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Interview: King Jammy

Interview: King Jammy

Interview: King Jammy

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - 1 comment

"I had this urge in me to do music and excel to the top"


It’s a daunting task interviewing someone as crucial in the makeup of reggae and dancehall as Lloyd “King Jammy” James.

Should you concentrate on how he popularised digital music in 1985 by recording Wayne Smith on Under Mi Sleng Teng? Or his earlier days as an engineer apprenticing with King Tubby - who powered the previous decade’s tectonic shift towards dub?

Is it better to focus on his productions – which started in Canada in the early 70s and would dominate when he built his studio at St Lucia Road, Waterhouse in the 1980s? Or his history in sound system – from the birth of ska through to multiple clash wins and the deejay takeover of dancehall?

When United Reggae spoke to a man experienced in nearly every era and facet of the business – we planned on a bit of everything. Unfortunately, by the time we’d finished with the 60s and 70s King Jammy needed go to a meeting so the section from the 1980s onwards is comparatively truncated.

But while there are many more questions we wanted to ask him, it illustrates that King Jammy is ever pressing forward and has limited time to rest on past glories. In fact, his long awaited new dub record with Alborosie and a new Black Uhuru and Friends collaboration album are due to arrive this year…

King Jammy

How did you become interested in electronics as a boy?

I used to live on the same road where King Tubbys had his workshop. Tubbys used to do electronics, so I used to visit his house. I saw him doing his work and I got interested in it. So I started doing some and started learning the trade. This was about 1959.

Which was your favourite sound system when you were growing up in Waterhouse, Kingston 11?

Duke Reid sound system was my favourite sound system. So when I was about 14-15-16 years old I used to ride my bicycle, me and some other guys including Tubbys brother, and we’d go down town to Forrester’s Hall, which was a dancehall. We used to listen to Duke Reid, Prince Buster and Coxsone. Most of those sound systems in the early days, we would ride down from Waterhouse and listen to them. Then King Tubbys built his sound so I used to be around Tubbys sound before I owned my own.

I saw Tubbys doing his work and I got interested in it

You used to build amps for other sounds and this gave you the finance to build your own?

From time to time the other sound systems would carry their amplifiers to be repaired or they’d want a new amp. So we’d just do that for them and charge them to build it.

How did you receive the nickname Jammy?

Jammys was derived from a comic strip character. There is a newspaper in Jamaica called the Daily Gleaner and it used to have a comic strip named Mandrake. There was a guy in it named Jammy. But my brother was the one who used to be named Jammy until he migrated to America and then they passed the name down to me. They said we resembled this comic character Jammy so they started calling us Jammy and the name just stuck. (laughs)

You started your sound system in 1962 – what are your memories of Jamaican independence?

Yes, I started it just before Jamaica got independence from Britain. It was great because we had a lot of celebrations. Plenty of people, thousands of people, went down town in the city and we just marched up and down King Street. It was a full and joyous time.

You must also have some memories of the birth of ska music.

The birth of ska music I remember vaguely. I used to listen to American music before. Coxsone used to go to America and bring down records. He started playing American records on his sound, then he started a studio and starting building ska music and other music. But there was mento before ska and I used to listen to mento before it moved on to ska.

But the first time I heard and witnessed a ska song being made in a studio was at Federal Recording Company on Bell Road. When I used to go to school I used to go by Federal where they used to have a record press. When they had a spoiled record they used to throw it out so I used to go round the back and pick up the spoiled records. One day I heard some music coming from the studio. One of the musicians had opened the back door and the music just came out. It impressed me so I walked around the corner and they opened the door again so I could see the musicians playing in there. I can still remember the song that was playing – it was River To The Bank by Baba Brooks and Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. That was the first song where I had the experience of seeing into a studio and seeing musicians playing live.

I used to go round the back of Federal and pick up the spoiled records

Were you already thinking “I want to do that too” or were you just focused on sound system?

Yes, I wanted to do that as well, but I didn’t have any facilities because at the time King Tubbys didn’t have any studio. I just loved it because I had my little sound system and to see a record being made live really impressed me.

