Here's an excerpt from an interview that we did for The Music Producer's Handbook that gives you an idea of what recording in Jamaica is like.
How did a kid from Oklahoma like you get into Jamaican music?
In 1970 I went to Jamaica on vacation and fell in love with reggae music because there’s some essence of Jamaican music that captures the nitty and gritty of all kinds of soul music, which I was already into. My interest was probably ahead of a lot of people, because reggae really wasn’t that popular at the time. There were a few Jamaican singles out at that time like My Boy Lollipop, (a 1962 pop hit by Millie Small), and The Israelites (a 1968 hit by Desmond Decker) which I didn’t even know was Jamaican. It was the rhythm and heavy bottom end that I heard in the clubs and at outdoor sound systems that really knocked me out.
I came back to Tulsa with a lot of records, and in 1973 started a band called “Guava”. The band included some members of Eric Clapton’s band at the time (when they weren’t on the road) and we actually started playing our hybrid version of reggae music in Tulsa, so I slowly learned how to play it. In fact, Family Man (Bob Marley’s bass player) stayed at my house when they came through Tulsa, and he and I recorded two records on my little 4 track recorder. Working with a guy like that who really knows it taught me a lot, because I was learning from a master.
Then in 1978 I went down to Jamaica to play on Inner Circle’s record as a guitar player and I actually got fired. They really wanted a rock player but I naively thought that they were hiring me because I could do all the picking guitar stuff that they did. In hindsight, I was pretty stupid because there were hundreds of guys in Jamaica that could do that, so why did they need me to play it?
I remember as I was overdubbing on their new album, they kept asking me to “model it,” and I just couldn’t make out exactly what they meant. When the session was over I asked them, “What were you trying to tell me?”, and they said “model it” meant to swagger like a model down a runway, or blast your licks out. It turned out to be a good experience and a good education, and I made some connections, but it really wasn’t until the 80’s that I did production.
How did that happen?
Lee Jaffee, who I had met in Tulsa with Bob Marley and who had brought me to Jamaica to record with Inner Circle, hooked me up with the Wailing Souls. I did an album with them which won a Grammy nomination and led to more work. He also referred me to a record label that wanted to do a potpourri of reggae artists. I produced a wide variety of artists for them, and some things like Volume 1 and 2 of reggae versions of Grateful Dead songs.
In the spirit of Bob Marley, reggae had open arms to everyone who loved it, although that began to change when Dance Hall (a more sparse and hard core genre of reggae) came around. There’s a tradition of producers that weren’t Jamaican that goes all the way back to Chris Blackwell (who released many of the early reggae hits on his Island Records label). In fact, some of the famous early Jamaican producers like Leslie Kong were Asian, so you don’t have be of that race to produce that music.
There weren’t that many people around that were doing it at the time, so I became sort of a go-to guy for labels that wanted to release reggae music. I began to know the studios and how to work down in Kingston, which is such an amazing place to record. If you need a percussion player, you can sort of yell out the window and there’ll be a line of guys ready to do it, and they’ll all be great and affordable (laughs).
Jamaican studios have a reputation of putting out these great sounding records with the most marginal equipment. Have any idea about that?
They pushed their gear as hard as they could and got every ounce of sound that they could get out of it. I did a live session at Tough Gong where I wanted to use a real Hammond organ to get a “bubble” (style of playing) going and along with the organ comes a guy who was their Hammond organ guy. That was his only job - to keep that Hammond working, so there’s a reverence for some of that equipment that you don’t even get here sometimes.
Some of the studios are better than you think though. Tough Gong studio has an amazing sounding room with an SSL console. Studio One and Federal are both pretty good. There are lots of them. I’ve heard that there were more studios per square mile than anywhere in the world for a while and they all had their own flavor. Now it’s just like here where everyone has a studio in their house with Pro Tools, but there are still a lot of commercial studios in Jamaica.
How much have you recorded in Jamaica?
Probably around 20 times but I’ve never totaled it up. I’d do parts of records here, but to get the real flavor, I’d have to go back down there. For example, I did a record with Willie Nelson where Willie doing his country stuff but with a Jamaican flavor. Another producer started it, but it never sounded right. I think one reason was that no one took it down to Jamaica. The album had been cut up here with Jamaican’s that I knew, and they’re really good players, but it just didn’t have the full flavor that it needed and you could only get it down there.
Believe me, taking multitrack tapes down to Jamaica and back is not an easy job (laughs)! Their tape machines run at different speeds down there because the power is different, so you have to jump through hoops just to get things in tune. Then there’s the ever present brown-out or black-out, where you’re finally getting something going and everything in the room goes dark.
Are you tracking the entire band?
Yes, except in the case where I was using a drum machine. I’d get Sly (producer Sly Dunbar, half of the famous Sly and Robbie rhythm section) to come over and he’d just sit there with the original Linn drum machine and pound out a beat. It would be a single two-bar phrase that he’d slowly add to.
There’d be about 15 guys in a control room that’s meant to hold 6, just listening to him making this beat with everyone stoned out of their box. That’s definitely a different kind of vibe than you see up here.
Would you rather track the entire band or just go for a good drum track and replace everything later?
I guess the key word is “depends.” Toot’s band is rock-steady. Their tempo does not budge! Why wouldn’t you want to cut with that band? They’re just incredible. I know that Sly and Robbie have the same thing going.
What’s your preproduction like?
Non-existent. With Toots, we’d get to the studio, then there’d be the ritual hour and a half with his “chalice” (pipe), and then you’re on. You just better have your shit together, improvise, and go quick after that.
It’s mostly your preparation then.
Yeah, I would do my homework and come up with some grooves and different things in my head, but I would always differ to the masters in the room that not only had the musical knowledge, but also the musical history knowledge that was way beyond mine. I’d always trust them, but I’d have a few other ways ready to go if needed.
How long do the sessions there normally last?
You don’t see the normal amount of tracking and re-tracking that you see in pop stuff. These guys know when they got it so there’s a lot less second guessing. When I was working with Ben Harper for the True Love record, we had players from Ben’s band and the rhythm section from Toot’s band. After a take, Ben’s guys wanted to go into the control room and judge it, but Toot’s guys just said, “That track done, mon. It finish!”, and they were right.
You can read more from The Music Producer's Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.