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Interview: Ben Up and Barnabas talk Channel One (Part 1)

Interview: Ben Up and Barnabas talk Channel One (Part 1)

Interview: Ben Up and Barnabas talk Channel One (Part 1)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"The main thing that built Channel One studio is the jukebox"


Franklyn “Ben Up” Irving and Stanley “Barnabas” Bryan are two of the last surviving team members of the legendary Channel One studio and entertainment empire. Owned by the Hookim brothers and based at 29 Maxfield Avenue, Channel One’s productions dominated Kingston's reggae scene from the mid-to-late 70s. Driven by a crystalline studio sound and the radical drumming of Sly Dunbar, Channel One became as in demand as Studio 1 the decade before.

Both Ben Up and Barnabas started working at Channel One as youths in the early 70s. Ben Up began in the jukebox side of the business and eventually graduated to being a producer (his 1982 Apartment rhythm was later revived for Jah9's Steamers A Bubble). Barnabas moved from the jukebox to become Channel One’s sound system deejay, studio engineer and session drummer - learning from the great Sly Dunbar. They were present at the studio’s birth as a vehicle for itinerant producers, through its golden age of dominance, to its decline and eventual abandonment in the 1980s.

United Reggae met Ben Up and Barnabas at singer Mark Wonder’s house in Kingston to discuss their personal histories of Channel One. You could call this an extended sequel of sorts to the previous year’s off the cuff chat with Ben Up about the studio ( Franklyn Irving talks Channel One ). It was a lively and far from linear discussion (sadly the need to leave for another interview with Lloyd Parks meant its second half was truncated). Part one begins with Channel One’s inception. 

Ben Up & Barnabas

How did you both start working at Channel One?

Barnabas: It was back around 1970 when I was about 10 years old. Jukeboxes, one arm bandits, Channel One brought in all of these things in Jamaica. So this lady had a jukebox and it broke down.

In this time I was living at Sunrise Street. So she saw me passing by when my mum had sent me to the shop. She got a glimpse of me and she said "See the little willing one there!" She was a lady who really liked me as a little boy because I had manners and respect and all of that. She told me that her jukebox broke down and begged me to go to JoJo [Hookim] because it was a Friday evening so if she didn't have a jukebox, business is bad.

When I went there all of the workers had got paid and gone. They sent me inside the studio. That is my first visit into the studio. I was even lucky I realise now, I didn't know who it was at the time, but Boris Gardiner was recording this song called Every Negro Is A Star. That was when I went in. So because they were recording, JoJo told me to take a seat and he would soon talk to me. I was there for over an hour and a half! So then JoJo said to me "Little boy, go buy some Pepsi for me". Because JoJo loved Pepsi.

Ben Up: No other drinks he'd drink up.

Barnabas: Just strictly Pepsi. So when I came back the first thing I gave him back was his change. He said “You are a good boy you know?" Because the other little boys didn't give back any change! So he made me feel nice about that! While I was there I was observing what was going on and seeing the tape running. I said to myself "Damn, that is how they make music." Anyway, so Fitzy came back for his tool pan and Zebby came into the studio and told JoJo that Fitzy was outside. Zebby was the man who controlled all the keys for everywhere. That is the gate man. Legendary. He passed away but he always took good care of us from youths. Will never forget him. Zebby and driver! (Laughs)

Ben Up: Gabby.

Barnabas: Gabby. I saw Fitzy come back, so he went to fix the jukebox. That lady was so happy she bought me saltfish and dumplings, gave me drinks, gave me money too. Everything she bought me that Friday because she was so happy.

Ben Up: Because jukebox was like a sound system in those times.

Barnabas: No jukebox - your dances flop! So your bar will flop same way. That was my first visit. Then a year or two after my mum ended up buying this place closer to Channel One.

Ben Up: 4 Raphael Avenue.

Barnabas: Which was Raphael Avenue just across the street. So while I was passing going to Whitfield School, just around the corner, I was always admiring [the studio] because I really liked what I saw that first visit. It really got my interest as a child. But I didn't really penetrate a career or anything at that time. So while I was living over Raphael Avenue, sometimes when I'm passing by I used to really stop there and watch Zebby and the bigger men play Ludi.

Every time I'm stopping there I am very willing. They used to ask me to go and buy stuff for them because I was a little boy that would go to the shop for everybody. Because I am fair I didn't really hold any of their change, so they liked me a lot. So I started coming around more after school. After a while sometimes they would need a little help to lift up the jukeboxes. So through me being willing and always giving a little help they started letting me go in the van. I started taking a drive out in the van and before you know it - bam! I started on the sound.

Because Channel One had the sound system too, so it used to string up every Thursday. They used to check on the equipment to make sure it is proper to go and play on the Saturday or Friday night. I used to start following the sound, help lifting up the boxes, and then I would go to the dances because Gabby the driver sometimes wouldn't really stay there all along. After he dropped off the sound he would go back home, so I would go back home and get dressed. And when he was going back I would drive with him again. So I started fooling around the mic and before you knew it… well the name Barnabas, it really came from school days. Because while I was going to school I used to really make fun of the girls. Like putting out my teeth to make fun of them. So this name stuck on me.

Like Barnabas Collins. 

Barnabas: Yeah. But the name stuck on me more after the Chinese riot back in the 60s. And the owner of the building across from Channel One his name was Mr Teng. He migrated from Jamaica.

Ben Up: That building became Hitbound. Hitbound pressing plant.

Barnabas: That building was just rotting down. The big men used to play cards over there. And I was a little boy they sent to the shop. So they started calling over there “the house of dark shadow”. So this Barnabas started sticking on me more. Because of Barnabas and “house of dark shadow” from the movie and all of that. And then when I went to the music now I started getting interested in it more and more until I started to deejay on the sound. So anywhere the sound played I would go.

Because being around the jukeboxes everybody was used to me, so I could get access so I could go in the studio. I used to go in there and be sitting down watching Ernest - that's JoJo's brother - because he was the chief engineer. And I started getting interested in what he was doing a lot. One day it just happened that I went in the studio and JoJo had me and Ernest set up the board because I was very young. I didn't know how to balance it properly and all of that.

The first song was this song called Blood Sweat And Tears by Earth And Stone [In Time To Come]. I was doing the delay and mixing it and they really liked what I was doing. So then I started coming around more and showing interest in the trade. I became an engineer at Channel One. Now while at Channel One as an engineer, I saw Sly and all the drummers and everyone - because Channel One was THE place. Every musician everywhere came to Channel One. 

Every musician everywhere came to Channel One

Ben Up: It was hot.

Barnabas: 24 hours Channel One was going.

Ben Up: Seven days a week.

Barnabas: But then JoJo used to have Sundays for Channel One production. But I am going so far and I'm having so much fun - Ben Up, tell him something.

How about you Ben Up?

Ben Up: Well I got in there because I was fortunate to be closer than Barney. I lived at 12 Swettenham Road, just down the road. I came up at around eight or nine years old. What happened now was my big brother was working in the bike shop and then we came up as youths. Evening time I always came there – and just as Barney said, they liked us as youths who had manners.

But I came with my style because my name is Ben Up which JoJo named me that because I have double joints in my hands. So when I came as Ben Up some men started to ring my hands and have me do things. So I started to collect money right away from men who wanted to see my thing. But after that we ended up doing the same thing as Barney. Through the jukebox. We did gravitate to the jukebox first because that was the quick money.

Barnabas: We didn't even love going in the studio that much as little boys.
Ben Up: Not until way in the night when it got late and men wanted to deal with certain things. So we moved mostly around the jukebox…

Ben Up: And the pinball machines. Barney used to take out the records out of the jukebox and exchange them.

Barnabas: That is when JoJo employed me now. Ben was the one dealing with the money part, counting the money, but I put the records in so fast that JoJo said "Come and help count the money too man!" 

Ben Up: The main thing that built Channel One studio is the jukebox. When JoJo realised how much money the music would cost…

Barnabas: Because they used to get the music from everybody.

Ben Up: From Coxsone, from everybody. So they realised they needed new music because we had the sound. It was Dynamic Sound before but it moved onto Channel One Sound. So this place with every man buying records, listening to records, when the studio was finally built, it was like it was a university of people with brains towards music before it even started.

It was a university of people with brains towards music

Barnabas: It became like a university for true.

