Sugar Minott – Father of Dancehall
Sugar Minott is one of the foundation artists and producers of reggae music from roots to dancehall and raggamuffin, with a string of famous hits from ‘Vanity’ to ‘Herbsman Hustling’. He’s also been one of the most active independent promoters of young singers through his own record labels and soundsystems. He’s one of the artists who stayed a yard, and today he still lives in the Maxfield Park area in Kingston, Jamaica, close to his beloved Studio One.
Starting in 1969, from his work with the African Brothers, through Studio One hits in the seventies, and pioneering dancehall styles in the 1980s with Youthman Promotions, Sugar Minott has never been far from the action, and he continues to record and tour worldwide. On a recent visit to England, he spoke to I-Dread from UK Reggae Guide.
Sugar Minott, thanks for talking to us today. I want to take you back to the start, when you used to sell records.
I started off playing sound system, as a box boy, carrying equipment for sound, and get to start playing on the sound. I used to do a lot of odd-jobs, but I decided I wanted to stay in the music business, so I started selling records. So I could be in the same business. I used to do other things but it was taking me away from the music.
What was the first reggae record to stick in your mind?
Well, if you talk abut that you have to talk about ska days. Well, the first song that really was outstanding to me, and I still say this man is the author of dancehall, that is Prince Buster. He is the man who start everything as far as I am concerned. A song called Burke’s Law. Started like this … He hums a brass line. As kids, we loved that.
And ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’, by Delroy Wilson. Song like that and Roland Alphonso, ‘Something special.” They were the first songs I remember.
You had your first hit with ‘Vanity’.
That was my first big hit. I used to sell African Brothers records, cos it started off with African Brothers, a group with me and Tony Tuff, and Micro Music bought us out, Matt Johnson, God bless him. Later we worked for Coxsone and a couple of other producers.
When I sold records, I used to sell Dennis Brown records just like that. People would say, yeah man, sell me one of that. Then I used to play some African Brothers record, and make some big skank on that, and the people them love it, but they say, ‘Next week mon, we up for that one’. But them always wanted Dennis Brown.
So I say, why can’t I have a song like that? So Dennis Brown was kind of a first inspiration to make that song, cos I did feel I wanted to make a song that I wouldn’t have to force people to buy!
So I turned to nursery rhymes, something that would be catchy but that had some meaning to it. So I changed round the nursery rhymes, yunno, to fit something.
‘Old King Cole was a merry old soul but he lost his gold’, or ‘Little Miss Mary quite contrary, she has silver bells and copper shells but no food in her garden’ – it’s a vanity. When the song came out, it was a big hit, people didn’t know I sing it. So the song came out of Dennis Brown. He inspired me to do that, to do a song that would just go by itself.
How was it you got the name Sugar?
That was from kid’s days, yunno. They used to tease me and call me Sugar Belly, yunno! Yeah. They say I was fat. They say, yuh eat up a bag of sugar! But after a while them just called me ‘Sugar’. So I say, well, it not sound so bad. So the people start to say, ‘Yuh sing sweet, it match up to how you sing’. So, my first song I had as Lincoln Minott, but all my friends didn’t know that I was called Lincoln, so they didn’t believe me that I was on the record. So I had to tell Sir Coxsone, the next time you should put it Sugar Minott, that’s how it came about.
Back to your days at Studio One, what made you break away and set up your own label, Youth Promotions?
I wanted to sing a different type of music, and Coxsone don’t want to put out that kind of music. At that time – well, I was making no money – but I said, well let me sing some song for myself and I’ll sing another song for you, but he didn’t want to do that, so I couldn’t create all that I wanted to do. So, I had to break off. I had stayed there lots of time without being in a contract. They weren’t giving me no money, and when they wanted to sign me again, it was all small change. I did lots of reality songs at Studio One but Coxsone wouldn’t put that out. I would be singing a song about, oh, suffering, in Africa … and him say, ‘Nah man, yunno, everybody a suffer!’ Ha ha ha!
So I thought, here, I figure, I will start doing my own thing. My first production, Ghettoology, that’s the kind of song I wanted to make. I took one song, from long time, ‘Never give Jah up’, because I did love that song. Michigan and Smiley came on the riddim and they start say ‘Mary Mary…’! Copying my thing, right! Then I went to sing ‘River Jordan’, cos I couldn’t go back on the same thing.
How did the name Youth Promotion come around?
When I left Coxsone, I didn’t have no-one to turn to to make music. So I checked Chinna Smith, and there was a band called Soul Syndicate band, used to play in our neighbourhood, so I asked them if they could help me out. Some people gave me $800, to get tapes and studio time. Those guys came and played for free, I couldn’t pay them, God bless them. There was some lickle kids around. Steely and dem, Tony Tuff, Tristan Palmer, Little John, Rod Taylor. So it all started in Maxwell Park.
