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Interview: Wayne Smith

Interview: Wayne Smith

Interview: Wayne Smith

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"In Jamaica they used to say, “Wayne Smith in a one instant he want kill live music!”"


Wayne “Sleng Teng” Smith inadvertently kick-started the digital dancehall revolution when he and his friend Noel Davey were fooling around with a rock ’n’ roll preset on a Casio MT 40 keyboard back in 1985. But it had been a long hard road for the high voiced Waterhouse born singer, who grew up around the famous names from Kingston 11 but had been steadily working for a variety of big producers without a major hit. Within a year of Under Mi Sleng Teng's release digital music had flooded the charts and the old studios like Channel One were closing down. At the time musicians attacked the new trends as killing the music. Yet today millions of fans around the world regard the vintage digital age with the same veneration that their parents viewed reggae in the 1970s. After Sleng Teng fever broke, Wayne relocated to New York where he started his own label. Angus Taylor spoke to one of the single most important figures in reggae – and music history – about his life and that crucial day that changed it forever…

Wayne Smith

Tell me about growing up in Waterhouse.

I lived on Bay Farm Road and in those times back in 1979 Waterhouse was coming up in the music. It was mostly sound systems playing regularly. My brother used to go over to the house where the Wailing Souls used to rehearse and Michael Rose was his friend so they would meet and go to the dance and he would watch him rehearse. Junior Reid used to move with them as well so all of them used to be round our house and I would watch them sing. Jammys – Mr James – lived next door to me and he and his brother and my mother used to go to school together. Music surrounded me. But Jammys never knew I could sing at the time. The first song I did was Want You Tonight Girl at Harry J’s studio. They didn’t cut many copies of that – only about 200.

Was that your first ever recording?

The first time I recorded was in Tubbys studio. It was kind of funny because we stuck up the studio! (laughs) Well not me but THEY stuck up the studio! I always used to stand by the studio gate and help people go in. So if a man would go into the studio I would take him and make friends with him and start going into the studio myself. Sometimes they’d run me out and say, “Bwoy! What yah dween inna studio? Gwaan ah school!” But I’d still go and meet one of the producer guys and help carry his bags with the four track tapes - they’d have twenty in one bag so it was very heavy - then I’d go in the studio and listen. Then one day he said, “Wayne. You carry my bag for a long time now. We go voice a tune”. So he put the tape on and heard my voice and said, “Wha? Bad news yuh no. The track dem full up!”

Pug pulled out his gun! He said, “If you talk one more time I’m going to shoot you in your face! Put the tape on!” The he went in there with me and I could see the gun and he said, “Sing!”

So what happened?

Then this guy round at Tubbys named J-Pug picked up the tape and the engineer said, “What you take up the man tape for?” Then Pug said, “Wayne, go in the voicing room” and pulled out his gun! He said, “If you talk one more time I’m going to shoot you in your face! Put the tape on!” The he went in there with me and I could see the gun and he said, “Sing!” And I had no lyrics planned so I just sang on the rhythm on the tape and he said, “Wicked! Sing the next one!” Then Linval Thompson came in and pushed the door and said, “A who dat in deh? Yuh wicked man!” So the brother kept saying, “Sing, sing, sing” until we’d done about ten and then he said, “You have an album yunno!” (laughs)

You were filmed at Tubbys in the 1982 Howard Johnson documentary Deep Roots Music.

Yes I was singing Ain’t No Me Without You. When the documentary was taking place J-Pug, the same guy said, “Jammys want you in it”. Because he used to produce me before Jammys. He told Jammy's, “Wayne haffi come in it too!” So Jammys said, “alright" and I said I'd sing one Jammys’ tune. So me and Delroy Wilson went by Tubbys and were in it.

Tell me how you came to sing Barbara Streisand's Woman In Love as Life Is A Moment In Space for Jammy, which was reissued recently by both Greensleeves and Pressure Sounds.

Wayne SmithPug started to put my tunes on dubplates and played them in the UK so people asked, “Who a de youth name Wayne Smith?” Jammys never knew who I was. He knew me well but not as a singer. So when Jammys came back to Jamaica he asked Junior Reid if he knew me. So Junior told him who I was and I went to check him, did some reasoning and he decided to do some work with me. He said, "You know the Barbara Streisand tune, Life Is A Moment In Space?" and I said, "I don't know it so well but sure..." Echo Minott was the one who meant to voice it but I don't know what happened between him and Echo. I thought, "It's a do-over of a tune that's already out there" so I did it.

And how did you link with Channel One?