Who was the first deejay on your sound? When did Lizzy start deejaying there?

It was like two guys. It was a guy named Carlie who was one of my friends and who is living right next door to this studio right now. Then there was another guy named Tony who is in England right now. Lizzy came after them. Lizzy came when my sound became bigger in like 1969-70 time.

Why did you migrate to Toronto, Canada in 1970? What was the music scene like there when you arrived?

I had a girlfriend who migrated to Canada. She invited me to come so I went. (laughs)

When I arrived in Canada I wasn’t producing any music. Because Tubbys didn’t have his studio at the time. He was just starting to make the building to house his studio. So when I went to Canada the music scene wasn’t anything like what I left in Jamaica. We just used to go to parties and dances and things like that so I decided to build my own sound in Canada. I did it and it was one of the biggest and best sounds in Toronto in those days. We used to play a lot of dances and Tubbys used to send a lot of pre-release records for me. We were the first to play certain songs in those days.

So you were a big part of why Toronto is seen as a historic reggae outpost like London?

Yes, because I was one of the top people in sound system in Canada. I also used to build amplifiers in Canada for other sounds who were clients. I was a very popular person.

You mentioned Tubby sent you tunes. Can you recall when you first heard King Tubbys use the high pass filter?

When I was in Canada his studio was in operation for the first time. So when I was in Canada I heard the high pass filter in most of Bunny Lee’s mixes and the flying cymbals and so on. Jah Jah In Deh In Deh and Move Out Of Babylon and all those songs.

You also did your first production in Canada.

King JammyThere was an artist in Canada called Nana McLean and she was a good singer. I did a sing over of a song called Single Girl with her in Canada. But when I released it, it didn’t do very well over there. It wasn’t a hit or anything like that. So I decided when I came back home I decided to redo it again with Nana Mclean because she came back to Jamaica on a visit. [In 1987] I made Steely and Clevie build a good rhythm and I put her on it and it did well in Jamaica.

You also met your good friend Johnny Osbourne out there.

Yeah man! Me and Johnny Osbourne used to spar over there! I met him in Canada. I only used to listen to one or two of his songs in Jamaica “If a fish would keepeth his mouth shut he wouldn’t get caught” [Fish Mouth] and songs like that. When I went to Canada we became friends because we were abroad and it wasn’t like there were a lot of Jamaicans in Canada in those days so any Jamaican you’d see, you would automatically become close with them. Me and Johnny used to go out and go party and all those things there. We used to go to a lot of parties. By this time I was more popular in the music scene in Canada. I used to go to a lot of studios and do a lot of engineering work and rewire studios and things like that. So when I decided to come back home to Jamaica I told Johnny “I’m going home now” and he followed me a couple of years later. When he came to Jamaica we started doing a lot of recording and that was the era that really bust him out.

What was behind the decision for you to come back to Jamaica in 1976?

I visited Jamaica in 1974 and I saw that it was looking more viable for me to come back home. In Canada I wasn’t earning much money so I said I was going to come back. Bunny Lee came to see me in Canada and he kind of pushed me a little harder. He saw me there and said “Jammys, you should come back home because you can produce tune and all them things” so I decided to come back home.

When I came back home I went back to Tubbys and he said to me that he wanted me to control the studio because Philip Smart went to America and he didn’t have a resident engineer at the time. Pat Kelly was sitting in at the time and Tubbys had to do some of the work himself. Pat Kelly is really a singer, he is not really an engineer, but he knows about engineering work. So he was helping out King Tubbys until I came back and took over the reins. I just fitted in and became the resident engineer at King Tubbys.

Bunny Lee said "Jammys, you should come back home because you can produce tune"

You worked as closely with King Tubby as anyone – what was he like as a person?

King Tubbys was a great man. He loved to invent things. He loved to make new things. He loved to venture into inventing things. And he was a quiet person. A very quiet person.

He had a reputation for being quiet. As an engineer it’s good to listen.

