Niney the Observer’s lucky 13: The greatest tracks of an unsung reggae hero

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Niney the Observer is a name no history of reggae is complete without.

Part of a loose crew of downtown Kingston “ghetto promoters” who changed the face of Jamaican music as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, Niney challenged the hegemony of the bigger players by producing grassroots records that had a sting of ghetto authenticity about them.

Some of his most crucial work is not necessarily associated with his name, since he often operated behind the scenes, producing undercover for more established figures like Joe Gibbs and the Hoo-Kim brothers of Channel One. Although he’s best known for his essential roots reggae productions (cut with the likes of Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Junior Byles, and deejays I Roy and Big Youth), Niney has also enjoyed a parallel career as a vocalist, issuing his own hard-hitting “reality” records as well as some more playful tracks (usually concerned with the merits of marijuana or the allure of the female anatomy).

He had a hand in the shift towards the dancehall style as well, most notably in residence at Channel One studio in the early 1980s, and went on to produce some noteworthy efforts in the digital dancehall era. After spending time overseas in cities such as London and New York, Niney returned to Jamaica a few years ago to establish the Observer Sound Box recording studio, where he is currently nurturing the careers of young artists like Malakiyah and Mystery Jade.

Unravelling the tale of Niney the Observer is unusually complicated. Even his real name is a source of confusion, since he was given the name George Boswell by his father but raised as Winston Holness by his mother; he became known as Niney after accidentally severing his thumb. Born in Montego Bay in 1944, he spent much of his youth travelling between his mother’s home in Mobay and the home of an aunt in Rock Hall, on the northwest outskirts of Kingston. At school in Rock Hall, he formed a little band called the Nightingales, using homemade instruments, and later, while attending the noted Rusea’s High School in the port town of Lucea, he began clowning around with future Studio One guitarist Eric Frater. He also crossed paths with Lee Perry at a time when Perry was a champion dancer. Later, in Kingston, Niney began an association with the popular singer Derrick Morgan, who introduced him to his brother-in-law, Bunny Lee, the connection cementing a friendship that lasts until today; the singer Monty Morris was another early ally.

Eventually Niney became a salesman for producers such as Leslie Kong and Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, once remarking that he was such a natural at the task that “even if it’s rat shit, and I told you it’s black pepper, you gonna buy it.” He made his recording debut at Studio One in the rocksteady era, recording with Nehemiah Reid under the name Winston and Robin. Their censorious song ‘Bad Mind Grudgeful’ made a significant impact locally, but the duo didn’t last, so Niney began recording as a solo artist just as the new reggae sound came in, teaming with Slim Smith for the soul-influenced ‘Honey, No Money.’ This early output surfaced in sparse numbers, mostly on blank label pre-releases, but Niney soon began making an impact running sessions for Joe Gibbs (taking over from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry) with his organ instrumentals credited to the Destroyer – a reaction to Perry dubbing himself the Upsetter.

After living for a time with Max Romeo, with whom he helped make the influential ‘Maccabee Version’, Niney decided to strike out on his own by forming the Observer label in late 1970. He had an instant hit with the apocalyptic ‘Blood And Fire’, which caused conflict with Bob Marley and organist Glen Adams, who thought Niney had copied the structure of ‘Duppy Conqueror’. The ensuing fight resulted in Niney’s momentary hospitalisation.

Nevertheless, the Observer label established itself as a contender through noteworthy releases from Dennis Alcapone, Max Romeo and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, as well as Niney himself, and once he began working with the Greenwich Farm-based Soul Syndicate band, things stepped up to another level, first with Ken Boothe’s heartfelt ballad, ‘Silver Words,’ and then with the tremendous partnership that Niney forged with Dennis Brown that lasted to the end of the decade, yielding some of Brown’s greatest releases of all time.

In the late ‘70s, Niney produced exceptional work with deejays such as I Roy, Big Youth and Dillinger, and singers like Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs, Junior Byles, Leroy Smart, Junior Delgado, Johnny Clarke and Freddie McGregor, as well as lesser-known names such as the Jewels and the Rock Stone band. He crafted exceptional dub work with King Tubby (including the superb LPs Dubbing With The Observer and Sledgehammer Dub From The Streets Of Jamaica), cut early versions of Black Uhuru hits with a then-unknown Michael Rose, and at the dawning of the ‘80s at Channel One, helped shift things towards the dancehall style with Don Carlos, Sugar Minott and Little John.

