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Interview: Frenchie

Interview: Frenchie

Interview: Frenchie

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"Unfortunately we're just in a receding business"


"Frenchie" got into Jamaican music as a Parisian teen through the Two Tone movement. He and his brother soon cottoned onto the provenance of the best tunes they were hearing and started collecting the vintage ska and rocksteady that inspired Madness, the Specials and co. Regular ferry trips over to London to Dub Vendor and Peckings in the late 80s led to a radio show and sound system as the then small yet determined Paris reggae scene got off the ground. But Frenchie was more intrigued by the bustling culture in London and in 1990, aged 19, got a job as an engineer at Fashion Records via Dub Vendor's John McGillivray. Under the guidance of Chris Lane and Gussie P he learned his craft in the studio before, in late '92, using the £300 he had in his pocket to get UK rhythm kings Mafia & Fluxy to lay a couple of rhythms he gave to Dub Vendor to press. Thus his now world famous label Maximum Sound was born, from which he has put out roots and dancehall albums and singles featuring everyone from Beenie Man to Bounty Killer, from Luciano to his friend Anthony B. Lately he has created his own UK roots label Calabash and released four new Maximum Sound rhythms, Skateland Killer (based on Eekamouse's Star Daily News or Gleaner) Ghetto State (Letter From Zion), Sound Exterminata and the Fairground rhythm. Angus Taylor chatted to the man who is arguably Europe's greatest reggae producer for far longer than intended several times over the last year, hence it taking so long for this piece to be edited down into readable - if still rather lengthy! - form...

Maximum Sound

When you started getting into the music you had to come over to the UK to see the best that reggae had to offer. Nowadays in France there's a huge scene and in the UK people are wondering what happened. What's your take on that?

The big difference with France and the UK is that here you have a huge Jamaican community. After Jamaica, England is the second capital of reggae, historically. The mass emigration to America came way after and if you listen to most styles of reggae that were prominent in America, even in the 80s, they're very influenced by Jamaica, whereas over here they really had their own taste, their own music like Lovers Rock. In France, Germany and places like that it's a fashion. It's something that the kids picked up, a bit like they picked up hip hop in France. For me it was more interesting to come over here to work in that industry because there was hardly anything going on in France when I grew up.

But at the same time most European people didn't grow up with reggae in the house so they have the zeal of a convert.

In Europe it's fresher in their ears because it hasn't really been there very prominently in their face, only for maybe the last 15 years. In France I would say that dancehall music really exploded in the mid 90s. Germany's even a bit later than that. At that time reggae over here was slowly but surely fizzling out. And the other thing is the question of generation. Most Afro-Caribbean kids from the third generation Jamaicans, reggae for them is the music of their parents. It's not their own music, they're into grime, hip hop, UKG, R&B and that kind of thing. Music here has evolved into other forms.

In France we've never really invented any genre of modern music

The UK has plenty of home-grown dance music...

The number of genres of music that have come from this country is incredible. It was one of the things that always attracted me about coming to live here. In France we've never really invented any genre of modern music, no disrespect to France. The US has with hip hop, rock 'n' roll and jazz and stuff, but most countries in Europe, as far as I know, they've never really invented any genres that have been established as modern popular music, apart maybe from Germany who have pioneered a lot of the electronic music. They’ve followed what's been happening in Anglo-Saxon countries. My thing was always that in France for somebody who likes modern Jamaican music, you always used to see the same artists in the 80s. And it was the same sort of music that kept getting pumped by the media because it's a non-controversial, safe sort of reggae, and you can play it on certain stations and feel good about yourself. It's changed now, there's loads of dancehall shows and dancehall showcases and stuff happening now in Europe. There's a big network of shows and the artists have a huge platform now to promote themselves.

You've mentioned non-controversial forms of the music. What's your take on some of the lyrical content that has upset people over the last 15 years in reggae and dancehall? Is it a price you have to pay for hearing innovative music?

Any lyrics that you hear from Jamaican artists, they reflect the Jamaican culture. So anything derogatory, anything bigoted, it's literally how Jamaica is. The country with the most churches per capita, more than any other country in the world. Obviously the music is a straight reflection of that. Most of the artists who have been involved in controversy like that, they're not artists with PhDs or who've been to university. They've learned the rough way through some rough streets. That's sort of the charm and the negative of the music. It's very raw, straight to the point, comes from the ghetto life , they tell it as it is and it's a banging sound straight in your ears, quite aggressive. So it's very hardcore but because it's so unpolished, obviously that message can be quite aggressive to certain people, and not very politically correct.

