By Angus Taylor
In the second half of our interview with Danny Red he talks about the meaning of one of his best-loved songs, why he moved to Jamaica and why neither Rasta nor foreign influence can be erased from Jamaican music…
Can you tell me about the inspiration for the original 1994 Be Grateful? That’s one of your best loved tunes.
The inspiration was about more than one thing. For example I remember a little brethren who always would try to prove himself when he never had to prove himself. I don’t know how to put it… like he never liked himself. Seen? Like he’s basically as a white man but he had black in him. A little black in his background. One black in his background. But we don’t care about that. We don’t business about that. Ain’t nobody on that topic. But it seems to bother him. So that is one reason. And there were other reasons as well.
And the song is what it is – just be grateful, man. You can’t change who you is. Why would you try to? I mean come on! Why are you going to bother yourself about it. Or beat up yourself about it? Because you feel you’re not accepted? No, you don’t accept yourself. That’s the problem. It’s not people accepting you or not accepting you. You need to accept yourself. So be grateful you know? It doesn’t matter. (laughs)
Another tune I remember growing up with was a tune you did with Vivian Jones, I Can’t Save Them…
Oh! Again that was one of my visits to London during that time because I was still not quite back in London. Columbia had just finished and a label called Conqueror based in Ladbroke Grove, Peter Harris, the brother of Homer Harris here in Jamaica. The man who we can say really brought Sizzla when Sizzla just a come. Well, Peter Harris had a label called Kickin Records which was basically a dance label. But he wanted to make a reggae label which was Conqueror.
The rhythm was made here in Jamaica, at Freddie McGregor’s studio Big Ship by Jazzwad. We voiced it in London. I got the rhythm, I wrote the song and then they brought Vivian Jones and Vivian loved the song, so Vivian just wrote his verses. But I wrote the song itself. The chorus and the whole structure of the song. We had some more tunes. I don’t know what happened to them. I had some more tunes with Michael Prophet from those same sessions. But Kickin Records folded, Peter died. So probably the lost tapes? Maybe someday someone will find them. (laughs)
Is it also true that you recorded some stuff with Steely & Clevie and with Fatis?
No, I was supposed to record some stuff with Fatis. Never came to record nothing with Fatis. I was supposed to record with Gussie Clarke as well. But sometimes some people they talk what they shouldn’t talk before they have anything to talk about. So we just say “You know something? Leave that alone”.
But you did record for Steely & Clevie?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely, definitely. That was brilliant. That’s when they have the Studio 2000. Recorded there, recorded with Clive Hunt, recorded with Donovan Germain. Recorded with a few people. I was supposed to record with more but as I said some people… Because it was a Columbia budget we were working with. It’s like some people were like “Well, I’m getting this and I’m getting that” and I was like “Brethren I’ve not even come to your place yet”.
And did most of those songs get released?
Yeah, most of them. I released them myself. On the album called I Don’t Care.
So when the major label thing came to an end was that when you took some time out?
Well no, no, no, actually when did I leave? By ‘92 I went to Ethiopia, came back to London, and in the same year ‘92, moved to America. And was in America for about two years. My children are still out there. I then came back to London briefly and then just came back to Jamaica and I was back in Jamaica from ‘94. The Columbia thing was still happening so where I’m required they would fly me out. If I got a show in Germany I would go on tour but by that time I was based in Jamaica. I was in London when it folded.
Then I came back to Jamaica and I just stayed here not doing anything. Just living. I was living down by my original family place which was Rollington Town. Downtown. Not really doing nothing. I was selling herb, selling grabba. Doing a little manual work, not really business about the music. Not really concerned. As I said stardom has never really been my… just living and being able to take care of myself, that is my goal. And if I can make music along the way then all the better. But it’s not where you do or die.
So I was about 10 years missing out of the business. Returned back to London 2001. And I didn’t get back into the studio until about 2004. Re-released Be Grateful and then it sold pretty well. Pretty fast. And got some reviews saying “So where has Danny Red been? Welcome back”.
The first single I put out was a single called Something Wrong with Mafia and Fluxy studio, recording Mafia and Fluxy players, Gussie P mixed it. It came out on Cousins label. It should have come out on my label. The funny thing about that thing is, I left it with Cousins to put out for me because he’s got the links to the press and everything. It should be on my label Ababajahnoi. I came to Jamaica for a little quick stop and then when I got back to London it’s on Cousins label. “Oh Danny, the labels went wrong and we have no time to reprint them and I had all the spare labels”. (laughs) Ok, ok.
