“Really well done and a wonderful intimate look at history” – Roger “RoJah” Steffens
The Roots Radics played the soundtrack to my youth. A group of musicians who transformed the sound of reggae in the late 1970s and early 1980s, taking the deeply orthodox roots reggae sound developed a decade earlier and slowing it down, adding a psychofunk element to it, and tightening the screws on the riddims, making each one a ballistic missile aimed straight at the heart of Babylon.
Eroll “Flabba” Holt formed the Radics with friend and fellow musician Eric “Bingy Bunny” LaMont after stints with Rupie Edwards’ crew and as bass player for The Morwells. As Flabba explains in David Katz’s fantastic Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, “the band formed gradually over several years in the late 1970s, with members coming and going.”
However by the early 1980s the Radics are a well-oiled machine. Their sole purpose? Translating the sounds that filled Holt’s head into “kill shots” – riddims so hard, so heavy, so danceable that even the hardest rudie a yard might bob his head to it.
March 13, 2013. Washington, DC. Flabba Holt and the Roots Radics are in town with Israel Vibration on their Reggae Kings tour. Flabba feels right at home in this town having spent the last twenty-five years here recording more than twenty Israel Vibration albums and countless other now-legendary roots reggae LPs with Jim Fox at Lion and Fox Recording Studios. It was here in D.C. that the holy trinity of Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin, Albert “Apple” Craig, and Cecil “Skelly” Spence gathered at Lion and Fox in 1987 to record their first album since 1981’s Why You So Craven, and their first album recorded outside of their native Jamaica. Self-produced with the assistance of Doctor Dread, and backed by the mighty Roots Radics, Strength of My Life is nothing short of a modern roots masterpiece. The Radics bring a whole new sound and vibe to Israel Vibration, giving the trio new confidence, strength, and power.
Flabba’s hotel room is something to behold. I sit in a chair near the foot of the bed. A slimmed down and shirtless Flabba Holt tends to his food, which is simmering in a hot pot located on the hotel desk. He looks at the food in the pot. He then looks at me. I sit, nervously waiting for someone to break the tension in the room. Flabba laughs and reaches out to shake my hand.
“Yeah boss we dweet now. You hungry? Need water. You are my guest.”
Feeling unworthy to be interviewing a musician of Flabba’s stature, I start.
“So you guys have been on tour with Israel Vibration for several weeks now. When does the tour wrap up?”
“Tomorrow is the last show, at BB Kings in NYC.”
“BB Kings? That’s where you played last year, the Curse of the Vampires show with Scientist (Dub Champions Festival 2012). How was that?”
“Oh boss, wicked, wicked show you know.”
“How did that show come together?”
“We were doing a gig in Central Park with Israel Vibration, big show. So dis guy he come and say Scientist want do the show with Johnny Osbourne. So I say sure if you can get Scientist we want to do tour with Scientist for long time. De people dem really want us to do a tour with Scientist.”
Rewind to August 2012. I am in the middle of a somewhat testy interview with the legendary Hopeton Overton Brown AKA Scientist, who manages within the first 0:45 seconds of the call to throw me off my game by answering each question with one word answers and insulting my knowledge of reggae.
“So, in your opinion, while the Israel Vibration albums recorded in Jamaica in the late seventies, and those recorded in the U.S. in the late eighties and nineties have a distinctly different sound, you can’t really say that one is better than the other, it is a matter of opinion and taste. Your thoughts?”
“What you want to ask me?” he replies.
“What are your thoughts on that?” I answer, somewhat bewildered.
“The albums. They sound different.” I’m struggling now.
“Quit wasting my time friend. What you are asking me is which sound is better. You wouldn’t know because you don’t know those seventies records” he explains condescendingly.
“No, I do know them. I have them both for many years. Maybe 15 years I’ve been listening to those records,” stumbling over my own explanation.
“Then you would know that there is no comparison. The Jamaican ones are far superior. It is not opinion or taste. It is indisputable fact. I can show you the discography. It does not lie.”
My cell phone starts vibrating. I need to get out of this nightmare. I look at the text. It’s emch from NYC’s Subatomic Sound System.
“Mista Watson, I need to track down Flabba Holt. Just spoke with Scientist few minutes ago. Vampires is a go” says emch in that…emch style.
The coincidence is eerie.
I continue sparring with Scientist for more than an hour, and by the end we start to vibe quite well, both of us chuckling at one point about how uncomfortable the interview had gotten.
A few days later I have the honor of interviewing one of reggae’s living legends, Cecil “Skelly” Spence for a story I was working on about RAS Records, Lion and Fox, and reggae in D.C. Skelly tells me that he is excited about a show they will be playing in Central Park, NYC just a few days later. It hits me. emch!
Flabba stirs his food. He’s thinking about something.
“So lemme tell u likkle story now boss. We were in the studio long time back – Junjo’s studio. It was the usual bredren ya know, we was working on some ting fi Junjo. There is a large glass window, almost like dis one deh (he points to the floor-to-ceiling window on the far side of his hotel room). Every day me a see dis likkle youth, him a barefoot and dirty likkle youth. He don’t go to nobody. Me a catch him look pon us play in de studio day after day. One day I give him some money and gone! Him disappear. But then every time we record in de studio de youth him a come out.”
“So we rehearse inna de studio one day and I say ‘take a break!’ I hear bang bang bang pon de studio door. De likkle youth him want to play on the piano! So I say to him ‘let me see a play a tune.’ When him play de keys something lick me! Si say to de youth play another tune for me.”
“So him come wit dis” says Flabba nodding his head as he starts to sing “Some call it Spanish Town, ah Prison Oval Rock.”
“So I say to de group ‘let de youth play on one track, see what he made of!’ Winston Wright he went crazy and him say ‘no, no, no, no him cyan’ play on any tune.’
“Winston him get very mad ya know. So I threw down me bass and closed de session because dem cyan’ let the youth him play on even one track, one riddim. So I walk all up and down Maxfield Avenue and go back to de studio and dem was still vex! From that day on I stood for dat likkle youth.”
And it’s a good thing he did. That “likkle” youth, born Wycliffe Johnson, would one day revolutionize the sound of reggae by ushering in the digital age with friend and associate Cleveland “Clevie” Browne. A prodigious keyboardist who got his start laying down keys on Augustus Pablo’s “Africa Must Be Free By 1983,” Steelie worked with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer at seminal Jamaican recording studios like Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, Lee (Scratch) Perry’s Black Ark and Sugar Minott’s Youth Promotion. By some estimates he participated in more sessions than anyone else in the history of reggae.
“You see because in Jamaica seen, it a go like dis. Say you and me we play fi Junjo. Me bass and you keyboard. We permanent now! We play permanent fi Junjo! So any other bass or keyboard man come fi play we nah let dem eat. We eat it all up! You see? So the day Steelie sit down in dat chair, me neva work with Winston Wright again.”
This story is an impactful one, so impactful in fact that Flabba may not even comprehend the importance of that moment in the evolution of reggae. In those days, it was almost impossible to break in to the ruff and tumble Jamaican record business. In many ways, the business was an opportunity to escape the oppresive poverty of the Kingston ghettos and it seemed like every youth was searching for a way in. The fact that there were only a handful of studios on the island made the odds almost an impossibility. Flabba decided to take a stand for Steelie Johnson that day at Channel One, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“So it was likkle while later we was on tour with Bunny Wailer somewhere here in de States. Steelie neva know Bunny Wailer, or how him act. Gil Scott Heron opened for Bunny Wailer it was nice place, maybe NYC. Well, during the show Bunny Wailer blow up de whole ting because him vex about some ting. It was embarrassing. That’s the night Steelie tell me he go do his ting with a youth name of Clevie.”
“And the rest is history” I interject, waiting for a response.
But there is none. Flabba looks out the window and down onto Connecticut Avenue. The sun is starting to set and the street is a blaze orange.
This is something that seems to weigh on his mind. He took Steelie under his wing. He looked after him. He helped him navigate the perils of the Jamaican music business; part father figure, part musical mentor, and part spiritual guide. He is almost reliving that moment when Steelie decided to leave the Roots Radics.
Steelie and Clevie of course bring about a digital revolution in reggae, where drum machines and programmed beats have favor over players and instruments. Tragically, he passes away in 2008 from pneumonia he contracted in the hospital while recovering from kidney complications associated with diabetes.
“When I came on the scene people fight me now boss. I never play off of Family Man nor Robbie Shakespeare. I do it on me alone. It was me discover the talent youth now. Eek-A-Mouse, Michael Prophet, Barrington Levy – them youth can sing nice ya know but back when we bring dem on dey don’t know how to bridge it. I haffe teach dem vocally how dis music supposed to sound. I try show dem and dem youth dem eye me ya know. De people don’t know how much I change de sound of dis music. Jah Thomas anotha one. GG Records (Alvin Ranglin’s label) hold audition every Monday and Jah Thomas came to audition. I change his whole sound.”
“Me Pick up a sound,
And me hit down a sound,
And me bump on my tambourine”
He sings to impersonate the old sound of Jah Thomas.
“Me buss him. Sound brand new.”
“Johnny Clarke him too.”
“Everyday you’re wonderin’, wonderin’
What will you do”
He sings to the melody.