Any lyrics that you hear from Jamaican artists, they reflect the Jamaican culture

Some of the lyrics went beyond being politically incorrect though...

I think the media made scapegoats out of the artists but they should have made a statement about the country and the culture. You're not going to go to Saudi Arabia and demonstrate because they'll have exactly the same views, if not more extreme. I would say if you really think about it, it's really to do with each country. There's a world of countries where they might have exactly the same views on a load of things like Jamaica, but they don't get half of the crap that Jamaica gets. The sadness of that is that nobody's really addressed the real issue. They haven't tried to address the real political thing and tried to change it, they just went after artists. The artists aren't going to change shit. They'll stop doing those songs but you put pressure on the governments or you say that the system or the law is wrong then it makes more sense.

Were you surprised by the success of your Luciano album United States of Africa last year?

Luciano - United States Of AfricaTo be frank I was surprised more than anything because I voiced the album in literally three or four nights or something like that, so it was a bit rushed. I had to use older tracks and remixed them to finish the album because he had to go to Africa to finish his tour. To me it could have been much better than it was but we did the best with what we could. I went to Jamaica literally for three weeks and when I landed he said to me "Ah, I forgot I've got a tour and I have to leave on Saturday" and I'd landed the Monday, so we had to do everything really quickly. It's a good thing he had some songs written already that I'd sent him the rhythms for, and Duane Stephenson helped us on a couple of tracks, he wrote a couple of songs. The idea to do the United States of Africa song, I came with the title and the concept and I said write something like that and he came up with a really wicked song. He played it for me and then Luci sung it, and Luci then wrote the majority of the songs literally within a week, so he's obviously very very talented like that…to work with Luciano is like a dream , he is just a fantastic human being.

I voiced United States Of Africa in literally three or four nights, so it was a bit rushed

Let's talk about another thing that's still reverberating now, your Skateland Killer rhythm. That rhythm turned up on your last album with Anthony B but it got the big send-off this year. Is that Eek-a-mouse's voice from the original cut on your rhythm?

I speeded up the record on my turntable and sampled it, and looped it. I cleared it with Greensleeves and stuff. I'd had the idea for it for a while, then we beefed up the drums and played back the rhythm round the loop and that's how it came.. the rhythm was laid about a year before I voiced Anthony on it. I played it to Captain Sinbad and he said "Oh, you should do a juggling on it" because it was a Junjo thing and he was linked with Junjo for years. So I sent it to Alborosie and to Tarrus Riley, and Tarrus came back with this wicked tune. So I put the horns on it and I mixed it in a different place than the way Shane Brown mixed the original Anthony B one, so that's why it sounds a bit different. The guy who mixes most of my songs is Fatta Marshall. Shane is fantastic with the one drop thing, but Fatta always has that hip hop sound. Sinbad’s tune turned out to be one of the biggest as well on the rhythm..

You started out at Fashion which came out of Dub Vendor. How did you feel about the shop closing its doors in September?

It's very sad. There's no other shop in the world who sold more Skateland Killer and my latest productions than Dub Vendor. So as much as things are bad, they can still sell more records than, I reckon, anybody in the world when it comes to reggae. The clients are unbelievable and the knowledge of all the people who work there is phenomenal, so for me it's obviously a big blow. The problem really, and John will tell you this, is that they've got the ability to sell records, but their biggest problem is that they can't get the actual stock to sell - there's not enough good records, quality records, for them to continue to trade and that's why they closed down. Before every week or every two weeks they would have a new set of tunes coming through and they were selling quickly and the next batch would come. The supply of records that used to be quite important for the turnover of the shop wasn't there anymore. So the shop didn't make any sense and the clientele obviously has been shrinking as there hasn't been a new generation of people buying tunes. The clientele has aged with the shop, if you see what I mean? And people after a certain age they stop buying tunes and they have families and they have other preoccupations, so that as well. But they're still very good on the mail order; they're still there and I hope they'll be there for a while still .

In the past you've been very critical of how the business has changed. Has anything improved this year?

Definitely. It's a changing business that we're in. Everybody has to adapt to what it is today, if you don't adapt you won't be able to survive in it. For me the positive thing is that in the last year there have been quite a lot of decent tunes. I would say that a lot of Jamaican producers the year before last, last year they were trying to do quite a lot of hip hop beats, trying to do some crossover thing that to me sounded really whack. This year I think a lot of people have actually realised and addressed that and a lot of artists are starting to complain on various social networks saying that dancehall is too hip hop, let's go back to the real Jamaican sound, and actually there've been quite good records coming out of Jamaica this year. The problem now being that the way that they're marketed and the way they're sold, unfortunately we're just in a receding business. It's really downloading that's the medium for dancehall, it's pointless putting any dancehall on vinyl, you won't sell none, so you have to put out a legal download. The biggest problem is that as soon as you put a dancehall rhythm on a legal site it gets pirated about five minutes after it's up there. That's the challenge today.

Give me an example of how this has affected your own work.

I put out the Fairground rhythm this year which played quite a lot on the pirate radio stations and community radio stations and stuff. Quite a popular rhythm, it done quite good in Africa funnily enough, which is really good. I put it on download and some of the tracks on download only, I mean you type on Google "Fairground" and you had about seven or eight pages of "Download for free the Fairground riddim". What do you do? The Skateland Killer I put on vinyl, I didn't put on download and even if people uploaded the record and there were a few pages, I was able to take links down from quite a few pirate sites, but I got pirated much less with those releases than with the Fairground. The Fairground has been absolutely pillaged. And every time you find you do a rhythm like that there going to appear more, because the Fairground I would say is more a rhythm for the Jamaican market, for that one drop market, financially it's just completely pointless, you throw your money away. I still had to pay a few artists to voice and stuff on the rhythm but the return is just minimal.

Tell me a bit about your work with iTunes as well...

Well, I've just put my catalogue on iTunes. I've put a compilation called Maximum Sound 2011. It's early days still but I had to move with the times and put my catalogue up there or you're losing sales now and it's a very, very important medium for a lot of people because obviously there's a whole new generation of people for who the 45 is completely alien. They don't buy records at all, so if your stuff is not on MP3 they won't get your music. It's a Catch 22 because then they might source it somewhere which is not maybe legal, so I had to go that way even though since I've done that the surge of piracy of my catalogue has definitely gone up. But you have to chase it, I spent a few weekends taking down illegal downloading links and stuff as much as I can but it's not easy obviously, it's pretty hard. You can see the second half of this year; there hasn't been as much rhythms and tunes released as there was maybe earlier on in the year and last year because people now are starting to feel the full brunt, the economical brunt of the downloading stuff. I see a lot of producers saying to me "Well, it's pointless putting out records because it's just not making no money now". Even though there's some decent stuff that's come out, and funnily enough there's a lot of good stuff from Europe coming out, a lot of good UK, French and German labels have got some good music.

What would you say the best tunes that have come out this year have been, apart from your own?

The funniest thing is that for the first time, I reckon, ever in reggae the number one dancehall rhythm and the number one producer is getting there is a really nice guy called Adde and he's from Sweden and nobody really don't know about him. He's done the Summertime tune by Kartel and he's got a new song called Beautiful Life by Vegas as well which is starting to play hard. His dancehall beats are really good and he's not from Jamaica, which for a producer from Europe to build a dancehall beat that is so huge down there I tip my hat to him. He's been doing good, which is a sign of the times to show you that if somebody from out of Jamaica is starting to build Dancehall beats (a non reggae one drop rhythm) which can mash up Jamaica and are as good as what's being made in Jamaica, then things are definitely changing in certain ways that are different…

A lot of kids think that music is basically a free commodity. Up to now no-one been really telling them any different

So final question, what's the way forward? What's the future for you, what's the future for the music and how does it get out of this?

I don't know. For artist or if you manage an artist, if you manage a band or if you deejay you've still got a future in the music because you can play out, you get great promotion from all that. So if you go that way... I was thinking of building a sound and thinking of playing out maybe next year or the next two years, maybe take an artist on the road and do all that, but it's a lot of hard work and really and truthfully what I really enjoy the most is making records. That's my passion since... I wanted to be King Jammys when I was 15 years old, that was what I really liked. So it's another business, another trade. So as for the music business and the sales of records and everything I would like to be optimistic because I love it and I'd like to do this for another ten years but the reality is that we're on a completely crumbling business and the sales of records are definitely diminishing and the downloads are not picking up enough, the legal downloads to equate the loss of physical and that's the biggest problem. If there was really somebody policing the internet better, if there was much less file sharing and piracy, and the message would be that music is not free and the kids, you have to pay for it, then people would still be in business, still making music. I think that's the biggest challenge now - a lot of kids think that music is basically a free commodity that you can just go on your PC and obviously it's hard to tell them "You have to pay for this". Up to now no-one been really telling them any different.

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