Jazzie B took his sound to the world
Born into a family of soundmen, Beresford Romeo, aka Jazzie B, took the Jamaican sound system traditions he’d inherited and updated the formula for a new British-born generation. Gone was the strict diet of righteous reggae, replaced by an eclectic soul stew. And instead of turning their backs to the crowd like the dub selectors of old, he and his crew faced their dancers in a symbolic move of inclusion. In 1982 a name change took the sound from its Rasta roots of ‘Jah Rico’ to become Soul II Soul. Under this banner, Jazzie and his self-styled ‘funki dreds’ built a forward-facing collective that pulled together the best energies of the London melting pot. After providing sound for the emerging warehouse scene, Soul II Soul became a rare groove staple themselves. Their landmark Sunday nights from 1986-89 in Covent Garden’s Africa Centre are remembered as having the wildness of the house raves they prefigured, perfectly embodying the Soul II Soul motto: ‘A smilin’ face and a pumpin’ bass for a lovin’ race’. When Rose Windross grabbed the mic from the dancefloor, her vocal track ‘Fairplay’ opened Soul II Soul’s recording career, and a series of club hits followed, including a UK number one with ‘Back to Life’. This crystallised their loping, dub-inflected soul and took the sound of black Britishness to the world, picking up a couple of Grammy’s along the way. Jazzie was awarded an OBE in 2008, but he’s always insisted that the greatest accolade was earning his sound system stripes on Jamaican Soil. We met him in the offices under Phonica Records where he told us all these great stories and more.
interviewed by Bill and Frank in London, 2.2.05
You’re from a big family aren’t you?
Where do you fit?
I’m the last boy. Got a younger sister but I’m the youngest male feature of the family. Yeah, five big brothers. All of them in one shape or form sound system owners. The next brother to me, he looks after the rig, which is humungous now. He rents out the systems all over. We’ve got a rig in the Caribbean as well as a huge rig here.
So you were born into it.
My eldest brother Johnson, he played on a sound system during the ’60s and my other brother during the ’70s, then another two late ’70s, early ’80s, and then my other brother ain’t into it that much. He’s more like a follower.
And were they playing ska, rocksteady, reggae?
It would have been from the time of rocksteady to what was known politely as rockers.
What are the names of the systems?
Count Barry, Morpheus, El Rico and Tipper Toe. My other brother who got me into more the R&B end of stuff, he was a red beret, a paratrooper. Quite hard. And he got me into all the James Brown stuff cos he was stationed in Germany. My eldest brother got me into Isaac Hayes, Marlena Shaw and all that, the Al Green era, Curtis Mayfield. Then it went to the whole Polydor stuff, and Fred Wesley and what we know now as rare groove, all the way through to Alfonse Mouzon and all that jazzier stuff. Then there was a huge leap when it went to Earth Wind and Fire, and soul music, which would have been coming out during secondary school, about the time we were listening to David Bowie. Not that I was a Bowie boy, but he was alright for a minute. Ziggy Stardust.
So as well as the sound system thing, did you experience the soul clubs in the West End?
Hundred per cent. The main person we all followed who was obviously cutting edge was George Power. Everyone, all the black guys who were real on the scene, going to Crackers and Heaven when it was Global Village. We were all into that scene. Then you had the East London mob: Froggy, Robbie Vincent, Chris Hill, Steve Walsh. But the main people were between George Power and Greg Edwards, for us. And then it moved on and you had that kind of handbaggy scene for a while, where you used to go to Lacey’s [Lacey Lady in Ilford], and it was Chris Hill and Steve Walsh. These guys were pioneering that music into the mainstream because they were the ears of the A&R people. That’s when I was more mixing with the white kids in my area, who were more into the music from a commercial point of view. We weren’t necessarily into the Motown sound, we were beyond that.
What was Crackers like?
That was Oxford Street, that was when we used to bunk off school. Crackers was more about dancing, it wasn’t to do with girls really. For us it was just purely about the music, getting that early music before anybody else.
With famous dancers like Horace and Pete Francis, it was a big dancing place.
