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Interview: Dean Fraser in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Dean Fraser in Kingston (Part 2)

Interview: Dean Fraser in Kingston (Part 2)

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - Comment

"If I fight against other musicians I would be fighting myself"


Read part 1 of this interview

In part 2 of our interview with Dean Fraser, he talks about having hits as a singer, guiding Luciano, Morgan Heritage, Duane Stephenson and Tarrus Riley to success as a producer, and the key influences on his work – with special mention of Nambo Robinson

Dean Fraser

Later in the 80s you became a famous singer. Did you ever feel like you had to choose between singing and playing as your main focus?

No, no, no, no. Singing was never an option really. But in 1988 the singing became something. (Laughs) I was at the top of the reggae charts for like 13 weeks with a cover song called Girlfriend. That was originally done by Bobby Brown and it became a big hit for me in England. So the producer had me do an album called Sings and Blows where I would sing a couple of songs and then play the instrumentals of it. That was Greensleeves who put that out.

In 1988 the singing became something

You also had some interaction with Gregory Isaacs – the Who's Gonna Take You Home album in 1990.

I would say he’s one of my favourite artists. In many ways. Gregory had the greatest sense of humour as a recording artist. He was great to hang around, he was very witty, very musical and he was just different, you know? He was just a great character. I just loved playing in studio and out of studio on stage with him.

You had a productive relationship releasing works through VP records in the 90s. Albums like Moonlight, The Verdict, Slow Melodies, Tribute To King Tubbys, and Retrospect. As well as working on their releases for other artists as musician and producer.

I remember doing Sanchez, I did Freddie McGregor, I did Morgan Heritage. I did a big song with them. Down By The River. And Luciano. I did two Luciano albums. Two or three with VP. Some of my own albums along with Fatis at VP. And then I did Duane Stephenson, of course Tarrus. It's been a ride.

Gregory had the greatest sense of humour

So how did you go from playing on people's and your own records to producing?

Alright. The first time I was going on tour with D Brown, of course D Brown had super hits at the time. Ain’t That Loving You, Money In My Pocket, so in 1979 I was heading to London. The singer called Ruddy Thomas said to me "You should never go to London without a two track tape". I didn't know what he meant at the time. Without a two track tape? What is he talking about? So I said "What are you talking about?" He said I should try and produce a song and then take the master to England so someone would put it out and I could make money from it.

At that time as a young musician we didn't have the internet like now so we had to buy records. So if you came to my house in the 80s, we wouldn't be sitting here we would be stepping over records! (Laughs) The whole house from wall-to-wall was LPs. I found this song, this actor called Leif Garrett did a song called When I Think Of You. So I just went into the studio, produced the song and said to Ruddy "What should I do now?" And he said "You need to voice the song". I said "Okay, who is going to voice the song?" He said "You want me to do it?" And I said "Yes". So Ruddy Thomas voiced the song, I did the harmonies myself and we went in the studio and mixed the song. Ruddy took the tape to England and the next thing Ruddy has the biggest song in England. That is where it all started. 1979.

So were you producing all that time since?

I just tried. Once. And that is what happened.

So when did you start saying “This is something I want to be doing a lot”?

That happened and then I remember Hawkeye coming to Jamaica, did an album with Ruddy Thomas, but he wanted me there so I would supervise things. So I was moving from there to Gussie Clarke to Donovan Germain so then I understood exactly what I was doing. After that it grew and then I took over Xterminator stuff where I sat there days upon days co-producing and recording.

Tell me about how, say, Gussie Clarke's operation differed from Fatis or Germain’s?

Well, Gussie’s operation is that Gussie would know, he would have an idea of what he wants. So Gussie would come here and say "Come here Cannon" - he is one of those who called me Cannon - and he would try to explain to me what he would like and what he wanted to hear. And I'd say "Ok". I even remember when I was doing the harmonies for Champion Lover he didn't like the "Kill them with it ah ah ah I want to kill you with it". He didn't like it and I just said to him "Mix the song". And he said "Alright, I will go with you".

Fatis would have an idea from the outset and he would say "Cannon I think we should do a Dean Fraser plays Bob album" so that is where his visions were. His visions were far out and then I would bring them to the fore. Germain was a lot like Gussie. They were brethren also. So of course they would have their ideas. And they would come and say "This is what I would like to do and blah blah blah". They came with some kind of idea.

Tell me about how you formed 809 band in the 80s.

Dean Fraser809 came out of Nambo. He wanted to have something that would belong to us. Nambo was always like that. He was always wanting to be kind of self…


Yes. So 809 came directly out of Nambo wanting to do that. So after a couple of years with We The People we said "Alright Lloydie this is what's going to happen now. We're going to try something for ourselves". So we went around, we chose musicians and all of that, until 809 became 809.

How did you first meet Luciano?

Through 809. We set up this rehearsal room on Grove Road and we called it the 809 rehearsal room. Lots of people came there in the days because at that time 809 rehearsed whether we wanted to play or whether we had to play not. So a lot of people would just come and everybody would say "Yeah we are going to 809" so it used to be the hangout spot. That's the first place that I met Luci, first place I met Sizzla, first place I met Buju. Because they'll would come.

And there you were again at the heart of another new movement in the music.

That’s right. Then Mr [Homer] Harris brought Sizzla to me and said "You need to record him". Which I did. (Laughs)

Mr Harris brought Sizzla to me and said "You need to record him"

I think we should also mention your critically acclaimed jazz influenced solo album Big Up! released by Island in 1997.

Of course again, this was also a brainchild of Trevor Wyatt and he just said "Dean, come on let's try this man". But the magic that came out of that was when we got to New York. Idris Muhammad who is a great drummer from the 70s, he was there. So what we did with the album is we had two drummers playing at the same time. Sly was playing on one side of the record and Idris Muhammad on the other side. And it was Wayne Bachelor played bass, Jon Williams played keyboard, Maurice Gordon played guitar - it was really an exciting thing. We just went into the studios and just played.

Tell me a bit more about Morgan Heritage and Down By The River on your remake of the Cables’ What Kind of World.

I had called the session. Sometimes we would just get a 16 track tape, call the musicians, put the tape on and either play old rhythms or make up new rhythms. I did the What Kind Of World rhythm and I recorded, packed up and went home. Two days later I went to the studios and I said to the engineer "Put that 16 track on and let me listen to it." I just sat in the studio and all of a sudden this track came up (sings bass line). I said "We recorded that a couple of days ago?" And he said "Yes".

So I called Freddie McGregor, I called Lukie D, I called Morgan Heritage and I called one other person. Freddie McGregor came to the studio and we wrote a song. I think we were doing Sizzla in the studios and Morgan Heritage was working in the other studio. Peter came over to me and said "I have the song. I'm ready". I said "I am working over here" and he said "I have studio time over here". So I just took the tape over to the other studio and I just voiced Peter and then I voiced Gramps. I told them "That's it". And they were like "But, but, but" and I said "That's it". And then I took my harmony singers the Daffodils and I did the harmonies and everything. And that song just became the biggest thing.

Duane and Tarrus could listen, they could retain, they could execute and understand

Tell me about Duane Stephenson and how you first encountered him.

Duane Stephenson has an uncle called Michael Rutherford. Michael Rutherford went to school with me so when Duane came as a singer and started to perform in the institutions he came from, Michael Rutherford told him to find me. So I'm in the studio at that same time doing that same Morgan Heritage song. And Duane Stephenson came. He said "My uncle Michael said that I must contact you." So I said "Okay" and he brought five other guys and said they were called To Isis. I said to him "If Mikey says you can sing then you can sing so I'm not even going to give you an audition. I want you to bring me a song that I can record".

So they brought some songs and I said I never liked any of the songs. And then Duane came one day with this song called Ghetto Pain. And I said to them "That is the song" and I recorded them. And afterwards they had a little difference between the group and myself and I said to Duane "Duane, I am not going to fight with the group - we have a record to make. Are we going to make it?" And he said "Yes". So we made August Town album.

What was it about him that made you want to continue to associate with him?

He is what you call dedicated. He is smart. He understands and he retains. So when I got to Duane Stephenson I also got to Tarrus Riley at the same time. And they both could listen, they could retain, they could execute and understand. That was the most important thing.

Dean Fraser & Tarrus Riley

How did you meet Tarrus Riley?

I met Tarrus years ago from the days of Sunsplash. Tarrus was just this little boy walking behind his father and for some reason he would touch me and say "Who is that?" "Why is that?" "Where is that?" "How is that?" I used to say "What is wrong with this little boy? He's always…" Then in about ’98 there was a singer called La Vasca who was Tarrus’ best friend. They came to Jamaica to do some recording. They had started the recording in Miami but it never worked. So they decided to come here and ask me to co-produce everything which I did.

La Vasca was great, a very good writer, he was more like a folk reggae singer but even with all of those talents… They lived at my house so I would come through the door in the nights and I had a piano and when I'd come down no matter what time of the night, Tarrus would be there on the piano singing something. I would say "Hi Tarrus" and I would go into my room and leave the door open and I would just listen to everything he was doing.

I had to trick Tarrus into coming to the studios

I said to the guy who is financing the record "I think Tarrus is really good". He said to me "I don't think it's a big thing. I don't think Tarrus has it. He is shy.” So I said "Well I beg to differ". And then Tarrus himself didn't have the confidence either so I basically had to trick Tarrus into coming to the studios. I made it seem as if he was just writing the songs for someone else. I basically had to put that in his mind. And so we did an album called Challenges and nobody paid it any mind until a disc jock from Irie, Ron Muschette picked up on a song called Larger Than Life. He played it every morning on the radio. He just played it until Tarrus started you know?

Then I went on a tour about a year later and I discovered a new artist called John Legend. I bought his album so throughout the tour I listened and, of course, you know the world was crazy about other songs but I couldn't get past Stay With You. I just couldn't get past it. So I came back and I said "Tarrus, let's do another album". And Tarrus said "Yeah?" I said "We don't have the money to finance this but will do it one song a month or week. I am just coming back from tour and I am going to use my money to record this song". So we did Stay With You and we recorded everything and everything just went big after that!

