A World-A-Reggae Exclusive! David Katz talks ‘Solid Foundation’
Our friend David Katz, author of the alpha/omega of books documenting the history of reggae, just released the revised and expanded edition of Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, which tells the story of “the big music from the likkle island” through interviews with those who lived it. To say it is definitive does not adequately encompass nor convey the value of this work both as a reference for writers, collectors, fans, and historians as well as a documentary of this historic movement, told through a decades worth of personal interviews with the artists and musicians responsible for sparking it and bearing the torch for it.
World-A-Reggae spoke recently with David regarding his newly published Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae (Revised and Expanded).
W-A-R: So I was excited to hear that you would be revising and updating your book “Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae.” The book is a phenomenal piece of history. What can we expect in the revised edition that’s in stores now?
DK: In a nutshell, there are two new chapters on the dancehall era (chapters 13 and 14), tracing what happened after ‘Sleng Teng’ and bringing the book into the new Millennium. Also, there is a lot of interview material in chapters 10, 11 and 12 that was not in the original book, with artists such as Barrington Levy, Trinity, Josie Wales, Charlie Chaplin, etc etc. Additionally, because I know much more than I did when I submitted the manuscript of the original edition back in 2002, I have completely restructured chapter 1, because I have much more solid information in the book about the very first recordings ever made in Jamaica – that is, who made them, when, how and why. The text was also updated to reference the final days of those that have passed away since the book was first published, in order to honour the dead. And the text has been re-edited throughout, to make it tighter and to aid the flow. Plus, some errors were corrected.
Furthermore, this time there are 40+ photos on proper photo plates using high-quality paper, including several images not published before, and some great rare archive images. For reasons that were never explained properly, the original edition only had ‘integrated’ photos, which were not on the correct type of paper, so many were not reproduced properly in the original book.
W-A-R: Tell the readers a little bit about how you collected the interviews that make up the book.
DK: The process began back in the late 1980s, when I was gathering information for my first book, People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. As you know, Scratch worked with virtually everyone in Jamaican music, so while I was trying to understand his journey and the work he did, I was also gathering fantastic material with artists that had incredible histories in their own right, such as U Roy, Big Youth, Dennis Alcapone, Dave Barker, Max Romeo, etc etc – many of them only worked with Scratch for a brief period, so I had a lot of interview material with these artists that was not used in the Lee Perry book. Later, after I negotiated a contract for the first edition of Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, I went back to Jamaica, and also to New York, to conduct interviews with many of the artists that I was not able to include in the Lee Perry biography. And after Solid Foundation was published in its original form, I continued to conduct interviews with dancehall artists.
W-A-R: How long did you compile interviews before sitting down to write the original?
DK: Well, as noted above, I began to interview Jamaican artists on a regular basis after having met Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in early 1987, when he anointed me his ‘Ghost Writer’. Then, after suffering 10 years of rejection letters, I finally negotiated the contract for People Funny Boy, and kept conducting interviews for that book right up until it was published, in 2000. Then, did loads of other interviews between 2000 and 2003, specifically for Solid Foundation. And, after Solid Foundation was first published, I kept conducting interviews, up until fairly recently, for what I believed would be a separate book on dancehall, but which ended up being the expanded edition of Solid Foundation.
W-A-R: Are there any interviews that stand out in particular?
DK: Of the new material in this revised & expanded edition, King Kong provides some amazing material about dancehall’s evolution. The memories of Barrington Levy, Trinity, Ranking Joe, etc etc, are also highly illuminating. Of the original edition, I think there is some tremendous material with figures such as the Wailing Souls, Yabby You, Augustus Pablo, Roy Cousins, Roy Shirley, Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, Prince Buster, the Skatalites, Sugar Minott, and many many more.
W-A-R: I think this book is of significant importance because it is the history of this music and this movement told by those who lived it. It’s not a writer’s interpretation of history. You have any thoughts on this?
DK: I can only say, thank you for that compliment. My original intention behind the book was actually just to put together a collection of interviews with key figures, but the commissioning editor behind the original edition suggested that ‘Books of interviews don’t sell.’ He suggested I should weave the interview material into a narrative, which is how it got its initial form…but whether or not that was the right decision, I leave up to the reader to decide.
W-A-R: Over the years, did you have any resistance from artists in telling this story?
DK: Well, as anyone who has ever interviewed a Jamaican artist may know, some reggae artists may be reluctant to speak to outsiders. And I can understand the reticence. So much of what has been written about Jamaican music is simply untrue… writers are often very off-base, and are sometimes insulting. The men and women who created this incredible music have often suffered social stigma at home, and misrepresentation or exploitation abroad. However, although some may have been resistant at first, most were very willing to share their stories in the end, and even the few that were initially resistant tended to open up, once they got to know me properly, especially if someone they knew was able to vouch for me. Those that ended up actually refusing to be interviewed can probably be counted on one hand.
W-A-R: In your opinion, in terms of artists getting paid royalties and seeing the fruits of their labor monetarily, have you noticed a change over the past 30 years? Do the artists feel that the industry has changed for the better?
DK: This is a very good question, and one that is not easy to generalise about. In some ways, I believe many younger artists and producers are more clued in about the way royalties work, and what they need to watch out for. However, in some ways, little has changed – the music industry is rife with exploitation, and the kind of exploitation that permeates the industry may be felt particularly acutely by Jamaican nationals. On top of that, as I’m sure you know, the Pandora’s Box that is the internet has really reduced the earning power of many artists… the whole model of how music is made, and disseminated, and how people can earn from it, is really in flux right now…
W-A-R: What are your thoughts on the state of reggae right now?
DK: I think 2012 was a fantastic year for Jamaican music, and it has been really heartening to see the way that music has revitalised itself of late, becoming more complex and varied again. It makes me optimistic for the future.
W-A-R: Where do you see it in 5 years?
DK: A very good question, and one that cannot be answered adequately… because reggae music is constantly reinventing itself.
W-A-R: Thanks Dave. Tell the people where they can purchase the revised and expanded “Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae.”
DK: Thanks Michael. It should be available at all fine bookstores. And online, I believe the best place to order it is here: