Interview by DJ Johnson
As I became aware of reggae music in the 70s, I found frustratingly little to read on the subject. There were articles and interviews about Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, and here and there something about Toots and the Maytals, but what I really wanted was to get into the details of what was going on in Jamaica. I wanted to know who these other people were, and why this particular rhythm section was so amazing, or how they made that particular record sound the way they did. There was nothing for me.
In the early 90s I began collecting compilations from Heartbeat Records, which is part of the Rounder family of labels. Not only did they sound far better than all those "three discs for ten dollars, no inserts in the jewel boxes" department store reggae collections, but there was this guy, Chris Wilson, writing liner notes that actually shed light on what you were listening to. After a while, one could start to pick out different backing musicians, years, and even particular instruments in various studios because someone had taken the time to write about these things. In his twenty-some years with Heartbeat, Chris Wilson has seen to the releases of approximately 240 albums, many of which are prized collector's items today. But this isn't some guy with a "crank 'em out" mentality. This is a guy who cares deeply about the music and the people who make it. You can read it between the lines in those liner notes.
For years I've wondered who Chris Wilson really was, what his life was like, what kind of path leads to the role he plays today. For all the information he made available about other people, it wasn't that easy to find information about him. When I got the chance to do this interview, I jumped at it. Sometimes the people who bring the music out into the light are as fascinating as the people who make the music in the first place.
[Mr. Clement Dodd and Chris Wilson]
Cosmik: You've got a unique understanding of reggae music, and other Jamaican music, too, and you helped a lot of people, including me, find the path into it. What was the beginning of your bond with reggae?
Chris: My father's Jamaican, my mother's from New Jersey, so I was actually brought up in Jamaica. I started listening to music, like everybody of my age group did, in the late 50s. My sisters used to listen to rock and roll. They're considerably older than I am. Then, in Jamaica in the late 50s and early 60s, you had the Jamaicans starting to do recordings, and a guy who worked at the house... I used to see him going out on the weekends all dressed up, and I'd make fun of him. One Sunday or Monday he brought back a stack of records. I think this was probably around 1961. He didn't really explain what it was about, but this is what he was doing, he was going to dances. I just listened to the music and it was like "Wow!"
Cosmik: Instant buzz. Funny how it can be life changing for some of us and meaningless for others. That first moment of hearing it.
Chris: Sometimes music becomes the soundtrack of your life, and when you're eleven years old, anything that happens really does have a huge impact upon you. We were having independence, ska was coming in, and everything was just kind of like this melting pot of influences and things happening. It was very exciting. And that's how I started to listen to Jamaican music. Previous to that, the only live music that I'd seen in Jamaica was like big bands, which my parents like but I didn't feel much for, or there's this band, I think from Barbados, called The Merrymen, and they were basically a calypso band, and they were kind of like the West Indian BeeGees. They were a brother group and I think they molded themselves on the BeeGees to a certain degree, though it was West Indian music, and I remember seeing them live at an afternoon party at a friend's house, and I just thought they were really horrible and that something was wrong, like "If this is music, I don't care about it." And then also I got these records, and then it was the juxtaposition of what people were doing in Jamaica, and then I realized this was what I wanted to hear.
Cosmik: Did you focus on one artist?
Chris: I started following, doing like people do, you know. You get into The Beatles, then you get into something else, then you get to The Rolling Stones, and then you get The Dave Clark Five or The Searchers or whatever, and that's kind of how it happened. I just started to listen to different groups. They would give you blanks. A lot of the time in those early days in Jamaica, you got records with blank labels. They would write the name of the song on it, but sometimes it might be the punchline of the song and not even the real title. It was just intriguing to try to figure out who was singing, and what label it was on. I just was interested in that stuff, so that's how I got to realize that there was a difference between Treasure Isle and Studio One and Prince Buster.
Cosmik: They didn't promote themselves, then? I don't understand why they would put out white labels with no logo or anything.
Chris: Black labels. Because they would charge you ten shillings and six pence for a blank, and then a regular pressing would be like seven and six. They actually made three shillings more on the blanks.
Cosmik: I take it then there was no such thing as liner notes. We're probably talking singles here anyway.
Chris: No, no liner notes.
Cosmik: Was that kind of a frustrating thing? You probably wanted to know more.
Chris: Well, no. It might have been if I wasn't as astute as I was, because I started to hear "Oh, this is definitely a Studio One," and then "This is definitely a Treasure Isle" and this is this and this is this. You made up your own liner notes, in a way.
Cosmik: But how do you get a starting point of reference?
Chris: To be honest, I don't really remember how I did. It was just this natural evolution. I remember there was this Monty Morris record that had come out, a single that was on a label. I don't know, maybe it was just when you went to a store you would ask for a record and somebody would tell you something.
Cosmik: You'd learn little bits at a time.
Chris: Yeah. I can't remember specifically, but I started to remember things anyway, however I learned them.
Cosmik: Did you have a circle of friends who were listening, too?
Chris: No, not at all. In fact, most people were kind of amazed... I remember my father saying "Where did you get those records," in a disapproving tone, like where are you GOING to get these records. Luckily, there was this Chinese shop in this part of Kingston called Crossroads, and the shop was called K.G.'s, and if I said K.G.'s, it wasn't in a bad section, so he would only... "hrumph" at the end of the table. Jamaican music was considered to be for poor people.
Cosmik: So you had to deal with the class distinction.
Chris: Yeah, there was a class distinction.
Cosmik: What was it like growing up white in Jamaica?
Chris: Apart from having privileges that maybe weren't owing to you? Well, I didn't have any problems. I just think that going through what the people of my generation were going through in Jamaica, going through independence and developing into nationalism and black power, and Michael Manley in 1972, you always had this kind of leftist view anyway, so you align yourself, politically, to more radical things, in a way. Just being into reggae music was a radical thing.
Cosmik: It seems you would have to cross several lines just to participate in that.
Chris: Oh yeah, I remember going down to Mr. [Clement] Dodd's Studio One Shop on Brentford Road in the early 60s, and white people never went to his shop.
Cosmik: What was that experience like?
Chris: Well, it was just going to a record store looking for a particular record, because by the mid-60s, let's say, when Rocksteady started, I knew what records I wanted, so I was like "the informed consumer," not just someone who went in and whatever was there, you took it. I actually knew what I was there for. There were songs I'd heard, had heard of or you want the next Alton Ellis because you're a follower of a particular singer. I was more educated, so I knew there was no point in going down to K.G.'s to buy Studio One. It's only a ten minute walk from K.G.'s to Studio One, so why not go there and see if he has it? And then you find stuff that he had that you've never heard about, and you forget that you were looking for an Alton Ellis because you'd hear a Heptones or something like that.
Cosmik: Is it safe to say this is where all your money went?
Chris: Um... [Pauses to do the math], yeah, and I bought American music, as well, and Beatles, Rolling Stones and stuff. I was really into music.
Cosmik: Any chance that you're a musician?
Cosmik: Had a hunch.
Chris: But I mean I never really played until the 80s, because there wasn't any place... Jamaica in the 60s, there really wasn't any live playing. You didn't go into a club to play the way you do now, and there wasn't anything like Sunsplash [reggae festival], so most of it was just recorded music. I didn't know where these people played?
Cosmik: But when did you become a musician? Learn to play, that is?
Chris: Oh, in the 60s.
Cosmik: Got it.
Chris: And I hung out with a lot of guys from England and Scotland and the U.S., and we would play stuff like "Roadrunner" and "Louie Louie," and any easy two or three chord, U.S. stuff. But I didn't play reggae, I only played rock. It was out of the question that anything like that would swing in Jamaica. There wasn't anyplace to buy [equipment], so one guy had an electric guitar that he'd brought from some other country, and we used that as a bass, and we used acoustic guitars while somebody banged on something. It was... pretty hokey.
Cosmik: It definitely sounds primitive, but did it serve the purpose?
Chris: It was fun, and girls liked it.
Cosmik: (Laughs.) At that age, that's task number one.
Chris: Yeah. We didn't have anything else. No microphones, no nothing.
Cosmik: I've always had a feeling, from the things you'd write in liners and the types of performances you'd bring out of the vaults, that you were a musician, or at least you've got a musician's ear.
Chris: It was funny, you know, when I came to Boston I went to University, and I was going to go to graduate school. Somebody said "Look, you know so much about reggae, so you should play. I want to start a band, so we'll start one together and I'll show you what chords to play." But I knew some of the chords already, and the thing about it is when I started to play the guitar - he played the bass and I played the guitar - I already knew what I should sound like, after listening to thousands of songs, so it was just like "fill in the blanks," in a way, rather than learning to paint.
Cosmik: What was the name of your long-term band?
Chris: I was in a band called the I-Tones years ago. We played for almost 20 years straight. I think we stopped playing in '98. We had kind of a big song in Boston in '83 with our own version of Dion Warwick's "Walk On By," which we sold 10,000 singles of, and that was when punk was still the big thing. We were actually played on rock radio because it was a pretty big song in Boston at the time. One of the bigger songs of the year. And then we got shopped, and record labels came to us, but I don't think anybody really knew what to do with what we were trying to do, which was to be an authentic reggae band.
Cosmik: In the post-Marley world.
Chris: Yeah, he'd just passed away a few years before, and this was even before UB40 and all that stuff. We were just beginning to hear about what all those guys in England were doing. That's why we called ourselves the I-Tones as opposed to the 2-Tones. We were saying "What's this two tone thing? It's all one tone." (Laughs.) The I was our "one." Instead of being the 1-Tones it became the I-Tones.
Cosmik: I like that. Has a great Jamaican sound to it, too. So at what point did you start to make reggae a serious study? I mean information-wise.
Chris: I would say when Rocksteady hit. I would say around 1966. That's when I really started identifying particular groups, vocal styles and things that I wanted. I had a collection and I would want to fill in the gaps.
Cosmik: That must have been a monumental task with so much stuff coming out.
Chris: I didn't buy everything, because I only specifically collected certain things. A lot of reggae collectors here in the United States, they just buy boxes of records. I only bought things I liked, or I thought of a certain standard, or something that said something to a particular event. That type of thing. I consider that to be the point that I started to understand what I was doing in music. And a lot of the records that you hear on Heartbeat are actually adjuncts, in a way, to those... Like let's say something like "Reggae Train," from Mrs. Pottinger, a lot of those songs were singles that I bought. I'd been specific and said "I want that song" when I bought it. Then I'd go into the vault and I'd hear songs that either weren't released or weren't popular, or just slipped by me or whatever, and I'd fill up the record that way.
Cosmik: I'm glad you brought up the Mrs. Pottinger record. I was going to in a little bit, anyway, because of all the things you've compiled from reggae vaults, that's my favorite. It just speaks to me.
Chris: Well yeah, because that actually was her greatest hits from that period and all those songs were very well tested in dances. [The] Rocksteady [period] was pretty much like a feel good and dance time in Jamaica. The economy was growing, and during the summer and Christmas season it was like wall-to-wall parties. So you had to have a lot of good dancing music, and that's why Treasure Isle became so huge in those few years and did so many years, because there was such a demand.
Cosmik: So many compilations are great for song farming, you know? Picking out things for mix tapes of your own. And even though a lot of the songs are in the upper stratosphere, you know, it won't feel like a complete album. It won't have a flow. The Pottinger comp does.
Chris: That was my other objection with what I was hearing like on Trojan, because the only business model I had coming into Heartbeat was what they were doing, because outside of Jamaica in the western world, it's always been Trojan. And here they had the same crappy collections of the same songs, half filled with English reggae and then it'd be like "round up the usual suspects," you know?
Cosmik: And see how many ways you can find to work a catalog to death.
Chris: Yeah, to death. And no pictures, no notes, no names, no nothing. I knew a lot of the people when I heard them. It was funny, I would hear a group and I would know their names, but what did that all mean? It was useless information until I went to Heartbeat. Then I'd be talking to Mr. Dodd, and I'd say "Look, you know, we're going to put this out with these artists... do you have photographs?" and he'd says "Well, I have photographs of this and this," and so on, and I was just amazed because he'd never used them. I said "Aaaah, good, let's just do it right. You deserve it. We should promote you like you're Motown." But the problem is that with recording dates and side men and all that, there just aren't any lists on any of the records. Most records don't even have the names of the groups. They just have the names of the songs.
Cosmik: So that ability to pick out the artists by listening paid off by this time.
Chris: Well, you know, if you get a reel-to-reel from someone like Mrs. Pottinger, there might be NO dates on it, and you listen and you know it's "Survival" by Marcia Griffiths, but it might not even say it's her. Then there'll be like five songs, and you have to listen real closely to the reels, because they might be five songs they were going to work on, or going to release, so they took more notes about them, and there'll be seven songs on the reel with two songs they never bothered to write down anything about. So you really have to go in and document everything that's on each of the reels.
Cosmik: Your documentation on the Pottinger compilation is what made me aware of you, and I started learning a lot, beyond just listening and loving reggae. I learned something there, and in almost all your liner notes after. In this case, I learned to listen for the sound of that piano in Pottinger's studio, and now I can hear it.
Chris: Well, what I try to do with liner notes is... You know, music is not just technical. There's a mood, there's a reason why a lot of records were recorded. It's a mood, sometimes... how it documents the mood you're in, like a sad song makes you cry, a happy song makes you happy. That's very trite, but in a way it's true, too, so to disregard why someone did something, and just put out things like a lot of the collections I get from other labels, that's... Well, it's so jarring how they go from one type of song to the next without any concept of why a song would flow better from this song into that song than the one they had actually chosen. And how many reggae CDs do you own that after you've listened to them for 15 minutes, you just go "I don't want to listen to this anymore. It's better on shuffle." That way, at least, there's a 10-second breakoff between the songs, so you don't get a headache after listening to it.
Cosmik: Why do you think that happened?
Chris: I think what happened was when I first got into the business, we had six or seven songs per side, and it was all on vinyl, so you were able to put out, maybe if you were lucky, 14 songs on a record, sometimes maybe 16. You had side A and side B, and you wanted side B to be strong as well, so you started thinking of how to sequence, and sequencing was always an art in the 60s and 70s. There's many records, whether it's on Motown or it's a Beatles record or whatever that you listen to, and it's just seamless the way it holds together and feels, and you could never conceptually believe that it could be otherwise. It's so perfect. Rubber Soul, to me, even the American version, though I got used to the English version, I thought it was pretty brilliant the way the American version sounded. Every time you heard the next song you thought "Ooo, wow! That song's unbelievable," and then the next song fit just right and you'd say "Wow! This is fantastic." I was saying "Why can't we do this for reggae? People always say to me, "Oh, reggae all sounds the same." I'll say "No it doesn't, it all sounds different to me." But I'm definitely a fan. All they hear is the chicka-chicka-chicka type thing and that's all they focus on.
Cosmik: Or that every song starts with a drum beat, and they stop hearing differences from there.
Chris: Right. So I would just try to put a whole record together that I thought would interest them to listen to the whole record. Some records you can do that with, and some records, you know, as much as you try it just doesn't work. I was listening to this Pottinger one and I was saying "I started this collection with a ten minute Culture version of 'This Train.' How did I ever decide to do that?! What was I thinking?" You know, ten minutes for one song to start a record? Sometimes I think, when I wake up I go "God, why did I ever sequence The Soul Defenders at Studio One?" Mr. Dodd, that was something he did himself, and he sent me the cassette, and the cassette was just brilliant. But the thing about the cassette was it was all the vocal groups together, and sometimes two or three songs by the same group together, then another two or three by another group together, and then at the end it was all the instrumentals. And I just said "What would happen if you didn't like instrumentals as much? You'd get to the last part of the album and you'd turn it off." So I was forced to re-sequence it, but Mr. Dodd's original sequence had such a mood to it that it was very difficult for me to envision what I could do. It was one of those things where you work on it for days and days thinking "How can I make this record sound exactly as magical as I think it is?"
Cosmik: At what point were you first rubbing shoulders with the artists and producers?
Chris: In the 70s. I would go down to Joe Gibbs' and they didn't know who I was, so they would actually let me in the studio. Which is one of the things I was saying about being white. They would let you into the studio, and I actually saw the Words Of Wisdom album, by Dennis Brown, being recorded at Joe Gibbs'.
Cosmik: Wow... There's a lifetime memory for ya. Because you were white. Weird.
Chris: What else, let's see... You know, you'd just go around. I went to Aquaria, Harry J's, and especially if you had friends with you, like I had friends from Germany and they'd say "Oh, we love reggae," so I'd say "Well then let's go to the studio," and we would drive over and walk around to see what was happening. My father did this show called Nuggets For The Needy, which was a charity event, and Byron Lee's band was the backing band, but there was always a lot of local singers who were popular that he would back, so you'd have Alton [Ellis], or Marcia [Griffiths] or whoever, so you'd see them. I also saw a lot of [Toots &] The Maytals because Pluto went to my high school. He played in one of the backing bands. When he was still in high school he played in a band that backed Toots a lot. Then I went to see James Brown a couple of times when he came to Jamaica, and they would have opening acts, always like three or four bands with four or five artists. But was I really close to any particular personality? No, not really. It was only when I started working here that I really got to know people.
Cosmik: You'd been compiling all this knowledge for a long time. Was there a goal in mind for that, or was it something you just did?
Chris: Well, my mother always said that it was amazing that all those years of doing that actually panned out to be something, but no, no, I just did it because I liked it. I never really thought that there was any reason to do it. Was there any point in writing anything down? No, but then years later a lot of the pictures and newspaper clippings mattered. I mean, from the 60s on I was cutting out newspaper clippings that talked about bands. Now why would I do that? I don't know, but I did it, and it didn't mean anything until... there it was and I was using it. I'd go into a record shop and there'd be a picture of Alton Lewis, and I'd say "Oh, a picture of Alton Lewis! Give it to me!" And he'd say "No." I'd come back later and say "Give me that picture of Alton Lewis," and he'd say "No!" I'd come back again and say "That picture of Alton Lewis... Give it to me." "No."
Cosmik: [Laughs] Now! And the U-Roy picture in the cash register. That couldn't really work, right?
Chris: I'd come back like a week later and say "Hey, give me the picture of Alton Lewis," and the guy would look at me and say "If you buy ten singles, I'll give you the picture." Okay, sure, why not? [Laughs.]
Cosmik: Because you were going to buy twice that many anyway.
Chris: Yeah, I'll take the picture, sure. So in that way I got to know the people at the shops. I really knew the people more at the record shops in the early days, so they always knew that I was more interested in things because I was a little more... unusual, let's say. I stuck out in people's minds, so they always remembered me. I used to buy a lot of records from this guy named Herman Chin-Loi. He had a label called Aquarius, and a shop, also called Aquarius. Before he had the studio, I'd go to the store and I'd bring a list of singles, because he had a connection in Miami, and I'd say "Get me 'My Little Red Book,' by Love." Then he'd buy three or four copies of each of the things I asked for, plus one for me, then when the other kids would come in he'd have those records. When I talked to him years later, when he was living in Miami, because he'd become a Christian, he remembered me as a guy who used to buy "the devil's music." But it was funny that still, after twenty years, he remembered me.
Cosmik: Sure he remembered you. He used you as a barometer, it sounds like.
Chris: Yeah, because I'd hear about groups and things about records. And also, I realized that sometimes there'd be a Doors single that wasn't on the album, so I was also collecting like that. One of the other reasons I collected Jamaican music was you'd see Studio One records, and you liked Studio One so you'd buy those albums, then you'd realize that the singles you like aren't on the albums. And you'd go "Huh!?" So that's one of the reasons I always collected Studio One, for example, because if you liked a song you had to buy it. It might not end up on an album. Here in America you always put the hits on the album. He didn't.
Cosmik: Pretty clever, really, because I'm sure there were a lot of people buying the albums and the singles for the same reasons you were.
Chris: When I went to a shop, I'd just say "Hey, what do you have that's new from Studio One," and they'd pull out a pile. I wouldn't even listen to 'em. I'd listen to stuff from more obscure labels to see if I wanted to buy those. Anything on Studio One, I just bought it.
Cosmik: When did you find time to sleep? You must have been up all night listening to your new records all the time.
Chris: No, you couldn't really listen to much stuff because you're parents would [disapprove], so no, there were times that it took years for me to realize that I actually owned a song. When you're a kid, you have your favorites and you play them like fifty times in a row, and then some of the other ones, you'd never really hear them, especially if they were blanks. In the blank label era, your favorite song would be on the A-side, and the B-side would be another song, as opposed to later on when the B-side would be an instrumental of it.
Cosmik: Versions. I like the dub sides of a lot of records.
Chris: Yeah. But these were like two-sided singles, so you might not even know you had a great song on the flip side because you'd only listened to the hit side.
Cosmik: When did you make the discovery?
Chris: Probably in the 80s is when I began to realize what I had, because that's when I started to write down what was on each single. I'd never done that before. They were just blanks, and I left them blank.
Cosmik: What was your route from "extremely well informed reggae fan" to being able to put it all to use at Rounder Records?
Chris: I left Jamaica in '69 and came to Boston. I went to Boston College, and then I transferred to Boston University. I graduated in '74 or '75. Then I went back to Jamaica and worked for a little while, then came back here and worked here. I was going to go to graduate school, and that's when I ended up in the band, around late 1979. Nobody was doing anything like what we were doing, and people were really excited about it, but we didn't bother to come out until late '80, early '81. Then I was working as a textbook manager at Harvard University, and our band got a job to go and play in the Caribbean, and Harvard wouldn't give me the time off so I quit. When I came back I didn't have any work, so I went to Rounder, and they just happened to be doing reggae. I said "Oh, well I'll get you a Studio One." Because nobody had done a Studio One in like ten or fifteen years. They didn't believe me, but it turned out that I did sixty Studio One albums for them, so I was right. But see, Mr. Dodd knew because I'd been a follower of him.
Cosmik: You probably sounded like you were blowing hot air at first, I mean to them, because they'd probably heard it before, but you had the key to the vault.
Chris: Yeah, in a way. Mr. Dodd took a chance with me, like he'd taken a chance with others who came in there and were young. He saw something in me and he knew I knew his stuff. I think that the reason why I have worked with him for so many years is when he saw the first Best Of Studio One, he thought it was a wicked collection. Something worthy of putting out. He presses it himself in Jamaica.
Cosmik: You mean still?
Chris: Yeah, I press it and he presses it.
Cosmik: What's he like to work with?
Chris: He's... very much old school. To me he's like my dad in the business, because he gave me my start, and he knows how devoted I am to him and his label. I probably am a better employee for him, in a way, than some of the people who have worked for him over the years. I respect him to the max, and I think that he realized, by how I do the records, that that's true. And we just like each other. We get along. This will be our twentieth year working together. I'm not saying it'll last forever, but I think that at his age and my age, the fact that we've weathered all the storms that we've had, even if we don't work together I know we'll be friends. He has his opinion on how things should be done, and sometimes I get the records I really want, and sometimes I get his version of my record, where he says "You can get these songs, but not those songs." Do I understand exactly what goes into the process of making those decisions? I don't, but I've gotten some pretty brilliant records out, so I mean it's a symbiotic relationship and you just work within the system that you've got to operate in. I don't know a better way to say it. Nothing in life is perfect, but I think some people, if they were going to work with him, they'd be saying "Give me this!" and "Give me that!" And when they don't get it they'd pout. I just realize that when you work on these records, you envision them, but then he envisions them as well, and somewhere in between we meet. A compromise.
Cosmik: And I guess you ultimately have to respect the fact that he was there when these songs were born. He delivered them.
Chris: Oh yeah! [Laughs.] Definitely. Oh, God, yeah, you can't tell him his business, he's like the father of all Jamaican music. On so many levels, culturally, he's influenced so many things that have happened in Jamaica; politics, entertainment, philosophy, values of the society. He's all over the map. The first black entrepreneur to succeed in Jamaica, etc, you know, he's just massively important.
Cosmik: How does a project start at Heartbeat?
Chris: The owners and I sit down and I tell them what records I want to put out. They nix a good amount of them, and having other people to talk to about it you start to see, you know, yeah it's really great idea, but it would never sell enough to [break even]. There are a lot of great ideas, and in a way that's why I like some of those little labels that put out records I might have thought of putting out but I couldn't because I wouldn't have been able to make anything with it, but they can seemingly make something with it, so the records come out.
Cosmik: Or they don't mind not breaking even just so they can put something out there.
Chris: Or they put out three great records and then you never see them again. But it's hard to make money on marginal stuff.
Cosmik: We understand the non-profit thing here. The upside is I get to interview people I respect who do important work instead of being forced to talk to the flavor of the month. The downside is there isn't a profit.
Chris: I think most people today who really like music do it for no profit.
Cosmik: Isn't that the sad truth?
Chris: Even if they work for a record company.
Cosmik: Yeah. I think the only ones making the big profit are the ones who are putting out the crap.
Chris: Yeah... but they're not making too much money, either.
Cosmik: You really think the majors aren't doing it? You think they're on the level?
Chris: Oh yeah. Like even Avril Lavigne [ed.note: he joyfully pronounced it la-vig-nee] sold four million records, but Alannis Morrisette sold seven million records in the same time period in 1995. We're just not selling records at the same volume that we used to. That means something.
Cosmik: We've been running articles about the artist's end of the deal. It's sad to learn they have to sell about two million copies before they see a penny when they're on a major.
Chris: Majors spend an incredible amount of money on different budgets. A cheap video for a major is $200,000 to $250,000 dollars, and sometimes they need three or four. Million dollar videos are not unheard of.
Cosmik: That's insanity, in my opinion. The promotional budget is over the top, and the artist can't cover it.
Chris: Yeah, but you know, you have to do it. For example, even for a reggae album today, we can spend anywhere from $15 to $20 to $50,000 promoting an album.
Cosmik: Seriously? As much as I love reggae, I know the audience isn't huge, so I'd think it wouldn't be worth putting out that much. That the payoff wouldn't be that good.
Chris: That's what I'm saying.
Cosmik: So... I guess... why do it?
Chris: You have no choice, because if you want to put records into Tower and get it positioned and everything, you have to pay for it. It's like a supermarket; if you get placement in the racks, if you get on top of the racks, if you get on the end of the racks, if you get on listening posts, they're all different charges.
Cosmik: Are you guaranteed to lose money on a reggae album?
Chris: On a few, yes. And then on some, in the old days you would just have them as catalog stuff and you could make money on that, but you're not making money on it anymore. Like The Maytones, for example, would be a hard record to make any money on, because nobody knows who they are and [the record stores] won't take in a lot of stock.
Cosmik: So digging into the vaults really isn't what it used to be.
Chris: Yeah, so you don't see me doing it so much.
Cosmik: The schedule at Heartbeat used to be pretty fast paced, but now it's been cut back drastically. What you're saying about the vaults lines up pretty much with what I read in a few articles, that you were going to shift your focus to working with individual artists.
Chris: Well, I always wanted to do that anyway. You talk about a five year plan... When I first came here I looked at what the company needed, and I said "Heartbeat needs a catalog." Stuff that would just keep selling until we could start taking advantage, like we could do Spear and artists like that. So I spent five, or actually a lot longer than five, years developing what I considered a strong catalog for them. Motown meets reggae. The Studio One, Treasure Isle, Mrs. Pottinger stuff, that kind of quality that would be the underpinning of the company, and then we could start going and working with individual artists like Michael Rose, Burning Spear, Everton Blender, now Culture, and whoever else. That's really what I wanted to do for the company: put out less records and spend more time on them. Single artists need a lot more nurturing. They need a lot more work. I always wanted to do that. What we're doing right now, even though it's less records, it's more like what I wanted to do.
Cosmik: Do you ever think you'll miss the vault hunting a bit?
Chris: I don't know. You look at the sales today versus when I first started doing it and you follow the pattern, and you realize it's taking more time, more effort and more money to sell less copies of that old stuff. So in a way, you're saying to yourself, "I'll always love doing it, and I will do it sometimes, but I'd rather do Culture or Burning Spear, whatever I feel about that old music." I'd rather work with a current artist who has a career and needs someone behind them who has knowledge of what the business is about, because when I was a musician, nobody was ever helping me. Nobody ever told me that this was a good idea or that was a bad idea, or let's take advantage of this or that. This is really more important for the careers of the people that I like than whether I put out another Reggae Train or another Jack Ruby album, as much as I love doing them. The Jack Ruby was an epiphany for me because it was all those records that I really loved, and who could believe that I was going to put them out?
Cosmik: As long as you still do them now and then, Chris.
Chris: Oh yeah, I'll still do some. There's a lot of other people doing it, too. That's another thing I look at. I look at Blood and Fire, Soul Jazz, even all those thousands of Trojan albums that come out. What, 52 songs for $13.99. I always wonder how anybody can make any money off it. Well, you know, only Trojan can make money off of it. We've got to the point where it's such an industry and we're doing it so badly on the base level... What most people on these other labels are doing, if you want to know my opinion, apart from a few sporadic releases here in there, my general opinion is they're not helping. They're hindering. And I'd rather not be in that market right now, because I've seen the quality deteriorate, and I think the hardcore collectors will like it, but I want to do for the average listener what happened to me and open a door to another world for them. Then to have bad records that sound awful, are badly sequenced, from dubious sources, without any love, care or thought, and then to expect there to be any reggae industry by the time you put out 30 of these, you know, it's just not going to happen. We're just going to dumb down our audience and a lot of people are going to turn away from reggae and say "this all really sounds like junk." So I have to say "what I was doing is now yesterday's fashion" and let somebody else do it. I'll do something else.
Cosmik: They're considering dropping the reggae category from the Grammys because there aren't enough albums turned in for consideration. Why is that?
Chris: You have a big label like VP that's only pushing one or two artists. They don't want to push every single artist they have, which is really what the Grammys is asking them to do, is to enter everybody so they can have X amount of options, but the economic downturn has been very hard on labels like RAS, Shanachie, Heartbeat, and I don't know who else is still out there putting out records. The little guys just don't have the wherewithall. They figure if they only sold 1,500 copies, "Why would I bother to enter it in the Grammys? I'll never win." If VP is pushing Sean Paul, Beres Hammond and Wayne Wonder, and they have Everton Blender on their label, why would they push Everton Blender? They might put out a couple hundred albums a year, but they aren't entering many. In dancehall, they're basically the game.
Cosmik: That's for sure. I don't learn anything from those records, though. Maybe a list of who played, maybe not. When I read your liner notes, my feeling is that you enjoy the role of "teacher." Do you like passing knowledge on to people this way?
Chris: I want people to believe in it. It's not that I'm trying to teach people, I'm just saying "this stuff is really important, because it's about a human who felt something and lived something and suffered in ways that most Americans don't really even understand." You're talking about guys who were huge recording stars with no money.
Cosmik: You mean even in Jamaica there was no money in it for the stars? I thought it was just a problem on the international level.
Chris: Everton Blender's on my label, and he was telling me he couldn't believe how many of the artists, who he worshipped when he was coming up, didn't own a home before he did, and they had been singing for twenty years already. I mean, Dennis Brown just finally owned a house within the last eight or nine years of his life.
Cosmik: That's stunning, because he's a legend.
Chris: There are guys out there who have been singing for fifty years in Jamaica and don't own a house. Big stars without cars. But the newer breed of Jamaican singers, business is a lot better for them. Then again, if you were a big star in the 1960s in any genre of music, and you haven't had a hit in over thirty years, you tell me if you have money. It doesn't matter if it's blues or Motown or whatever.
Cosmik: That's true. Unless you have choice songwriting credits and were smart enough to hold on to the copyrights, and then invest wisely. Not many people did all that.
Chris: Think about those doo-wop groups. I mean, thank God for those massive tours.
Cosmik: That's keeping them alive now. Well, that's not exactly fair, because who knows how many of them are fine from whatever they did after music, but for a lot of them, that's their retirement money.
Chris: Exactly, you get to retire after you die. That's really what a lot of those guys have to do. Sing right up until their death.
Cosmik: The silver lining there is that, you know, as opposed to someone working in a sweat shop somewhere, most of them are doing what they love to do right up until their death. And singing in front of fans that still adore them.
Chris: Yeah, I agree, that's the one thing, and I'm hoping that I'll do Heartbeat, or something like Heartbeat. I don't want to retire. Not just that it's fun, but what else is there to do. Sit around and watch television, weeding in the back yard?
Cosmik: Do you try to keep things from getting stale?
Chris: For many years I've wanted to produce an album. Normally I go to Jamaica and the artist would produce the record, and I'd say "Well, I don't like this song," or "That arrangement isn't any good," or "Do this" or "Do that," but for the most part it was somebody else producing the album. I had a conversation with Everton Blender and I said "Look, let me produce a record for you, because all those great singers did a 70s album, but in the 70s, you weren't singing, and yet you're like a 70s style singer. So let's do a 70s-style album." You know, with real drums and that old style of how they did things. Play live. Go into the studio and play with a band. He was skeptical about it at first. He liked the idea, but he wasn't sure it would work. So I did one song, a do-over, which was easy because he knew the lyrics. We did it and it worked, so we just did three songs here and two songs there. I heard a bunch of young guys playing that old style in L.A., so I said "I'll play a couple instruments, and we'll do my songs." So I got them together and they did some songs for me, and now they have their own band. They're called The Agrolites. They used to be called The Vessels, then they morphed into The Agrolites. They have a record - it might be just coming out - called Dirty Reggae. They're not a punk band, but they're kind of like that Hepcat type of thing.
Cosmik: Kind of ska with a bit of punk attitude? Crossover between U.S. ska and reggae?
Chris: Right, but they're more like early '68, '69. So they do a kind of pop-a-pop organ stuff, you know, like early Clancy Eccles. What happened is that I got a few of them together with some other guys and they all liked each other, and they'd only known of each other but hadn't met each other, so this little project got a lot of things going for everybody. So they did some of the songs, and some songs I did here, and some were done in Jamaica. It's not really a 70s thing, but it's closer to a 70s thing than what Blender's been doing.
[Check out some clips from this Heartbeat released by Everton Blender, which was released on August 12th: "Do Good," "False Tongue" and "Throw Down".]
Cosmik: How does Everton feel about it?
Chris: Oh, he likes it. I mean, he sang seventeen or eighteen songs, so he liked it. I also got Robbie Lyn and Dean Fraser and his horn section, and a lot of different musicians on every track. We had this guy in L.A., and I showed him a drum pattern I wanted him to play. When I showed the recording to Dean Fraser he said "Hey, how did you get Sly [Dunbar] to play like that?" I didn't say it wasn't Sly, I just smiled.
