Angus Taylor speaks with Danny Red – Part 1

“Deep” is a word that is often applied to roots reggae music. And it is the word that springs to mind when summarising the singer Danny Red.

Since he began his career in the 1980s, there have always been layers upon layers to the tall slim Rastaman with the ancient, grainy voice and insistently narrative lyrics. He is known as a singer but first took the mic as a sound system deejay. He prefers voicing for a select number of independent reggae producers, yet was signed to Columbia and has recorded with Leftfield. Though associated with the sometimes musically conservative British roots and dub scene, he grew up in Jamaica, studied Rastafari alongside Mortimer Planno, and has a yard man’s broad musical taste – spanning from jump blues to jazz to country and western. At first, he appears a forbidding physical presence, as befits his tough yet venerable vocal tone. But this belies a humble and thoughtful man who considers all perspectives then expresses himself without sugar-coating the truth.

Angus Taylor interviewed Danny in 2019 at his home in Kingston, Jamaica – where he had relocated after many years based in London. His living room contained several objects of significance that he would reference in the interview. His drawings decorated his walls. His books and CDs lined his shelves. He kept a jar of loose change. 

The conversation revealed an original thinker whose opinions are tempered by a keen sense of the absurd. The thoughts recorded are those of Danny Red in 2019, and, given his tendency for re-evaluation, some of his ideas may be different now. It would have been interesting to have heard his views on the pandemic and so many things that happened since. But that must wait for the next encounter. Part 1 on his early life is below… 

Danny Red’s new album Calling For Roots will be out soon on Chouette Records

You were born in London?
I was born in Finchley, London. But I really grew up out here still.

What age did you come over here?
From a little baby, man. From when about three. A toddler. (laughs)

What would you say was your first experience as music as a young boy?
Just household music. Everything. Family loved music like Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Freddy Fender. Ska and reggae. But old-time people like Fats Domino, people like Arthur Crudup, all kinds of people like Sam Cooke, Ben E King, Solomon Burke, those types of artists.

The real foundations of Jamaican music.
Yeah. Me as a kid I used to like Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley was my star as a child. Couldn’t talk about nobody else. Elvis Presley was number one! He couldn’t do nothing wrong as far as I was concerned. The love of reggae? Reggae was just there. You heard it. It’s not really something you paid that much attention to. It’s a normal soundtrack. I never really got into reggae until I was about 15 years old. I mean really getting to it. This was in England.

When did you go back to England?
That would have been 1978. There has been more than one. Coming back. Lots of coming back, lots of coming back!

What was it like as a teenager going back to London?
Exciting. Because you don’t appreciate what’s here and there was not a lot going on here in those times there. So leaving here was no sorrow. (laughs) I found Rastafari very early.I ended up in the hands of some elders, Rasta brethrens and sistrens. Mainly a bredda called Jah Bones. He has passed away now. Another brother called Jah Devon, who passed away a few years ago, and his wife Sister V.So I really go with the Rasta that way. And then naturally come that way now, developing my own mind, my own little way and thing. 

The music comes along with that. Rasta, Nyabinghi, reggae everything. Like I’ve got my favourite reggae songs already but I didn’t really see the significance of reggae prior. It was just a soundtrack. Because like I said, even with the music here Jamaica as a youngster, the music that was played wasn’t really hardcore reggae. Not on the radio and not in the house. So a lot of this country and western and soul and all these different music. Reggae was more like those little rude guys out on the street. Those little careless guys ruffian guys, they listen to that type of music. Good educated people listen to jazz and country and western (laughs). Which is ironic given the history and everything? 

But nonetheless moving with Jah Bones, they have a little sound called City Dread. So I used to copy the songs. my little favourite songs. I didn’t have no lyrics. I just copied the songs. When they played the version sometimes I just sing back the exact same song they just played! (laughs) And those days people never mind. You do it here and there and they say “You’re not too bad. You’re not too bad”. I remember trying to write my first lyrics and oh God I didn’t know where to start. How do you write lyrics? I know how to copy lyrics but how do you write lyrics? But that’s when the seed was planted and it kind of develop from there. With City Dread, Jah Bones. This was all in Tottenham. North London. 

