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Interview: Phillip Fraser

Interview: Phillip Fraser

Interview: Phillip Fraser

By on - Photos by Charles Le Brigand - 3 comments

"In those times artists weren't getting no money. That was why the music was so good"


Phillip Fraser was a mainstay of the roots reggae scene that centred around the Greenwich Town area of Kingston in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He played a central role in the development of Bertram Brown's Freedom Sounds and Errol Don Mais' Roots Tradition labels, singing classic cultural and love themed singles including You're No Good, Come Ethiopians and Mr Wicked Man. Yet where some of the Greenwich Town singers like Rod Taylor and Earl Zero left Jamaica and have been fairly prolific abroad, the distinctive voiced Rastaman has preferred to stay in Kingston and record for his own Razor Sound label. Angus Taylor spoke to this crucial veteran about his long and distinguished career in music and the neighbourhood that he helped bring to fame...

Phillip Fraser

You were born in Whitfield Town but you are associated with Greenwich Town/Farm area.

I was born in Whitfield Town but in Greenwich Farm I grew. I was just born in Whitfield Town and never even stayed there. I spent my whole life in Greenwich Farm so really I was born there but officially I was born in Whitfield Town. I was just a child so I never really understood why we moved but in those times my family never really owned a place so they had to move up and down.

What were your first experiences that got you into music?

It was something I was born with when I check it. You see my father was one of Jamaica's number one dancers. His name was Sparky and he used to dance with another man as Sparky & Pluggy. Then in Greenwich Town when I was young I used take some match boxes and try to build a turntable. I'd a get a bottle stopper, which was round like a record and dig out the inside and I just put the round part on a match stick, bore it and put it on the match box like a turntable. I remember doing these things as a little boy.

That was because you were influenced by sound system?

Yes, that was my little idea for my own sound system! And then, living in Greenwich Town I used to hang out with Slim Smith. But before Slim Smith even, I used to be at a place called Club Bohemia doing a little talent show business - me, Johnny Clarke and Mighty Diamonds. So I used to go on a lot of talent shows singing foreign songs like Wild Flower, Help Me Make It Through The Night and those tunes and ended up winning a couple of these talent things. That was because I could manage those types of tunes well because I was a real listener of a lot of foreign songs.

Who was your favourite foreign singer or song?

My favourite singers were Sam Cooke as number one artist for me (just as Slim Smith is my number one local artist) then Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield. And it goes on like that because I always tried to listen to the top ones all the while so I know where I stand. Because I never went to music school - it was born into me. So for my training and things like that I had to listen to people that are singing real and if you can sing these people's songs you know what you're doing.

I never went to music school - it was born into me

What was your favourite sound system?

My favourite sound system was one from Greenwich Town named Echo Vibrations because that was the sound where we all started. Peter Ranking, General Lucky, Phillip Fraser, Michigan and Smiley; that was our sound before we launched out and started singing for any other. Echo Vibration used to play in Greenwich Town every Wednesday and that was the first sound I ever saw that used to play in the day. Pure night sounds used to play and it was the first sound that had day sessions.

Prince Alla told me he used to look up to Slim Smith. Did you used to do the same?

Slim Smith had a babymother in Greenwich Town so he used to often be in Greenwich Town whereas Striker Lee used to live in Greenwich Farm and he was a big producer so all the artists used to come to Greenwich Farm. But Slim Smith was my idol because his babymother was my brethren's sister so we used to be in the same yard. When Slim Smith would come he was singing with Lloyd Charmers and Jimmy in the Uniques and they would rehearse and I used to just sit down and listen and smoke them chalice and be like wwwooooooaah, because the man can sing you know? Then me and him became close and he would carry me to town where he lived and introduced me to Roy Shirley and people when I just a kid. So I idolised Slim Smith because when I listened to all the voices that came out of Jamaica and compared them to his voice I realized he had the real voice!

What was Slim like?

He just a humble person the same as me. I never saw him in any violent thing nor ignorant nor nothing. That man just smoked his pipe and had his guitar and sang.

So it must have been quite a shock when you heard of his death.

Yes, it was a shock because we used to see each other when Bunny Lee and him were driving up and down. I was just a kid and they were bigger men and I'd see them going to the studio with people like Cornell [Campbell]. Then suddenly I heard that Bunny Lee left Slim at his house and he was complaining saying he was sick but the people took it for a joke. They claimed he said he saw somebody at the window and he thumped out the glass and bled to death by the time people came back and found him. So it was a shock.

What was the first tune you recorded?

It was a song named This Time Won't Be Like The Last Time which was recorded by ourselves - Freedom Sounds my little brethren [Bertram Brown]. A guy named Tony Mack who was around Bunny Lee, a bigger man than us, he knew the business and showed us how we could do it. The Soul Syndicate band was in Greenwich Farm at the time because Chinna [Smith] and all those guys used to rehearse on 9th Street. Phillip FraserWhile they were rehearsing Tony Mack said we could go to the studio, take some money and buy a tape because we didn't even know that. So when he told us Mr Brown was working so he became the producer, bought the tape and booked the studio time so we and Soul Syndicate went to Dynamic Studios. I recorded This Time..., Single Man, Mr Blue Bird and we started working on coming up with an album. That was how the Freedom Sounds label started.

