Chris Lane, Fashion Records - October 2013
David Hill: Could you tell me where you grew up?
Chris Lane: I grew up in Marylebone (central London), and then we lived in Belgravia for two or three years. My Dad was a copper, so we lived in police flats. Living in Marylebone was like living in the centre of the universe. I only crossed south of the water when I got married, because my wife came from around here (Surrey Docks).
DH: Were you listening to much music as a schoolboy?
CL: I was in secondary school in 1967 and remember the hits that Johnny Nash had and [Max Romeo’s] Wet Dream. Around
that time, we started hearing more reggae, ‘cos the older brother of one of my mates was buying reggae records. He had LPs like Coxsone Special, Bluebeat Special, Put It On and the first Tighten Up. The skinhead connection with reggae was building up then and I’d listen to these records down the youth club, along with the Motown, Stax and Atlantic tunes, and they were okay but nothing special.
Then one day I was round my mate’s house and this older brother came in with a couple of records in a bag. He said he’d just been in the Muzic City shop – the Black record shop – in Kilburn. We were like fucking hell! For one he’d gone to Kilburn, and we lived around Edgware Road, and between our area and Kilburn there was a bit of friction, and he’d been to a Black record shop. So he played us these records, and one was Mama Look Deh by the Reggay Boys (The Pioneers) on the Amalgamated label, and that record unlocked something inside me. I didn't have a clue what they were singing about, I couldn’t make out any of the words, but I thought it was great.
After that, the next reggae records I heard, [which would have been] organ instrumentals that everyone calls skinhead reggae now, they really clicked with me. I had exactly the same thing a bit later with James Brown’s Sex Machine. It was a big record in youth clubs and discos, but I never particularly liked it. Funnily enough I was in the same shop, the Muzic City in Kilburn, and the geezer behind the jump (counter) played It’s A New Day [by James Brown] and I thought it was great so I bought it. Then the next time I heard Sex Machine I thought it was great too, but for the previous six months I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Sometimes it takes a record to click inside of you to make sense of other tunes, and that’s how I got into reggae, it was really through Mama Look Deh.
Of course after that, I was listening to more tunes. We didn't have a record player in our house until Christmas 1969, when my mum and dad bought a little Dansette for Christmas. It was probably more for me, to be honest, and with the Christmas box from my paper-round, I went out and bought Tighten Up vol. 2, Motown Chartbusters vol. 3, and some popular singles of the time like The Liquidator and The Vampire.
So really, it was from Christmas ’69 that I started buying records, but I’d already had a good run of listening to tunes through that year, and I also had other mates who were buying then as well.
DH: So you were primed for the emerging reggae scene then, because you were switched on to the music already?
CL: Exactly. By the time I started buying records Trojan were putting out the tunes that they’d added strings to (which were overdubbed in the UK) so that they’d be played on the radio. But even at the time, I was aware that they were watering down the music to make it more commercial. I preferred the music with a harder edge. I mean, in those days, I didn't even particularly like singing records – the singing records that I liked would be something like Mama Look Deh. But a cover of a soul tune or a pop record? I wouldn’t have bought it. I’d have bought an organ instrumental with a mad Spaghetti Western intro by some lunatic pretending to be an Italian cowboy! But as soon as Trojan realised that they had a growing market with white kids, they started putting the strings on. Pama put out [Bob & Marcia’s] Young Gifted and Black, but then Trojan licensed it from Harry J and stuck strings on top. They did it with some of the Beverley’s records too.
DH: What about your friends, were you all into the same music?
CL: Me and my mates were white, working or lower middle class, we didn't have long hair, we were into the (original) skinhead thing because that was the fashion for kids like us at the time. We had the clothes, we had the haircuts, we went to football and did what all kids do, and liking reggae and soul was just part of that scene. It was part of what you did.
