Trevor Beresfor Romeo aka Jazzie B, the legendary DJ, music producer and founding member of the musical collective Soul II Soul was in Beirut in March for a musical workshop with 44 musicians and producers from around the Arab world. BEATS AND BREATH sat down with Jazzie B to discuss music, his life philosophies and future collaborations in the Middle East.
BEIRUT – For someone growing up and listening to hip-hop in the 1980’s, the mention of the name Jazzie B has definite resonance. High school memories flood back; the vocals of UK-singer Caron Wheeler on Soul II Soul’s top-charting song “Back to Reality (However do you want me)” transport anyone over 30 to those sweaty house-party scenes that flourished throughout the world in 1989 –including my suburban outpost in Houston, Texas.
After meeting Jazzie B in Beirut last month, I felt I was tapping into some deep-rooted part of myself – like meeting a musical big brother whose unassuming demeanor belied that of someone who had produced and remixed tracks for a long list of my musical idols such as Public Enemy, Nas, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Sinead O’Connor, Maxi Priest, Suzanne Vega, and a host of others from the mainstream to the underground like The Fine Young Cannibals, Destiny’s Child, Ziggy Marley, Neneh Cherry and the list goes on.
B was in Beirut as an honored guest of the Red Bull Music Academy’s Bass Camp that brought 44-musicians and producers from around the Arab world together for one weekend to produce music and receive lectures from the likes of Jazzie, as well as Dr. Peter Zinovieff -the inventor of the VCS3 synthesizer that Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk popularized, and Zeid Hamdan, founder of the Lebanese group Soap Kills and the Middle East’s leading independent musical figure.
BEATS AND BREATH caught up with Jazzie B the night before his two-city DJ tour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
BEATS AND BREATH: You’ve had quite an eye-opening experience here in Beirut with all of these musicians from the region gathering to make music together. Tell me about that.
JAZZIE B: This has been – without being too emotional – such a liberating thing for me to do under these circumstances. One of the most amazing things about last night…
B&B: We’re speaking about the showcase performance of the regional musicians last night at club EM Chill in Beirut?
JAZZIE B: That’s the one. I mean last night was no pop-idol thing going on. I mean as far as music goes, when I go to other places in the world it feels so contrived. And that’s not bad because everyone is a victim of his or her circumstances, whether it’s Beirut or not.
But I came to Lebanon 12 years ago in 1999 – I know that the two times I’ve been to Lebanon are most definitely authentic experiences.
I can say that through adversity comes a form of expression and in that expression is where history is made. I’ve been in it. I saw it in Beirut – last night and this weekend.
We say, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” So, I was feeling that last night. I was in the back of the venue just soaking it in.
It was lovely I felt like I was sixteen!
B&B: The things you’ve been able to accomplish as a producer, which are massive, contrasted with what you said this weekend – that you haven’t learned as much from your mistakes as you could have – how then are you defining your success these days?
JAZZIE B: I haven’t really drifted into that area yet because as far as I’m concerned I’m still out there doing it. So the fact is that I’m still on the journey. So I haven’t even bothered to look back yet. I’m still moving forward – still got my ‘Eyes on the Prize’ as it were.
Jazzie B traces his own evolution as a world-renowned producer to his time back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with the transformation from the sound system Jah Rico – with original musical partner Phillip “Daddae” Harvey – to the soundsystem we know as Soul II Soul –formed after Jazzie met the great Nellee Hooper.
B&B: You come from the time-honored tradition of the “sound system” in the Caribbean. I mean, you were your own music industry, party, and promotional engine all wrapped up in to one package. Given that there is no real music industry to support local artists here in the Arab world, is the sound system model something that could be duplicated?
JAZZIE B: I think so. Because from a sound system’s point of view, for the music that they (music industry reps) were going to hire and license, the people running the sound systems –like myself- started making the music themselves. From making the music themselves, then these were where the new superstars were being formed – coming out of these sound system set-ups.
B&B: Control the means of production and set up the sound system events for distribution and interest?
JAZZIE B: Yeah exactly. That’s part of the evolution of the whole music business. THAT part is where I see myself being involved. That’s my duty. That’s what I’m going out for. That’s what I’m studying, you know what I mean?