Danny Red

I did an interview with African Simba for United Reggae where he was talking about Jah Bones. He said that Jah Bones was very focused on book learning where some elders would say “That’s a Babylon thing”. He was interested in knowledge across the sphere.
Yeah. He was very academic and educated. Because in those days some Rastas like you just said “This Babylon ting”, ignoring totally what Marcus Garvey said “Education is the key”. There was an old saying “If you want to hide something from a black man you put it in a book”. So we come to dismantle that myth. If you look up there I’ve got my library. I’ve got books. I read books. So that’s instilled in us. Jah Bones was very adamant about that. “Education. Learn your history. Not just your history. You have to know where you were before where you are now and where you’re going to go. Read all these important things. Arm yourself with knowledge. If you have no knowledge you have no ammunition. You cannot counteract”. 

So through the sound system City Dread, I have a little brethren in the same thing, in 1983 we came back to Jamaica and he took me to the studio and that’s where I cut my first record. At the time with the band members of the Bloodfire Posse. Paul Blake wasn’t there but the band members were and we did it at a studio in Stony Hill called Blue Mountain studio. At the time that studio was kind of like brand new. State-of-the-art and really like uptown. Away from it all and top quality. So that was my first experience of studio. Very nervous. Very, very nervous. Cut my first two records there. They were released [in 1986] in London but we did it here. One was called Who Say Jah Jah and the next one was called Blackness Awareness. And that Blackness Awareness was on the Get Flat rhythm. It was good encouragement. Those records never went anywhere but just the experience of it alone. 

So I was here in Jamaica at that time. Just over a year and a bit. And by the time I returned back to London I kind of moved on from City Dread sound. I started to move with a next Tottenham sound, a local sound called Fine Style. And in those days I was deejaying. I never used to sing. In between Fine Style I used to go and talk on a sound called Jah Marcus. Another local sound in Tottenham. 

So we deejayed and I used to get a lot of thumbs up for the deejay because they said I’ve got lyrics. People used to like my lyrics. They say I’m more of a storyteller than a random lyrics man when it came to the deejay. I like to give you a little story. A little tale. I used to honestly model myself off of Brigadier Jerry, Charlie Chaplin and Josey Wales. So I could mimic those three man. According to whatever lyrics I was doing I could mimic the man them. Sometimes I would even mimic Nicodemus too. Depends on the mood. And if you played an old time rhythm I might mimic Dennis Alcapone or U Roy. I was great at mimicking people. I studied them, all their little phrases and the connotations of their words. I could have been the reggae Rory Bremner! 

Or a bit like Red Dragon. He used to do the mimic thing.
Ah! Alright! Yeah, yeah, yeah. So Fine Style lasted about two and a half years and then I just stayed with more Jah Marcus for about another two years or so. And within those two years, it was the time of King Jammys. He was at his peak with the Admiral Bailey tune, the Chuck Turners, the Leroy Gibbons, the Super Black, all this bag of tunes that Jammy was putting out in that period. That to me was like my best days of dancehall. I spent a lot of time at Marcus and really rough up the place. 

So one night I sang a song. Not even my song. I think I was singing the Chi Lites. Have You Seen Her. Doing one of those Jammy rhythms dancehall style. Oh wow! Everybody “Bo Bo Bo! Lift up! Dweet again! You can sing!” The man did say it sound good. So that same year a brethren named Jah Love, we go in the studio and cut a record called Jah Jah Me. And it’s my first singing. Listening to it now sometimes it does make me cringe. But at the time I’m singing! So I can deejay and I can sing? Wow. And everybody said it sounded good and that’s where it really started. 

That’s where Danny Red became Danny Red because prior to that it was Danny Dread. But I’m losing the battle with this Danny Dread in Jamaica. But I’m there in London so who’s going to pay me no mind? It’s like I’ve got a good brethren in London, Wayne Marshall. I feel so bad for him sometimes. Because we’re both in the same reggae field – how this thing a go work out? And he’s a good brethren of mine. And he’s making records before the one here.

So after that I return back to Jamaica. I was here for about two-and-a-half years or so. Late 80s. That’s when the Mortimer Planno link came now. That’s when we go link up Mortimer Planno and go link up some brethren – my brethren Xylon, Ishu, Lidj Incorporated from those times. I’m not really doing music as such. Just more Rastafari you know? Back in London by late ’89. 