Who influenced you to embrace Rastafari?

Well, to be honest listening to the music when we were small like Bob Marley and Burning Spear, talking about Africa and things like that. Then we grew up in an environment where it was pure Rasta that surrounded we as little youths, smoking pipes, cooking Ital food, and we would sit down and read our bibles every day - it was how inspiration came. We came to realize about His Imperial Majesty, how Africa was for all of us and these things. So you understand it was an in-born thing but we were around people that made it come out more. We were around elders like a brethren named I-Eye whose son used to cook his food on a stove with kinds of fruits which he used to put on top of his bamboo house. His son used to cook his food with enough pepper and herbs when you used to eat that food I'm telling you! He was one of the influences, seeing his life, seeing Rastafari and seeing him as a dreadlocks so when we read the bible and saw certain things our little circle just grew up saying, "Yes Rasta!" because it was the right living. So in the music we started singing certain tunes from the bible and it went from there...

When we read the bible and saw certain things our little circle just grew up saying, "Yes Rasta!" because it was the right living

What was your involvement with Earth and Stone that led to you recording the 1978 album Back To Africa together?

Yes, with Buster Riley - Winston Riley's brother. A lot of people don't even know that album because it didn't get released in Jamaica. Two singles were released - Back To Africa and Dance Crasher but not the album. I just did some tracks and then I guess Buster did some tracks with Earth and Stone and compiled them together.

Tell me more about your involvement in the Freedom Sounds label.

Well Freedom Sounds is really me, Bertram Brown, Prince Alla and Earl Zero. I was the one that really started it as I told you when my friend Tony Mack introduced me and Bertram to buying the tape and taking Soul Syndicate to the studio. So that's how it started. We used to go to King Tubbys to do the voicing but before that we used to go to Channel One to make the rhythms with Soul Syndicate. That was how Freedom Sounds and all those labels started. That's how Corner Stone started, that's how Roots Tradition started. I helped start all those labels because we were all youngsters in Greenwich Town, all of the same age group.

Freedom Sounds is really me, Bertram Brown, Prince Alla and Earl Zero. I was the one that really started it

It was on the Roots Tradition label that you also brought back your inspiration Slim Smith's Never Let Go in 1979.

Definitely. Once Freedom Sounds was up and running, Don Mais was another youth from Greenwich Town who was working at the time. It was only me, Prince Alla and Earl Zero who have never done any work outside of music! (laughs) Don Mais was working so he had a little fund that he could spend as a producer. So we went into the studio same way and licked this rhythm. He looked upon me and said, "Phillip Fraser. You love Slim Smith we have to do a Slim Smith tune today!" so we just went in there to Channel One with Soul Syndicate and made the rhythm and then went to Tubbys and voiced it. When I voiced it I didn't even like it because I thought I was singing too flat! But everyone said, "No man! You're comfortable! It bad!" By this time no one really knew Slim Smith did the original. Even to this day people still say it's I who did the original. That's because the Slim Smith one was on a Studio 1 LP.

That rhythm became very big in the dancehall in the 80s.

Yes! All of a sudden it just blew away and became the biggest thing! I'd say, "Bwoy, it's a joke this because some of the tunes I sang in a high pitch that I love and see my pitch is right - it's not that. It's Never Let Go run everything!"

You also recorded Come Ethiopians in 1978 on the same rhythm to Rod Taylor's Ethiopian Kings and both became big hits.

Yes, it was Rod who laid the rhythm and about two days after he did I was listening to it. Through reading the bible a lot I just came up with this concept of Come Ethiopians whereas Rod Taylor sang Ethiopian Kings. I just came up with it out of my own head because in those times I never used to write music on paper. I'd just hear the rhythm while smoking, cooking Ital food and just having a vibes - and lyrical content would just come! I'd hear a tune and just sing! (laughs)

I never used to write music on paper. I'd just hear the rhythm while smoking, cooking Ital food and just having a vibes - and lyrical content would just come!

That tune did very well in England too. How did you come to spend some time over there?

The first time I came wasn't on music. I had some relatives over there and my aunt died in 1970-something and I just came for the funeral. When I went back again Sugar Minott was there with a couple more people and I spent some time there - me and Toyan staying with a guy named Rusty. Now Rusty would look for shows for us and I met Silver Camel who put out Blood Of The Saint [10" in 1982]. I ended up spending a year out there and having two kids up there and doing a whole heap of shows to get myself popular because I wasn't that popular. Then when I came back to Jamaica I was the hottest thing because Never Let Go was mashing up the place!

What did you think of the reggae being made in England?

At the time all the reggae being made in Jamaica was exported to England. America at the time wasn't getting reggae music so England was like the next headquarters of reggae after Jamaica. The LP I did with Earth and Stone wasn't released here but it was in England. Most songs producers used to do here were automatically released in England. Now it is like a different thing because they have kinds of changes: Ragga and all those kinds of things. I don't know that because I only know roots rock reggae!

You did some recording for Junjo Lawes when you came back. What was he like to work with?

