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Interview: Duane Stephenson (2014) Part 1

Interview: Duane Stephenson (2014) Part 1

Interview: Duane Stephenson (2014) Part 1

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"Less than a year after the video was shot, three people in the video are now deceased"


During the seven years it has taken August Town’s Duane Stephenson to create three albums many a reggae singer would have output twice that at least. But the man with the regal voice and an ear for soft roots music that crosses markets has been busy doing more than just recording.

Back in 2010, as his second album Black Gold was released, he toured with Aston “Familyman” Barrett’s Wailers. A songwriter as well as a singer, he has written for the likes of Luciano and Jah Cure (who he still pens with today). He is a philanthropist – who has assisted the UN World Food Program and continues to help schools in Jamaica. For, despite his sophisticated sound, encouraged by producer and family friend Dean Fraser, Duane has never forgotten his origins in the troubled ghetto of August Town – which inspired legacy song From August Town and debut longplayer of the same name.

He is also painstaking – spending days on end perfecting his lyrics until they are to his liking. Recent third album Dangerously Roots expanded his palate of rhythm makers from Dean Fraser alone to an assortment including Winta James, Christopher Birch, Donovan Germain and Clive Hunt. The extra time it takes to build a record of quality from so many sources has resulted in Stephenson’s best yet – smooth and soulful whilst harder and more rootsy than before.

In conversation Duane is stately, careful, compassionate and eloquent – just like his music. Angus Taylor spoke to him about his career, creative methods and the world events that affect his works. Part one of the interview deals with his early days.

Duane Stephenson

Where are you now? Are you in Kingston?

I’m in Kingston, I’m in August Town. Basically just went on down the road to get some stuff for my daughter and back home now. I was born here, this is all I know. I lived away from August Town for about three and a half years before I moved back after my father passed away and I’ve been here ever since.

What was your first experience of music?

I think it was basically going out with my uncle. His name is Michael Rutherford, he was a member of the Sonny Bradshaw Band, then he moved on to the Rhythm Kings band, so I used to follow him to all the rehearsals and stuff like that. So that was my first look at the industry of music and I was just a boy then, I was just looking on. For most of the school years I didn’t really get too much into music. I was doing all the other stuff that young boys do, you know? Trying to get into sports, listening to the latest songs of course, trying to get to the girls, stuff like that (laughs).

What kind of sports were you into?

I played basketball for Tivoli Gardens Comprehensive School but I was also in the family business of tennis. I had two uncles – one that was ranked number one and respected under 18s and one was ranked number one in the Caribbean at the time. Michael and Victor Rutherford, so I was in the tennis business also as a kid but I knew I didn’t belong in that business (laughs). You just know your strengths. I had to work too hard to be a good tennis player. I had one other cousin my age that used to play and he spent most of his time playing football, soccer and then he comes and I could never beat him. It was a waste of time, man! (laughs)

I was born in August Town, this is all I know

So the connections to your uncle were live performance and stage show. How much was sound system a part of growing up for you?

Sound system was a very important part of growing up for me. Truth is I live directly across the road from the home base of Silver Hawk sound system. If you know anything about the culture of sound system - one of the original dancehall sounds was Silver Hawk. I live right directly across the road, and every weekend was a dance, every two weeks was a major dance.

Half the songs that I knew, most of the other kids at school didn’t know them because one, I was right across from the dance and two, some of those songs weren’t necessarily songs that were able to be played on the radio at the time. There was a total separation - there was music for radio and then there was dancehall music. Dancehall music was anything from the latest lovers rock to the dirtiest Shabba Ranks. I mean it’s nothing like dirty today as in spelled out but you know, certain songs were just not fit for radio play, so there was a separation there. But it definitely played a great impact because as I say, I never had a choice.

So apart from your uncle, were there any artists in the community that you grew up around?

Yellowman used to live down the road from us, which is down by Jungle Twelve, he used to spend some time down there, so he was a resident artist. There were other artists from like Abyssinians, one of the members used to live in August Town. I’m not sure of his name. I know that he used to be down there definitely and Beenie Man pretty much was going around, singing all sort of things. Beenie Man was basically a boy at the time, walking up and down barefoot, singing on Silver Hawk and you could see him at the live shows singing (sings) “When Steely a mix and Balsie a play, Beenie Man a deejay”.

The thing is sometimes dubplates happen live, where the sound system brings in the artist and they just try to kill the sound with the artist, right there on the spot, you know what I mean? So it was that kind of vibe. There was that burst of energy and as I said, because of Silver being right across the road from us of course the latest artists were always there. There was the emergence of people like Capleton but in those days he wasn’t singing his Rasta songs, he was singing Bumbo Red and all those tunes. He used to live down at Tavern, which is just a stone’s throw away. It’s less than 20 minutes walking to where he was so he was always in August Town. Then there were people like Tiger. His mother lived near where I lived, so he always used to be in the community, always attending all the dances, because he lives in Stand Pipe which is five minutes driving away. So there was this energy that was always there.

