In the third and final part of our exclusive interview with Ras Midas, he talks about the creation of his lauded reggae album Rastaman In Exile, his move to the USA, his recent recordings on his own label, and his plans for the future… (Read Part 1 here, or Part 2 here, if you did not read these yet)
Let’s talk a bit about 1980’s Rastaman in Exile. Why did you decide to change labels? Why did Island stop being involved?
I think that because there was so many conflict between Island and Harry J, my manager and my attorney said it was best for me to get out of that situation and they will try to find a new label. So my manager at the time got in touch with some people from France and they loved what I was doing. At the time my manager said “well since you did a version of Kude A Bamba in Swahili I think it would be good if we choose a song from Rastaman in Exile and do a French version. And that could help you break into the French-speaking African countries, into the French Caribbean countries and break you in France”. So that is what we did.
So they found a label which was Disc AZ International that was very interested and intrigued by Rastaman in Exile. They said “ok we’re following your career with all that you did. I think that you’re reaching your full potential now as an artist”. So they decided to give me a chance to prove myself.
And did that mean you moving to France?
Yes. But even before that, I used to travel between the UK and France you know?
You liked it there?
Yes, I like it there. Because the reggae promoters in France with shows they were more straightforward than the Caribbean reggae promoters in the UK. Because it was the same old story where you know “we never make enough money so…” and thing? In France, they were more respectful of the art and they were straight with business. So it was nice to do business in France.
The album has been reissued now for the next generation to hear. It’s a great album. Is it Horsemouth playing the drums? I really like the five stroke rolls.
Yes, Horsemouth and Sly play on that album.
It’s got Ranchie on it like most of your work from that time, it’s got Jimmy Becker with his very recognisable harmonica, and again Wire’s on there, Bubbler’s on there, Winston Wright…
So all the musicians that you liked to work with, and on this album you will really gel…
And Dean Fraser and Nambo Robinson. And Junior Chin.
So were you happy with it?
Yes, I was very happy. Because even when we finished the album, the musicians said “Midas this is it. There is no album really come out of Harry J for a long time. This is it. You reach your peak now. You reach your top”. And I was just laughing and they said “you always laughing but you have to take it, serious man”. So when I really took it more seriously is when my manager encouraged me to do the French version. So Sly said “Man you singing all in French now?” And I said, “well you know my manager encouraged me to do it”. Sylvan was delightful with the album. Because he said “you’ve gone to a next level now Midie. You reach a next level.” So everyone was happy really.
That song Too Long In The Wind was released in Canada on a 12-inch with the English version on one side and the French version on the other side. That’s very smart because some people in Canada speak French and some people speak English! Was that what they were trying to do?
Yes it was! (laughing) And they released it in French speaking African countries in French speaking Caribbean countries the same way too.
Marcia Griffiths sings on the album…
Marcia Griffiths, Anisa Banks and I believe Judy Mowatt did a few tracks.
So did you have a good relationship with the I-Threes?
I wouldn’t say that I had a good relationship with them. Harry had a good relationship with them. Morris had a good relationship with them. But I would say that Morris had a better relationship with musicians and singers in Jamaica than I do. Because how I and Morris would work is that when I’m ready to do an album I and Morris would talk about it. We talked about the concept of the album and he will say “well these are the musicians that I think will suit what you’re going to do”. And I always give him the free will to select the musicians that will work on my project. That’s how I approach it.
How did you decide to cover Bill Withers Lean On Me for that album? BB Seaton did a nice version of it a few years earlier but he was trying to sound like Bill Withers whereas you do it your own way.
Well, my cousin Wire is the one that said “I think you could do a better version than Bill Withers man”. I said, “no no I can’t do a better version”. He said, ” just sing it Rastafari way yeah man. I’m going to give you the record and you just go listen to the record. And just create something from the record in our culture man. And you will do it man”. So we tried it. And he said, “yes man! Your voice sound more serious than the original man that sing it man. And you sing it in your own cultural way man. People are going to love that”. Listen here.
On the song Zion Last Train you sing about the teaching of evolution in vs the teaching of creationism. That lyric has always interested me…
I am teaching about in the religious form. Because in religion they teach evolution to fight against creation and creation to fight against evolution. So I was just telling people that we have to leave those things behind. Because Zion Last Train is a reggae song that is moving forward into a higher heights. Away from the religious backwardness of what the world is into. And letting people know that everything is just politricks. It’s just principalities and politricks. It’s not teaching us to really respect and understand other human beings. So that we can get to know each other and work together to build a better world.
One of my favourite tunes is Let The People Go. Tell me a bit about how you came up with that one.
Let The People Go is a song where I was looking at the economical and the political system of the world. And I just came up with it to say “look into what is holding people back. Get to really understand that it is religion, politics and the International Monetary Fund” – I don’t use those names in the song but this is what it means. It was just the monetary system, the religious system, and the political system. These are the three organisations that work together to keep people down. And keep you in the situation that we are in. And all the wars and poverty taking place around the world, these are the three organisations that really produce this environment and we are the victim of the environment.
So having made this definitive roots reggae album statement – I hesitate to say you then start experimenting more – because on that album you’re doing things like covering Bill Withers. But it is definitely a landmark when you create the song Can’t Stop The Rastaman Now with a disco influence, covering McFadden and Whitehead.
That was Harry’s idea too. Because Harry said “I went to the United States and I bought this record and when I listened to the lyrics I said to myself ‘Midas is the only person I know in Jamaica that could take these lyrics and turn it round our way’”. So that’s how I got to record the song.
It’s interesting because, looking back, we can see that there were some other cover versions of that song by Jamaicans. In Canada Joe Isaacs with his Risco Connection project, they did a cover version of it. And Willi Williams did a cover version of it for Coxsone. Were you and Harry aware of those versions?
No, Harry told me that our version was the first version. And Harry said, “don’t pay attention to them version version, you see what you have here? This is the right one and you are the right person to sing it. Because you have the right tone to carry this rhythm”.
Disco music was going in a different direction lyrically from the roots rock reggae but musically there is a link. Sly with his drumming, playing the straight four, the steppers. So the two musics complement each other.
Yes and between the mid-70s to the 80s reggae was closely aligned with disco. And the Jamaican musicians created a beat called steppers. So people were getting into the more up-tempo danceable rhythms. Horsemouth and Sly were doing magic with it.
Can you tell me a little bit about the song European Common Market? Why did you decide to engage with that topic?
That song wasn’t even supposed to be on it but it happened. (laughs) How that song came up I was trying to show people that the unification of Europe will end up being the unification of Rome. Because at one time Rome was the united system in Europe. And if all the United Nations are going to unite in one, all of them are going to give their strength to Rome. And people will be dominated economically and politically that way. So that’s why I did that song.
So this album, Stand Up Wise Up (1984) came out on a different French label, Celluloid. And this is the album where it says the arrangements are credited to Morris. So for this album, what was your thinking in terms of how to push your music forward?
This album was just trying to do something different that didn’t sound like Rastaman In Exile. And a little bit more rootsy and at the same time roots mixed with contemporary. Because when you’re dealing with music you want a little difference in it so the buyers, the people who love your music, don’t see you as an artist that’s just stuck up in one beat or one remedy of music. That you have a variation. So that’s how I got into doing Stand-up Wise Up.
And it was still recorded at Harry J? So you and Harry, despite all the tensions earlier in the 70s, still continued to work?
Yes still recorded at Harry J. Because how I look at it, Harry had a distinctive sound. A sound that is different from the rest of recording studios in Jamaica. Because in Jamaica the rest of the studios had a flatter sound. The roof in Harry J is really high. So you had a different sound in Harry J. And my music is used to that sound. So in mixing or recording you don’t have to put a lot of reverb or echo on the recording because of the way the studio is set up already you can get a lot of reverb and echo from a higher roof sound. And the next thing is you have an original organ, pipe organ and you have an original piano. So I loved the sound of the studio and I loved Morris because I’m used to Morris and we have a close friendship. And Harry knew that I was going to pay him for his time so it was good that I still do my music there.
And around this time you also went on a world tour taking the same musicians that you were comfortable with?
Yes (laughs) It was really good because people started to recognise that I’m a mature artist now. Because most people know me from my youth days but now they know that I’m a fully grown-up man and a mature artist. And my music was saying a lot. I got to understand that I wasn’t making music for myself. I was making music for everyday people. I decided early in my career to let my voice be the voice of the people that don’t have a voice.
Because Harry taught me that. Harry said to me “the songs that you are writing and singing, people all over the world can relate to it. So I want you to concentrate on letting your lyrics and your music be for the people that don’t have a voice. The everyday people that are struggling around the world. And make it in a way that whether people from Europe or South America or Africa, it doesn’t matter where they come from, they can have a connection to your message and your music”. So I keep that in my production and Morris knows that also. So working with Morris is a delight because we keep things together in a firm and progressive way.
What led you to decide to move to the United States?
I met a producer from the United States and I decided that moving to the United States was moving closer to Jamaica.
And you settled in California? And you started your own label – JML?
Yes I lived in California for a time. Yes I started my own label. After I did Stand Up Wise Up, I said “well the time has come for me to have my own label instead of trying to get different labels to put out my music. So it will be easier if I have my own independent label and get my own distribution. If I sell 100 records I know that there is no middle man and there is no label taking anything from it”.
Because it costs money to go into a studio and make music. When the label takes it on they are not looking at the amount of money that you have to spend and to produce the record they are just looking if it is something that they like that they can make some money from. And you have to wait until they make their end of the bargain. They might give you some advance but that advance has never really generally covered your production costs. So learning about the business and getting a better understanding about it I decided to go along with my own label.
And you put out your Loving Vibration album (1998) which again is very much a roots reggae album with the title track, for example, talking about Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. You recut Let The People Go, which we’ve already discussed because you had the publishing rights to your songs but you didn’t have the rights to the Harry J recordings. But again you do another wonderful cover, of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes Wake Up Everybody. One of my favourite soul songs.
(Laughs) Yeah, I was encouraged to by a next musician that was a guitarist that played on the album named James Schulteis. Because after I came in and settled for a time, I formed the band named The Bridge. So we were touring the United States and other parts of the world as Ras Midas and The Bridge. I was just calling it Midas and The Bridge at that time. So he said to me “Midas I think you could sing this song in a different style. Just do it in your style”. And I said to him “what style you think I should do it in?” He said “man how it goes is hip-hop is coming in so just add a hip hop drum and bass to it with the reggae and sing it man”. And that’s what I did. (laughs)
I’ve got to ask, the song Stop Taking Drugs, was that based on personal experience you had with someone who kept taking drugs?
No, that was not personal experience. The lyrics just came. Because I don’t deal with people who are involved in drugs. Because I don’t even drink Pepsi. I don’t drink soft drinks. I don’t eat out at restaurants. My life if that I live is different. And I don’t mix my life with the music world.
Because most times when you’re going on tour, you’re meeting people, they’re saying “we have so much problem with with Ras Midas”. And I say “it’s not a problem you know? Because I can cook my own food. You don’t have to provide food for me. All you have to do is find me a room with a kitchenette that I can deal with my own thing. So I don’t see that as a problem. And I will carry my food with me or somebody could carry me around town and I could go to a natural food store and buy what I want”.
But I know what drugs are doing to people. And I know what drugs have done to many families. They’ve destroyed many families. And so that song just came up naturally as a song for families who have problems with drugs in their family.
And then you put out your Grammy-nominated Confirmation album (2000). Again on this album you revisit a lot of your songs from the past. And you do them again in a very nice way, really nice production. At the time when I heard this album I wondered why you revisited so many songs but you’ve explained exactly why. But again you also do quite an unusual cover version! Sunrise Sunset from the soundtrack of Fiddler On The Roof.
