A multitalented individual with diverse interests and wide-ranging outputs, Mikey Dread revolutionised Jamaican music several times over.
Reggae fans may already be familiar with the way that a few noteworthy singer-songwriters became record producers to gain better control of their own destinies, but Mikey’s trajectory was particularly unusual, moving from student fan to audio engineer, and then to radio programmer, recording artist, and ultimately record producer, yielding one of the most unusual catalogues of all.
Schooled by King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and with longstanding personal links to Junior Murvin and members of the Congos, Dread was well-placed to craft individual pieces of roots reggae, and since the art of toasting is indelibly linked to the ‘version’ B-sides of dub, Mikey Dread wound up creating a stream of exceptional dub records in addition to his own vocal work. He was a skilled producer of upcoming talent as well, being instrumental in advancing the careers of youth that rose up just as roots music was heading towards the dancehall direction, such as Edi Fitzroy, Rod Taylor and Hopeton Lindo, and he helped the young Earl Sixteen to reach more solid footing too.
He was also one of the first producers to make use of the Roots Radics band, nurtured the engineering skills of Scientist, and had considerable success with relative unknowns, including the Ovations and Wally Bucker. He solidly bridged the punk and reggae worlds by working with The Clash on stage and in the studio, and the material he channelled through UB40’s DEP International gave the label an added sheen of roots credibility. And unlike many of his peers, Mikey’s work has really stood the test of time, the creations of his late 70s and early 80s heyday sounding as fresh now as they did when first issued.
Dread was born Michael Campbell in 1954 and as he explains in his autobiographical work, ‘Dread Combination’, his mother hailed from Portland in the east of Jamaica, while his father came from Negril in the west, so he grew up between the two regions, becoming fascinated with all things electrical at an early age. In Portland, coming into his teens he began playing a sound system called Safari and was later featured on another set called Sound of Music. Later, he and his friends established a radio station at their high school, on which Mikey would blast the latest reggae recordings, such as Big Youth’s ‘Ace 90 Skank’ and Lee Perry’s Cloak And Dagger dub album.
After graduating from high school, he moved to Kingston to study electrical engineering at the College of Arts, Science and Technology, but was frustrated by a lack of focus on electronics and soon shifted to an internship at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), training to be a radio transmitting engineer. In those days, JBC radio stopped broadcasting at midnight and featured mostly foreign music, so in 1976 Mikey decided to turn things on their head with a new programme, Dread at the Controls, which broadcast strictly roots reggae and dub until 4:30AM, six nights a week. But since Mikey was the engineer rather than a radio personality, he wasn’t allowed to speak on air, and relied instead on custom jingles, sound effects, the pre-recorded ‘dread talk’ of Rastafari patois, and sexy statements such as “Oh my God… the music just turns me on,” suggestively delivered by sultry female announcer, Freddy Rodriguez. The unprecedented show captivated Jamaica and cassette tapes of its broadcasts circulated far and wide, gaining him a cult following overseas.
Meanwhile, from writing a research paper on reggae music, Mikey had been cultivating links on the music scene with figures such as Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, Joe Gibbs, Rupie Edwards, Keith Poppin, Freddy McKay, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Augustus Pablo, as well as the deejay I Roy. He noted that King Tubby was really his greatest mentor, since Tubby gave him books to read about how to operate a recording console, and provided plenty of guidance in that direction. Sitting in on a weekend session Tubby engineered for Carlton Patterson of the Black and White label, Tubby suggested that Mikey voice his first song, a spontaneous toasting track called ‘Love The Dread,’ which launched his career right at a time when he began experiencing some friction at JBC.
Mikey formed his own Dread at the Controls label to house the product, and followed the single up with all kinds of other works. At the same time, he was a featured toaster on Socialist Roots’ sound system, and he was cutting tunes for other producers too, most notably toasting on Dennis Brown’s ‘Money In My Pocket’ for Joe Gibbs, cutting ‘Home Guard’ for Lee Perry at the Black Ark, and one-off singles for BB Seaton and Witty Reid, among others. He also forged a brief partnership with radio producer Pam Hickling (wife of noted psychiatrist Fred Hickling), which yielded some outstanding material for the short-lived 40 Leg label (ironically named in reference to the centipedes that allegedly infested the locks of Rastas), but was soon concentrating solely on DATC, which remained his main vehicle thereafter.
