World-A-Reggae chats up the great U-Brown
Huford Brown, better known by the stage name U Brown, is a reggae deejay and protojé of U-Roy who released eleven albums between 1976 and 1984. Brown grew up in Bond Street in Kingston, living two doors away from Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio. Heavily influenced by U-Roy, but also citing Big Youth, Dennis Alcapone, Prince Jazzbo and I-Roy as influences, Brown began his career on the Silver Bullet sound system in the early 1970s, moving on to Antone the Killa and Sound of Music, eventually replacing U-Roy on the King Tubby’s Hi-Fi system in 1975.
Brown was initially given a chance to record by Winston Edwards and then Yabby You, and had a local hit in 1976 with “Starsky and Hutch”, which was followed by a series of albums produced by Bunny Lee. He was signed to Virgin Records in the late 1970s, releasing two albums on their Front Line label. The Virgin contract enabled Brown to travel frequently to the United Kingdom, where he performed with the Unity Hi Power sound system. Brown returned to prominence in 1982 with “Tu Sheng Peng” (a version of Dennis Brown’s “If This World Were Mine”).
Brown set up his own Hit Sound label in 1977 as an outlet for his work as a producer.
In 1997 Blood & Fire released a compilation of Brown’s 1970s work, raising his profile and leading to new recordings, working with Jah Warrior among others. U-Brown now splits his time between Jamaica and Denmark.
Greetings. So tell the people what U-Brown has been doing of late. I know you have been playing live dates. Just last month you performed in Marseilles with DJ Akademy Sound System. Where can the fans expect to see U-Brown over the next several months? Who will you be performing with?
“Well, I am in Denmark. I have been here from May. I am between here and Jamaica because my wife she is Danish. But I am here now live and direct. I been doing a couple live shows with bands, sound system and PA, but no recording since I’ve been here in Denmark. I have two albums. One is out now, for a French production group Down The Bush called Let’s Keep On Jammin (with The Grinders) and another one that is not out yet called From The Archives of King Tubby featuring tracks that I voiced but were never released. I will be putting that out myself. There is no more record companies. I am from the old school. For me it is always nice to have the record in your hand, the record in your house, the record in your collection. But that’s not how they do it now. It is all digital.”
I just bought a single you put out with Rod Taylor titled “Rastafari Soldiers.” Very nice sound on that one. When did you record this?
“I recorded that like 2 years ago but it just come out recently. From what I know for right now it is just the single. I don’t know if the producer is interested in doing an album.”
I recently interviewed Steve Barrow about the Blood & Fire experience. He is a huge fan of deejay. In 1997 they released the Train To Zion compilation. What impact did this have on your career?
“Blood and Fire give a little lift to my career because a lot of the youth dem don’t know much about my music. Even the older generation , maybe them not as familiar. They could get it on vinyl and CD. And so it open more doors to let some producers and people do some shows with me. Even do some more recording too. That is why I was able to do the record with Down The Bush because even though they might have been a fan over the years, they don’t hear you for a while and dem think you fall off or lost it. Blood and Fire was good for me.”
The business is crazy. At least for me, looking back over the last 20 years, the music has really been lost.
“Well, it is true but it happens in every kind of music. Even American music. If you listen to some old Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, or other soul records, you hear much more instrumentation, more varied arrangements, it has much more flavor. Same thing happen with reggae. It’s one person making the whole track using computers and drum machine, playing de bass, de guitar, de piano, which is good sometimes. But you only get one feel, one vibe. Whereas back in the day you had many live instruments and different arrangements – versus a band of live instruments.”
What are your thoughts on the state of reggae right now? Artists like Protoje and Jah 9 and conscious roots artists like that.
“It’s good, you know. Somebody took notice because de youth dem come to Europe and they see the market and they experience the business. In this business there is a lot of things for artists to learn. First you have to learn to write. You have to learn timing, how to deliver, then you have to learn how to perform on stage. And then there is the business level that the artist must learn. What type of record to make, what type of songs to market, what the people buy. So Protoje and dem youths they find that roots sound and dem learn how fi properly present it. And I appreciate that. Chronixx. He is one to watch. I really like his sound, I really like his vibe. Love his vibe. Trust me. He bring me back in my days when I’m like 19 years old, with the mic in me hand.”
Your career has been well-documented. You got your start with the Silver Bullet Sound System in the early 1970s, moving on to Sound of Music and replacing U-Roy on the King Tubby’s Hi-Fi system in 1975. What role did U-Roy play in your early career as a deejay?
