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Interview: I Kong in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: I Kong in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: I Kong in Kingston (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"In due course of time every man is getting paid"

Sampler

Read part 1 of this interview

In part 2 of our exclusive interview with I Kong he talks about the highs and lows of making his classic The Way It Is album, discovering the joys of fatherhood and how he got his career back on track…

I Kong

How did you and Bunny Rugs start going to Scratch?

As I said, I knew Scratch from Coxsone days. The studio thing was when Bunny and myself started moving here and there saying we were going to check different people. But we never liked their vibes. Scratch was the one whose vibes we really liked and he liked us, especially Bunny. Scratch was always a fan of big voice people and as you know Bunny has this big powerful voice. A beautiful voice. One of a kind.

So we just started going there and one day he played a rhythm and said "Ricky! I know you are a man who loves writing. Write a song for this now". He gave me the rhythm upon a cassette and I went home that night and woke up everybody till daylight because me and Bunny were singing at the top of our voices. Everybody cussing us shouting "Go your bed!" We never minded that. We sang. And then we came up with Freedom Fighters, upon the Beatdown Babylon rhythm.

That was the first song you came up with?

Yes.

Wasn't the first one Bushweed and Corntrash?

No, actually the first one we did before that was Bushweed and Corntrash. That was our nickname. Bushweed and Corntrash was actually Bunny Rugs and myself. Because we used to work out a thing. We wanted to smoke herbs so we said the best way to smoke herbs was to go on like we were mad. So Bunny would work walk on the right hand and I would walk on the left and we would smoke the herb and chat to one another. So when a man would buck up on the left and see me or Rugs alone smoking herb and talking but he couldn't see who we were talking to he would say "Him mad!" So after a while the police would say "Mad boy them!" because they couldn't see who we were talking to. But it was me he would talk to. We walked from Molynes Road to Foster Lane, down at Big Yard, at Byron’s to go smoke herb. Every living day! And Scratch would wait for us to carry back his spliff. It was fun.

I remember you also said in the last interview that you used to go and crash uptown parties and cause a scene?

Yeah, because those were the days when we were trying to get on music played uptown. Bob's music, others before Bob like Joe Higgs, Higgs and Wilson, Alton and Eddie, all those guys. And we were going to the parties uptown and saying "Yo, you have to play this". We were rudeboys and we would commandeer the record player. And sometimes a man would have a little spunk and it would break out in a fight. So before they threw us out we’d grab the cake or take a pot of rice and peas! (Laughs) Joe 90, he was the selector in our group so he started to play and gradually the younger uptown boys and girls started to gravitate towards us. Because our music sounded irie to them. So they started to lean to we and say "We have a party next week do you want to pass through?" It took years but it happened.

I have nothing but the highest regard for Lee Scratch Perry

Going back to Scratch, you’ve said that there's a bit of a story behind the lyrics of Freedom Fighters.

At that time, both politicians from the two sides, PNP and the JLP started pressuring Scratch. They said that the song licked out against them. So Perry sort of felt intimidated at the time. And it was after that that people started saying "Boy, Ricky, Scratch start get mad out! He start to X out every S in the Bible you know?" You know how many S there are in the Bible boss? Scratch text out every S in the King James version of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. And then he started on H. So they freaked out. Perry was always eccentric and he was smart. I have nothing but the highest regard for Lee Scratch Perry. As he says "Everything starts from scratch".

You worked with Tommy Cowan and you worked with Scratch. One artist who is a common link between the two of them was Devon Irons. Did you know him?

Of course! (Laughs) Devon was very quiet, surprisingly. He was a very reserved person.

He made some quite fiery tunes.

Of course but the serious ones are like that. I am a people person, so I talk. But all my brethrens that are very serious are very quiet and reserved.

What happened to him?

I don't know. I lost touch with a lot of my brethrens when I left Kingston to go to Saint Elizabeth to live. The link was severed in more ways than one.

I am a people person

How do you meet Mikey “Jah Mikes” Lee – co-producer of The Way It is?

