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Interview: Alborosie (2018)

Interview: Alborosie (2018)

Interview: Alborosie (2018)

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"My visions! They always carry me to different places!"


Sicilian reggae auteur Alborosie just released his sixth vocal album Unbreakable – Alborosie Meets The Wailers United. The 13 track set marks his 25 th year in reggae: and is the Jamaica-based vocalist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist’s most ambitious and personal project to date.

The band re-convenes former Bob Marley keyboardist Tyrone Downie, bassist Aston ‘Familyman’ Barrett and guitarist ‘Junior’ Marvin. Familyman’s son, Aston Junior, replaces his late uncle Carlton on drums. Their rhythms support an extraordinary cast of guest vocalists - Beres Hammond, Chronixx, Raging Fyah, Jah Cure and J Boog (testimony to Albo’s industry links since he moved to Jamaica in the 90s). Co-composers include Duane Stephenson, the producer Frenchie, and even the rock group Metallica - whose Unforgiven gets a reggae makeover.

Angus Taylor met up with Alborosie on a hot summer’s day in London when most people were watching the World Cup. They talked about his love of the Wailers, being bullied at school, the real story behind his name and his one brief encounter with Bunny Wailer in JA.


This is quite a grand project in terms of musicians, calibre of features, number of writers, even choice of cover songs! Did you feel like it was a big undertaking?

Someone told me I’ve got too many visions! I have to slow down with my visions! (Laughs) But no. I don’t like to feel pressure inside of my studio. So everything happens like build-up one day at a time. So Tyrone came in, played some music, recorded the rhythms and then it’s like “I need a drummer now”. I play the drums for the demo but I needed a different sound so we contacted Aston Junior. And then everything started to sound Wailer-ish. So I sat down with Tyrone and said “Yo, let’s bring in Familyman and Junior - maybe we could try to do something”. At first you know the Wailers were like... [no longer working together] that’s why we united them. So we did a lot of political work to make it happen, to try to bring the energy together - and we did it. We made it.

Do you know Tyrone well then? When did you first meet him?

A couple of years ago. He lives close to me in Kingston. I have my Shengen studio, I have lots of vintage keyboards and he loves that. He comes from that particular era. So he loves to come up there and play my instruments, you know?

I know you’re quite a student of history and I’ve been told several times that Tyrone and Familyman were the first people to experiment with digital rhythms in Jamaica.

Oh yes. Even up to now you can actually see Tyrone experimenting. Tyrone is a great musician. I could say also a genius. For a 62 year old really fooling around the laptop and the plug-ins - you really have to have a a technological mind and be into new things all the time. So I can imagine how advanced he was at that time because I can see how advanced he is now.

Because the first time Tyrone came to me with a laptop with an Xbox and a lot of plug-ins and stuff and virtual instruments, I said “Where you going with that? Do you not see we have the real things here?” He said “Yeah but we love the plug-ins and the ProTools”. Trust me usually the elders they are very old school but he is way advanced! So I can imagine at that time how they really created something new.

I don't like to feel pressure inside my studio

Because you can hear the digital drums on some of the early Bob Marley stuff they did. I’ve heard that the Sleng Teng could have happened 10 years earlier.

Yes! And that was a revolutionary thing to actually be utilising a drum machine and then the whole band play on it. It’s a bit like how we do it nowadays. These people really revolutionised the music a lot.

How is Familyman these days? I saw him at Rototom last year and he was sitting down but he still had the touch on the bass…

Yeah, well he slowed down a bit. He is 72 now so we’re taking it one day at a time. Me and Aston Junior, we helped him a lot.

You told me when I met you in Jamaica that you have a lot of old recording sessions from the 70s. Do you have any old Wailers sessions?

No, I don’t have any Wailers. I have almost everybody but the Wailers. Because with the Wailers you have Chris Blackwell so it’s a bit more complicated! But I see everybody has actual sessions now because I see them online. You go on YouTube and you see people like dubbing the Wailers! So it’s like the new digital mafia! It’s not like me when I started, where to get a session you had to really have some links. Nowadays they just throw them out.

You’re doing a bit more singing than toasting on this album and you’re using more one drop rhythms. Tell me a bit about that.

(Laughs) You should tell me about that! Because it’s just so natural, meaning that in about 2006 we started with the rub a dub. I really consider myself one of the people that really helped highlight the rub a dub style. At that time in Jamaica they didn’t even gravitate around the rub a dub style. Everybody was telling me “This is European reggae. This is not how we play reggae“. And I said “You don’t worry yourself about that - let me worry about it“.

So from that time until now I see every artist kind of going into the rub a dub direction. And then I said to myself “You know what? Everyone is doing the rub a dub - where is the one drop?” So I had to highlight the one drop. I can’t say “bring back” because I don’t bring back anything. I just highlight it because one drop is still there and relevant but it’s just people are distracted right now.

I don't bring back anything. I just highlight it

And then guess what now? I can sing too. So instead of me now always doing the same kind of thing I say “Let me pull something out of my sleeve - something that I never did before. Something more mellow”. You have to listen to the time. And this is a rough time but somehow people want to hear something more spread out, more melodies. Like hip-hop is more spread out. It’s more sing-jay. So I said to myself “Maybe more sing-jay then”. And not because “Let me do this because of what the people like” but I’ve been doing so much of the deejay and I can sing, so let me sing more.

The first track with Raging Fyah is a cover of Metallica’s Unforgiven. I remember in an old interview about moving to Jamaica you made an offhand reference to “staying home and playing my heavy metal music”. So I knew you were into it. Can you tell me about your history with that music?

Oh yes. If you look at me I look very heavy metal. Long hair, usually I wear tight pants. Sneakers and a nice black T-shirt. That’s very heavy metal. I started as a youth in Europe where we are exposed to the radio. In the early 90s, late 80s it was the big classics from the rock. We were exposed to Metallica, Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Deep Purple, AC/DC. So I grew up with my nice little guitar playing the riffs and stuff (sings the riff to Smoke On The Water).

And of course I’m a huge Metallica fan. Unforgiven is one of the songs from their catalogue that really I love the most. So I was there in the studio checking YouTube and I said “Yo, this would be amazing to do this song and it also would be a challenge” because I like challenges as you can see. My visions! They always carry me to different places! So I said “Let me try this Metallica thing with the Wailers - roots reggae version. But of course I’m going to adapt it to my style, so I’m going to utilise the progression, the intro and I’m going to change the melody and create my own song on it.”

Metallica are famously pretty hot on their copyright! How did you find that?

Well that was a challenge because, I don’t know about Europe but in the United States where Metallica is from, you cannot change your song and put it on the album. You have to have their authorisation. You can do a cover but it has to be a faithful cover of the original. So we changed it but they approved. They said “We like it. Go-ahead”. Of course, they took everything! (Laughs) But they could have said “You can’t use it at all” but they said “Yes”.

Perhaps they thought “This could sell!”

They thought this could work! I never knew Metallica liked reggae! So I’m surprised. Maybe next time I’ll do a song directly with them. (Laughs)

You have to listen to the time

Metal has some parallels with reggae. It’s very popular around the world yet you don’t hear it playing so much on mainstream radio. And also you have a lot of purists.

Yeah! But I think the thing that they really have in common is that the two of them are two extremes. One is to the far right and one of them is to the extreme left! And to bring them together is like night and day. But guess what? Night and day go together. It’s funny but sometimes the two extremes, they need each other.

AlborosieYou have a song on the album called Live Conscious. What does “conscious” mean to you?

Live conscious is like we know the right thing to do. We know what is right and what is wrong. Because we went to school. Somebody told us “If you do this it’s wrong - this is right“. We know that we must respect each other, we know that we must live in peace, we know that your neighbour is supposed to be your friend and not your enemy. We know all of that. So we live conscious. We know that I don’t have to take your cell phone and run with it, so when you do, that is not a conscious thing that you’re doing. You know that a conscious thing to do is to say you’re going to live your life and I’m going to respect that. I’m going to respect your choices and whatever. But you know what is good what is bad and what is right and what is wrong. That is when we live conscious.

In America right now people talk about being woke. Isn’t that just the same as being conscious? In Jamaica they’ve been saying it for years.

Yes. There is a revolution going on right now. But I have to say that the propaganda that is coming from the social media sometimes… Some negative things going on are not that huge and powerful but they make it look like that. I’ll tell you because my band is from Jamaica and we travel the world. It’s me and a crew of 20 Jamaican people. And we are cool. We don’t really experience anything like talk about racism and whatever. I can’t tell you that I see people saying “Oh you’re a…” and whatever. We do what we’re supposed to do.