Then, as well as what must have been a musical education for you from your uncle’s band and the Silver Hawk, you studied the performing arts as one of the Cathy Levy Players.

Well, it’s a club but it functions like a school. When we’d leave high school in the days we used to get there like 3.30pm for classes in the weeks and then on a Saturday it was club meetings slash classes, so we had dance, drama, musical theatre… it was basically a theatre organisation for youths. It functions like a school and at the end of the year we have a major performance season for like a month long. You’d have to audition for all the pieces, it functions just like a little mini Broadway. Nothing was given to you, you know?

Because of all the work I’d have to be putting in, that’s where I learned the discipline side of music. Theatre is a very disciplined place. As much as I did theatre, it was never my comfort zone. It was never what I wanted because unfortunately I wanted what I saw Peter Tosh doing on stage singing with the machine going, guitar, and two background singers and all the smoke going around, you know? That’s what I wanted but it’s a good place to start nevertheless.

How did you get into the club?

Through the process of audition actually. A friend of mine who I played basketball with got into the club. As far as he was concerned when it comes to girls it was like shooting fish in a barrel. He said the girls in the club to the men were like 4:1 (laughs). But once he got there he realised that it wasn’t that kind of a place. It was a disciplined place, an organised place. You spent most of your time keeping busy. We used to say that we were part of a cult because of the amount of time.

So it took me away from everything that was happening at the time in August Town. It may have been a lucky thing too because it was around the time that things started getting rough in the neighbourhood. The gang wars started tripping and all of a sudden people from Bryce Hill can’t got to Jungle Twelve, can’t go down to the bottom river, can’t go to Dread Heights because there’s a war going on with Gola.

But I concentrated all my time and effort because school ended for me at about 2:30pm so I tried to get to club for the first classes at like 3.30pm, so that gave me one hour to manoeuvre and on a Saturday I used to be there for 10 o’clock was the first class, then there was a club meeting at 12 to 2, and then other classes after. And sometimes on a Sunday you’d have to go in for a rehearsal if you had a little gig or something like that, so most of my energies were concentrated there and not in and around August Town. I was kind of at a disconnect at that time.

Living in August Town you get a certain kind of respect because of the decisions you make

How often were your movements restricted by the turf wars around August Town?

For me, not much. Because as you get to August Town you pretty much get to where I live, you know? To get to the heart of the community you’ve got to pass where I live to go down the road. But there were a lot of divisions happening at that time. I was one person that, because I was always singing in the community, I pretty much had a pass. People knew that I was never involved in any of these wars at any level, not as a boy, not as a young man, and no, certainly not as a grown adult. That was never me.

The truth is, living in these areas you get a certain kind of respect because of the decisions you make. So therefore I still can go to any corner in the community and I’m perfectly all right, you know? There were no borders set up for me because everybody knows who they’re looking for, so to speak, because we all grew up together, went to the same churches, schools, or on the playing field at the University of the West Indies, so it’s not as if these aren’t people who don’t know one another. But because of divisions, with the involvement of money coming through drugs from America it started gangs along the political lines, there was a whole mix-up going on there. But I never got into politics, never got into guns, never got into the gangs because of the disconnect that I had, possibly, while I was at the Cathy Levy Players. Because that started when I was about 16, going on 17 and lasted until I got to 20.

Did it affect any of your friends?

It did affect them. As a matter of fact, on the album Dangerously Roots there’s a song called Run For Your Life that I did about the community. I shot the video last year, but we had to change many of the things on the album in order to get the sound that we wanted. So now the video is unreleased and three people that were in the video are now dead. One got shot by the police and two others were murdered. It’s still unreleased, and less than a year after the video was shot, three people in the video are now deceased.

Who, if anyone, brought you into Rastafari?

Duane StephensonI think it’s being around people like Glen Browne and what is now the Blak Soil Band. Because when we were coming up in the music, myself and Tarrus Riley, of course Tarrus was always a Rastafari and he grew up in that faith. But with me I think it’s being around them, not that I was really far from it, because of my family by extension. My uncles were Rastafarian, at university all the 12 Tribe people used to play football there, and then I knew people from Dread Heights and all their fathers and uncles were Rastafarians because that was the Rastafarian settlement in Kingston at the time, Dread Heights.

So because of that I had most of the beliefs, most of the practises, I had the mentality. But I think it was being around Glen Browne as I mentioned before, he probably had the strongest influence on me through music. That’s even before the coming together of the Blak Soil Band, because in rehearsal we were just in the nurturing process between myself and Tarrus Riley. By then I was in a group called To Isis and Tarrus was just putting together his first album as a youth, called Challenges that he did when he was about 17.

How did you join To Isis?

