The Mighty Roots of Englishman

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“After spending a few months on the road with Ras Michael in Europe, Maccabee and myself came forward to the U.S. We went to Carter Baron Park in D.C. and was cooling out at a football game. I was kicking back, and Macca was tending to the ladies. They wanted to know why I was so cool and laid back. Macca said we just got back off a long tour out of England and they then said ‘Ooh we going to call him Mr. Cool the Englishman and from that time until now they call me Englishman, and that is how I get that name.”

Washington, D.C. is a town infamous for its shady dealings – a town in which power is bought and sold to just about anyone willing to pay the right price. It is a town ripe for the rich and ponderous for the poor. The seat of the richest and most powerful government in the history of mankind sits upon a “bright shining hill” while two blocks up North Capitol Street crack heads and crazies comb the streets looking for anything to make the next minute of their lives worth living. It is a town characterized by the cruelest of ironies.

From suffering comes music and it is on these streets that Erald “Englishman” Briscoe and Gomez “Maccabee” Dyce first meet in the late 1970s. Briscoe is an aspiring musician who relocates to Chocolate City from the St. Annes area of Jamaica, where he splits his time between the music scene and the streets. Prior to that he cut his teeth playing bass guitar in a London-based outfit called Revelation.

“We did some tings you know. We played with Fred Locks, Joy Mack, Hopeton Lewis, a lot of artists were coming through at that time. Alton Ellis…Bob Marley was over in Chelsea…there was a place dem call Frontline in Ladbroke Grove. You could catch us around there.”

Dyce is the polar opposite of Briscoe. Small in stature (especially compared to the 6’5″ Briscoe) with a loud mouth and street-style swagger, Dyce is a man who is instantly recognizable before he even comes around the corner. Yeah, you can hear him coming.

Briscoe (center) and Dyce (left)

Briscoe (center) and Dyce (left)

“That link deh with Maccabee was crucial.  I first met his mother at de barber shop off Georgia Avenue.  She took notice when I talk ’bout being into music and that I play music.  So I must credit her for linking me with Maccabee. 

The first time we supposed to meet him we talk on de phone and he seh ‘just meet me down where my mama at…the barber shop.’  So I pass and I see a man a skank and a come down de road mon. I seh yeah mon dat Maccabee dat.

 

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Maccabee de baddest mon, dem call him de fyah chanta one. Me I kinda chill back like dis. So we go down pon Georgia Avenue to a store dem call Live and Learn…Delroy Wright own de store and it wa like a watering hole for all de artists who come through from Jamaica. And Maccabee gone kick open de doors and seh “ONE BAD GUITARIST DIS YU KNOW! WHO GO PON TOUR? YOU GO PON TOUR?” He was just an aggressive spirit, fight his way in. Him like Bingy Bunny you know, by any means necessary. Before you know it we find ourselves touring Europe with Ras Michael.”

Englishman (l), Macca (c), Ras Michael (r)

Englishman (l), Macca (c), Ras Michael (r)

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Englishman (left) and Ras Michael (right)

English and Macca form a reggae outfit in D.C. called Roots Vibration and start playing live gigs. D.C. is primarily a punk scene in the late 1970s, but punk and reggae are strange bedfellows, and Roots Vibration holds their own on-stage.

“Roots Vibration was One Sun on drums, Tenny on percussion, Maccabee on guitar, Errol on guitar, my brother on keyboard, we call him The Professor, and Saxophone David.

The timing was such that reggae was just starting to be heard in the Washington D.C. area. Matter of fact, we were the very first reggae band to play the Nightclub 930 (legendary DC punk club which spawned the likes of Teen Idles, Embrace, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi). This is back when it was on F Street. Yes sir, Roots Vibration turned that club out. When I say we turned it out, we turned it out!”

While Roots Vibration is earning their keep gigging on the D.C. night club circuit, it is English and Macca who earn the real money while on tour overseas with Ras Michael.

