Masta Selecta & Reggae Resurrecta: Steve Barrow and the Rise and Fall of Blood & Fire

How fitting that on Good Friday we have the pleasure of sharing with you our interview with a man who I have described as a “Masta Selecta & Reggae Ressurecta.”  A man who, along with several other forward thinking individuals, dusted off those old records, cleaned them up a bit with a nice spit-shine, and in doing so blessed the ears and hearts of a whole new generation of reggae fans with the sounds of King Tubby, King Jammy, I-Roy, U-Roy, The Congos, and Yabby You – hehe, just to name a few.  A man who took a chance on a dying art and “let righteousness cover the earth, like water cover the sea…”

Steve Barrow, co-founder of the reggae record re-issue label Blood and Fire tells his side of the story.  And what a story it is… 

Tell the fans and readers a little bit about your background. 

I was born 1945 in London England. After leaving school in 1962 I worked in various jobs, returned to full-time education 1970, studying Graphic Design at East Ham College Of Technology 1970-1974. Since 1974 I worked mostly in the music business, various positions – in record shops 1970s.  I also wrote for Black Echoes [1975-76] and occasionally in later years, Vox Magazine [mid-80s] and I have contributed to various other publications inc. NME[UK], Dubcatcher [NY] RM [Reggae Music] Japan, Straight No Chaser [UK].

I also participated in Reggae Archive project in Jamaica 1994-1995 w/ Carl Bradshaw, Rick Elgood & Don Letts, for which I interviewed various Reggae artists , producers and soundmen. 77 interviews, over 120 hours of footage. Of course, co-authored “The Rough Guide To Reggae” with Peter Dalton [1997 1st edition and two revised editions up to 2001] with 45,000 copies sold. This book translated into Japanese 2011. I also co-wrote, again with Peter Dalton, “100 Essential Cds:Reggae” also for Rough Guides.  I contributed afterword to Beth Lesser’s book on King Jammy.

In 2011 I contributed 8000 word introduction to “Studio One Albums” published by Soul Jazz Ltd. I am currently working on one more title for Soul Jazz, related to the history of reggae music. Starting 1979 I compiled and/or annotated over 240 albums -mostly reggae, but some Blues, Jazz and Soul as well. I worked freelance for Island Records, Trojan Records, Charly Records, Ace Records, Sony [NY] and Soul Jazz Records. I have also done work for record companies in France – Patate Records, Paris – and Japan – Hydra Records, Tokyo.  Now I’m just looking for solid projects and new collaborations.

How did you become a fan of reggae music? 

After hearing earlier forms of Jamaican music – boogie, ska – in clubs and ‘dances’ in London during 1962-4, I wasn’t particularly interested at that time. I actually preferred jazz, blues, soul to ska, – although I did like the jazzy instrumentals. By the time rock-steady came along in 1966, I wasn’t even in the UK most of the time, living and working on the Costa Brava in Catalonia for most of the years 1967-1969. I returned to the UK in the winter of 1969 and in 1970 I enrolled in college to study for A-levels and later, in 1971,  Graphic Design. At this time I had a couple of dozen 1960s singles – ska instrumentals like ‘Watermelon Man’ by Baba Brooks,   some Buster titles, the Folks Brothers ‘Carolina’, Rico’s ‘Luke Lane Shuffle’, Derrick Morgan’s ‘Housewives Choice’ and ‘Sea Wave’, Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Hurricane Hattie’ and ‘Miss Jamaica’,  which I had actually bought new when they were released in the UK on Blue Beat and Island. These were all big club records at that time, in London west end  places like the Discotheque, the Flamingo, the Roaring Twenties and so on.

What style of reggae was it that caught your ear early on?

When I started doing Graphics in 1971, I was definitely a record ‘collector’, although in terms of the records I owned then, they were mostly jazz, soul, blues and rock. In the early 1970s I bought a triple LP set on Trojan, called the’ The Trojan Story’, compiled by Rob Bell. That was the first ‘reggae’ I owned, even though it covered boogie, ska, rock steady and early reggae.  In 1973 I bought the deejay album ‘Version To Version’, firstly because I liked the cover, which I saw as a pastiche of Andy Warhol’s style –  multiple images in different colours – I remember designing a poster like that, using film stars, which my lecturer at college liked. But I was never a conscientious designer. I got easily bored setting metal type and designing packaging for imaginary brands and products. When I left college in 1974, I was introduced by one of my lecturers to some guys who ran a record shop in Baker Street called ‘All Change Records’. I designed a bag for them, and when I presented the design, they offered me a job working in the shop.  At that time, ‘dub’ albums were being occasionally written up in papers like ‘Sounds’ – I remember a guy called Idris Walters reviewing an album called ‘Pick A Dub’ in Sounds in 1974. That same year, late 1974, I met a guy called Peter Simons, who called himself ‘Penny Reel’ and wrote under that name for the hippy newspaper ‘International Times’. For the next couple of years, Simons and me were friends, hanging out and going on expeditions to find secondhand records all over London. I also bought records from John McGillivray & Chris Lane’s ‘Dub Vendor’ mail order company, before they opened their famous shop.

In  July 1975 I saw Bob Marley & the Wailers at the Lyceum – it was obvious that reggae was beginning to appeal to the crossover audience, and I tried to reflect this in the All Change shop in Hanway Street just off Oxford Street in London’s west end.

You opened the Daddy Kool reggae shop in 1975.  How long was that shop open before you decided to move on to something else?

Daddy Kool was opened by me and Keith Stone in October 1975. Previously, the shop had been rented by All Change Records, and as noted before, I had managed it for them.  Initially the shop sold secondhand and review copies of soul, disco and jazz-funk-fusion, but when Stone and myself acquired it, with Stone’s mother supplying the money to buy the lease, we started selling only reggae. The Daddy Kool logo was designed by my old friend from Graphic Design college,  Paul Leach. I ran the shop and Stone carried on in his job as a fire claims assessor. I began writing for ‘Black Echoes’ at this time, reviewing reggae singles. I remember selling records to David Rodigan when he first came up to London, before he became the deservedly-celebrated soundman and radio deejay who has done so much to maintain the music through good and bad times.

The ‘Daddy Kool’ business was a partnership in which Stone had the majority share; in September 1976, apparently after a meeting with long-time customers of the shop Penny Reel, Roger Parker, and Snoopy when I was on a week’s holiday, Stone  fabricated a story accusing me of ripping him off;  using this fabrication as an excuse,  he dissolved the partnership. To be honest I was actually  pleased to leave Daddy Kool [and Stone];  I happily signed the paperwork that Stone presented to me dissolving our partnership. I remember it was my birthday, September 29th.   So, temporarily sick of the ‘music business’ I went to work in the Post Office, sorting international parcels on the night shift at the West Ham parcels branch.

I recently added to my collection a 12″ of Bob Marley’s “Rainbow Country” backed by The Upsetters’ “Lama Lava” (see attached).  Did this come from you guys? Is there a story behind that pressing?

This was released long after I left, so I can’t help you at all on that. I was only involved in “I Heart Is Clean”, the Cornell Campbell disc that was the first release on Daddy Kool Records. I notice that “Lama Lava” still used the Paul Leach-designed logo on the label though !  Decades later, the late Augustus Pablo told me this was a bootleg….

I read recently that you had a hand in establishing the Honest Jon’s record shop.  Great shop by the way.  I buy all of my Wackies represses through them.  Great selection and great people.  Did you have a hand in establishing the store, or did you work there for a certain time?

Honest Jon’s was established by Dave Ryner and Jon Clare [the ‘original’ Honest Jon]. I met them when I worked in another All Change Records outlet in 1974, a shop in Golborne Road, off Portobello Road. After I left Daddy Kool, I was short of money and I offered to sell a large number of my jazz records to Honest Jon’s. But Jon, to his credit, refused to buy them, saying that I would regret it. However, in 1977, they acquired the shop in Camden High Street, by the bridge over the canal. They decided to expand this shop and I helped out as a labourer when they expanded into the basement. At that time I was still working nights at the Post Office, but would come up to Honest Jon’s at midday and help out. When the shop was ready, I declined payment in money, asking to be paid in records instead. At that point, in late 1977,   Jon and Dave offered me a job, managing the basement with ‘New Zealand’ Phil and later, Antony Wood, founder of the ‘Wire’ magazine’.

I also helped out in Honest Jon’s reggae outlet, ‘Maroon’s Tunes’ in Greek Street, London W.1. That shop – the first to import Bullwackie’s music from New York – was run by Rae Cheddie, and assisted by Leroy Anderson aka Lepke.  Lepke was the first pirate deejay in London, for the Dread Broadcasting Corporation [DBC] – he’s also related to Rita Marley [nee Anderson] and Ranking Miss P, who had a long-running reggae show on BBC Radio London. When Rae or Lepke had a day off, I covered for them. That’s where I first met Peter Dalton, with whom I co-wrote “The Rough Guide To Reggae”.

While at Honest Jon’s in 1979-1980,  I did my first compilations for Island Records – ‘Intensified’, ‘More Intensified’, ‘Catch The Beat’ and ‘The Blue Beat Years’.  However, in 1980 I went back to college to do a BA [Honours] degree at Thames Polytechnic. After I left Honest Jons, Dave and Jon ended their partnership and Dave kept the Camden shop and John got the Portobello Road shop. When I left college in 1984, I couldn’t get a job anywhere, but Island Records offered me some sleeve note work – for the Skatalites ‘Return Of The Big Guns’ LP and soon after,  I also began working for Trojan Records on a sporadic, freelance basis. That company was then owned by Marcel Rodd, and the head of A&R was Patrick Meads, who commissioned me for several compilations including ‘The Original Reggae Hit Sound of Desmond Dekker’, ‘The Original Reggae Hit Sound of the Ethiopians’ and the first box set, “The Upsetter Box”.  When Meads left in 1987, the new owner of Trojan, Colin Newman, approached me and offered me a deal – still freelance – compiling albums for the label.  From the end of 1987  until the end of 1989, I compiled some 55 single LPs for that label, released in various configurations – single & double Lps, box sets, etc.  At the end of 1989 I approached Island Records and in 1990, after contributing  part of an interview I had done with Derrick Morgan [relating to Bob Marley] to the “Songs Of Freedom” set,  I was commissioned by Chris Blackwell to produce what became the 4-cd set ‘Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music’.  That set was nominated for and won a ‘Q’ Magazine Award in the category ‘Best Compilation’ in 1994.

When did it become a serious endeavor for you?  Was there something that prompted it?

I would say that I became a serious collector during 1974-1976, when Penny Reel and me were hunting for secondhand records in the junk shops of London. I only had a relatively small number of Jamaican discs at that time,  a few Lps and a few dozen 7” singles. I soon got a huge number of records from junk shops at that time, at prices ranging from 1 penny up to 10 pence, in other words, for peanuts!  There were only a handful of collectors then – Chris Lane, John McGillivray, Tony Rounce, Dave Hendley, and Noel Hawks. No doubt there were others – in Bristol and Clevedon and no doubt in the north of the UK, places like Nottingham and Leeds.. As I remember it, all these aforementioned guys had been collecting longer than me or Penny Reel. They certainly knew more about the period 1968-1974 than I did at that point. Chris Lane actually wrote a reggae column for ‘Blues And Soul’ magazine from 1972, and had visited Jamaica in 1974. Tony Rounce had also been to Jamaica – I remember he actually gave me 30 absolutely brilliant records early in 1976, including some of the best I Roy records when he learned of my interest in that deejay.  When I began writing for ‘Black Echoes’ in October 1975, I began to meet many of the artists and producers  who actually made the music, including Bunny Lee,  Tappa Zukie,  Count Shelley, Cornell Campbell, Emil Shalit, Prince Jazzbo and more. The mid-seventies was the period of Bob Marley’s increasing acceptance, but for me the music I sought out was deejay, dub and roots productions by such as Yabby You, the Mighty Diamonds and Augustus Pablo.

In the late 1970s, I met Ray Hurford – of the ‘Small Axe’ fanzine – and the late Colin ‘Fencebeater’ Moore – we started to compile lists of various rhythms and all the ’versions’ we could find. We used to meet up in Hume Point, a tower block in Custom House, East London, where both Ray and I were tenants of the local council.  

So let’s jump forward to the Blood & Fire label.  Whose idea was it to launch a label that would issue high quality represses of classic Jamaican roots albums?

The initial idea came from Elliot Rashman and Bob Harding. Rashman was co-manager with Andy Dodd of  Simply Red at the time and Harding worked for Simply Red’s management company. Apparently, as Harding later related it to me, they were sitting around bemoaning the lack of quality reggae reissues on CD.  Apart from Marley, not much reggae had appeared on CD in the UK at that point [1992]. 

Through a mutual connection with BBC Radio Lancashire deejay Steve Barker, my name came up. While working for Trojan in the late 1980s, I had been invited to appear on Steve’s BBC show ‘On The Wire’.  Steve suggested me as someone who maybe could facilitate the reissue of old reggae from the 1970s.  Harding phoned me up one day in late 1992, we spoke about the idea, Harding then invited me up to Simply Red’s office in Manchester,  where I met Rashman, Dodd, Harding and Mick Hucknall, the singer of Simply Red. That day it was decided to start the company, financed by Simply Red’s management company. Harding later came up with the name, Rashman provided the logo, which was then tweaked by Intro, the design company I had been working with since my time at Trojan. I had been hoping to get a permanent job at Island, seeing as I had recently done an award-winning compilation for them, but the B&F project seemed a better proposition to me. Rashman & Harding liked the music, having been turned on to reggae by the late Roger Eagle, a pivotal figure in the north-west of England, a celebrated collector, fan and promoter of black music since the early 1960s. 

However,  I was lucky enough to have the connections in Jamaica, and by this time, a reasonable knowledge of some of the history of Jamaican music, and perhaps ultimately most important of all, a large collection of relatively clean vinyl.  I was to work from my home in east London and Harding would work from the office of Simply Red’s management company in Ducie House, central Manchester.  

Why, in your opinion, was it necessary? 

I think ‘necessary’ is perhaps not a word I would use to describe a record company, but it did pay my bills!

Yes, bad choice of words.  I guess what I’m asking is why was this something that you needed to do personally?

I think the ironic Frank Zappa quote –  ‘Just what the world needs, another record company’ – is more apposite here ! The conventional music business people were certainly not interested in starting a reggae reissue label. Indeed, when I was compiling “Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music”, I still remember Chris Blackwell saying to me words to the effect that “If it wasn’t a hit, it wasn’t worth reissuing”.  Maybe the global success of Marley had convinced them that there wasn’t anyone else worthy of much attention – in commercial terms, probably half-true, but an awful lot of brilliant artists suffered from being in the shadow cast by Marley’s achievements. Trojan had a different attitude – they wanted to make as much money as possible, and saw ‘roots’ as too ‘ethnic’. In my experience, what they were really interested in at that time were  compilations that would sell in large numbers, with as many ‘originals’ of songs used in TV adverts or better yet, covered by UB40.  Of course, those attitudes – in both cases – make good commercial sense – but if I am completely honest, it wasn’t my priority. They saw the buyers as ‘punters’, suitable for buying the same hits continually recycled,  and the then-owner of Trojan, Colin Newman, saw the collector ‘fraternity as ‘fan boys’, slightly crazy obsessives. In other words, scant respect for their loyal customer base.   

Did you sense that there would be a market hungry for reissues, or was it more a personal endeavor, kind of a way to do your part to preserve these albums?

From my work with Trojan and then with Island I already knew there already existed a market of some kind. But the market itself wasn’t my main interest. I felt I had done good work at Trojan, but the quality control, particularly in terms of sound was definitely lacking, in spite of the best efforts of mastering engineers like Malcolm Davies and George Peckham. They also hardly promoted the work I did – there was no promotion budget, and they thought the designers, Intro Design Group, ‘too expensive’.  Island were the complete opposite – they were delighted to use Intro for the design of the “Tougher Than Tough” box set, and spent proper money on promoting it. But after that, they weren’t particularly keen on digging deeper into their vaults. I suggested various sets –  on Justin Hinds – his Jack Ruby-produced material – with my working title of “Songs from Steer Town”, and a series compilations from the massive Leslie Kong tape archive – still mostly unissued. They weren’t even keen on re-releasing the two Ernest Ranglin jazz LPs they had done in the early 1960s.  But at that point, Island had already been sold to Polygram [in 1989] and I guess all releases had to be justified to the ’bottom line’ posse,  the corporate accountants. Later I did get to do a Lee Perry compilation [the “Arkology” 3-cd set] and was able to get Dave Katz on board for that job too, but that was only after B&F had been going for a couple of years.

However, Island Records and Chris Blackwell did give me the great opportunity to go to Jamaica and conduct a series of 77 interviews with various artists and producers, mostly from the earlier mento, ska and rock steady periods, but also including later reggae, roots and dancehall artists. Impeccably filmed by Don Letts and Rick Elgood, those interviews completely and finally convinced me that there was  a whole lot more to reggae than the ‘big’ crossover stars, and that I was fortunate enough to be in a position to present that to an international audience, albeit a minority one. There were and still are people who discover this music, a true ‘people’s music’ and who can appreciate it as culturally significant, as well as being ‘commercial’. I was able to use some of this interview material – in written form – in both the ‘Rough Guide to Reggae’ and many B&F reissues.

What was the most difficult aspect of re-issuing classic reggae records?  Dealing with the artists?  Producers?  Obtaining rights/licenses?

For me I would say, firstly,  finding viable source material. Many producers no longer have original master tapes. Yabby You, for instance, only had the multi-tracks, not the original tapes with the Tubby mixes.  So, all the Yabby You releases on B&F were dubbed from disc. Once you have the source material, the other aspects can usually flow quite smoothly. Of course, there were a few artists or producers who we tried to deal with but who for various reasons didn’t seem to want to do business with us. Early on, we proposed a reissue to a so-called legendary artist, through his lawyer here in London, but never received a reply either way. Perhaps he never even received our proposal.  Another producer actually came to my house two years running and I proposed a reissue of some of his dubs and other productions. Each time, when he had returned home, he asked for totally unrealistic money. The second time, having agreed verbally with me an advance of £7000 and a royalty of 16% of wholesale, plus his publishing royalty on 10,000 2-cd sets,  he returned home and requested that we pay him $50,000 US upfront. Another producer – also now deceased – obviously didn’t think we were going to amount to much when Harding and me visited him in mid-1993 at his supermarket in Jamaica, and asked us “Gentlemen, how much do you want to invest with me?” and then kept upping the price.  Fortunately these were for a series of albums that I wasn’t personally keen on anyway, the titles  having been suggested to me by Rashman.  That producer –  years later – came to my house and intimated that he wanted B&F to do something with him, but sadly he died soon after that. Having said all that, and in complete contrast, artists who were supposed to be ‘difficult’ were in fact very pleasant and very easy to deal with – the late Gregory Isaacs is one example, Glen Brown is another –  in my own experiences dealing with them. 

Let me just say to you that as a fan of that era, what many call “the golden age” of reggae, you did something really great.  Those reissues turned a whole new generation on to these records and the artists who created them.  As a collector, they are the finest vinyl items on the market, and the packaging is first-rate.  You basically set a whole new standard for reissuing roots reggae and dub albums.  Instead of reissuing the albums on substandard vinyl, with silly and poorly constructed packaging (a la VP, and other nameless American labels), you guys issued a product that any collector would be proud to own.  It is clear, at least to me, that there was a deep respect and reverence from all involved.  Looking back now, would you agree with my assessment?

Looking back now, I would actually agree with your very kind assessment. I also know that from touring round with the B&F sound system and seeing all the young people, all over the world, who came to our gigs and danced to music that was made before they were born. As for the quality, that was indeed our ‘plan’,  me and the Simply Red people,  to provide a top-quality ‘product’ in all aspects – in sound quality, repertoire selection, visual design and packaging and total business legitimacy. Such as it was, hardly an original concept, but with the help of Simply Red’s backing, we did manage, for the most part, to pull it off, I think. 

That is, until a series of unfortunate circumstances – the drastic decline of the market, particularly in regard to burning cds – as well as two major distributor bankruptcies,  in USA and France, and finally,  a catastrophic financial decision made by my co-director in Manchester, which  resulted in B&F ceasing to trade in June 2007.  I still think that if that latter decision hadn’t been made, we could have perhaps survived the distributor bankruptcies, but it was not to be.  Right to the end, our sales were good – not one B&F release sold less than 5000 units, and many sold much more. I have read on some ‘reggae chatrooms’ that the Congos’ ‘Fisherman’ one-rhythm album ‘finished’ B&F, but that is simply speculative nonsense.  We sold 18, 000 limited edition singles [6 x 3000]  from that set, as well as over 3,000 double vinyl LPs and over 9,000 cds – that is  according to figures I received from Simply Red’s management some months after we ceased trading.   But we also spent money – on quality artwork – including photographers’ fees – and on promotion. And we never charged back that design cost to the artists, as was common practice by the majors  – the notorious 25% ‘packaging & promotion’ clause they inserted in their contracts.  Additionally, we gave away nearly 100,000 cds free of charge to distributors and the press for so-called ‘promotion’. We also hired the services of press agents in London and in New York although both these latter agencies charged us far less than they would a ‘major’. Also for the USA territory, we utilised the services of the experienced Robin Wise – he did distributor liaison -and my longtime spar Mark Gorney doing specialist press, both working on the West Coast – two great guys!

So, if I’m not mistaken, the very first reissue was ‘The Dreads at King Tubby’s – If Deejay Was your Trade’?  Why go with a DJ album first?  Do you remember what kind of press it got from the critics?

Harding and myself had been to Jamaica in summer of 1993 and copied some 150 tracks from Bunny’s tapes. These had cost us nothing initially, except the cost of travelling to Jamaica. We stayed at Bunny’s old house in Meadowbrook, hired a car and went to the studio in Duhaney Park every day, running tape with Garth the engineer. Bunny’s wife then arranged for us to stay in another house she owned  ‘up Barbican way’, where we could come and go as we pleased and didn’t have to disturb anyone. I was very pleased with the material we got from Bunny’s tapes, as I realized it would provide a great platform from which we could launch the label quite economically.  I compiled a dub set [‘Dub Gone Crazy’] and a deejay set. On the deejay set, Rashman suggested using his personal copy of the Big Joe track that kicks off “Deejay was your Trade”, and I was easily convinced to place it first in the track sequence.  Out of the two sets, I reckoned that the deejay one would be more uncommercial, since all these deejays were way past their ‘sell-by date’ by some 20 years, so as Zappa once said [again] ‘No commercial potential’.  But nonetheless, these deejays were all good, all riding the rhythm with considerable style in the proper U-Roy/Big Youth manner, and all the rhythms could, in my mind, be featured on projected Lee compilations, either as vocals or dubs. So,  why not defy all ‘business’ logic and release it first?  I had thought of a snappy title, thanks to I-Roy and his feud with Jazzbo; the concept was that these guys were ‘craftsmen’, masters of their ‘trade’, so it was only timely that we should ‘re-dig’ them now,  i.e. in 1994.   Then, the cover, worked out with Mat Cook at Intro. It’s about the’ trade’ of deejaying,  so let’s actually show the ‘tool of the trade’.  As Shabba later said “mic an’ equalizer a the deejay tool”, so we used an old microphone, that looked like it had been held together with duct tape, in honour of the Jamaican practice of using something up,  to the point of its exhaustion. Mat photographed it, and then did his computer stuff. The late Rob Partridge, bless him, did a great job on press, conveying succinctly what we were trying to do,   and the package was very well received. We were off and running. Then we followed it up with a dub set. This time,  I had the idea in my mind of Tubby’s mythical echo ‘chamber’ what the door to that locale look like. I done something similar, before for Trojan – the entrance to the imaginary tomb of King Tubby on a set called ‘King Tubby’s Special’ that I had compiled for Trjoan in 1989, when the dubmaster was murdered.  Well, I gave that echo chamber door idea to Mat Cook and he made a door out of aluminium that again, looked ‘recycled’, and as it was the door of the ‘King’, he created the big ‘K’ logo with the crown on top.  Job done.  From then on it was easy – I would visualize something that matched my projected compilation title, or the actual title if it was a straight reissue, Intro would create the image to match it. Like on the Yabby You ‘Prophesy Of Dub’ set – when I moved into my house in London in 1994, there was a decrepit, crumbling door at the side entrance. It was a dark red , the colour of dried blood it seemed to me. Yabby You’s line about the moon turning to blood [actually biblical in origin of course] came to mind. So I sawed the door in half and took it up to intro and that becam,e the ‘background’ of the cover. I had an old 19th century bible and we cut bits from the bookof Revelation from it and stuck them on the door, then left it out in the yard at the side of the Intro office for a few days, in the rain. Dave Katz came up with a photo of Yabby which looked like he had a sort of halo.  Sometimes the idea was obvious – the booklet for the Phase One ‘Children of Jah’ set used some excellent photos taken by Brian Jahn, the idea being that they were the present-day children of ‘Jah’.

Dave Smith treated the photos in the same way as he did on the ‘Shanty Town Determination’ set we reissued and that was ‘it’.  

Usually, I would sit alongside the designer and talk about the music, maybe even playing it at the same time, but I do remember Mat wasn’t even a fan of reggae anyway! Dave Smith liked reggae, and he also promoted the B&F Sound System on a series of Sunday matinee/evening gigs at Cargo in Shoreditch, London.

And so we went on for the next few years. Everyone I worked with at Intro, from the founders Adrian & Katie through to all the designers – was brilliant. Their contribution to the success of B&F was I think, crucial.      

How was the decision made amongst the group at BAF as to what albums would be reissued and when?  Can you briefly discuss that process?

By and large, apart from ‘In The Light’ [vocal], ‘Pick A Dub’ and ‘Heart Of The Congos’, which were initially proposed by Eliot Rashman or Mick Hucknall and then  agreed by all of us,  all the ideas of what to reissue were mine.  I suggested including the Jammy dub set along with ‘In The Light’.  I sequenced 99% of all the compilations and Harding then agreed them.  I don’t recall any occasion where Harding, and later, Harding and Dom Sotgiu,  rejected any of my compilations or their sequencing.  I always had a list of projects – still do – and over the years, many others arrived in the course of things.

Were there any albums that you guys really wanted to reissue but were unable?  Why?

A Mikey Dread 2-cd set comes to mind, and a Bunny Wailer reissue of “Dubdisco Vol 1”, the first never happened due to the producer continually attempting to change already verbally agreed terms, and the second because of a complete lack of response from Mr Wailer. The latter did come out on Ras or some such label, but without the ‘extra’ cuts I had envisaged, and in less than satisfactory sound quality.  

I was hoping to do something with the late A. Pablo, but sadly he died before we could settle anything. The same thing happened in the case of Dennis Brown, but I was able to conclude the business – already verbally agreed with Dennis himself – a couple of years after his passing with his widow Yvonne, who actually lives  quite near me in north-east London. Some of the sets I did on Hot Pot Records – particularly the Carlton Patterson dub set should have come out on B&F, but apparently B&F had no money to do it, or so I was informed at the time.

And lastly, Dom Sotgiu and I did three shows in Japan in June 2006,  featuring U-Roy and the B&F Sound System which I rate as some of the best we ever did, a personal high point for me. While on the same tour we agreed in principle to reissue a set of U Roy’s non-Duke Reid singles but sadly B&F ceased trading before we could schedule that one. That was really a matter of regret to me.  Some – but defintely not all – of the tracks were issued by an excellent company in St Louis, the name of which escapes me. – I think they also released the ‘King Attorney’ dubplate set.

While I have your attention, I must tell you which ones are my favorites!  LP046 – ‘Dennis Brown Presents Prince Jammy – Umoja / 20th Century DEBwise’ is an outstanding piece of work as it captures the sound and vibe of the original ‘Return to Umoja.’  Jesus Dread is probably at the top of my list.  All that Yabby You blood, fire, brimstone, lightning, and thunder on 2 discs!  Wow!  Also, the prince Far-I albums are priceless.  Which brings me to the million dollar question:  Do you have any favorites?  Any that you are disappointed in?

It’s difficult for me to pick favourites.  I like all the deejay sets, because I admire the deejay ability to make something from [apparently] nothing much, and because I knew or still know all the deejays as people – apart from Prince Far I of course. I love the I-Roy set, a truly unforgettable man., Because I worked with U Brown,  Ranking Joe, Trinty and Dillinger on the B&F Sound System tours, their sets that we reissued are also special. 