It was mainly for dancers, which is why I conclude it was an anorak scene, because it wasn’t where you came to meet people; it was where they came to burn. On a Friday lunchtime. Which was a bit weird, but then later on I found out that a lot of these guys were a lot older than we were. So a lot of them probably didn’t have a job or didn’t have nothing to do, and that’s why they were in there. And that’s why they were good dancers ’cos that’s all they fucking did all day.
Did it go through to the evening?
No it was just a lunchtime session. Finished 4, 5 o’clock I think. Then we used to go across the road to 100 Club. One of my brother’s girlfriends used to work on the door there, so that’s how we always got in. I left school ’79, so this is ’70s. In that time there was George Power running his little thing, which was more school discos. He used to live at the bottom of my road. He was a very strange guy. Quite hard and a little bit militant. But very cutting edge, and he was very into that whole black thing, the whole black scene. And the only affiliation we could give him was because he was Greek.
And he was gay as well.
Yeah, but at that time none of us knew. If you go back and look at that scene now. The dancers were really hard blokes in their area. Then you look at the pictures and they’re so camp, some of the things they wore. And some of those geezers did major bird [prison]. He used to go mad sometimes, George. That’s why I said he was a strange guy, ’cos you didn’t know how to take him. He used to surround himself with butch looking black women. Always women you’d never fuck with on the door. He just had it sussed, he was in the community. He didn’t care whether he was liked or disliked, he had it down pat. And I’ve got to salute him, because he wasn’t a million miles away from a lot of the reggae guys who were running the scene at that time. George had it sorted. He had the hardest geezers around him, he had the hardest looking women, and at the end of the day no matter what you did you wouldn’t mess about with the scene.
We grew up, kids from a very Caribbean background, and it was very bad in our day. You was either reggae or soul. There weren’t no in between. And that was the difference with what we did as Soul II Soul. We loved both.
Before that for me there was Emperor Roscoe. He played at Ally Pally [Alexandra Palace], a commercial DJ, a bit like Tony Blackburn, but he played with other sound systems.One time there was a big clash on a Sunday and it was Emperor Roscoe vs Fatman, who was the local north London [reggae] sound. Emperor Roscoe was this big DJ who’d drink all this gear and hide it under the decks.
In a soundclash?
This is gossamer, man. A few people I’ve spoken to in the game they know, they were there. Lloyd Bradley he knows about it, cos he was a sound man as well. And I’ve told this story a million times. We used to skate on wooden wheels at Ally Pally, and that was the whole thing on a Sunday, it was packed. And one time Roscoe was in there, he had all these orange speakers. Froggy used to use the same rig. Fatman comes in with his trailer load of amps and speakers, this table, valves and KT88s everywhere. But his sound, for whatever reason, they didn’t fire, and Roscoe just had everyone going. I can remember being a nipper in amongst all that, just thinking, wow I like the size of those speakers.
And then your eldest brother got into sound systems
No, this is the next one down.
What’s his name?
Romeo. We’re all Romeo: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. So Romeo 4, he had the big sound system, called El Rico, which was a rockers sound. Kind of Derrick Harriott, Jamaican lovers rock sound. They turned into a roots sound later on called Tipper Toe, but in his heyday that’s what they were called. I learnt a lot from being around those guys: carrying the boxes, being pinched in the back of the Transit, surfing on the top of the gear, and that’s how I got into a deeper shade of the whole music business. All these sounds were community sound systems, which is what inspired me to make my sound the biggest in the world. That was my premise of everything I did.
There were some sounds that transcended their neighbourhoods.
Yeah, if you say Shaka, even Fat Man, Coxsone, Marcus Downbeat, a few of those guys in that era. But no-one who transcended the world as it were. They had their affiliations with the Jamaicans, but as far as I know none of them went and played in Jamaica, which was the main thing we wanted to do. And ended up doing. And the rest is history. Forget all the Grammys and that, that’s nonsense. Playing my sound in Jamaica was the biggest thing I ever did. And that was it. So I kind of lived the dream… and scored at Wembley as well. Twice. It’s all over so what do you do next. Last night a DJ saved my life, yeah.
