Gorilla Biscuits' Alex Brown Talks Collecting Rare Jamaican Records and His Jamaican Top 10
The NYHC legend gets down and dirty with his favorite dancehall classics.
All All photos courtesy of of Double Cross XX
Welcome to Epitaph for a Head, the new column where 'NYHC: 1980 – 1990' scribe Tony Rettman discusses some of the great bands, records, and moments in the history of punk and hardcore. In this entry, Tony discusses Jamaincan dancehall recordings with Gorilla Biscuits' Alex Brown.
From a distance, I always found Alex Brown to be one intriguing son of a bitch.
Crash-landing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the mid-80s via Iowa, he immediately seemed to entrench himself in the infamous NYHC scene: firstly as the co-editor of the definitive NYHC ‘zine of the moment, Schism, and then as the guitarist in Side By Side, Project X and Gorilla Biscuits. His crucial impact can also be felt on the design of all the early Revelation Records release. Since his heyday in the NYHC scene, Al has moved back to Iowa and had something of a decent art career, all the while collecting the shit out of some of the most obscure 45s to ever come out of Jamaica.
I decided it be cool to get his take on the collecting of this still-mysterious world of vinyl, while also getting his Top 10 favorite Jamaican singles, so stand back, people: the highly influential and highly sardonic pen of the Caged Chicken himself is back in action, and Epitaph for a Head is pleased as punch to present it again!
Noisey: Do you follow any rules when digging through crates to find this stuff?
Alex Brown: There are n rules regarding digging for music, except try to look through everything or else you might end up missing the real score. I prefer the original Jamaican pressings, whether it be 45, LP, or 10-inch. Represses are okay, but the originals generally sound better, even when they're scratchy—maybe the wear adds some character. Producers are the first thing to look for, along with what label it's on; usually the producer and label are synonymous. Also, look to see who the singer or deejay is. Jammy's, Upsetter and Studio One are pretty much can't miss.
Were you collecting this kind of stuff during the Schism or Side By Side days?
I have always been into records. When I moved to NYC, I quickly became friends with Ray Cappo and Porcell who shared my love for records. They both had amazing collections of punk and hardcore records. I got a job working at Venus Records in 1987 when they were on 8th Street near 6th Ave. It was located on the second floor and you had to ring a buzzer to get in. I worked with Ron and Bobby who were two rock guys from Jersey. They were the coolest guys and turned me onto so much good music. I worked on Saturdays, and that was the day when people would come in to sell their records. By the time I got fired from there, I had a pretty great collection. Sadly, I sold it all many years ago. Bad decision! I didn't really start collecting Jamaican stuff until the 90's. I was always hesitant to shop in any of the reggae stores. I don't know if you were around then, but there were a lot of reggae shops around downtown which were just fronts for weed dealers. It was sort of like those bodegas that had barely any merchandise and bulletproof glass kiosks that sold coke in the East Village way back when.
Yeah, I remember when I ‘broke edge’ in the 90’s and I went into one of those bodegas to buy weed. I guess I looked super suspect, because the dude wouldn’t sell the weed to me, but he would to my friend. That kind of brings up this drunken theory I have on the parallels between Jamaican musicians and NYHC. So much folklore! Both worlds are full of weirdoes and cutthroats.
I think there are a bunch of parallels to be drawn between NYHC and the Jamaican scene. It's even more similar to the early hip hop scene; cash businesses are great for laundering money. But yeah, both hardcore/punk and reggae are steeped in reality and the plight of the sufferer. Also there's the independent angle; people circumventing the mainstream and putting out their music on their own labels and doing all the artwork, marketing and promotion on their own dime. DIY all the way.
When you started collecting these 45’s, whose brain were you picking for info in the pre-internet world? Who were you calling on to navigate through these waters?
That's a good question. It was mostly trial and error. You were lucky to find someone at a record store who knew anything about this type of music, and if they did, they were often too cool to let you into their club. I would always pick up interesting-looking compilations. I would find singers, producers, labels and time periods that I was into and go from there. I don't know many people who are into this kind of music. I used to always stop by Jammyland across from the Hell's Angels HQ on 3rd street before they closed a few years back. That was a good store. They had all the walls covered with albums. It was a great place to browse and find cool stuff for reasonable prices. If you were lucky, Ras Kush would be working when you went in and there wouldn't be anyone else shopping. They didn't have a listening station but you would grab a bunch of stuff from the stacks and he'd play them for you and then turn you onto some other cool stuff based on what you were interested in. That's where I picked up the Greetings LP by Half Pint on George Phang's Power House label. From there, I would pick up any singles I could find on the label.
Do the Gorilla Biscuits reunions help in regards to record hunting?
The GB stuff has allowed me to do a lot of traveling in the past ten years. My favorite shop is Deadly Dragon. Funny enough, it is the sister building to an apartment I had in the early 90s. The space that they are in now used to be an art studio for this English guy, Dee, and his Chinese girlfriend. They had an extension cord that ran out their front door and five stories up one building over in through my window. That was my power! But yeah, Jeremy at DDS always has killer stuff. It's overpriced and impossible to browse there. You really have to have a list of stuff you're looking for but I always pick stuff up from there when I'm in the city. I hate shopping online but I get things here and there. Austin, Berlin and Tokyo all have great record shops and even though it's a pain to drag them around while traveling, it's definitely worth it.
So, what do you do you these days to occupy your time?
Making art. I make paintings and try to sell them and spend all my time listing to music and staring out the window.
ALEX BROWN'S JAMAICAN TOP 10
"Roll Called" - Tenor Saw, 1984, Power House
This is the first tune recorded by the late Tenor Saw. It’s a terrific George Phang production featuring the rhythm section of Sly & Robbie. Tenor Saw makes the most of Phang’s reworking of the classic “Queen Majesty” aka “No, No, No” rhythm. Even though the next tune he recorded for Winston Riley at Techniques, “Ring the Alarm” would become his smash hit, this tune is my personal favorite. He’s 17 or 18 here and the maturity and subtlety of that voice make his death in Houston at 21 that much more heartbreaking.
"On the Right Track" - Johnny Osbourne, 1987, Jammy’s
I first heard this track on Superstars Hit Parade which I purchased from Ira at long defunct Jammyland. I miss that store. It’s a tune featuring one of my favorite producers and singers both hitting on all cylinders. Mr. Buddy Bye himself and Lloyd “King Jammy” James riding so smooth on the Cat Paw riddim. From the introductory “doe, ray, mi, fah, so, la tee, doe” to the last verse with Johnny hitting some really powerful vocal imagery about the golden chariots, this one never fails to touch my heart.
"Oh Mr. DC" - Sugar Minott, 1979, Studio One
Another obvious collaboration between two of the greatest in the business: Lincoln “Sugar” Minott and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. Anyone worth their weight in ganj knows Dodd’s Studio One label was inarguably the most important and influential of all Jamaican music. ‘Oh Mr. DC’ was Minott’s first attempt at breaking it big and the young, hungry singer (whose name is richly deserved from that sweet as honey voice) brings us the story of a struggling youth who just wants to sell his collie weed and be left alone by the forces of Babylon. Who can blame him? Story has it that Sugar approached Mr. Dodd with lyrics that he had penned to many of the great Studio One rhythms. He just voiced over the existing instrumental tracks and pretty much created the genre of dancehall in the process. I always think it’s interesting to think about coming from a place like Jamaica, where people recycle everything. Why not recycle the music and just put some new vocals on top? This track can be found on the album Showcase. Live Loving was the album that preceded that one and is also chock full of great music.
"Ali Baba" - Jackie Edwards, 1975, Jackpot
While this is not the original version of this tune, it’s still a killer. The lyric is about a dream and it’s a pretty amazing visual of flying carpets, Little Bo peep, Alice in Wonderland and many other catching visuals. The original is sung by John Holt on Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle. This one is produced by Bunny Lee, another hugely influential producer. All references to him cite his crowning achievement as the inventor of the “flying cymbal” sound. I still have no idea what the hell that means, but it sounds really cool and even more dangerous.
"Country Boy" - Heptones, 1974, Harry J
I know zero about Harry J and my knowledge of The Heptones is limited to a nice Studio One album named On Top and the few sides they recorded for Lee Perry. But the voice! But the story! Leroy Sibbles was the lead singer in this harmony trio and he was a great bassist as well. Not to mention he was also the musical director at Brentford Road after Jackie Mitoo split to Canada in the early 70s. He apparently wrote lots of great tunes for Mr. Dodd but you never really know who wrote what, as they’re all credited to the man who was paying the bills. The song is about a guy who comes to Kingston from the country, doesn’t know any of the neighborhoods or how to act, preferring to live by the gun than by an honest day’s work. Big, big, big tune!!!