Can you tell me a little bit more about how you met Mortimer Planno?
It’s through Jah Bones who is also a student of Mortimer Planno, so he was always a name I always knew and heard about. It was actually Xylon my brethren who carried me to Porus, Manchester where Morty used to live. Morty used to live at Scotts Pass so I did originally meet Morty at Scotts Pass but not no close relationship like that. That is the big elder named Mortimer Planno. When it came to the face-to-face reasoning I have to give Xylon the credit for that. We went there and I was there for about a week with Xylon. Then me and him just keep back and forth until I ended up just staying there.

So I was there in the house going on nearly 3 years. Living amongst Morty and still coming to town maybe for a week but then always going back and spending the majority of time up there with Mortimer Planno. For me it was coming from the camp of Jah Bones it was like “Wow, I’m with Jah Bones teacher now”. So it was like a journey was set out for me. In some kind of fashion or mode. 

Because the man who took me up, even if you see African Simba or Donovan Kingjay they can tell you, they used to wonder because they used to come to the RUZ Nyabinghi and such but they’re not full time members. And I was the only youth with the big man them and Donovan Kingjay looked up on me a couple of years ago and said “Whoa Danny when I was a youth I used to wonder how you get in with the big man them?” Because every young Ras wanted to be seen with the bigger Ras. Mortimer Planno has always been a figure before even knowing him. Through the RUZ through Jah Bones. So when I eventually look upon, “Wow”. 

I even remember sometimes some people talking about Jah Bones, some wickedness about Jah Bones in front of Mortimer Planno. And Mortimer Planno looked upon me and said “What you say about that? Is that all true?” I said “All I can say is a lot of people say a lot of things about the man but the man has only done good things for me”. And Mortimer laughed. Enough said. Not everybody likes everybody. That’s life. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to join in with you. My luck and your luck is not the same luck. My luck might be different to your luck. You and me might fall out. I’m going to say “Oh no, she’s very bad” but you and her might get on brilliant. So I don’t join those clubs. (laughs)

What did spending time with Mortimer Planno do in terms of your understanding?
It made me really address the Rastafari philosophy. Morty is a man who is very cryptic in the way he says things. Sometimes you ask him a question and he doesn’t give you forthright answer. He gives you some riddles and sometimes you end up answering the question yourself. He has that way. To make you answer it. Instead of him. 

But in terms of the rhetoric and some of the things I got from him it’s that, like everything else, nothing is stagnant. Things do have to move. Things do have to adapt. Things do have to change. So some of the rhetoric that might have been good in 1930, maybe up until 1940-1950, we have to re-examine that. Like everything else. Everything changes. Language changes every day. Words we use 100 years ago we don’t use them anymore. And some words we used a long time ago they mean totally something different now. No philosophy, no religion, no way of life is immune to this. So that’s what I got. 

What we need to re-address I’m not quite sure in some ways. But a lot of things need to be re-examined. Where we stand today. What are our goals today? What do we need today? It’s not like 1940 where we’re saying we want freedom from colonialism. We have different issues now. So we have to keep up to date with these issues. And stop being like a dinosaur and let the whole now and the future run away leave you because you’re still arguing about that issue. So some things need to be re-addressed. 

The importance still remains because a lot of things have not changed that much. The only thing that has changed maybe is the name of the game or the tactics. Because now we’re under this big heavy debt and I don’t know why we’re under this big heavy debt. England is in trouble now. Now they’re talking about the Commonwealth again and they want to be our friends again. All of a sudden? You didn’t want our bananas. You want our bananas again? (laughs) So the game changes and you’ve got to be on top of the game but it’s still the same game. But it’s just strategies. That’s all. 

© 2019 Veronique Skelsey

So you were back in London by the start of the 90s. How did you meet Manasseh?
We met up with a brethren named Pepe in Finsbury Park and he had a little record shop. Because Pepe already knew Manasseh plus Xylon, they’d already done an LP with Manasseh and Black Liberation on Mr Modo label. And so when I came back on the scene again Manasseh was there. They’d already established the relationship so ok here I am now as well.

And we just team up. And tried to develop our little label, called ourselves Youth Sound. We never really had a sound system but we were some of the first people to really help promote the Dub Club with Nicky. Culture Promotions. We supported that. The first night they played it was Manasseh who played and we supported on the mic and the place was roadblock, ram jam. And it just went on and got nicer and nicer. But we played a hand in that in terms of promoting that, encouraging people to support this and come in. We were at the record shop and everybody was coming in in and out so we were just pumping it, pumping it, pumping it. And it was really a boom. 