Recent work with Jimmy Cliff shows that Niney has retained his touch of individuality as a producer, so fans should keep an eye out for a Cliff album produced by the man, as well as other work with fresh talent.

What follows are a ‘lucky 13’ of Niney the Observer’s greatest productions, each a gem in itself.

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Niney the Observer
‘Blood & Fire’
(Observer/Big Shot/Gas, 1971)

A momentous beginning for Niney as a truly independent producer, ‘Blood & Fire’ melds a fire and brimstone delivery from Niney in preacher mode over a stop-start rhythm from his backing players. Lloyd Charmers contributes some strong vocal harmony, as well as the spoken interludes referencing Rastafari concepts and the wonderful attributes of the wisdom weed. The bubbling bass line grounds the tune and provides its melody line at the same time, yet also hints at a shade of funk beneath the proceedings, while the guitar is merely a repetitive itch being scratched.

It remains a landmark in reggae history, yet caused much consternation at the time: Bob Marley and the Wailers felt it borrowed too heavily from the rhythmic structure of ‘Duppy Conqueror’, with the organ stabs a particular element of contention, leading to a physical attack on Niney by Marley and organist Glen Adams, which put the producer in hospital. Leading JBC disc jockey Charlie Babcock, the ‘Cool Fool with the Live Jive,’ was reportedly fired for playing the song as well.

After making a song so notorious, Niney naturally returned to the rhythm a few more times, with his alternate ‘Brimstone And Fire’ a jokey recasting with echoing slide-guitar notes, and Tommy McCook’s ‘Psalms Nine To Keep In Mind’ an enjoyable sax cut. The pick of the bunch is Big Youth’s ‘Fire Bunn’ (aka ‘Whole Lotta Fire’), in which Youth manages to diss the Pope for speaking in Latin, before turning his own voice into a siren, warning of fires burning in the heart of the city.

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Ken Boothe
‘Silver Words’
(Observer/Green Door, 1973)

A winner in every sense of the word, ‘Silver Words’ was a sizeable hit which allowed Niney to move up a notch in the reggae production hierarchy. It makes use of the Soul Syndicate band, whose members were then very much classed as understudies, but from Santa Davis’ opening drum roll you can hear that we’re onto something special. Boothe’s delivery is suitably forceful and the horn section comes in at all the appropriate places, emphasising the outpouring of romantic devotion coming from Boothe’s lips. The rhythm is still very minimal, with Fully Fullwood giving similar bass anchoring to that on ‘Blood And Fire,’ and some sprightly keyboard riffs along the way, as well as a modulated guitar line that is never overstated.

Clear evidence that Niney was upping his game in the production sphere, it has remained a perpetual part of Boothe’s live sets to the present day. And although it sounds quite harmless now, the opening line, “Baby I’m not joking, and it’s not what I’m smoking,” was even censored on some Trojan album releases back in the day. Strangely for a song so popular, Niney never did anything else with the rhythm except for the odd dub here and there, the best of which appears on Dubbing With The Observer.

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Dennis Brown
‘Westbound Train’
(Observer, 1974)

Dennis Brown is one of the best loved singer-songwriters in the history of Jamaican music, holding greater appeal than Bob Marley for many fans. He had gotten his start at a tender age, coached by Derrick Harriott, and although he found considerable success at Studio One, and then with an album Harriott subsequently produced, Brown still sought the breakthrough that would take him to the next level of success. Niney proved to be the kind of wildcard producer that finally made it happen, with the combination of Brown, Niney and Soul Syndicate creating something truly exceptional.

Brown actually knew Niney and Slim Smith as a boy, when he would hang around hoping to be recorded (Smith was the one that introduced him to Harriott). During the mid-70s, once they reconnected and began working together, Brown and Niney became close friends, and ‘Westbound Train’ was the first fruits of their collaboration. Their experiments yielded an incredible series of hit records that continued all the way to Brown’s signing with A&M at the end of the ‘70s.

The lyrics of ‘Westbound Train’ aren’t particularly profound, but there’s a lot to love about them (Linval Thompson even borrowed the words for a doppelganger called ‘Westbound Plane’, makubg the most of his ability to pattern after Brown’s vocal stylings). The rhythm was inspired by Al Green’s ‘Love And Happiness’, which the pair heard at a party they attended in Kingston, and since Niney was running weekly sessions at Joe Gibbs’ studio in Duhaney Park, he had Soul Syndicate put together something similar for ‘Westbound Train,’ with Gibbs himself at the mixing desk.

