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Steely And Clevie - Digital Revolution

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..

John Masouri

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