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Dennis Alcapone interview part 1

Dennis Alcapone interview part 1

Dennis Alcapone interview part 1

By on - Photos by Angus Taylor - Comment

"There's a lot of muck in the music at the moment"


Read part 2 of this interview

Dennis Alcapone (born Dennis Smith, Clarendon, Jamaica, 1947) was one of the first reggae deejays, who, along with U Roy, turned toasting over records into an art form. Voicing rhythms in a distinctive, half-sung style, he worked with a who’s who of Jamaican producers including Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd, Keith Hudson and Bunny Lee, cutting an incredible number of records in the early 1970s. A resident of the United Kingdom since 1974, Dennis met up with Angus Taylor at Fatman Sound’s headquarters to discuss his entire career. Part one of the interview can be read below…

Dennis Alcapone

Let's start at the beginning. Your started on El Paso Hi Fi. You formed that sound yourself.

Yes with a friend named Winston Cameron.

Why was it called El Paso?

There was a song that we used to love called El Paso by Marty Robbins. And there was a sound in the area named El Toro so we decided to name our sound El Paso. (sings) "DOWN IN THE WEST TEXAS TOWN OF EL PASO" - you know that song? It's a wicked song by Marty Robbins. A country and western song called El Paso.

Country music was big back then?

All music. We didn't partial. Just loved music full stop. But country and western was one of our big favourites.

Many people outside reggae are confused by the name deejay as it corresponds to what they would call “emcee”. But when you first performed you played records as well.

Right. We used to spin the disc - vocals and instrumentals on the sound system - and by playing the instrumentals, that's how we developed our toasting deejaying skills. It was wonderful man! Really exciting. Whenever you played the vocal and the deejay take over we'd take the dance to another level - raise the temperature in the dance. A lot of excitement.

You and U Roy are often thought of as the first deejays. But there were quite a few others around. Who were your main influences?

Well before me and U Roy - long before me and U Roy - there were people like Sir Lord Comic, Count Machuki, King Stitt, King Sporty, Prince Ruff, there were a lot of deejays in the early stages. But we kind of changed the deejay thing you know? U Roy broke out first on the rocksteady rhythms, making a proper record. Making a record with lyrics from start to finish which is not what the previous deejays used to do. So that's how we change it and that's how everything becomes a business where the deejays were recognised. Before that deejays weren't recognised too much. It was like you’d go to the dance and string up the sound, introduce the records and announce the next dance that's coming. There wasn't the recognition that we guys got when we changed it and started making our own records. We had our own identity - just like the singers.

You first recorded for Keith Hudson after he heard you perform. What was he like to work with?

Keith Hudson was a good guy man. Keith was a friend. He showed me a lot of things in the music industry. Keith was the first one who helped me to open a bank account. Showed me how to do it and bought my first stage gear. Keith was a good guy - unfortunately we lost him - but he was a major part of and a major player in my career. Keith Hudson is the one who started me on the road. Keith left Jamaica in the 70s like myself and he was here for a while and then he went to New York. I spent most of the time here - between here and Jamaica.

Did you stay in touch?

Not a lot but when he came over sometimes we'd bump into each other. Keith was trying to make a career for himself outside producing. He was doing a bit of singing himself. And at that time I was absent from the music business for a while because I got married and decided to have a family life. I wasn't active at that time so I didn't see a lot of people.

We'll return to that period shortly, but after you recorded with Keith you went to Clement Coxsone Dodd.

Yes. I made probably about 10 songs for Keith and then I went to Studio 1 and started working for Coxsone. I did a lot of records for him. The first record I did for him was a record called Nanny Version - a version of Larry Marshall (or Larry & Alvin) Nanny Goat.

And it was around this time you changed to Alcapone.

That was the exact time because when I was working with Keith I was using my real name Dennis Smith. When I went to Coxsone I told him to call me Dennis Alcapone because that's the name my friends and colleagues used to call me. It was my alias so I told him to use that name.

Why did they call you that name?

Well that named arrived from us going to the cinema one night to watch a movie with Rod Steiger - an Al Capone movie [Al Capone, 1959]. Coming home from the theatre we were joking and acting out the film when someone commented that I was going on like Al Capone. (laughs) The guys them started laughing and I remember I woke up the following day with the name Alcapone!