Ben Up: Because when that started it was a team. Everything moved from a team. So a man would take out old records from the jukebox if they played upon the sound last night. The man goes down Saturday night and they come to the studio on Monday morning and say "Bloodclaat! You want to hear that song there!" And immediately we just lick that. They just go in the studio and just lick right away! (Laughs) But the change, if you realise, all of the songs there - and Barney can tell you - we came with the quality. Channel One studio did bring Jamaican music to quality on a level.

Barnabas: Yeah!

Ben Up: We’re not taking anything away from the old studios. Because some of those were original. But when it came to quality…

Barnabas: It all started from Sid Bucknor who was the first engineer at Channel One.

Ben Up: He came from Studio One.

Barnabas: He used to record just flat. Everything he'd record and mix was flat. So one day Ernest went in the studio and he was saying to JoJo "But how come Sidney never used this Jo?" Because he saw it said “equaliser”. So when he pressed it and he started turning the keys on the equaliser he started hearing the sound get crisper. He started saying "But he should have used those things Jo man!" They decided now we were going to spend the whole day and find a sound. So they had Sly playing the drums for a whole day and Ernest was just EQing it, checking out how this sounds here and how it sounds over there. They finally decided "This is the sound".

Ben Up: This is the root.

Barnabas: And the first song that came from that era was the Mighty Diamonds’ The Right Time. And it became such a big hit and it was just hits after hits after hits. I Need A Roof, Have Mercy…

Ben Up: Woman Is Like Shadow…

Barnabas: Ah! You mentioned a good song! Woman Is Like Shadow and Girl I Love You.

Ben Up: Horace Andy and the Meditations.

Barnabas: We were selling those two songs for three years before they were released. Because everybody wanted those songs on dub. There was nobody coming to the studio to cut dubs and they don't want those two songs! Every soundman wanted those songs.

Ben Up: JoJo never wanted to release on 45 because he was making so much money. (Laughs)

Barnabas: Then JoJo decided he was going to release it. The mix that was released on those two songs was the same dub mix that was selling! Because JoJo liked it how it was mixed. That raw mix. Because sometimes when you EQ the sound JoJo didn't really think it had that root - original real hard drive sound.

Ben Up: Because he was the next person who loves to experiment and create something.
Barnabas: But when he went to the stamper room they started to EQ it again. So JoJo used to have me go to the stamper room...

Ben Up: To stop Spider…

Barnabas: That is Spider that was the stamper man in those times at Dynamic. Because Tuff Gong wasn't even Tuff Gong - that was Federal Records. The owner was Mr Khouri. Because we grew up around the whole thing like I said. So JoJo started sending me to the studio now, to the mastering room to let them know we don't want them to EQ.

Ben Up: Nothing at all.

Barnabas: So I was making sure of that. And that is how the sound really got to promote more. Because they used to EQ out the sound and it didn't sound like how we wanted it.

Ben Up: They would move it from stereo and put it on a mono and it would be a flat sound.

Tell me a bit more about the gambling side of the business…

Ben Up: The first business that the Chinese were in was patties. That was before the studio and the jukebox. Even before the ice-cream parlours. And then it's from the patty to jukebox. Then the one arm bandits. Because the one arm bandits were illegal after 1970, that was a thing where people would have a box behind in a different room. In the bar.

Barnabas: And the poker machines.

Ben Up: And the poker machines but mainly the jackpot and the jukebox after the patties. The jackpot came and added to that. That created the one arm bandit.

Is there any link between the banning of the gambling machines Ernest and JoJo going into the music?

Ben Up: No. They were running same time.

Barnabas: Because Channel One sound was running before the studio. And that was the other brother, Paulie. Paul was running the bike shop and the sound system. So music was always in their blood. Because Ernest used to go to the dance, love his curry goat, drink his Heineken, we used to be there together.

Channel One had a “soft launch”, as they call it today. They opened and let producers come in and record for free to get it started.

Barnabas: Bunny Lee!

Ben Up: Bunny Lee was their brethren. So Bunny Lee first came in with Soul Syndicate. JoJo and Bunny Lee were friends. Because one thing with Chinese in Jamaica is they keep a close relationship with each other.

Ben Up & Barnabas Barnabas: They communicated with each other a lot.

Ben Up: So Bunny Lee first got the run because the Chinese wanted to make sure the thing would go on.

Barnabas: Bunny Lee moved in the circle of the music so JoJo used to get information from him.

Ben Up: Because Bunny Lee was the Don King in our music.