I think the first time we really met was out in Hellshire. In those times Jacob Miller and all those men used to come there with me. When I’d go on the beach I’d control the fish man and the herb man. Hellshire is not like now. They have a little track now but we had to go through some bushes so you had to leave the car at the top. You could say “Boy, look after this here” and no one would mess. And then you would come back with some fish for him or two dollars. One hand washes the other. I met Mikey on the beach and we started reasoning. And it grew from there. He said he liked my music and asked why I never recorded. I said I had a money problem and he said he thought he could sort some money from his old man.

In the past you had sung as Ricky Storm rather than your birth name Errol Kong. How did you become I Kong?

Ricky Storm was just a stage name. A nom de plume. It wasn't until ’77 or ’78 when we started the project with Mikey and me as executive producers, The Way It Is album, at Dynamics. I was talking to my brother named Joe 90 and Jahnhoi and couple of others who grew up together. I was part of a tight unit. I never drifted from my friends. They said "Ricky, how you see yourself with this album?" Because I started to sight Rastafari in its fullness so I started to knots. Mikey Lee said "The man's name is Kong! I man the Kong!" Another man said "No man! Throw away the I Man!" So he said "Alright, I Kong". So it was Mikey Lee really. Jah Mikes.

How did you sight Rastafari?

As a young youth, because I did not grow with the Chinese, my father's side of the family, I grew up with people of colour. I used to go down to Back O’Wall which is now Tivoli Gardens. Myself and Brent Dowe or Pokey as we used to call him and Slim Smith. So we used to go down to Back O’Wall to listen to the Rastaman chant and play the drums. Because we did love the drums sound. And also because they used to have a man who used to keep a Marcus Garvey thing down there. They used to chat about Marcus Garvey and we found that fascinating as youths who started singing and wanted to express ourselves in whatever way we wanted. So it was just a natural progression for me.

The Way It Is sessions are legendary. You are already mentioned that you hired more horn players then would be usual or prudent.

I also invited thrice the musicians. If you look at The Way It Is album it’s like a Who's Who in the Hall of Fame of great Jamaican musicians. The Tommy McCook, the Hedley Bennett, the Herman Marquis, the Egbert Evans, Jerome Francisque from Trinidad who used to play with Byron Lee at the time, he used to blow trombone. All these people who I just love their sounds. I’d come and give them ideas they'd say "But youth, you can't play?" I'd say "No. But I have it so you come play it".

Another other story is about Fil Callender using coat hangers as drumsticks.

Yeah, we went in the night to record and Byron Lee had some little idiot guard men in those times. Byron bullied them down so that anything Byron said they did. He must have told them nobody can come that night. But we had booked. So when we went to the studio they locked up all of the drums and everything. So we finally got a drum kit but we didn't get any sticks. Fil passed the restroom and saw two sticks that he thought he could use. He came back with two clothes hangers. He popped out the wires and used the two sticks. That is why if you listen to The Way It Is it has a different sound when he hits the drums. It’s not like the ready-made sticks that have that rounded sound – you can hear the cut. A lot of people don't know that Fil was also at Studio One. Fil is a fantastic musician.

Of course. He played on Mr Fix It and great rhythms like Hot Milk.

Yes! With Jackie. And he is a great guitarist also. The whole of us grew together. Joe Isaacs, Hugh Malcolm. Hugh, Horsemouth, myself, we used to play for Tessanne Chin’s father’s band, the Carnations. That was in Havendale. At the time. I was the vocalist along with Norris Weir.

That story about the drumsticks reminds me of a story Clive Chin told me about the Alton Ellis song It's Too Late To Turn Back Now. The guitarist couldn't play the chop so Sticky Thompson used a stick and a cheese grater.

 Yeah! Things like those are what make these songs so outstanding. Because it cannot be duplicated. That's why I'm a firm believer in in the feeling of a song, especially in roots rock reggae. Most people, the technocrats, they want to be sure that this chord or that note is perfect. I don't see it that way. I see the heart. The soul. That cannot be duplicated my boss. The soul cannot be duplicated.