When Mikey left JBC he was briefly working as an engineer at Treasure Isle studio, assisting with Culture’s Cumbolo LP, yet he turned down an offer from Chris Blackwell to become the resident engineer at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Instead, a deal with Trojan Records brought his debut Evolutionary Rockers album to Britain under the title Dread At The Controls, and the African Anthem dub album surfaced soon after on the short-lived Cruise label. Mikey travelled to Britain on the back of this material and began recording and touring with the Clash, channelling future product through DATC spin-offs associated with Stiff, Rough Trade and other UK independents.
In the early 80s he recorded the great ‘Autobigoraphy’ for Adrian Sherwood’s Singers & Players project, voiced the commentary to Howard Johnson’s Deep Roots Music TV series, launched a reggae variety show called Rockers Roadshow with Johnson, and issued some noteworthy discs via UB40’s DEP International. Then Mikey drifted over to the USA, where Warner Brothers handled his infectious hit, ‘The Source Of Your Divorce’, but subsequent material for labels such as RAS, ROIR and Rykodisc were not always of the standard fans were accustomed to.
Retreating from the music scene for a time, he ran a television station in Miami called the Caribbean Satellite Network, and after furthering his studies, returned more concertedly to touring and recording in the new millennium (his swansong albums Rasta In Control and Life Is A Stage containing surprising moments of brilliance.) Dread maintained the quality on his stage shows too, always putting the band through their paces regardless of the setting, and directing the individual musicians to drop in and out of the mix for extended live dub workouts. I once saw him give a smashing two-hour set before a very small audience at an unknown venue on London’s Charing Cross Road; whether playing before 50 people or several thousand, Mikey Dread always went that extra mile to deliver an exceptional performance.
Michael Campbell left earth too soon, succumbing to an incurable brain tumour in 2008 at the age of 53. Here are 11 of his most noteworthy releases, each an indicator of the individual nature of his creations.
(Power Disc/Black And White/DATC, 1977)
Carlton Patterson’s Black And White label was home to some of the less-standard reggae to surface in the late 70s and early 80s, thanks largely to Patterson’s ongoing working relationship with King Tubby. On this very early outing for Mikey, he chants a hilarious tune about an ignorant dread that pays a transformative visit to the barbershop; Mikey rides the pleasantly off-kilter rhythm with considerable skill, his somewhat nasal voice somehow adding to the humour.
The rhythm in question was first used for Patterson’s vocal track ‘Hypocrites’ (released under the alias Michael Scotland), which is not a version of the Wailers tune of the same name, but rather a disjointed number that decries the various hypocrites one encounters around town in our daily life (the tune was later re-worked by Michael Prophet and Ricky Tuffy in bashment mode, but that’s another story). For the full DATC/King Tubby dub experience, check the extended 12″ mix, issued in the UK on Warrior.
Mikey voiced a handful of tracks for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at the Black Ark before launching Dread at the Controls and ‘Home Guard’ is easily the best of the bunch. Riding a sparse cut of Perry’s dense ‘Free Up The Prisoners’, Mikey is again in humour mode as he tackles the serious subject of the Home Guard, a local version of the ‘Neighbourhood Watch Scheme’ enacted to counter the rising crime and violence then blighting Kingston’s streets.
Perry keeps the oddball sound-effects in the background as Mikey recounts late-night harassment by the Home Guards of the title; flip to the B-side for references to Mikey’s revolutionary radio show and vocal signifiers pointing to Perry’s late 1960s collaboration with Clancy Eccles, ‘Feel The Rhythm’.
‘Step By Step’
(40 Leg, 1978)
Here Mikey recycles the excellent Black and White rhythm used for Leroy Brown’s ‘Give Thanks’ to mutate it into an entirely different entity that becomes something entirely his own. In taking you on a journey, step by step, Mikey somehow takes the old lady that lives in a shoe to the Rasta camp at Bull Bay, reminding that Jamaica is a land of diverse origin, so why shouldn’t dreads, baldheads and even Babylon get together in Bull Bay to celebrate?
The version B-side, ‘East Of Babylon’, is another great slice of King Tubby’s artistry that places emphasis on the song’s horn fanfare, propelled along by vibrant Rasta hand drumming. For a totally different take of the same rhythm, check Sugar Minott’s ‘All Things Bright’, one of Mikey’s least known yet most artistically pleasing productions.