It was funny, because I had mates that went to secondary modern schools, who’d say, “Look at these flipping hippies with their long hair”, but at the school I went to, we had these kids with long hair – real middle-class hippy kids, who loved blues and rock, and hated reggae. I mean, there was even a blues society and a jazz society. I used to get on with quite a few of them though, but they always wanted to play me these blues records by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Peter Greene or Jimmy Page. The arguments I used to have with them about reggae were never-ending! They’d say that it sounded like it was recorded in a flipping barn somewhere, that it’s terrible, it’s all the same....
But that was the joke, because as soon as Bob Marley signed to Island and they saw him on The Old Grey Whistle Test, they suddenly thought he was great. But I was like, “Hang on a minute, I sat you down and played you Screw Face a year ago when I got it from the Muzic City in Shepherds Bush.” I remember taking it round this bloke’s house and they said, “Come on, what have you got? Let’s hear it, is it another thing that hasn't even got a label on it?” They couldn't get over the fact that I used to buy blank labels with rubber stamps on them. When I put it on they all laughed their heads off.
DH: At the time there wasn’t much support for reggae from the UK music press was there, besides Johnny Nash?
CL: Well I think that CBS got behind Johnny Nash and pushed him because he’d had those rocksteady hits. But the press were only ready for Bob Marley with rock guitars and extra keyboards stuck on top – and with the power of Island Records behind him. If a smaller label had put out exactly the same music, even with the same treatment, it wouldn’t have had the same credibility, because a lot of people hated reggae, especially when skinheads went out of fashion. This is what nobody realises, unless you’re my age and were into reggae in those days. I would have arguments with people and they’d tell me it’s all shit, unequivocally, and they’d want to play me the latest Slade album, or Marc Bolan.
DH: So how did you meet John McGillivray (of Dub Vendor)?
CL: I met John at school. We were mates and liked the same things. There were two or
three other kids that liked reggae, but most were proper middle class kids with long hair.
DH: Was there any reggae on the radio at that point?
CL: Only really the commercial tunes with the added strings, but some tunes did creep through. [The Upsetters] Return of Django got played, tunes like [Harry J’s] The Liquidator, and [The Pioneers] Long Shot Kick The Bucket got in the charts.
DH: What about on the pirate stations like Radio Caroline?
CL: Well I never really liked Caroline, I used to listen to Radio London. The thing is that living in London, we didn't really pick up the pirates too well. But any time we went on holiday to the seaside, I could hear them there. I would also listen to radio Luxembourg. I remember hearing [The Upsetters] Clint Eastwood, I think the DJ was Tony Prince. I bought it when it got released the next week.
DH: Can you tell me some more about school?
CL: Well, when I was at school, me and John, we'd go down to Muzik City in Shepherd’s Bush at lunchtime, especially on a rainy day. Even in 1971 going into a reggae shop was still a bit of a dodgy thing to do, so we used to pick our moments. If you went in a shop like Muzik City on a Saturday afternoon there’d always be a couple of big geezers standing in the door who wouldn't want to let you in. Then if you did get in, the geezer behind the jump would be showing off in front of his mates. He’d play records and deal them out to whoever wants them, but when you’d hear a record you like and say you wanted one, you’d be told “Dem finish”. “But I just saw you put half a dozen copies back in the box?” The response would be “Dem is reserve”. And that’s what you'd get. I’ve spoken to loads of other people who’ve had similar experiences. But on a weekday lunchtime there wouldn't be many people in the shop and you could deal with the guy behind the counter and buy records. We also used to go junk-shopping on Saturdays and we’d go down Petticoat Lane on Sundays looking for records.
DH: The glorious days of second-hand record shops...
CL: Yes, but the flipside to that coin is that nobody knew anything about the music back then. No one knew about, or was interested in, anything that wasn’t recent. There was a shop near me in Chapel Street, by Edgware Road tube station, where I bought Tighten Up vol. 2 and Motown Chartbusters vol. 3, and I used to go in there sometimes, but the bloke behind the counter hated reggae, he just slagged it off all the time. At the back of the shop they had a wall full of [UK issued] Treasure Isle 45s from ’67 and ’68 for ten pence each, all in their proper ‘giraffe-print’ sleeves. I didn't really know what they were, because no one had that sort of knowledge in those days, and playing those [rocksteady] records in ’71, well they just sounded so slow, so dull, because we were used to hearing things like [The Upsetters] Dry Acid screaming out of the youth club speakers.
