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Steely & Clevie - Old To The New

It was VP Records' Murray Elias who conceived and oversaw this tribute to Jamaican producer Joe Gibbs, and then commissioned me to write the liner notes. He had to fight hard for the album's biggest hit - Sean Paul & Sasha's I'm Still In Love With You - although I doubt anyone else could have breathed new life into this collection of seventies' hits so successfully as Steely and Clevie.


When Steely & Clevie recorded an album of Studio One recreations using several veteran artists who’d helped producer Coxsone Dodd celebrate thirty-five years of his famous label in 1992, the results would reverberate throughout the entire reggae industry. Leading sound-systems began searching out long-forgotten artists to voice specials, and revival shows proliferated in Jamaica, where history is traditionally measured in weeks, and only rarely decades. The sessions for this same album also yielded the recut version of Dawn Penn’s ‘No, No, No’ that would subsequently prove a worldwide hit two years later, surprising everyone who’d thought a classic rub-a-dub tune stood no chance amidst competition from younger dancehall stars like Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton.

With Steely & Clevie at the controls, they should have known better. This two-man team have influenced reggae’s every significant development of note since their emergence during the mid-eighties, and continue to explore new horizons at will, as demonstrated by the stream of trail-blazing records released on their own Studio 2000 label. That they remain ahead of the game is indisputable, but with their roots firmly locked in the music of the mid-to-late seventies, both men retain an unshakable admiration of their predecessors, and are serious students of past reggae styles and sounds.

It was with these exceptional skills in mind that Murray Elias approached them to reinterpret some classic Joe Gibbs’ tracks in 1999 – VP Records’ A&R director having already chosen every track and listed his favoured artists before recording began in the summer of 2000. The results now speak for themselves. The old and new schools of reggae are bridged like never before and in such compelling fashion, listeners of both generations will find equal cause for rejoice.

Murray had been a DJ in New York clubs like the Ritz, Tunnel, Danceteria, Mud Club and Limelight during the late seventies, providing an essential, musical antithesis to the fare served up in disco clubs. It’s testament to Joe Gibbs’ records of this period – and Errol T’s scintillating mixes in particular – that every other DJ in New York started playing them, thus establishing an important early foothold for reggae on the US club scene. Murray subsequently ran Joe Gibbs’ office in Manhattan, and credits Errol Thompson with being “way ahead of his time. He had a modern sound, not like Studio One for instance, because it wasn’t so limited or “time-cast” by the technology of the period. That’s why so many of his records like ‘Someone Loves You Honey’, ‘Money In My Pocket’ and ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ became anthems, because those tunes were massive club hits in New York.”

“We too are from the old school,” explains Cleveland “Clevie” Browne, who made his reputation at Studio One as a drummer, playing on hits by Freddie McGregor and Johnny Osbourne before joining forces with Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson and spearheading reggae’s digital revolution (most notably at King Jammys’) during the early eighties. Steely himself was a founder member of the Roots Radics, and played keyboards on memorable sides by Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott, among others. They first played together on a session for Augustus Pablo in 1974, years before pooling their talents as a regular double act, and also played on songs from Bob Marley’s posthumous ‘Confrontation’ album, including ‘Trenchtown’ and ‘Stiff Necked Fools’. A former member of the Browne Bunch and In Crowd, as well as an occasional sideman for Joe Gibbs during the late seventies, Clevie says that he and Steely had a younger generation of listeners in mind when working on this latest project, even whilst honouring past glories.

“This is what helps keep great music alive, and whilst most of those early producers had their own recognisable sound, at Joe Gibbs they used to mix directly from the mixing console, and that was what gave his music its real identity. Also he had several engineers there who were all excellent, and who brought a slightly different character to his productions.

“In our case, we wanted to get as close to that original Joe Gibbs’ style as possible, even though we were using what I call ani-digital, which is a combination of analogue and digital technology. Having gone through the whole computer revolution, Steely and I are able to analyse the roots of a particular style of music, and then try to get as close to that as possible. Having said that, we didn’t want to just recreate those old songs, but also needed to add something of ourselves to the project, making them sound as good, if not better according to the original producer’s intentions.

“We’ve also attempted to showcase some of our elder musical statesmen, and to give the younger generation of fans something they can relate to by combining elements from both eras. Because current, popular artists like Luciano sound very good on those old rhythms as well, but whilst that song ‘Identity’ is perfect for him, there are youngsters who don’t know of the Mighty Diamonds or the many other pioneers from that earlier era. With this in mind, we’ve tried to use the original artists wherever possible. Alas, Dennis Brown has passed away, so we had to find artists who could bring something of that old school feel to his songs, and represent him in the best possible way. Having said that, his presence is felt throughout the album, which is only right, since he was the main artist in Joe Gibbs’ stable.”

More than a tribute, these new versions not only recapture the original Joe Gibbs’ sound, but also reshape it to fit in seamlessly with contemporary developments – a statement borne out by the excitement that greeted the first few tracks to be previewed in Jamaica itself, with Sean Paul & Sasha’s electrifying performance of ‘I’m Still In Love’ being especially well-received. In their hands and those of the other artists featured on this ground-breaking set, the legacy of Joe Gibbs lives on as never before, confirming his status as one of reggae’s best and most influential producers.

Real name Joel A. Gibson, he was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1945. After training as an electronics engineer in the USA, he opened a television repair shop at 32 Beeston Street in downtown Kingston, from where he also sold records and was soon to install primitive two track recording facilities. It was Lee “Scratch” Perry who supervised Gibbs’ initial batch of recordings, which began in January 1967. These included hits by Scratch himself as well as Roy Shirley, whose ‘Hold Them’ is widely acknowledged to be the first rocksteady recording. Gibbs’ success was unusual in that he didn’t own a sound-system, which was still the most effective vehicle for promotion at that time. He did however make a habit of employing the very best musicians on his sessions, and encouraged by Bunny Lee, was quick to realise the business opportunities then available to Jamaica’s progressive young producers.

In 1968 Trojan Records began licensing Gibbs’ recordings for the UK market. Niney the Observer then took over Perry’s role, and the latter’s parting proved far from amicable. Perry’s first self-production, ‘People Funny Boy’, was a spiteful retort at Gibbs, who counteracted it with the equally scathing ‘People Grudgeful’. In the meantime, Gibbs had moved his retail operation to 11 South Parade, and his recording equipment to the Kingston suburb of Duhaney Park, where he geared himself up for the new reggae era – the laidback, soulful strains of rocksteady having been replaced by a more insistent, rhythm-driven sound. The earliest recordings from this phase were released on the JoGibs, Pressure Beat and Shock labels, as well as Amalgamated, and in addition to a handful of early classics by Peter Tosh, included sides by a host of vocal groups headed by the Pioneers, who gave Gibbs his first crossover hit during the autumn of 1969 with ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’. Further success then arrived six months later with Nicky Thomas’ ‘Love Of The Common People’, which raced into the UK Top 10 the following June. Recordings by early dee-jay pioneers such as Count Machouki and Sir Lord Comic had now begun to supplement Gibbs’ unstoppable flow of vocal productions, as had early prototypes of what would later be called dub – i.e., his ‘News Flash Versions 1 & 2’.

John Masouri

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