“Really well done and a wonderful intimate look at history” – Roger “RoJah” Steffens
March 2013. Israel Vibration is in Washington, DC with the Roots Radics. They are scheduled to play the historic Howard Theatre near the campus of Howard University, an historically black college in northwest Washington, DC. I try to secure an interview with Errol “Flabba” Holt, the larger-than-life bass player, musical director, spokesman, and defacto leader of the Radics. His handler/tour manager is non-commital. You know, the old “yeah-we’ll-see-it’s-gonna-be-tough” routine. I stay on it though.
You see, the Roots Radics played the soundtrack to my youth. A group of musicians who transformed the sound of reggae in the early eighties, taking the deeply orthodox roots reggae sound developed in the early seventies and slowing it down , adding a psychofunk element to it, and tightening the screws on the riddims, making each one a ballistic missile aimed straight at the heart of Babylon.
Eroll “Flabba” Holt formed the Radics with friend and fellow musician Bing Bunny after stints with Rupie Edwards’ crew and as bass player for The Morwells. As Flabba explains in David Katz’s fantastic ‘Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae,” the band forms gradually over several years in the late 1970s, with members coming and going. However by the early 1980s the Radics are a well-oiled machine. It’s sole purpose? Translating the sounds that filled Holt’s head into “kill shots” – riddims so hard, so heavy, so danceable that even the hardest rudie a yard might bob his head to it.
March 13, 2013. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in northwest Washington, DC staring at my cellular phone. My earlier call to Holt’s manager left things up in the air.
“Yeah, I’ll call you around 5 p.m. Maybe you can come do the interview at soundcheck.”
5 p.m. Nothing… 5:30 p.m. Nothing… 5:45 p.m. Nothing… It’s not going to happen. No worries. This stuff is commonplace. I once waited in a closet-turned-dressing room for 3 hours to interview Family Man only to be told in the end that he was not doing the interview. So this is nothing. So what, it’s not going to happen. I don’t care, I’ll just go to the show.
Who am I kidding? I want this interview! I need this interview! While all the local press cats were scrambling to confirm interviews with Skelly and Wiss, I wanted Flabba from the start. He’s the story.
My cellular phone buzzes…
“Where are you at,” a voice breaks up on the other end.
“Be here in 5 minutes. He’s ready to do this.”
Flabba’s hotel room is something to behold. I sit in a chair near the foot of the bed. A slimmed down and shirtless Flabba Holt tends to his chicken and rice, which is simmering in a hot pot located on the hotel desk. He looks at the food in the pot. He then looks at me. I sit, nervously waiting for someone to break the tension in the room. Flabba laughs and reaches out to shake my hand.
“Yeah boss we dweet now. You hungry? Need water. You are my guest.”
Feeling unworthy to be interviewing a musician of Flabba’s stature, I start.
“So you guys have been on tour with Israel Vibration for several weeks now. When does the tour wrap up?”
“Tomorrow is the last show, at BB Kings in NYC.”
“BB Kings? That’s where you played last year, the Curse of the Vampires show with Scientist (Dub Champions Festival 2012). How was that?”
“Oh boss, wicked, wicked show you know.”
“How did that show come together?”
“We were doing a gig in Central Park with Israel Vibration, big show. So dis guy he come and say Scientist want do the show with Johnny Osbourne. So I say sure if you can get Scientist we want to do tour with Scientist for long time. De people dem really want us to do a tour with Scientist.”
August 2012. I am in the middle of a somewhat testy interview with the legendary Hopeton Overton Brown AKA Scientist, who manages within the first 0:45 seconds of the call to throw me off my game by answering each question with one word answers and insulting my knowledge of reggae.
“So, in your opinion, while the Israel Vibration albums recorded in Jamaica in the late seventies, and those recorded in the U.S. in the late eighties and nineties have a distinctly different sound, you can’t really say that one is better than the other, it is a matter of opinion and taste. Your thoughts?”
“What you want to ask me?” he replies.
“What are your thoughts on that?” I answer, somewhat bewildered.
“The albums. They sound different.” I’m struggling now. What did I get myself into?
“Quit wasting my time friend. What you are asking me is which sound is better. You wouldn’t know because you don’t know those seventies records” he explains condescendingly.
“No, I do know them. I have them both for many years. Maybe 15 years I’ve been listening to those records.” I stumble over my own explanation.
“Then you would know that there is no comparison. The Jamaican ones are far superior. It is not opinion or taste. It is indisputable fact. I can show you the discography. It does not lie.”
My cell phone starts vibrating. I need to get out of this nightmare. I look at the text. It’s emch from Subatomic Sound System, a righteous dub and dubstep DJ I met and interviewed when he was supporting Lee “Scratch” Perry on his last US tour.
“Mista Watson, I need to track down Flabba Holt. Just spoke with Scientist few minutes ago. Vampires is a go” says emch in that…emch style.
The coincidence is eerie. What is happening?
I bumble and stumble through an hour-long interview with Scientist and by the end we start to vibe quite well, both of us chuckling at one point about how uncomfortable the interview had gotten.