‘Country Man’ / ‘Robbers Roost’
(40 Leg, 1978)
Mikey’s production connection with Edi Fitzroy — aka Fitzroy Edwards — came through Pam Hickling, who discovered Edi singing in the studio one day. He’d been trying to make a name for himself at Joe Gibbs’ studio, but Gibbs and the engineer Errol Thompson were constantly rejecting him. The first Mikey & Edi combination yielded ‘Miss Molly’, based on a nonsense rhyme about a female herb vendor and her conflict with the police, but ‘Country Man’ really heightened Edi’s abilities as a singer and songwriter, praising the simplicity of country life, where you can “walk with the dew wetting up your shoe,” and “walk in the mud, picking collie bud.”
Better still is the mind-blowing dub, ‘Robbers Roost’, which begins with a sketch that references Mikey’s radio show, and then goes on to incorporate roaring train whistles and all kinds of other hard-to-identify sound effects, as the engineer hones in on the meaty bassline and isolates the floor toms of the ‘rockers’-styled drum pattern. There is no doubting that ‘Robbers Roost’ is one of the greatest dub B-sides of the period — play it loud for full effect!
‘Behold Him’ / ‘Parrot Jungle Dub’
Tenor singer Rod Taylor is one of a group of west Kingston youth that began making an impact on sound systems just as roots reggae was pointing itself in the direction of dancehall. Horace Andy was a main source of inspiration, but other neighbouring singers such as Al Campbell and Linval Thompson also influenced the singing style. Mikey was fond of Taylor’s tune ‘Ethiopian Kings’, which the singer had cut for producer local Bertram Brown’s Freedom Sounds label, so he opted to give Taylor a try with the equally devotional ‘Behold Him’.
As with ‘Countryman’, the dub B-side ‘Parrot Jungle’ is a real killer from King Tubby’s studio, with more train whistles and oddball sound effects bubbling away over a pared-down cut of the rollicking rhythm, its throbbing bassline and resounding drum pattern again highlighted. Check the extended Sufferer’s Heights 12″ for the maximised listening effect, which goes straight into the lengthy dub portion.
Earl Sixteen & Mikey Dread
‘African Tribesman’ / ‘Butter ‘Gainst Sun’
(Sufferer’s Heights, 1980)
The excellent singer-songwriter Earl Sixteen had a lot of false starts in Jamaica. He was a featured vocalist in the Boris Gardiner Happening during the mid-70s, but got fired from the band for not keeping with the dress code at a time when he began adopting a Rastafari lifestyle. Early work for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Augustus Pablo showed a lot of promise, and one of the songs he cut for Perry, ‘Freedom’, was often played by Mikey on JBC.
The pair finally met at Aquarius recording studio, where Earl would often hang out during the day, and the resulting ‘African Tribesman’ was a true roots classic, with Sixteen musing on his African heritage over a deep and moody DATC rhythm. Handled by Dave Hendley’s independent label Sufferer’s Heights in the UK (issued in mono for some strange reason), it surfaced on a 12″ single with Mikey’s stylish toast, ‘Butter ‘Gainst Sun’, which called for peace, love and unity within Jamaica’s grassroots communities. Sixteen later recorded an album for Mikey, Reggae Sounds, which was probably too ahead of its time to achieve its full sales potential.
‘Break Down The Walls’ / ‘Wall Street Rock’
One of the greatest vocal releases by Mikey, ‘Bread Down The Walls’ spoke of solidarity at a time when Lech Walesa was just getting Solidarnosc off the ground and the Berlin Wall was still very much intact. As the Cold War slowly ground to a halt, Mikey voiced his views on the subject in his own inimitable way, and the song’s playful dub, ‘Wall Street Rock’, again draws out the best of the underlying rhythm.
When I interviewed Mikey some years ago, he revealed that the song had a strange history: he’d been in New York, doing some production work on The Clash’s Sandanista! at Electric Ladyland, and somehow ended up in Boston with Watty Burnett from the Congos, where he met a singer named Eva, whose sister was involved with Peter Tosh. Mikey wrote ‘Break Down The Walls’ for Eva, but never saw her again, so ended up recording it himself. The song was issued in a few different formats at its time of release (including an extended cut on the excellent World War III LP), but by far the most impressive issue was the rare DATC extended 12”, which launches into the longest dub mix of the tune.
Mikey Dread always liked to champion unknown talent, as the case of Michael Israel demonstrates. Mikey knew him from childhood days in Portland when he was still called Michael Brown, and decided to take a stab at recording him around the same time that he was working on Edi Fitzroy’s ‘The Gun’ (another great DATC ‘reality’ tune, which is also worth seeking out). Like ‘The Gun’, ‘Badness’ is a warning from Israel about the perils of street-gang culture in Jamaica, which can only lead in one direction: first, you’ll get remanded in an army jeep, then comes the courthouse, a jailhouse, and eventually, the morgue. As can be heard clearly on the gripping dub B-side, the rhythm is demarcated by a gurgling Syndrum shreik, which imparts an element of futurism to the proceedings.
‘All Night Jammin’ / ‘Late Night Dubbin’
One of the many unsung heroes of Jamaican popular music, Noel Bailey was best known as guitarist with the Roots Radics, where he was chiefly credited under the alias Sowell Radics, but his career stretches back to the late 60s, when he made some early attempts at being a solo singer, recording with Roy Shirley and others upcoming producers.
Noel had a spectacular near-miss in 1969 when he recorded an original ballad, ‘What Am I To Do’, for an aspiring producer, Tony Scott, who was credited as the vocalist when the song was released in Jamaica and the UK. But the song itself sank without trace, only to resurface in instrumental form as ‘The Liquidator’, which of course entered the British pop charts! Nevertheless, Bailey went on to voice impressive work for BB Seaton and Rupie Edwards (under the alias Noel Tempo), and he was a mainstay of Jimmy Cliff’s backing band for much of the 70s, as well as a Studio One session player. In the Radics, his trademark was the highly distinctive wah-wah guitar that gave an impressive shape to much of their material; since the Radics worked closely with Mikey Dread, Sowell and Mikey became close friends, often hanging out together at Mikey’s home and running through musical ideas together.
Mikey said that ‘All Night Jammin’ was supposed to have been issued by Sugar Minott, but when the release somehow never materialised, Mikey opted to record this slow creeper of a song with Sowell himself and issue it through DATC; it reminds that Sowell was a fine singer-songwriter, as well as an ace guitarist, and it’s easy to understand the impact the extended 12″ made on the reggae underground in Britain at its time of release. A follow-up, ‘Wheel O’ Matilda’, based on a folk song but sounding very DATC in form, was equally great. Sadly, Sowell’s defection from the Radics following a tour with Gregory Isaacs led to some wilderness years in London, and his eventual unsolicited return to Jamaica, where he subsequently died of cancer in 2014.
‘Roots And Culture’ / ‘Jungle Dread’
Mikey is on truly fine form on the outstanding ‘Roots And Culture’, reminding his listeners never to lose sight of their origins over an irresistible Roots Radics rhythm. As the tension builds, Dread draws for a series of proverbs to underline his message: “You’ll never miss the water ‘til the well runs dry, spit in the sky and it will fall in your eye.” He goes on to warn that, “If you deal with war, you can’t run far, and if you deal with grudge, you gonna melt like fudge,” so watch out!
In other words, don’t take anything for granted, and treat others only as you’d like to be treated yourself. The extended dub cut, ‘Jungle Dread’ (aka ‘Jungle Signal’) features some very fancy horn work from Rico Rodriguez, Eddy ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton and others. Though the original 12″ is mighty hard to find these days, a 10″ reissue is still available.
‘Bad Man Posse’ / ‘Smoker’s Posse’
A native of Port Antonio, Mervin Smith Junior began singing as Junior Soul in the rock steady years, writing ‘Solomon’ for Derrick Harriott and cutting great early reggae work for Harriott and Sonia Pottinger. He later joined the group Young Experience, who performed in Cuba during a time when Prime Minister Michael Manley was cultivating ties with Fidel Castro, but when the group disbanded, Murvin concentrated on song writing, achieving a major breakthrough upon recording ‘Police And Thieves’ at Lee Perry’s Black Ark. Murvin continued working with Perry until the producer closed the doors of the Ark, where Murvin cut a few singles for Joe Gibbs, but he never yielded another album until teaming up with Mikey Dread in the early 80s.
The title track of the album was the outstanding cut of the disc, with Murvin showing off his wide vocal range in a song that spoke of the choices a young man faces in life, which could lead to guilt by association; would the young man in question join a posse of good men, a posse of bad men, a posse of Rastas, or what? Over a typically spongy DATC rhythm, Murvin implores the youth to make the right moves, and not let his parents down by keeping bad company. Collectors should note that for some reason, there were a couple of alternate versions of the song issued on 12” at the time: the first has an extended cut of Murvin’s vocal on the A-side, and a sparse extended dub on the flip, but the ‘exclusive remix’ edition has Murvin’s vocal followed by a lengthy toast from Mikey. Pick your choice… sounding spectacular in either case!