So did you hijack your brother’s sound?
We started off with an H&H amp, a little echo chamber, BSR turntable…
One or two?
Our first paying gig was the Silver Jubilee, ’77 and I had one BSR turntable, still got the amplifier, I think Count Barry gave me the amp case, borrowed all the bits off there. I got into the double deck when I built it as my thesis for woodwork. Everyone else built a chair and a table and that lark, so I built me amps, and I got through. I did physics and engineering, built an amp case out of wood but it was encased in metal, the lights, Tuac module [amp] from Edgware Rd. I always wanted those Technics; ended up putting some BSR decks in there, then got a set of Garrards, and that was it. From Silver Jubilee we were called Jah Rico.
What sort of stuff were you playing?
Pretty much a cross section. Mainly reggae, ’cos he was an avid fan of Tapper Zukie, that one-drop rockers style stuff. Very soulful, taking a little bit off El Rico which were playing Derrick Harriott, Augustus Pablo kind of music, very melodic. And because I was partial to a bit of funk, which is what came from raving lunchtimes. That’s how I got my name Jazzie B. In school we were all trying to learn about Rastafarianism, but I was just into this jazz music, cos it had a little edge to it, and that’s how I got the name Jazzie. It built from there.
Was it really that unusual to drop soul and funk in with the reggae?
Yeah, cos it was awfully segregated. In them days…
Cleveland Anderson said if you were hanging out in soul clubs you would get a lot of ‘batty boy’ comments.
If you close your eyes and look back at what the guys were doing – actual physical moves with one another. To us that was alien. If you’ve got no inhibitions and you’re just into dancing and burning, it’s all about how fluid you were, the tone of your muscles. You wouldn’t have had any inkling of the feminine attributes, towards being homosexual, or heterosexual, it was just about this physical movement.
And the soul boy look was very different
When you broke it down it was very territorial. It was a case of fucking hell, you’re over there wearing that t-shirt, when look, we wear Pringle! Like soul music, having Jheri curls, you were daring to be ‘European’, as opposed to showing your blackness, and that was the difference.
A hang over from the whole politicised Rasta thing.
The biggest dilemma you had was what we used to call sticksmen, which was the Farah slacks, the Gabicci look, beavers, the moccasins, stuff like that.
Kind of post-mod.
Post-mod but very slick. The whole Jamaican ’70s scene, it was in there in a nutshell. Whereas the soul boys were very American, and a little bit more feminine. But the guys who were in it were as hard as nails. There was a few comments about gay at that time, because some of the white guys that were in it were quite camp, but you never thought about it. Because your brother went there you thought it was cool. There was just this difference of the generations.
Cleveland said that around the late ’70s early ’80s because of the moodiness on the reggae scene, a lot of black kids started moving into the soul scene.
We moved out of that radical scene when it became lovers rock. When the British started to make their own music. And that encompassed soul. It was that whole idea of the clothes you wore, how you carried yourself, and again it was keeping it ‘uptown’. There were girls at those parties, where there were never girls at these things before.
At the reggae dances?
Well the ones that were there you wouldn’t bring ’em home. The reggae girls were as hard as nails, I’m tellin’ you. Stand on their foot and you’d be into getting stabbed up… And that was by them, not their boyfriend. But the lovers rock scene, it brought that calmness and lovingness back into it again. Plus it was an English style of music, and the real hard reggae boys couldn’t stand it, because it wasn’t Jamaican.
We were just about coming up with our own identity, which was the interesting thing. And the idea of the softening up or the soullier side, and the idea that people could go to the clubs and enjoy themselves… That was interesting because that went through an amazing transition.
The more established clubs had pretty racist door policies.
I can remember travelling to lots of places to try and listen to Robbie Vincent. You went to deepest parts of east London and there’d be literally four black guys in there, and that was the quota. You weren’t allowed any more than four or five black guys in there, because everyone else was moaning that they were nicking the girls… and… whatever the situation was, it just got really silly. Our generation really rebelled against that. After you’d been trashed with ‘No you can’t get in…’ and a hand in your face from this exclusive soul scene, it was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is our fucking music!’ So we appreciated what George Power was doing. When we was able to encompass our own thing. He made it our own. He gave us a sense of our own belief.
Did it feel like a search for a new identity, a second generation thing? Creating what it means to be black and British. Were you conscious of that?
Alright, let’s look at Norman Jay ’cos everybody knows him. Norman stood for what he was for his generation. Norman was much more on the white scene, battling away with Good Times [Norman’s sound system] and his brother Joey, he was Great Tribulations, and that was a reggae sound. So how’s that work? It’s like, confused? Great Tribulations, Good Times, GT. It works, we didn’t even have to change the name.
You’ve got to go way back to that whole northern soul, Lulu era to understand… I’m talking black and white tellies. You go from that era to to where we come in, Granada [TV] was born, it was colour. It’s like fuck me, here we are… We’re coming from the times when there was one phone on the street, or one person had a telly, that was Norman’s day, to our bit, where it was the GLC and ska was huge, the 2-Tone thing was out… They had the relief teachers in school that everyone was shagging ’cos they was the same age as you, everyone was wearing Kickers, it was all about that branding. We’d just come out of Ben Sherman, now we were into being a bit smarter. We had royalty, we had… George Power for Christ’s sake! And George helped to perpetuate the scene on a level that no one else did. I don’t even think it was conscious, it was just what he was into at that time.
Tell us about Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson. He started as a dancer at Crackers.
And then moved to warming up. He was held in high esteem ’cos he could do everything. He could roller-skate, he could dance, and he could play music, and he was just normal, one of the lads. Did a bit of kung fu, he was really in wicked shape, and he was running the wheels of steel. He was up there. We all aspired to that. He probably inspired me the most, because he was in my grasp. I could see him, I could touch him, I could talk to him.
Was it significant that he was the first black DJ that was playing soul to a black crowd?
Without a doubt. people talk about [Derek] Boland, couple of the others, with all due respect to even Norman [Jay], but the difference between Trouble and everybody else Paul was in the ghetto, he was in the black scene, whereas the others were trying to get out of the black scene. Paul was ours because he was from the George Power scene. Paul was part of that and Paul gave us hope,
Wasn’t he from a children’s home as well?
Yeah, all of that. A lot of the kids who could go out all the time, a lot of them were from broken homes or foster children or whatever.
Was anyone playing soul on the sound systems?
This guy Winston Silcott [known nationally for being wrongfully convicted for the 1985 murder of a policeman] would bring in a sound into a house and run a soul blues. He used to have a sound called Galaxy Soul Shuttle, from Haringey and Paul used to play all the blues [parties] there. So here was soul music that had depth. Finally I can relate to this. Double 18s [speakers], all that lot, moved away from the little pub DJ style of talking on the mic, cos that used to really get on my tits.
And Britain was starting to make its own black music
When you came up in the ’70s, as opposed to the guys that came up in the ’60s, there was a huge difference. Because finally you see the light, as it were. You had this surge of lovers rock, which was actually an English style of music. So there was this distinction. Electro came out, America seemed much closer than it was in the ’70s. The whole rare groove thing came into vogue, because the syncopation was the same as this new electronic music.
And then someone bumped their head and decided to read the credits on Loose Ends records, and realised that they weren’t American, they were British. And Eddy Grant and the Equals, to Lynx, to I-Level, to Beggars Banquet… Fuck, there were millions. Hi-Tension, all the other things. It was an interesting point. So often the wool was pulled over your eyes, what it meant, the whole idea about inclusive or exclusive, the whole idea about different genres of music and why they were always compartmentalised.
They were still really aping American things. That’s the difference.
Then you come down to the suburbs with people like us, and Trevor and even Boland and those guys, that was more real. ’Cos then we were striving to get our own identity and get recognised.
So when did Soul II Soul as a sound start?
1982, We changed the name in ‘82. Dougie’s Hideaway on a Thursday night. All the birds free. In Junction Road, Archway, near the Boston Arms. It was at the back of these flats. Velvet wallpaper, red carpet.
