THE FRENCH CONNECTION
In PART I of our Sly & Robbie feature titled THE USUAL SUSPECTS, we had a great conversation with Robbie Shakespeare. In PART II, we continue the conversation by speaking with producer Guillaume Bougard, who talks exclusively about his history with Sly & Robbie and the two stellar albums he produced in 2013 with the Rhythm Killers, Bitty Mclean, and Guillaume ‘Stepper’ Briard.
MR: Can you talk a little bit about how you became involved with Sly & Robbie?
GB: “I started the TABOU1 label in the mi 90s. My first release was Cat Coore’s first and only solo album called Uptown Rebel, and then I wanted to be a reissue label, my idol was Steve Barrow, the founder of Blood & Fire, the best reissue label ever. Steve is still a hero of mine, big shout out to him. I put out the first ever dub album by the Abyssinians, a couple of great Pablo Moses albums, etc… However good my releases were and they were very good, I quickly realized I could not compete with Blood & Fire. I was a one-man army with no Simply Red money to back me up… And Steve was soooo much better than me in many other aspects, too.”
I noticed one night that TAXI Records had opened a website and I rushed to check it out because S&R are my favorite artists/musicians/producers. I checked out the site, which was mostly under construction but had a “contact” button. So I wrote a short email to introduce myself, my label and say I’d love to release old TAXI stuff they might want to license. I then went to bed. The next morning I checked my emails at 6:30 like every morning and there was a reply to my email: ‘we need distribution in Europe and $1 million to build a studio in Kingston.’ I fire a reply that said: I can help you with item 1 but not item 2! I then drive to my office, and I check my emails at the office and see ANOTHER email ‘Can you call Robbie at 876 xxxx the next day?’ I called the next day, one hour too early, woke up Robbie, who passed me over to a gentleman named Kazuhiko Asonuma who he introduced as his manager. At the time Kaz was the deputy consul at the Japanese consulate in Kingston. But he had fallen in love with Sly & Robbie’s music and was soon going to quit his job as a diplomat and become a producer in Kingston, working exclusively with Sly and Robbie and Japanese record companies. A great great guy. In any case, I exposed what I did, and reiterated my wish to work with TAXI. So we quickly came to an agreement and one week after my midnight email, I received a fedex package with tapes of the Michael Rose album, Jamaican mixes (it had been pre-released as Taxi Sessions a couple of years earlier) and remixes by Groucho Smykle. There was one note: release this by Christmas. We were in October of 1998. So the deadline was very tight. But I took the challenge, whipped out a cover after Robbie told me to call the album X Uhuru. They liked the cover, and I told them it would be best to release the album in late January, early February instead so I could promote the heck out of it. I told them I would come to Kingston and meet with them to discuss developing a long term business relationship. I went there with Powerpoint presentations like I used to make when I was an investment banker! They politely listened and observed me, Sly was falling asleep, but Robbie was listening, Kaz, too… Next thing I know they invited me to a session: Robbie was laying the bass part for a song in their Led Zeppelin tribute album. Then Toots comes and coaches Leba, then another singer Mark Ice comes and voices another tune. It was a great introduction to S&R in the studio. Everything done perfectly, in one take, with NO MISTAKES and ALWAYS the right options. And that sound… Loud, heavy, aggressive, with SO MUCH attitude, Jamaica in your face yet international like no other Jamaican artist except Bob and Third World, but waaaaaay much harder. So I go back to Paris with a big box full of tapes and a mission to put out as much music as possible: Yami Bolo Freedom and Liberation, and started putting stuff out for them. They came to Paris to promote their Howie B album. I took advantage of this to invite my own journalists to discuss the Michael Rose album that had just been released and was selling very well. I went to their hotel with an envelope full of money to pay their royalties and Robbie liked that I was honest and started calling me by my name! That was so funny. We enjoyed a nice work relationship and got closer and closer over the years.”
MR: So what happened with TABOU1?