Then as we were going round looking for records we started picking things up and getting into the older stuff, so our knowledge increased and our tastes widened, but of course by that time the shop had closed down and we couldn't find those records again.
People don’t realise just how little was known about Jamaican music in those days. We didn’t even know what the artists looked like, because most of them didn't get their pictures on the album sleeves – there would usually be some half-naked bird on there rather than a picture of the artist – so we had no idea what these people looked like, they were just names on labels.
DH: Was there any reggae coverage in magazines like Blues & Soul at that time?
CL: No, the only reviews you would get in any of the music press, even in Blues & Soul in 1970, was more or less copied out from the press releases. Nobody took the music seriously, they only reviewed a reggae record if they felt they had to. There was one guy called Henderson Dalrymple, he’d written a couple of things in NME and he had a booklet out, which I didn’t rate, and I thought that someone should write about this. I remember John and me talking about this, reading Blues & Soul, and saying, that if anyone should have a reggae column, then Blues & Soul should have it, because it would be the right sort of demographic. So we agreed that we'd both write in and offer to do a reggae column, but of course John didn't bother and I did. John Abbey (the founder and editor of Blues & Soul at the time) wrote back to me and said that he was interested in a reggae column, so I started writing for Blues & Soul. It caused a minor furore though – a few old mods and skinheads wrote in saying that they like soul but it’s great to have some reggae in the magazine as well, because that’s what they’d grown up with in ’68 and ’69, but then you had all the die-hard soul-boys writing in saying that reggae is all shit and they didn't want it in their magazine.
I carried on with the column though and started interviewing people, reviewing records, and doing a pre-release chart. Nobody else did all this stuff at the time.
DH: So reggae wasn’t covered in any other British publication?
CL: No, I was the first one to go into it that deeply. In ’73 I went up to Trojan to do my first batch of interviews, and talk about hitting them on the right day! I interviewed Bunny Lee and Keith Hudson, and then I said to someone that I’d really like to interview Lee Perry. I was told that he’s here at the moment and was supposed to be coming to Trojan, and as I turned round he came through the door. Now, Lee Perry’s a real hero to me, because I loved all that Upsetter stuff, so I sat with Scratch and interviewed him. Afterwards I said that I'd love to go to Jamaica, so he said I could stay with him and gave me his address.
I wrote saying that I had a flight booked for Boxing Day, but then there was this big oil crisis, so the flight got cancelled and I ended up going the next day. I got to Kingston airport at two o’clock in the morning as the plane had been delayed, and Scratch hadn't come to meet me. There were very few cabs about, so I piled into a one with about four other people. We’re dropping them off all around Kingston and I’m the last one left, so I’m thinking to myself, “This is it, this is where I disappear... ”. The cab driver was really good though and he tried to find Scratch’s place, but couldn't as there were no street signs around Washington Gardens. He took me to a small hotel called Green Gables, which was full, so we went on to the Pegasus hotel. I spent a night there and did about half of my spending money! The next day I went back to Green Gables and got in.
I thought I’d better go and start looking for people, so I came out of Green Gables, which is on the way to Half Way Tree, and walked down Orange Street. I knew that Bunny Lee had a shop there, so I just went in and asked if he was about. I was told that he might be back later, so I went back to the shop a couple of hours later, and the bloke said that he was upstairs. I went up, and round the back there was a bar, or a little food counter, and sure enough, there was Striker, and he was really good to me. He asked where I was staying, so I told him that I was supposed to be staying with Scratch, but that we couldn’t find the house, so he offered to take me there. After an hour or so we drove up to Scratch’s place with [the producer] Blackbeard. We park up outside and Striker said that we should go and check Scratch. So I got out, and Blackbeard got out, and I asked him if Striker’s coming, but he said he wasn’t because there was a huge row going on between Scratch and Striker. Turns out he’d actually sent Blackbeard in to retrieve some microphones that he’d lent Scratch for his new studio. It was all a bit embarrassing, but Scratch was cool and I arranged to come back the following morning.
The next day I went round to Scratch’s and that’s where I stayed for four weeks and it was great. I did a lot of hanging around in the [Black Ark] studio, which he’d just built, but I didn't realise that they never used to make many records in January, so there wasn’t that much happening and I didn’t get to see any rhythms getting laid at Black Ark, although I did see some overdubs and vocals get recorded.
I met Errol Thompson there – he had wired up Scratch’s studio and passed by one day to check that everything was alright. Chris Blackwell also came by, but I hid because I knew that the people at Island were really pissed off with the review that I’d given the Catch A Fire album. I really didn't want to get harangued by Chris Blackwell, and I wouldn't have blamed him, as I did gave it a bit of a shitty review, but to me they’d
fucked up Bob Marley and the Wailers by putting rock guitar all over it. It was sacrilege!
Obviously he was right though because he made a pile of money out of it!
I’d been to Channel One with Bunny Lee, and Scratch took me round all the other studios. I went to Tubbys, Harry J, Randy’s, I interviewed Vincent Chin and Derrick Harriott, and I interviewed the people at Federal and Dynamic.
DH: Do you still have tunes that you bought on that trip?
CL: Oh yeah, there were loads of little record shops and they all had boxes of old records. I did most of that shopping on my own – once I’d been there a few days and had met some people through Scratch and Bunny Lee, I got much more confident.
I always remember Dennis Brown – he was good as gold! He used to live in a house called Big Yard, and any time I’d be walking down Orange Street and he’d see me from a hundred yards away on the other side of the road, he’d always hail me up, he’d wave to me, cross the street to talk to me.
DH: And when people see that it sets you up.
CL: You’ve got it. Once you’re with a few faces, you become a face yourself. I mean, I must have been a bit of a novelty, a skinny seventeen year-old white kid walking down Orange Street. I didn't always get the warm welcome that I anticipated, I had a few people shout at me, but there were lots of good people. Quite a few people said that if I was American, I wouldn't have been treated as well as I was, because they had a real respect for English people.
That first trip to Jamaica was an eye-opener in many ways because when you’re that age you don't realise that there’s this whole uptown / downtown divide, and the variation on the skin tone thing. It was a real education to see all of that first hand.
DH: How long did you write for Blues & Soul?
CL: It was for about three years, then I left and went to Black Music, which had just started. Dave Hendley took over from me at Blues & Soul, and then I did the reggae column for Melody Maker.
DH: What were you doing alongside this?
CL: Well, I left school at eighteen and worked in Junior’s Music Spot on Stroud Green Road, which is where the Bamboo and Banana labels came from. It was Junior Lincoln’s shop. I was also doing various other jobs, the writing was really just a hobby.
DH: Did you ever DJ at youth clubs or nightclubs?
CL: No, I never really wanted to. The first time I DJed was when did a little tour of Finland in 1983. It was me (as sound engineer), Papa Face and Bionic Rhona, and I thought that I might as well take some records, do a little DJ spot, and play them some proper reggae. That was my first DJ set. On the opening night someone came up and said that that it was great music and that they were really enjoying it. He asked how long I’d been DJing, so I looked at my watch and said, “About twenty five minutes!” That’s true (laughs), he must have thought I was taking the piss. These days I do it now and again, if I’m asked.
DH: Can you tell me about Dub Vendor?
CL: Well, when I was writing for Blues & Soul, I had lots of old records on labels like Bamboo, so I put a list of records for sale in the magazine, but I didn't want to say that they were mine. I’d had the name Dub Vendor for a while, because I was in the studio when Horsemouth did Herb Vendor for Scratch, and at the time I thought that Dub Vendor would be a great name for a shop or a business. So I had the Dub Vendor name, and John and I were selling old records through the magazine, then we got a stall in Clapham Junction market where we started selling new releases. After that we had a shop in Peckham. That got broken into and I got fed up with the whole thing and got out of it. John kept the name and the business.
