LION AND FOX: MAKING REGGAE HISTORY IN THE HEART OF BABYLON (PART 2 OF 3)
Photo: Don Carlos w/ Jim Fox, Washington, DC, August 2012
ISRAEL VIBRATION: STRENGTH OF MY LIFE AND BEYOND
The trio of vocalists who make up Israel Vibration are considered one of the most uniquely gifted groups Jamaica has produced. All three are inflicted with the deadly polio virus as infants and spend their childhood at the Mona Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica. As a teenager, Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig devotes himself to the Rastafarian faith, something that did not bode well at his institutional home. Apple’s bredren follow him into the Rasta faith, and it isn’t long before all three are thrown out of the institution.
Having to fend for themselves for the first time in their lives, all three bredren end up living in the bush and singing on the streets for money. Apple describes this period in an interview with the Jamaica Gleaner in February 1990:
“It was a terrible time. We had to sleep on the bare ground and when it rained we had to shelter under the branches of trees. And as for food, we went for days without eating. It was this sort of existence that made us into Israel Vibration. During the days we didn’t have anything to do. We used to sing.”
After spending six years on the streets, the group enters the Channel One Studio in 1975 with producer Ernest Hookim and cut the single “Bad Intention,” but it is never released. The Twelve Tribes of Israel, a House of Rastafari, step in and produce their first 45 rpm single “Why Worry” in 1976, which is produced by U Booth at Treasure Isle. “Why Worry” is released on the Twelve Tribes label and is so successful that producer Tommy Cowan books them at the Channel One Studio to record the album The Same Song in 1977. They follow with the album Unconquered People in 1980, which is recorded at the newly built Tuff Gong Studio and released on Cowan’s Top Ranking label.
It is during the Unconquered People recording sessions that the trio meet Doctor Dread for the first time. It is rumored that Bob Marley listened to the recording of the album in his Tuff Gong office and praised the group for their unique vocal delivery and the depth and spirituality in the lyrics.
What happens next sets the course for Israel Vibration’s emigration to America and their eventual partnership with Dr. Dread and RAS Records.
For the next album, the trio enter the studio with producer Junjo Lawes at the helm. Recalls Apple:
“The second time we entered the studio to voice the tracks, we heard other peoples’ voices on our original music. We were told that the producer had other artists singing on our rhythm tracks. When we confronted Junjo about this there was a big argument and we told him that we did not and could not work this way and left.”
The album, Why You So Craven, is finished by The Tamlins, mixed by Scientist, and sold by Lawes to Dynamic, who release it in its incomplete form.
It is several years later when the trio, each living in Brooklyn, New York, enter Lion and Fox Studios under the RAS Records label to record Strength Of My Life. The album includes the best musicians their native Jamaica has to offer: Flabba Holt on bass, Bingy Bunny on guitar, Style Scott on drums, Dwight Pinkney on lead guitar, Earl Fitzsimmons on piano, Sticky Thompson on percussion, Augustus Pablo on melodica/overdubs, Mallery Williams keyboard/organ, and Brass Tax from Parliament Funkadelic on horns.
The album, brilliantly engineered by Jim Fox at Lion and Fox Studios, establishes a new standard for reggae recording and introduces a sound that will characterize Israel Vibration’s records for the next 15 years. The Radics lay down fat riddims to their melodies, over which the trio conjure a variety of unique atmospheres and moods.
The album opens with the flawless “Cool And Calm,” which establishes a relaxed vibe that flows throughout the album. The listener is taken on a hazy journey through slums and collie fields, while the trio sing songs about religion, social injustice, poverty, love, and strength. It’s an album that strengthens the soul. Material this strong is usually only found on the debut album of an artist or artists who have been struggling to make it for some time. This is an album that is the “second-debut” of a trio of artists who struggled for years just to stay alive.
Jim Fox’s mix of the album sets a new standard for reggae recording. Fox shows what can be done when recording a truly great artist backed by one of the finest bands in the world. Each instrument is crystal clear. The bass is heavy. The vocals, almost sung at a whisper, come through strong against such heavy instrumentation. It is often said that there is a perfect mix for every recording. The job of the engineer is to find that perfect mix. It is daunting – like trying to find a needle in 1000 haystacks, however, Fox finds it and the listener is left with no doubt as to why Israel Vibration decide to record a total of 18 albums at Lion and Fox.
If Strength Of My Life served to tell the reggae world that Israel Vibration was back, then the follow-up album Praises signals that they are gaining strength and building a much stronger bond the second time around. Songs like “Vultures”, “New Wave”, and “Jailhouse Rocking” are considered by many to be modern reggae classics. It is the Roots Radics that shine brightest on Praises, with Flabba Holt laying down his heaviest basslines on tracks like “Jailhouse Rocking”, where he tests the structural integrity of the modern speaker system. However, it is Jim Fox’s masterful mix that allows the Radics to test the boundaries of the studio space without overtaking the whispery vocals of the trio. It is this that makes his recordings of Israel Vibration so great.