I'm a firm believer in in the feeling of a song

The final story about those sessions was Byron Lee got a call saying the studio was burning down…

 Yeah, because we were smoking so much herb in there! I will tell you, at any given time we had anywhere between 3 to 6 pounds of herb. Every day. Brubeck, Winston Wright. I used to call him my father because we were like that. We smoked a ton over there. Familyman? Oh Lord God! (Laughs) What happened was the watchman had to walk around try this door and that door. So when he opened the studio door, because we were smoking and it was concentrated from so many hours, chalice after chalice load, spliff, bottle head, the herb smoke just whooshed.

So he ran bawling "Fire! Fire!" He came running for an extinguisher. A next man said "You dumb idiot! It is Ricky and them inside there recording!" But by then he had gone and called Byron Lee on the phone. Byron called and cussed bad words. I said "He's an idiot man. If I burn down the studio how would my work get done? Why would I pay you and burn down the studio?" So then he found out that the brother had got frightened. But there was really a lot of smoke coming out of there. When we started this interview I started smoking. If it's 12 hours in the studio it’s 12 hours smoking. Non-stop. Even when I'd sing sometimes I'd puff around the mic. But I'm an old boy now so I don't think I'll try that! (Laughs)

Do you remember how the photograph was taken for the cover?

 Yeah. I have this friend Jahnhoi. Before he changed his name to Jahnhoi his name was Frank Jones. He was a customs broker. He was also a photographer. When we decided to do the album Mikey said "Frank the photographer - make him and Joe 90 come down and shoot some pictures. We'll take a thing and see what they come up with". The day of the shoot we got so carried away in the music and the herb that we never remembered about shooting anything! So no picture was ever taken.

So then Tommy came and said and said Bagga Case - he used to sing with a group - he had a company that did graphics. He said he wanted a picture. So Jahnhoi said he would come and take the picture. So we just went up by the Talent Corporation and we did the picture there. I had this Mexican shirt. I brought it and they said "You can't put this on the album as a Rasta Youth!" I said "Just try it" and it worked perfectly.

The concept with the rainbow from Jamaica to Africa, I saw that when I was a child. If you cut out the map of Jamaica it fits right into the top of Africa like a jigsaw puzzle. Check it out for yourself. It is no coincidence that we're named Jah mek yah you know? Babylon sweet it up and nice it up. It’s not “Jamaica”! Jah mek yah! Just like the Caribbean. It is not Caribbean! It is “carry beyond”. They try to sweet it up. It is not going to work. We come like John. We saw them a thousand million years ago.

So do you know exactly what it was that went wrong with the distribution of the album? How it got pirated?

I have no idea my brother. Because, like all of us that came up in that time, Bob, you name them, we did not know anything about the business. We were not concerned about the business. That is why I would say to any youth today who is thinking of taking up music as a profession, "Get a good manager. A manager who is really concerned about you." Management is key if you really want to take it to the next level.

The Way It Is by now has sold millions all over the world. But we didn't make anything

Mikey lost all the money he borrowed from his father.

Yes! That was why Mikey was so bitter. The Way It Is has sold millions and they say it is a classic. I was told in France that it is rated as amongst the three best roots rock albums ever. Alpha Blondy said the same thing in Africa. Patrice said the same thing in Germany. If you look at the original vinyl jacket you don't see any executive producer. I was the producer. Mikey was the executive producer. Because that was the first time Mikey was getting involved. I was the one who actually brought Mikey into the recording business. Mikey has the business head and I am the bird, I sing. So it was good. Plus the heart was there.

You also said that during this time you started to “drift from the Father’s work”. What happened?

