VP Records' Reggae Anthology series has played an essential role in highlighting Jamaican music of the eighties and nineties - decades defined by groundbreaking innovation and no little humour. I used to see Steely at small dub-plate studios in Kingston sometimes, checking out new talent. It was the kind of dedication - together with immense skill and imagination - that underlined he and Clevie's greatness as they consistently pushed at the boundaries of what was thought possible.
Steely & Clevie are known as the “Ragga Godfathers” and with good reason, since they were the creative hub from which nearly all of the most exciting developments in Jamaican music emanated throughout the eighties and nineties.
Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson, who died in September 2009, was from Trench Town, where Bob Marley, Joe Higgs and Alton Ellis were once neighbours. He regularly visited Studio One as a child, where he watched the likes of Jackie Mittoo lay reggae’s foundations. Music was everywhere, and yet it was at his friend Cleveland Browne’s house where his keyboard skills first took root.
Cleave had started his musical career in 1972 as part of a family group called the Browne Bunch, who had a hit with Good Thing Going in Jamaica. His brother Dalton introduced him to Steely, whom he’d met at a Twelve Tribes Of Israel function.
“My mother had a keyboard and taught my brothers and I to play and read music so our house became Steely’s second home, or should I say his first home!” recalls Clevie. “Because he was there first thing every morning when we got up. We’d look out the window and Steely would be out there.”
Steely used to practise with the Browne family, playing their mother’s organ and then listening back to it on a two-track machine. Word of the youngsters’ prowess eventually reached Augustus Pablo, who invited he and Clevie to play on their first-ever session together in the summer of 1974. Cleave was fourteen and Steely just eleven when they played on Earl 16’s Man Making Plan and Hugh Mundell’s Africa Must Be Free (By 1983), at Harry J’s studio in Kingston. The pair remained friends thereafter, but went their own ways after a while. Cleave joined the In Crowd and later the Studio One band, whilst Steely joined the Roots Radics after contributing to Sugar Minott productions such as ’51 Storm, Man Hungry and River Jordan. The Radics played innumerable sessions for Henry “Junjo” Lawes and Linval Thompson, whose hits with the likes of Barrington Levy, Yellowman, Eek A Mouse, John Holt, Freddie McGregor, Michael Prophet and Johnny Osbourne – most of them mixed by Scientist at Channel One – ushered in the early dancehall era.
Once Gregory Isaacs had signed to Island and released Night Nurse, the Radics eased back on sessions to become his regular touring band. Within a year or two, Gregory was arrested on gun charges, the shows came to a halt and Steely turned his attention to the new music coming from America and elsewhere, recorded with drum machines and synthesisers. He knew the music was changing but the other Radics weren’t convinced and so rather than grow frustrated, he left. In the meantime, Clevie was at a loose end after some of his fellow band members left for America. He too, was taken with early forms of drum programming and briefly played with his brother Danny’s group Bloodier Posse, who took reggae by storm with their first two computer driven singles, Rub-A-Dub Soldier and Every Posse Get Flat.
It was only natural that he and Steely should team up once more, and start experimenting with rhythms they’d test on sound-systems like Black Star. The sounds they came up with were radically different right from everything else heard in reggae at the time – partially as a result of their hard-won efforts, and also because of unforeseen circumstances. For instance, the machine Steely used was meant to be playing high frequency sounds but it slipped from his grasp one day, the circuit board broke and after he’d got it fixed, it came back playing bass! He and Clevie used it on a tape of demo recordings they played producer Prince Jammy in the summer of 1985, shortly after Wayne Smith’s Under Mi Sleng-Teng exploded onto the dancehall scene and changed reggae music forever. There was no going back. Jamaica’s equivalent of electro had arrived, and even established names struggled to keep up. Steely & Clevie hadn’t played on Sleng-Teng, but when Jammy promptly hit with two songs recorded on their rhythms – Nitty Gritty’s Sweet Reggae Music and Little John’s Clark’s Booty – he lost no time inviting them to take up residency at his studio on St. Lucia Road, where they would record an astounding number of hit singles and albums over the next three years.
Jammy’s had an eight-track desk, but his facilities were cramped. There was no room for “live” recordings, although his studio was ideal for two people making rhythms using computerised equipment. Clevie used an Oberheim DX drum machine although it didn’t come with many pre-set sounds and so he and Steely would have to create their own by sampling conventional instruments and anything else that came within reach in a bid to get their computer rhythms sounding as “live” as possible. Having played on a lot of early sessions helped, and Steely & Clevie’s inspired re-cuts of classic reggae rhythms – together with groundbreaking originals such as the Punany, Duck and Cat’s Paw – would soon dominate reggae music to an extent scarcely believed possible even two years earlier.
“Steely and I actually play instruments,” Clevie explains. “I am a drummer, Steely played keyboards and we were able to put that experience and our musicianship into the computer because you can only get out what you put in. We were able to put feel into our programming and used to make a lot of our own samples. For instance, I would go in the studio and take three snare drums and hit them different ways, tune them different ways, turn them upside down and all kinds of things.”
The roll call of hits they played on at Jammy’s is extensive, and includes tracks by Major Worries, Eccleston Jarrett, Super Black, Nitty Gritty, King Kong, Ninja Man, Robert Lee, Echo Minott, Chakademus, Tonto Irie, Pinchers, Chuck Turner, Red Dragon, Brian & Tony Gold, Colin Roach, Admiral Bailey, Papa San, Little John, Sugar Minott, Junior Delgado, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Frankie Paul, Cocoa Tea, Admiral Tibbet, Leroy Gibbons, Josey Wales, Johnny Osbourne, Shabba Ranks, Tiger, Major Mackerel and Lt. Stitchie, in addition to many others.
“Within a year of us building computer rhythms, we discovered that we’d played on 75% of the music on the local charts,” says Clevie. “It was a massive transition from what had happened before but the people were waiting for a change and we delivered that to them.”
Between 1985-87, they played on an average of sixty Top 10 hits per year for Jammy’s, which is more than one Top 10 hit a week, for three years running. Jammy won Producer Of The Year in 1986 and was crowned King as hit albums and singles tumbled out of his Waterhouse studio. Whilst there’s no denying the impact of Sleng-Teng, it was Steely & Clevie’s Punany rhythm – controversially voiced by Admiral Bailey – that came to dominate the dancehall and launch the careers of numerous artists. That distinctive cowbell was inspired from a trip Clevie had made to Trinidad some years earlier. He’d noticed how a lot of other Caribbean musicians used a beat he calls a “half clave,” and recognised how such diverse influences had contributed to Jamaican music in the past.
In 1988, fired by fresh possibilities, Steely & Clevie left Jammy’s to start up their own label. Their first releases were Johnny P’s Pon The Bus and Dillinger’s Bruk Camera – tracks they’d produced whilst continuing to play sessions for the likes of Hugh “Redman” James, Winston Riley, Lloyd “Pickout” Dennis and old friend Bobby Digital, who’d left Jammy’s around the same time. Steely & Clevie played on his hits with Cocoa Tea, Shabba (Wicked In A Bed) and Ninjaman, among others. Riley meanwhile, struck big with Super Cat’s Boops and Redman with Clement Irie’s Koloko, both riding Steely & Clevie rhythms.
The duo had now replaced Sly & Robbie as Jamaica’s most in-demand rhythm section, and they raised the bar even higher on hits for Gussie Clarke like Shabba’s Twice My Age and Champion Lover, and J. C. Lodge’s Telephone Love. Tracks like these would redefine dancehall with their high-tech, yet hardcore approach as the nineties dawned and provide a platform for the music’s international acceptance – especially in the US, where it became a regular feature on urban radio. Soon, even rappers like KRS One would begin incorporating dancehall into their music. In the meantime, Steely & Clevie began releasing a multitude of hits on their own label, as well as an assortment of artist and one-rhythm albums, some of them distributed by EMI. The most memorable of their 45s from this period include Ninjaman’s Murder Dem and Hortical Don, Gregory Peck’s Oversize Mampie and Poco Man Jam, Shabba’s Caan Dun, Captain Barkey & Suzanne Couch’s Why, Singing Melody’s Shower Me With Your Love, Dirtsman’s Thank You, Malvo & Lizard’s Take You To The Ball and Reggie Stepper’s Drum Pan Sound. The latter’s a song that’ll now be familiar to anyone playing Grand Theft Auto, whereas Poco Man Jam was inspired by Clevie’s visit to a Pentecostal church service and later became the basis of reggaeton after Bobby Digital recorded Shabba’s Dem Bow on it (and Panama’s El General introduced it to Hispanic audiences in the US and Caribbean.)
Incredibly, Steely & Clevie also found time to experiment with multi-tracking, even overdubbing several different vocals onto the same rhythm simultaneously! Despite such radical departures, they continued to work with singers on more traditional sounding tracks – most notably Freddie McGregor (Prophecy), Chenille Franklyn, Junior Tucker and Garnet Silk, whose Love Is The Answer is an abiding reggae classic of immense power.
Their first Billboard hit was Baby Can I Hold You Tonight by Foxy Brown, who also hit with Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car in Jamaica. Rather than water down the intrinsic grassroots’ sound as other producers were doing, Steely & Clevie decided to try and crossover reggae on its own terms, whilst ensuring the quality of production and final mix met with overseas’ standards. They succeeded brilliantly, and were soon employing similar methods on tracks by Heavy D & The Boys and Shinehead, whose Unity album for Elektra became the first genuine reggae/hip-hop fusion.
The pair then turned reggae music upside down by shifting the emphasis from the bass – once the heartbeat of the music – to percussive drum patterns. The first two hits in this style were Tiger’s When, which took half an hour to record and won Song Of The Year in 1990, and Mama, which Baby Wayne voiced on the Giggy rhythm. This was the biggest indication yet that everything had changed. Steely & Clevie had used drums to play the bass line and also the melodies on these records, and that’s still the approach a lot of dancehall producers use to this day.
“Tiger’s When came from outside the box,” Clevie confirms. “Many artists would come with songs and their lyrics and timing were great but some of them couldn’t hold a key so we decided to make the music minimalistic and more rhythm driven. We did that with the Giggy rhythm as well, because it wasn’t just about making music. We wanted to give those ghetto youths an opportunity, and Steely as a ghetto man himself especially so we tried to bring them into the music, maybe take out the melody at times and make them talk in rhythm. We made abstract parts, so then you could use almost any notes on it and it wouldn’t be a problem.”
After Shabba signed with Epic, he and Steely & Clevie then lifted the new style onto an even higher level with tracks like Trailerload and Ting-A-Ling. Shabba’s professionalism and strong work ethic matched their own and this in turn allowed them to make dancehall music of genuine international class, although their next major hit couldn’t have been more different. After attending Coxsone Dodd’s 35th Anniversary shows, Steely & Clevie approached former Studio One veterans such as Alton Ellis, Dobby Dobson, the Cables and Dawn Penn to re-record some of their early hits. The result was Plays Studio One Vintage, an album released in 1992 and that largely because of Dawn Penn’s superb new version of No, No, No, brought the sounds of vintage Studio One to young, international audiences for the first time. Its success reverberated in the dancehalls too, as soundmen scrambled to voice dub-plates with older acts, and match what Steely had been doing on his own sound-system, Silver Hawk.
“Steely and I believed that from a song’s a hit, it can always be a hit song if it’s reintroduced with the right elements in place, and that’ll attract a new generation,” Clevie explains. “Having gone through the whole computer revolution we were able to analyse the roots of those particular songs and then try to get as close to them as possible. That’s what Steely and I did best. Having said that, we didn’t want to just recreate those old songs but also to add something of ourselves to them, and so we spent a lot of time doing that.”
Shortly afterwards they took a break and opened their own studio on Trafalgar Road in New Kingston, called Studio 2000. This was in 1994, except Steely & Clevie were always ahead of the game and Studio 2000 would soon become a nerve centre for exciting new projects in both dancehall and old school reggae styles. By Clevie’s own admission, he and Steely’s personalities were different as day and night. Whereas Steely could be loud and abrasive, Clevie is quiet and well mannered. Steely had perfect pitch but his musical genius was rooted in instinct, whereas Clevie had started out learning tuba and was classically trained. Few would imagine they could work so well together, and yet their partnership yielded some of the best and most inventive records of the eighties and nineties. They were versatile too. Even whilst working on major label projects by the likes of Shabba, Tiger, Sharon Forrester, Tony Rebel, Cobra and Lady Patra, they would still unleash electrifying new rhythms for dancehall audiences. Steely & Clevie’s roll call of hits now included Papa San’s Lyrical Station, Shabba’s Ram Dancehall and Bad Appetite, Skatta’s Dress Back, Sharon Forrester’s That’s The Way Love Goes and Beres Hammond’s Double Trouble. Steely clearly hadn’t lost his talent-spotting abilities either, as newcomers such as Spragga Benz (Girls Hooray), Frankie Sly, Don Yute and Bushman joined the Studio 2000 roster.
A flood of singles by them and other acts like Goofy, Red Rat and Beenie Man ensured Steely & Clevie led from the front as the raw sounds of Jamaican dancehall enjoyed international acclaim during the late nineties.Their biggest rhythm throughout this period was Street Sweeper, on which they’d slowed the tempo dramatically.
“We love to do things no one would expect,” says Clevie. “We noticed the music was getting very fast and losing the groove but that rhythm came about after Steely had been sat on the sidewalk having a chat with some of the artists and rocking a stone back and forth with his foot. That’s when the groove came to him and so he rushed back to the studio yelling, ‘Clevie, come into the studio right now! I have a beat that just can’t fail!’ I wasn’t sure at first, but then he started playing the bass line, I tapped in the tempo and we took it from there. Whenever Steely came with an idea, I’d often resist a little at first, but he was always right.” Buju Banton and Zebra had the biggest hits on it in Jamaica, but it was Sean Paul & Mr. Vegas’ Hot Gal Today that crossed over in America and became Sean Paul’s breakthrough hit after Steely & Clevie remixed it on the Punany rhythm. This was in 2000. The duo continued to make original dancehall rhythms like Columbian Necktie, Bitter Blood and 44 Flat thereafter, and nor did they ease up on the surprises. Nine Night was an attempt to recreate the music played at a traditional Jamaican funeral wake. Clevie knew the sound he wanted, but just couldn’t get it.
“I then researched it and found out they used old brake callipers from cars so I went outside and pulled my car apart!” he says laughing. “We had a lot of fun, but that just shows you the lengths we’d go to in getting the sound we wanted, and the authenticity in the music.”
In January 2004, shortly after completing work on No Doubt’s bestselling Rock Steady album, Steely was charged with manslaughter after killing a young girl in his car as she crossed the road. He was later cleared of any offence but the tragedy took its toll and little was heard from him and Clevie until Sleepy Dog announced their comeback later that year. Around the same time, VP commissioned them to recreate an album of Joe Gibbs’ hits, using a mix of current and veteran artists. Sean Paul & Sasha’s I’m Still In Love With You became a worldwide hit that summer. It would be the last, major hit Steely played on, although he and Clevie’s final sessions were for an album called Memories, on which they revisit songs – not necessarily reggae ones either – that had originally influenced them. Those watching the Red Bull seminar footage (included on the bonus disc) might be surprised to learn that Steely liked music by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, but there was also a lot more people didn’t know about him.
In addition to perfect pitch, Steely had a photographic memory for instance. He also had premonitions and was the master at setting moods in the studio. He might help the artists to loosen up by making jokes if they were nervous, but there were other times when he and Clevie would need them to get serious, in which case he’d switch the mood completely, depending on what each song required.
Gifted though he was, his workload slowed considerably towards the end. He’d fallen ill in the early part of 2008 after suffering from kidney problems. Unbeknown to many, he almost died; then got better, had a relapse and was flown to a hospital in Brooklyn, where he was immediately put on dialysis. He also had a blood clot removed from his brain, but then contracted an infection. He died on September 1st2009 at the Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Centre in East Patchogue, from pneumonia. He was just forty-seven years old. Together with his near lifelong friend Clevie, he’d succeeded in changing the face of popular music whilst remaining true to his own roots and identity – this whilst playing on more hits than any other Jamaican musician.
“Even if Steely & Clevie’s names weren’t up in lights, their footprints were all over modern dancehall,” said former VP A & R man Murray Elias. “Steely was not only the guy who paved the road, he was the surveyor – he mapped it out and of all the modern dancehall stuff comes from them.”