This “Fox sound” sets the standard for reggae recordings during this period. Roger Steffens, founding Chairman of the Reggae Grammy Committee said this of Fox during a recent interview:
“The sounds he has helped these musicians realize reverberate over the decades and one can recognize the “Fox Sound” almost immediately. He helped boost the careers of many of reggae’s biggest lights, and made them brighter. Jah bless Jim Fox and all his crucial works.”
Of the first two albums Israel Vibration recorded with Jim Fox, noted reggae historian and author David Katz (People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae) says:
“On Strength Of My Life, songs like “Greedy Dog” and “Live And Give” holding real palpable tension, especially when the eerie backing vocals kick in. I think Praises has a harder edge. I love the live horns and organ sound on “Vultures”, another edgy track. “There Is No End” has lots of great percussive sounds. I would say you can hear that both those albums were not rushed. Care was taken to make sure they were recorded properly.”
I spoke with Cecil “Skelly” Spence, one of the few living legends of reggae, about his experience recording with Jim Fox at Lion And Fox Studio:
“I have to say in the 30 years of my career, I-man worked with many great engineers, and Jim Fox is also one of thos great engineers. From when we signed with RAS Records, I don’t know how many albums we record with RAS Records, but Jim Fox was always the engineer. To be considered a great recording engineer, one has to have patience. It is very important. Jim Fox is one of the most patient guys I ever work with. This is what I recall when I say he is one of the greats.”
I also asked him about his favorite album that Israel Vibration recorded with Fox:
“The Strength Of My Life album is a really nice album, you know. It was our first time recording outside of Jamaica so there was a concern about the sound. It was my first time working with Jim and it came out really good. I know personally that many artists prefer Jim to work with because they know what they will get. I recall, all Jim need is his cup of coffee-tea, and him work all night long ‘til morning come, then him work more.”
From 1990 through 2003, Lion and Fox and Israel Vibration put out at least one record every year with the exception of 1998 and 2002. This includes several dub albums and three live recordings. At the same time, Fox is being pulled in other directions and his brilliant work with Israel Vibration opens opportunities all over the world.
“In 1994, again, another Doctor Dread connection, Los Cafres, they called and I was able to go down to South America and Argentina and mix an album for Los Cafres. So that was all well and done and good. Then I did Instinto Dub for them. Just last year, 16 years and about 10 albums later, they called me back and said ‘Hey, why don’t you come down and do this album with us.’ So last year I went down and mixed their newest album (El Paso Gigante). When I was down there they told me that Rolling Stone Magazine (October 2009) put out an issue that voted the best reggae albums produced in South America. The number one album was that album I did in 1994 for them (Instinto, recorded at Panda Studios, Buenos Aires, Argentina).”
It isn’t possible to spend as much time with Israel Vibration and the Roots Radics as Jim Fox did during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s without becoming a family of sorts. When Fox speaks of these musicians it is clear that he holds them in highest regard. These are his bredren. It is in 1993, during the tour promoting the IV album that guitar legend Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont of the Roots Radics is taken ill.
“If my imagination serves me right it was the first part of January and it was really cold out. I wanted to go to the funeral down in Jamaica but I just couldn’t make it. I was mastering the IV Dub album. So the night he was being buried I went and got out the 2-inch tapes and I started to remix the ending of the last song so that it had the rhythm guitar going out on a lasting reverb, and the band fading out, and the rhythm guitar playing out into the band fading. So I spliced it to the end, you know, replacing the actual mix that we had. I just felt terrible that I wasn’t there. My respect for Bingy Bunny was (pause) very, very high. He’s just the greatest guy and what an incredible musician.”
In 1995, with Wiss stuck in Jamaica due to problems with his papers, Fox travels to the island to record what would become the crowning achievement for Israel Vibration in the 1990s, an album titled On The Rock. A stunning album with a conscious message aimed squarely at the ‘rudeboys’ of the day. By far their most cultural album of the decade, the single “Rudeboy Shufflin’” is a surprise breakout hit, even finding its way to BET and MTV with a killer video.
Wiss, having lived in Brooklyn for nine years, needed to get his passport in order. So Dr. Dread booked a round trip ticket to Kingston for him and Wiss to go to the US Embassy and get Wiss’s papers in order. So something happened in the interview and the customs agent decided he didn’t want to give Wiss back his papers. So “Mr. Consular Man” opens the On The Rock album:
“I’ve been away in another land / For over nine years
Had to return to Jamaica now / To set my way clear
I had to go to the embassy
To be interviewed by men of authority
Who didn’t want to see I go through
So they did all that they could do / Just to slow I down
Harsh authority was impound
So then I realise / I was bound in a jam down
For so long, for so long”