Maybe next time I'll do a song directly with Metallica

In your Contradicton, your song with Chronixx you and he say “contradiction global”. Right now the world is very anti-immigration. Britain is leaving the European Union and the government is making it harder for Caribbean people who have lived here for years. In Italy the government is refusing immigrants. The USA is tearing families apart. But your career is based being an immigrant to Jamaica. Also as part of your job you’ve helped people from Jamaica to travel more. So it’s like the governments and the people who are voting for them seem to be going the other way from your philosophy unfortunately.

It’s not the whole people. It’s just a set of people who right now have the highlight. The video light is on them. So it’s their time now. Life is a cycle. There is no time to waste, it’s a rocky road. So the video light now is on these people. These politicians with this type of mentality, and this set of people. So everybody is looking at them right now. It’s their time now. It was our time a couple of years ago. It’s been our time, now it’s their time and I watch them. Presidents and politicians have terms and years or whatever. Some of them have a few years left - let’s see what is after. But as you can see they move a foot, they make a step, they do this and do that in the people make a big revolution and they will have to step back.

That’s kind of similar to what Chronixx said to me. He said the nationalist era is coming to an end so everything you’re seeing now is the last gasp of the old order.

The more we progress, the more the people are open-minded and that is a fact. People are open-minded. The new generation doesn’t care about countries, black and white. They don’t even need a passport, they just want to fly, they want to make their money, they want to live their life. It’s just the old set of people with their affiliates - and the youngsters that follow them, they will not live long. Not with this mentality. This is the social media. This is a new world, brother. The social media is for everybody, everything makes news. These people are just yesterday’s people and they’ll soon go back to their yesterday life.

How easy was it to get Chronixx and Beres Hammond on the album? Because they don’t do features for Tom, Dick and Harry…

Well, I live there. If I was an outsider it maybe would be a bit complicated. But I live there. These people, I see them, I speak to them. Beres is a legendary artist, he is one of my teachers, and Chronixx is a fresh thing now, it’s a new time, it’s a new vibe. People always come to my studio, they like the environment so it’s just natural. It’s not a marketing strategy. Musician thing.

So I went to Beres one night and I had the rhythm and I said “Yo papa, sing a song here for me now”. Well, you know Beres - you have to work on him! (Laughs) It was a lot of public relations and stuff. A lot of talking! It took me a lot. But it’s worth it. That’s Beres Hammond. Legendary. That’s history. Wow. Legacy. What can I say?

Chronixx is a younger youth, so it’s more like he is interested in coming around and seeing how I do this and how I do that. And I learned a lot from him too because my mission, my journey is always a learning process. And the same thing with Jah Cure, Raging Fyah, one of the few bands from Jamaica, and J Boog is a good friend of mine from California. So the features on the album just came together like a musician vibe. “We link up?” “Yeah man”. But sometimes it took time too. It’s not like they come to you and “Bam - everything happened like that”. There is a process. The album took like two years. From when I released [previous album] Freedom and Fyah, I started work on this thing right away.

The new generation doesn't care about countries, black and white

I noticed that Frenchie has a credit in the writing of that Contradiction song. What did Frenchie do?

Frenchie is my consigliere. (Laughs) I am from Italy and every good mafia guy needs a consigliere! He says “Oh these guys, you’re supposed to work with them” so I say “Let’s do it” because he is the consigliere. He gave me concepts. He gave me ideas for lyrics. He told me which artists, the rhythm - he was like a production manager. I sent him a rhythm saying “I need a combination - who could I do well on this one?” And he was like “Yo this one, this one, this one, this one”. The consigliere.

I noticed on Mission that one of the co-writers is Hemsley Morris Junior. That’s the son of Hemsley Morris, the rocksteady singer who sang for Phil Pratt, right?

It’s Benzly Hype from the Innocent Kru.

This is the same man who does the speaking part on Wailing Dub?

Yes. He’s a movie star in Jamaica. He’s a good friend of mine, he is an actor, so he can really utilise his voice too many different ways.

Songs like Unbreakable, Table Has Turned, One Chord, Under Control the themes are really about resilience in the face of the tough part of life’s journey. You’ve opened up about some of the hard times you’ve been through in your lyrics. You’ve talked about being bullied on Table Has Turned, and you’ve talked about your authenticity as a reggae artist being questioned on One Chord. Why did you decide to open up now, having hinted about your struggles in your lyrics in the past?