Do you see yourself as being like Al Capone in any way?

No no no! (laughs) I'm Alcapone of the music industry not Al Capone of the gangster world!

You were, however, one of the first deejays to take a gangster name.

Yes as far as I know.

There is a lot of media furore over gangsterism in music today. Has it always been so or are things different now?

Things have changed a lot. Because when we did music we did with a lot of love and respect. We entered the music for the love of it and we did music for the love of it. We didn't do it for the gains that are presently in the business. You know there's a lot of money floating around, and there is a saying, "where there's money there's muck". There's a lot of muck in the music at the moment. People doing derogatory lyrics, talking about gun lyrics and all kinds of discrimination. It's a different era - and it's not just in the music industry. It's unfolding around you every day in all walks of life. Everything changed. You see kids killing kids. We didn't experience that when I was growing up. I never saw a kid kill another kid when I was growing up. If it happened it happened very rarely. That was not something that happened like what's happening around us now. The whole world has changed. You didn't see people strapping bombs on themselves and blowing up themselves. Killing now is just becoming like the norm. When I was growing up, when someone died it was a big thing but now it's like an everyday thing. So the whole world is revolving. It's like a different time we're living in. A perilous time. You leave out your home you're not sure to come back because you don't who you're going to meet out on the street. Because people are just cold hearted.

Now, obviously, you used gun lyrics yourself. But they weren't glorifying guns. Is that what you're saying?

No they weren't offending lyrics. Like when I did Guns Don't Argue, if you listen to the lyrics, I said "I'm a defender, not an offender". Because all times in life you'll have people that are trying to test you. In every walk of life, even when you drive on the street there's someone trying to cut you up and badmouthing you or whatever. The temptation is out there all around you. That was what it was all about, "I'm a defender, not an offender". I wouldn't go out and offend people.

Now your period with Coxsone was a very creative period. How much was Coxsone involved in the recordings?

He wasn't. It was just me and Sylvan Morris the engineer, Larry Marshall, and sometimes Leroy Sibbles in the studio. We had a lot of artists around at the time but Coxsone would just come in in the evenings and listen to what we made. He was on the road doing his business but he wasn't in the studio.

Would you say engineers are underrated in reggae history?

Well a lot of people are underrated in reggae history to be honest with you. Because the real players most of the time they don't get mentioned. A lot of producers are "executive producers". You have people that go in and do the stuff - do the practical work - you have some guys that don't get no mention. They are the real producers. They are the ones that have the ideas! (laughs) They are the ones who tell the musicians what to play and tell the artists what to sing.

The ones that actually get the music out of the musicians rather than give the thumbs up or thumbs down at the end.

That's it. And you have a lot of other people who take that credit. There's a lot of that that goes on in Jamaica you know?

Who would you say have been underrated from that period of time?

Dennis AlcaponeE.T. - Errol Thompson. He was the one who was responsible for Joe Gibbs productions. You have Sylvan Morris at Studio 1. You have people like Niney The Observer - he does a lot of work in the background as well. You have some of the musicians like Lloyd Charmers and people like those. There's a lot of people that haven't been mentioned upfront. It's like, I was watching a Motown documentary recently, and they were actually telling you about the real people that were making the music but didn't get no mention at all in those days. You hear about the Diana Ross and The Smokey Robinsons of this world, the Jackson 5 and whoever was at Motown. But you didn't hear about these people and these people were the arrangers and the musicians.

Who was this, The Funk Brothers [Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, 2002] ?

I can't remember their names but there was a recent documentary on it and they were showing you the people that was making the music. And these people didn't get a mention. There was no credit for them.

How come you left Coxsone? Was it money?

There wasn't any finance coming forward. There was no money. There comes a time when you have to stop and look around you and see what's going down. Because, like I said, we entered the music for the love of it but we did not realise that so much of the music were being sold. And not just in Jamaica, also abroad. We never knew that reggae music was selling abroad. We thought it was just Jamaica until I did my first tour. When I did my first tour I realised what's happening. When I came to England I even saw an album with me and U Roy called Version To Version. I didn't know those things existed. So that's when I sat back and took stock of what was happening. People were making money but we were making none. We were getting the praise but not the raise! (laughs)

Then you went to Duke Reid and recorded many great tunes. Teach The Children was a huge hit. It showed your philanthropic side.