It is during this time that I get the opportunity to interview Cecil “Skelly” Spence about Israel Vibration’s work with the great Jim Fox of Lion and Fox Recording Studios in College Park, MD for a 3-part story. For those who have been living in a cave for the past 20 years, Fox, another dub reggae innovator, has engineered and produced a laundry list of modern roots classics right in Washington, DC. Think Don Carlos, Israel Vibration, Roots Radics, Dean Frazier, SOJA, and Groundation just to name a few.
During the interview Skelly tells me that he is excited about a show they will be playing in Central Park, NYC just a few days later. It hits me. emch!
Flabba stirs his chicken and rice. He’s thinking about something.
“So lemme tell u likkle story now boss. We were in the studio long time back – Junjo’s studio. It was the usual bredren ya know, we was working on some ting fi Junjo. There is a large glass window, almost like dis one deh (he points to the floor-to-ceiling window on the far side of his hotel room). Every day me a see dis likkle youth, him a bafrefoot and dirty likkle youth. He don’t go to nobody. Me a catch him look pon us play in de studio day after day. One day I give him some money and gone! Him disappear. But then every time we record in de studio de youth him a come out.”
“So we rehearse inna de studio one day and I say ‘take a break!’ I hear bang bang bang pon de studio door.”
“De likkle youth him want to play on the piano!”
“So I say to him ‘let me see a play a tune.’ When him play de keys something lick me! Si say to de youth “play another tune for me.”
“So him come wit dis” says Flabba nodding his head as he starts to sing “Some call it Spanish Town, ah Prison Oval Rock.”
“So I say to de group ‘let de youth play on one track, see what he made of!’”
“Winston Wright he went crazy and him say ‘no, no, no, no him cyan’ play on any tune.’”
“Winston him get very mad ya know. So I threw down me bass and closed de session because dem cyan’ let the youth him play on even one track, one riddim. So I walk all up and down Maxfield Avenue and go back to de studio and dem was still vex! From that day on I stood for dat likkle youth.”
And it’s a good thing he did. That “likkle” youth, born Wycliffe Johnson, went by the nick name “Steelie” and was one of the greatest musical minds ever to come from the island. Best known for his role in the team Steely & Clevie, he was equally influential in his early work as a keyboardist along with the Roots Radics, and helped to transform reggae at several stages, from roots to dancehall to digital.
An expert keyboardist who also worked with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, Steelie worked at seminal Jamaican recording studios like Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, Lee (Scratch) Perry’s Black Ark and Sugar Minott’s Youth Promotion. By some estimates he participated in more sessions than anyone else in the history of reggae.
“You see because in Jamaica seen, it a go like dis. Say you and me we play fi Junjo. Me bass and you keyboard. We permanent now! We play permanent fi Junjo! So any other bass or keyboard man come fi play we nah let dem eat. We eat it all up! You see?”
“So the day Steely sit down in dat chair, me neva work with Winston Wright again.”
This story is an impactful one, so impactful in fact that Flabba may not even comprehend the importance of that moment in the evolution of reggae. In those days, it was almost impossible to break in to the ruff and tumble Jamaican record business. In many ways, the business was an opportunity to escape the oppresive poverty of the Kingston ghettos and it seemed like every youth was searching for a way in. The fact that there were only a handful of studios on the island made the odds almost an impossibility. Flabba decided to take a stand for likkle Steely Johnson that day at Channel One, and the rest, as they say, is history. For Steely would go on to produce riddims behind Hugh Mundell’s “Africa Must Be Free By 1983,” Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse,” Foxy Brown’s “Sorry,” Shabba Ranks “Ting A Ling,” Dawn Penn’s “No, No, No,” and countless other landmark riddims.
“So it was likkle while later we was on tour with Bunny Wailer somewhere here in de States. Steelie neva know Bunny Wailer, or how him act. Gil Scott Heron opened for Bunny Wailer it was nice place, maybe NYC. Well, during the show Bunny Wailer blow up de whole ting because him vex about some ting. It was embarrassing. That’s the night Steelie tell me he go do his ting with a youth name of Clevie.”
“And the rest is history” I interject, waiting for a response.
But there is none. Flabba looks out the window and down onto Connecticut Avenue. The sun is starting to set and the street is a blaze orange.
This bothers him. Steelie and Clevie of course bring about a digital revolution in reggae, where drum machines and programmed beats have favor over players and instruments. Tragically, he passes away in 2008 from pneumonia he contracted in the hospital while recovering from kidney complications associated with diabetes.
“When I came on the scene people fight me now boss. I never play off of Family Man nor Robbie Shakespeare. I do it on me alone. It was me discover the talent youth now. Eek-A-Mouse, Michael Prophet, Barrington Levy – them youth can sing nice ya know but back when we bring dem on dey don’t know how to bridge it. I haffe teach dem vocally how dis music supposed to sound. I try show dem and dem youth dem eye me ya know. De people don’t know how much I change de sound of dis music. Jah Thomas anotha one. GG Records (Alvin Ranglin’s label) hold audition every Monday and Jah Thomas came to audition. I change his whole sound.”
“Me Pick up a sound,
And me hit down a sound,
And me bump on my tambourine”
He sings to impersonate the old sound of Jah Thomas.
