was a kid it used to be about Tippertone HiFi, Count Shelly, Shaka, Coxsone. When I look back on it I must have been younger than fourteen years of age because my father was alive and my father died when I was fourteen. So younger than fourteen I’m going and carrying speaker boxes and stuff like that with Jah Shaka. It’s only now that I look back on it I go “Wow! I was that age!” You know what I’m saying? So when my father died it was like a fast lane to growing up, automatically everything just started to speed up because we had to take responsibility for the household and make sure everything kind of ticked. We ran our mother ragged. We had a freedom that we were not used to. But saying that, before that all happened we had some basic fundamentals of respect.

You mean discipline had been instilled.

Yeah, we still kind of understood right and wrong, a certain boundary line that you don’t cross pertaining to elderly people, people out in the street and stuff like that. Manners and respect, your “Hello”s and your “Goodbye”s and your “Goodnight” and “Good morning”. I think those kind of things, they give you a guideline. It creates a main road for you, like if I’m going to turn down this side street, I must still keep those principles as I go down there.

When my father died it was like a fast lane to growing up

So was Shaka your first route into sound system?

Well, it was part of that as well as my sister’s husband had a sound system called Tippertone HiFi, which was major player in south east London. I started to work for him because when my father died we went to work early. I’m on a building site at fifteen. Whether it be demolition or painting and decorating or carpentry or whatever. And working for my sister’s husband and just so intrigued with the sound system and being able to go dance on a weekend. I wanted to be part of that main focus because I felt like the sound system and blues dance and things like that was part of what held us together as people in this country that was kind of going “You don’t belong here”, you know? So by any means necessary you’d embrace those kind of situations. Then when you found out you had something to offer towards it, it only made more sense. There were a load of guys my age that all they did was build boxes, some of them were more into wiring and that kind of stuff. I could sing, so people touted that with the sound system. It gave me a little bit more of an avenue to work with, more so than some of the guys who had to leave that and go off and become some computer wizard or work on amplifiers and that kind of stuff.

So how did you go from building boxes and helping out on the technical side to actually touching the microphone?

I would always be singing. This is something that’s always been known about me from since when I was at school. From home to school, I’d be the one who everybody surrounded and I would sing some Dennis Brown song or whatever was popular at the time, some Burning Spear or some Michael Jackson or some Motown. Then I was building the speaker boxes for the sound system. We had our own sound called Gladiator, after I eventually persuaded my sister to give me the sound desk that she had at Tippertone. We were so eager to make our own kind of roads that it was “Tippertone what? It’s now Gladiator” (laughs). Then stringing it up in the garden and going “There’s these versions, these B-sides on the track, on the 45s” and I’d spin the track and just find myself singing to the track and everybody round the sound system going “Yeah man! That’s wicked man! You got to keep doing that!” Then finding myself with an audience at a house party or a club and people encouraging you to use your talent on the sound system. That’s really how I fell into it. Then when I moved to Saxon International sound system with all of us bonding together, we created another level of the same situation. Then it began being a tour around the whole of London, then from London to Birmingham and Manchester and all these places.

By the time you got to Saxon, did you feel like the music was changing from when you first started with Shaka and Tippertone?

Yes, of course it was changing, but you still had your Studio One, your Gregory Isaacs, your Burning Spear. I guess at that time it was moving more towards a Gregory Isaacs kind of time. But you cannot have a sound system if you don’t play no Studio One, that wouldn’t make sense. And Studio One is kind of like groundation of reggae music. So yes, the music was changing but maybe not as fast as it is today.

You cannot have a sound system if you don’t play Studio One

When you were on Saxon the UK emcee thing was getting big. So you were there when Peter King created the fastchat and things like that?

My God, we helped to create that. Peter King and I, we grew up together as kids, round the corner. If it was bicycle fixing or football or cricket in the park, we grew up together. All those guys like Peter King, like Mellow, I don’t know if you know Mellow? These were like earlier guys around the sound system. Your Levi’s to your Papa San and your Colonel and all of that, a lot of those guys came later on. We had created something around the sound system that a lot of those guys kind of drifted to, they kind of wandered into it.

Tell me about how you met the producer of your early recordings Barry Boom.

I knew of Barry Boom from the One Blood band and that was very much our groundation of English reggae music. That lovers rock scene – Carrol Thompson, Janet Kay - One Blood was maybe even before that. He only lived a stone’s throw, a few roads away. I wanted to evolve from the sound system into recording. My brother-in-law was working at a record store and dealing directly with Barry Boom. I was getting a lot of notice and people talking about us from the sound system and my brother-in-law would talk to him about it and suggest that we should record. Then my mum kept asking Barry Boom “Help him out, now”, you know? We came together and based on the name I had around the sound system and the music changing to a different kind of reggae, One Blood wanted that kind of edge coming from the sound system. I guess it was a win-win situation when the two of us came together to take out a little bit of work money and spend it on going to the studio. I didn’t have the experience, he had the experience of how to sit down and write a verse, a chorus, a bridge, put the chords together. I learnt a lot from Barry Boom.