I feel like we've left out the women a bit so I'd like to ask about Alaine who is part of the Jukebox management crew with you and Tarrus but also about the Daffodils and what they brought to your music?

Oh that's nice. Daffodils came about in the mid-90s. Daffodils was a group of ladies that I took. Two of them worked at LOJ, it was called Life of Jamaica, now it's called Sajicor - a big insurance company. Unfortunately both of them are deceased now. Althea died, Althea was buried today one year ago. Connie died maybe two years before that. Both of them died of natural causes. But I got them to leave their jobs in the evening and come to 809 and I have them rehearse and practise and this went on for almost a year until I said "You're going to be Luciano’s backup singers". That was the next move. Sherida came on a little later and we have the perfect trio.

But then we had other ladies like Michelle, Nikki Tucker. These were ladies who were also part of Xterminator crew and we played and sang on lots of hits and it was a nice family. Alaine, I met her years ago. But I only started to work with her about two years ago when I produced a song on her album and then she became a part of our whole Jukebox fraternity so we took her on tour with us.

The next phase or shift in reggae is that today reggae is being made and played by producers and bands all around the world… You have worked for years with with people in the UK like Mad Professor and Peckings but in recent times you can be heard on playing Skateland Sax for Frenchie, on the Penthouse rhythm for Jugglerz and maintaining your presence internationally.

Right. I think that is because, it’s the same as in the 90s when the music started to change. You create a distinct sound and you could say it's the sound of reggae and people for whatever reason from all parts of the world love to have that sound on their records. I seem to have touched them with the sound of my horn so everywhere I go people would come from the Eastern Bloc or anywhere and they want me to be a part of the thing. For some reason I may have been lucky too but, yes, I am able to stand that.

My influence in production came from Geoffrey Chung

Your production style is very distinctive. It's definitely roots reggae but it has a smooth sound.

A quality.

A sophisticated sound that can cross borders where some of the more overtly raw kind of reggae would struggle. Who has influenced you in going that way?

Good question. My influence in production really and truly came from Geoffrey Chung.

Now Generation.

Yes. That is a producer that you don't hear about. People don't talk much about him but he is the person that taught me a lot of things when it comes to production. I sat with him. I used to spend days in the studios with him just to see all these miracles he did. He would turn a 24 track recording into a 48 track recording. He was just fantastic. And I noticed his music was roots but his music had the highest level of quality. So I think I picked up that straight from Geoffrey Chung.

And is there anyone outside of Jamaica? Is Quincy Jones a production influence?

Quincy Jones production is most influential to me personally. I heard about Quincy Jones from my bandleader Sonny Bradshaw when Quincy Jones was a trumpeter. I started to follow the whole Quincy Jones thing right until when he really made it big with Thriller. I followed him with James Ingram, Patti Austin, Kevin Campbell, George Benson, he produced all these top rank albums. These were basically all dance music but the amount of music that was there it was just fantastic. That was something to notice and I did.

Early in 2017 you gave an interview about the squabble at Rebel Salute. There's no need to go into the circumstances of what happened but what was important was that you said you'd never had an argument in the business. Why is that?

I totally will agree with you right now that I am not even interested in that. But it was just strange that my name came up in something that I had nothing to do with. I don't want to have anything to do with when people sometimes tend to want to get you involved in things that are…


Yes, drama could be the right word. I am not interested in that. I really I am into music to be and to do the best I can. I am not into music for anything else. And all this bullshit about who fights against who? All of that crap, seen? I just want to make it abundantly clear that if I fight against other musicians beside me I would be fighting myself.

Finally, there is a select group of people of your generation or who came up in the 70s who are still active today in terms of the respect of the industry but also in terms of directing younger artists. Do you agree?

I do.

I am into music to be and to do the best I can

There’s yourself, Clive Hunt, Lloyd Parks…

And Nambo. Nambo was always the person who went even further than I did. He went to the School Of Music and he took out the young musicians and taught them that "This is ska, this is important." "This is Mento - this is also important." "This is rocksteady - this is also important".

So he is one of them. A lot of what I did I took it from him. In that sense that I think it is my duty to really get the younger musicians to think a certain way. You understand me? To revisit our music, and when I say revisit I mean, go back to ska, go back to rocksteady, go back to… we used to have some reggae that we used to call housewife reggae. And then you have instrumentals and reggae in all different formats.

You had reggae ballads, like I Want To Wake Up With You, and then you have what they used to call lovers rock in England? So it is good that we are able to say "Look, this is what this was. This is what this was". When you listen to people like Peter Hunnigale, Sandra Cross, 15 16 17, Brown Sugar, these were young British people who just sang wicked and had a lot of quality. They may not have had rootsy feeling but they had all this quality about them.

Because one of the problems we had here in Jamaica is a lot of the women were afraid to do this. And it's a different thing now. The women they are ready. So it is my duty to really point a youngster in the right direction and say "Look, try to do this. Try to do that. Use your head. Be very serious in what you want to do or what you can do." That is why I am here.

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