The song was a spectacular hit across Jamaica, but Brown was hospitalized with tuberculosis just as it became successful, leading Niney to sneak him out of the ward window in order to record the follow-up, ‘Cassandra.’ There are a ton of other cuts of ‘Westbound Train’ to investigate too, including U Roy’s ‘Train From The West’, Ansel Collins’ creeping organ piece ‘Inbound Train’, and Niney’s suggestive ‘Daughter Gets Hot’, among others.

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Delroy Wilson
‘Half Way Up The Stairs’
(Observer/Dip/Dixieland, 1974)

Like his protégé Dennis Brown, Delroy Wilson was also a child star that got his start at Studio One. Although, like Dennis, he was also a superb singer-songwriter, he was also fond of adapting foreign cover tunes, but never did simple renditions that mirrored the originals; instead, Wilson would totally re-cast the song in his own image, stamping a heavy Jamaican identity all over it.

You can hear this kind of approach most clearly on his take of Sixto Rodriguez’s ‘Half Way Up The Stairs’, licked over for Niney in a reggae fashion. Rodridguez’s original has one foot in bluegrass, its orchestral arrangement tipping things into pop territory, but Wilson’s take is a different beast entirely, his voice grounded in the soul idiom, while the reggae rhythm is clearly dance-oriented, with the kick-drum miked up prominently in the mix, a propulsive bass line, and a delightful chorded keyboard vamp. To really understand what the musicians are doing, check the dub flipside, or the enthralling King Tubby mix on Sledgehammer Dub.

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Michael Rose
‘Clap The Ba Ba’
(Observer/Ethnic Fight, 1975)

Although they didn’t record very much together, Niney forged a special connection with Michael Rose, their friendship remaining strong today. ‘Clap The Ba Ba’ was their first collaborative offering, one of the many anti-barber tunes of the day, and it has most of the usual characteristics that made Niney’s mid-1970s productions so captivating, namely a throbbing bass line and intricate drumming with minimal keyboard and guitar bubbling on top. Rose’s vocal is spot-on throughout, and the dub version B-side is spectacular.

Equally noteworthy is the follow-up collaboration, ‘Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner’, the first take of a song Rose would subsequently record with Black Uhuru for Island, thus reaching a much wider audience.

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Gregory Isaacs
‘Slave Master’
(The Thing/Third World, 1977)

As with Michael Rose, Gregory Isaacs didn’t actually record much for Niney the Observer, but the few songs they did create together are pure magic. And even though many fans think of Gregory as a lover’s rock stylist, primarily concerned with songs of heartache and romance, Isaacs also excelled at songs exploring themes of social justice and historical wrongdoings, with ‘Slave Master’ a case in point. It’s another Observer production that simply hits you from the get-go, with the tightly-wound drumrolls that start the piece spurring the listener into action, and Niney’s done a fine trick in applying a phaser effect to the horn section, making it sound as though the brass was recorded underwater in places.

Gregory’s lyrics are truly hard-hitting too, as he contemplates the torment his ancestors were endured in the days of slavery, ultimately sounding a note of defiance with a warning that the canefields will burn if this maltreatment continuea. The original Jamaica issue, which came on Lloyd F. Campbell’s The Thing label, informs us that the record was “mixed and mastered by the Observer”, emphasising his multifaceted roles in shaping the end result.

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Dennis Brown
‘Here I Come’
(Observer/Morpheus, 1977)

Dennis and Niney recorded a great many records together, and of the many spectacular results, ‘Here I Come’ is probably the most riveting, a contemplative and meditative work in which Brown muses on the need for love to prevail in the face of hate, and for Rastafari to be unwavering in the face of society’s terrible prejudice and victimisation.

The musical backing was cut at Randy’s studio, featuring rhythm twins Sly and Robbie, and the whole thing was given its hair-raising feeling by Niney’s collaboration with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at the Black Ark for the mix, so we get phasing even on Sly’s opening drum roll and counter-phasing on the high-hat and snare throughout. There is delightful male backing harmony as well, featuring Niney himself, and Robbie Shakespeare’s bass part is suitably grave.

The song became an anthem for Dennis that he retained as the opening number of most of his concerts from this date onwards; flip the disc for Bobby Ellis’ phased horn cut, ‘Head Shot (The Observer Strikes)’, and there is also the excellent ‘Jah Come Here’ from I Roy, a deejay piece about London runnings voiced in split-channel stereo. (Note that ‘Here I Come’ is sometimes confused with Dennis’ ‘Have No Fear,’ recorded with Niney around the same time, which begins with the line “Here I come again”. ‘Have No Fear’ is also worth seeking out, as is its deejay counterpart from Dillinger, ‘Flat Foot Hustling’.)

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The Messiahs (Niney)
‘Confusion In A Babylon’ (aka ‘Mutiny’)
(Moses/Observer, 1979)

‘Confusion In A Babylon’ was recorded at a crucial time in Jamaican politics. Michael Manley had steered the country towards a path of “democratic socialism” from 1974, and a very bloody 1976 election, which was tangled up with broader cold war politics in the region, led to a state of emergency being declared.

After Manley’s re-election the country unexpectedly signed up to a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, but there were still food and oil shortages, among many other problems. Meanwhile, Manley’s People’s National Party was becoming more divided, with some feeling that their leader had veered too far to the left, and others feeling he’d dropped the leftist agenda that drew them to the PNP in the first place. One of Manley’s deputies was implicated in a financial scandal too.

On ‘Confusion In A Babylon’, Niney sings of “mutiny on a sinking ship, find the captain guilty of ginalship” (that is, deception or crookedness), while someone else is “robbing the revenue.” Since the PNP was falling apart at the seams at the time, some felt the song was directed at Manley, though Niney has remained tight-lipped on the matter.

In any case, the killer rhythm with its driving drumbeats and subsonic bass was reportedly laid down at Channel One, and the voicing and mixing done at the Black Ark. The version B-side (titled ‘Stampede’ and crediting the Black Stallions) has plenty of phased underwater horns again, and the lightning cracking noises sound like someone thumping a spring reverb unit.

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Freddy McGregor
‘Chant It Down’
(Observer/Live and Love/Sonic Sounds, 1981)

Freddy McGregor had an incredibly long and varied career in reggae, beginning at the tail-end of ska when he recorded at Studio One with Ernest Wilson of the Clarendonians as Fitsy & Freddie. Although the pair cut some numbers for Bunny Lee in 1969, Freddy remained at Studio One right through to the end of the ‘70s, but with a few other diversions along the way. In 1972, he became the drummer and singer with the Generation Gap band, but after that fizzled out he began singing with Soul Syndicate in 1975 at the request of Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, which inevitably drew him closer to Niney.

Freddy says they did not really work together until 1979, when most of his peers had already left Studio One. Noting that Freddy’s name was already big in England, Niney took the singer into Channel One studio to cut the Mr McGregor album, which did well for Freddy overseas. Other Niney-produced McGregor tracks subsequently surfaced on the Showcase album, which had dub companion pieces to its better tracks (issued in the UK in slightly altered form as Lover’s Rock Showcase), including the excellent ‘Chant It Down’.

As with Dennis Brown, Freddy’s long experience on the hotel circuit made him a good all-rounder, so although he often recorded romantic ballads and had a way of making a foreign cover tune all his own, he was also adept at hard-edged songs depicting the harsh reality of life in the ghetto, and the bulk of his work spoke from a Rastafari perspective. ‘Chant It Down’ is thus one of the finest collaborations between Freddy and Niney, its lyrics speaking of the need for repatriation to Ethiopia, and the power of spiritual faith to overcome tangible obstacles. On the dubwise portion, a choppy clavinet line is revealed along with some rocky guitar. (Note: another enjoyable track with a similar ‘chant it down’ theme from the same album is ‘The Overseer,’ again with a tough dub portion.)

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Don Carlos
‘Dice Cup’
(Observer, 1980)

As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, a new sound came to the fore in Jamaica. The rougher edges of the dancehall style reflected the harsh realities of the inner city, and the subject matter was more locally-oriented, in contrast to much of the roots reggae that was marketed abroad. Channel One studio led the way, and when Niney became one of the in-house producers he helped point Jamaican music in an entirely new direction.

