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Interview: Carl Meeks

Interview: Carl Meeks

Interview: Carl Meeks

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"I stopped singing for almost 20 something years"

Sampler

The late 1980s digital era of Jamaican music is mainly associated with deejays. But despite the prevalence of talking over computer tracks, singers kept singing all the while.

One such dancehall crooner was Carl Meeks. Voicing in the pure singjay style with a distinctive falsetto and slur gimmick, he recorded two highly acclaimed albums distributed by Greensleeves: 1988’s Weh Dem Fah (produced by High ‘Redman’ James) and 1989’s Jackmandora (for George ‘The Photographer’ Lemon).

He might be better known outside reggae circles had he not dropped out of the busness, relocating to England and the USA during the 1990s. Yet the pull of the music caused him to restart his career in the 2000s – discovering he had not been forgotten.

Two recent releases have brought Carl further into the spotlight. The first is a compilation reissuing his classic Redman singles, Redman International Dancehall 1985-1989 by Japan’s Dubstore Records. The other is brand new track Fire – the lead single from forthcoming album Revolutionary Journey - for France’s Rub A Dub Mrkt.

Angus Taylor spoke to Carl on Skype from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. The upbeat and friendly Mr Meeks explained how he got involved in music, why he left then returned, and how his new project reflects his lifelong mission to help others.

Carl Meeks

Where and when were you born in Kingston?

I was born in January 14, 1962 in Kingston 13. We call it Frog City. Right around Sugar Minott, Dillinger, Leroy Smart, Triston Palma. Michael Palmer, Triston Palma and Pad Anthony, we went to school together. We went to Norman Manley high school.

What did your parents do for a living?

My mother used to work at a company where they make beers - D&G. They made the Guinness and the Heineken and she used to work in the restaurant. My father, he was a contractor - he built houses.

Was there music on either side of your family?

I would say I get it from my mum. She had a good voice but she didn’t take it professionally. I would hear her and I would say “Oh mum you can sing!” But she was always laughing at me! In the early days she used to sing in church. It was Pentecostal.

Did you sing in school or in church?

In Norman Manley school I used to have a friend who used his pencil to beat on the desk and I used to sing and have a lot of crowd around me. He was very good with that pencil on the desk. Dennis Brown was my favourite at that time so I used to sing a lot of Dennis Brown songs, and that’s the way I got to my own style from that.

What about the radio and sound system? Were they an influence when you were young?

Yes, especially the sound system. I used to get a lot of punishment because I would always go to the dance and sometimes I would go away for days. You know you used to have a truck with the sound system? I used to be on top of the truck driving going miles. Youthman Promotion and Jah Love. When the dance was over we would sleep on the boxes! (Laughs) I would know I was coming home to get some ass whipping but it was worth it! Parents never used to let us do that, we used to have to find our way ourselves and suffer the consequences!

Triston Palma and Beenie Man told me something very similar. When did you first hear Dennis Brown?

It was at Skateland. That was the first place I saw and I heard him. I went up to him, a little kid and I told him how I felt about him. I let him know that one day I hope to do a show with him. And he patted me on the back and said “Yeah!” He didn’t differentiate with anyone. Everyone was the same. Down to earth.

I would always go to the dance. Sometimes I would go away for days

Is it right that you entered the Tastee talent contest? Which year?

It was 1983. I worked at the same place where my mum used to work. When I just left school I was driving the forklift and I had all of the co-workers pushing me and one of my good friends named Milo kept saying “Carl, you can go do this - you can go do this Tastee talent show”.

I went and did the audition because when you’re doing Tastee it was a long line with hundreds of people. I made it and I came second and the only reason why I came second was this guy who used his mouth and blew a trombone. I said to myself “Wow” and he got the crowd going with that. But I was right up there with him because I sang a Johnny Osbourne song Ice Cream Love and that tore the place up. But when he beat me with doing that thing, I went home and I did it myself. It’s so amazing and I have it in my song Where Is Your Culture - at the end you hear a horn blowing and that’s my mouth! (Imitates trombone) When you do it through the microphone you can’t know the difference.