You and Barry Boom are credited as producers on Papa Levi’s 1984 hit Mi God, Mi King. Tell me about your involvement - did the success of that tune in Jamaica give you an idea about the kind of success you could achieve yourself?

Maxi PriestMost definitely. I can remember being on the sound system when Levi was deejaying it and I suggested to Barry that we needed to record the song. Going to Levi’s house and dragging him out of his bed. He was sleeping and we’d booked studio time - in those days you paid by hour for studio, it’s not like the computer thing you have here today. He wasn’t interested in recording, he was only interested in sound system, in keeping it groundation. I begged him and we recorded this song and we achieved a number one in Jamaica, to my knowledge the first time we were able to send anything back to Jamaica to achieve a number one, for him to go to Reggae Sunsplash to get a ten minute standing ovation. We thought “Wow, we must have something to offer them” then immediately he was signed to Island Records. I remember my brother, Barry Boom and myself involved, gave him the contract and said “You do what’s best for you. If you want all of us to sign as a unit, we’ll do that or if you want to just go and fly with it then do so” and that’s what he did.

But just a year later you were signed to Virgin and releasing your first album You’re Safe.

Well, again based on the success we were having on the sound system, the cassette tapes were going all over the place, all over the world. Still today people come up to me with cassettes from Saxon days. A guy called Erskine Thompson from Birmingham, a radio disc jockey guy from BBC radio, he did a lot of enquiring about what we were doing. He came down and told me that there were four or five different level companies that wanted to sign me for what we were doing. Come on, you can imagine I just jumped at it. I signed to Virgin Records and we did our first album and immediately we achieved some success. We went back in and renegotiated and found ourselves in the position of making records.

I learnt so much from Aswad and I guess they must have learnt something from me as well

In 1986 you worked with Aswad on your second album Intentions. I’ll flip the Levi question - do you think the direction that you were going in and the success you were having, gave them an idea of where they wanted to go with their later pop direction?

I like the sound of that. I like what you said there and I’d like to think so, yeah. Because Aswad then was more on a rootsier kind of tip, if I may say so. More of a chanting drum and bass kind of thing. Then after they did the album with me it kind of went Don’t Turn Around, those kind of tunes. Each one teaches one. I learnt so much from Aswad and I guess they must have learnt something from me as well.

Tell me a bit about how you linked with Sly and Robbie in 1988 for your self-titled third album.

Sly and Robbie are a serious foundation of the reggae music industry. So when we were with this major record company and we had some money to spend, my dream was to record in Jamaica by any means necessary anyway. When we got all the finances together we spoke to Sly and Robbie. Again a pioneer like Erskine Thompson was the inspiration for a lot of the success of Maxi Priest. He had first-hand dealings with Sly and Robbie from Island Records. I would always tell him “I can’t wait to record in Jamaica. I can’t wait to do some tracks with Sly and Robbie down there” and he would always say “Don’t worry. It’s going to happen”. He would walk into the record companies and preach for us and create avenues that would never in a million years have ever happened.

Then it just kept getting bigger and bigger. By 1990’s Bonafide you were linking with Soul II Soul.

Obviously you know that the Soul II Soul album was a monster. Soul II Soul are huge British pioneers in this music industry. The impact that they have made across the world will live forever. After I did a few albums down the road I just thought it would be a natural progression for me and Soul II Soul to work together. Also Nellee Hooper, I just thought it would be a natural progression because the way I saw it, we’re all in this thing together and if footballers can play together, why can’t we work together?

Soul II Soul are huge British pioneers in this music industry. The impact that they have made across the world will live forever

You said earlier in the interview that the music was your identity because you were caught between Jamaica and England, almost standing at the crossroads. But it must have been a very exciting time for you and Soul II Soul and that music that stood at the crossroads to be making such international waves.

I can’t tell you how I felt at that time, I just felt like we were moving a souped up steam roller. We were rapidly tearing down barriers in front of us. I say barriers because that’s how I felt. We were doing something, we were making a move for the progression of our folks.

The UK reggae industry hasn’t replicated the same success in recent time. Why do you think that is?