I used to go through all the studios back then so I'd go and talk to Jo Jo and Ernest [Hookim] at the side part of the building. I used to fix jukeboxes so I used to talk to them and then started going inside. Then when I was fifteen I went to an audition. One youth came who was a wicked singer and he took one breath and they said, "Come back in six months time". So I thought, "That man a wicked singer! What are they going to say to me????" I went in thinking, "maybe they won't pick me" but they said "You sing now" and they said "yeah man we want work with you"!

Did you leave Channel One and go back to Jammys?

In those days you'd just try to voice with all the big producers who had a chance to bust you. I sang for Jammys from 1981 and I voiced about twenty tunes. He put out Life Is A Moment In Space and the album Youthman Skanking and most of the time they were in England. So when in the UK nothing a go on I would go and see the Chinaman and we'd work.

What was Jammys like in those days?

He was wicked man. He knew what he was doing. I respect him as a wicked engineer. Before Sleng Teng and the big thing he was a very nice person. In those times if Jammys had ten cents he'd give you five out of it. But when fame came and a man moves up he doesn't have time for the little man. But I learned enough things from him: engineering, stringing up the studio, I watched and learned in there!

I never really had “sleng teng” in my mind. I didn’t know what “sleng teng” was. I just got a vibes and it just kept on coming in one take

Let's talk about Sleng Teng. The reggae history books tell differing stories of how it came about.

One of my friends, a poor man brother named Noel Davey brought a Casio keyboard round my house and we’d play it every day. Then one day - while he went to make a little move – I pressed a button because as a youth I’d pull up things and press things to see how they’d work. I pressed the button and it went “gu dung gu dung du dung du dung dung dung dung”! But I didn’t like the drum pattern so I put a kind of “dum tap tap dum tap tap” and it went (imitates Sleng Teng) “ duggu duggu duggu duggu duggu duggu duggu dung dung”! Then I put it in the key for me to sing because the Casio let you press each one of the keys until it went down to your key. Then Noel came back and said, “Wayne! How you get that?” and I said, “It just in the Casio. I press it and then put how mi like dem ting deh”. So we started to play and I started singing, “Under mi dragon and mi damn raw egg! Four legs in bed and that ah two person in bed!” So we jammed out and played played played until the Casio got tired! We’d press it and couldn’t hear it play any more! So I thought “something must have happened to it” and went to my house.

How did Jammys get involved?

At the time Jammys wasn’t in Jamaica but in the UK. But two weeks later a friend said, “Wayne! You know that riddim you find on the Casio and fix up? Noel played it to someone down at Eyeglass Corner”. So when Jammy came back from the UK I went to Noel and said, “You know what? I’m going to Jammys now put that riddim pon the track and voice a tune”. So I said to Jammys, “Mi have a riddim zeen? It wicked!” Now he was a man who if you had a rhythm, he’d give you a chance – that I respected about him. So we went and set it up and everything but he wasn’t really sure. So Jammys put a “clap” sound on it and said, “Right, Wayne? You have something for it?” and I said, “yeah”.

Did you have the tune in your head?

In those days you’d never write a tune. You’d just the tape on and you’d just see every thing stretch right out in front of you. So I never really had “sleng teng” in my mind. I didn’t know what “sleng teng” was. I just got a vibes and said “sleng teng” and sang it out of my head. It just kept on coming in one take. Now he had other artists in the studio who had bust (because I hadn’t bust at that time) so he said, “How it sound?” But they all said, “Nah man. It sound too straight. It no have no bridge. It sound like gwaan with nuttin”. And I thought, “Wha? Everyman who buss look pon mi and mi no buss yunno”. And no man took up for me and said, “It gwaan good”.

What did you do then?

I went outside and eye water ran out of me and I thought, “How come mi nah go buss? Look how many years mi sing fi Jammys from 1981 and mi nah go buss. Half Pint buss and left me, Junior Reid, everybody!” So I went to the waterpipe and washed my face because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry. Then I went back in the studio and said to Jammys, “You haven’t given me the money. So if you put it out you’re not going to lose even if it don’t sell one cent. So just try”. So he said, “Mi play it at the dance tonight and see how it gwaan”.

I thought, “How come mi nah go buss? Look how many years mi sing fi Jammys from 1981 and mi nah go buss. Half Pint buss and left me, Junior Reid, everybody!” So I went to the waterpipe and washed my face because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry

That was the famous clash with Black Scorpio on February 23rd 1985. Were you there?

No because I thought nothing was going for me so big there. My tunes were played there but I hadn’t bust. So I said, “Mi nah go ah dance” and went back to my house. Then in the morning people were tapping my window saying “Wayne! It mash up the place! Once he put it on that was all that played! Everyone just wanna hear Sleng Teng!” And from that day everyone was talking about it. So Jammys heard that other producers were planning to do it. Tubbys was planning to go in his studio and do it over with Red Rose so Jammys said, “I’m going to full it up before others full it up” and he voiced enough man upon it! And from that it just started to go on and on and on…

Before that most big rhythms in the dancehall were old Studio 1 like Never Let Go and Mad Mad. It must feel good to have created an original one as big as them.