I KongAfter the album The Way It Is Michael in his own way and me in my own way, we became disillusioned. Because, as I said, money was not the issue of I and I. I and I deal with it upon a heartical thing. But when you see how you put your heart in and then you find that it's gone, you turn the other way. I was moving with a rough crowd, because as I said I am not a little pussycat, so I said "I have to go and deal with a boy upon a certain level or I can just leave it." So I just left it and I went to do other things where, to me, that's when Father turned his face from me. Because in ’72 when I started with The Way It Is, that was His work, His mission I was given to do. It reminded me of Jonah in the Bible. When Jah did send Jonah saying "Go down to Nineveh and tell the people the business they are going on with is not going to work". It was the same thing with I but I turned my back and I left it.

Going to Europe last year, I have learned that The Way It Is by now has sold millions all over the world. But we didn't make anything. Neither me nor Mikey. But you can't deal in the past. As me and Raging Fyah sing, look to the future. A lot of people right now talk about Reggae Revival with Chronixx and all those youths there. I don't see a revival because a revival is when something is sick or dead. Roots rock reggae never sick, no way, no time. It's just that the sons of bitches who control the media never play it on the radio. They make certain people come in and control it. A man has the paper [money] and they put in a stack of paper and those boys are afraid of that man. That's how it goes. But as the other guy says "Who has ears will hear".

Tell me how you built a new life in Saint Elizabeth. When did you move there?

It must be 30 something years now. It was in the 80s. I love it. Because I got a son. Skunga. He is 22 this year. Plus my mum was from Saint Elizabeth. I have a lot of cousins, nephews, nieces. Some fair, some black, some Chinese like me. Some are full, some are half, some have mixed Indian and whatever. Jamaica is a melting pot. I love them and I feel cool with them. What I don't like is people who pretend. I don't like to pretend. The same way you see me here is how I'm going to be anywhere I go.

There was a different version of The Way It Is album released in 1987 called Africa Calling by Antonio “Gilly” Gilbert.

It was a couple of years before I found out that it was even Gilly who is credited as executive producer. Gilly never had anything to do with it! Mikey and myself used to go by Gilly at that time. Gilly was Bob’s chef. He said he loved the album and asked if we could give him a cassette so we gave them a cassette. But we never gave them a cassette so he could go and represent us or anything. We just gave it to him because he said he liked it so he could get a copy. I live and learn my brother. I am blessed because every day I get up and I see Jah son come out. I am cool. There are enough men out there who have money but can't do what I do. I can walk Into Tivoli and walk back out of Tivoli. Walk in to Jungle, walk out of Jungle. I just tried to live my life true.

I just tried to live my life true

Tell me about the Forgotten Man album which you put out legitimately in 2005. It features some songs you recorded in the 80s like the aforementioned Children of the Night.

That was a project between myself and George Campbell. Sheribia. I met him through Skunga's mum, Pam, my lady. He loves my music. He still loves it. George had a good heart and wanted to do something with it but he couldn't manage it because of lack of finance. We often talk about it and laugh. He was learning! (Laughs) It's hard for a man to be learning and push out something at the same time. It's just not possible. As I said, these things are passed. Forward ever backward never. Rasta way that.

Yesterday we bumped into Jackie Jackson at Mixing Lab. Jackie used to play at your uncle’s studio in the late 60s and early 70s.

Jackie came to Berne in Switzerland, when I went there first to do the Forgotten Man album. Jackie was the one who played over it. Also one called Adrian that used to play drums for Blood And Fire. Winston Wright. Leroy Hamilton. Yeah, we went down there.

What's happening with your son Skunga's studio in St Elizabeth?

The Tabernacle is going on. Is not totally completed but we are utilising it and the voicing booth has a fantastic sound. I didn't know that my son was as good as he is because all the people in the business keep saying "Bwoy, Kong Youth deh". So he's up there building some rhythms and sometimes I hear them and say "My little boy build that!" Right now I have about four or five songs to voice on his rhythms. And he has his own stable of artists and he's been doing well with them. He's done things for Sr Wilson in Spain. He has some terrible music to come to road shortly.

I didn't know that my son was as good as he is

So tell me about how your first mini showcase album A Little Walk got made with Najavibes? I remember you said initially you weren’t sure you had the funds to come over from Saint Elizabeth and voice it.

