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Interview: Lloyd Brown

Interview: Lloyd Brown

Interview: Lloyd Brown

By on - Photos by Sista Irie - 1 comment

"I was not born in Jamaica and I don't think that should be a handicap to me or my music"


Lloyd Brown is surely the single most consistent force in reggae - British or otherwise - with a string of hit songs and critically acclaimed albums over some 28 years. He first broke through in the harmony group Sweet Distortion, played Otis Redding in the groundbreaking musical Black Heroes in the Hall Of Fame, and carved out a career in the nineties as one of the biggest names in male Lovers Rock, alongside the likes of Peter Hunnigale and Don Campbell. Next came a shift in a roots direction, inspired by Buju Banton's own transformation via 'Til Shiloh, with the tune Power Of Jah on Saxon's relick of Fabian's Prophecy rhythm. Since then he has begun producing himself, cleverly using vintage samples, nicely-produced digital drums and live instruments from friends to avoid the usual sound compromises forced by budget. His 14th longplayer Cornerstone hit stores this November and it's his most diverse and special-guest-heavy yet. Angus Taylor spoke to him at home in Essex about the new record, why he doesn't like being labelled a "UK reggae artist" and much more...

Lloyd Brown

You seem to be alternating between very “reggae” albums like Silver and For Your Consideration and more eclectic albums like Brownie Points and Cornerstone. Is this deliberate?

Yes, by way of waking people's ears up to what I do and my influences. Although I love reggae I love other genres as well. Anything goes so long as it has an emotive quality. If it warrants a reggae relick so be it. If covering something in a reggae style will take something away I'll record it in its original form.

Why does Cornerstone have such an enormous number of guest combinations?

Lloyd Brown - CornerstoneIt was very organic by nature. I didn't want to put this many songs on the album but my creativity doesn't let me be. I always end up with 15-18 songs because I like to fill up a cd. It wasn't an orchestrated thing - a combination was just the natural way to go on a lot of those songs. It didn't even come to my attention until I read numerous reviews that said I had 11 collaborators! That even shocked me! That's got to be in the Guinness Book of Records or something!

Your previous four albums were co-released with Cousins records. This is the first album put out by your own company Riddimworks alone. What led to this decision?

There was nothing acrimonious between myself and Cousins. They truly respect me as an artist and my ambition and direction. But the way the industry is moving with the whole digital revolution and also with me working in America for the last three years, the one criticism I had with my last album For Your Consideration was nothing to do with the content - just its availability. From the dj's perspective it was hard to get a copy of the whole album. But even if the album was distributed properly in America, you still have to be a tangible entity by being there in person so they can get to know you by seeing you perform rather than just hearing a song on the radio or mp3 player. People like Tippa Irie have been in the US market for quite some time with Pato Banton, The Black Eyed Peas and Jurassic 5 and I saw what he was doing and thought, "there's nothing to stop me from doing it right now". No disrespect to the UK but they were spoilt by the amount of material they were receiving from me but with the world not receiving it as well.

Let's talk about some of your many guests on the album by starting with Curtis Lynch. You've released his voice on a lead vocal for the first time ever - is that right?

Curtis is one of the most prolific young producers we have right now. I've admired him since a while back and the respect has been mutual. We'd always wanted to work with each other but due to our commitments it was not to be. Then he did a remix of Stress with Tippa Irie on the General rhythm and I wanted him to collaborate on For Your Consideration but he was working with Etana getting her album together. So for this album I phoned him and said, "I want you to be on this album and it won't be released unless we collaborate so you've got my career on your conscience!" He sent me rhythm tracks for my approval and I heard one with him singing guide vocals where it so happened that the lyric was "the stone the builder refuse shall be the head cornerstone" when I already had Cornerstone as the title of the album! So I phoned him up and said, "I'm using your vocal tracks" and he said, "No! No! No! It's a guide vocal!" but I said, "I don't care, I'm using your vocal tracks and it's going to be a coup for me because it will be the first time you've sung on anything you've produced!" I can't pass that up!

Although I love reggae I love other genres as well. Anything goes so long as it has an emotive quality.

