Music is a time-machine.
It can transport me at anytime. I could be walking to work, hear a song on a radio and off I go.
“Sorry, I won’t be in today. It’s 1986 and I’m really drunk.”
I heard Mikey Dread through a van window and I suddenly remembered how much I used to like him.
When I got home, I pulled out an old vinyl copy of World War III and turned it up in the late sun.
It sounded awesome and I recalled a party in Bristol: Red Stripe, dope smoke, cooler-than-me musicians, the sun and Mikey Dread, 1986.
I Googled Mikey Dread and was gutted to learn that he had passed away.
A talented engineer with a love of technology and the actual intricacies of sound, Michael George Campbell furthered himself, education-wise, right up until his untimely death in 2008. He was only 53.
Born in Port Antonio on the North of Jamaica, it was a long way (in every sense) from Kingston, but Campbell landed a job as DJ (and initially as sound engineer) for the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation.
Starting in 1976, his show (Dread At The Controls) was four hours long and on a Saturday night. His witty style, voice and crazy jingles made his show extremely popular. And he also played the rough and revolutionary style of music known as reggae.
(For great examples of his DJ skills, find the US release of the RAS label LP African Anthem Dubwise. The between-track patter has been reinstated and is brilliant.)
The conservative JBC may have frowned upon his dub and reggae playlists, preferring the irrelevant and saccharine European and American pop, but he was still awarded Top Radio Personality of the Year in 1977-1978.
Mikey Dread eventually walked out of his job at the JBC in 1979.
Having already worked with Lee Perry, Carlton Patterson and Sonia Pottinger, he began to start engineering, playing or mixing for Sugar Minott, Junior Murvin, Earl Sixteen, Wally Bucker, Sunshine, Jah Grundy and Rod Taylor and started his own label, DATC.
Between 1979 and 1981, he released three classic albums, Dread at the Controls, Evolutionary Rockers, and World War III, which brought him to the attention of, amongst many others, The Clash.
I am reasonably sure I saw him sing once, at a Singers And Players gig in Bristol. My memory of events is a little fractured and Red Striped, so I could be mistaken.
I used to drink in a Bristol pub called The Old England, and loved the jukebox. It was as mixed as the customers. I used to hear (the Mikey Dread produced) Clash song ‘Bankrobber’ along with ‘Police And Thieves’. There was Desmond Dekker, The The and Gregory Isaacs; Barrington Levy, Jimmy Cliff and (Mikey Dread-mixed) UB40. It was an eye and ear-opener for me – to see hardcore punks, middle-class students (like me) and Rastas mingling.
That pub, and Bristol in General, had a profound effect on me, musically. It was a very interesting time to be there.
World War III
It is the LP, World War III, that I am particularly fond of. I feel synaptically altered, through euphoric recall, every time I hear it. It was, and still is, immense.
It starts with the sound of a tape rewinding, stopping, going forward, then back. There’s no doubt that the album was recorded onto tape. The rolling, warm bass lopes and wide open spaces sound glorious. You can hear the humming of the amps, hear the space that is filled with music. I swear I can hear soul.
Give me hiss, give me heat, give me tape to vinyl and a pair of speakers bigger than a house.
Break Down The Walls crashes in with tight, fizzy snare, chop-chop guitar and a super lo-fi organ that lays out the melody. Then comes awesome deep, deep bass, reverbs and delays. Then Mikey Dread gives us his distinctive vocal, always timed to perfection, easy on the ear and filled with mirth.
Stop hiding out in the shadows
Scared to show the world you exist
Don’t lock yourself in the darkness
The world is so much brighter than this.
Yeah, if you never take a shot
You’re never gonna win.
So turn it all around and break down the walls.
The sound of this album is just…astonishing. It manages to retain an authentic, rootsy Dancehall feel, while combining studio FX trickery and heavy dub principles. Some of the dub mixes could be lifted from a Prince Far-I tape but with almost pop-catchy melodies. Dread’s nasal, toasty vocals keep the vibes lifted and when he combines with the deep baritone of Watty Burnett (from the mighty Congos), it makes me stop and smile. Broadly.
There is plenty of whimsical humour on this record, but some strong messages too. Dread ruminates on the idiocy of prejudice based on hairstyles, on economic deprivation due to race and speaks of his frustration at capitalism. He speaks with authority, and from experience. He was signed into very restrictive music contracts, and cleverly waited for those contracts to expire before he released music through his own label, Dread At The Controls (DATC).
His final message, in the title track, is delivered with such tenderness and humility, it is hard not to be affected.
Let me get this thing down straight
We are brothers and sisters and should never live in hate.
Mikey Dread was a great musician and DJ, a learned and prolific producer, a good writer, a very distinctive and soulful singer. There aren’t too many people I could write that about.
I have joy in my heart when I hear his music, and a little sadness that he has passed away.
Thank you, Mikey Dread, thank you.
If you want to buy the album, get the 2002 CD version, with all the dub versions and extended mixes. It’s not as sonically pleasing, but the dub cuts are brilliant.