So other people got involved in terms of “Bwoy put out a record here, put out a record there” but we’re trying to put out our own records as well. And then we had a good friend who used to work with Virgin Records, a brother named Martin Poole. Martin just came up with an idea and said “You know something? Let’s just make an LP because we can sell this, you know?” So we did. We got a little deal from BMG to fund us in making an album. There were four of us. Actually it was three of us. One person, I’m not even sure why they were there but I’m not going to go into that! (laughs) But nonetheless, the budget they gave us was £4,000 so being that it’s four of us, everybody gets 1,000 each. That was ’91-’92, so who’s going to refuse that? 

But anyway we made the LP in two weeks. We’ll pocketed our own money so none of that money actually went into the thing because Manasseh has got his studio and the only cost is the light bill. And my train fare from Tottenham to Brixton. (laughs) But we made the LP and then sold it basically. Really did sell it. Martin he wasn’t lying. We did sell it. Sold it to Columbia records. Initially Arista wanted it. It was Arista, talking with Polydor and talking with Island. And Columbia. Island was very enthusiastic but the only thing we didn’t want was Island was going to turn the LP like how they done Ini Kamoze Island LP with Sly and Robbie. Brilliant album. Extended mixes.

Like a showcase style.
Dub showcase. There’s only about six songs on it. So everybody was like “No we’ve got like 10 songs we don’t want it to be cut to six”. So we ended up going with Columbia. Good experience, good exposure, good lessons learnt. And when it ended, it just ended. They just got rid of reggae one day. Simple as that. So it wasn’t personal they just dumped us all one day. (laughs) But lessons learnt. I got a little taste of that and to tell you the truth I have never wanted to be an Elvis Presley. I’ve never ever wanted to be a Bob Marley. I’ve always wanted to just do my little thing. I don’t want people all up in my life. In my business. This way and that way. Just a little humble man who’s making music. I’ve got a nice little following who like my music. I don’t call them fans because I’m not that hot. I call them my family. When you have fans you feel like you’re too hot. So I don’t have fans. I like it that way.

Didn’t you also do a recording with Sly and Robbie?
Yeah, two. Rolling Stone and a tune called Don’t Mess With Jill. Which was a cover of Burning Spear Don’t Mess With Jill. Which is Burning Spear’s cover of a song called Don’t Mess With Bill. (laughs) To be honest it was only Sly that was there. I don’t know, funnily enough, people used to think that I was a bit arrogant back in the days. I wasn’t arrogant. I was like “What do I say?” So some people thought I was a bit aloof. I’d sit there like the big man. But it was like “What do I say?” What do you really say? Clive Hunt was there at that session funnily enough. It was a studio called The Matrix in London. 

Sly was nice. I hailed him up, he hailed me up. And that was the amount of our conversation. I did the vocals, he said it was sounding good, Clive Hunt said it was sounding good. And that was about the end of the conversation. Some other people came back to me and said “Bwoy, Danny some people are saying you’re a bit unfriendly”. No, I’m not unfriendly. Come on what am I going to say to Sly? How do you play drums? What do you say to a superstar? Where do you start? And you don’t want to look like you’re too excited, you don’t want to look like a little kid. So you just hold a pose. So they say “Oh God, he’s unfriendly”. What do you do about it? (laughs)

Clive Hunt was there. He was nice and friendly. But he was still intimidating to me. Because this is Clive Hunt! This is the man who made the Satta Massagana horns line. This poor little me that used to learn my craft on a little sound system that didn’t come out of Tottenham.

Was it in this period of time that you toured with Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown?
Yeah, it was in those days. With Dennis and Gregory. Brilliant. We did about 60 shows together. Opening for them which was brilliant for me for obvious reasons. It was wonderful. And then Gregory in particular kind of took me under his wing. And even when that’s all over we maintained a good relationship here in Jamaica when he used to have his record shop up Redhills Road. I would check him and he would look after me nice and this and that. Dennis now is just the bubbly Dennis. Everybody loves Dennis. You cannot hate Dennis. Dennis is just comfortable with anybody, so Dennis is just Dennis. It was Gregory that people are a bit more fearful of. Because Gregory is a rudeboy. 

But I can say Gregory really took me under his wing. Certain little things like I’ve been on interviews where nobody wanted to interview me and they wanted Gregory and Gregory would bring me and say “Sit down on the interview”. He would get questions asked and he would say “Well, I think Danny can elaborate more on that”. And force me into the interview that way. I got onto TV interviews in Europe. They didn’t want me but Gregory said “Come on sit down”. Those little things he would do for me. He had no ego. When it came to the music, the stardom thing he had no ego whatsoever. And he had a lot of good advice. Especially against taking substances. He was very adamant about that.