Cosmik: [Laughs.] I'll bet you that drummer loved hearing that.
Chris: Yeah! He's just a kid in his early twenties.
Cosmik: And he's telling everybody in the world that story by now. I would be.
Chris: But it was a Sly type of drum pattern.
Cosmik: You're also working with one of the greatest reggae artists in the world, in my opinion. A few of them, actually, because you've got Spear and Everton's great, but I'm talking about Joseph Hill right now. Is this the first time working with Culture?
Chris: Yes, first time.
Cosmik: What has it been like to work with Joseph?
Chris: Great. We've known each other off and on for many years now. We always had Spear and Culture was always with RAS, so basically we liked each other but we rarely crossed paths.
Cosmik: Definitely one of my idols. Such an important artist because of the way he promotes peace.
Chris: He's one of my idols, too. You know, working with him on this record, I was saying to myself, and to him a few times, it's just amazing that all these years later it takes this album for us to work together. But I think everything happens in its time.
Cosmik: I always see him as the sage on the hill, keenly observing everything that's going on, you know, things that make people hostile, but he's still calling for peace. I don't think anyone's done it quite the way he does it.
Chris: One thing I can say about Joseph, something I really respect about him, is I see him as a deeply religious person who is not only religious but lives the convictions of his faith. Not just lip service, not fashion. I think that makes him an incredibly important person, because he's able to see in a humble way his own role in the world, which a lot of artists, after a while, they get so egocentric that they forget it's about the world around them more than it's about them. He's of the world.
Cosmik: He sounds a dozen years younger on this album than on his last one. Did you notice it? Why is that?
Chris: Because somebody told him that he was beautiful again. Somebody took him seriously and sat down and tried to understand him as an artist. Someone thought about him and believed in him as a person and as an artist. We talked a lot before we did this record. I mean he and I talked for seven months before we even did the contract. I would visit him while I was doing other records, and we would talk. I'd say "Don't sign a contract until you see me as who I am. Look at me and get my measure. I know who you are, but you don't know who I am." Then both of us came to the realization that we wanted to work together. Before he did this one, he told me he didn't want to do another record. He was thinking he'd done it, he'd been there, and he'd done another record. I just said "Hey, your voice is too important. If I believed you were ready to quit, that you'd done it all, then I'd tell you, but I don't believe you're ready to quit." So he did the record and then I started to listen to it and I said "You tellin' me you were ready to quit? It doesn't sound like it."
Cosmik: It sounds more like he's ready to start again, brand new. It's a great album. Classic Culture but with way more power than we've heard in ages. I love all of it, but especially "World Peace" and "Time Is Getting Harder." And "Segregation," too. It's loaded.
Chris: He was so prepared when he came in. When he did "Segregation," it was the second song he did on the first day. All those stops and the little kind of jerky thing, it was all written before the band played it, and he was trying to explain to them when he wanted his little stall. Then they just got it, and it sounded like R&B, the way they were doing it, and I thought it sounded so good without any vocals on it. It's got the most wicked rhythm track. It was so international. He's been doing this for years, but he's found a way to be Joseph Hill with an international vibe on top of it. And then they start to layer it. The layering kind of disguises the fact that the backing track is so strong.
Cosmik: The backing tracks are pure power all the way through this one, too. Punch. It's exciting music.
Chris: He really knows what he's doing. He had all the lyrics written, some of the bass lines are his... I was very impressed with him.
Cosmik: So the place your career is in right now really does make perfect sense. I'm glad you did all that cataloging first, though, because a lot of us learned from it. You spent all that time in the vaults and hunting for things, finding things... After all that, what do you consider the most exciting moments? The ones that are still exciting to look back on.
Chris: I'll give you a few, in no particular order, because they were all big. Playing Bob Marley and the Wailers at Studio One on the original one track machine it was recorded on, and actually holding the tape. That, I thought, was pretty unbelievable. Another thing that was great was looking at Jack Ruby's tapes and realizing that a rat had been there before me and had chewed a lot of them.
Cosmik: Oh! Yeah, I guess that's exciting, too, like heart-stopping. Or heart-breaking, more like.
Chris: Going to Lee Perry's house and saying to him "You know, look at that big pile of your tapes stacked in your front yard, full of dirt and having been rained on. That's your legacy. You shouldn't be doing that. You should take care of your tapes." And he's saying to me "Aw, whatever you want, take it.
Cosmik: [Laughs.] Incredible!!
Chris: Another one... Listening to "Too Long In Slavery" and "Down In Jamaica" from the original eight-track tapes.
Cosmik: Oooh, wow, did you get to do some fader-surfing and listen to individual tracks?
Chris: Yes, that was amazing. And same with some Burning Spear tapes. Those things will always be exciting to remember.
Cosmik: I guess there's only one thing left to ask. Is there something out there you want? A Holy Grail you'd like to find in some vault?
Chris: Ah. Yes, there are a few Holy Grails I'd like to find someday, but I'm not going to say what they are or someone else just may read this and get there first.