Levy, Barrington: intv. w/Roger Steffens,
Dec 93 LA (at MCA,
Roger Steffens: We're in a big office building in Universal
City in Hollywood, California. And it's a long way from the
dance halls in Jamaica, but this is where dancehall is being
respected most these days, by big labels in America. Does that
strike you as strange?
Barrington Levy: No, not really. This is what we've been trying
over the years to do. This is a changed part of the music from
the original dancehall beat. This is the 90s style of dancehall
and it's reaching places which it's great.
RS: I think of the song on your new album, which is one of your
classics, "Strange" how the dances are changing. Let's
about that. When you started out in the dancehalls, how old
BL: I was like 14. But I've been playing music since I was
nine. Just a little sardine pan guitar really. Then I had a
group with my cousin, Everton Dacres, called the Mighty
Multitude and we cut two sides.
RS: And who would you sing with, what systems would allow you
to take over their mics?
BL: Burning Spear, Stereograph, and quite a few more sounds
around the area in Kingston, sounds in the country. I didn't
have any record on the street. Nobody knew Barrington Levy, so
wherever the dance was, I was there. And when I sing, they tape
it on cassette, and the cassette might go to England, might go
to America, and it just go around, before I actually go to the
studio and make my first record which was "A Ya We Deh."
RS: In those early days was the material you performed your
BW: Yes, definitely. "Shine Eye Girl," "Collie
Weed." I never
really sing "Collie Weed" in a dance, because the idea
day when I was on the way to the studio.
RS: I don't often think of Burning Spear as running a sound
BL: Not the singer. There is a little sound system in Jamaica
called Burning Spear run by a guy called Brave Man. That sound
doesn't exist no more.
RS: Let's jump from the age of 14 to your current age, and talk
about just how different the dancehall scene is from when you
first started out. What are the major differences you see.
BL: The changes in the beat, and I see changes in the lyrics,
which I'm not too into these type of lyrics that these guys are
putting out on the record. To me, reggae music is getting big.
Forget about the dancehall. Let's say reggae music. It's
getting big at the moment, and we need to clean our act up
because some of those messages that these people is saying
over, is not really what we want to bring across to people: sex
and guns and violence and things like that. What we need to
bring over to people is songs like "Vice Versa Love"
and a song with a message, a song that can uplift people.
RS: Do you make a distinction between reggae and ragga? Reggae
being message music, and ragga beins something a little
different from the Rastafarian kind of message music.
BL: No, man. It's all in the beat really.
RS: So, two faces of the same beat.
BL: Yes. These people just say, "Man, it's ragga."
means - I don't think it's a good meaning really. I think ragga
is rough and ragged. Reggae music - I'm here to push reggae
music. Not no ragga or no dancehall, cuz any music can play in
the dancehall. Back home they play anyone, so lots of people
going to love it and say they want more. So, as I said, that's
the only thing that we need to clear up now, is like these
foul, wrong lyrics that these guys are bringing out. We need
teach the kids more message, and more of what's going on. They
definitely need to know that.
RS: But you look at something like dancehall night at Sunsplash
this year, where virtually every single artist sang gun songs
and pum-pum songs, and probably the slackest performer of the
entire night was a woman.
RS: And yet you are still identified as a dancehall artist. Is
it hard for you to work in the dancehall, because you are not
doing what is mainstream right now?
BL: No, it's not hard. I give them trouble when I go on stage.
Because I'm the one that's going to be different. I'm the one
that's going to say, like the kids and the people, if they put
me on dancehall night, they're not going to be hearing me
talking about no badboy business, and gun talk, and punany
business. No, no, no. So I would say, if they put me on the
dancehall night, I would make a difference.
RS: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
BL: Well, my inspiration comes on and on every day. Every day
I wake up, I walk on the street, I observe what's going on
around me, so I just get my inspiration from my every day
walking up and down and observing people.
RS: I want to talk a little bit about your composing process.
You observe someone, you hear something said, you see a
situation, and you might get a line of lyric in your head -
BL: Like, for instance, I make a song called "It Was A Warm
Sunny Day." How I make that song is, I was standing at my
and this guy was passing with two kids in his hand and somebody
stay in a mango tree and shot him with a gun and the two kids
was crying and still down in the road. So I make a song off of
that. Like "It was a warm and sunny day/I was standing at
gate and viewing the place/saw the wicked man come down to
shoot the poor people up/they didn't have no ammunition, had
use their strength."
RS: Do words tend to come for you before the melody?
BL: Yes, definitely. I have a little tape recorder [to make
RS: One of the most important songs in recent reggae history
"Under Mi Sleng Teng." That was a revolutionary song.
while Wayne Smith gets a lot of credit for that, it is you who
created that rhythm and that song a few years before with"Under
BL: Yes, definitely. Well, "Under Mi
Sensi" gave him the
inspiration to do that song, and I think they know. Jammy's
know that, because when Jammy's come to England in 1983 "Under
Mi Sensi" was on the charts at Number One for like 12 weeks
smash hit! I even ended up on British television singing about
the weed. It was on a children's program, too. Thing called
"Number 73." And Jammy's come to me and said, "Nice
wicked song." And then after he went back to Jamaica, that
the first computerized rhythm that start off in Jamaica.
RS: But it's your song. Have you ever gotten a penny of
royalities from any of the hundreds of versions of "Sleng
RS: How do you feel about that?
BL: I don't really think about it.
RS: There's a new copyright law in Jamaica, so that if you had
written "Under Mi Sensi" in 1993, anybody who covered
rhythm or that lyric from now on would have to pay you a
BL: Yes, I know.
RS: But it's not retroactive.
RS: So is this new law going to be a good law for Jamaican
artists, or do you think it's going to cause more problems?
BL: I think it's going to cause both. It think it's going to
good, and going to cause problem as well, because most of the
older artists, they're going to want to get paid for most of
the jobs that they do and people like collect their money and
they don't get it. I don't think they're going to go back to
past time to recoup back the money, and that's what's going to
cause the problem.
RS: You made a video for "Work" in the place called
corner. Explain what that is and its relationship to you.
BL: Well, I give that corner the name. Black Rose is an area
the Kingston 13 area, and all these guys that hang out that
live in the community, they keep the street clean, paint it up,
plant up a lot of flowers, make some brick paths and this
avenue is just really nice, and they give the name Black Rose
from one of my songs. It's in Jungle.
RS: And who did the murals on the wall?
BL: I don't definitely know the guy's name, but the guy who was
responsible to get the paint was Bogle, the guy who invented
the Bogle dance right there on Black Rose corner.
RS: There is a little riff that you do that whenever people
hear it they know instantly that it's Barrington Levy. Where
did that come from?
BL: Some people say that it's yodeling, but I don't know about
RS: You never heard any Swiss yodeling on
BL: No. Because, you see, I was born in Kingston but I spent
lot of time in the country in Clarendon and in them times
television was hard to come by, so I wouldn't have no
televsion. I think I heard different sounds when I was in the
country. There was this place like you're down the hill and go
up and if you say anything at all, it echoes back. And I used
to love to go there and sit down, and I used to call that my
RS: Who were your early influences, who were the singers that
you really admired when you were a child?
BL: I only listened to one singer - Dennis Brown. Honestly. I'm
much younger than Dennis. And I used to listen to a lot of
foreign artists like Sam Cooke, cuz he was like the most
outstanding one really. Sam Cooke was a big hit in Jamaica.
RS: He played in Jamaica. Did you ever get to see any of those
foreign artists when they came to Jamaica?
BL: Never (laughs) cuz I couldn't afford it, man.
RS: What was your first major success as an recording artist?
BL: "Collie Weed" on Jah Guidance, produced by Junjo
was my first producer. The next big one was "Twenty-One
Salute," "Mind Your Mouth," "My Woman,"
and it goes on.
RS: "Here I Come," one of your great, great tracks
of all time,
"broader than broadway." Tell me how that song came
BL: Well, that song happened in real life, where it didn't
really happen to me, but I know a friend that I used to go to
school with, and he used to check for one of his classmates,
and one time she get pregnant and after she have the baby, she
realized that life was really hard, because she can't go out
like how she usually do. Can't go to a dance no more. She can't
go out with her friends, cuz she has to stay home and look
after the baby. Then she start to get post-natal depression
where she start to call him and have a fight with him and say,
"You stay home with baby! You come and give me baby to tie
down, man, and I can't take this." And she was crying, really
crying. And at the time it was happening, I wasn't really
thinking of it but after like a couple of days, I was saying,
"Yeah, that would be a wicked song." I come up with
telephone, the minibus" then I say "on the intercom,
tell me to
come" and I linked it up: (singing) "On the intercom
to come/said she didn't have a job though she did have
a son/said the lift doesn't work run up the stairs and come/cuz
if you don't come quick you're not gonna see your son/so I grab
a bunch of roses and I started to run/Here I come/Two months
later she said come and get your son/cuz I don't want your baby
to come tie me down/because you are old and I am young/yes,
while I'm young I want to have some fun."
RS: Tell me how you came to write "Murderer."
BL: There was a thing going on in Jamaica where these police
officers used to go around and shoot innocent people, and
that's how I come with that idea.
RS: I must ask you something about Bob Marley. I just take it
for granted that you're a Marley fan.
BL: Yeah, I listen to Bob Marley after he died. Not till after.
You know that Bob Marley got a lot of fight in Jamaica where
they didn't want to play his music on the radio. And really and
truly that happened to me back down in those days as well,
where they didn't play my music because they say I leave the
country and go to live in England. And after Bob Marley died,
I see this big buzz on the radio, on the television, and
everything where they're playing his music, and I sit down and
listen and that's when I really - . Bob Marley is great, great.
RS: You've travelled all over the world bringing reggae music
to people, in part because of the path that was blazed by Bob
Marley. Who is Bob Marley to the world in 1993?
BL: Bob? Bob is still the teacher. I mean the man's music still
lives on, take it from me. People still love Bob Marley. When
I heard "Iron Lion Zion," I said that was going to
be a big
hit. I love it.