Barnabas: Yes, Bunny Lee is the Don King in reggae music for real! (Laughs)

Ben Up: So he would get the opportunity because he would help JoJo. Even JoJo followed Bunny Lee within certain things - the biggest Channel One tunes went to play in England!

Barnabas: Bunny even took me from Channel One to go and mix for King Tubbys you know? Because King Tubbys was the only dub mixer before me, you know?

Ben Up: Before Barney. 

Barnabas: I am the one that came after. Scientist came after. But I was the one who followed King Tubbys because I was always fascinated by his dub mix. From Channel One sound because we used to play his dubs on the sound. Every sound played King Tubbys dubs. He is the King of Dub. But I am the Prince of Dub! (Big laugh) But I became King of Dub after!

What were the first tunes recorded by Bunny Lee and Soul Syndicate? Delroy Wilson Can I Change My Mind?

Barnabas: I am not sure.

Ben Up: And these two brothers did also get a tune within that time. They lived in Poland and they came from the country. The Twinkle Brothers! They worked with Striker.

Barnabas: I knew them from the 70s. They knew me from a little boy.

I knew they did their first session for Bunny Lee. But I didn't know it was at Channel One.

Barnabas: Yeah it was at Channel One .Because when the studio just opened, through JoJo’s relation with Bunny Lee he gave Bunny Lee a whole week or a whole month.

Ben Up: Bunny Lee is the man. Bunny Lee is the Don King of reggae and he is from Kingston 13 and we’re all from 13. JoJo was born on Spanish Town Road and Maxfield Avenue. Bunny Lee was just over at Central Road ‘round there, so it's a family thing.The second thing is Bunny brought in Sidney. He introduced Sidney the engineer.

Bunny Lee is the Don King of reggae

Barnabas: Because he was a Don King!

Ben Up: He knew everybody and knew everything.

Barnabas: Him and John Holt really gave JoJo a big influence with the studio thing. Because him and John had a really good relation. I remember when John was recording tunes like Up Park Camp, Midnight Cowboy, Have You Ever Been In Love - the whole of those songs.

Because I was there as a child. Ernest was a man at that time. My teacher. The engineer. I learned from him. But he didn't call me and show me anything. I just watched him. And I used to take notes and take them home with me. For the patch-bay and all of that. I used to do that until I mastered it. Then I didn't have to do that anymore. I just knew where it is. But I used to take notes on the board when I was just coming around as an engineer. Because I didn't want when I came back to work and I don't remember where the compressors should go on the vocal. I would remember some of them but I didn't remember everything.

Tell me what the four Hookim brothers did in terms of their duties for the company.

Barnabas: Paulie used to run the bike shop. Kenneth used to be in…

Ben Up: Kenneth came late after Paulie died.

Barnabas: Yeah so it was really three for the time being.

Ben Up: Paulie, the brother who passed away, he owned the bike shop and the sound. Channel One sound. Ernest was the man that fixed the one arm bandits and the jackpots.
Barnabas: He was the first technician.

Ben Up: JoJo was the CEO of the whole thing before even the studio. JoJo was the bigger brother so he ran everything. He fixed the jukebox but he still got a man to fix the jukebox. He managed the ice cream parlour even when his mother was running it. So he was the CEO, like a businessman before the studio came in. Ernest would deal with the jackpot because JoJo himself did not own the one arm bandits you know? JoJo only owned the jukebox. Even now Ernest is the expert within the games lounge. Poker, eight line and all those things.

Is it true that JoJo preferred to let Ernest get involved with a more technical parts of the studio?

 Ben Up: No, JoJo dealt with the technical parts too. Because what happened with these geniuses. JoJo is a man who does not play an instrument or have anything to do with that. But this man had ears and had knowledge about the music.

Barnabas: He even mentioned a lot of things to Ernest.

Ben Up: Because even a man who went and had formal training didn't know it like JoJo. JoJo is a man who would listen and when every man was saying “Yeah, yeah, yeah” JoJo would say "Fool ah bloodclaat. Hear back the guitar". He was a genius.

So like Coxsone, he had a musical ear. But it was Ernest who actually started to use the desk? 

Ben Up: It was Ernest who found the sound. Because Ernest is a genius in his field. Mr Perfection.

It was Ernest who found the sound

Barnabas: Music was in Ernest’s blood. Because Ernest loved going to the dance.