I did some recording for Juno Lawes but they never released them except on dubplate. He was a nice youth and I miss him. He was a very nice quiet brethren. He was the first producer who would give artists money and carry them to foreign. He gave artists enough because in those times artists weren't getting no money. They'd just get a bag of crackers and a piece of cheese and go in the studio. That was why the music was so good. Now artists get everything and the producer is afraid to talk to them because now producers aren't even producers - they just have money. In our time producers were real and all artists wanted to do was sing good songs and hear ourselves upon the radio and feel good.

Phillip Fraser

Tell me about your memories of Scientist who you worked with on many occasions.

Yes, well most of the tunes we did at Freedom Sounds and Roots Tradition were mixed by Scientist at Tubbys. Tubbys was a place that you could go to voice and mix while the rhythm laying happened at Channel One. You could voice and mix there too but Tubbys just had that sound! Scientist was just a little youth and we were all young so we'd just try to experiment. So eventually that was how he got the name Scientist because he was just experimenting and experimenting with songs.

You produced your own album in 1984, I Who Have Nothing and you recorded two combinations with Tristan Palmer. Was that what inspired you to break out with your own label later?

Yes, I did some work with Tristan Palmer on the Black Solidarity label. Then in the 90s I decided I was going to break away from everyone and have my own label Razor Sound because I showed everybody how to have a label when I worked with them but I never got the right justice. Better I have my own label. So I just come with my own label now and put most things on there.

I showed everybody how to have a label but I never got the right justice. So I just come with my own label now and put most things on there

How did you react to the changes in the music in the 80s and 90s?

I never really reacted. There were producers who wanted me and more artists to come on what I would call "racehorse rhythms" that would get up and run and they wanted me to say anything and everything but I wasn't into that. So I decided to just keep cool and stay with my label and record what I feel is the right thing to record. So people weren't seeing Phillip Fraser enough because I didn't want to go on those rhythms. I did a couple for Jammys but he didn't release many. He released a various artists album with me and Big Youth with my tune called I'm Holding On. I didn't get the right justice there either because you go into people's camp and they have their favourites. So it was all these things that made me decide to have my own label so I could get the right justice and people could hear the things I have in my head. I'm not going to record Phillip Fraser and put it down - I'm going to put it out! (laughs) Not like people like Bobby Digital who put it on the shelf. I must give credit to a man named Barry Clarke from Afro Eagle label. In the 80s he put a tune with me he wrote called Please Stay and it was a big song to follow up Never Let Go. 

Did you consider a move to Europe like Rod Taylor?

No, even though all my brethren did and I have two kids out there. I never considered living in no foreign country like Europe or America or nowhere. I have been to all of them but my roots is Jamaica and my feel is Jamaica. Because what I understand is when an artist lives overseas the respect is not there anymore because you have to know how to condition yourself. A guy sees you at this club and at that club and then sees you at the racehorse shop so you become cheap. By the time someone puts you up for a show people say, "I seen Phillip Fraser at that race track. I see him at the party last night!" But when they here "Phillip Fraser live from Kingston, Jamaica" it's more exciting and more appealing. So I never try to leave. All of my brethren did: Sammy Dread was going good after I did Never Let Go. The first song he sung out of his mouth was African Girl and it was a hit and then he went to England and across to New York and Sammy never came back. Then Michael Prophet and Earl Zero did the same. Only me and Prince Alla are still here! I see Alla every day at the studio where I am.

I never considered living in no foreign country. When they hear "Phillip Fraser live from Kingston, Jamaica" it's more exciting

Are there any plans for more music in the works?

Definitely. I'm still doing some recording right now. I put out an album No Escape with my son Ras Fraser Junior who is a very cultured little youth coming on. He has a couple of songs out there playing and things. Also there's a compilation with me and him, father and son, Roots Man Time. We have seven tracks each. My next project is keeping myself healthy, still singing. I did a show in New York on Christmas Eve which Jah Life put on as a vintage thing with Big Youth and couple more artists like that. For the future, I'm not running down this thing because the music alone shall live, but what I see going on is pure rat race. So I just keep myself healthy, fresh, fit and nice, still doing my private recording in my own studio. I just recorded a song with my son for a radio station in Canada and they sent it on to a radio station in England where it is getting some good play.

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Read comments (3)

Posted by marty on 07.27.2011
thanks for that interview, it's nice to hear more about Philip Frazer sharp as a razor! great artist

Posted by rootsman on 07.27.2011
One of the greatest albums Phillip Frazer recorded was "blood of the saint" very rare and hard to find 10 inch mini album on the Silver Camel label..

Posted by jah mangrove on 12.08.2011
I bought Blood of the saint first time around 1982, I have followed the roots artist, the ghetto sound from about 78. Phillips voice is very distinctive and the sound driving his lyrics is equally as powerful, Perry used to say "music from the street ans lyric from the ghetto. The songs on here are all direct, no nonsense pieces of absolute perfect dimention. Bold like a lion with a theme like zion.sometime an artist has a good voice but isnt suited to the "riddim" Phillip and his sound are like a man and his shadow. Perfect little slice of ghetto roots with rasta love and carribean fruits.

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