“My interest in music start with the jukebox. My father take me to the bar, as my mother’s oldest son, me and my little brother. He take us with him when he have a drink you know, to give my mother a break. So I start hear the records from the jukebox. Then when we move from Western Kingston, cuz I was born in Western Kingston, we move to a place call South Saint Andrew and me have a friend who was into the sound system, and deejay, and dances. So me start to go to the dance. This when I see U-Roy. U-Roy was the top deejay. I live in the same area as U-Roy and he was the deejay at Tubby’s Sound System. Him have like 4 or 5 songs on the top 10 charts! I see him and I start imitate him and sing these songs to myself and to my friends. And I see this is something that I like and something I could do. My friends say it sound good and I should grab the mic but I was shy back then you know. But one night I decide to grab the mic, and I hold it inna me hand for the first time. And I start to sing a song. That was the Silver Bullet sound system. From foolin’ around Silver Bullet their was another sound system call Antone The Killa. So then there was a guy who take care of Tubby’s sound when he on the road. His name was Trevor but we called him Tower Hill because that is where him born. Tower Hill start take notice and tell Tubby about me. Well U-Roy have an accident and fracture his leg, this was around 1970. So when that happen they need someone to fill the sound. That is when I play Tubby’s Sound for the first time. That is the night I meet Dillinger for the first time. But Dillinger was not the right sound for Tubby’s because U-Roy was the resident deejay at Tubby’s and the people them used to U-Roy sound. Dillinger was better on Tippa Tone because him sound more like Big Youth, who was the resident deejay at Tippa Tone. Dennis Alcapone was the resident deejay at El Paso.”
Talk a little bit about your record label.
“My label is called Hit Sound. Not Hit Bound, that is associated with Channel One. Hit Sound. That is my label and the only one I have. I produced Carlton Livingston’s first popular song titled ‘Please Mr. DJ.’ And I produced Peter Metro. His first popular song called ‘Dedicated To You.’ I also produce songs with Delroy Wilson and others too.”
You had the opportunity to record for Yabby You? Talk about what it was like to work with Yabby You. What did you guys collaborate on?
“Yes, Yabby You, see if the producer like how you sound toasting over a riddim, he might have a riddim that he want you for. The singers bring them song to the producer, but it is the producer who see the deejay inna the dance and select him for the riddim. So Yabby You took I to the studio and I record a song for Yabby You called “Dem A Wolf” version. Yabby was a very spiritual man, a very serious man, and you fi really watch what you say around him. But I get to know him over time and we work together well.”
A lot of the records that I have that feature U-Brown are on the Music Works label.
“Yes, I record a lot for Gussie Clarke, which include the Musical Youth ‘Pass The Dutchie’ version. You know the part that go ‘Gimme de music make me jump and shout’? That is me. I wrote that. All the lyrics in that song written by U-Brown and the Mighty Diamonds.”
U-Brown “Gimme The Music”/”Love A Wha We Need” (Music Works)
With the deejay, how much is written versus freestyle over the version?
“Well nowadays it is mostly all written. We would be more freestyling back in the days, you know more jiving, but still write a lot before hand to be prepared. But as it get more popular and competitive you have fi come to studio with your verse written.”
Talk about the history and evolution of sing-jay.
“Well sing-jay is someone like Capleton you know. He is a sing-jay. Half sing, half toast. Deejay evolve into sing-jay when the riddim start speed up a bit. It is singing but not in the way of a Dennis brown or Luciano. Sing-jay vocals are not there like those other singers. But it have a nice melody and nice style. It evoilution it like when it went from King Stitt to U-Roy. Very little words to U-Roy jiving over the version like “the farmer say to the potato, I gonna plant you now, and reap you later, cuz later will be greater, Dig it Daddy, Dig It Mommy!” But sing-jay did not start with Capleton the youth dem. No, no. It start with Big Youth and U-Roy. Just listen to the track that U-Roy did called ‘What Is Catty’ if you listen it is U-Roy singing like sing-jay. Another big sing-jay tune was Big Youth ‘Streets of Africa’ with Dennis Brown. Big Youth doing sing-jay on that track. Also, ‘Every Nigger Is A Star’ by Big Youth. Sing-jay. It really take off with Capleton and Sizzla and become the new style but it start with Big Youth and U-Roy.”
So where can the people find U-Brown? You have a website or upcoming shows?
“Well, I don’t really have a website right now but anyone who want to talk to U-Brown can go to my Facebook page. Yeah, mon. Pick up my album ‘Let’s Keep On Jammin” with The Grinders. You can get that at I-Tunes. Look out for the new album called ‘From the Archives of King Tubby’ featuring unreleased U-Brown tracks. Coming soon. Any promoters, club owners, booking agents, U-Brown is currently booking dates so get me at my Facebook page if you want to book a show.”
Thanks so much for your time. Thanks for taking time to educate me on deejay and your career.
“Yeah mon, anytime you know. You have any questions or anything you just call me. Many thanks for the interview.”
Gregory Isaacs feat. U-Brown “The Border”
Dennis Brown feat. U-Brown “Praise Without Raise”
U-Brown “Keep On Skankin’”
Bim Sherman feat. U-Brown “Human Rights”