Ben Up: Every night.

Barnabas: Because he would go to the dance whenever Channel One played.

Ben Up: He was Mr Perfection. He was not going to stop until that thing was right.

Barnabas: Ernest is a genius for life. He is my teacher. I respect him so much. The whole Chinese family - they gave us the opportunity to become somebody and that is so great.

And the building where Channel One studio was located was an ice cream parlour before?

 Ben Up: That building was the ice cream parlour but that building was also the home of JoJo. They used to live upstairs. When they moved from 1 Maxfield Avenue - that is at the bottom - when they came up there [to 29], everyone lived there. That was their home. Even when the studio was running, it was the ice cream parlour and the bike shop. But outside of that Channel One built-up to become a complete enterprise. Channel One had their own printing, their own pressing plants. Maxie, that is one of the engineers, he was the second one behind Ernest and Barney.

Barnabas: That was Channel One sound technician.

Ben Up: He built all Channel One’s amplifiers.

Barnabas: From boyhood days. That's Lancelot Mackenzie.

Ben Up: He built 11 KT amplifies for Channel One.

Barnabas: And he built the sound system amplifier too.

Ben Up: The reason why that sound was created was because everything had a technical team behind it. Ernest was a technician within games lounge, Maxie was a technician - an electronic technician. Barnabas was a young youth that we had him grow in the music.

Barnabas: I didn't show interest in the technician side. I showed interest in the music. I could have learned if I wanted to.

Ben Up: Bunny Tom-Tom was Channel One selector and the bike fixer. And then he became an engineer too. Souljie came as a soldier.

Barnabas: Souljie was invited there by Bunny. I started showing him how to record.

Ben Up: Barney was the main man that helped Souljie.

Barnabas: Because he used to own a sound called Village Soul Merchant or something.

Ben Up: Remember he used to come as a deejay saying “Ride a white horse to Banbury Cross?”

Barnabas: Rahtid! I didn't remember that! I remember we used to cut dubs for him first. And Bunny and him were brethrens and Bunny invited him to the studio. So Souljie used to cut dubs for his tiny little sound. And then he started to show more interest.

Ben Up: Then he just resigned his work and became part of it.

Barnabas: Then Peter Chemist he used to live next door to me and his mum used to come and clean the studio. So I said to her one morning "Why don't you bring Peter and let me teach him this trade?" And she really took me seriously and brought him and I started showing him around. And he's one of the good engineers too.

In an interview with David Katz, JoJo said that in the early stages of Channel One the sound wasn't good enough and there was an Alton Ellis album that couldn’t be released because the sound wasn't right.

 Barnabas: Yeah that's probably what gave them the vibe. That’s how JoJo and Ernest decided to really go and work on the sound.

Ben Up: Yeah you're right. Because listen now. Sidney Bucknor - those albums were done under Sidney.

Barnabas: And he was recording flat!

Ben Up: No disrespect to Sidney who is a great engineer and the best balancer but when Sidney left Barney and everyone started going into the studio and every man started to say "But hold on. The board has all these sounds". Because Sidney did not touch anything.

Barnabas: Sidney did not touch the equaliser. He just recorded flat. So you are right, I think that's what influenced Ernest and JoJo to come an experiment on the sound.

Ben Up: Remember that Channel One sound that Channel One had? As the owners and producers it was so different from even the producers that used Channel One studio. Because Channel One created a sound around Barnabas and Ernest and Maxie. And one man got a piece of that! Junjo got a piece because Souljie gave him a piece of the mix that way.

Barnabas: And that's where he got those hits from.

Yes you can hear that Channel One sound in his early Barrington Levy. 

Ben Up: Yeah he was the closest to the sound of Channel One.

Barnabas: Because when they decided that was the sound, that's when they did like 40 rhythms on that session you know? With the Wailing Souls, all those rhythms with the Diamonds, Earth And Stone and all of them. The Tamlins.

Ben Up: Hell And Fire. The Meditations. Horace Andy…

Barnabas: Sly didn't have hands enough to play so many songs but he played them. Every day. So that is when Sly started telling them that I could play the drum. I was like his little student. Because he played so much that he got tired and he got sick. He had a stomach ulcer at one time because he was playing so much that he didn't remember to eat.

Sly didn't have hands enough to play so many songs

Read part 2 of this interview here

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