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Interview: Solo Banton

Interview: Solo Banton

Interview: Solo Banton

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"There are no artists in the world that are as versatile as UK reggae artists"


The man they call Solo Banton was born and raised in West London and attended Christopher Wren school in Shepherds Bush a few years behind the athlete Linford Christie and the footballer Dennis Wise. Failing to see the relevance of studying obscure facts about Henry VIII, the young Solo gravitated towards systematic subjects such as computer studies, physics and maths. In addition he discovered sound system through his elder brother and at the age of 12 he selected at his sister's party when the designated sound didn't show, spinning dancehall and lovers rock as well as Rick James and Bob James' Theme from Taxi. Inspired by the child deejays of the early 80s he then began taking the mic - calling himself Professor Brown - first staying up to guest on his brother's sound King Shamma and then in his late teens building his own basic rig with his mates. By 15 he was also getting paid to play in his uncle's steel band. At 19 he became a soul selector on Majestic Sound and had started learning how to produce at a nearby studio run by a man named Jazzbo. Yet it would be two decades before Solo dropped his debut album 'Walk Like Rasta', produced by Kris Kemist from Reading where Solo currently resides alongside friends and scene-makers Deadly Hunta and Mikey Murka. Now he has a new EP out - Music Addict - with another longtime collaborator German "laptop reggae" label Jahtari. Angus Taylor met Solo in Reading to discuss his music and fill in some of the gaps.

Solo Banton

In your song Stronger you talk about being influenced by a particular Rastaman. Tell me a bit about that.

We all went to church rigorously every Sunday. It always seemed to me to be a half truth. It made a lot of sense to me and I believed in it but there was always something missing. I used to see Rastas walking down the road and they just intrigued me for some reason. I met this guy, in Shepherd's Bush. I knew of a lot of Rastas at the time but I didn't really speak to them. I ended up speaking to this guy, to this day I do not know his name but he just called me over "Hey bwoy" and he just asked me what I was doing (we were in the youth club) and I said that I was just playing some table tennis and stuff like that. We just started talking and I asked about Rasta. He asked me if I went to church and I said "Yeah, I go to church every Sunday".  He said "How do you feel about church?" and I said to him how I felt and he started to explain some things to me. He just said to me "What they're teaching you is the right thing but they're just missing out a few facts. When you're big enough you should read some books" and he gave me a list of a few books to read.

What did your parents think about this?

Hahahaha! My dad always said to me from a very young age "If I ever see you with them dreadlocks on your head, I will cut them off!" He wouldn't even allow my hair to get plait. I remember one time my sister plaited my hair, my hair was long in an afro sort of thing and my sister said "Let me see if I can plait it". My dad came in and she'd only done one side and he flipped! I got lash, she got lash. In all honesty I think everybody in the house got lashed apart from my mum, but my mum and my dad had a fierce argument. Once I locksed up my mum never had a problem. All my sisters have dreadlocks now as well, I mean they're not Rasta, they're Christian but they all have their hair in locks. It was always like that with my dad but once I got to the age where I could do it... He had no choice. Just to wind him up I'll buy him a red, gold and green scarf at Christmas! Just to get my own back, you know? (laughs).

My dad always said to me from a very young age "If I ever see you with them dreadlocks on your head, I will cut them off!"

On your tune Revolution Time you kind of go into a bit of dub poetry at the very end. Do you like dub poetry? Who are your musical influences?

Musically - Linton Kwesi Johnson was the first I think, just because of the play with words, poetry and stuff.  My sister bought an LP and it just mesmerised me, just the fact to hear the spoken word, to hear the poetry over this reggae music. He'd have a slight melody in what he was saying as well, so he did have a rhythm to what he was saying, it wasn't just straight spoken word like somebody like Pam Ayres. It just really, really captured me from a very, very young age. I was in primary school. I remember we had a school party where we were all allowed to bring in some records and I brought in Linton Kwesi Johnson. My teacher was like "Ooh, what's this?" The track that I played at the party was (sings) "The SPG, them ah murderer, them kill Blair Peach, the teacher"  My teacher was like "Interesting...". Then Buru Banton, hence Solo Banton. Then from there, most deejays really. I mean I love singers but from that it's mostly deejays.

Obviously it's a very superficial comparison, but you're a deejay, you're quite opinionated. Was Macka B an influence on you in any way?

