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Interview: Horseman

Interview: Horseman

Interview: Horseman

By on - Photos by Jasper Clarke - Comment

"I just do this to please the people them"

Sampler

In the 1970s and 80s, when London was a reverberation of Kingston – many of the Jamaican reggae scene’s key phenomena had their English answer. There were sounds called Coxsone and Duke Reid, rhythms built by a duo to rival Sly and Robbie called Mafia and Fluxy, even a drummer turned emcee with a Horse in his name.

Like his equine equivalent Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Winston “Horseman” Williams has been in demand as a drummer for his 30 year career - while being respected but under-recorded as a microphone talker. That began to change when he met Brighton producer/engineer Mike Pelanconi AKA Prince Fatty. Horseman became Fatty’s frequent musical compatriot and guest on his works with punk progeny/neo-lovers rock singer Hollie Cook.

In November 2014 he finally released his first ever solo album, Dawn of the Dread. Produced by Fatty it featured appearances from UK based reggae legends he has drummed or rubbed shoulders with such as Tippa Irie, Winston Reedy and Earl 16. An obvious landmark in Horseman’s career – it also found Fatty leaving the warmth of his 1970s analogue recreations for the kind of up-tempo 80s computerised ragga rhythms Horseman rode back in 1985.

Horseman

“I’m very, very happy and very, very pleased about it. It’s about time – at last!” says Horseman on the phone to United Reggae one Sunday in November. He couldn’t be more different from the garrulous and opinionated Horsemouth. For a man who weaves words for a living he is modest and succinct. Considering that he hits things as a trade he is surprisingly soft spoken. His memory for names and dates is not precise – but one senses he’s spent more time getting on with life than documenting it. He is friendly and accommodating yet it takes a while for him to open up – perhaps because talking about himself for an hour doesn’t feel like a very natural thing to do.
 
Williams was born in Waterloo in 1963, growing up further south in reggae’s heartland of Brixton. His parents came over in from Jamaica between 1959 and 1960 – he isn’t sure – and both were active in music. His mother was a singer who recorded as Girlie with Laurel Aitken and Pama Dice but stopped once she settled. “She was a churchgoer, a Jamaican Christian - she was always going to church. So after about seven or eight songs she didn’t carry on with that.”

His father ran a sound system – although Horseman doesn’t remember the name.

“Something B – something like that. It was just a house set but it was still a sound system. It played in Brixton and certain other places.”
 
Fittingly, the child of two musical parents was given a miniature drumkit in his nursery when he was aged three or four.

“That was my first experience of playing a musical instrument. That was the first thing I saw and I had a go at that! I could just bang around. Then as I started growing up I started to understand the meaning of playing a drumkit”.

Horseman’s rhythmic inspirations included Lloyd Knibb of the Skatalites

(“I was listening to certain rolls and the in betweens until I had that locked”), Carlton Barrett from the Wailers, Sly Dunbar, Santa Davis and the late Style Scott. “The way I play – I’m playing all those guys in one. So it doesn’t matter what song or project – they’re going to get it. I’ve got all the flavours in that.”

Lloyd Knibb, Carlton Barrett, Sly Dunbar, Santa Davis and Style Scott.The way I play – I’m playing all those guys in one

What about Horsemouth? Did you listen to him?

“Yes. He’s another one as well. If he’s reading this – sorry Leroy!” he laughs “Leroy Horsemouth Wallace – another guy who is a very wicked man indeed on the drums.”

Horseman actually got his nickname at Kennington Boys School because he used to be a fast runner. “One of the boys said “Jeez – you run like a horse!” But when I was playing the drums now, through the style and so forth for some reason they called me Horsemouth. That kind of changed when I became a dad at 23 and my name was Daddy Horseman. After that it was just plain Horseman.”

A school friend was recording at the newly established studio of Guyanese-born electronics wizard Mad Professor. He invited Horseman to a session as 1979 was becoming 1980 and the youngster’s drumming ability put him in on the stool for his inaugural tune – a dubplate of Professor’s historic cut of Kunte Kinte.