No it was really like a blues place. They used to call it 21s.
An old working men’s club?
It really was. It was so naff. And we went in there with silly string and streamers and everything, and he made us stay until 5 o’clock in the morning cleaning it all up. Busiest night the geezer ever had, in all the days he was there, but he got pissed off cos there was all this silly string there.
Who was the crowd?
It was all school, all our mates. We’d get away with murder in there, ’cos Dougie was never around till the end of the night to assess the damage. It all went off from there. We used to do the community centres, hire a place out ourselves, come out at christenings and wedding receptions, started to earn proper money, and we put every single shilling back into the sound system, which is why we were so huge. Cos we did have a lot of equipment. We used to go to this place, Luton Sound and Light, buy all professional gear. When people saw all our stuff coming in they couldn’t believe it. Six stacks, hexagon stacks.
Did you have any formal training in sound?
Something I didn’t give up before: I studied sound engineering, sound reproduction. I used to work for Tannoy, bit of a cheat. And another company, huge in them days, called Theatre Projects, we did installations everywhere from Camden Palace to those big clubs up in Richmond. Then I worked for [British ’50s star] Tommy Steele for a few years, was Richard Dodd’s assistant [head engineer at Nova Studios], and learnt a lot about sound reproduction there. That’s when I did Central Line. Ron Carter used to book the studio. Did all of Ronnie Bond’s stuff in there, all the jingles, greatest musicians, I ended up working with the Blues band, Kevin Peak and Sky.
At that time there used to be me and a guy called himself Prince Charles. I worked at Nova and he worked at Pye studios. And we were the only two geezers [ie black]. At that time they used to call us spooks. Used to rub your hair for luck: ‘Get in there son.’ But that’s what they used to do, the session musicians as they were coming in the booth. And then you had to clean up all the spit from the horns, all the gear. He went on to work for Prince in Minneapolis, and I went on and done Soul II Soul.
This is at the same time as you’re running your sound?
Yeah, all throughout that time.
Yeah, the best. Cutting acetates, that’s when I had the big laugh, cos everyone, all the big sound systems used to go down there, and the Townhouse Studios for the cutting rooms. In those days it was Thomas Dolby, I worked under him. I went through all that, cutting the acetates with the guys in the white coats, having a laugh at all the darkies who come in to cut their dubs on a Friday. They’d spend mountains of money, say, ‘Turn up the bass. Turn up the bass!’ And they used to use this term, ‘Cut it flat.’ Speak to a Jamaican, that means like you have the treble and tops. Now when you speak to a technician, ‘flat’ is at zero. They used to take the piss up there.
Was the warehouse party scene growing at this time?
There was Bazooka Joes, under the Westway. And Club Titanics in Berkeley Square. That must have been the first time I ever went into a warehouse. A building like this [industrial basement], with movies showing at one half, disco lights at the other half. The DJ in the middle in a boxing ring. First time I seen two chicks DJing. Blew me mind.
When was that?
I want to say ’82 but it had to be about ’83, ’84. Incredible, the scene was off the hook. Proper scene, proper New York, it was all American, it was all fashion.
Who was pulling that together then?
Can’t even remember. I just remember that it was Club Titanics. Don’t even ask me cos I stumbled on it.
What was the first warehouse party you played?
We done this thing called Serious Shit which was a string of parties we used to do. And we ended up using all the function rooms and they were getting smaller, so some guy goes ‘I’m an estate agent, I know what you need.’ Really cool Jewish guy, got all the keys, we went round all these massive warehouses, oh my god you could have a football game in here. Anyway, we found this warehouse in Curtain road and he just gave us the key. No shit.
He didn’t want any money?
He just wanted to be with us. He gave us the keys. We got in, there was no electricity, but no problem ’cos our bloke was a sparks. Got on the lamp-post, got one of them big fuses, connected it up, ran the wires back in and bosh, we were off mate. We needed someone to man it, because if the old bill or neighbours saw a bunch of black guys coming out… So this Jewish guy came in a fucking whistle [suit]. Had a tie on, fucking brogues, at the gate. Everyone thought he was the old bill. Nah he’s our mate. Anyway, the police turned up and he just larged it. He had a spliff in his pocket, saying [super posh accent] ‘Well daddy’s away and…’ And that was how the whole thing began for us. The parties at Curtain Road they were mainly rockabilly fashion parties. Donkey jackets, all that. It was fashion people, had nothing to do with the music.
i-D had their offices down there.