What comes from that is what’s made me today. I guess I have the kind of mentality that allows for me to go through the thorns and bushes because I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
B&B: Do you see yourself as a mentor in some way?
JAZZIE B: Yeah, definitely. And it’s a tradition I have taken part in. Really that’s my inspiration. That’s part and parcel for all the ideas of how I make music. I use people like Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway. Those guys were encyclopedias.
I’ve been blessed to work with James Brown – who took me under his wing. I worked with Isaac Hayes and Barry White. So many iconic people who inspired a whole generation, and I had the opportunity to sit in with them and hang with them.
I had the most incredible experience with Fela Kuti who allowed me to hang out and it was just amazing. So I feel it’s my duty to be in a position today where it starts being in that embryonic stage and suckle the child as it were.
As the child grows and I’m able to make suggestions about what particular routes that they take – and you know everybody needs a little TLC (tender love and care) – so I can help an artist in Beirut and all the other little guys coming up.
What’s a trip is that these young artists I’m spending time with now are like two generations away from me. Many of them weren’t even alive when I was doing my shit.
The fact that these young artists and I can meet each other now, on the level, and they’re mentioning songs that inspired them and they don’t even know where they came from. It’s so cool.
B&B: That’s the truth. And there’s not really a textbook for passing on history like this in these ways.
JAZZY B: This is what’s interesting. You know, when somebody posed the question to me in Beirut this weekend – “Can artists get past the whole idea that they’re giving music away in the Middle East?” (Implying they were losing both money and market-share.) We had a really cool conversation about it.
As I was saying to the musicians, when I first came out as an artist, we sold sheet music.
B&B: In the early 90s?
JAZZIE B: In 1988, when our music (Soul II Soul) first came out, I have royalty statements for sheet music.
B&B: For the longest time, that’s how artists have made their money. You owned the publishing right?
JAZZIE B: Exactly. And when I was speaking to the musicians in Beirut during my lecture, I gave a little snapshot of that. Again, everyone wants to understand how they can make this that or the other.
In today’s day and age, now, it’s revolved all the way back to when people were performing – a time when you would go to the theater and you would watch the musicians and then go home and try to emulate them.
Then came technology – the gramaphone, turntable, etc – the radio then started to perpetuate that stuff. When radio first came in – it was about the message. There was no music. It was about information. Then music became the thing that kept it going. I wouldn’t say the fuel, but it was the subculture of radio. When video came along…
JAZZIE B and JACKSON simultaneously: “Video killed the radio star!”
JAZZIE B: Exactly. And then it became MTV. But as you watch MTV these days there ain’t NO music! (laughing hysterically)
Look. All I wanted to do back in the day homey, was have the biggest sound system in the world.
Money? It weren’t about money. I had money because we were hustling.
I had my shops. I had my whole thing going on, and even when I got my first record deal, I didn’t make it like some artists that were in their garage bangin’ away for 20 years. I was playing my sound system and that again was another evolutionary step of the industry.
I took what they were doing when the musicians weren’t getting paid for it, and through the sound system set-up, I was getting paid for it. That was the weirdest thing. My first million that I made, it wasn’t like I had to use it because I was in a tornado of things with my sound system. I was hammering down the hatches.
Then another deal came along – and I was like ok, I’ll buy some more land (in Antigua where his family is from). That’s how the whole thing kind of evolved for me.
It would be the same thing where a musician gets a record deal – they buy a better guitar – they buy a studio…so on and so forth. That’s like the textbook thing to go wrong. That’s not what happened to me.
Our business is the fastest to make the money, and doubly fast to lose the money.
B&B: Back to the concept of mentorship and of opening the doors to younger musicians. The things that characterized the classic community relationship between the elders and the youth of a community – now it’s more global because the borders have opened up and so the identities that exist within these communities have become more spread out now. I think the way you’re describing the possibility of helping some of the cats here in Beirut – this is exactly what we hope when artists of your stature come through. When local artists are able to show you their music and say – “Look at this wonderful thing” and also say, “We need your help in this process to see it through” That’s the best thing that could happen.
JAZZIE B: Absolutely. I couldn’t have put it any better myself. I have my agenda, which is the music of life and let it play on. So I just move like that and it does end up becoming some sort of cliché. But like I’ve said:
“A happy face. A thumpin’ bass. For lovin’ race.
And those are the breaks!”