I came out of it partly because I was fed up with it, and partly because I’d been behind counters selling records, and all the time I’d been thinking that I shouldn’t be selling records, I should be in the studio making them. I used to listen to records and think how they could have been sung better, or if the horns could have come in at a better place – I was always pulling them to pieces. One day I was chatting to Dave Hendley, who had a label called Cruise, which he’d released some Mikey Dread tunes and a couple of other things on. [At this time] the lovers’ rock thing was really starting to get into its stride, so I said to Dave that he should do some lovers’ tunes. He said that he was thinking about it and was looking for a producer, so I said that I’d do it. He agreed and asked for a budget and for me to tell him what I’d do. I knew The Investigators from Battersea, because they used to come to the stall in Clapham Junction market, so I went to see them and asked if they’d do a record for me, not as The Investigators, but as the Private Eyes. They said yes, and I produced four tracks, and most of them came out on the Cruise label. They were doing alright and the next time I passed by the stall John said that we should get back together and start a label. He said that we should call it Fashion, as everything was Fashion at the time – dub fashion, this fashion, that fashion, so we started Fashion Records.
In the meantime, just when I’d started producing these records with The Investigators, TMC in Tooting, which was the studio that we laid the rhythms in, well they had an old dub-cutter in the basement and I thought that it would be handy to be able to cut dubs, so I spoke to the studio manager about it. He said I could have it, told me what he wanted, and that I'd need to fix it up, and as luck would have it, I found this fella that used to service dub-cutting machines and make needles for them. He said that he’d come down to take a look at this one, and when he saw it he advised me not to touch it with a bargepole.
He said that it’d cost a fortune to fix and that wasn’t that good, but he said that Carlin Music (which was the publisher for the Tamla-Motown in the UK) had an old MSS lathe that he could get up and running, and it'd cost a couple of hundred quid. So he took me down there, and it was exactly the same cutter that [the legendary dubplate cutter] John Hassell used, but without the Gotham valve amps - it had a transistor pre-amp with a Quad power amp, which he said would sound good. So I bought it and paid him to get it up and running. I used to live on Pepys Estate when we were first married and I had a music room in the flat, so I set it up in there and started to cut dubs.
All of this happened when those first records were coming out, and then when John got the shop in Clapham Junction he said there was a room in the basement that I could use. I’d been dying to get it out of the house because people had been turning up at one in the morning [looking to cut dubs], so I thought, great, that’ll do me and I set up the dub- cutter and was happily cutting dubs in the basement of the shop.
Then I bought a Teac four-track [tape machine], which was an updated model of the one that Scratch had in his studio. At the time we were recording in sixteen or twenty four- track studios, and I thought that with all these DJ records and dancehall records, we didn't need to take DJs into a twenty four-track studio at £20 an hour, I could do those here. So we'd make the rhythms [at the larger studios] and we’d bounce them down onto two tracks on the 1⁄4” tape, so we’d put drums, bass and all the percussion on one track, and all the rest of the rhythm on the other. Then, when we put that same tape on our four track, we'd have two spare tracks in between, where we’d put the vocals or horn section, or whatever, and then just mix it down from there. That’s how the A Class studio got going – it was just a cheap way to make records.
Things took off from there and we were finding artists – DJs, singers or whatever and having fun. The trouble with going into a [hired] studio is always that you’re [financially] committed and you’ve got to make the record, but when you’ve got your own space you can just put them down when you think they’re ready to voice.
Later on, we also used to have band rehearsals under the shop. I recently found some video footage of those rehearsals, which I’ll put up on YouTube one day.
DH: How did you join Maxi Priest’s band?
When I started playing guitar again, Paul from One Blood kindly let me sit in with his new band called Caution. This was basically One Blood, but with everyone playing different instruments – Paul was playing drums instead of guitar, Errol was bass instead of lead guitar, and Ewan was playing keyboards instead of bass. I just went to sit in and practice - I wasn’t really supposed to be part of the band. They had Maxi Priest singing, they had Philip Levi and had already laid the backing for Mi God Mi King. Because I was working at Mark Angelo’s studio as well, I recorded and played on most of the tracks that became Maxi’s first album, including Throw Me Corn and Should I. That’s how I ended up playing on those early Maxi Priest shows.
DH: Did the Caution Band do anything else?
CL: No, they were really just a backing band for Maxi although we did a few sessions as
DH: Did they record for Saxon?
CL: No, what happened was that the other Saxon DJs went to Greensleeves. Virgin signed Maxi from Level Vibes, because Paul [from Caution] was with Maxi, and then Philip Levi got a deal with Island records. We had Smiley [Culture] and Asher [Senator], and we were trying to get Tippa Irie. In fact I’ve still got really good demo tapes from Tippa with him demoing his stuff on our rhythms, and we had Peter King, who was the originator of the fast talk style.
Tippa couldn't make up his mind whether to sign with us or with Greensleeves, and in the end he went to Greensleeves because he thought that he would be behind Smiley and Asher at Fashion, and fair enough, he got a big pop hit with Hello Darling.
Greensleeves also put out the Coughin’ Up Fire album, with all the Saxon DJs. DH: And Mi God Mi King got signed to Taxi in Jamaica.
CL: Yes, but before it came on the Taxi label, Mi God Mi King was on a white label because someone in Jamaica just pressed it up. But it was nice to see that some of the UK things were having an influence in Jamaica.
DH: Could you tell me about [Smiley Culture’s] Police Officer?
CL: Well, we made Police Officer as a follow up to Cockney Translation, and we had such a good response from the public that Capital Radio got behind the record and they really broke it for us. When it came to the follow-up we re-released Cockney Translation, because everyone said that it was the most commercial record. So we did that and took it to Capital and they more-or-less said that they’d done us a favour with the last one and they weren’t going to do it again. Then, when we took it to Radio One, they said that it was a Capital sort of record, and they weren’t going to do it as Capital had done the last one for us. And you think well hang on a minute, what about the actual music? What about the people who might want to hear this? But that’s not the way they think. That’s why I gave up going to stations like Capital and Radio One. I never used to believe it, but they would come up with all these rubbish reasons not to play your record, and if there was already a reggae record in the chart and it was getting played, then that was even more reason for them not to play another one.
DH: But both Police Officer and Cockney Translation became big records?
CL: Well Police Officer became a pop hit, but Cockney Translation sort-of flopped in the scale of things because we just couldn't get the radio play.
DH: What would a record like Police Officer sell in those days?
CL: We did just over a hundred thousand of that one, that’s a proper pop record. But a good reggae hit, that would be four or five thousand copies. Cockney Translation sold about twenty thousand, but mainly because we released it twice.
You’d hear about all of these small independent labels having a hit and going bankrupt, and I can see how it can happen. I mean, Police Officer nearly killed us. You have to be very careful because a distributor would phone up asking for another twenty thousand copies, and someone else would say that they need another fifteen thousand copies, and everyone is pushing you to press more records to keep up with the demand, and then two months later you’d get a phone call asking you to come and collect thousands of [unsold] records because they were in the way and they would be about to start charging storage fees. It's really difficult. It didn't kill us off and we did alright out of it, but to have a [crossover] pop record is a risky thing.
DH: Could you tell me about your time at Mark Angelo’s studio?
CL: Well I was engineering for myself in the dub-cutting studio and I’d also been working in an eight-track studio called Lavender in Battersea. When I’d been in the bigger studios I'd always got involved and would start fiddling about with the knobs, and Mark Lusardi at Lavender was very good to me and would let me try things. He’d go to make a cup of tea and leave me to set up a monitor mix, or something like that. So I was getting my hands on the equipment, getting into it, and learning. Eventually I ended up being a freelance engineer at Mark Angelo’s, not just on reggae, we did soul, rock, and we did some adverts. I was getting loads of experience as an engineer and I was learning a lot. I remember one night Jah Life came in and voiced a couple of Leroy Smart tunes, and he had the Roots Radics lay the rhythms. The Radics were so pissed off, because when they came in the studio, it wasn’t like Channel One where the drum kit’s set up, and the mics are already in place so the drummer more or less sits down and the sound is there. We had to ask what they wanted, set up the mics and get a sound. They were so pissed off because they couldn't just walk in and record.
DH: Didn’t you also work with Aswad?
CL: Yes, we used Drummie, Tony and Clifton ‘Bigga’ Morrison from Aswad on some tunes at Mark Angelo’s studio, when we laid the Real Rock rhythm, which we used for Cockney Translation, and the Stalag rhythm, amongst others.
DH: Would this be about 1985?
CL: Yes, I was working seven days a week as producer, dub-cutter and in-house musician and engineer. It was a good combination between me and John, because John had the
shop upstairs, so he was exposed to all the latest records, and I heard everything being brought in to be cut on dub. We were listening to all that there was to be listened to, but John had a much more commercial ear than me, because he was in the shop and could see the records that were actually selling, and how people were reacting to the tunes. John would also listen to more sound [system] tapes than me and would know who the upcoming DJs were, so we picked artists on their way up, rather than on the way down. When we did DJ Business with Papa San, John asked him specifically to do that, because he’d heard him do it on a tape.
DH: So it was a great combination then, with you both having your particular roles?
CL: Yes, and of course they merged. There were loads of times when John would hear something I’d been working on and he’d tell me that it wouldn’t sell, or he’d say what if you change this, or what if you change that. Whereas I was more wrapped up in the music, and couldn’t always see the wood for the trees.
DH: So John brought the commercial objectivity?
CL: Exactly, yes. John might not particularly know or care whether the thing is in or out of tune, or whether it's technically correct or whatever, but he'd know whether he’d be able to sell it over the counter, which is what counts at the end of the day.
DH: So what was the next stage for A Class?
CL: Well, the flat above the shop became empty and John wanted to do something with the basement, so we moved the studio upstairs, and that’s where we recorded tunes like [Joseph Cotton’s] No Touch The Style and No One Night Stand by Nerious Joseph.
Then we started looking for other premises, because it was getting too busy where it was. We moved the studio into an industrial unit in Forest Hill in 1990, and that’s where we did a lot of really good stuff. We were already on eight-track, and that’s when we moved to sixteen-track, and then a couple of years later we went twenty four-track.
DH: So you were on sixteen-track 2” tape?
CL: No, that was Tascam 1”, which wasn’t a common format over here, but it was in Jamaica. Quite a few studios had it there because it was cheap, and very good. Penthouse had it, Gussie’s studio had it and Jammys had it.
DH: Talking of Penthouse, I heard that you recorded there?
CL: We did, yes, we went over a few times. We laid some rhythms at Penthouse and we voiced tunes there. We also voiced tunes at Gussie’s studio and at Steely & Cleevie’s, (who all used used the same 1” tape format).
Then John bought another building, because he wanted separate premises for Dub Vendor, so we got this other place in Forest Hill and built this lovely new studio in the basement, but unfortunately, just at that point, the market started to go down.
DH: When was this?
CL: It was 1997 or ’98, and there was a really big dip in the market. People were just starting to download music from the internet, and CDs were getting pirated. It became very hard to sell records, and I don’t just sling records out, we've always had a bit of quality control. So to put that amount of time, effort and money into a record where you’re lucky to sell 1,500 copies, it's a joke. I remember a record by Neville Morrison that we had, which was a big lovers’ rock tune at the time and got to number one in the Echoes chart for six weeks, well when I saw how many copies we’d actually sold – and then you try explaining that to the artist! So even though we did some good stuff in the studio, that’s when I started to feel disillusioned.
DH: Do you think that jungle, and then drum & bass, affected things?
CL: Well that’s a very good point. The jungle thing had happened prior to that, and we did a lot of jungle stuff in our old place. We thought that the young black kids would be into contemporary reggae, but what happened was that they found their own music. They were brought up in this country, they had white mates, and they were going to different places, listening to some house, a bit of this, a bit of that. The next thing you know, they're going to hardcore raves, then the jungle thing came in and you had a whole generation who didn't want their parents music. And although they’d listen to the odd sound tape and enjoy the big reggae records in the same way that they would the big soul and RnB records, they made their own music by nicking all the best bits out of the records they liked. That’s what jungle was.
At one point, I could get in my car, flick though five or six jungle pirate stations, and I was guaranteed, within two minutes, to hear samples from my tunes, whether it’s Cutty Ranks, Top Cat or [General] Levy or whoever. I’d hear something from one of my tunes.
John had started to sell these records in the shop, so he said that we should be making them, because these fuckers were nicking bits from all of our records, so we said, alright, let’s put out a compilation album of our biggest ragga tunes with jungle mixes, and that’s how we did the first Rumble in the Jungle album.
We also started chasing down people trying to get some money from them for the samples and publishing credits and so on, which isn't the easiest of things. There was a generational thing going on as well, because these kids were half my age by then, and it was funny, because all these kids would tell me that it was their music and that it’s totally original. But how can it be original when they’re sampling my records? They’d tell me that it’s an underground scene, so I’d ask if they went to the big rave last weekend, and they’d say yeah. I’d ask how many people were there, and they’d say about six thousand. How the fuck is six thousand people underground? But they were young kids, they were
into their scene and they loved it. The other thing I'd get with some of these kids who sampled my records was they’d say they only used a little bit, so I used to say great, take it out then. Take my sample out of your record and see how well it sells!
Then after a while it shifted to drum & bass, and that had much less sampling, but at that point it really did go underground because it just wasn’t very commercial.
It’s a shame really, because a lot of them shot themselves in the foot. If they’d carried on with what they were doing and just made it a bit more commercial, they could have made better money out of it. But these kids were earning from the DJing, not the little records that they were putting out. I remember once asking these kids if they’d do a mix for me and I told them what I could pay. They just laughed at me and said they could earn that in an hour by DJing at a rave. Some of these kids were earning four or five grand a week, cash. Unbelievable! And then there’s me scuffling about trying to sell a thousand reggae records...
DH: So this all contributed to your feeling jaded?
CL: Well I think so, but I wasn’t so much jaded, because I quite enjoyed doing the jungle thing, and I was meeting new people, so that was very interesting, but it took away a big part of the market. In the late 90s, all the black kids were into other things, so we were selling records to the people that we’d always sold records to, and they were now entering their middle age.
DH: What about the new wave of UK roots produced by people like Russ Disciple and Nick Manasseh?
CL: Well that was a completely different scene, and I was never part of it. From my perspective it was more for white kids who were into dub, and not even necessarily reggae, but just into heavy, dubby music. Saying that, I’m sure a lot of it has improved with time. I did a dub album with Dougie [Conscious] at Bush Chemist, and that was a nice experience. We did my half of it in his studio, and his half of it in mine, as a collaboration, which worked well.
DH: And has the rise in conscious new roots music over in recent years given you the impetuous to go back into the studio to make some more music?
CL: (Laughs) No. The thing is, and I’ve said this before, but contemporary reggae doesn’t touch me. I do put myself out to hear it now and again, but I rarely hear anything that I want to listen to again. It's either lovers’ rock, or roots that sounds like it’s updated from twenty or thirty years ago. I mean, how many cuts of Satta Massagana do I really need? I’ve got all the good ones from before!
DH: So you’ve not been making any music since Fashion?
I have been playing guitar on sessions again, for a couple of other producers. It’s been good, and I’ve enjoyed it, but I don't feel inspired to build a rhythm and put a record out for myself. I have still got a couple of things that I wouldn’t mind voicing up actually, but that’s more like unfinished business.
At one time you couldn't get me out of the studio, I’d be there at three o’clock in the morning and you couldn't get me to go home, I used to love it. Whether I was playing with other musicians or building the rhythms myself, it was always very satisfying to record a really good singer or DJ and then hear the result on the radio. But to be honest, the thrill has gone.