GB: “I had to slow down TABOU1 in 2002 because my Big Men album, that Martin Meissonnier had produced, was a total flop from a commercial but also artistic (it took me years to understand why Sly did not want to play on it…) and cost me a ton of money. Sly and Robbie were absolutely regal and told me they would help me get back on my feet. That was very touching and I thought they were very gentlemanly. So, as soon as I had the opportunity to repay them, I did, and I sued French copyright societies with a lawyer called Andre Bertrand in 2006-7 on behalf of 200 Jamaican musicians and artists and helped S&R, Horace Andy (with whom I’d produced Mek It Bun in 2001), U Roy (with whom I’d produced two albums with engineer Bravo, my kingstonian brother from another mother) and other artists win their $5 million case: they now receive royalties to which they were not entitled before the lawsuit.
They were quite happy with my work and invited me to come and record stuff with Horace Andy. We booked Harry J for a week and recorded 30-odd riddims in 2 days and then voiced 12 or so with Horace, which were released as Livin it up in 2006 (with a GREAT DVD showing the recording sessions). Gregory came and voiced three songs, including the fantastic Poor Man in Love which is truly one of his best songs but which I did not release commercially because I was so saddened by his passing.”
MR: How would you describe the “Taxi sound” and how has it evolved since the mid-1980s?
GB: “It starts with two supremely talented individuals, when you check it out, nobody in Jamaica is as versatile as them. They have been at the forefront of the Jamaican music scene for almost 40 years and nobody can boast such a longevity. Radics were a dominant force for 3-4 years, so were Steelie & Clevie, but Sly & Robbie have been up there for 4 decades. Their Taxi label has been producing and releasing new music for longer than Studio One, longer than Channel One, longer than any other legendary Jamaican record label.
The work ethic is something else, too. Sly gets up and punches beats every hour of the day for 16 hours EVERY DAY. They never ever refuse work. They will never say it so bluntly, but they are competitive, want to remain the best. Their only problem is that no record company can release their stuff as fast as they put it out. I have miles of tapes. The evolution of their sound has been phenomenal, yet theirs is instantly recognizable.
The Taxi Sound is heavy, yet melodic. Creative, so far ahead of the rest that you can use a riddim from 1993 that was sitting there unused and people would think it was just created. I did just that for one of Brinsley Forde’s songs on his upcoming album, which I’m producing with Robbie and Sly.
Their sound is very funky, too.”
MR: I recently interviewed Adrian Sherwood and spoke a lot about Style Scott. He says that what makes Style one of the greatest drummers in the world is 1) his preparation (he tunes the drums before every play), and 2) the consistency of his sound. No matter who produces or mixes him, you can always recognize his signature sound. What makes Sly one of the greatest ever?
GB: “Sly is the greatest ever by far. For a million and one reasons. Unlike other Jamaican drummers who can excel in their style, Sly is not one-dimensional. He is the most creative, versatile, can do hard stuff, slow stuff, fast stuff, one drop stuff, can play ska, rock and roll, funk, rubadub, rockers, electro, everything. He keeps looking for new ideas, new equipment, new sounds. I remember we spent 500 Dollars in a French record megastore buying Arabic, Chinese, ethnic African, European polyphonies, etc… so he would feed his MPC with new different sounds. Plus he is the nicest man, and that makes a difference with some of the psychopaths I’ve dealt with.
Robbie is also a very curious, avidly listening, trying new stuff. We were looking for bass playing videos a whole evening in Paris so he could practice new stuff. And I remember him doing stuff with Sinead O’Connor that he had just picked up in from a Curtis Mayfield DVD the night before!
Watch how easily they did Jazz shows with Monty Alexander in Tokyo, then shows with Johnny Osbourne, a rock tune with Khalifa, some rocksteady with Bitty, etc…
They don’t smoke pot or do any of the shit that messes up people, and it keeps their heads clearer than other musicians who do not progress because their brains are over-ganjaified. They are very humble and hard working, quite honest with themselves too. Cool, but relentless in their pursuit of excellence and innovation.”
MR: In my opinion, Stepper and Bitty’s Taxi Sessions are two of the very best albums of 2013. These albums have a very organic, authentic sound (for lack of a better description). A lot of contemporary reggae has that electronic, digital sound I like to call ‘manufactured reggae.’ From a production perspective, what is it that differentiates these sounds (live instruments, production equipment, production techniques, etc)?