Meanwhile he had joined two bands: Son Of Man In Roots (“It was like a UK Bob Marley and the Wailers. I was the youngest one there”) and then Aquizim (“Sandra Cross used to sing with that band was well”). A little after, “two guys came up to me, said I was a good drummer and asked me if they could have my service.”

HorsemanThe band they wanted him to join was called Reggae Regulars. Following their first LP for CBS Records the group had suffered a schism and needed a new motor. Horseman would beat on their third (or second, depending on whose side of the split you listen to) album Ghetto Rock, engineered by Mad Professor and released in 1984 by Chris Cracknell’s Greensleeves. “I’m only on four tracks – two tracks from the A and two tracks from the B. The rest of them were from the original drummer.” Nevertheless, making a longplayer was “another step for my CV.”

No reggae ensemble in London could live by their recordings alone, so through Reggae Regulars Horseman began backing big Jamaican stars who came to town. “My first international artist was Max Romeo. Then it was Barrington Levy, Wailing Souls – the original Wailing Souls when there were four guys – there are only two now! Michigan and Smiley, Eek-a-mouse and quite a few artists. We had a package of four artists from Jamaica and we started touring around Europe. When we got back the band kind of died down for some reason and I was doing studio work and picking up the mic for myself.”

Like many a youth growing in a sound system culture, Horseman used to sneak from his mum’s house and go to the dance. “You had the sound system and the guys on the microphone doing their stuff so I said “Yeah, I might try that”. “

The guys on the microphone were doing their stuff so I said “Yeah, I might try that”

One of the emcees that stuck out was Ricky Ranking who toasted on Brixton rig Nasty Rockers. “I started listening to him because he was like a UK Josey Wales or Charlie Chaplin. Whereas the vibes I had, they were comparing me to Ranking Toyan, Admiral Bailey and General Trees – so it kind of fit in.”

Horseman cut his teeth on various local sounds including Nasty Rockers, Dread Diamonds, Taurus and occasional jaunts on Coxsone’s set. One night, Horseman is unsure if it was in Birmingham or Reading, he was showcasing a horse race style titled the Giddy Up. “Afterwards a guy called Lloyd Roberts - who had a sound called Sir Lloyd back in the day - came up and said he wanted to do a tune. We did that song at a studio called JJ’s in Balham and they said that instead of digital they wanted to do it live – with musicians instead of on the computer drum.”

In a move that forecast his multitasking future Horseman had the honour of deejaying and drumming on the first disc to bear his name. “Aswad had just left the studio so when I came in I just saw this kit – the Simmons electric kit just like Sly Dunbar used. I had a go at that and that’s when the tune came.” Decades later the song would be reworked by Prince Fatty as Do The Horsemove.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s listened to his cheerful flowing style on the Hollie Cook record, Horseman lists his biggest deejay influences as “U Roy, I Roy, Big Youth in a different style. There were quite a few of them but that was the main three.”

But similarly to his drumming, he absorbed lessons from multiple generations. “You just mix and blend. Sometimes you hear that [U Roy] style and sometimes we go into the 80s ragga and then you’ve got the bashment. You must be versatile – you can’t keep on the one dimension. You need lots of flavours. Old school, the middle school and now.”

You need lots of flavours. Old school, the middle school and now

After Giddy Up, Horseman cut a side called Chicken Flap with his colleague Ricky Ranking on the Magic Shoot! imprint. (“That tune was done in Brixton when I was with the sound called Mighty Dread Diamonds. I was building some music for the sound and decided to build a tune with Ricky Ranking. But everybody was angry and they said they wanted me to pay a fee or something like that.”) He voiced Horseman Rock for trombonist Henry “Buttons” Tenyue and Follow Me on the Digi Tec label from Gary Lewis: “I was 19 when I did that song. After that I went to Jamaica.”