So all the youth was saying, there is a youth making them own music, we can go check him. So everyone was checking me, it wasn’t planned. There was a lot of youth around, so I said, well, it’s youth promoting themselves, so let’s call it Youth Promotion. I didn’t want to make a label saying Black Sugar Minott, I figure they will be jealous, why would they want to sing on Sugar Minott label, or Jammys or Scorpio, so I said Black Roots because everybody could identify with that.
How did you meet Tenor Saw and Nitty Gritty?
Well those were kids who were finding me from out of the woodwork. Some coming from country, some come with one pair of pants, some would come live in my yard for months and dey say ‘Father, mi want buss yunno’. Them youth want to get a start for themselves, Tenor Saw and Little John and all, so I use my name to bring them up. So, I was doing a dubplate at King Jammys, on the Pumpkin Belly riddim, and there was three songs on the dubplate and there was supposed to be four. So Tenor Saw was there and he said, ‘Father, I have something for that riddim now’. Now I was supposed to do all four, but Tenor Saw said, ‘Make me do something there on that one’, so I said ‘Okay, take that spot there’. So he sing ‘How water walk go a pumpkin belly’, and that’s it, history after that.
Shortly afterwards, Minott’s Youthman Productions arranged a big soundclash with three other crews, Prince Jammys, Arrows and Black Scorpio. Four big sounds on a one big lawn… On the Stalag riddim, Tenor Saw took the mike on the Youthman Sound, and started chanting:
Tee-ta-toe, see them all in a row,
Four big sounds in one big lawn,
One sound play, and the others go down
Ring the Alarm, another sound is dying!
People was just coming from all over, yunno? And Youth Promotions, you know, we are not a record company, we don’t sign artists. It’s just to help them on their careers. They don’t have to stay there ten years or sign away their publishing. We don’t do that. It’s a non-profit. Black Roots is my record company, when you come on Black Roots then we have to pay, it’s a different business.
How did it come about with Musical Youth (who had a big hit with ‘Pass the dutchie’)?
Well, that’s when I had a good thing going touring with the Lovers rock. I went to Birmingham, met these kids from long time. They used to come to the studio with us, come and hang around. So when I had a good thing going, they were my opening act on our tour. People used to laugh at us, that they were just kids. ‘How are you carrying these kids?’ After that tour, we came back, I sent for Jackie Mittoo to come from Canada and made the parts for the tune. And the rest is history. That was the first gigs out of Birmingham, when Steel Pulse were still coming up.
You have seen many musical changes over the years. In fact, you are known as father of dancehall?
Yeah man, father of dancehall and King of Lovers rock too! Ha ha ha ha! Cos in England, people know me as Lovers rock. In Jamaica, I can’t sing no Lovers rock, they would take me off the stage. Maybe it’s a good thing. Dancehall nowadays, it’s not much different you know, it’s just that the youths is more radical now, in lyrics. What we used to say in parable, they say straight out.
It’s irresponsible, dancehall right now, dancehall is an illusion. There’s no real dancehall. There’s all radio songs. You go to the radio and hear the same thing in the dance, that makes no difference. That used to be the party. We need to get back to the real thing. In a dance, you are supposed to hear new songs that are going to come out for artists, look forward to this song, yunno? And you hear a variety of songs, not just one thing all night. Jamaican dancehall, they differentiate dancehall from reggae, because they couldn’t find a catchy word for DJ. They didn’t know what to call the DJ music so they called it dancehall.
See, there used to be a lot more singing in the dancehall, it belongs to the DJ right now. It was not like that before. The music was not radio music. The Heptones didn’t go to number one on the radio, they were number one in the dance. The Far East riddim. The Sleng Teng didn’t go to number one on the radio, but it was number one in the dance all over the world. That’s real dancehall music.
So what about today’s digital music?
Music takes different forms all the time, but it always come back to the same thing in the long run. The people venture around with ideas and they get fed up. Look at all the old riddims that people try to bring back. All the DJs trying to go on old riddims. A style is a style, it’s not real. Yunno? Do the ska. Do the gully. Do the locomotive. Everybody do it for a while, a year or two, yunno? It’s a fashion style. It always come back to the one drop. (Sings) ‘Feel it in the one drop’. You remember it had the rockers. Then the flying cymbal. Now every song has this sound ‘Wah wah wah’… But how long can you take it? It always come back to the roots.
But the youth, them doing their own thing. I don’t fight them, I kind of support them in what they do. But I kind of stay away from certain kind of lyrics. When they go and fight and disrespect in the music business, I stay away from that. It have to come straight. If you are having a party, it has to nice me up, or if you’re trying to educate me, with a message. Something, yunno, not to divide, and to make war.
Can you tip us off to some of your new artists?
My kids have a group now, my daughter Fire Passion is a chanter. They have a company called KKI. We have a couple of youths in there now, it’s like they are taking over the thing! You can look forward to a whole new generation of artists coming out now.