Ok, I met this Jewish gentleman and he said “I love some of the songs on Stand Up Wise Up but I think you could do them over and do it better. And I have a special song for you to sing”. I said “what is it, original?” He said “no, I follow your career, I see what you have done with Wake Up Everybody, I see what you have done with Bill Withers, and I have confidence you could take this song from the bed and make it become alive!” (laughs).
And I said “no no no I don’t want to do it over again”. But he said to me “listen, I am advancing you this money and it’s going to be on your label, nothing is going to change and I want you to go to Jamaica and get the same musicians that you record with on Stand Up Wise Up and do this song”. He is the one that chose all the songs them. He said “I want you to do them over because these songs mean a lot to me”.
And he said that the cover song came from a play called Fiddler On The Roof. He said “I think you have the potential to do Sunrise Sunset in a unique way”. So that’s how it came up and that’s how I did Confirmation. I even said to him “we’re going to name this album Confirmation because you are confirming that these songs that you select from it to record over will send a message”. So he loves that and that’s why I did it.
For the Reaching Out album (2006), now obviously you’ve been experimenting with your music, working with experimental Jamaican musicians from the beginning, and you’ve been doing fusions with your music since at least the late 70s. But the previous fusions were quite subtle. Whereas on this album you started doing fusions with hip-hop, dancehall and R&B in a way that is much more obvious that it’s a fusion. But also at the same time there are a lot of reality messages, Racism, Neocolonialism, Women Struggle, were you simultaneously using these different styles to carry these messages into different areas and to new ears?
Yes, I was just trying to expand my market because I know that hip hop was getting big in the United States. I realised that I could send my message in the hip-hop market and do something different, reaching out to reach people. Which I did and it worked.
And it was exactly the time as well when the internet was being used by most people and people’s music taste was going more into fusion because they’re hearing a lot more music through the internet. But then the Fire Up album (2010) was a more traditional album. And again the timing of it is very good with what was happening in Jamaica, when the music was going a bit back more to roots and more live bands. Were you aware of that at the time? Or was it just the way you felt?
It was just I going with the way I felt at the time. Because I realised that you cannot go too far out on a limb. You might try something here but don’t really stick on it. So I just got back, I just got forward to the roots. But do it in a unique way that people can understand “ok this is Midas again and he is doing this version of his music and he doesn’t get stuck up one way or the other”.
Can you just say something about Herb Daly who was in the group The Rastafarians and who you worked with on that album?
When I first came to the United States, the Rastafarians were under the same management as I was. That’s why I came here. We toured together. And after the Rastafarians broke up, Herb Daly created a band named Roots Awakening. They worked with me on tours and concerts and things like that. So we did a lot of work together. So I decided to do a live recording in the studio with Roots Awakening. So all of those songs that you hear on that album they are recorded live.
It has that powerful sound. And also you’ve recently released some live concert recordings.
It was nice, I went to Europe in 2013 and 2015, and we did concerts and we did some live recordings of the concerts. Which Nan encouraged me to do at the time. That’s what I did. So it was a great band called Asham from Belgium.
I know them.
They are great musicians and really disciplined. I think they’re one of the best reggae bands out of Europe. So we had this connection and we did these live recordings and released them on the internet.
I was recently watching a video of one of your performances at Sierra Nevada festival. You must have some great memories of playing at that festival, whose promoter Warren Smith passed recently.
Yes, I have some great memories. It was very nice working with the promoter of the festival. And I had a wonderful time working with Roots Awakening also.
You said in a previous conversation we had, that you keep your voice in very good shape. All through your albums from the 70s right through to your most recent single today, your voice still sounds strong. But it also hasn’t gone very low in pitch like some veteran artists’ voices, which change over time.