But nonetheless the tune went down very well. Especially amongst Channel One. I have to big up Channel One. Because he really played a lot of my tunes. And Jah Shaka as well. When it comes to the roots thing abroad in Europe and London, if Shaka or Channel One or Aba Shanti plays your tune, they’re going to buy it. It’s going to be a hit. As long as Shaka plays it, it’s going to be a hit. Even though we don’t have any charts anymore it will be a hit because Shaka played it. Or Channel One plays it, so it’s going to be a hit. That’s where I just got back into it from there really.
Tell me about starting your own label.
I actually started my own label from the I Don’t Care. No… from a tune called Jah Is Here. Way back in ’91. That tune was the 7 inch. Very popular. Going for good money today. Production-wise it’s like “Wow, how did we get away with that?” But nonetheless! (laughs). That production is terrible. It is awful. But for some reason it’s a classic! For the dubheads! As I call them. That LP was the next Ababajahnoi release. It wasn’t so much about starting it. I just drew an LP. Even the Youth Sound label we created that. All we needed was some money, go to the pressing plant, “Danny, you can draw pictures. Draw a label!” (laughs)
And it just started from that. Until I started to get a bit more serious and say “It’s all good and well recording for somebody…” and the way the record business is today, records don’t sell. Music in general doesn’t sell that much. You do a little show here and there, the dubplates and that brings in more regular income than record sales. So with that in mind I’m thinking to myself “Wow ,I’m going to charge a producer a flat fee. That’s it for me. I’ve got my publishing that’s ok. I can publish it and register my part to say I performed it. I wrote the song and I performed it. You register your part for what you did in production. All is good. But nonetheless that flat fee I charge you there’s nothing more in that. Because I doubt much you’re going to do a repress. The way the business goes, I’m thinking “You know something? You’re better off putting out some stuff for yourself and reap the whole. It’s not going to be much but it’s going to be more than the flat fee”.
I’m the kind of person where I watch my thing if I invest in something. If I invest in a crate of beer and I’m going to sell these beer, even if it takes me two weeks to sell these beers – you see that bottle with change? I will put the beer money there. And I will not look at that beer money until every single beer has been sold. And then I’ll go and count it up and I’ll say “Ok, I got my beer money back, wow, I got this on top”. If you don’t do it that way you will never see no profit. It is there but you won’t see it. So that’s the way I do my things and I apply that to my label. So if I’ve got something to put out I’ll put it out. I’ll watch it. I don’t care how long it takes to sell because everything can sell. Everything can sell. To somebody somewhere. There’s nothing called rubbish goods. So I’ll just be patient. Fortunately my records don’t take that long to sell. (laughs)
There were two tunes I really want to ask you about because they had an impact on me. Some songs’ themes are very universal. But sometimes you hear a song and you think that’s about something very specific. And in reggae that’s quite rare. Because reggae is very much about things that everyone can relate to. And that’s the trick of writing a song where you can make it be about something personal but everyone can relate to it. The first song is You Don’t Know that came out on Roots Garden with Manasseh. It felt like someone was giving you a real problem then!
Now that is a personal song. Very personal. It is what it is. Some people you feel like they guilt trip you, like you owe them something and maybe you should be subservient. They are always right, you’re never right. And you don’t know me. You really don’t know me. But yeah that one was a personal story for real. A lot of my songs are in some way. I always inject something because some of it is broader news but some of it you have to inject some of your personal what you’ve seen or what you felt.
The only time I’ve seen you live I was at a festival. I think it was in Finsbury Park with Manasseh and you did You Don’t Know. It was very powerful. And it must have been reasonably fresh.
I used to write poetry as a youth. I still write poetry because that’s what lyrics are. Sometimes I used to sketch. I drew all these pictures on this side. Years ago. Just with colouring pencil. Sometimes when things frustrate you, I’m not going to hit the wall because that’s going to hurt me. That’s going to damage my hand. That’s stupid. Why would you hit the wall? Do something creative. Sometimes even write a letter but you never post it. By the time you finished writing that letter you’ve calmed down a bit.
Let it out or it will come out sideways.
Yeah. You see the danger nowadays with this social media, the danger is now, the immediate. You can delete it but it’s been seen.
And somebody may have taken a picture of it.
Yeah. It’s a rocky road, this social media.
We’ll come back to that in a second. But the other song is a similar thing with Gussie P, Bald Tail Pork Eater. I remember hearing You Don’t Know and then this song, I remember thinking “Why is everyone giving Danny so much trouble? Is he ok?”