On his virgin trip to the island in 1988, Horseman got the chance to visit the fabled King Jammys studio. He never recorded a session, though, due to his steadfast refusal to sing the slackness of the day. “I was with a sound called Guvenor General Mobile Studio and the guy from the sound paid for the flight. I went to Jamaica and fitted in like a glove for some reason. I didn’t feel intimidated. We went to do some dub cutting at King Jammys cutting studio… When they heard my voice they wanted me to do some gun lyrics and I said “No. Really and truly I don’t glamourize that”. Then they wanted me to do some sex lyrics and I said “I don’t glamourize that either”. They were like “But you sound like Admiral Bailey” and I said “Respect to that but I don’t go into that chapter. I just do this to please the people them”.”

They wanted me to do some gun lyrics and I said “I don’t glamourize that”

Yet his time in Jamaica had a positive effect on his deejaying abilities - which he showcased as soon as he got off the return flight. “When I came back my sound Taurus was playing on the night I landed with Jamdown Rockers and Asha World Movement. So I put my suitcase in my uncle’s pub called the Coach and Horses on Coldharbour Lane and went straight to the dance but nobody recognised me because I was so dark from the sunshine. When I opened my mouth someone shouted “Hey, Horseman’s here!” and people said “What are you talking about? He’s still in Jamaica!”

“I don’t know what had happened to my voice but it was deep, it was rich, it was nice.

I had been breathing clean air and soaking up the sunshine. It was my first time and I came back nice and fresh and ready to go. My voice was powerful – a big voice. I still have it now so I have to give thanks and praise for that.”

Horseman’s main means of employment, however, remained at the traps. Before he left for JA he’d been playing with Vincent Napp and Acton’s All Welcome Crew. But in 1989 a call from Harlesden’s famous Ruff Cutt band led to him touring with Gregory Isaacs. “They called me and asked if anything was happening and I said “No, not really”. That was the first time I played with that band – with Gregory.” In the years that followed Horseman would get to back Gregory, Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott and John Holt – all of whom have now passed away. “It was a real honour to play with those guys there.”

Gregory, Alton, Sugar and John Holt – It was a real honour to play with those guys

John Holt was a particular point of pride because Horseman got to perform with the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra – despite some awkward moments in rehearsal. “That was the first time playing with John Holt and with an orchestra! We had to rehearse the link between a couple of the tunes where one went into the next. One of conductors who was the conductor for the Lion King, he got it wrong!” The real conductor of proceedings was Mr Holt. “He’d do a thing like “jiggy jiggy jiggy” - he hears that in the rhythm. So according to how he wanted the rhythm that was how we’d play.”

In 2003, just as the tour with Sir John was winding down, he would meet a laid back skinny engineer named Mike Pelanconi and find a new platform for his words.
“How I met Prince Fatty was I was called to do a session for a group called the Amharic. I can’t remember where the studio was but I had a look around and this studio – it was saying something. So I met the guy, set up the drum kit and made sure it sounded nice and heavy and we started doing some tracks. I decided to say “Do me a favour – can I hear those tracks again please?” and when he played them back I thought “This is it! This is the sound I’ve been waiting for to do some work on. The proper sound. Right. Channel One”. The second time I met Mike was in Willesden when Bubblers, the keyboardist, called me to do a session. So I went down to the studio and who opened the door? Mike. From there that was it. The deal was done before we got ready. Me and Mike were working.”

Horseman

Horseman reached a new generation on Hollie Cook’s acclaimed self-titled debut released by Brighton label Mr Bongo. He even travelled with her band – where he impressed crowds by deejaying and drumming simultaneously. Originally booked for vocals only, fate stepped in. “What happened was when we first started doing the tour there was a sort of argument between the drummer and the bass player. So I had to be music referee like “Sort yourselves out or you’ll upset the singer - get yourselves straight”. So BOOM – the drummer’s gone. Then we got another drummer and the same thing happened. It got so bad that they had to sack the both of them. So I got the call “Horseman, the label want you to play drum”. I said “Don’t fret man, no problem. I played on Hollie’s whole album” so it worked out fine.”

Is this why has it taken him thirty years to put out an album? Is it because he’s good at two things at the same time? “There were chances for me to do an album with certain people but I wasn’t getting that energy. That feedback like they really wanted to do something. Otherwise it would have been out long time. It was just people I didn’t really trust. Whereas working with Prince Fatty is cool. Everything is in order.”