This was between Great Eastern street and Curtain road and the first one I remember they hired the sound system but they weren’t playing nothing on it. You couldn’t even hear the music. Just people milling around, people having sex and doing drugs as far as I could see, It was like Sodom and Gomorrah so none of the other lads would stay around. The fashion people liked the aesthetics of the big cabinets and the whole Jamaican look, but it was just décor for them. They paid about 100 quid for the system. They didn’t use it. It was a fashion victims’ party, nothing to do with the music, just the aesthetics of the equipment, filled with completely middle class people off their nut. They had projectors and so forth, but it wasn’t a rave, it was just the surroundings, a mood they were trying to create.
But one night we set up. It must have been my turn to set up the stuff, and in them days we used to play about three different dances a night. I think the guy’s name was Terry, he was supposed to turn up. Didn’t turn up, so I went home got my records. Started to play. And that’s how the whole thing was born. I DJed at one of these things and I played mainly electro. Man Parrish and a few boogie down Bronx tunes. Everyone started to vibe up and then I got into a bit of this, that and the other, and it took off from there. Got into playing there, I used to do them twice a month. I think my brother came down once ‘What the fuck’s going on here? Get the beer out.’ ‘Ain’t got no beers.’ ‘Fuck that!’ He went home, came back with beers in a van. A pound. These guys were like ‘I’ll have four.’ And that was it. Thatcherism was invented for us.
What year is this?
Probably coming on to ’84 now.
Judge Jules and Norman Jay were starting the Shake n Fingerpop warehouse parties around that time weren’t they?
We were doing it as Serious Shit. At that time they weren’t called Shake n Fingerpop and Good Times. Those first parties with us it was Family Funktion.
And that’s all of you.
Yeah, and it went on from there. And Jules wanted to be the DJ. I’ve got pictures of Jules in a top hat and everything looking really weird. But the coolest thing was his heart was in it. He didn’t care about whatever you said, wherever he got the opportunity to spin the records he would. And then they got clever and connected the whole thing. I don’t really know how they hooked up together with Norman. But that’s how the whole thing started.
Were you putting all of your sounds together?
In those days somebody got the warehouse, the other guys got the drinks, we had the sound system, ’cos it was a really big sound system. Prior to that, building up to what was happening in London, we used to play resident in Bristol, with my cousins, so that’s how the connection with us and the Wild Bunch came about. It all connected, cos even Nutrament, who was the instigator of it all, who was this b-boy from America, he instigated the whole b-boy scene.
We were deemed to be b-boys, before we were funki dreds, but we didn’t want it to be an American thing. We had the affiliation with Rasta, which was why we called ourselves the funki dreds. The dates are messed up, but all of these things led to the warehouse parties which led to the integration of the art and the artform, which linked all of these people together,
And the biggest mass of all that was the legendary nights at the Africa Centre, which was totally the opposite of everything. ‘Cos everything was warehouse in them days and it was getting all dirty, getting silly and all the villains got involved, and that made it ugly because they didn’t care about anything. Believe it or not, we weren’t doing any of it for the money; it was all about having the biggest sound system in the world. There was a time when we played out so much that there wasn’t enough of us. We literally split the records in half as well as the sound, ’cos we wanted to play out seven nights a week and have a name in all the territories, west London, north London, east London.
Like a dog cocking his leg on a tree?
Yeah. You’re fighting for supremacy. You’re an alpha male, you know. Even Tim Westwood before he was known on that circuit as a pirate, as he still is, he was playing with us in east London at the Uppercut Stadium. The geezers were trying to pull him off the stage, they were trying to kill him. He used to come in and say some wild shit. Which wasn’t cool…
What were the best parties?