Then there's the roots track No Thank You, on the Punky Reggae Party rhythm, which has the biggest number of combinations. Nereus Joseph is an old friend, Matic Horns you've been working with for a long time, but how did you get General Levy, Top Cat and Macka B all on one track as well?

It's just through mutual respect. We'd meet up at events, exchange numbers and say "we must do something... blah blah blah." But the way I make my albums is organic and I wanted to put a real rockers-steppers tune on the album. I'd already relicked Aswad Warrior Charge on my album Against The Grain, and another I always wanted to do was Bob Marley's Punky Reggae Party. There are two versions - the three minute thirty and the nine minute forty-five second version where you hear Bob scatting and you really hear the blues influence through that man. It also paid homage to the punk movement which really walked side by side with reggae in the mid '70s. So I wanted to bring the rhythm to a 2K10 vibe and for the horn line Matics were the first and only choice. And because of the richness of that track it didn't make sense to have any new artists - just veterans from my era. Nereus, General Levy and Top Cat all came to the studio but Macka B was about to leave for Jamaica so he just sent me the vocal and did an "e-session" with me.

You use Bob Marley samples in very creative ways on your albums. It’s like you’re saying, “Let’s embrace Bob but use his music to create something new”.

I would agree with that. I'll say on record that out of all the Marley children I really rate Stephen Marley in terms of his production skills. When he did the Chant Down Babylon album the reviews were kind of mixed but I really loved the concept of taking Bob's vocals and putting them in something surreal while still staying integral to his message. The collaborations went from Lauren Hill to Stephen Tyler from Aerosmith and that just showed me the versatility and open-mindedness of Stephen's production. It wasn't that I copied him but I just found myself not wanting to go down the route of just reproducing "Bob Marley" tracks or having a "Bob Marley-esque vibe". I just wanted to do something fresh and inspire: not only to honour Bob - as you should - but to give my take on his influence.

You held an informal online poll for which songs your fans wanted to hear you cover. As usual there are quite a few cover versions. Which did your fans suggest and which were your own decisions?

There were so many but the one that featured the most was [Cliff Richard's] Miss You Nights. But the strange thing was I already had that one recorded so I was just trying to feel people out and find out where their heads were at. One fan on Facebook suggested that song because her mother liked it and that was good enough for me! Some of the songs were very predictable in terms of very soulful artists like Luther Vandross, who I rate and admire, but my influences are bigger than that. Lloyd BrownThere are certain songs that I won't cover because they're so good and produced so well that they just cannot be bettered. Like some Marvin Gaye songs. I tried covering Inner City Blues and it was a nice version but after I listened to that deep album [What's Going On] again and heard that final track I thought, "It doesn't make sense to cover any of Marvin's songs". He nailed it and he nailed it with improv - you can't emulate improv from an artist like that.

What else do you look for in a song to cover?

I don't cover songs that other people have covered more than once. I love Sting's Fields Of Gold but I won't cover it because it's been done and Maxi Priest has done it from our end. Sharing The Night was the exception! I thought it was a Delroy Wilson tune and when I heard the Dr Hook cut I thought, "Let's do it properly now!" No disrespect to Delroy, his version is good, but he repeats the second half of the first verse through the song which is wrong. When you hear the original version of a song with the original lyrics you try to do as good a version as you can.

Only in a Lloyd Brown interview could we be talking about Delroy Wilson versus Dr Hook! You have incredibly broad taste. A typical fan of Punky Reggae Party would not be a typical fan of Miss You Nights yet here they are on the same album.

Yes, I have no fear. With 28 years under my belt I think my artistic licence warrants it and I try not to limit myself to the reggae genre. I heard the Dropleaf rhythm came about when Don Corleon wanted to relick Maxi Priest's Wild World and that's why the chord progression is similar. But the Dropleaf created the resurgence of the one-drop in Jamaica - something that has existed in the UK for years. It would have been no different if Peter Hunnigale had sung on that song but because it came from Jamaica it had a lot of credence. My thing is, a good singer is the best friend a song can have and vice versa. Whatever song has an emotive quality and gets into your consciousness, it's got to be positive whatever genre. It's not just reggae that brings consciousness to the world. People like Baba Maal and Youssou N'Dour, even though they speak in their native tongues they're singing about consciousness as well. I like to sit down and eat Stew Fish and Rice but if I have it every day I'm going to get sick of it.

One thing that artists in the reggae industry do is proclaim righteousness but they don't live by the righteousness. When people admit their frailties and bring them to the surface it makes them more human

Would you say Craig David, Cliff Richard and Robbie Williams, all of whom you've covered, are singing consciousness?

They're singing songs based on reality! The whole story behind Robbie Williams and Angels is one of despair. Robbie was basically ousted from Take That and was in a situation where he was vulnerable in his career! All he wanted to do was make music and he had to take a different direction. People were giving props to Take That and seeing Robbie as the bad boy and he wasn't seen as a credible artist but nobody could see the pain he was feeling. When he wrote Angels it was like a do or die tune and I can totally identify with that. One thing that artists in the reggae industry do is proclaim righteousness but they don't live by the righteousness. This is a level of consciousness where Robbie's admitting his frailty. I would accept someone who wants to live righteous but their demons won't allow it at the time. Amy Winehouse's Back To Black is a prime example.

Or Marvin Gaye.

Exactly. They basically put their heart on the floor. When people admit their frailties and bring them to the surface it makes them more human.

Some reggae fans would have a hard time accepting Robbie as a conscious artist. Do you think there is too much purism in reggae?

What is pure about reggae? I ask anyone to tell me what is pure about reggae in the 21st Century. People say, "Bun down Babylon" and "Bun down the internet" and there are some people who stand by their convictions and don't have anything to do with it. If you go to the hills in Jamaica there are Rastaman there who shun the internet and any western influence - and that's one extreme. But what about the people who are embracing the words of Rastafari and the principles of Marcus Garvey and needs to put that message across to a bigger audience? You can't just stand on a roof and shout at the top of your voice! The internet is a necessary evil to a point. There's good and bad in everything - it's just how it's used.

As a songwriter Bob Andy gets a lot of props but there are forgotten heroes and Joe Higgs is one of them

Well for the benefit of those purist elements, I'm going to ask you about why you decided to pay tribute to the great Joe Higgs with two songs on your album?

Joe Higgs is one of those singers where unless you know him it would go above people's heads. I would put him just slightly above Bob Andy because of his art as a vocal arranger. I actually borrowed the melody from his song So It Go for a song called Pass It On from my Rhyme and Reason album. The song that always comes to mind when he's mentioned is There's A Reward. It's been covered by Freddie McGregor and Third World with an oboe player called Anna Fisher where Fiona [with whom Lloyd recorded the album Really Together] is on backing vocals. It was done in ballad style so it didn't make sense to cover it in that style because Freddie and Third World did it so eloquently. So I decided to record it in its original form and utilized the services of Adele Harley on backing vocals. For Come On Home, the original is very sparse and bluesy and that's where the blues influence runs in parallel with Bob. I originally planned to record one song from the album but as the session ran on I couldn't decide which and went with both! As a songwriter Bob Andy gets a lot of props but there are forgotten heroes and Joe is one of them.

You also produced and sang a combination with the rapper Rodney P in a UK hip hop meets reggae style but you've said you don't like the terms "UK hip hop" and "UK reggae" - why?

It has a connotation where it's deemed as secondary by putting that title to it. With hip hop being based in America and the influence that it has, you have hip hop in Senegal, Ghana, Australia and Japan but you don't hear anyone calling it "Japanese hip hop" whereas you always hear "UK this" and "UK that". I'm not ashamed of where I'm from but it's obvious when I talk that I was not born in Jamaica and I don't think that should be a handicap to me or my music.

But, just playing devil's advocate, when you listen to Rodney P on that track it doesn't sound like US hip hop. Same with Aswad. It has its own thing unique to the UK and surely that's something that should be celebrated?

But you just said "US hip hop"! I don't know anyone who uses the term "US hip hop" because it should be obvious to people that hip hop comes from the United States and its influence has spread around the world. Lloyd BrownWhy must we in the UK put "UK" in front of it? Jungle is from the UK but no one says "UK Jungle". You can celebrate UK talent. Spending a lot of time in the US and talking to people in the know there, they have a huge respect for the artists from the UK and can't understand why their talent doesn't filter out to the world market on a greater level. I know I'm celebrating being from the UK because I don't have to depend solely on recording for labels from Jamaica just be to validated as a reggae artist whereas some do.

