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Interview: Tappa Zukie (Part 1)

Interview: Tappa Zukie (Part 1)

Interview: Tappa Zukie (Part 1)

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"I tried to be around Bunny Lee at all times. And if anything rough stuff would come up I would deal with it!"


In the third in our foundation deejay and producer series we have the privilege of speaking to David Sinclair AKA Tappa Zukie. Born in 1955 Sinclair started as a drummer in a local jazz band before becoming a child chanter in Kingston. The young tearaway, who used to run with a gang called the Zukies, was sent away by his concerned parents and mentor Bunny Lee to live in England in 1973. There he recorded his first single Jump and Twist for London label Ethnic Fight and then debut album 'Man A Warrior' with producer Clement Bushay for Click Records. Yet Tappa's deejaying skills were not recognized on his return to Jamaica so after a period of time spent as Lee's bodyguard he set up his own production outfit and imprint Stars where he would record a variety of artists from the Greenwich Town area and beyond including Prince Alla, Junior Ross, Knowledge and Horace Andy.

Returning to London in 1976 he found 'Man A Warrior' and follow-up 'MPLA' had become hits - attracting the support of Patti Smith, Don Letts and other luminaries in the burgeoning punk rock scene. Better still, he began to break out in his home island too with the singles Oh Lord and She Want A Phensic, leaving the former rude boy and political activist in the enviable position of being a star on both sides of the Atlantic. A deal with Richard Branson's Virgin records brought him into contact with the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten - in many ways a similarly larger than life character. But his acrimonious split from the company at the end of the 70s and a dissatisfaction with the lyrical and musical direction of the 80s led to the curtailment of his deejaying to concentrate on production. Now he has returned as an artist with a new longplayer using exclusively old rhythms entitled 'X is Wrong'. Angus Taylor spoke to Tappa Zukie at length just before the PNP's election victory and the first part of their discussion follows detailing his latest album and his early years in England and Jamaica...

Tappa Zukie

Why did you decide to make your first album since 2004's Cork and Tar with Bunny Lee?

Because the production kept me away from myself. So now I have decided to lay back on the production. People have been asking me why I'm not doing anything, because I'm a good artist and should be making albums. So I decided to do some work on myself.

The concept is an interesting one - tell me what "X is Wrong" means.

The concept of X Is Wrong is just about thinking back on the things they taught me in school. They taught me that when I do something wrong they give me an "x" and when you do something right they "tick" you, right? But it's always bothered me for the last couple of years: why do you have to make an "x" to vote? And it's worldwide. Does that mean they are telling us that we're doing something wrong? Because we know "x" is wrong and yet to uplift another man and give him power we have to make an "x"? So that's the concept of the album, and you know, Malcolm X put an "x" beside his name because he did not accept the name that he was given by the country because those are supposed to be business names.

Production kept me away from myself

The elections are coming up in Jamaica. I know you have been involved in politics in the past. Do you vote yourself?

No, I have never voted from the day I was born. When I was little I used to run about because when I was small I used to run away from home. I used to go and sleep over by the political headquarters because that was where I could get some sleep in the night. That was the PNP headquarters on Spanish Town Road. And the big boys would send me out and they would give me change which to buy food. So I used to go there to get support when I'd leave home.

On Cork and Tar you rode on digital and live instrument rhythms. Was the decision to use vintage rhythms only an important part of the concept for X Is Wrong?

Tappa Zukie - X Is WrongNowadays most of the reggae's going digital and computerised and the melody is not there. It's taking away the originalness from the reggae music. It's more hip hop - and hip hop came from reggae but now everybody's basing back reggae on hip hop. I am an original reggae artist and I started on real reggae rhythms. I don't feel comfortable working on the digital and that's why I don't make a lot of albums recently. It's too straight. It's like you are drawing a line. The melody is not moving and grooving like the original. The most wonderful time I used to have was when I was making a rhythm in the studio and I was there with a lot of experienced musicians to discuss the rhythms. Five-six-seven people all talking about how best to make the rhythm for even an hour or two - how it should go from G to F or from E Minor to C flat - was a wonderful feeling in the studio. And when the song was finished it would have a great melody and long-time livity.

Many producers are turning to old rhythms these days - like Peckings in England - why is this? Do you think changes in the industry mean people can't afford the musicians - or are the great musicians not around? Many of these guys are still playing.

The computer has taken over the feel and made a one man feel like he can make a rhythm so it waters down the rhythm and the musical part of it. One man can go in the studio and make ten rhythms for the week or a couple of rhythms for the day and that's it. It's made quick and it just leaves out of your head quick so every week you can look for ten new songs. The long stay is not in it. It's just like a demo, most of the computer music is because most of the time they'd use a computer to make a demo. Most of songs out on the road are like demos. If you listen to the dancehall now it's just a continuation of the same rhythm. It's the same rhythm going over with a little different guitar melody. One rhythm going over and over and over. Not much creativeness is in it.

I have never voted from the day I was born

Let's go back to the beginning of your career - what was the music that first inspired you?

I started out listening to jazz. Because where I used to hang out as a youth other than the PNP headquarters was a record store owned by this man who came from America and he played jazz right through the day. That was where I started. He had a band and I was even playing drums in the band as a little boy. My first venture in the music business was starting to play drums. Leroy Horsemouth was the bigger drummer there. When he wasn't there they used to let me play the drums and sometimes when he didn't come they would let me do the rehearsal. He would come and say that every time he'd leave he'd have to change the drums because I was so small and had to readjust the seat. So at his time to play the drums he'd always say I always change up the thing. He'd try to war with me over it so I'd just leave him with it because he was the senior player there.

You have called yourself the first child deejay - tell me how you started.

It's all about that PNP HQ. I used to go over there and they used to have these political meetings that they'd advertise in the van. I'd go and they'd give me the mic and I'd sing a little thing and gwaan when they'd keep their parties. They'd put me on a beer box. I used to love to talk over the mic - I didn't even know if it was something good or a little stupidness but they seemed to like it! So it became a part of it until I started following them to dances and they'd always give me the mic - and that's where it started. I was around eleven-twelve.

Bunny Lee was a family friend right? He knew your brother. Why did he and your family send you to England in 1973?

Bunny Lee and my brother started out. My mother, father and brother knew him. At the PNP Headquarters I used to go around with the bad guys. Because it was the PNP stronghold of the area and it was politics and I used to run around with them. And when the political things were over we used to go around to the dances where I used to play on the sound system and all of my little friends used to follow me around. My family thought I was getting too I-rated, getting in bad company so when I did start getting in some trouble they did decide to send me away to England.

What was it like when you first arrived in England?

When I first arrived it England it was a change. I came to Ladbroke Grove but I was in Harlesden first. So in that year I was in Harlesden, Shepherd's Bush, Willesden, Kilburn, Ladbroke Grove. It was a different thing from what I used to experience in Jamaica. Because when I was in Jamaica it was only in court and going to church and funeral and thing that I would see people wearing a suit but when I got to England everybody was dressed up in a suit. It's not like now when you see everybody trying to look like a ragamuffin! Everybody was in a suit looking like lawyers and doctors in England. This was before Bob Marley burst out and Burning Spear started to sing about culture. Then people started wearing military and khaki and things like that. People were dressing up in those times.

When I got to England everybody was dressed up in a suit. It's not like now when you see everybody trying to look like a ragamuffin!

Did you experience racism there?

No. When I came it wasn't much racism. When I came to England I started to find out and see people who loved people more. People were a bit more loving in England when I came there. The race thing was about but it wasn't pouring out on the street. Just like how even now it is there but it is not pouring out on the street.

You did your first recording there with Larry Lawrence from Ethnic Fight.

The third night after I came there Bunny Lee carried me to a U Roy show and said he heard I used to play sound system and the people in Greenwich Town said I was a good little  deejay upon the set so to go and hold the mic and show them what I could do. So they put me on the stage and I went and rapped a couple of songs and when I came back he introduced me to Larry Lawrence. Larry Lawrence said he was taking me to the studio the following Sunday - and that's how it started. I came out with Jump & Twist then Clement Bushay came along and that's how Man A Warrior started.

Did you know U Roy from before that night?

Yeah because back in Jamaica U Roy was the top deejay and when I used to play the sound people used to say I was good like U Roy and Dennis Alcapone. Big people in the dance used to hold these conversations. U Roy was the deejay who started it off and got it rolling because he had three number ones. He was the one who we used to hear on the radio most and he used to record for Bunny Lee so I used to see him around Bunny Lee. I also used to go the dance and see him around the mic.

You went on to produce him yourself in the late 80s.

Yeah I produced an album with U Roy. I'm putting it up on my website. You know I have my own website with my shop on it - the official website of Tappa Zukie. I've put up that U Roy album - it's on it now anyway. 

Let's go back to the album with Clement Bushay. What inspired the lyrics to Message To Pork Eaters for example?

Tappa ZukieWell in those days I was lyrical. I had so many lyrics that I'd make lyrics off anything I'd see going by. When I'd leave the political arena -  because when I'd run away from home I'd have to go where I could get something to eat - I would always find the Rastaman, the dreadlocks Rastaman, and go amongst those. Because in those days Rasta was loving and giving - not like now when Rasta is more taking and trying to be rough. Rasta was a bit loving so as a little youth now I would go among them, sit down where the Rastaman is and them organize. And they would ask me "Youth? Are you hungry?" and when I'd tell them "Yes" they'd give me food. So I used to hang out enough round the Rastaman them. They wouldn't eat pork and when I'd eat pork they'd tell me not to eat pork! (laughs) I used to smoke their chalice as a little youth and if you eat pork you can't lick the Rastaman chalice! So those lyrics would just come from them livity there because I would make music mostly from the living and to go on on the road.

When you came back to Jamaica you did some recording for Lloydie Slim and then Yabby You and a couple of songs for Bunny Lee. But mostly you worked as Bunny's bodyguard for a while.

When I first went to England I didn't really see myself as a musician. I didn't want to make music - just loved to play the sound. I did my first recording in England and even when I left England there were only around one or two songs released. I used to play people's sounds in England also. So when I got back to Jamaica after Man A Warrior I wanted to get in the music business, to make myself available in the studio and trying to be around Bunny Lee at all times. And if anything rough stuff would come up I would deal with it! So I automatically became his bodyguard.

When I first went to England I didn't really see myself as a musician. I just loved to play the sound

Was Bunny Lee supportive of your musical ambitions?

No. I didn't do much recording for Bunny Lee at the time. I don't think Bunny Lee really saw me as an artist. He knew that I had musical ideas because I would have ideas when he was recording. I was like a vibes man around him and as I told you if anything came down rough I would deal with it so he would have me around as a protection. He wasn't encouraging me that much in the studio.

How did you get into the production side of things?

Really and truly the production side of things was through Robbie Shakespeare, Earl Chinna Smith, Santa Davis and Augustus Pablo. They were the musicians who said they liked my voice and liked my vibes because they were the musicians around Bunny Lee. I was in the studio with them and I had a whole heap of ideas so they said I should leave the rudeboy business and come in the music business. They said they were going to make me some rhythms to take me off of the street so that's how I started as a producer.

Who was the first artist you recorded?

The first artist was Junior Ross with a song named Liberty. I recorded Junior Ross exclusively up until today. Then Prince Alla, Lynford Nugent. Those three artists. And Frankie Jones.

You still maintain the links with your artists from that time. Prince Alla guests on the new album.

Yes and I still maintain the relationship with Junior Ross. Because right now I am getting an album together with him. I have about eight songs and I'm getting it ready to be released. I haven't really picked out a title yet. 

Alla told me you loved to use a lot of horns in your productions - why do you love them so much?

Because the horns have this melody and sound. For instance, when horns are in a song you can hear it from miles away. When my time was coming up I used to listen to sound systems and they used to have a tannoy and you could hear the horns from very far away. I loved to hear the sounds of the horns and the horns make the sound fatter. I used to use Tommy McCook, Vin Gordon, Bobby Ellis, Deadly Headly, Marquis and a couple more.

The horns are a thing that many producers and promoters say they can't afford any more.

Yeah because of what you were saying earlier on. They watered down the reggae that much now and the computers made it so cheap and easy for the promoters and the company owners and people in general so they don't want to spend money for the producers to make the real reggae. They get the computer one so cheap and easy they don't want to pay for it. So if you want to stay in the business you have to make the little "book-book-book". The big players in the business, the company people, the A&R people, they force the computer music on the people. And also the people who play it on the radio as well. It's reached a stage where they'd rather pay for the computer than the acoustic.

The big players in the business... they force the computer music on the people

You initially went back to England in 1976 to promote your label but then your deejaying music really took off there...

I came back to England because I had become a star. When I was in Jamaica I wanted to be a producer more than an artist. Because even in England with Clement Bushay I was actually doing the production myself. So I came back to England to put out [Prince Alla] Bosrah and [Junior Ross] Babylon Fall and a couple of other songs like Black Princess Lady with Lynford Nugent to give to Klik Records. I had my album MPLA too. But there was only one song they took out of the whole batch of records and that was MPLA and I didn't even get any money. So I went back to Jamaica and in six weeks to a month's time they sent back for me and said MPLA was mashing up the place and they wanted me to come and they would pay me back. So I came back and the song went to number one so I put out Pick Up The Rockers as another from the same album I was giving them and it run off. Then they released the album and it run off and then became the album of the year. So I became the artist of the year and that's where everything started. Up until '76 I was just doing what the people expected of me and doing shows all over England.

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