To Isis were friends that I met in Cathy Levy Club. We were brethren from there. We did a lot of work on stage together and then we just decided. We got to that age where we knew we couldn’t afford to pay these bills by scraping from what our parents were giving us anymore, because our parents pretty much weren’t giving us anymore. We were at that age where we needed to support ourselves, so we decided that we needed to make the next step. We formed the group To Isis in order to make the next step. It was a support system and it was the look that people liked because at that time there were many groups going round in Jamaica. There were groups like ARP and TOK was just coming up at that point in time singing R&B music, so it was the era for that in Jamaica.

What kind of music were you doing in that group?

Mainly dancehall and hip hop influenced music and R&B. It was never something that I truly loved. But then we started to make the transition and learn a lot more about Jamaican music, so we started doing some rocksteady and ska in our repertoire and realised that people were really digging that. But I was the only person that was singing that music, because people liked it. When time came to sing the local music like the rocksteady songs and stuff like that, no-one else in the group was willing to sing those kind of songs, so it was all up to me. Nobody else like doing it but I guess that was just training for the road ahead because that was what I truly loved and I didn’t mind.

You’ve said in previous interviews that Dean Fraser brought your uncle into the business, so I guess Dean Fraser was around?

He was always around. The truth is our first professional recording was done with Dean as a member of the group. Then throughout my recording career I’ve always been in the studio with Dean throughout the first two albums and even a major part of Dangerously Roots. And outside of being in To Isis and even my personal music, he introduced me to writing for other people and I was always singing background music in his ensemble. We had a group of eight of us that we went around, I’d say between 2005 straight through to 2010, we did most of the background on many of the records. Most of the records, if not about 75% of the major records that came out of Jamaica.

So how did To Isis finish and you come to go solo?

I think the time had come. After being in To Isis for about eight years I think that I did most of what I could do at the time. People were growing musically and everybody now had their own views on what the music was supposed to be, what it was supposed to sound like and as it grows there will be that competitiveness for control in terms of directions. I think we got to that point, everybody was now versed in what they do and realised what they wanted. Roots music is what I wanted to do, and the truth is that I had to make that move. Because without making that move of course, albums like From August Town possibly wouldn’t have been - because that was musically the story of my journey.

Jimmy Cliff is the greatest vocalist ever from out of Jamaica

Was Dean Fraser encouraging you in the direction you wanted to go in from when you left the group?

Definitely. At that point he knew which direction I wanted to go in because most of the recordings that the group was doing were influenced by the direction I wanted, because I was the strongest writer in the group. But not everybody was comfortable with going that road. When I left the group and started to work upon a solo project he said “Yunno, you just need to be comfortable about yourself and create your own identity” and that’s what I did, through music.

In terms of your identity, who are your singing inspirations?

I’ve always considered Jimmy Cliff the greatest vocalist ever from out of Jamaica. That’s my view. But other than that I liked people like Peter Tosh, his passion for the music, what he was about – the rebel edge. Not that I don’t like Bob Marley music but Peter Tosh is basically my artist. I was very influenced by people like Garnett Silk, people who are great singers like even Sanchez. Sanchez is a singer who’s done all the R&B hits and everything and has done it his own way, and I love it that way.

So those are the people who really influenced me like that, but aside from that I listen to music as a whole. When the NSYNC praise was going on I had NSYNC cassettes, Backstreet Boys cassettes, I even had Britney Spears (laughs).

I was into British music, Oasis and all those groups. I used to always tune in to all the British hits because I realised that to me musically British music is superior. It has a little bit more intelligence to it because it seemed to me like American music is always a fad, a phase, something happening now, it’s bouncy, it’s nice, and then it’s gone. British music to me stands the test of time. You look at the legendary bands, most of them are British. From the Queen to Rolling Stones, even U2 is Irish but they did most of their recordings in England. You find that it lasts longer. It’s more universal, to me it has more body to it.

What about writing? Who would you say are the great writers?

Well, of course people like Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley clearly is a great writer, and Jimmy Cliff has done some great writing in himself. I don’t know much about American writers to be truthful, so I will probably go on and Britain will still be at the edge. You know, I love Rolling Stones, and as I say, their music just has so much more to it.

I always tell people that I sound like a Baptist pastor

How about Bob Andy?

Bob Andy, he is definitely a great Jamaican writer. I recently learned more about him. Because a lot of the songs that he did were done over, so a lot of his songs that people think are other people’s, people like Barrington Levy, Gregory Isaacs, and even Peter Tosh. There’s one more person in Jamaica… he did that song (sings) “Every day my heart is sore”… Joe Higgs. He is definitely one of Jamaica’s greatest writers.

How would you describe your own voice?

I always tell people that I sound like a Baptist pastor (laughs). For some strange reason it seems like more wailing than singing but it is who I am - so I don’t try to fight it, man.

Read part 2 of this exclusive interview coming soon.

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