What did coming second in the contest do for you? Who was the first producer or sound system that you linked with from there?

From there it was enough for me to pursue a professional career in music. Yellowman was there too. Yellowman took me from the Tastee talent show down to the Gemini club, gave me the mic and let me sing. So Yellowman introduced me to Gemini and I sang a little on Jah Love and Scorpio and Ray Symbolic but most of the time I never got to touch the mic. (Laughs) It was the early part but when I did get to touch the mic it was a good response from the audience.

How did you first start recording?

George Lemon heard about me and said “Carl, I want to do some work with you”. He was a photographer and every money that he used to take his pictures or whatever he would just go straight to the studio. He was very professional. He knew music. He used to tell me how to turn my voice up, go through the chords and the bars. The style just came out of nowhere when I was rehearsing with him and the falsetto, my initial style, just came out. He used to make sure that he used good musicians because it was Steely and Clevie he got to play the instruments. Firehouse Crew played some too. And Blood Fire Posse.

What was the first tune you did for him?

No More Secrets. Al Campbell gave us that beat and then I practised it (sings) “Girl your love is no more secret… When we were young we used to hide…”

Did you stay with George long or were you looking to record elsewhere?

I got a lot of offers after Haul and Pull Up Selector came out from producers like Jammys and Gussie Clarke, Scorpio, Junjo Lawes. But I was so loyal at that time which helped and it hurt at the same time. It had advantages and disadvantages. But I was very loyal and then he said to me “You know what? Go and branch out”. He was the one who told me to branch out. And that’s when I hooked up with Redman.

My style just came out of nowhere

But your Redman album Weh Dem Fah came out before your album with George Jackmandora?

Yeah. It came out a couple of weeks before. Because I was the one who went to England and negotiated with Greensleeves. George didn’t want to fly. (Laughs) So I the young artist, out of all the other artists I was the youngest one, was getting an invitation letter from Greensleeves to come up and let them hear the album. And the same day when I was going to deal with Sedgwick at Greensleeves, the same day Redman was there with the Weh Dem Fah album, and I had the Jackmandora album.

And it was the first time I got to see Rodigan. I was walking and I heard someone say (sings) “She lay li boom boom bi doom bay”. And I turned round and he said “Carl Meeks, what’s up man?” and I said “Wow. Rodigan singing my song at that time!” Haul and Pull Up Selector. He was doing the slur.

So how did you join Redman?

It was the same good friend of mine Milo that pushed me to the Tastee. He knew Redman. He said “When Redman comes to Jamaica I’m going to hook you up. I’m going to see if he can do something for you”. Redman heard me singing and he said “Yeah I’m going to have studio time at Gussie studio with Souljie, so be there”. He used to rent studios. Most of his work was done at Anchor studio – Gussie Clarke’s studio. I went there and there was the Weh Dem Fah and everything just came right out there. (Sings) “La di da di da di” that was it. I did that song and it just took right off.

Recently Dub Store in Japan re-issued some of the work that you did with Redman. Both as singles and on a 2017 album Redman International Dancehall 1985-89 with some other artists.

Yes, Danger, Weh Dem Fah…

Danger, for instance, has quite a conscious message. Was Rasta part of your life even then?

Yes, I would say. Because I used to go in the country and be around the Dreads them and get the knowledge. Going full force with my diet and everything, just not eating meat, trying to trust honour and obey, doing the right thing and following Selassie I regiment. So Rasta had been around. I didn’t have the dreads but the heart was there.

Was there any particular elder that influenced you?

I’d say Sugar Minott. Sugar was a big influence because I have been around him a lot of times and would listen to his heart and see how he moves. A big influence on me. And Ansel Meditations too.

What about Red Eye Lover? It’s quite a reality tune - was it based on real experience? Did you get into a fight with this woman and her man?

Yes, yes. It’s not at the depth physically but it was very verbal!

You didn’t give anyone a scar? So that was artistic licence?

No, no! (Laughs) Yes, yes.

Sugar Minott was a big influence

Can you just tell me about the combination hit Heard About My Love with Daddy Lilly?