This is just a small little part of my journey. When I started I didn’t say a lot of things about my experiences because I don’t like to. I am a person where I work. When you go against the river coming this side and you go against the current, I still do what I’m supposed to do. I still try to push forward. But with time I let go of some little experiences, so you don’t get it all in one time and then the next album you say “I heard that already”. It’s like the singing part coming in place after so many years. 12 years I started. I did sing songs but I never put them together on an album like this. So I just give it to you little by little. So the next thing you don’t really know what to expect. But I went through a lot of experiences. Everyday life like everybody else. Some very bad, some very good. And send them out one by one.

You talk about how people at school thought you were slow. Were you quite a shy person at school?

Yes! I’m still a shy person. When I go on stage I’m very shy, so I learn how to use the autopilot. I’m a pilot but I pressed the button and the autopilot flies me so I don’t have to say anything or do anything! (Laughs)


You told me in the first interview I did with you back in 2008 that your name Alborosie was the response to bullying in Jamaica. You turned a negative insult into something positive. But you wouldn’t tell me what Borosie means. Are you ready to tell me what Borosie means now?

Borosie it was really a way to describe like a “wutless” type of lame - you know “wutless” in Jamaican patois means like you don’t value nothing. Like a bit racial too. So it was a way to really bring down somebody. Utilising a nickname so like “see Borosie deyah”. Like “pop down” “wutless” “lame”. (Laughs) So just a barrage of things. But I liked the sound. I like the sound and I said “Yo”. But you know that was a minor thing. That was not a major situation. It was just experience in life. You have good people and bad people. Who chat too much or don’t talk at all. These people chatted too much.

Do you think these negative experiences have helped you to become more resilient? And to be who you are today?

Oh yes. You know I go through negative every day. My life especially in a country like Jamaica is a challenge. But people have respect for me. Somehow I’ve achieved a lot, so people respect me in Jamaica. They’re not going to cross. They’re going to stay. I have my links them too. (Laughs)

I'm still a shy person

When people first heard you were doing an album with the Wailers they might have thought you were going to be doing some Bob Marley covers, but that’s not what this album is about. Yet one song by Bob seems to surface a couple of times which is Guiltiness.

Surface where?

In the lyrics of Unforgiven and in the rhythm to Table Has Turned.

Yes! You’re smart!

So why did that song speak to you particularly? Does Catholic guilt mean anything to you?

Well, this is an album with Alborosie and The Wailers. So obviously that’s the sound of the band. To me it really sounded like these people are the producers. They created the sound, they really moulded the thing around Bob Marley. So I said to myself “This must be like a 75% Alborosie but a 25% of Wailers too” because as you say I don’t want people thinking we are trying to be Bob Marley. That has nothing to do with Bob. The concept was like Alpha Blondy and the Wailers. That was my concept. So it was just an artist and a band coming together - the artist with the artist sound and the band with the band sound, then merge it and create something unique. Why the Wailers? Because the Wailers is like the foundation. Roots rock reggae. I’m a fan of the band’s sound. Even before being a fan of Bob. Because I’m a musician so I know what it takes to have a sound. It’s not everybody who has a sound you know? You can play bass or drum and you don’t have a sound. You just play. But to have a sound is a gift. So I wanted to utilise that gift, that sound. And that is when this thing came together.

I don't want people thinking we're trying to be Bob Marley

But when it comes to the Guiltiness now? No. In Jamaica there is a lot of good and bad, innocent people and guilty. It’s just to think that especially in Jamaica right now you see a lot of entertainers getting involved in crimes and whatever. So Guiltiness is just a term that is going around a lot. So I utilise it in the album. There is a lot of negative energy right now.

What’s your favourite Familyman bassline?

(Laughs) (pauses) So Much Trouble In The World maybe?

And your favourite Carlie drum pattern?

Crazy Baldhead.

Bunny Wailer told me "I only do combinations with females"

Finally have you had any contact with Bunny Wailer while you’ve been in Jamaica?

Errrrr.... certain things I leave them alone! It’s too much problems! I went to him one time and I said “Yo daddy we could do a combination?” He said “I only do combinations with females”. And I said to him “I’m out.” (laughs)

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