“None shall escape the judgement in this time!”
“Me change the sound of those songs all de way. Me buss it.”
“During a time in de 80s all you here everywhere in Jamaica is ‘Chill out, chill out, chill out New Yawk,’” he sings the famous chorus from Black Uhuru’s smash hit single.
“When Gregory (Isaacs) come now, we go in mix the Night Nurse album at Compass Point (Island’s recording studio in Nassau, Bahamas). Him don’t know what to do now.
“What kind of vibe to you and Gregory have in the studio?” I ask.
“Me, I advise Gregory Isaacs on the vocal. Because me myself I am a singer, and I know Gregory’s voice and what it supposed to sound like all over de track. So I advise him. Gregory know I can sing. Remember his song ‘Number One?’ I sing all harmony on that song. Nuff people don’t know that. I don’t talk that ting. But anyway, we going along and most of de riddims and voice was finish.”
By all accounts, most if not all of the riddim tracks were laid down by the Radics at Tuff Gong Studios. It is not clear to me, based on my research and conversation with Holt, whether the tracks were voiced at Tuff Gong or at Compass Point.
“So we are at Compass Point for the session and I thought Gregory was going to stay in Nassau to mix the album. You know what he did to me? One day him say ‘Bassa,’ him call me Bassa, him say ‘Bassa you know what to do.’”
His brow furrows as if perplexed.
“I don’t know what to do! So him leave me there at Compass Point all alone to do the record. It make me worried cuz I nah want to see this record flop. So it was just me and Badarou left to mix the album.”
Wally Badarou was the keyboardist for British pop/rock/jazz/funk fusion band Level 42. Isaacs and Holt go to Compass Point in 1982 in order to the mix the album. However, Mango has made a decision, unbeknownst to Isaacs, that will change the trajectory of his “lonely lover” sound and vibe going forward. With a crossover hit in their sights, Mango brings in Badarou to play a more funky-sounding synthesizer, called the Prophet-5, which adds a whole new element to Gregory’s sound. There were very few musicians at the time who could play the Prophet-5, and Badarou was one of the best. With newly developed technology called patch memory – which allows the player to quickly recall sounds – an unequaled five-voice polyphony, and an organic analog sound, the Prophet-5 is the “king of kings” among synthesizers in 1982.
Flabba grabs the chair away from the hotel room desk and pulls it right up next to me and he begins to play this Prophet-5 synthesizer, striking the bed hard with his fingers and imitating the notes with his voice.
“Bah, bah, bah, baaaaahhh. Hear it? Bah, bah, bah, baaaaahh.”
I sit in amazement as he begins to show me how he constructed one of the most legendary reggae songs of my generation – Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse.” He strikes the bed again like some sort of crazed black Mozart…and he is feeling it. He grabs my left arm and begins to play that bassline – that bassline that pumped through my $25.00 Kenwood speakers in my 1981 Toyota pickup for so many years, the speakers crackling and popping from the punishment Flabba dealt them. Back to synth, then drum, back to left-arm bass guitar. It is nothing short of astounding. He stops suddenly, jumping up as if the show was over.
“Sunday night we mix the album. Evry’ting. One done.”
He wipes his hands away as if to say ‘it was nuttin’ deh boss.’
“Chris Blackwell come to de studio in de morning him seh ‘Flabba you done?’” He laughs.
“Yea mon, me done.”
“But the whole album must be mixed. You can’t done.” Flabba impersonating Blackwell.
“Come now I show you me done! I mix de LP last night. It done.” Flabba shakes his head laughing, enjoying every second of his own story.
“Okay now boss, mus’ ready fi di show.”
And like that, he is done. His one-man show plays for one-night only, and I am the only one lucky enough to witness it.
Flabba grabs his back pack, picks up his bass, and walks away down the hallway. As I watch the living legend disappear around the corner, I glance down at my right hand and press “STOP” on the recorder.
Flabba signed my copies of the limited vinyl pressing of ‘Serious Nicodeemus.’ Incredible spirit.
Skelly and Wiss signed my copy of ‘Unconquered People.’ Give thanks.
IN STORES NOW!
Also available now as a limited edition picture disc for Record Store Day 2014!
Many thanks to Jim Fox of Lion & Fox Recording Studios and Dave Pansegrouw from the Flabba Holt camp for making this thing happen! Most of all, a special thanks to Errol “Flabba” Holt for allowing me to tell this story. ‘Nuff Respect boss!
Big shout to our good friend Pekka Vuorinen, photographer extraordinaire, for sharing the Channel One photo, which was previously unreleased!
For more information on releases and tour dates, please visit the Roots Radics at http://rootsradicshq.blogspot.com.