The ballgame has changed, a lot of goalposts have moved. That’s what people don’t understand. The people that run the music business, that have been running it for many years, have been controlling this thing and moving it, into the position they need to manipulate the situation. When you look at major companies like Sony, they’re the ones that brought the whole thing into the CD world and then now into the internet world. What you have to understand is that we as a people have to support the thing for it to stay alive. We can’t just keep supporting it by mouth alone, we have to go out there and purchase records. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Maxi Priest, it could be Buju Banton, Burning Spear. If that’s what we want to lead us, then we have to support it. It’s of such a value to our households, to our groundation, to our young kids, and now it’s all over the place and we’re getting a lot of negativity through it as well.

Why in the 90s did you decide to slow down on your output?

Well, I’ve always been in this game for quality and not quantity and we’d been trying to do an album every three years. I got caught up in the change of the music and therefore you have to re-evaluate the situation and figure out how you’re going to position yourself back in it, not necessarily just jump up and put records out on the internet. The internet is like a massive sea and it’s easy for you to go from your bedroom and put a track up on the internet, but it’s easy for some whales to come along and just swallow it up with the other portions of fishes that there are in the sea. Also I think that a lot of people are still not fully educated in respect of downloads and how to really buy music from the internet – a lot of our hardcore folks supporting within the reggae music.

We were moving a souped up steam roller. We were rapidly tearing down barriers in front of us

So why was the time right now to come back with a new album?

The time was right because people were knocking on my door going “Yo Priest, wha gwaan? What you up to?” Beres is always telling me “Oh my youth, do a tune with VP them” and I thought this is where I needed to be. I needed to bring the thing back home, then start turning the wheel over again. It’s just been amazing. I feel like maybe some people were missing me. Going to HMV today and doing the signing, I never really expected the turnout that we got down there. I never expected to the response at some of these major radio stations. There’s some different kinds of music out there right now. A bigger pitch playing with different styles of music. It’s very easy to get lost, but I’m getting some love. If I get some more love I’ll do another record (laughs). If I don’t then I won’t.

(laughs) It’s nice to be in a position to do that, I guess.

Yeah, self-praise is no recommendation. I’m in this because people have supported me. I wouldn’t be in it if it was just me standing up there going “Yo, I’m me there with my name”. There has to be a level of support for you, for me, for any of us to maintain or sustain in this.

This new album has some familiar people from your career like Sly and Robbie, Beres, Handel Tucker, but it’s also got some new people as well.

Yes! But that just goes to show you how broad reggae is. You’re getting reggae mixed out of Sweden now, you’re getting out of France, you’re getting it out of Barbados, Trinidad. All of these different places are creating good reggae music. That just goes to show you the appreciation for reggae music.

We talked about deejays when you started and through your career you worked with some of the best. What’s the difference between working with a Papa Levi, to working with a Shabba Ranks, to working with a Shaggy, to working with an Agent Sasco today?

Well, that’s difficult. Back then was a different time. We had a different sense of purpose, a different way of looking at things. When I worked with Shabba it was a part of me endorsing him and him endorsing me, one for an international side of things and one for a groundation of reggae music. Also because I came from sound system I always wanted to do something for the deejays and bring the deejays to the mainstream, or any other stream that you can think of, because we need to be heard and there’s some excellent deejays that are not being heard.

Looking back on your career, you took a path very like that of Jimmy Cliff a generation before, not just because you both sang Cat Stevens’ Wild World, but in terms of expanding the palate of what reggae music is about.

I don’t mind being in that category, I love that. When I came into the business I always looked to the people like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, the Wailers. The way they spread their wings outside the box. Music to me is sometimes like painting. You paint your picture and you’ve got some red, gold and green on there but you’ve also got some blue on there, so other folks can feel like “OK, my colour’s up them. It’s a part of me too. They’re welcoming me to this music” so they support it. So when you say that I’m in the same kind of category as Jimmy Cliff, I see that as a compliment. That’s where we need to be as reggae music.

How much do the different genres that you’ve sung in go back to your sound system background – the versatility and being able to change and take on the things and improvise – and how much comes from your musical background before sound?

I learnt a lot from sound system but it’s also how I was brought up. My brothers and sisters influences. I remember my sisters were die-hard fans of Jackson Five, The Beatles and The Osmonds. Cutting right through that my brothers would play some Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, so I see those people as icons, pioneers, legends. When somebody speaks of you as being a part of them, you can only say “Wow, thank you”.

Finally, you’re related to Jacob Miller. You must have got some of your music from the same place as him.

It’s very much true that I’m related to Jacob Miller. His father and my father are two brothers, so we’re actually first cousins. I’m related to Fred Locks, I’m related to Heavy D, I’m related to Colin Powell…

You’re related to Colin Powell? I’d heard the others but I hadn’t heard that one.

Well, my mum’s sister is married into Powell. Also my Elliot family and Senior family is connected to Powell family. We could run an army if we want!


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