GB: “Ask Bitty and Stepper, they’ll give you more details. Both albums are based on a similar concept: use loops lifted off old TAXI singles. However rather than just use a loop like it is alas too often done in Jamaica, we reconstructed new riddims. We added a lot of new instruments, and in a way were closer to what Puff Daddy or Dr. Dre used to do on his albums: use a loop but add substantial additional production. So the loop might use a couple of tracks, but the overdubs are easily another 20-24 tracks. What is successful on both albums is the utmost care we took to blend in the new into the old and vice versa. Bitty is a fantastic singer, we all know that, but he is an absolute master at mixing, and a great producer, keyboards wizard. So he crafted a fabulous construction for each of the songs of TAXI Sessions. Stepper is a great saxophone player and to replace the great Dean Fraser in the Taxi Gang, you gotta be good, believe me. He is a fine multi-instrumentalist and works hard at trying stuff, retrying if he’s not satisfied. Plus he used France’s dub sensation, Fabwize, who is a dub master like Groucho or other dub legends.
These two albums I’m very proud of, although I was much less involved in the production than other albums where I was active during the mix, the vocals and instruments recordings and arrangements.”
MR: Are there any artists out there now that you really admire and would like to work with?
GB: “I have a lot of projects I need to finish before I tackle new work, but I’m always game for anything that would involve Chronixx, Jah9, Tarrus Riley, Ninjaman. I want to at long last produce an album with Bunny Rugs. We are toying with the idea of a Gregory Isaacs album because we are huge fans first and foremost and Rugs’ voice might not sound like Gregory, he does his songs perfectly well. I did a Gregory album with the Radics 10 or so years ago and Rugs did a tune on it and killed it. Recently he has done Rumours on one of my riddims and it is freaking perfect. So I know a full album would be great. I’m thinking of redoing the whole More Gregory album, but with Rugs, whenever we go into a studio we have no plan and things are great. I love him and Cat and anything with them would be cool. We are now too old to bother with stuff we don’t enjoy.”
MR: How were you introduced to reggae? Who are your biggest musical influences?
GB: “At the time, I was a Bob Dylan fan (still am), but in 1978, on French Radio, Is this love really stunned me. It sounded so… weird. I saw Bob live and was swept off my feet, then dug into it, Gladiators, Spear, Third World, Tosh, I mean in the late 70’s Reggae was churning out killer after killer. Everything was great, pleasant, innovative.
When I was in business school, I ran a reggae show on a radio station for 3 years, loved it. At the time, I didn’t know you could ask for promo copies, and played my own stuff so I was always on the lookout for great new stuff. Trips to London before the tunnel was opened took 12 or more hours by train ferry and train again. So going there was a real adventure, taking the tube to Ladbroke grove and crate digging in reggae shops was fun and exotic. And I was coming back with Jamaican presses or pre-release white labels that made me a star on the radio. I miss those vinyl days. I cant believe I gave away most of my records when cd’s appeared. I moved to the States in 87 for several years and didn’t want to be bothered with moving my collection from France, so I gave my records. I am now finding myself buying them again on discogs, ebay, and spending too much money on this!”
MR: What are the last 3 albums you purchased?
GB: “I bought a lot of vinyl Blood & Fire LP’s recently. Dub is great to play when I work at home. I also listen to a lot of different styles of music. Emotional Rescue, Tattoo You (Rolling stones), Desire, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan), Earth Wind & Fire (Raise, I Am, All In All, Spirit) I LOVE EW&F and would kill to voice Philip Bailey on a Sly & Robbie riddim. How about Reasons on the Taxi Riddim in combination with Johnny Osbourne???
Jah9’s Bubblers single. She’s great, I love her. Jah9 if you read this, please call me 011336 80 61 06 74 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s do some recordings!!!
My 14 year old daughter got A$AP Rocky’s album and I was really fascinated by it and played it a lot last Summer. Great cross country driving music.”
MR: Well Guillaume, thanks for taking the time to tell us your story and congratulations on a great year.
GB: Many thanks.