I heard that from a few artists.
Very adamant about that. “Stay far away from those things. I’ve done it all for you”. (laughs) “So you don’t have to do it”.

Didn’t you also play with Lucky Dube?
Yeah, I did about five or six shows with him. Which was really great. I really admired that artist. I admire his music, I’m a big fan of South African music. Miriam Makeba is one of my favorites. I’m talking from the days of Pata Pata. So I know my South African music that way. Hugh Masekela all those types of music. So working with the reggae man from South Africa is like “Oh wow. Brilliant, brilliant”. 

But it got a bit kind of funny after the second show. Because we were all family, everybody together, my band made up of Huey Izaachar, Steven Wright, enough local man, some from Black Slate, some from this band and that band but all great musicians. And we came together and called it the Riddimwize Band. So we’re touring as the Riddimwize Band up and down and we got this tour with Lucky Dube. 

As I say it was wonderful in the beginning. But I’ve still got the newspaper clippings. For some reason the Times and the Guardian and those people who were making reviews were kind of saying “When Danny Red performance is finished you might as well go home”. You can’t say that. It’s the man’s tour. You can’t do the man like that. Some journalists are just too wicked. And it made me feel embarrassed. It didn’t make me feel like a champion. It made me feel embarrassed. And I noticed the band, their PR man seems really embarrassed. So no one is talking to us anymore. 

And the rest of the tour we had like four more shows to do and I couldn’t go to the dressing room now. Even the dancers who were so great with us, all the band members we’d all be eating in the same big kitchen, laughing and joking. As I said I’ve got a scrapbook here with some of the reviews and I look at them and say “Wow”. I don’t wear that review as a badge of honour. 

And I think what really happened was they should have maybe got a different artist with a softer tone. Lucky Dube was in his more happy reggae days. He was touring one of those albums which is a bit more happy. And here comes Danny Red with his hardcore, opening up the thing with his hardcore. Where is the Lucky Dube from back in the days? The hardcore one where everybody is saying “Well, this is an African Peter Tosh”. So I kind of see what happened. It was like hardcore opening where you go to lovers rock for the ending. 

The thing about promotion you don’t kill people’s show. The promoter should have [said] “Ok I’m going to put these two artists together. This is what the main artist has got to present right now, who am I going to put with him? This guy is singing some soft songs, he’s singing hard songs. Alright I’m going to get the guy who’s singing the soft songs and put them on first”. And then make the go-hard songs come belt out the place. So you made a mistake man. If he’s playing happy reggae you should have got somebody playing happy reggae too. Don’t take nothing away from the man. That’s what they done. I didn’t even get one picture with the man. Because of these reviews. And it was like I wrote it. Lucky Dube, I didn’t write them.

Yeah but it’s just one of those things. When something goes wrong the nearest person who’s in the crossfire is going to get blamed.
Yeah, yeah.

Can you tell me a bit about the work you did on the track Inspection with Leftfield?
Again that was through Colombia. Because they were on Columbia at the same time. In-house thing, I was just told I’ve got a job to do. They sent me the rhythm. Actually wrote a song. And we were there in the warm-up booth just warming up. That’s what they used. Totally ignored the song! So that is literally the mic test. I’m literally “Check one, check one”. The lyrics, I’m just chatting nonsense, it’s not worked out lyrics, it’s just to get the levels. And that’s what they used. 

But I’ll tell you something. It’s been a good earner for me. Once you look at it, it’s so ironic. There’s a fine line between a serious artist and a gimmicks artist, you know? Because if you get too serious then you’re going to need some real hardcore followers for that. But generally people don’t want to hear that shit. Especially a younger crowd. They don’t want to hear all that stuff. So come out with a bag of nonsense. And I tell you in my life it’s been one of my best earners. Constantly and consistently. Even to date. I toured with them last year or the year before. Nice. One song with not a lot of lines to remember, so easy! Yeah thank you Leftfield! Thank you very much for using that test! (laughs) Yeah man. Thank you Neil.

Also read Part 2 of this interview where Danny talks about his anthem Be Grateful, the need to always include Rastafari in reggae, and the dangers of social media…