Reggae producer Gussie Clarke talks about some of the best—and rarest—sides from new VP Records comp
“If certain songs were not too over-exploited, they would have greater value in the long run.”
by Seb Carayol
More often than not, a producer is summed up to his biggest hit—in Gussie Clarke’s case, he will, instinctively and forever, be the man behind Gregory Isaacs’s monster digital tune “Rumours” in 1988. However, the seasoned sixty-one-year-old Jamaican producer, and eloquent entrepreneur, has always been the furthest thing to a one-hit wonder.
From 1972 on and his first track with U-Roy (“The Higher the Mountain”), Clarke came out of the 1970s as a premier producer of Jamaican deejays (I-Roy, Big Youth). All the while, he never forgot singers (Dennis Brown, Leroy Smart, the Mighty Diamonds) that he incidentally helped transition into the digital music of the late ’80s and ’90s thanks to his studio, Music Works/Anchor.
Just when the VP label is releasing two masterful compilations of his rarest, early material (Gussie Presenting the Right Tracks and the vinyl box set Gussie Presenting the Right Sevens), as well as Born to Dub You, an Augustus Pablo LP made of unreleased tracks, I caught up with Gussie Clarke to discuss entrepreneurship, label naming, and enigmatic studio bands.
It always sounded to me that you got into the business side of music from an early age.
Gussie Clarke: I was always into music from attending public school in Jamaica. Where I lived in downtown Kingston, it was all music, you know, sound-system days. Everybody was basically blossoming. The nearest sound to me was Tippatone, and that’s the one that Big Youth was on. That was kind of a community sound system, and the one I followed.
Downtown Kingston was most definitely a tough place, but I was a good kid who lived a little bit on the peripheral of where all that intensity and energy was. I was an adopted child, so I didn’t have much of my biological family with me. But I grew up with an adoptive mother who was a wonderful person who molded my views about ethics and morality and honesty—principles in life. So I was blessed that way, but I had no family connections to music, it was just basically a passion.
Some time between 1969 and 1971, I bought an amplifier and started a little sound system. It was called King Gussie Hi-Fi. I made the boxes in school, ’cause I was doing woodwork classes. I saved a bunch of lunch money to buy the parts for an amplifier, and we had a technician make the amplifier.
Then I started to import foreign records in Jamaica, selling them to all the sound systems. From there, I started exporting Jamaican records to the U.S. and the U.K., and founding projects for Jamaican producers who did projects and couldn’t finance the initial amount.
Do you remember a few big U.S. records you imported?
In that era, they were evolving from sound systems to what we called discos. So you had the Geminis and the Sanotones and the Stone Loves that were all beginning, so I usually imported American records, soul ballads, R&B, collector’s items that nobody could get on the island.
I don’t really remember any specific record, to be honest. But it was all the hard-to-get collectors that currently have an extensive value. I mean, we would get all the new records that came out in the States every week. Every new record that came out, within a week we’d send like fifty copies, so we had hundreds of new records coming in weekly. Just that era when R&B was taking off in the States, and soul was getting there.
No big one you remember that got people crazy?
Oh God, I can’t remember! I mean, I’ve evolved out of that thirty years ago. [laughs] My apology on that. Anyway, I ended up building a little home studio because I had connections to all sound systems. You see a picture of it on the cover of front of the new project. So every Jamaican producer, the Channel Ones, the Nineys [Niney the Observer], they came over because I had a dub machine I bought from Duke Reid at Treasure Isle, and I’d usually cut dub plates. A serious sound-system connection, which furthered my ambitions. I had no other job, except this business since school.
Were you ever tempted to be a selector or an artist? What made you go the production path?
I don’t know. I never had… It seemed as if I had a passion for business. I was more of an entrepreneur than an ambitious sound-system player. Constantly evolving. After I had the amplifier, I swapped it for a riddim with Errol Dunkley, and had U-Roy voice onto that riddim. That led me to build the home studio in my bedroom, and then I evolved into building a proper recording studio. Today, we are the largest studio in Jamaica, we are the largest music publisher as well, we are the largest CD duplicator in this country… We are the only place in Jamaica who does online mastering of reggae. We constantly evolve. I’m an entrepreneur but I stay to the grain of music because it is my passion.
From me going to Tippatone. Tippatone was kind of a community sound system, and Big Youth was pretty much a community person. That’s how we connected.