Yes man. I had to borrow the money. I never had the bus money to come to town. I had to stall Mathias because they were going to record at Mixing Lab and have me come in on the Monday. Because if you leave Saint Bess and come to the city it's a long way, plus accommodation and all those things. I mean, I have relatives here but when I do music I am not in any relative business! Music is Jah business and Jah business.

How did Mathias contact you?

I just got a call from this youth. I saw it was a foreign call, and he said "Am I talking to I Kong? Am I talking to the legend I Kong?" I said "I don't know about any legend part but I Kong is me". So he said he was from Switzerland and they are with Leroy Wallace. I said "Horsey?" It turns out that Leroy was instrumental in getting them playing the roots rock reggae the way roots rock reggae is to be played. Right now a lot of Jamaican bands aren't playing roots rock reggae the right way. A lot of people close their ears and say "It is reggae" but is not roots rock reggae.

Horsemouth was giving lessons in Europe at the time.

Yes man. And he said to them "If you want to find him, go to Jamaica then record the hardest rhythms you can. He will sing upon them". So when Mathias called me and he said Monday I said "No my boss. Monday I'm kind of busy". Mathias said later he thought I was pushing him off but I was broke. So I borrowed money and went in still. That was a Tuesday and I voiced two songs because there are six vocal songs on the showcase. And the following Wednesday I did the other four. So the album itself was completed in five days. It was good going.

And then we had the icing on the cake, Roberto Sanchez, of Spain doing the mixing. And Roberto is a fantastic musician, artist, engineer, he is everything in one. I haven't met him yet. He says to me "I Kong, I don't want to talk to you on the phone I want to meet you." He says from the 70s he has tracked me so he could make a link.

A lot of Jamaican bands aren't playing roots rock reggae the right way

Do you think you might make an album with him?

Could be! Could be!

And when the album came out you went on a European tour.

Fantastic. I didn't do a lot of festivals because we were concentrating so much on the promotion. And also it ended up that Mathias and I came up with the concept of Pass It On then. We were rehearsing for the shows and we were also rehearsing for the album, getting the songs and the concept together. But it worked so we give thanks. Jah was the controller so everything was great.

Did you get to meet any of your old friends and colleagues on your travels?

Yes. I met Johnny Osbourne who I haven't seen in 30 odd years. I met him in southern France. Johnny and I performed and it was really great seeing Bumpy after all these years. Then I met Clinton Fearon, from the Gladiators also. You know, I was the one who made Clinton start playing bass for Scratch.

Because he was also doing some work with Yabby You, wasn't he?

Yeah man. And they used to bully him because there was some man there who said they were big-time men. So I said “Let’s make him go out and play for Scratch". Scratch said "He can play?" I said "Gwaan youth and play". It was the same thing with Dean Fraser. Dean reminded me at the Bunny Rugs thing that I was the one who was the first man to come into the studio. $300 I paid! (Laughs)

You only had six days for the Little Walk album. Did you have a bit longer for Pass It On?

I think it was between three weeks to five weeks? We did 14 songs. It's 11 songs on the vinyl and 13 on the CD. I have three collaborations on the album. The title track Pass It On is with Raging Fyah. Then I have one with Ken Boothe, my childhood friend. I also have one with Judy Mowatt. So three fantastic collaborations.

So things are going pretty good for you these days? Do you feel a sense of justice?

Father steers the ship. In due course of time every man is getting paid. You must remember that a thousand years is just a twinkle in Jah eyesight. So when a man lives 105 years that isn't saying shit to Jah! So we have to wait until it comes up.

You were in the Jamaica Observer this week. It looks like there is interest in Jamaica as well.

That was thanks to Howard Campbell. The feedback is out there thanks to my brethrens like Flabba Holt, Robbie Lynn, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly, Gaylord Bravo from Small World, Big Youth. All these musicians have given me so much love and encouragement and support over the years, knowing where I come from with my music. So it's good. It's all good. 

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