Yeah… Gussie did love that song. Because he knows what that song is about. Why do some people have to continue to try and prove that you are wrong? So what? You’re not a Rasta. You don’t follow the Rasta lifestyle. Why do you make it a duty to come and nitpick every minute you have, to disprove me? I’m not trying to disprove you. So it’s just “Man bald tail pork eater move!” Everyday you come try to disturb Rasta. Tease Rasta. Nitpick and take the piss out of Rasta. Why? Why you sit down and study these things? Why does Rasta bother you to that length where you would do that?
Well, guess what? I’ll write a song about you too. And sometimes when you record these songs it’s recorded for posterity. You can find it on YouTube. So there I’ve made my statement and my statement stands. Your statement has been lost now in the breeze. So be careful what you say. And who you talk to. Because you might be talking to somebody who can make an everlasting statement. And forget about yours. Music is a powerful tool.
That brings me onto social media. Obviously, I don’t want to get into anything that is just meant to be shared between you and your network but you have been quite outspoken on Facebook.
Oh, very much.
You’ve got quite a following to the point where people are almost waiting to hear what you say and jump in to try to be a part of the discussions you start. You’ve been very outspoken but what you said, to me anyway, it’s been common sense. On the one hand you stood up and told people to stop trying to erase Rasta from reggae. Something that links into what you just said. People who are atheists or socialists but they are somehow trying to remove Rasta from the DNA of reggae. Like for sure there were important people in Jamaica music who were not Rasta but it’s like a cake. If you bake the cake without it, the cake is going to be flat.
Yeah. A cake with no flour. (laughs)
And you can point back into history and say Coxsone’s time or Duke Reid’s time there were no Rasta lyrics but that’s because they weren’t allowed.
So when Jimmy Cliff says “The lion says I’m king and I reign” or the Skatalites recorded Addis Ababa and they’re going up into the hills with Count Ossie – how can you claim that it was not there? That it was a new thing that came with Bob Marley and Big Youth.
No. The Rasta was there. All along. Most of the musicians were Rasta. Full stop. The producers may not have been but the musicians definitely were.
At least some of them were and it had an impact.
Yeah but the Facebook sometimes you try to cool on the Facebook. I don’t want everybody hanging on my word. Because I make mistakes too. Sometimes I post things and think “Shit, why did you post that? How many people have seen that already?” (laughs)
But I think about things. I don’t think of things just plain and straightforward. You have cause and effect. You have reasoning. Everything. Even the aggressor, why are you aggressive? What is causing you to be aggressive towards me? There must be a reason. It cannot just be simply you don’t like me. It cannot be as simple as that. They have got to be some underlying issues behind that. Why are you so aggressive? Why can you not say no? Why do you keep saying yes? Why do you keep cowering to this person? Why does this person keep bullying? Why are you bullying? Why are you cowering? There’s issues on both sides. So even the bad person needs examining too.
On the other hand you have also spoken out against people saying they don’t want foreigners in reggae…
That’s foolishness! Rubbish! Listen. I’ve got music all about the place. Boxes of music over there. You see that silver case there? If that’s the rule I need to throw away everything in there. Because it’s only country and western music. I need to get rid of some other music. Down here I need to get rid of my Bob Dylan. I need to get rid of my Simon and Garfunkel.
Bob Andy said his biggest inspiration is Bob Dylan.
You understand? I’ve got some white soul girls like Joss Stone. I like their music. I need to get rid of that too. Music is a sound. You have people who create a sound. And that vibration moves people around the world. And if it feels good, it’s good. Everybody has a right to join in. Sound has no colour. Everybody has the right to join in. And reggae music would be a hypocrite to say anybody cannot join in. Because reggae music is structured on many other different styles and genres and ways. Reggae didn’t pop up by itself. It grew. Evolution. So it’s got the country influence. It’s got the rhythm and blues influence. It’s got the soul influence. I mean half of the 60s, when you come to rocksteady most of them are cover versions. American music. It’s not Jamaican music. Fool. Just the rhythm maybe? And then when you look at the rhythm not all the players are actually from Jamaica. Some of them are actually from different Islands who played in Jamaica or have lived here for a while.
Lynn Taitt and these guys.
Jackie Opel. From Barbados. So the recording, all the creation of the music wasn’t exclusively developed by a little small party of people in an area just by themselves. So to say these things now. “How white man play reggae for?” I remember when I was in San Diego listening to a band called Bad Brains. I don’t like punk music but it was fucking fascinating. Black dreadlock Rasta playing what I would call white punk. See? It’s music? You either like it or you don’t like it but there’s no in between. Come on man.
That’s why I say it’s common sense. In your Facebook posts you remind white people not to erase black culture from the music. And you remind black people not to erase outside influences.