Yes. Me and Daddy Lilly are good friends. We are like brothers. And he is from the Photographer too, he had a couple of songs with the Photographer and I hooked him up with Redman. We just used to just hang out together. Carlton Livingston now was pushing me and I just chose to use his song for the combination, so everything was just crazy! That Heard About My Love is a Carlton Livingston song (sings) “Have you ever heard about my love?” So I just use the combination with me and Daddy Lilly and that was a smash.

So how come George’s album Jackmandora didn’t come out on Greensleeves until after Weh Dem Fah?

I think Greensleeves made that choice because we went there on the same day. It was one of the big shocks seeing Redman and me in the same building in in the office negotiating. I guess Greensleeves made that choice about which one to put out first. The Redman album first. And Jackmandora was the first album that came out on CD in Jamaica.

The album for George - Jackmandora - what does the title mean?

Jackmandora is a kind of spirit in Africa where he is devious gets into people and makes them do bad things. It’s like a voodoo obeah spiritual kind of thing. I just use it to mean cocaine. Because the cocaine is evil and makes people do wicked things so I said “Jackmandora mi nah choose none. The heroin, the crack or the opium.”

This was a time where you started to see a lot of this kind of thing going on in the music industry. And there were a lot of problems with politics. You must have seen quite a lot of bad things going on around you.

Yes. Because I grew up in Kingston 13, a couple of miles from Jungle, a couple of miles from Rema. Kingston 13 is right in the middle of all of those places and I would go back and forth when I was a kid. It’s just good teaching from parents. I was still doing my job driving the forklift. I had two young kids, so I had to look after them. And then the music played a big role to where you know that music is love and I have been blessed to know I have to go and spread the message and it will instil in me to always think positive.

And you could move between the different places in the way that other people couldn’t?

Everywhere because I never used to choose any political adversary. I could go anywhere. And the only time I got close to the politics thing is when Michael Manley was campaigning and he used my song Born and Grow Ya, that kind of did get me a little involved. But by the grace of God I was safe.

The cocaine is evil and makes people do wicked things

Did they ask your permission to use it?

No. I just heard it one day on the campaign truck where they go around. “Nah just come about ya be born and grow ya” because Edward Seaga wasn’t born in Jamaica. So that was the perfect song. (Laughs)

After you put out these two albums what happened next? You said you were branching out more in terms of recording for different producers? Did you start to travel more?

Yeah I used to travel. I went to Trinidad. One of the times I was so amazed when I went to Trinidad and when I was on the plane the stewardesses wanted my autograph. I said “Wow!” One of them said “I can go home and let my family know. That you are on the plane and I have an autograph to show them!” So I was saying “Wow, I’m that popular?” And then I went into a video store in Trinidad and the guy who owns the video store told me Haul and Pull Up Selector was the first reggae music he started really listening to that made him love reggae.

Because it was a hit there in Trinidad?

Yes it was a hit and they still used it on the national radio or TV station. In the opening of a programme they play it.

Carl MeeksSo did you move on from Redman?

I didn’t like move on, we still were corresponding because at that time I still did a little work with him here and there. I really branched out because as I said the Photographer told me “You should branch out you know? I’m not going to hold you, so go and branch out”. So first I hooked up with Jammys and did a couple of recordings and released Worry And Fret. Scorpio released a single too.

And I guess it must have been an easy link to go to Gussie Clarke through the Redman recording sessions?

Yes, I was already there. And he put me on the Dennis Brown rhythm [Rude Girl Sandra] because Dennis Brown again was my favourite so I had to go on the Foundation rhythm you know?

Why was there such a long gap after you put out your first two albums?

This is going to be a great story. I stopped singing for almost 20 something years. I went to England and I started taking up a little thing when I should be dealing with my music. I was in England, I spent six months there and they were calling me for Reggae Sunsplash in the year that Tibet went, that was me who was supposed to go. Redman called me and said they want to put me on Sunsplash and I need to come home.

But I was there in England helping people, bringing people from Jamaica to England and helping them get a better life. Yes I was doing some things and trying to get the money and every time I made money I’d buy tickets for my friends and bring them to England so they can find a nice lady and marry. One of them is owning horses in Jamaica now - very rich. I was an ambassador where that was concerned and my heart was always to help and take care of people and I always said to them in Jamaica “Man don’t get a chance I’m going to try to help you guys”. I was in New York doing the same thing, helping people - it was just like God just sent me on that mission and I wasn’t dealing with the music.