Had to be the warehouse ones, and not being funny, on a weekly basis it had to be the Africa Centre, cos the weirdest things happened in there.
Did you have records out by then?
No. That’s when the companies started to see us. We had the shops, all our clothes were just coming out. A lot of the drum and bass pioneers came from that scene. A lot of them were the South London gangsters who used to come and smash up your do’s. And after the Africa Centre a lot of them turned into DJs to legitimise themselves. You wouldn’t believe it to see the harmoniousness of it, but behind the scenes, big gangsters. Cos they were trying to turn us over, all the time.
We totally broke the mould. When we came uptown we brought everyone with us. And no-one could believe it. That part of London, from Shaftesbury Avenue, all the way back to behind the old bill station in Covent Garden, was lockdown. You couldn’t even move. We’d have queues starting at 7, 8 o’clock. Didn’t open the doors until 10. It was mad. Everyone was waiting for me to pull up. I would come in, turn the heating up, leave it on for an hour, close the windows, put the drapes up. Are there 400 people out there yet? We used to keep it empty, just play the sound, just ourselves, just tuning the sound, for hours, empty, bouncers going mad. They were all mates, all working for my brother, going off their nut, and I wouldn’t open the door. Until there was that moment where you could smell the atmosphere. And when you opened the door people were so hungry to get in it reminded me of Crackers.
It reminded me of all of those things, standing up waiting, running after Robbie Vincent, just to say hello. And he’d never look back. When the bouncers used to turf me and Aitch out all the time. No matter what place we went to they’d never let us in. We used all those extreme elements to build the Africa Centre. Everything was totally about that Sunday night.
And then when the old bill tried to chuck us out of there, that’s where the song ‘Keep On Moving’ came from. That was the whole idea of that song. It was one of the busiest nights ever and the old bill literally said ‘We’ll be back for you.’ They came back with a warrant and everything. Couldn’t find anything. Then they tried to slap a thing on the church, and it turns out the Africa Centre is a church building handed over by Christian Aid to the African refugees. So there was this legal thing… They came down there heavy handed and on the door it said ‘members only’. They fucking couldn’t believe it.
What was their actual problem?
They made up all lies. There weren’t no problem. It was just this club was having it off on a Sunday, every week. They’d make out there was a disturbance in the area. It was Westminster, you could never argue. They used to follow the boys home. Made up there’d been disturbances on the night bus. Then they got the little junkies down there doing silly little things. And that’s when you knew the spirit of the community was with you, because our guys used to patrol the area: just clubbers! Patrolling the area, making sure it’s cool.
It’s a small place. How many people did you get in there?
Used to have between four- and 700 people in there. We used to break it down. You’d have people in there till midnight, last bus, then the young ’uns would go…
Yeah. One bank holiday I remember, we were going till three in the morning, I just got on the mic, turned the lights on, I asked everybody who was there, ‘Look there’s 600 people outside want to experience this, you’ve been in here for four hours, how about you sort them out?’ They gave me a round of applause, ‘Next week Jaz,’ got their coats and left. We swept the floor, then let the other lot in.
We had it so down pat that the people between McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken used to save us burgers when they come down after their shift. It was a real sense of the community, it was really a lot about a happy face, thumpin’ bass for a lovin’ race. You interconnected with everybody there. Everybody socially who was anyone would have gone there, or tried to get in. And we used to have girls on the door – a George Power skank – but our girls were really pretty – Jazzie skank.
Everyone from Daryl Pandy to the guys from the JBs, people would just come and perform there. There was a balcony, but one night it got unsafe because there were so many people on it. I used to keep the windows closed, downstairs, it used to buckle the windows. To the point where… they used to have things to hook the artwork on, and the moisture got in, and damp, just got in there. And this was the only gig that was going on.
And out of this came the records.
Yeah. We had made ‘Fair Play’ when we were in the Africa Centre. Before the riddim, we used to mix the Malcolm X speech on top of it. And from there it went to the next stage, when Rose [Windross] voiced the tune. What Paul and Cleveland was doing at Crackers, she did for us. She was for us in the Africa Centre. She was one of our main followers, and she was a dancer. All of them used to come down and do their moves and have their battles and that. One night she just picked up the mic. I just heard her sing and that was it. Sorted it out from there.