It’s smoking that does that man. If you smoke you mess up your vocal. And the next thing again is most reggae artists don’t know how to do voice training and things like that. So they smoke and they drink alcohol but they don’t know that after a while alcohol and smoking burn out your vocal. But I exercise all the while, I wake up in the morning and I do my voice training, if I’m going to jog I do my voice training. It’s just keeping my voice in tune. Because it’s my tool. So if I don’t keep my tool in tune it will go out of tune.
And I think maybe some of your experiences in the music business may have influenced you. You realise “I lost that song or I lost that album but I still have my voice I can go and do it again”.
Yes yes yes! And people really appreciate that I keep my voice together. Because some people will say “Midas you never change! What happen, man, you never change?” I say “well because I take my music seriously and I do the best I can to be in the best condition and keep my voice in the best condition”. Sometimes people say to me “the way you speak is not the way you sing”. I say “well when I am singing, I have to sing in a way that people understand what I’m saying. So I will express myself in the right and proper way so that people can get an understanding of what I’m doing. My message that I’m sending”.
Can we just say something about the message of your most recent single World Block Party?
The message in my recent single World Block Party is that all positive people around the world must get together. Let us start working together including musicians, writers, DJs, and all the people that are yearning for change. To let them know that we have to start to reason together. We are the ones that have to create the change. Change is not going to come unless we work to make it change for us. Because you cannot change what is corrupted already. It’s corrupted. You cannot build a new foundation on a broken foundation. You have to build a new foundation on a solid foundation.
And I always have this vision that mankind will learn to respect each other. We will all learn to accept each other. We will learn to evolve in love and unity with each other. We must use our senses to recreate the bond of the brotherhood of humanity. Instead of dealing with people’s complexion or religion or whatever it may be. Let us learn to accept each other for who we are. And respect and work together and build a new foundation which will be a new dispensation and a new world. Because it is up to us how we want it to be.
I hear you’re a keen gardener. What will you be planting this year?
I’m going to plant some peas, I’m going to plant some pumpkin, I’m going to plants and carrots, I’m going to plant some pak choi, cabbage you know? Beans. I will do some sweet potato.
What other things have you been doing in the last year or so? You’ve been working on new music?
Yeah, I’m working on some new music. I met an established songwriter who used to write for Sony Records. His name is Larry Lange. And so we are working together composing and writing songs, working for a new album.
You’re a very gifted songwriter. How come you’ve decided to work with another songwriter for your upcoming album?
I told him “this is happening for a reason because I never did these things yet”. Nan gave me some good encouragement saying “I introduced your music to him and he thinks that both of you will do a fantastic job. Collaborating together to make a series of music”. So we met and reasoned and we discovered we can work together. Because he created these pop melodies but he would like a reggae artist to put the reggae cultural lyrics within his compositions. So when he met me he said “you are the one because you know how to change my ideas and put it into the reggae cultural and spiritual way. So let us try something together”. So that’s what we are doing right now.
And when do you think that album will be out?
I think it will be more like next year. Because you’re looking at the economics and because of the COVID, most people right now don’t have money to spend on things like music. So we have to just wait until the economy gets back together with a little and people are really into purchasing more and have more purchasing power. Because the world economy is very weak now. So that’s the way I look at it.
At the same time, it’s a time when people are really hungry for something to listen to so I guess it’s a great time to reissue some of your old music?
Yes, I’m working Roots Vibration records and we are working on a compilation. And at the same time, we’re going to put out more new singles from the new composition that we are working on.
Finally, I did an interview with Sylvan Morris in Jamaica two years ago and the last thing he said to me before the interview ended was how much he enjoyed working with you and how talented you are.
Well, I give thanks to Morris to say that and how fantastic it is to work with him and how talented he is. And I thank him for all the years that he has helped me through my career musically. He is a great person – not only musically alone. He is a very intelligent human being and I’m happy that we are brothers. We are more than friends, we are brothers together. And my next project after this with Larry will be in Jamaica with Morris.
Header Photo by Nan Lewis