Did you miss doing the music at all?

I was so focused on what I was doing. I love the music, there’s always a passion and love there. Doing the recording and getting involved with the public, I did miss that but it wasn’t my vocation - my vocation was to help people. Because if it wasn’t for me a lot of them I don’t know what they would be doing! Some of them got married and had kids and it was a joy in my heart to see that and be a part of that.

So how did you come back into the music?

I was living in Maryland and a good friend of mine – he’s married to my wife’s sister - he researched and came to me one day and said “Carl! You do all of the songs?” His name is Adam. He said “No man! You got to get back in this thing!” And he was already in New York doing promotion and doing his little thing and he pushed me, started posting up stuff, started pressing up my CDs with my old songs, and there I was right back in it. It was like about ‘99-2000.

Didn’t you do a third album called Righteousness?

The third album never got published. It never came out. The guy that produced the album he got into some things… Scientist mixed all of those songs and recorded them. But something went down and I just spoke to him a couple of weeks ago and he says he’s got to get together now. He’s taking them off the reel and trying to get it as digital download. I can’t believe you know about that! (Laughs) You know the depth of music Angus. Respect! Should be coming out next year though.

But then there was another album Fulfilment?

Fulfilment, that’s one that Carlton Livingston is working on now. He is one of my best singers too and I linked him in Maryland. I used to love to listen to a lot of Carlton Livingston and we hooked up and he helped me to get a lot of work, recording, dub plates shows. He was one of the people who helped me branching back out too.

So as the new century started did you go full time back into the music or are you still doing a job on the side?

No I’m back to it now. I have so many missions, so much work to do. You know the most important part is just my message. God says “None of his children shall sit at the door side and beg bread” so I’m not going to worry about any financial thing I just want to go out there and spread the message.

I have so many missions, so much work to do

I saw you perform about 8 years ago in London at the night called Tighten Up/Trash and Ready where you sang over a vinyl selection by Deadly Dragon.

Deadly Dragon! Jeremy. That was amazing. That was one of the shows that I did where I was just coming back out and feeling to know that everybody still loves Carl Meeks and knows Carl Meeks. And they just responded to the music as if I never left.

And your song Tuff Scout which you recorded for George - you redid the song in 2011 for the English label Tuff Scout on a roots rhythm - Roy Dobson Our Roots Are In Africa?

Yes. He named it after me and then he chose it. He said “I want you to sing this song” we hopped up and he wanted me to record. I had all these songs I wanted to do and he said “No, I want that Tuff Scout”. It just changed up a little! He knew I was coming to London so he already had everything set up and wanted to meet with me.

You also did over Haul and Pull Up for Frenchie. How do you decide which producers you want to work with these days?

That’s the one with Fantan Mojah. Based upon their reputation and the kind of music that they produce. You know that this guy he is dealing with roots and culture music and I’m sure my messages going to go out if I recorded him.

Are you coming to London again?

It’s not a question of if I’m coming to London, it’s how many times I’m coming to London! I love London!

You’ve also had some adventures in Japan.

Japan was a great experience. Knowing that the younger generation is so into my music. A lot of them have sound systems and they will come and they will say they want this song on that rhythm and I say “Look at these 17 or 18-year-olds, these kids are choosing the songs from before they were born. They just know what they want.” When you’re singing the song, the crowd you can just put the mic out there and they’re just quoting every word you say. And the culture in Japan - you would think you’re in Jamaica. The Japanese they don’t play! You would think you were in Jamaica, the accent, and how they relate to the music, and the passion they have for it is amazing. I did a couple of shows and the response from them saying “Yes, yes. I love the vibes and you’ve been around for long I wondered what’s happening to you”. A lot of people think I was dead or in jail or something! (Laughs)

So what about Dub Store - how did they start putting your stuff out?