What was the mixture of music you played?
It was very eclectic, everything really. Biggest tunes was when we used to drop ‘Cross The Tracks’ [Maceo & The Macks]. Anything we were punting, cos we used to sell all the tunes in there. No, the biggest tune was ‘Just Kissed My Baby’, the Meters. Cos E-Mix and everybody used to sing it. The main tune we booted was ‘Cross the Tracks’. Trevor used to play there, Norman played there, CJ Mackintosh played there. Everyone who was anyone at that time would have played there. It was just our version of… Global Village, or our Wag maybe. I ended up touring with Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson after that. We toured Japan and Asia. Shit we done it twice. My biggest gig I ever played was going to Japan, because of the Africa Centre.
You did that big party at the Town and Country Club with them.
Yeah. So many different things feasted off there. And then you go back into all the different DJs, deemed to be mainstream now, your [Judge] Jules and Trevors [Nelson], and Norman [Jay]. All of them came through or had something to do with that space. With the premise of the sound system and what that actually meant. Cos for us culturally that was far more important than the DJ. The DJ bit was more an American metaphor, as opposed to what we actually created, which was the sound system.
I’ve been invited back to the Brits next week. Just preparing my speech, calling them a bunch of wankers and that. In the most polite way. It was funny when the request came in about your book. I’d just come back from interviewing James Brown. Which was possibly his last interview. He’d only do it because of me, because he’s my man. Now he calls me his baby brother of the scene. And the weirdest thing is having the links with these different people, and it started off from the simplest idea: the DJ saved my life. That’s what. It’s reality, it’s true, it’s real.
Tell us about your first gig in Jamaica.
To actually be asked with your sound, ‘Would you come and play in Jamaica.’ Would I come? Don’t even ask. I don’t even want any money, I’m there. I was going to Jamaica from about ’90, ’91 and I’d already made headroom ’cos of the things I’d said about how important the sound system was. By the time I turned up there with a sound they knew. Any artist who was anything, apart from Sanchez and a few others, they’d cut my dubs, so they’d all sung about my sound anyway.
We played our sound in Jamaica, with sound men around the place. And it felt like that: all the daggers were at you. We was thrown into the lion’s den and we came out. It was wicked. But going there to play, not as Soul II Soul the band or Jazzie B, but to go as a sound. Yeah, that was a righteous feeling. I felt I’d made it.
What was the gig like?
It was just incredible. The Caracas Club, in this golf club place. It was inside and outside, and inevitably we played from about two in the morning till the sun was hot: 9, 10 o’clock. It was very emotional for us. Properly emotional. Up until the eighth or ninth spliff my hairs stood on end. I was a wreck. Started shaking.
Looking back, how important was the original sound system culture that you inherited?
So important, ’cos it doesn’t exist any more. There’s no-one who really understands the real essence of what it is. And without that Duke Reid, Duke Vin and all that lot, Kool DJ Herc even, there’d be none of this. This would have been the shittiest job to do. Without those guys originally, what we know of DJs today wouldn’t be there. DJs were deemed to be the wackest job, a guy standing with two boxes and some flashing lights, and now they’re the kings of it all.
I still go to Shaka. I’ll be on my jack and no-one else wants to go. And I’ll sneak in and just stand in a corner somewhere, just to look around and savour it. With all due respect, that guy should be knighted, man. Shaka himself. For as long as people been coming here [to the UK], that’s been going on. That’s touched so many generations. And I know pan-Europe, between him and Rodigan, they touched so many souls.
Did you feel like you were handed the baton or you were rebelling against it?
I actually felt in a funny way I was slightly rebelling against it, ’cos we took a lot of shit coming up as well. But I’ll talk to people now and they’ll tell me their mum used to come to Africa Centre. When they say things like that it’s quite touching. We did it ’cos we believed it, and 20-odd years later it’s all come around. Put a record on a groove. The impact on our culture it’s had is serious, so I’m glad to be a part of this.
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton