As I post this interview, I am uncertain whether this was the last or the second to last interview done by Dennis Brown. His brother, Leroy Clarke, and son, Daniel Brown, were certain he didn't do any after this. However, I understand he did a radio interview in Miami around the time he spoke to me. Under any circumstances, this is the last substantial interview given by the Crown Prince.

I was told minutes before the interview that he only wanted to talk about the present -- no questions about the past. The present in this sense was his recent recording project with Karl Pitterson and Rico Laing for their new label Meditation Records. The night before, Brown headlined an all-star showcase with Gregory Isaacs, John Holt, Freddie McGregor, and Michael Rose at the Cameo Theater on South Beach. Surprisingly, for a man rumoured to be on his last lung, Dennis was impressive in concert for nearly an hour. While his voice was a strained relic of its former self, his spirit was strong and the performance of combination style encores with Holt and Isaacs gave me the impression of an artist with full days ahead of him. Instead, it was a final farewell. He would only perform once more -- in Brazil several weeks later.

The interview was difficult, not only for the aforementioned restrictions, but because he was clearly used to being asked insipid questions that don't require much thought or energy in response. I fortunately managed to cast a little light on areas heretofore unexplored and in the process touched the spirit of one of Jamaica's most important creative forces during his final weeks among us.

--Carter Van Pelt, Sept 1999

photographer unknown

CVP: As I say, when an artist is featured in the Beat, it's not only a matter of what's going on right now, but also a historical perspective too. A lot of that has been told. I have some old interviews with you that I can rely on.

DEB: We never want to go back to that. All that way back in time. You know? We just want tell about what is happening now -- is what we intend to do.

Let's start at the most present sense. How was the show for you last night [at the Cameo]?

Sweet, sweet mon. Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet! The sound was like a plate of well cooked food. The show was joyful. For the longest time, this is one of the shows I do enjoy.

How often have you done live combination singing with Gregory or with John Holt?

Well ocassionally when time permits it, because when we are on one show together, there are times when we feel the vibes and the next time we don't feel the vibes. Is ocassionally rather than seldom.

You are often associated because you've been working with Lloyd Parks and We The People as a backing band for so long. Why has that relationship been so fruitful?

You see, we have built a bond between us. The musicians, they know a great deal about my songs. So what we try and do is to keep the same sound, we try and keep the band together. We travel that way.

You say you don't want to go back to the past, but when you go on a stage show, people want to hear those [old] songs, and you perform them, but [people] don't get to hear some of the new material that you do.

Because you see, the audience sometime vary. When you're trying to give them songs or introduce them to new songs, many a times it can be difficult. Because it's new and the people haven't been exposed to it, nine out of ten times they say they want to hear some of the older stuff. We try and do as much as possible.

The sound that you get from We The People as a live backing band is different from the production sound that's done on a lot of [your] music now. Why don't you compare the rhythms you sing on now compared to your classics from the rockers era and before.

You find that on the recordings, Lloyd Parks doesn't play on these songs come lately. So you find that the sound would be different. What we do at times is like mix the acoustic sound with the computerized sound and then you develop a particular sound which is more up to date.

But with respect to the drum and bass specifically. . . I hear some productions out of Jamaica now, Mutabaruka for example produced a whole album with all live musicians in the studio. Do you have an interest in any kind of project like that?

That is what I'm trying to say that come lately what we have been trying to do is mix the acoustic sound, going back to the old days, certain parts of the song you use [a] computer to give it a flavor. It's like painting a picture. You have certain parts where you might put a little bird here or there, et cetera, et cetera. What we do is do it like that and nine out of ten times, we find that we develop a certain sound which is good. Rather than about three, four years back, it was just computerized. You wasn't getting the real, original sound. Now, you might use the drum machine along with a bass player playing the acoustic bass, [or a] keyboard player playing the keyboard, etc. But it's all about flavoring when the computer comes in. Because you find that come lately now, a lotta the musicians that you need to work with, sometimes they are on tour. And you might have a project, and you can't afford to wait on them to come back, because you are on a tight schedule. So that is where computerized stuff comes in. It enhances
the flavor of the song.

Do you like the computer sound as much as the sound you were getting twenty years ago?

No, not total computerized. There are parts of a song that may need a certain sound which is on computer, so that is where the enhancing come in now to give that touch.

Who do you think is creating the best sound in Jamaica? Whose production sounds do you favor the most these days? Or is that a fair question?

Well, there is a lotta guys who have been playing music come lately, computerized stuff like Danny Marshall. He's good. Sly and Robbie, they're always there. Too numerous to mention. . . Certain musicians, musically speaking, they are smarter than some. As opposed to some guys who would want to play just two chords. While you have some musicans who knows about computerized stuff, [and] he plays anything from jazz come right down. So a little guy who think pon a hustling level now or "so-called producing level." He is a musician who is playing just a two-chord stuff.

Tell me about your association with Karl Pitterson . . .

Karl is one of the wickedest brethren I must say. The one is a maestro mon. He's like a professor, like a [mad] professor musically . . . And I say that without prejudice. Him rough. I've known him for years, from way back when him play with Boris Gardiner -- long before he play with Boris Gardiner. But what surprised me is to know that he is such an accomplished musician apart from being an engineer. I enjoy working with him. He gives you room to develop whatever you want to express. He is a man you cyaan tired a working with. And very few producers I find . . . a man like that is what you call a "producer."

Because he's involved directly?

Right, his sound for music is wide and deep. He's not just looking as far as his nose. He knows what he wants.

Had he specifically produced Dennis Brown tracks before [Generosity]?

Yes. From Gong Sounds, Anthony Gilbert. He even have some songs that has not been released yet either.

Over the years he's been here in Miami, you've been aware of what he's been doing?

One and two production, on and off ting. Really on this album is the first that we have gone that far. And the way these songs come about, a lot of these songs was written in the studio. Like I be hearing the songs for the first time. What I do is try and write a song for the rhythm. The rhythms was already laid. I had to find songs to fit the rhythms.

Do you write a lot on spot like that or do you keep a long resevoir of writing collected?

Sometimes the premeditated stuff is not as good as on the spot tings. Ocassionally, it is always good if you have something in the cookie jar still. This is always good. I have a lotta songs weh I have written from way back when. Cause a song like "Revolution." This was from in the 70s, and it wasn't until the 80s I recorded. Well, you see them songs yah now? Them songs was years me have them inna the cookie jar. And it wasn't until a certain time when we would record them, because a song like "Revolution," I was a bit scared to . . . I never know what reprecussions there would have been or what they might be. You have certain songs where you have to be very skeptic in recording them, because the picture that the song is painting can be offensive. You have to know what you're doing.

That song ["Revolution"] is an important song. Do you remember the circumstances that caused that creativity?

Well, I don't know what happened between Malcolm X and his brothers internally in their setup or their organization. But Malcolm X is a man where I always love enjoy reading about. His knowlege that him impart most of the time is more agressive, more . . .


Yea, non-compromising. As opposed to all the ministers. Me have a book now on him wherein . . . I don't remember the full title of the book, cause I read a lot too.

The Alex Haley Autobiography?

I can't remember fully, I'm not going to lie. But it was while reading about that now that I get certain impressions, gained certain understanding within his delivery of his speeches, and it was inspiring. I had the song, like the idea about the song, cause myself and a guy name Junior Delgado we used to hang out together. So everytime I sing that song. Gado always love this tune and say, "Bloodclot, this one yah wicked!"

So the tune is speaking to the other people in the movement, asking 'do you know what it takes?'

Right, and at the time too. There was another thing in Jamaica and around the world as well. You find that the people was more aggravated and mesmerized and confused. You name it. Everything that is downtrodden. They were going through fazes and nuff changes day by day. Brothers get killed by the police who claim they're shooting back after them. You have some real revolutionists who [don't] take no chat. Them stand up fi poor people and certain things fe liberate the people and certain liberal tings. A lotta people don't know them constitutional rights. So their environment where they might grow in, they don't get exposed to a certain understanding or a certain real life to know that they're entitled to certain speech and certain functioning. And they get caught up within the system wherein they end up being rebellious. They get in a situation wherein either they are being killed or they get wanted or something, but they get very outspoken and very liberal. It cost them them life sometimes too. But the revolution still a gwan. The struggle continue.

That's one of your most militant tunes that you've ever done. From that time you were singing a mixture of tunes [in terms of lyrical content]. But for example on this new album [Generosity], it seems to be love songs. Do you feel the [creativity] to write those kinds of [militnat] tunes still?

You have certain songs or certain moods or vibes that [the rhythm] might be giving you. Like the vibes I get from certain songs. Certain songs by hearing the rhythm, it tells you that is either a love song or you might be heartbroken or the songs give you the vibes and you just know that certain songs are something militant that you have to write. And certain songs can't compromise, because the rhythm is too strong. In working with certain material, it comes naturally when you hear a certain rhythm. Certain rhythms have certain moods. On this lp it was a bit challenging. We had gone into the studio without knowing what I was gonna do. Nothing was premeditated there. So when you hear a song now or rhythm them, you say this song sound a certain way, cause you can have a love song yet the message it sending is still rebellious. Or you can have a song wherein, it's nice and easy vibes. You just focus on a nice and easy vives, but it's really the rhythm track that tells or gives you the vibes to write whatever. You have certain bassline: 'Boom, boom, boom,' and it's a march a gwan. Ya know say it's a militant song ya haffe write. I don't know if you know about music as a musician, but on a musician level now you have certain songs . . . in a minor key. The melody is always militant! If it's pure minor chords and with the bassline, it can be very effective as opposed now . . .

Yea, that gives it a serious [mood]. . .

Right . . . {gap/tape flip}

Two major chords come join together can be very commanding as well or jubilant. Or begging . . . yearning sound. It's just the mood and the feel and the time and the vibes that one might be in at the time, hearing certain songs. Cause certain rhythms speak for [themselves], musically.

Given the choices, as a self-production . . . I haven't heard self-productions that you've done in recent years, [but] what's your mood been?

Repeat that . . .

Okay, you went in and to a pre-produced rhythm situation and I think this other one that Heartbeat put out was produced by Alvin Ranglin . . . [I show him the cd, which he hasn't seen] . . .

Well on a ting like this . . . Who's the producer? Oh, GGs. Pass me my glasses. . . This album was written in the studio as well. Certain tracks like I said, it commands you to sing about revolution or what is happening in the world, socialism. The song goes by the rhythm, whatever the rhythm really give you the vibes to [sing].

Someone else brought you into the studio to voice these. You took the inspiration, wrote the songs. In other circumstances you've produced your own work and you've had total direction on your own. What is your preference?

My preference? Well, you see, no man is an island. No man stands alone. You see it? If I should go and and say, I'm going to produce all my stuff myself, I would be selfish. And I could say presumtuous and be a lover of myself. Because you alone cyaan do it. You have certain musicians, when you work with them, it give you a certain flavor, as I say before. As opposed to a guy who just play two chords. You have some man who know how fe hold on some augmented fifth. Some flated ninths and all them name. You combine them together. You create a sound just so sweet it can hurt you too. As well as make you cry or be happy, jovial. But it goes with the vibes like the chords. Chords are important. I like fe variate my sound so I try and look for the best. Sometimes, yet there are times when although you are the best, I wonder who is even lower than you musically, or less knowledgeable than you [who] comes up with some wicked idea. So it's all about variation. I don't categorically restrict myself to any one particular thing. I love fe experiment, try new vibes. And you cyaan be partial with the music, for if you know say . ???? can play the sound the way you looking for, and I love Sly & Robbie them. They're good. But you have some lickle man who play the song them wickeder than Sly & Robbie too. Not that they're not good, but the sound. So, it's all about variation. Variety.

You have it seems, I've read in different places, different numbers of albums attributed to you in your career. Some have said 60 albums, some have said 100 albums.


You say over 80? Do you keep a catalog of them? You didn't even have a copy of "Tribulation." I wonder how many of your own albums you have available to you . . . cause some artists don't.

Well, we have quite a great deal, but I can never keep them for too long, cause there is always someone who come and just keep on keeping on . . . asking you for them. Them no care when you try to tell them that "no, this is for the archive." [?] . . . But I try and keep a copy.

So how many sets of songs over the last five to ten years, how many albums per year are you creating?

We no look pon it dahweh deh. We just make music. For I never stop working. Day and night, sometimes when nuff people asleep mon. Ya haffe find the sound. You can't find the sound if you just love sleep. And you can't restrict yourself. Ya haffe be dedicated mon and you get a full dedicated reward. If you give it a part-time dedication, you get a part-time reward. You reap weh you sow.

Well, you're definitely what they call prolific too. Cause I mean there's an unusual number of records that come out under the name of Dennis Brown over the years. I mean to say 80 albums and you've been recording since the early 70s. If you compared Dennis Brown's catalog to any other artist in any kind of music over the same period of time, there's no one who has recorded more than you have . . . very few artists if any . . .

I feel Gregory beat me you know! [Laughter] There was a time too when I had to cool off recording. Cause you see we had stuff on tape that was not yet released. Sometimes you haffe let go the old that some new inspiration can come back.

When was this period you're talking about that you say you cooled off?

I can't really recall it specifically. But there was a time wherein I had round five unreleased albums. I had made enough tracks or music. For me personally, I have around three LP unreleased. That is just me.

From old times or from recent times?

From times wherein we just go in the studio and just record a song. We end up record a four songs. While you was already working on a ting, over deh so. But you see, is just we try experimenting too. And trying fe find a special song, because you see, you have to have an open mind. You can't restrict yourself or be narrow minded. You have to have an open-minded feel. Cause I listen to all types of music. I think that where my inspiration comes from too, I listen to many a songs. ??? . . . even might play an instrument and touched two chords and right away certain melody come back to your head, but you can't remember where you heard it from. So you just hold it, and know say that is your creation. Yea mon, but we have an open mind musically. Music just come so.

What other kind of music do you like to listen to outside of Jamaica music? Do you like African music?

I listen to all type of music, whether I can relate to it or not. Like I said, chords, how it structure a song, is very important, and the melody - very important. Because you can't have strong lyrics and because the music is weak, them just go disregard it. So melody is very important. Melody is very imporant.

Were you ever involved in a harmony trio?

I used to sing harmony with the group Heptones in the early days. I used to do backup harmony with the Heptones on songs like "Sunday Coming," Alton Ellis. There was a song like, "when I was a boy, you going the Rastaman's way, cause he will take you away. Only he can stand in this judgment . . ." Little Roy. "Now I'm man . . . he's a rightous man, a righteous man." Those songs, myself and Heptones used to do the rounds. And do backup harmonies, various producers.

We were talking about you releasing material. I want to touch back on one thing from the past. You did run the DEB label for a while and then you had stuff under Yvonne's Special too for a while.

Yea, cause you find that we had a company that went into liquidation because of personal conflict and internal problems.

You're referring to . . .

DEB music. It was a company, not only a label but a company.

Who else was invovled?

There was a guy called Castro Brown who was living in England at the time. He was the one who was responsible for taking care of me [when] I first started going to England. A guy who have many ideas. He is a hardcore bredren still. A rebellious bredren.

So he was responsible for the UK side of your label?

Right, right. There started to be misunderstandings and communication breakdown and thought it would be best to go separate ways, because sometimes two spirit can't link. There's always some misunderstanding, personal problems internally. Many a differences, so we liquidated the business.

Was it hard to make time for that kind of work when you were also spending all that time voicing at Joe Gibbs?

No, you see what happened, I concentrated only on the music side of thing. The other bredren now, he would concentrate on the administrative part of the business. Not that I wasn't trying to understand more on the business side . . .

But you're the artist, so . . .

Yea, naturally I didn't want to mix the business with trying to find these songs and ideas, because doing all of that, it takes a lot because you haffe be talking all the while with some guys who might be producing. You have some people who is always yearning, thinking that you can break them out in the business. So, it's hard work. So I couldn't be producing music and doing all the administration of the business. So you had to have someone there.

You were one of the first people to release the music of Black Uhuru, before [Jammy's and Sly & Robbie]. . .

Yea, how that came about now. You see, Michael Rose and myself, we grew up together. And because I was more fortunate before him. I became popular before him cause he used to sing as Michael Rose before the group Black Uhuru form. So right as it had formed . . .and they were promising then, cause they had certain songs on Jammy's. This is when we first started you know. I was doing the production of things and asked them to come record two songs fe help get the label established. Because I alone couldn't carry it. And being that it was a company, we had to try and be very . . .

It couldn't be just Dennis Brown. . .

No. Myself and Gregory was tight. And almost everybody was tight. So the ones who I knew had a market in England, I mainly concentrated on them. Not only to say, because they're not selling here in Jamaica, I not going to record them. I had done my research and knew what type of songs they like to dance in the nightclubs or they call it "pushing" in certain dances.

And you also did an album with Ranking Joe

Well, like that again. Joe and I was very close. In those days he was just coming. So it was mainly friends I relied on in trying to build this company. It was hard work. Cause we had people like Gregory. We had the Tamlins. We had almost everybody that was happening at the time.

You must have been tight with the Tamlins, because I've seen their names all through your career . . .

Right! Sometimes, some of these artists don't get enough work. And sometimes artists get frustrated too. So, we try and look out for the better ones. Cause you have some nice badminded ones too. So me more look for the more cleanhearted ones them for create. You have some clean, nice badminded bredren inna the business who can't stand to see a next artist go through. And they don't inspire a next artist to go through because you have certain times the artist might know that you go over there so, you eat some food. And him alone want to nip at the cheese that is over there. And the bredren weh can eat some food too, him don't make him no wiser. Some artists don't like to impart knowledge to some. And you see those ones, them never usually last. Because through envy and glutton, one going to go out of the business.

Your other imprint then was Yvonne's Special.

That was my wife's. I formed that label because I saying that in the future anything that could happen to me or might happen to me. So it was more securing the food for the kids them. He (points to Daniel acrross the room) was the first born, born in England, Daniel.

The album that we were talking about, Revolution, came out on that imprint. Some people talk about that album like that album in time should have come out in a real mainstream way. That had the potential . . .

How the album came about was by compiling songs that I had on tape. Because some of these songs now, I would get like a cut of the songs from various producers. So finding myself having all twelve songs unreleased, rather than trying to release them all at once as singles, just put them on the one album. And some of those albums have become classics.

Well, that's one of your strongest collections. That's why people would have thought, well, this is good enough, it could have been an Island Records album.

In those days now, we were not exposed to certain people in the business, because we were kept in the dark many a times. When the music come and make a breakthough that we get exposed to meeting certain guys. So in those days now, it would not, although the album was good, we didn't get the right introduction to many of these people who could have helped the music get exposed and be big.

You are probably the most well-known artist out of Jamaica that didn't ever work for, or do an album through Chris Blackwell.

Well, I've never done work with Chris Blackwell himself, but I've had songs which have been released on various albums, produced by Sly & Robbie.

But not a full Dennis Brown album through Island, cause that was a key piece in a lot of artists' careers. They had that break, and they had that opportunity, but you had that opportunity through A&M.

Through a third party thing. Is through a third party thing, it slow down lickle, cause hear why now. Some of these so-called producers started getting greedy. So they try to keep you down and it look like nothing a gwan. That can't hold me now.

We're talking in a historical sense, and I want to ask you a couple more questions. But when you look back on your various periods, with Derrick Harriott or Coxson or Matador, and a long period with Joe Gibbs, and Sly and Robbie and all these periods of time, do have a collection or a period of your work that you feel most fondly about? How do you view it when you look back?

View it in what sense?

In terms of where you feel . . . let's say this. Let's say that Dennis Brown was going to be remembered for one album or one set of songs from a period. . .

Them haffe be remembered by all of them! [Smiles] That is it now. I don't restrict myself to any one particular song. One thing I enjoyed doing though was to [re]-make songs from even before my time.

How do you mean?

Standard songs. Like, (sings) "Pretend you're happy when you're blue." Or "you were made to love me, and so how am I able to know/ You always tell me, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps." "Oh I wake up in the morning with my head down in my eyes and she says I . . ." I used to be a band vocalist . . . that plays all over the island. I used to sing a lot of the top-ten singles, so "Hooked On A Feeling" and all them tune them tune yah, B.J. Thomas. We used to do all them ting deh too. Entertain all them, cause you have certain times wherein you have to sing these songs so people can stand up and dance. And generally, some of these songs are from the top ten chart or top one-hundred or top-forty or whatever. You have to study these songs. So I have that knowledge now. We do the songs in reggae. We try and do it in a way wherein it is not a joke ting. It is for real! Songs that lives on forever mon . . . songs like "Unforgettable, that's what you are . . ." Those songs are standard songs, live on through my time, my children's time. Because they are real songs.

But you've created some of those caliber of songs yourself though . . .

Well give thanks you are telling me this. But sometimes I didn't know . . .alright. A song like "Should I" then. Writing a song like "Should I" and it become like an anthem now. I didn't know or think that people would have come and appreciate that song so much. I was a bit scared too, wondering if it was the right lyric I was using or people would view the lryics. "How could I ever go on living this way, acting like a child so young and gay . . ." But in those days, I a try fe be a big man you know? But I was still a child. I was wondering if it was the right lyrics I a sing or not. I was taking chances as well. Cause I wanted to be different. Me a sing certain songs though.

Every artist has a song that they say was the song that "made me eat food." Like the Mighty Diamonds say "The Right Time" was the song for them. Do you have a song where you really made a transition . . .

Yea mon, you have songs like "Love Has Found It's Way." Um . . .

How about "Money In My Pocket"? How important was that?

First me love them songs, but me no love them songs deh no more. It come like a joke song to me. Yet it is the first song that make me get internationally established.

How do you mean as a joke? I noticed that you kept it out of your set [at the Cameo] yesterday.

You see, "Money In My Pocket" to me is like a ? ting. Is like it synthetic. Like a joke dat. You give a joke or something to that effect. But you have serious songs wherein you haffe just

What about "The Half"?

That's a message song. "What about the half that's never been told." "The world is in trouble and living ain't easy. World leaders set my people go . . ." "Love Keep Us Together," "Upon A Way." [sings] "It's a good thing I never get swell-headed. I talked to my ? . . I just crawled, crawled up to the bottom." "There's strength in this ???. It's like rain pouring down. When a blessing is ??? It's like rain when Jah shower you with him blessing." So it is up, up on a way you go, far from destruction and certain elements and certain forces. "Love Keep Us Together" is more a jovial song. "Sweet Song" is like a family oriented thing.

How about "Concentration." That's one of my very favorites.

That is message song, cause inna those days, we usually have some lickle kids, some lickle guys just go on and beg, beg everyday. Them can't read and write. If him see ...?.. a bulla, them just eat that. Them can't read and write too tough.

One more thing. I did not ask you about Rico Laing and how you got to hook up with him.

Well, Rico came about through Karl Pitterson. It was a lady called Stella, who knew Karl and knew that Karl was getting his production together to set up this company. So she told me about it and actually I didn't know Rico then. Who I knew was Karl. We worked on two songs. I was dealt with properly, on a level. These bredren make you want to sing, make you want to work. Because you are compensated properly. Not only that too, but people you enjoy being around too. You have room to create. No one was being like an opressor or slavemaster or slave driver. Do your ting, you want to take the whole day, you understand?

It was open, it wasn't like a pressure thing?

No "watch the time!" and all of this. Is one of the companies wherein I've always enjoyed working with, and I hope they maintain that standard in the way they execute business and take care of things. But I know with bredren like Rico and with Karl, the sky's the limit mon.

The show represented, they represented themselves very well.

Right, they make you feel at home. They make you want to work. So, I know if they continue on that level, there is no way they are going to come and be gone tomorrow. Cause them some clean-hearted bredren. And dem no thief, dem no rob. Cause them come fe open ya eyes to the business and show you say, alright, pick your choice. Whatever you have agreed on, that is what's going to be happening. I feel good fe that, and I can stand up and speak proudly about them on that level and wish them all the best and all joys in the world in their endevours, cause with Rico and Karl Pitterson, they fe stay.

I look forward to that relationship developing.

Right now I look forward to working pon the next album. That is how comfortable I am. You know what I mean? I look forward to working with them. They have been there. They feel at home. They are locked in with the music. Anything you want to do. And there's no restriction fe say you have up until this time and re, re. You just work until the spirit say yes, that's it.


Irie. I enjoyed this

I enjoyed it tremendously. It was an honor.

Give thanks, respect.

Copyright 1999 Carter Van Pelt. The text may not be published or broadcast.

cover of memorial program, photo by David Corio

Many thanks to Jeanette Smith, Rico Laing, and Karl Pitterson for making this possible. Articles on Dennis Brown's life & death can be found in the Beat, V17 #5/6