That’s the problem I have now. I don’t want them to turn reggae into jazz. Most people, not people who know music like say, yourself and I, but most people, if you say to them jazz today say Amy Winehouse, Michael Buble? You understand? Do you know about Sarah Vaughan? Do you know about Ella Fitzgerald? You’re banging on about this, she’s brilliant and I feel sorry for her but whatever, but she’s not jazz. She’s a child of jazz way down the line. She’s a baby of jazz.
All along the top shelf if you look at this, most of my reggae is packed away, this is all jazz. This is all rhythm and blues. Mostly jazz and blues down here. Carmen McRae. That’s another big one. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. I’m a big fan of Sarah Vaughan. Billy Eckstine. Nancy Wilson. These are the things I listen to. And as I say when I don’t want to listen to that I maybe listen to… I’m a big Bob Dylan fan. My wife took me to a concert two years ago. I’ve never seen Bob Dylan live, man, and she surprised me for my birthday and took me to my first Bob Dylan concert. Brilliant. Not the most friendly artist but nonetheless it was a good show! (laughs)
I know what you mean though. If you allow music to completely lose touch with its roots it becomes dead.
It becomes dead. So going back to the jazz, I want young people who think it might be these modern white artists. No, no, no. Go look into it and honour the roots. And you can honour the new guys. Love them, support them. But honour the roots. Let us remind ourselves where everything comes from. It’s like country and western music. What is country and western music? It’s Irish music and blues mix.
The banjo comes from Africa. To call country and western white music is not correct.
It’s not. It’s a mixture of two. Especially the way they sing it it’s very much Irish. It’s Irish folk music. With that added African attitude. That’s all. I mean, separating music. Cultures can be specific and people do join cultures. It’s been happening since time immortal that people have been exchanging trade and goods and whatever. So that’s why I’m saying the people have too much hang up about personal things. No, everything is for sharing. But give credit where it comes from.
That’s it. If the exchange isn’t fair then someone needs to speak up. If certain avenues are closed to some people, then someone needs to speak up.
It don’t make no sense. So I’m very adamant about that. But as I said the Facebook thing I’ve got to be careful with it sometimes too! (laughs) Because sometimes wow, people do hang onto my words and I’m not that brainy. I’m very thoughtful. But that doesn’t mean I’ve got my thoughts right! I’m not this great Danny Red. I’m just as fallible as any man. But the only thing is I might just think a bit longer about it. Maybe sometimes a bit too long!
So you’re living in Jamaica again now. How do you feel about living in Jamaica compared to London?
To be honest I reached the age or the part of my life where yeah I’m not happy in London no more. Just not happy. I’m constantly coming back to Jamaica. I’ve never lost my roots. I’m very happy about that. I’ve never disconnected myself. I’ve always been back and forth. My family is still around. And you know the usual scenario. “Oh God, I’ve got to go back tomorrow”. And you see when that plane is coming down in Heathrow! (sighs) And the first week is like “Man! This time last week I was at the Dub Club” or I was at this beach. I’m fed up of that now. I’ve got no babies. My children are all grown adults. Me and my wife are in our 50s and are goingto do some ‘us’ time. Here in Jamaica. I don’t want to come back to Jamaica when all I can do is sit on the veranda and look at people walking by. I want to go when there’s still a bit of bounce in my knees.
At one point you said you didn’t really like doing shows in London.
No, it’s not really doing these shows in London I didn’t like. It’s promoters I don’t like. And being that I know most of the promoters, most promoters want a favour. So you give them a favour and then at the end of the night “Oh Danny the door never…” so what you agreed now becomes less. I can’t deal with that. If I’m going to promote a show. And I employ Angus and I want you to come and play music all night. “Ok Danny”, “How much are you going to charge me?”, I’m going to charge you this”, “Ok I like the sound of that”. The night comes. I lose. It’s a risk I have to take. It’s not your fault. It has nothing to do with you. We made an agreement, I’m going to pay him.
And if they made more than they expected would they pay you more?
Exactly! If I had made a big bonus you wouldn’t see that. You just get what you asked for. So I believe if you make a deal, honour the deal. I’m not the promoter. I’m not printing the flyers. I’m not doing the advertisement, that’s your job. So don’t take it out on me. And that’s business. So I would cut my losses and say “Boy, that was a bad one. How do I make it good the next time round?” But I don’t want Angus to say “Man, fuck Danny, last time he called me he cheated me”. Once I’ve got it proper I’m going to call you again.
You worked a lot with Manasseh over the years. Tell me why that bond lasted for so long.
