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Interview: Christopher Ellis

Interview: Christopher Ellis

Interview: Christopher Ellis

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"I want to be myself and bring something to my dad's legacy"


Christopher Ellis is the youngest son of the late great Alton Ellis. The South London born prodigy was taken on tour as a youth by his father, performing Alton's songs in Jamaica and around the world - including Alton's final show at the Jazz Cafe in 2008. Yet despite audible and visual similarities to his dad Christopher is now his own man, having come to the attention of Youth Promoter Sugar Minott and in 2010 been signed to Stephen Marley's Ghetto Youths International label. Ellis has also become a singing foil to fellow UK deejay success story Gappy Ranks collaborating on the Marley/Sly & Robbie creation Knocking At My Door, and performing together at the now hallowed Jazz Cafe in October 2011. Christopher is about to release a taster EP of his work (produced by Stephen) in preparation for an album at a later date. Angus Taylor learned firsthand about the road from his extraordinary childhood, growing up around his father Bob Andy and John Holt, to his star studded present, surrounded by Marley scions, Snoop Dogg and Jah Cure...

Christopher Ellis

Tell me about your journey into music.

I'm born and grown in London. The first time I stepped on a stage I was 11 years old at Hammersmith Palais with Delroy Wilson, the  Melodians, Alton Ellis, Dobby Dobson, Ken Boothe, John Holt. I sang I'm Still In Love and I shut down the whole building with that one song. When the people started clapping and going "Waay!" I said "Wow, I could get used to this!" (laughs).

That was your first show?

That was the first show I ever did Angus. I started to do shows by myself but then my mum cut them off. So I turned to football and did some trials for Crystal Palace. It didn't go well but I was good at football still. My dad kept saying "Christopher, come sing with me" and started taking me on tour when I was 16 or 17. I went all over the world. If my dad was here now I wouldn't be doing music with the Marleys. I'm only doing this now as the baton's been given to me because he's gone. I don't really need to be a star or a big singer, it's just because of my dad and my love of music. If he was alive now I think I'd be with him just doing his songs on his shows, because I was happy doing that.

How big an influence on your life has your mother been on you?

My mum now, I have her as an angel which is kind of a bad thing because everyone is imperfect. I've never seen her do anything wrong, I've never seen her swear, she's a Christian. She brought me up with manners, how to be respectful, everything that I know good, she taught me. Sometimes I tease her and say she stifled me in music, because I was starting to get booked for shows at 11 and 12 that my dad wouldn't do and then she said "No more shows. School". As I got older I was a bit upset about that, but it was protection.

You have a new dancehall track Yard Style on Wundah's Good Food rhythm.

My songs are mainly love songs - kind of my Dad's mood. One day someone said to me "Yow, you should try dancehall!" So I made a song about them asking me that, saying "Could you ever sing in a yard style?" "Could you ever sing on dancehall?" I was doing an interview with Robbo Ranx, Wundah was there and he said he'd love to work with me. The first thing he sent me was this! As soon as I heard it it just gave me the bounce I needed. I went to the studio and had the first verse only. But when I got there the rest just came to me, everything just connected and it went fine.

You're signed to Stephen Marley's label. Stephen said to me that he was drawn to you because you both had a similar road to travel.

I agree so much. On Yard Style song I sing (sings) "So say it's set for me, cos it's hard when you're reggae royalty". I see it as a responsibility and I'm sure Stephen sees it the same, trying to carry on a legacy that was built by our fathers. He just saw me, connected with me, he loves how I sound, and away from the music we get on as friends, there's loads of comedy when we're around! He's the boss, but he's so funny! He can relate to my story. That's how we came together.

Stephen Marley can relate to my story. That's how we came together

From how "correct" his productions are I thought Stephen would be a hard taskmaster in the studio...

The man is a genius! But he doesn't act like he is. What he's doing is natural. He's got a line in his song where he says "I'm not in it for the fame, I'm in it for the love". I sit in the studio and I think "This guy doesn't even know how great he is!" The man is a magician! His music is a different calibre. Even on this last album we did, Revelations Part 1, he took it back to history where you get a flute blowing for 30 seconds on its own or you get a hornsman doing a solo. That ain't happening today in reggae music. Taking it back to how our fathers did it: real music!

Have you heard the Part Two of the Revelations?

I've heard the Part Two! Stephen played it for me, oh man! I don't know how he does it! The first one's called the Root of Life and this one is the Fruit of Life. This is coming off of the reggae, so it's like hip hop sound, reggae incorporated with soulful grooves. It's more similar to Mind Control, his first album, mixed contemporary. His songwriting... I was just blown away by him!

When is your album with Stephen coming out?

First I'm going to release an EP. We're not far from finishing that album. When it does come it's going to be quality songs and people will love it. It's worth the wait! But we're going to release a five-song EP by summer, that's the plan.

What's Damian Marley like to be around and to work with?

Christopher EllisLet me tell you about Damian. You know when you hear someone say when a person walks in a room the room lights up? That's really the case with Junior Gong. He has a special aura. Let me give you an example of how driven this guy is: we'll all be in the studio at 4am and everyone is drifting off to sleep, a bit tired, Damian "Junior Gong" Marley is marching up and down with a Guinness in his hand preeing lyrics. This is a guy who's successful and out there already, taking over the world already. Someone like me is there feeling tired and wanting to sleep, who hasn't had even a quarter of his success. When I see how driven he is I think "Ah, so that's why he's where he is!"

You've done a lot of travelling around, in London, Jamaica, Miami over the years. Where do you call home now?

I'd say my real home is in England; that's where my mum is, my kids, my girlfriend, everyone is there. At the same time I could live in Jamaica. I love going to Jamaica because it reminds me of my dad. Whenever it's time to leave Jamaica I'm not happy.  Then I come to Miami, spend loads of time with Stephen and Damian, but I don't really like Miami so much, there's too many highways, freeways and roads; pure motorway. But I love being in the studio with the boys.

One person you met in Jamaica was Snoop Dogg.

He's great. Everyone always runs around him like he's a superstar, but he's one of the most down to earth people, always got a spliff in his mouth, as soon as the spliff's finished he's building another. We were in the studio and Damian played one of his productions and Snoop said "Yeah man, get me on this, I like this!" He's a superstar but he acts so normal, so laid back. We all went to Trench Town and oh man, you'd have thought it was Michael Jackson!  People came out and were chasing the cars, crazy time!

You are surely better placed than most people to not be phased by being around superstars because you've had the stars of reggae passing through the house from a young age.

You know Angus, I want to tell you this right now, I'm still starstruck by Junior Gong and Stephen Marley! I'm with them every single day and when I wake up it's like the first day still. The first month that I was with Stephen, I was in his house looking at a YouTube clip of him and Damian, and he came behind me and said "You don't have to look at that no more, you're here with us!" But I'm still overwhelmed. I'm not starstruck with someone because they're famous but because of their works. So when I go to a show and sign an autograph or I take a picture with someone and they say "I really love how you sing, I love your music" I understand how they feel.

I'm still starstruck by Junior Gong and Stephen

Another mentor in your career was Sugar Minott.

Sometimes I feel sad when I think about Sugar because he didn't get the credit he deserved. Sugar always used to say people in Jamaica didn't show him the credit like the foreigners. He was loved in England, big time! In Jamaica they don't book Sugar, they don't big up the Godfather; he's the Godfather of dancehall. He was a man that if you could sing in key and in time he would voice you in his studio. When my father passed he said to me "Ellis, come here anytime and voice, do what you want to do, free of charge, because your daddy is my daddy". He took me in like I was his son.

How did you react to his passing?

I was in Atlanta. I got a phone call saying "Sugar Minott just died!" My heart sank and I just started crying. Many artists that I've met and have passed like Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown, that I grew up seeing every day, I didn't cry tears for them, but that's how much Sugar Minott affected me. I cried for Sugar Minott. I was in Atlanta and I cried. I went to see him about a month before he passed and he told me that he'd got some chest thing, and he said "Ease off the chalice ". Sugar Minott passed but Sugar is in my heart. I love that man.

The final Jazz Cafe concert that you did with your father has been put out on DVD. You went last year to be on Gappy Ranks' "and friends" show. How did it feel to be in that same venue again?

Many artists that I've met have passed like Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown, but I cried for Sugar Minott

That was nice, man. In fact that was my idea, because Gappy was going to do a show in a different venue. I said "Gappy, no man, do Jazz Cafe". It was so nice to step out at Jazz Cafe man, there are so many memories there. I performed three times there with my dad. It was so nice to walk down those stairs again, feel the whole energy. This year I'm hoping to do it again by myself, one night with Christopher Ellis at Jazz Cafe.

Would you like to win lots of Grammys as Stephen has done, or does that kind of thing not matter to you?

If I don't ever win a Grammy that's not going to affect me. I won't see myself as a failure. When the people accept you, that's what I want. Check this: Tarrus Riley has never won a Grammy, he's one of the biggest artists in reggae music; Jah Cure, same thing. If I won a Grammy I'd be very happy and hope my kids are proud of me, but really all I want Angus, is for people to love my songs. But... a Grammy would be nice! (laughs)

What is the one thing that people who loved your father's music don't know about him as a person?

That he was a comedian! I have a cousin called Ity works in a duo: Ity & Fancy Cat, they're like the Ant & Dec of Jamaica. They are funny! Ity's brother is called Blakka Ellis, he's a comedian as well in Jamaica. They've got their own show on TV and stuff. It runs in the blood. They're my dad's nephews and my dad had a comedy as well. The man was so funny, Angus! One time we were on a plane when it just touched down in New York and everyone started to clap, and my dad turned to me with a blank face and said "Christopher, them think it's a stage show!" Any time my mum used to discipline me, my dad was a saviour so I could always run behind him for shelter and protection. Did you know that my dad never went to Africa? He always said "Me cyaan believe I never been to Africa before". Hopefully I can fulfil that. Yeah man, Angus I really miss him man.

And what is the thing about Christopher Ellis that people who love his music don't know about him?

That I’m just a normal young black kid from London, whose dad happens to be Alton Ellis. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the love. My love for music is raw! I've never took singing lessons, so everything I'm doing is just by accident. It's not by the book. I just want to keep rising and working with the band. It's really nice for me because I started off just singing Alton Ellis songs in Jamaica when my father passed, I was on four or five shows a month singing pure Alton Ellis. Now it's nice that I'm stepping out as Christopher Ellis, and Alton Ellis' son on the side instead of first. I want to be myself and bring something to my dad's legacy. Instead of karaoke, the legacy.

I'm just a normal young black kid from London, whose dad happens to be Alton Ellis

Christopher Ellis plays at the Jazz Cafe in London on his father's birthday September 1st 2012.

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Read comments (1)

Posted by Guv Shyne on 05.22.2012
Positive energy and he sounds very level headed! I wanna do so much more for reggae!

Comments actually desactivated due to too much spams

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