“Me buss him. Sound brand new.”
“Johnny Clarke him too.”
“Everyday you’re wonderin’, wonderin’
What will you do”
He sings to the melody.
“None shall escape the judgement in this time!”
“Me change the sound of those songs all de way. Me buss it.”
“During a time in de 80s all you here everywhere in Jamaica is ‘Chill out, chill out, chill out New Yawk,’” he sings the famous chorus from Black Uhuru’s smash hit single.
“When Gregory (Isaacs) come now, we go in mix the Night Nurse album at Compass Point (Island’s recording studio in Nassau, Bahamas). Him don’t know what to do now.”
“What kind of vibe to you and Gregory have in the studio?” I ask.
“Me, I advise Gregory Isaacs on the vocal. Because me myself I am a singer, and I know Gregory’s voice and what it supposed to sound like all over de track. So I advise him. Gregory know I can sing. Remember his song ‘Number One?’ I sing all harmony on that song. Nuff people don’t know that. I don’t talk that ting.”
“But anyway, we going along and most of de riddims and voice was finish.”
By all accounts, most if not all of the riddim tracks were laid down by the Radics at Tuff Gong Studios, Kingston, Jamaica. It is not clear to me, based on my research and conversation with Holt, whether the tracks were voiced at Tuff Gong or at Compass Point.
“So we are at Compass Point for the session and I thought Gregory was going to stay in Nassau to mix the album. You know what he did to me? One day him say ‘Bassa,’ him call me Bassa, him say ‘Bassa you know what to do.’”
His brow furrows af if perplexed.
“I don’t know what to do! So him leave me there at Compass Point all alone to do the record. It make me worried cuz I nah want to see this record flop. So it was just me and Badarou left to mix the album.”
Wally Badarou was the keyboardist for British pop/rock/jazz/funk fusion band Level 42. Isaacs and Holt go to Compass Point in 1982 in order to the mix the album. However, Mango has made a decision, unbeknownst to Isaacs, that will change the trajectory of his “lonely Lover” sound and vibe going forward. With a crossover hit in their sights, Mango brings in Badarou to play a more funky-sounding synthesizer, called the “Prophet-5” synthesizer, which adds a whole new element to Gregory’s sound. There were very few musicians at the time who could play the Prophet-5, and Badarou was one of the best. With newly developed technology called “patch memory” – which allows the player to quickly recall sounds – an unequaled five-voice polyphony, and an organic analog sound, the Prophet-5 is the “king of kings” among synthesizers in 1982.
Flabba then proceeds to do something that I don’t think I will ever forget. I am seated in a chair that he fixed for me at the foot of the bed. He grabs the chair away from the hotel room desk and pulls it right up next to me and he begins to play this Prophet-5 synthesizer, striking the bed hard with his fingers and imitating the notes with his voice.
“Bah, bah, bah, baaaaahhh. Hear it? Bah, bah, bah, baaaaahh.”
I sit in amazement as he begins to show me how he constructed one of the most legendary reggae songs of my generation. He strikes the bed again like some sort of crazed black Mozart…and he is feeling it. He grabs my left arm and begins to play that bassline – that bassline that pumped through my $25.00 Kenwood speakers in my 1981 Toyota pickup for so many years, the speakers crackling and popping from the punishment Flabba dealt them. Back to synth, then drum, back to left-arm bass guitar. It is nothing short of astounding. He is in a zone. Maybe a higher plane. But definitely not on the same one as me. Only an hour ago I sat in a dingy DC coffee shop thinking about the opportunity I had missed. Now I sit in Flabba Holts’s hotel room just a few blocks north watching the master at work.
He stops suddenly, jumping up as if the show was over.
“Sunday night we mix the album. Evry’ting. One done.”
He wipes his hands away as if to say ‘it was nuttin’ deh boss.’
“Chris Blackwell come to de studio in de morning him seh ‘Flabba you done?’” He laughs.
“Yea mon, me done.”
“But the whole album must be mixed. You can’t done.” Flabba impersonates Blackwell.
“Come now I show you me done! I mix de LP last night. It done.” Flabba shakes his head laughing, enjoying every second of his own story.
“Okay now boss, mus’ ready fi di show.”
And like that, he is done. His one-man show plays for one-night only, and I am the only one lucky enough to witness it.
Flabba grabs his back pack, picks up his bass, and walks away down the hallway. As I watch the living legend disappear around the corner, I glance down at my right hand and press “STOP” on the recorder.
To read more from the Midnight Raver, please visit http://midnightraverblog.com.
IN STORES NOW!
Many thanks to Jim Fox of Lion & Fox Recording Studios and Dave Pansegrouw from the Flabba Holt camp for making this thing happen! Most of all, a special thanks to Errol “Flabba” Holt for allowing me to tell this story. ‘Nuff Respect boss!
The Roots Radics will be back in the U.S. in October 2013 to headline Subatomic Sound System’s Dub Champions Festival in New York City. They are currently looking for bookings in the US and around the world.
For more information on releases and tour dates, please visit the Roots Radics at http://rootsradicshq.blogspot.com.