Because Manasseh is creative. We kind of have the same ideas of things. Music. He’s not a one-track type of man when it comes to music. He listens to a variety of things. He works with a variety of things and so his idea of reggae music is progressive. Some producers tend to keep to the old standard all the time. Manasseh will try to innovate here and put a little sound where you say “That sounds a bit different”. Sometimes it’s subtle. I find he’s a bit more willing to experiment, as a producer. Some other producers are very regimental with their thing.
Do you think the UK dub scene can sometimes get a bit stagnant?
Oh yes. It does. Because again some of the producers seemed to follow the same blueprint and don’t add anything. And then I find some of the lyrical content… I mean come on man. If you’re going to say Babylon or Jah Rastafari for the 100 millionth thousandth time, please try and say it in a way that at least sounds interesting to me. That’s all I’m asking. Anybody can say that. It doesn’t mean it’s a good song. Dub. Jah. Babylon. Must be a hit. No. Not necessarily. And even some of the singers I find some of them are a bit lazy with their approach to it.
Let’s talk about Dougie from Conscious Sounds, who is someone else that you’ve known for years.
Yeah, my brethren that man. I’ve been working with Dougie since the 90s. Obviously not during the times where I was away. Initially… Dougie will tell you himself and we laugh about it today, but I used to give off this impression and people thought I was some kind of gangster. And no obviously I’m just a no-nonsense man, that’s all. Maybe some people overblow the reaction I give them. They go and tell their friends, so I get this reputation like I’m a gangster. Nothing like that, nothing like that. But me and Dougie started working again together about 2008-9. And constantly. Dougie is one of my main brethren that man. Main number one. He’ll be coming here next month actually.
And let’s talk about Gussie P as well, because you’ve done a lot of work with Gussie.
Yeah. Gussie P is like my big grumpy bredda. That’s all I can say about him. He’s my bredda. My big grumpy bredda. (laughs) I love him same way still. We have some wonderful works.
And you’ve also more recently been doing some work with Tuff Scout records.
Yeah, mostly the Tuff Scout kind of comes through a brother named Daniel Boyle.
Rolling Lion studio.
Yeah, Rolling Lion. And some Lee Perry stuff we’ve been doing. And Jake from Tuff Scout, if he likes it and no one’s got no plans for it, he will put it out. Jake’s good like that. So he’s done some work, not with me directly but he’s put out some of the stuff that I’ve done with Daniel Boyle.
And recently Chris Lane has been working with you.
Yeah, I’ve done one track with Chris Lane. Never worked with him before.
Interesting because when you were with Columbia must have been when Fashion must have really been at its peak.
Yeah, it’s the first time we are working together. He loves the track. I liked the track. And it was a job well done. Plus we have Gil Cang and I know Gil Cang from years ago with Manasseh. Because the early days with Manasseh it wasn’t Manasseh by himself. It was Manasseh and Gil. I was working with the two of them. All those tunes like Dance Get Overload, Don Gorgon, Original Formula, all of them is Manasseh and Gil. So working on that one was good because Gil was there.
What are you working on at the moment? What’s coming out this year?
Oh gosh, I’ve got an LP coming out this year on Chouette Records. There are several singles coming out. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work here for one or two European labels right here in Jamaica. Chouette label, Blackboard Jungle just recorded a nice thing for them the other day. There are about four or five new singles to come over the course of this year, plus the album. When that album has done its course, I’ve already got two other albums in the pipeline waiting. But you don’t want to kill the market with too much stuff. As I said records don’t sell that much, so you don’t want to have too much on the market at one time and get people confused because their budget is so small. I can only buy one Danny Red and there are four Danny Red! You know you’ve got to be kind to them.
Is there anything with missed out? Is there anything in your career you would like to talk about?
No, not really man. I don’t even say career, you know? My life is a career. Just living is a career. Sometimes people mark what is achieved to say “This is your career”. The achievement is your self-satisfaction that you reach. When you’re unsatisfied, no career can help you. You have to set your life in order. Set your brain in order and then that is your career. I love music. I will always do music but it’s never been my main ambition or inspiration to say “I want to be Bob Marley”. Or “I want to be Michael Jackson”. No, we have enough of them in the world already. I will just do my little thing quietly and satisfaction is the main purpose and the main key.
That’s why I up and left. Not satisfied with London no more? Do something about it. Don’t be complaining all you “Lucky man, he’s in the Caribbean, he’s so lucky”. I ain’t lucky. I done something about it. Luck has nothing to do with it. Luck is not involved. Some people just sit down and look at other people. Get off your ass and do something about it.