Don Carlos’ wonderful ‘Dice Cup’ is a prime example of the process, a delicious track that laments the addictive lure of gambling, with the sweet-voiced Carlos, a former member of Black Uhuru, telling of the perils of the dice cup game, which he just can’t walk away from even though his brethren’s loaded dice means he will always lose. Carlos employs an excellent command of vibrato in places and the great backing vocals help form a choral hook. On the J&J 10” release, once we get to the extended dub portion, we hear the percussive guiro and a beautiful guitar line. A superb slice of late roots that is edging into dancehall territory.

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Sugar Minott
‘No Vacancy’
(Hitbound, 1983)

After something of a false start with the African Brothers, Sugar Minott helped revitalise Studio One in the late ‘70s by showing Clement Dodd how Channel One and other production outfits were licking over his rhythms, leading Dodd to adopt the practice himself to fine effect. Despite helping Coxsone wage war against Channel One in the late ‘70s, by the early ‘80s Sugar was recording the odd track for them, particularly after intermediaries such as Dillinger convinced him to do work for them by stealth. In any case, the track ‘No Vacancy’ has some parallels to ‘Dice Cup’ in that it shows what a crucial role Niney was playing in the Channel One output of the early ‘80s, and the production values are simply masterful here.

Sugar sings with the conviction the comes from first-hand experience of being unable to find decent paid work, due to being a raggedy sufferer from the ghetto (made more difficult still, he notes, if you have dreadlocks); becoming an informal peanut vendor, or resorting to robbery, are thus his only options. The song’s emotive horn section underlines the hopelessness of the situation and there’s some fine footwork from the drummer; hit the dub version to understand just how great the musicianship is here, and how sterling Niney’s touches in the producer’s chair.

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Third World
‘Roots With Quality’
(Observers, 1984)

One of the most heavyweight of the self-contained bands to emerge from Jamaica, Third World arose in the early ‘70s as a spin-off of the Inner Circle band. After landing a contract with Island, their line-up got a boost when Bunny Rugs became lead singer, injecting a dose of grittiness to contrast with their virtuoso uptown musicianship.

Although they’d been flying all over the world playing on stadium gigs and had gone on to sign to CBS Records, their 1984 collaboration with Niney, ‘Roots With Quality’, brought them right back down to earth. The track seemed to sum up everything concerning the band (which is probably why they’ve retained it in their live sets ever since), and if you check the extended 12″ cut you find that Niney’s production is again out of the ordinary, going that extra mile to get the best off all possible worlds from this very capable unit.

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Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
‘Free Us’
(Heartbeat, 1991)

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Niney the Observer have a lot of history, having known each other long before either made their entry into the music industry. A Niney songwriting credit turns up on one of Perry’s early independent productions, and after Niney had fallen foul of the Wailers, Perry and the Wailers had a dig at Niney on their re-cut of ‘Mr Chatterbox,’ cut for Bunny Lee circa 1970. They then worked together on tracks such as Max Romeo’s ‘Rasta Bandwagon’, and Niney sings on a cut of Junior Byles’ ‘Beat Down Babylon’ produced by Perry, but there are a number of other tracks Perry produced that were aimed at Niney’s head, such as the hilarious ‘Cow Thief Skank’ and Jimmy Riley’s ‘Nine Finger Jerry Lewis.’

But the strength of the music always overcame these kinds of vinyl feuds, as heard on tracks like ‘Wolf And Leopards’ or ‘Here I Come,’ the Dennis Brown songs which Niney laid down the rhythms for at Randy’s studio but finished off with Perry at the Black Ark. ‘Free Us’ dates from December 1990, when Perry voiced an album for Niney on rugged digital rhythms that he produced at Channel One (issued first as Lord God Muzick but later reissued as both The Reggae Emperor and Station Underground Reporting), and since Perry’s output was decidedly patchy in the proceeding years, this one was a welcome release for sure.

Lee’s all over the map on ‘Free Us,’ unleashing a rapid stream-of-consciousness rant delivered in multi-tracked Perry-speak, so he’s having a conversation with himself at the same time as blasting the listener with his obscure concepts. Niney issued some noteworthy material with Yami Bolo and Baby Wayne in this period, and at its time of issue, the Lord God Muzick project was probably the closest Perry got to voicing a dancehall album; the re-working of the Wailers’ ‘Colt The Game’ is also worth checking from the same CD, with Perry’s thoughts about everything from King Tubby’s senseless murder to the recent Bunny Lee wedding (or “funny Lee bedding,” as Perry would have it). As ever, kudos is due to Niney for pulling this one off!

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