I used to go to Birmingham a lot and listen to Wassifa and listen to Macka B on the sound. I loved the way Macka B does his thing and has always done his thing, you know? I didn't used to listen to a lot of his recordings, I don't know why that was. You just never used to hear a lot of his songs. I think that's still the problem in England now where too many selectors  don't play English artists. Back then it was terrible. You were lucky to hear an English artist; if you didn't hear them on the sound, to hear the actual recording, you'd be lucky! Tony Williams might play one on a Sunday, Rodigan would usually play about four or five on a Saturday night... But yeah, I always loved Macka B. But I was more appreciative of the English artists then on the sound system, more than their recordings. I thought their skills on the sound system were second to none.

Does that give a clue as to why so late in life you became a recording artist?

Hahahaha! I've no idea! I ask myself that question very regularly. I don't know if it was confidence, I just never thought of doing it. I knew I could do it. I did compèring and stuff like that on stages, talking in front of people is never a problem.  I just never really saw me going that way. It was Kris Kemist who pushed me into it really. I was producing at the time and Deadly Hunta introduced me to Kris. I asked Kris to play guitar on one of my tracks that I was producing. While he was in the studio I went into the voicing room and I started deejaying some old lyrics that I used to deejay on the sound, just for a laugh or whatever, to get the vibes up in the studio before people were going to go and record. When I came out everyone was like "You're good, you know? You should do something, you're good!" I never really paid it any mind, you know? Kris was like "Solo, I want to record you, I want o record you". I was just like "Yeah, whatever" and then he just really pushed me to do it. So next thing you know I wrote the lyrics and I'd done it!

What's Kris like to work with?

He's a nightmare! (laughs). No, Kris is wonderful, he's very good. Me and him we just need extra time because we laugh a lot, we get on very well and we're very much the same, so we end up laughing or getting into a deep conversation instead of working, d'you know what I mean? So we end up having either just great big giggling fits or we just go off on a tangent and start talking about things, but he's the best person I've ever worked with when it comes to producing, without a doubt. He's very particular, he knows what he wants and he knows how it should sound. He's like me in that way in knowing that something sounds good straight away, but I think that he's much better than me at it, you know?  He's very particular in that way - once he knows how it's meant to sound, then any other way is not going to be good enough at all. I think that's the biggest thing I can say, but I think that's a great thing.

Classic Wonder were playing and I was like "I don't really want to be on the mic introducing this song when this guy is singing this nonsense!" Especially when he'd started the song saying "Holy Emmanuel-I, Selassie-I" so my ears have pricked up because I want to hear something conscious and then I hear foolishness

You released your album Walk Like Rasta end of 2009. Tell me about the inspiration for the title track. When did the lyrics come to you?

I played a sound in Reading called Classic Wonder. I joined it just as a mic man and I then became the selector on the sound. Then after selecting it for many, many years some younger guys came in and they started playing the sound and I moved into a more managerial level. If they were struggling in the dance then I would go and select or go in on mic. So while they were playing and I was listening to some of the songs that were playing I was like "I really don't want to be here. I don't really want to be on the mic introducing this song when this guy is singing this nonsense!" Especially when he'd started the song saying "Holy Emmanuel-I, Selassie-I" so my ears have pricked up because I want to hear something conscious and then I hear foolishness. I was never going turn around and say to them "I don't want you to play that, I want you to play roots". Classic Wonder had always been a dancehall sound from when I joined it. I went away and I was doing some tour management work  and I was away at the time on tour with somebody. I'd just spoken to JD from the sound on the phone and I was contemplating that whole situation when I first came up with the chorus. I phoned up Kris and said "Kris, I've got this tune I want to do and when I come back I want you to write a beat for this song". I came back and then I went by Kris and sat down and while he was making the beat I wrote, so we both wrote the song and the beat at the same time basically.

Solo Banton

You have a new EP out for Jahtari in Germany, who have a very distinctive style.

Mate, I'm just in awe of Jahtari. Every time, he's just amazing to me. When I first heard it I was like "What is this?" This was the sort of music I was making on the Casio keyboard when I was 13 or 14 years old. Remember the keyboards where you used to have the little blue pads at the bottom and each pad had four different sounds? I used to make music on that all day long and some of the stuff I heard I was like "That just sounds like the stuff I was making on these things here. Really?" But the more I've listened to it, the more I've done shows with them, I looked into it. It's a movement and I respect it so much because they're doing their thing. They've got confidence in their thing, they're doing their thing and it's working out for them. So the fact that they're not following anybody, they're being individuals and doing their thing, I've got the utmost respect for.

Tell me a bit about the EP.