I did my first tune for Byron Smith, which was Duke Reid's engineer. That's how my association started with Treasure Isle. Byron Smith was the great engineer what engineered all those big hits in the rocksteady and ska eras. I did a song for him called Barb Wire, a version of Barb Wire by Nora Dean, which he called El Paso. But because I was working for Coxsone, he didn't put Dennis Alcapone on his label. He put El Paso, because they used to call me El Paso from the sound. His label was Baron's. So Duke Reid had done a song with John Holt, a version of [Jean Knight's Mr Big Stuff called] Sister Big Stuff, and Duke wanted to "version" the rhythm. He said to call me and that's when I did Teach The Children on that rhythm which was number one on both radio stations for quite a while in Jamaica. That song runaway you know? So then I did Wake Up Jamaica for him and Number One Station, Deejay's Choice - a lot of hits came out of Treasure Isle.

Lyrically Mr Big Stuff isn't exactly socially commentary. How did you decide to take that rhythm and talk about teaching the children?

Well to be honest with you was more or less Duke's idea. He was the one who actually instructed me to do it like that. Because Duke was a man who was different from Coxsone. He was always around. Duke's studio was upstairs, his liquor business was downstairs and he had a speaker wired in from upstairs to the liquor store so he'd be listening to what's going on upstairs. If he didn't hear what he wanted to hear you'd hear him coming up the stairs with his guns! Coming up well armed! Rifle over his shoulder, guns in his gunbelt, even his water bottle and his grenade on him! Duke was a character. (laughs) If he came upstairs and things were not going right he'd lick two shots in the air! Get everybody on the alert.

Then you went to Bunny Lee and did tunes like Guns Don't Argue and Ripe Cherry.

Yes, Bunny Lee was always there somewhere along the line. Because me and Bunny were friends. We used to move up and down. Bunny used to give me his car to drive. Me and Bunny we go way back when. I did a lot of tracks with Bunny as well. A whole lot of recording.

Of course Bunny didn't have his own studio like Duke.

No he didn't - which is why we had to go to places like Dynamic, Randy's and Harry J. We were also the first ones to record at Channel One. When we did Cassius Clay we did the rhythm at Harry J and Bunny said, "you know something? Jo Jo [Hookim] is opening up a studio - let's go and sample it". And we took the tape from Harry J and went straight to Channel One and did Cassius Clay and Delroy Wilson did Can I Change My Mind.

So when you were with Bunny you just worked with the house engineer at whichever studio you were at?

Yes. At Randy's you had E.T. - Errol Thompson. At Dynamic it was Carlton Lee and sometimes Lynford Anderson - Andy Cap - or Carl Patterson. A lot of work went on at Dynamic because it was one of the main studios that we worked.

Which was your favourite engineer to work with?

Without a doubt it was Sylvan Morris man. He was a vibes man. The vibes engineer. A lot of the engineers that you work with will sit around the board and fiddle with the knobs. Morris was up on his feet (clicks fingers) giving me the vibes.

So you know how well you're doing.


And who was your favourite producer?

(thinks) If I was to give you a favourite producer, I think I would say Duke Reid.

You did Ripe Cherry with Bunny on the rhythm to Cherry Oh Baby. What happened to Eric Donaldson?

He's still working. He's still doing festival songs. He won quite a few times after Cherry Oh Baby. He had quite a few festival winners. He's a king in Brazil! (laughs) I went to Brazil probably about four years ago and me, him and the Pioneers were on the bill - a wicked show! They love Eric Donaldson down there man, like food!

Read part 2 of this feature-length interview on United Reggae where Dennis discusses the remainder of his career, the recent film Rocksteady – The Roots Of Reggae, and shares his memories of the great Alton Ellis.

Photos copyright Angus Taylor 2009
Reproduction without permission of United Reggae and Angus Taylor is prohibited.

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