Yeah man but in those days I got enough fight! Almost every day on the radio in Jamaica they used to say, “The Likkle bwoy with the name Wayne Smith come with the likkle digital ting deh. Inna one minute it ago done!” Then he’d come again, “In the space of two years it ago done!” and then “In space of three years it ago done!” Wayne SmithThen they’d say, “Wayne Smith in a one instant he want kill live music yunno! Computer drum! Computer bass! That bwoy deh!” (laughs) They used to talk bad ‘bout me! They wanted to grab me and beat me in those times!

Ernest Hookim said it killed Channel One. Were you sad about that?

It slowed down everything for everyone else yeah. I just see it as something new came and you have to just get with it or not. That’s what life is like.

Which Sleng Teng follow-up is your favourite?

There were enough of them so I don’t have one favourite still. You had Johnny Osbourne, you had Tenor Saw. Even when Tenor Saw’s tune Pumpkin Belly was finished Jammys came to me. Because I had authority now and Jammys wanted to know what I thought. Now sometimes Tenor Saw might sing a little flat but I said his style is wicked and his style would bust him alone. So I told him to put it out because of his style and when it came out it mashed up the place. So Johnny Osbourne, Echo Minott, all of them. I don’t have one favourite. If it moved me it was my favourite!

Why did you decide to go to America?

At the time, while I was singing, my father filed for me. So I decided to go and get the Green Card and look for him and spend some time with him. So I would go back and forth between America and Jamaica. Even though I had the Green Card from 1986 I used to spend two months in America and six months in Jamaica. It’s only been since about ten years ago that I really became resident in America. New York is cool but I’m going to move to Jamaica because you can keep up more of a steady pace with the music there.

You set up your own label Sleng Teng records after you left Jamaica but it seems you were producing before that?

I started the label in 1986 but I’ve been producing since 1983. When I started the label I put out songs with me, Ninjaman, Courtney Melody and lots of artists. Mostly I was building beats doing work with Supercat, Shabba Ranks and even early work with deejays like Bounty Killa.

Which projects have you been working on lately?

A couple of months ago I had some tunes out in Jamaica called Some Day and Mercy. They’re not on vinyl but they are on iTunes and CDBaby on a little album of just six songs called Confidential. I’ve also been doing a little producing and working on a full album. Not really a new album but old and new. Some tunes that I recorded back in 1983 but didn’t put out and some tunes that I did now. I’m going to put them together and put them out as an album called Inna Mi Brain. Some people heard them back in 1983 because they used to play on some of the sounds like Stur Gav and Jammys but I didn’t put them out. But these tunes from the 80s are more live because a band named Travellers Band played those beats with me, while the ones I’ve done now are more digital. One tune is like a cousin to Sleng Teng called Inna Mi Brain.

Do you prefer live music or digital?

(laughs) Either way! Some songs sound better when you do it with live drums and live bass and everything but some sound better digital. I feel it gives it more of a boost. More of a dancing feeling.

I said, “Mi nah go ah dance” and went back to my house. Then in the morning people were tapping my window saying “Wayne! It mash up the place! Once he put it on that was all that played! Everyone just wanna hear Sleng Teng!”

How do you feel about dancehall music today?

It’s alright. They go on with their thing. Because all music stays you know? It’s reached a point where they have some mad music talking about their daggering and all this. But it all reaches back to roots and back to our style of digital. Every tune and every rhythm right now has its place.

Today people feel the same about the first digital as they used to about the old live don’t they?

You see most of the musicians that went on about how they never liked it, that was because they weren’t going to make money. Like I used to see my brethren Horsemouth [Leroy Wallace] and ask if him if he’d ever get a drum machine he’d say “Nah man!” But a couple of months later I saw him and he said, “Mi get a drum machine!” They liked it but it slowed down all of their work so they had to act like they didn’t like it. (laughs)

Do you have a final message for your fans?

I just want to give thanks and praise to all the people who stood by me – not only yesterday but today. And who love reggae – not only digital reggae but every reggae. Without them no artists would survive.

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Read comments (3)

Posted by antreas on 03.15.2011
Great interview.

Posted by MrQuick on 03.18.2011
"Musicians attacked the new trends as killing the music."

True, 100% true. It's been downhill ever since. Maybe more popular, but uninteresting, going from low to low. And now the artists are bleaching and creating controversy this way to remain current instead of dropping fat tunes...

Posted by nike seven on 02.18.2014
Fly away home to away home....RIP Wayne Smith...:(

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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