“Wha happen see once you start make a little money from the gigs you have to make a decision: do we invest the money in new equipment or pay for studio time for recording. And I recall a funny ting one guy say ‘lets buy the equipment!’ and the other guy say ‘wha you gonna do if the band split, we haffe get a saw and cut the instrument in half?’

So I look at Maccabee and he look at me and we both knew where this was going. So we just stepped out on our own. We take our cut of the money and record our first single called ‘Jah Love.’

‘Jah Love’ by Englishman and Maccabee, I remember we did it right here in Jim Fox’s shop (which was then located in northeast Washington, DC). Ron Holloway play on that tune see. It is the first 7″ 45 rpm pressed to the Mighty Roots label.”

Mighty Roots Inc.

Mighty Roots Inc.

Englishman takes a queue from artists like Augustus Pablo, Burning Spear, and Bob Marley and establishes his own label.

“The producers dem seh gimme one song, alright, and they give you one pound for your song. That is all you get. Dem would take the record and start make their money off it from there. One of the inspiring tings was to see bredren like Augustus Pablo with Rockers, Bob Marley with Tuff Gong, Peter Tosh with Intel Diplo managing their own careers. They produce their music from start to finish. So this is where the Mighty Roots label come from, this same idea of having total control over your music.”

The duo returns home to Washington D.C. following each overseas tour, their pockets full from the money they earned supporting Ras Michael on the road. They take that money and invest in studio time, laying down tracks for what will eventually become Englishman and Maccabee Roots Vibration Inna Combination Stylee.

A showcase album of sorts, with three vocal tracks per side, each followed by the version, Roots Vibration Inna Combination Stylee is vintage Englishman – a tightly-woven, unique sound which at times plays like Sly and Robbie’s Black Uhuru circa 1982. The sound is not at all representative of the roots reggae sound popularized by the legendary players and producers from 1970s Jamaica, which has a more expansive or “loose” sound. No. Englishman and Maccabee, with the help of players like guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, drummers Eral “Mitch” Michelin and Jim Fox, and percussionists Brother Jack and Larry “Dread” White, create a sound which is “tight and right.”

The album has a slight digital sound, which is interesting considering it was recorded using live instrumentation. This “futuristic” sound of the album is primarily the result of Mitch Michelin’s drum programming, and Jim Fox’s early experimentation with dub effects in both the vocal tracks and versions.

It is a sound that will define Englishman and the Mighty Roots label throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. English speaks about the sound.

“Man, you cannot underestimate the role that Fox plays on that album. You cannot get Fox out of the mix you know.

Jim Fox (l) and Englishman (r), Lion and Fox

Jim Fox (l) and Englishman (r), Lion and Fox

I want tell you a little story about Fox. I make Fox like him get crazy! Fox de baddest engineer mon. But me seh ‘I want it to go like dis! Make de drum seh POW! Bring on de echo!’

And Fox him seh ‘what the hell is that?’

I seh ‘dub, dub man…them call it dub!’

So Fox seh ‘I don’t really know what him a look for but lemme try this.’ 

Man Fox a push up the fader and a go crazy. He dub it right! What a sound mon!”

The album is mixed to near-perfection by both Scientist, who had recently relocated from Jamaica to Washington, DC, and Jim Fox at Lion and Fox Studios, Washington, DC.

English and Macca are fearless in tackling subject matter which could be considered controversial even by today’s standards. Washington D.C. is in a stranglehold and crack cocaine holds the handle. In “Rebel Man,” the only thing tuffer than Chinna’s guitar lick is Englishman’s vocal which takes aim at those who fall victim:

“Wha happen to all the conscious dreadlocks of yesterday,
Sniff cocaine it a mash up dem brain oh yeah,
It a style and fashion.”

Afrocentric bredren and sistren. Conscious dreadlocks. Rebellious youth. Revolutionists.

“I’m singing ’bout those who fall victim to style and fashion. What I am chanting fyah ‘pon is a non-conconscious or non-positive universal livity and upliftment of us all. “

They all must duck and cover. No one is safe when English spits fire on the track.

“Rebel Man”

Roots Vibration Inna Combination Stylee, while recorded over several years in the mid-1980s doesn’t hit the streets until 1987 along with the highly-underrated Meditations of South Africa. Fighting to Survive, credited to Englishman, is released one year earlier in 1986. Check for the Youth, Man-Machine-Music, and My African Sisters all drop in 1988. Shango-Charisma sees a 1992 release.

“See Them Dancing”

“Big Man In A Easy Chair”

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Englishman and Maccabee quickly establish themselves as DC’s premier reggae act. All of this is happening at a time when DC is evolving into a reggae Mecca of sorts. Henry “Junjo” Lawes’ producing partner Delroy Wright relocates to DC opening his Live & Learn label and shop on Georgia Avenue right in the middle of Silver Spring, MD.

“Economical Slaves”

“What’s Going On In Africa”

Radio D.J., and writer Tom Terrell, who had a hand in bringing reggae to D.C. with his popular radio show Sunday Reggae Splashdown on WHFS, is now managing Steel Pulse. He premiers his new act at the 930 Club in D.C. on the same day that Bob Marley is laid to rest. The show is broadcast across the globe.

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Nicodemus (l), Maccabee (c), and Englishman (r)

Gary Himelfarb AKA Doctor Dread opens his Real Authentic Sound (RAS) label from his Chevy Chase, MD basement. By the mid-1980s he has a distribution empire in Washington, DC to match Greensleeves in the UK. He makes a splash signing the Grammy Award-winning Black Uhuru to RAS when they are dropped from Island in 1984. Don Carlos and Gold move to DC to record with Dread and Fox.  Scientist comes forward. Ras Michael, Gregory Isaacs, Junior Reid, Yellowman, Eek-A-Mouse, Freddie McGregor, Mikey Dread, Joseph Hill and Culture. They all become fixtures on Georgia Avenue.

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Englishman and crew are credited on several albums produced and recorded at Lion and Fox, including Mikey Dread’s African Anthem Revisited, on which both Englishman and Maccabee play pivotol roles.

“Mikey Dread and Maccabee are like family.  They come from the same parish of Portland in Jamaica, went to the same high school at Titchfield.  Him and Bradshaw brothers who used to play with Burning Spear, and a wicked drummer name “Lenky” is his cousin who played with Garnet Silk.”

English and Macca with their Roots Vibration sound are not only selling out clubs from DC to Baltimore to Philly to NYC, they are responsible for new phenomena on the reggae touring circuit. People are showing up in droves. Many are turned away because the show is sold out. It’s no matter to them. They simply stand outside the club and listen to the show until someone leaves, allowing another to enter.

“Today you’re lucky to sell out a show. But to have a line outside wrapped around the building and down the street? No, nobody did that like English” says Ambrose “Amby” Connor, Virgin Islands-born multi- instrumentalist who played with Englishman, Midnite, and the Itals.

“We played this venue called Takoma Station in Takoma Park, MD near the metro on Sundays. The line to get in this venue would be from the front door to the end of the block. I remember because we would have to load in real early. The venue was set up so people where real close to the stage – which made it easier to make a request or big up the crew.”

They continue laying down records at Fox’s shop.  He records and tours with the Itals, Israel Vibration, Human Rights, Roots Radics, Don Carlos, Mikey Dread and anyone else who comes through to lay it down at Lion and Fox.  In 1995 when a group of talented musicians relocate from the Virgin Islands to Washington, DC, seeking to spread a whole new reggae sound and vibe, Englishman was right there with them, sometimes sharing the same stage.

Midnite & Englishman, Washington, D.C., 1995

The reggae renaissance in DC runs from 1982 through 1990 and then the music takes a turn. It actually starts much earlier, 1986/87 to be exact. A new sound is coming from Jamaica. Computers have taken over the recording process. Former Roots Radics keys man Wycliffe “Steelie” Johnson and Cleveland “Clevie” Brown usher in the biggest change in reggae since Junjo and the Radics entered Channel One in 1979. Welcome to the digital age of reggae.

“Steelie is a genius. Pure and simple. Those youths were ahead of their time. You can’t take nothing away from them but it just wasn’t the sound we were looking for. It just wasn’t our thing. We need the deep bass, the heavy drum, that authentic foundation sound. So I tried to keep up with those bredren while at the same time making sure that my music stayed true to that foundation sound.”

Englishman stays true to his sound, releasing records throughout the 1990s, dividing his time between Roots Vibration and the Itals.

“During this time people were playing music at a certain level and we would break off for a bit and play or tour with different people.  Maccabee went on tour with this group out of California called The Rastafarians and Haile Maskel.  I did some session work on different albums.  Foxy Brown.  I played on Don Carlos’ album Seven Days A Week.”

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“English played guitar on a Foxy Brown album we produced here.  I needed a guitar track so I called up English and he just came in and laid it down, no problem” recalls Jim Fox.

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He teams up with the enigmatic Paul “HR” Hudson of Bad Brains, playing bass in his Human Rights reggae band. English collaborates with the Hudson brothers (HR’s brother Earl is the legendary drummer for Bad Brains) on several projects.

Paul "HR" Hudson (l) and Englishman (r)

Paul “HR” Hudson (l) and Englishman (r)

“It’s a link we made in Adams Morgan playing on the local circuit you know. We have a good vibe and a profound respect for each others music.”

“And we cannot forget Chuck Brown.”

For those who think that President Obama is the most likable and recognizable man in town, meet Chuck Brown, the Godfather of D.C. Go-Go. Go-go is a subgenre of funk music developed in and around Washington D.C. in the mid and late 1970s. Washington, D.C. radio personality Donnie Simpson described Brown best upon his passing in 2012:

“Chuck [Brown] was like the Washington Monument. He was like Ben’s Chili Bowl. He was the big chair. He was all of that. Chuck Brown was Washington, DC [ …] People feel you when it’s genuine, and Chuck was always that.”

Brown was a fixture around Lion and Fox in the 1990s and Englishman was sure to bring him in as a player during the Shango Charisma sessions.

“Chuck laid down some nice guitar on Shango Charisma. It was something special” recalls English.

“It is from my exposure to the go-go sound that I develop a sound called “reg-go,” which infuses the two sounds together.”

Roots Vibration is changed forever with the loss of Gomez “Maccabee” Dyce. Gone is the badda man, the fyah chanta, however English finds purpose in carrying forward the the sound and vibe they created together on the streets of D.C. twenty-five years earlier. And though the physical is no longer able to shoulder a guitar, Maccabee’s spirit is alive and strong in Shango Roots.

Godfather of reggae Joe Gibbs (l) and Englishman (r)

Godfather of reggae Joe Gibbs (l) and Englishman (r)

“You know as this world evolves, you the artist have to keep evolving with all the challenges that come with it. Keep seeking to bring positive energy and message to the art of music while keeping the foundation and roots intact. As for Maccabee, Jah carry him to the heights of heights in Mount Zion, and bless him for the part he played in bringing reggae music from Jamaica to D.C. The music will go where it has to. Jah willing it will keep the positive vibes needed to keep it alive.”

English and Macca met on these streets as live players of reggae and that is what they are still doing today. So next time you are in D.C., take a stroll through Adams Morgan, or Takoma Park or Georgetown and listen. For it is an absolute certainty that Englishman and Maccabee are blowing the roof off the joint somewhere.

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Check Englishman ‘pon the web!

Englishman and ShangoRoots Band releases available at Itunes, CDBaby.

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A view of Facebook's logo May 10, 2012 i

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DISCOGRAPHY

3 thoughts on “The Mighty Roots of Englishman

  1. Great synposis of the reggae synapses inna DC that spread world-wide. Go Go-go go deh! Thanks Raver. Teach them.

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