Working with Prince Fatty is cool. Everything is in order

Dawn of the Dread was in progress while he has on the road with Hollie yet his newfound exposure meant he was too busy to finish it. “I was working on this album and then all of a sudden it just kind of stopped dead. I was in demand for shows and studio work. So I said “Alright, no problem, my time will come”. Then earlier this year we went to Thailand. We went to a studio and we just said “This fits”. I think it was just the right time, even though it was overdue. We said “You know what? We’ll do it now.”

It was in Thailand that the decision was made to revamp the project and give it a computer vibe. “All the rhythms changed. It was originally a live album we were going to put out. Me on drums, Mafia, Black Steel, Bubblers and all these guys. But we said [in Thailand] “You know what? We want to make this album fresh” – even though the rhythms were still fresh because we hadn’t played most songs out. So we decided to make over the album fresh, more lively, hitting the 80s era. Every day we went for hours and did the whole keyboard stuff and the whole Roland drum pad and just found all the vibes from them. Then we came back from Thailand and went straight to Mike’s studio in Brighton and put the live guitar, live organ, percussion and drums. We voiced the tunes again because the mic was better – a big studio mic where you could hear a pin drop.”

The result is not what people traditionally associate with Pelanconi’s productions – which were previously very rooted in the 70s dub age. However, it was exactly what Horseman required – because going forwards in time for Mike took Horseman back to the sounds where he began. “I’m representing UK reggae. And I wanted an album that was full on, vibrant, and had energy. I didn’t want it to be strings and drums. I wanted everything to be on there so people will say “Oh, yes, this is it!” Because they’ve been waiting for a while now. I want them to be happy again.”

I wanted an album that was full on, vibrant, and had energy

Three tunes were added to the original tracklist – Computer, No Ina Dat and The Yout – a collaboration with legendary emcee Tippa Irie. Horseman has been drumming for his friend Tippa since the late 90s when they toured Australia (“From there Tippa knew that Horseman could play drums – as he has told me enough times since. Thanks Tippa!”).

More recently he sat in the drum stool for the Tippa Irie and Friends last October at Camden’s Jazz Café – featuring guest appearances from Peter Hunnigale, Peter Spence and Lloyd Brown. It was nice to see all those artists together on a sold out UK show. “Yeah of course man. It is very hard to do shows in London because most of the venues are closed down now. Out of London there are places that keep shows. We want to have more UK reggae and to keep it nice and clean and tidy. We can’t do what artists in some other countries do – where they’re fighting on the stage and swearing on their songs, cussing each other, carrying weapons and all that. That’s a waste of energy. You have to do the right thing. Music is supposed to be love man. But some people take it as a game and then people lose their lives. I don’t go into that channel there.”

Fighting on stage, cussing each other, carrying weapons. That’s a waste of energy

London and specifically Brixton has been in the news a lot lately as an example of the city’s gentrification. Though Horseman feels the shifts he doesn’t condemn them. “Brixton is changing.” He laughs “It’s still got the vibes in there but, especially like on a Sunday when you’ve got all sorts of organic stores and things like that. It used to be that on a Sunday Brixton was closed. You’ve got new shops opening, new buildings that weren’t there before, and you’ve got tourists coming into Brixton. But I love Brixton. Brixton will always be Brixton but it has changed. All those changes outside the Ritzy – it looks fresher. It’s still got its roots in there. The market is still there. You still see one or two faces you haven’t seen for a long time.”

And there are also changes in the Fatty camp. Following Dawn of the Dread Mike is not working with Mr Bongo any more. But he and Horseman are busier than ever. “Enough things are going on man. Cian Finn, he’s this artist from Ireland and he’s got his album coming that we did – me, Mike and some of the greatest musicians on this earth. We’ve got the Winston Francis album, we’ve got the Big Youth album, we’ve got some dub albums in the pipeline and I think Tippa’s going to do an album with us. There are going to be plenty shows – with the sound system and plus the band. We’ve got the Prince Fatty version of the Gentleman’s Dub Club tune High Grade featuring myself on there, we’ve got the Skints. So everything’s alright man. All proper good.”

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