Steely & Clevie’s Digital Revolution

Wycliffe ‘Steely’ Johnson and Cleveland ‘Clevie’ Browne are the pioneers of dancehall reggae’s digital age and are also known as the ‘Ragga Godfathers’. From the mid ’80s until 2005 their sound and their productions have dominated the dancehalls. Steely and Clevie have also created the templates which up until today still form the basis of many dancehall riddims. This month VP Records will release ‘Reggae Anthology: Steely & Clevie Digital Revolution’, a three disc collector’s edition that includes 42 of their own most influential productions and biggest hits on disc 1 and 2. Disc 3 is a DVD featuring a 1988 studio demonstration by Steely and Clevie in the famous Mixing Lab Studio filmed by the Jamaican Broadcasting Company (JBC) as well as a 2005 interview with the two producers at the Red Bull Music Academy.

Before Steely and Clevie became the most in demand rhythm section in Jamaica, the two of them had known eachother for a longtime. It was Clevie’s brother Dalton who had introduced him to Steely, after meeting him at a Twelve Tribes Of Israel function. Steely soon became a regular visitor at the Browne home and practised music together with Clevie and his brothers. In the summer of 1974 the legendary Augustus Pablo invited Steely and Clevie, then 11 and 14 years old, into the studio for their first ever studio session. They played on Earl 16’s ‘Man Making Plan’ and ‘Africa Must be Free (By 1983)’ by Hugh Mundell at Harry J’s studio in Kingston. Even though the two remained close friends, they both went their own ways musically. Clevie joined the In Crowd and later the Studio One band and toured with Freddie McGregor, while Steely became a member of the Roots Radics after contributing to Sugar Minott’s ‘Ghetto-ology’ album. As part of the Roots Radics, Steely played on numerous productions for producers Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and Linval Thompson and toured the world with Gregory Isaacs.

Both Steely and Clevie got interested in music recorded with drummachines and synthesizers, before these type of instruments would become the standard and would take over the dancehall sound. They started to experiment with drummachines and synths and recorded some demos on tape. When producer Lloyd ‘King Jammy’ James snr. hit big with the computerised  ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim, Steely and Clevie knew he would be open to their new style of  production so they played him their demo tape. Jammy invited them into his studio in the Waterhouse district of Kingston and when he scored further big hits with Nitty Gritty’s Sweet Reggae Music and Clarks Booty by Little John, both recorded on riddims by Steely and Clevie, he asked them to take up residency at his studio.  Armed with an Oberheim DX drummachine and Yamaha CS-01 and DX-100 synths, Steely & Clevie turned Jammy’s studio into a real hitfactory and recorded a phenomenal amount of hits and albums. They did not only record digital recuts of classic reggae riddims at Jammy’s studio, but they also created original riddims such as ‘Duck’, ‘Cat Paw’ and the mother of all dancehall riddims, ‘Punany’. This riddim, with its distinctive cowbell sound and based on a Caribbean drumbeat called ‘half clave’ by Clevie, would soon become the standard pattern for many dancehall riddims, even nowadays.

In 1988, Steely and Clevie left Jammy’s studio to set up their own Steely & Clevie label. Their first releases were Leroy Gibbons & Dillinger’s ‘Bruck Camera’ and ‘Pon The Bus’ by Johnny P. In the meantime, they continued to do sessions for producers like Winston ‘Techniques’ Riley, Lloyd ‘Pick Out’ Dennis, Hugh ‘Redman’ James, Donovan Germain and Jammy’s former engineer Bobby ‘Digital’ Dixon. On their own label they scored big hits with songs like the Tracy Chapman cover ‘Sorry (Baby Can I Hold You)’ by Foxy Brown (the Jamaican singer, not the rapper), Freddie McGregor’s version of ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Caan Dun’ by Shabba Ranks. Soon Steely and Clevie would completely change the dancehall reggae sound again.

In the early ’90s they decided to make the music more minimalistic and rhythm driven in order to give an opportunity to young, mainly ghetto based artists, who had great lyrics and great timing, but who couldn’t hold the right key. The first two hit songs in this new style were Tiger’s ‘When’ and ‘Mama’ by Baby Wayne on the now classic ‘Giggy’ riddim. Clevie used drums and percussive sounds to play the bass and certain melodies on these new type of riddims, so the artists could talk in rhythm and could use almost any note without a problem. Many dancehall producers still follow the same approach today.

Steely & Clevie continued to score big hits with ‘Trailor Load A Girls’ and ‘Ting A Ling’ by Shabba Ranks, Beres Hammond’s ‘Double Trouble’ and ‘Love Of A Lifetime’ by Junior Tucker. They also introduced a young, international audience to the vintage sound of Studio One with their ‘Steely & Clevie Play Studio One Vintage’ album and the lead single from that album, Dawn Penn’s ‘No No No (You Don’t Love Me)’. Further work includes an album with Garnet Silk and countless hit riddims such as ‘Pepper Pot’, ‘Skettel’, ‘Colombian Necktie’ and ‘Sniper’ featuring artists like Spragga Benz, General Degree, Cobra, Elephant Man, Harry Toddler, Goofy, Red Rat, Bushman and Don Yute. In 1994 they opened their own studio in Kingston, Jamaica called Studio 2000.

Towards the end of the decade, Steely & Clevie released the ‘Street Sweeper’ riddim. This riddim’s artist line up included veterans such as Burro Banton, Little John, Josey Wales and Shabba Ranks as well as current artists like Sean Paul & Mr. Vegas, Capleton, Anthony B, Buccaneer and Elephant Man & Harry Toddler. The riddim was an instant hit and soon other producers started to make their own versions of the riddim. Steely & Clevie continued to build hit riddims in the new millennium like ‘Bitter Blood’ ,’44 Flat’, ‘Nine Night’, ‘Old Truck’ and ‘Sleepy Dog’. They also revamped a number of hits from the Joe Gibbs catalogue on the album ‘Old To The New’. Early 2008, Steely had fallen ill suffering from kidney problems. In June 2009 he left Jamaica for New York for further medical treatment, but on September 1st, 2009 he died from pneumonia in the Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Centre in Long Island, New York at the age of 47.

Steely and Clevie’s own productions have been collected on the album ‘Reggae Anthology: Steely & Clevie Digital Revolution’ to be released on VP Records on January 25th, 2011.


Disc One

1. Whole Heap A Man – Lady G & Sugar Minott
2. Sorry – Foxy Brown
3. Ram Dance Hall – Tiger
4. Oversized Mampie – Gregory Peck
5. Fast Car – Foxy Brown
6. Take You To The Dance – Anthony Malvo & Daddy Lizard
7. No One In The World – Chevelle Franklyn
8. Hortical Don – Ninja Man
9. Still Say Yes – Wayne Wonder
10. Shower Me With Your Love – Singing Melody
11. Cassandra – Frankie Paul
12. Murder Dem – Ninja Man
13. Retreat – Cutty Ranks
14. Poco Man Jam – Gregory Peck
15. Drum Pan Sound – Reggie Stepper
16. Caan Dun – Shabba Ranks
17. Sonia Come Back – Cocoa Tea
18. Loving Pauper – Freddie McGregor
19. Good Love – Chevelle Franklyn
20. Fatty Fatty – Leroy Sibbles
21. All The Woman I Need – Garnet Silk

Disc Two

1. Trailer Load A Girls – Shabba Ranks
2. When – Tiger
3. Mama – Baby Wayne
4. Ting A Ling – Shabba Ranks
5. Press Up – Poison Chang
6. Double Trouble – Beres Hammond
7. Shot A Talk – Cobra
8. Love of A Lifetime – Junior Tucker
9. Love Is The Answer – Garnet Silk
10. You Don’t Love Me (No No No) – Dawn Penn
11. Baby You And I – Wayne Wonder
12. It’s All Over – Buju Banton
13. When I Hold You Tonight – General Degree
14. Call The Hearse – Bushman
15. Pure Gal – Harry Toddler
16. Battery Dolly – Beenie Man
17. Haffi Get Da Gal Yah (Hot Gal Today) – Sean Paul & Mr. Vegas
18. Cook – Lexxus
19. Old Crook – Mr. G
20. I’m Still In Love With You – Sean Paul & Sasha
21. As A Man – Assassin

You can see the 1988 studio demonstration by Steely and Clevie building the ‘Duck’ riddim in the famous Mixing Lab Studio filmed by the Jamaican Broadcasting Company (JBC) here:

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