As an engineer King Tubbys had his style and he loved quality work. So I used to listen to him very keenly and watch him while he worked. I’ll tell you something – because I had this urge in me to do music and to excel to the top it was easy for me to learn a lot of things from Tubbys just by watching him. And King Tubbys was such a great motivator so whenever he was doing something I was always inclined to watch him and to listen to him keenly. His style of mix – I got a lot of that style from him.

The creativity of what you and Tubby were doing wasn’t just in your mixing – it was also in what you did to previously existing equipment.

Yes, building amplifiers and customising them. That was one of the main areas of creativeness for Tubbys. He was one of the first sound systems in Jamaica to play with delay and reverb. He built his own delay on his sound system so he was one of the first to incorporate a delay and reverb for his sound.

There has been a lot of debate over the years as to who created the first dub recording. What’s your perspective?

Well I heard dub records before King Tubbys. But I would say King Tubbys more revolutionised the dub era. Because I heard Errol Thompson used to do dub music but it wasn’t like King Tubbys though. It was just that the voice was out of the music but you’d still hear the rhythm section and the piano and everything in it. King Tubbys, now, he used to dub the music like drum and bass and echo reverb and delay washing all over. He was the first to revolutionise it that way. I know that King Tubbys really did the first roots in a rub a dub music.

King Tubbys was a great man. He loved to invent things

Through your work mixing at Tubbys you met a lot of important producers – which would encourage you to expand out as a producer on your own. Tell me about your memories of the work you did at Tubbys with Vivian Jackson.

Yabby You was a very good producer and most of all, Yabby You’s rhythms were unique. Yabby You wasn’t a great singer but his rhythms were unique rhythms. One of a kind. So I used to enjoy mixing those songs.

How did you come to produce the first Black Uhuru album – originally released as Love Crisis in 1977? Sly Dunbar was originally going to produce it but he went away on tour.

I did the first Black Uhuru album because Black Uhuru were from my area of Waterhouse. We grew up together and that was the time when I really started doing production on a bigger scale. They were the first ones for me to really go to and ask to record some music and they didn’t hesitate because we grew up together and we did just did it together like brothers. That’s how that album came about. Johnny Osbourne played harmonica on one of the songs.

Can you also tell me about your interaction with Augustus Pablo? In 1979 you mixed the dub version of Hugh Mundell’s Africa Must Be Free by 1983.

Augustus Pablo used to work at King Tubbys a lot and I used to mix a lot of his work. He also was a good musician and a good producer. He started producing this artist named Hugh Mundell and that was how I started producing Hugh Mundell. I heard Hugh Mundell with Pablo and I said “Bwoy this is a very good upcoming artist so I’m going to do some songs with him”.

Hugh Mundell wasn’t from Waterhouse but he is kind of grouped into that Waterhouse sound vocally.

He wasn’t from Waterhouse but he used to be popular in Waterhouse because Junior Reid was his best friend and they used to be together a lot.

Do you recall when the film maker Howard Johnson came to Jamaica and filmed yourself and Bunny Lee at Tubbys for the documentary Deep Roots?

Those recordings were made especially for that film. We were acting a show if you know what I mean! (laughs) He came and he wanted us to be that way you know? He told us “Jammys just do your best and what you know best!” I just did that and Bunny Lee was there mobilising me and all the people were there boosting us up. We did a good job in that film.

One of the singers in the Deep Roots movie is Wayne Smith who passed away in February 2014. Can you tell me about the early days of linking him?

Wayne Smith was a little youth from the neighbourhood. I grew up with my mum and his uncles – we all grew up together. He decided to sing and he was the first dedicated artist who came to me and he was in the studio every day. It was like he was coming to school. He came here and he sang until he got perfect.

Dennis Brown was one of the most gentlemanly artists

Dennis Brown would have celebrated his birthday on February 1st. You did some recording with him in the early 80s. What are your memories of him?

Dennis Brown was one of the most gentlemanly artists. I don’t know how to describe him. He was such a wonderful guy. He was the best good hearted person. I never saw Dennis Brown be vexed. I never saw him in that mood ever. I would always see him smiling in a good mood. And he was such a good singer.

By this time you’d started your own studio at your home on St Lucia Road. You also began expanding your own sound system into the formidable force it became in the decade that followed.

Yes, I started my studio in 1980, but I didn’t do any recording in it. I went to England in 1979 and I bought some equipment, came back and set up a little room where I could make cassettes and things like that to sell to the minivans that plied the route in my area. Then we started producing and building rhythms at Channel One and voicing them at King Tubbys. I used to cut them on dubplates and make them on cassettes for the minivan guys so they could play music in their vans while they were plying the route.

Then I decided to go bigger on the sound system. Because the sound system was like the radio station for me. Now that I was producing on a wider scale, we couldn’t get the radio play that I would like to get. So I utilised my sound system as my radio station. Because every time that I was playing at a dance we used to cut new songs and send them on the sound system. And when we used to go to the dance we’d see the reaction of the people to the music, so then I’d know which tunes to release. That was how Sleng Teng became a big hit because I knew from sending Sleng Teng out on the sound system, what response I got from the people – so I knew that Sleng Teng was going to be a big hit.

I utilised my sound system as my own radio station

Let’s talk about Sleng Teng. Wayne Smith and Noel Davey came to you with a Casio keyboard demo of an Eddie Cochran song and you slowed it down and made some changes to it to make it work.

Yes, that’s what I did. I slowed it down and I overdubbed the little syn drum that you hear and the clap on it. I personally did that overdub.

Had you heard any digital rhythms in the dance before you heard their Sleng Teng demo?

I didn’t hear any digital rhythms before but I had been told there were digital rhythms there. Because after I made Sleng Teng I heard a rhythm by the name of Chim Cherie [by the Upsetters] that was made from a rhythm box and I heard it was made before my rhythm. But it wasn’t released. Nobody released anything for you to hear it. After Sleng Teng came out – everybody started releasing digital rhythms that were in the box. Because deep down the Sleng Teng rhythm really changed the whole world of music.

Sleng Teng really changed the whole world of music

How did it feel to hear that digital sound in the dance when you clashed with your friend and rival Jack Scorpio on that night in 1985?

Well, Scorpio couldn’t play again. (laughs) I guess that was the power of the rhythm that it stopped him right there in his tracks. He couldn’t play any more songs. It was all Sleng Teng for the rest of the night.

You must have got quite a fight when you made that change to the music. Channel One where you used to build rhythms had to close down.

Of course. Certainly. A lot of musicians used to say that it was foolishness and that was not going to work and all sorts of things. But I didn’t pay it any mind because I knew that if you have something going on for years you must need a change from there. From my mind I was a man that was following King Tubbys because King Tubbys used to love to invent and loved to create. So that creativeness that I did, it paid off for me because I didn’t ease up. I kept on doing what I was supposed to do. I wasn’t listening to anybody at all. I was just doing my thing.

King Jammy

Some people get confused by what happened with Sleng Teng. Because it started as a demo song on a keyboard they think that Jamaica stopped using musicians altogether. But in the years that followed you were still using great musicians like Steely and Clevie, Dean Fraser and Mikey Bennett.

Of course, of course. I still used musicians.

You mentioned how creative Tubbys was and he was quick to embrace the digital thing himself. If King Tubbys had lived instead of losing his life in 1989 what do you think he would have done in the music?

I think he would be even bigger in the music now. He would be creating something like the next Sleng Teng or something complete different. Because he loved to do that.

A lot of big deejays came up on your sound system in the 1980s and 90s like Admiral Bailey, Lieutenant Stitchie, Shabba, Bounty Killer. At what point did you notice the deejays were taking over?

I’ll tell you something – when I made the Sleng Teng - that was when I realised that deejays were going to take over the place. Because every deejay wanted the Sleng Teng sound. I did about four albums with the Sleng Teng and a lot of other people did even more albums with it. That was when I realised that deejays were getting strong in the dance so I started recording a lot of deejays. But at the same time I was recording deejays I was recording vocalists also. Because there was Frankie Paul, Leroy Gibbons, Johnny Osbourne and Pinchers – we were recording deejays and singers right across the board.

I realised that deejays were going to take over the place

Which deejays and singers did you enjoy working with the most?

In terms of vocalists I would say Johnny Osbourne. Johnny was one of the best vocalists for me – both he as a person and his lyrical content. That guy could just write a song ASAP and we’d just do it.

As deejays go, I would like to say Stitchie. But Admiral Bailey was a very prominent deejay with me. He was like family to me. He was like my son. Then Bounty Killer came along and again, we created that giant of a person. He’s still going now. It’s between Admiral Bailey and Bounty Killer.

I can’t say the greatest one was this one because of them had their own greatness. All of them had their own feel, their own melodies and their own style.

In the last two years you’ve been preparing a dub album with Alborosie. It’s currently due for release via VP/Greensleeves this year. How did you first link him?

Alborosie was a person where I’d never even heard a song by him before. Then I went to Europe and I heard this name “Alborosie” and I heard that Specialist, Shabba’s previous manager and one of my friends, was managing him. So I called him up and talked to him and he was very receptive. He rated me very much and we decided we were going to do a project together. I asked him if he wanted to do a project and said “Yes, you are the king man and you are my teacher. I want to work with you king”. So we got together and I ran off several rhythms and I gave them to him and I mixed some rhythms and so we just came with the dub LP. We are going to do a tour for our dub LP in April in the United States – Alborosie and myself.

Alborosie, like King Tubby, is a very quiet person and he is very influenced by the Waterhouse style – how would you define the Waterhouse style?

Of course you could say that. The Waterhouse style started at Tubbys but he is not here anymore so I carry it on. Anything from Tubbys or Jammys – that’s the Waterhouse style.

Anything from Tubbys or Jammys – that's the Waterhouse style

You also co-produced the new Clash of the Titans rhythm by the European producer Frenchie – out this week.

Frenchie is a friend. A great, great guy and a personal friend. He is a nice guy – a very nice man. He knows the music business. He’s informed. Very much informed. What I like about Frenchie is he always checks me out when he’s doing a project. Because he said I was the person who influenced him to start producing.

And you have some new 7” singles out with Michael Rose – including a cut of I Love King Selassie from the first Black Uhuru album featuring Chronixx.

Yes, and I also have a project which is the whole Black Uhuru album with a whole lot of collaborations on it. I’m going to release it – I just sent it off to Greensleeves yesterday. It’s Black Uhuru and Friends and on the album we have Alborosie, Gentleman, Chronixx, U Roy, Shaggy, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Louie Culture, Dre Island and Kabaka Pyramid – all in collaboration with Black Uhuru. So it’s going to be a great album.

The Black Uhuru and Friends album will have Alborosie, Gentleman, Chronixx, U Roy, Shaggy, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Louie Culture, Dre Island and Kabaka Pyramid

You have a lot of trophies on display in your studio – which are you most proud of winning?

(pauses) Ah… I would say now… It would have to be… (laughs) I have two different types of trophies. I have trophies for sound system and I have trophies for producing. I’ve won the trophy for producing for six consecutive years. I’m very proud of that. I’m more fond of the sound system trophies because you have to work harder to win the trophies on the sound system. That’s a competition. I’m proud of the trophies I won in the Four Sound competition at Cinema 2. I think it was sometime in the 80s [1985]. I won four trophies that night. That was the one that made me very proud. Because whenever I was in a big competition like that all the music fans in Waterhouse would come out and follow me to the venue. And they’d wait for me until the morning – until light – when I’ve got the trophy – and then we all drove back to Waterhouse in a jubilant mood.

Why is sound clash so important and so embedded in the DNA of Jamaican music?

Sound clash is a very important way to prove who is the best sound. That’s what sound clash is for. Every now and then you have to do a sound clash. Jammys does sound clash mostly to prove if I am still ahead of the game. And it also proves the type of music I am producing. If I’m still producing good music. Because you have to play your latest music and specials and all those things. That makes you keep up your guard so you know if you are doing good. 

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Posted by Jammy's Greensleeves Lies on 02.14.2015

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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