It was a great pleasure to do an EP with them. Everything I've did for them before has been released on the Maffi label through Jahtari whereas this is actually going to be on Jahtari. There's four vocals and two instrumentals. There's the track called Music Addict which was never released before but was a massive hit which got I think 40,000 views on YouTube within three weeks of them putting it up and is one of the biggest tunes I perform live. Then there are three brand new tracks never heard before. Put It Back which is a light hearted view of somebody trying to burgle my house basically! Remember the days when people used to make you laugh and smile? I try to keep that element in my stuff. There's One Of The Greatest which I wrote at the time of the uprising in Egypt and is all about democracy and stuff like that. Then there's another light-hearted track on there called Kung Fu Master in one of those old styles where when I'm on the mic I'm like a kung fu master and talk about different kung fu styles that are similar to my writing and my singing. I also want to mention the cover where Jahtari enlisted the help of Ellen from My Lord Graphics in Germany and she's done it in the style of the old Scientist albums with a picture for every track on the EP.

Remember the days when people used to make you laugh and smile? I try to keep that element in my stuff

What drew you to Jahtari?

They found me. We did a video at Kris' house; there was me, Deadly, Mikey Murka, and we were just freestyling at the time. Kris came to me and said "Look, these guys, Jahtaris, they said to me they liked the video, they liked the lyrics you chatted on the video and they want you to record it." So then he said to me "They sent a rhythm for you" you know?  I went to Kris' and he played it and I went "Kris, what's this? I used to make this 20 years ago!" He was like "This is how they do it, man" and I'm like "Seriously?" I couldn't get my head round it at first and I didn't voice it and I must have had it for about two months and didn't do anything on it.

So what changed?

Kris said to me "Look, these guys are now hounding me for the recording. Are you going to do it?" so I said "Kris, what do you think? Because I don't understand this music at all." He was like "I think this will be beneficial for you". I listened to it and I could get the vibe, I could get the musical vibe to it but it just confused me if I'm honest. I recorded it and sent it to them, they sent it back mixed and they'd rearranged it. They'd taken my second verse and put it over my first verse and swapped my verses around. I'm like "What's he doing?" and I had the hump about it, I wasn't happy about it at all and then I did a show with them. He said to me he was coming to London and would I come and work with them and I was like "Yeah, of course" and it was the craziest show I've ever done in my life!

How come?

Honestly, this guy turns up, whose name's Jan, first time I met him was at this show. He gets his laptop out, he sets up his laptop, then he pulls out a PlayStation control and he plugs it in. I'm like "What are you doing? Are you going to play a game?" He's like "No I use this to control...". I'd got my nephew with me and I look at my nephew and I'm like "What is this?" And then he's gone into his bag and he's like "Solo, look this is the gem!" and he brought out a radio cassette player. Solo BantonYou must know them, they were flat, about this [gestures] high, you press Eject and the thing comes up, and they had a handle that falls out like that. I'm like "Oh my...Where did you get that from! I haven't seen one of them in years! What are you going to do with that?" He said "I'm going to record the show on it." I'm like "You're going to record it on that?" and he's like "I know it's old but the quality, the quality..." A little part of me, a naive part of me,  was thinking that they were backward, no disrespect but they were backward. It was at that point there that I said to myself "You know what? These guys aren't backward - they're connoisseurs!" So then, we're ready to do the show and I see him pull this big screen down from behind the stage and a guy turns up with these metal fly cases and open it up and he's got an Atari, an original Atari in there! So I'm on stage singing while my man's controlling, mixing the music with his PlayStation thing and there's people in the crowd playing Frogger and Space Invaders on the special screen behind me! I was like "What the...???"  That was one of the best nights of my life. I realised they were doing their thing and people were loving it.

How can the UK scene get as big as Europe?

Believe in itself. Believe in itself, that's all the UK has to do. There's no artists in the world that are as versatile as UK reggae artists. You put them on a reggae night a jungle night any night they'd be able to hold the mic and hold their own where a lot of other mcees would be out of their depth. Look at what's going on in Europe, look at the UK artists that are working in Europe. Look at the response and respect that they're getting and know that they're getting that because they're from the UK and you in turn believe in yourself and do you thing. Look at Mungo's from Scotland, absolutely huge all over the world. And Mungo's are just doing their UK thing and being a leader. Not following anybody; being a trendsetter, because that's how the rest of Europe are looking at the UK - to lead and to teach them, so just be a leader, man. Do what you know. Don't try to be anybody else. Believe in yourself. It's the best way for the UK to go.

Be a leader. Do what you know. Don't try to be anybody else

Would you say that that's your own philosophy in life? Believe in yourself, be yourself?

Be who you are. That's where the name Solo came from. I'm an individual, I do my thing. I don't want to hurt nobody or disrespect anybody but I'm going to love you and leave you if you want to go that way and I want to go this way. I don't need to go with the crowd, I'll go there on my own. Believe in yourself and do what's right for you. 

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