It’s through Redman and then when I hooked up with them. Redman sold out most of the catalogue to them. But they were good friends of mine different from the business too. We communicate a lot. They are looking forward to doing future works too but the album Revolutionary Journey is going to take up a lot of my time.

Carl Meeks - Revolutionary JourneyTell me about your Revolutionary Journey album…

Yes, a new album coming out very soon. I chose that title for the album because it’s a musical struggle getting your message out and trying to get these youths to really repent from a lot of the negativity. We’re fighting a spiritual warfare so it’s like a revolutionary battle.

I’m working with Kiko from Rub A Dub Mrkt. The rhythms are produced by Kiko and I think Manu Digital had some of the rhythms as well. The way Kiko approached me and how he talked, he created this thing – it’s still Carl Meeks but more mature, more lyrical content. I chose Kiko because he’s a good producer. I see his work. He and my wife they are both very like a regiment! They will drill me. They will make me go in the studio four or five times to do back one song. Which I never experienced before. They are always searching for something better. And when you do what they say and you hear it you say “Man, I’m glad I’m not hard-headed!” (Laughs) I’m just glad I wasn’t hard-headed and egoistic. Humbleness played a good part in this album. And I prayed for that. I prayed for humbleness because that’s one of the key things in life.

What’s the message of the new single Fire?

My wife wrote most of it. And she and Kiko arranged it and drilled me on it. It’s a song letting people know no matter what your past is, don’t let your past haunt you. Because a lot of people, 90% of people, it’s their past haunting them that’s the reason why they can’t move on. But this song Fire is letting you know that you can move on, there can be repentance no matter what you do in life. Because look at King David. He put the man on the front of the battlefield to get his wife and he did a lot of bad things but he repented his sins and he made it to the Promised Land. So the Fire is trying to tell people “Hey wake up, you’ve still got time and no matter what you did in the past, God will take you an open arms.”

When does the album come out?

You have to talk to Kiko about that. I know he wanted to put out another single, either the one with me and Johnny P or the one with me and Mikey General. I’ve got three combinations - one with me and Johnny P named Guidance, one with Mikey General Gwaan And Lef Me just telling the devil to “Go on and left we because we are God bless pickney so just leave us alone”. And one with me Super Dane and Rohan Da Great who is a new sensation who Kiko is producing. He is a new sensation who is blowing up now. We have a song with his uncle and Rohan. Rohan’s uncle is Super Dane. Rohan’s father is Curry Dan. So it’s like a family thing with them. Do we have the song together named Hill and Gully Ride (Sings) “Hill and Gully Ride if your slip you’re going to slide life is a Hill and Gully Ride”. (Laughs) That is talking about the journey in life and don’t take life for granted and respect people and have love for each other and karma and everything.

It’s interesting because when I interview a lot of people who left the music for a time as you did, they often tell me it’s because people mistreated them or they were fed up with aspects of the business. But it doesn’t sound like you have a lot of regrets. You left for positive reasons and you returned for positive reasons.

None. I feel comfortable with myself. Everything works in due time and not before the time. And as you say I don’t have regrets because I helped people along the way and I’m still doing it with the music. I want to give a strong mention about my wife, she plays a big role because for some reason God sent her to me. She just listens to a beat and it’s like the beat is talking to her. We write songs together and she plays a major role and I’m telling you sometimes I have to put my hand in my pocket and bite my lip hard because she comes back on me so hard! (Laughs)

How did you meet your wife?

I went to New York and New York was a little crazy for me. So me and my ex-wife moved to Maryland and then we got divorced and I met my wife there. We just hooked up and I never had any idea she knew music. She used to go on the radio station and rap and win a lot of contests. She even won a contest to go to Hollywood. And she knows music. She doesn’t know it technically with the chords and education but when it comes to the raw, she’s got it. And we had four kids in less than six years! And then she said “We are going to the country, man. We’re going to Carolina where it’s nice and quiet” and we just packed up with the kids and just headed out! (Laughs)

A lot of people think I was dead or in jail or something!

Do you spend much time in Jamaica?

The last time I went was 2008 I did the video for Dreaming in Lime Cay. But with this album coming out now and everything, I have plans and it’s going to be like my second home.

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