What was your reaction to Davina Hamilton’s piece in the Voice in October “Is Reggae Dying A Slow Death?”

I was furious! It was a carefully constructed piece of journalism that was damaging by nature. It was highlighting the closing of a store (that used to be called Third World Music, then Bodies Music, then Every Bodies Music) but what Davina didn't realize was it was just a reflection of music in general - not just reggae music. And I found it very offensive to place Buju Banton's picture on the front page because anyone who picked up the Voice would have thought Buju Banton died that day! And the people who were quoted in the article, most of them made valid points but there were people of little relevance in it. Just because someone made a mistake - allegedly - and is on trial for it and a record store in Tottenham is closing down to make way for a bookies - it's not related enough to warrant a piece to be written in that way. Especially when there are so many people who are not of Buju Banton's status are making good music and trying to keep this thing going.

You don't think the piece fired people up and made them think about how to improve things here in the UK?

That's wishful thinking. It still had no relevance to the state of the entertainment industry. Right now more people are buying computer games than movies and music and reggae is far down the food chain. Instead of asking "Is reggae dying?" they should ask "Does music hold its value?" I think that's a very valid question. A few years ago you couldn't buy a cd for less than £13 but now you can buy a double cd for less than £8.99. It kind of leads to the point I heard in your interview with David Rodigan. Because the music has no worth some people just record the music and don't even master the album - which is ridiculous! That makes the music hold less of a value because we don't take care of it.

I Googled myself and saw "Lloyd Brown torrent" and thought "I must be popular for people to want to download me"

What do you think of filesharing? Should Lloyd Brown fans be able to enjoy your music for free?

(laughs) If I released an album and only two people downloaded it I would think there was something wrong with me. What's happening in the news with Wikileaks and Mr Assange, that's the ultimate level of filesharing, and Lloyd Brown releasing an album doesn't really compare. But in answer to your question, it's sad that music doesn't hold its value but it doesn't hold its value for everyone - Bob Marley, Madonna, The Beatles. Once people download it from iTunes and put it on their computer it's there for the taking. And the younger generation who are brought up on computer chips and binary numbers don't have a purist view on it. If you show them a 7-inch single they'll be like, "Do I eat off it?" They can't be blamed for that. I Googled myself and saw "Lloyd Brown torrent" and thought "I must be popular for people to want to download me" so I take it as a sweet and bitter thing.

It's been a sad year for reggae. Sugar Minott, Sonia Pottinger, who gave you the rhythm for Another Sunday to use on the album, and Gregory Isaacs have recently passed away. How did you feel about Gregory's passing?

It was like losing my father all over again. With Sugar Minott it was like losing my brother, but with Gregory it was like losing my father. Every first generation immigrant from the West Indies knows him and his works and that's a huge achievement. We've been losing artists with alarming regularity and it's only then that you truly realize just how many songs he made. I'm not saying that all his songs were really good. I'd say on record that some left a lot to be desired. But songs like Soon Forward, the first song released on the Taxi label, was a milestone for me. You don't have enough time for me to answer this question. You should have just asked this first and let it fill up the whole interview! But losing Gregory was like losing my dad.

Losing Gregory was like losing my dad

Album 15 has already started. What can we expect?

It's going to be part of my 30th anniversary because although it will be released next November it will follow through into 2012. It's a big year for me for more than one reason because it's Jamaica's 50th year of independence, it's the Olympics and it's my 30th year in the business. It's exciting and it will be a special album based on where my headspace is right now. I feel I have the right to make the music I want to make, irrespective of genre. It's reggae-based but I want to break new frontiers.

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Read comments (1)

Posted by originaldubman on 02.11.2011
Love your passion and frankness bretren Lloyd [I'm biased 2 Bob Andy ] but agree with you how you view it king. More strength to what a one is in content, I'm born in Hackney, grew up in Mochoand a bit in Kingston usually no background to show off with but I always knew who I was, bless up !!

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