When you first saw him on the mic, was there this big revelation moment, “Oh, I need to produce that guy”?
No, it wasn’t anything like that. I was just enjoying the music of the era, and I was having my little sound system; I never had any thought where I would end up or had any ambition with regards to becoming a record producer there. It just seems to have been the next step as we go along the way.
You started producing your own music on your label Gussie, but I was always intrigued by the name of the other early label you had, Puppy.
Oh yeah! I had a mongrel dog at the time called Dick. It was kind of “Gussie and Puppy.” I loved my dog; we had the connection. That’s how Puppy came in.
Besides Big Youth, you also produced both U-Roy and I-Roy—how was their relationship?
U-Roy did actually the first single, from the “Baby I Love You” riddim that I bought from Errol Dunkley; his track was called “The Higher the Mountain.” U-Roy was more a real authentic street Jamaican person. I-Roy had a more intellectual approach to his lyrical content, you know? Both in terms of his personality and his lyrical content, and his fluency of the language. There was no tension between them. In those days, artists never really had tensions. You only had sound-system clashes in the dancehall; the tension was external to the music.
Besides vocal artists, the reissue projects you have out with VP include a lot of extremely rare Augustus Pablo tracks.
Pablo and I usually hung out at King Tubby’s studio, I was actually learning engineering there, so that’s how we got to work together.
How come you sat on all these works for so long?
[laughs] To be quite frank, I wasn’t the person who came with the concept of these new projects. It came from Olivier Chastan, who’s the A&R person at VP, and it was basically his brainchild. It wasn’t that difficult to find what we were looking for.
In all fairness, VP have good people in the U.K. that they work with, basically connoisseurs of Jamaican music, and they have a good idea of my repertoire and they know what they would recommend. People like Chris O’Brien and John Masouri, who worked on putting together the list of potential tracks. From there, it wasn’t that hard for me to find the tracks they asked for.
Were there tracks they requested that you were surprised by, or had forgotten about?
Not really, but everybody was always fascinated with the KG’s, and that kind of instrumental. When everybody was doing so much vocals and things, we did tons of instrumentals with Augustus Pablo and Tommy McCook. You know? Basically, the KG’s was kind of unique, and there was a story behind them, because KG was actually a Chinese electronics parts and service person in Kingston; he had a shop in Crossroads and he had a store in Halfway Tree. At that point, he was the biggest distributor of Jamaican records. So, I just said, “Let’s just name the band KG’s,” ’cause it was such a known name. He was the biggest seller of such records, so…
While on the topic of mysterious studio bands, who were the Simplicity People exactly?
Everybody asks about them! It was never a band of specific people. It was simply a name I coined to give an identity to our sound, to the musicians that were involved in the projects. They were never a set of musicians; you could have Sticky Thompson, Dean Fraser, Tommy McCook, Family Man, Chinna Smith, Dwight Pickney—all the great musicians who were available at this time.
How about “Girl Don’t Come” by Jacob Miller?
It was actually a Ronnie Dyson track originally, and he just sounded like Jacob Miller. It was released way past on something, but I’m not sure. It wasn’t a track that had tons of exposure.
These projects seem to be part of that relatively new trend, where the competition seems to be about finding the rarest of the rarest in a producer’s catalog—I refer, for instance, to the tracks of yours that French label Iroko put out on vinyl recently. Are you surprised by this approach?
No, it’s just totally different in concept and contents than what it was before. Until then, it was available only at a very exorbitant price on Internet. In the future, we are even going to look into reissuing tons of our vinyl stuff ourselves, because we recognize there’s a need and a demand for this kind of music at an affordable price. It was not a surprise.
And another thing was that I basically held on to my catalog because I recognized that if certain songs were not too over-exploited, they would have greater value in the long run. So I deliberately refused many different offers of releasing that came to me.
Really? That was deliberate? It’s basically the same process as aging wine…
That was my view. I choose the appropriate project for them to be involved in.
In conclusion, I always wanted to ask you why you named your later label associated to your digital productions (and studio) “Anchor.”
If you look at the word “anchor,” it’s a very positive name in terms of what an anchor basically does. And we have all these chosen names that we think reflect how we see or would like to position ourselves. For example, my other label Music Works. We are into the music and by the works of music, this is what we are. Anchor is a very positive word with a unique logo, and we just felt that an anchor is firm, it keeps things in order. Like what we’ve been doing in the music business!
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