I really do like the other Horace Andy set we released, ‘Good Vibes’, in fact, I prefer it to ‘In  The Light’. All the Yabby You compilations and reissues are special to me – I liked him as a person and as an artist, anachronistic and eccentric as he was.  The Big Youth was a personal highlight – one of the best ever artists still.  Of  the rest, the Glen Brown dub set, the Children of Jah set, the Freedom Sounds In Dub set, the Prince Alla sets, and those by Burning Spear [superb CD sound from the original Compass point master tape !], Johnny Clarke, Cornell Campbell, Gregory Isaacs D Brown, the Abbysinians one-rhythm set, especially with the new artists –  and so on.  Seeing as I picked 92% of the releases, I’d hardly be likely to say I don’t like them all. Even the Heart Of the Congos is ok !! [Forgot that one…..!]

Funny thing.  I interviewed Ryan Moore of Twilight Circus just a few days ago and he said this about BAF:

“It wasn’t really until the arrival of the Blood And Fire reggae reissue label in the mid 90’s that dub’s influence on music production, its status as the ‘original remix’ form, and the towering role of King Tubby in the development of dub became more widely appreciated Worldwide, thanks to the PR clout of the label.”

Now he said that not knowing that I would be interviewing you.  What is it like to hear one of the top dub artists in the game right now say that about your label?  Must be incredibly flattering.  But I think it speaks to the importance of what you guys did for the art and the artists.

It’s very flattering indeed and it makes me feel that I did something right in selecting that stuff.  Ryan is a guy who knows what he is talking about and has done a lot of good work with Jamaican artists over the years. And like B&F, he tries his utmost to deal completely openly and of course honestly with the artists. Harding did a good job – with Kevin Metcalfe  – in the remastering studio. I used to attend all the sessions, but that was really their contribution. And Dom Sotgiu was an excellent and very slick operator on the decks with the B&F sound system –  I really enjoyed the 250-plus gigs we did together, all over the world. It was always about the music, first and last. 

So last year you and Stuart Baker released 2 historic books through the Soul Jazz label:  Reggae Soundsystem: Album Cover Art, and Reggae Soundsystem: The Label Art of Jamaican Singles.  Why is it important that we recognize and preserve the art that was pressed on these records?

It’s important because it shows a small nations’ growth, and it registers the transition of a local phenomenon to international acclaim. It’s hard for such a nation to be heard, but the music has been one of the main ways that the world has come to know that a place like Jamaica exists, and has something – mostly positive,  occasionally negative –  to say to us  all. The sleeves really do portray a steadily growing sense of identity, for the most part, without metropolitan mediation.

Who picked what would be included and what would be left on the cutting room floor so to speak?  Was there a process or plan for deciding what to include? Where did you guys obtain the actual physical images for the book?  Your collection?  Others?

Stuart did all the selection on his own and also included the English sleeves from his collection. I supplied around 750 sleeves from my collection, all Jamaican;  again, Stuart selected the ones he liked best.

Who is the unlucky person who has to scan these images?

That task was done entirely by the redoubtable and thoroughly professional Karen Tate of Soul Jazz/Sounds Of The Universe

How difficult was it to credit the graphic artists for their work?

All that info was gleaned from the sleeves themselves, or in some cases,  ‘artist unknown’.

Is there a link between label art and sales?  For example, will a record sell better if it has a provocative picture pressed to the disc or sleeve?

That’s an interesting question – in the past, Jamaican music has been sold on blank labels, in plain sleeves and still managed to become popular, relying on the exclusivity conveyed in such ‘anonymous’ packaging. But there is no doubt that an image confers a certain identity, for good or bad – look at Blue Note in the case of jazz for example.

Word is you are working now on a book of label art for the dancehall era?  When can we expect to see that available?

Some of the captioning work has already been done by Noel Hawks and myself, but no date of publication has been communicated to me; that decision  is entirely at the discretion of Stuart Baker and depends, I would guess, on the sales of the last two volumes.

I’ve also done a couple of their Studio One deejay sets, the booklet notes only, and helped with the editing on their superb Beth Lesser book of late 1970s-1980s photographs, supplied some sleeves and wrote introduction to the Soul Jazz Studio One book of covers  and actually compiled  the second ‘Dancehall’ double CD they released, which was then sequenced by Stuart. For my part, I am always happy to work for Stuart and the Soul Jazz crew, a very decent and easy-going set of people.

Barrow and Oxman at SoulJazz Book Launch

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