"Dubby Conqueror" - Bob Marley and the Wailers, 1970, Upsetter
I’ve always avoided Bob Marley and the Wailers: too mainstream, reminds me of a frat party or that girl in high school who wore the Che Guevera shirt and had a copy of the greatest hits record. I happened upon a Bob Marley album not too long back; cheesy live pic on the front cover with bad copy design to make it look even worse. It was Swedish. I thought those folks were decent designers!
I noticed that most of the songs were credited to L. Perry. Sold! I have heard all the stuff before but god does it sound fresh forty years after the fact. Here’s the synopsis on Lee “Scratch” Perry: moved from the country to Kingston in the late 50s/early 60s, found himself working for Mr. Dodd at Studio One, recorded a bunch of ska sides, and eventually built his own studio in Kingston dubbed the Black Ark. To this day no one is really sure how Scratch made the sounds he did on his little Teac 4-track. He was apparently channeling some serious shit. The depth of the music recorded at the Black Ark is pretty much unrivalled in its innovation, rich sound and standard of quality. Any Upsetter productions from this era are pretty much guaranteed rock solid.
As for this track in particular, it makes no sense while making perfect sense at the same time. In Jamaica, a duppy is a ghost. “Yes mi friend mi friend me live pon street again”…I always pick up anything produced by Lee Perry, especially when it’s a 45 because you know the version/instrumental b-side might be even better than the “hit”. And that guitar! Wow! How the fuck does he get that spongy sound? Where did it come from? Have you ever heard it anywhere else? Me neither. File under essential foundation tune.
"Kick Up Rumpus" - Frankie Paul, 1984, Power House
Back to the 80s, here we have a young Frankie Paul probably recording one of his first sides. George Phang was the man behind Power House records and the men who really beefed up the sound was his rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare on bass and drums respectively. Many of the Power House sides suffer from either an inferior recording, mastering or a crappy pressing on what looks like it might be a recycled tire or a piece of cardboard painted black. But the one thing that shines through here is Frankie’s voice. I also love the use of old new tech on this era of recordings. They just can’t help but throw in a few digital handclaps here and there.
"Rough Neck" - Pinchers, 1980’s, Thunder Bolt
If I had to pick one singer in the history of Jamaican music that I could listen to, it would be Pinchers. He is the ultimate singjay stylist, performing acts of lyrical and vocal gymnastics that would make a lesser man cringe in pain. This one follows the Frankie Paul tune with an amazing early digital sound. It’s a seemingly early production by Donovan Germain, who later founded Penthouse records and strung together a long line of big tunes in the 90s. Throw this one in your heavily armored war box next time you find yourself in a bad soundboy situation and you’ll be sure to bury your opponent six feet under.
"God of My Salvation" - Buju Banton, 1994, Penthouse
A nice follow-up to that Pinchers tune and another Donovan Germain production. Welcome to the 90s! The sound has borrowed a lot at this point from its American breddren of hip-hop. The sound on these Penthouse records is always spectacular; clear, clean, crisp and bright with major internal-organ shaking low end. This track has Buju riding an all-time favorite rhythm: Freedom Blues/MPLA. Guaranteed to kill.
"Rock Fort Shock" - Prince Francis, 1970’s, Iron Side
I was lucky enough to find this gem in a dark box recently, and boy am I ever glad I did. I can’t imagine how much great music is in the vaults of the Studio One archive that never saw the light of day or never made it off the island. While it’s not uncommon to run into these records on all of Coxsone Dodd’s various labels, it is uncommon to find a bad tune produced by the great one himself. This little beauty is some serious deejay business with Prince Francis battling against the forces which might deny one to elaborate in fine style on all that is good and wholesome and virtuous regarding the Rockfort Rock rhythm. You probably won’t ever see this record, and if you do it will cost you more than you want to pay.
"Ninja Mi Ninja" - Ninjaman, 2013, DSR
This one will finish our little celebration of the sonic gifts of the diminutive West Indian island: Ninjaman. The Don Gorgon. Original Gun Pon Tooth. The baddest deejay ever? Possibly. This record is so fucking hard it’s ridiculous. Killer hook and beats and it was something I found by mistake while searching for something else. There must be a great tune hiding under every rock in Jamdown.
Tony Rettman’s book, ‘NYHC: 1980 – 1990’ can be ordered from Bazillion Points.