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Record Producers - The Big 5

Sunday, March 02, 2008

This week, we take a look at five of the 'real big men' in the music industry, who guide singers, musicians and players of instruments, known as The Producers. For many, the role of a music industry producer is quite dubious.

Many are uncertain as to the functions of these giants of the music industry. The truth is their all-encompassing role takes in almost every aspect of the work of their charges. This ranges from song and music selection, marketing, financial backing, making new careers and, most importantly, that of critic.

Interestingly, a review of some of the producers on our list showed that while they were talented and produced international number one songs, they were guilty of stifling the careers of some artistes in their very own camps.

Whether this is to ensure that their star artiste remains a star, or just a general reluctance to break new artistes, it still proved a negative in doing our assessment. We have selected Donovan Germain, Gussie Clarke, Lloyd 'King Jamey' James, Bobby Digital and Sly and Robbie.

Donovan Germain
Donovan Germain's entry into the music business came via distribution, when he opened a record shop in New York and began producing roots reggae in 1972. He created several labels like Rub-a-Dub, Reggae, Revolutionary Sounds or Germain Records . He obtained some hits like Mr Boss Man by Cultural Roots in 1980 and One Dance Can Do by Audrey Hall in 1985.

In 1987, Germaine opened his own studio, Penthouse which became renowned for the quality of its productions. He achieved an impressive number of hit singles making Penthouse a veritable tour de force in local circles. This general wave of success allowed many young artistes, the likes of Wayne Wonder, Buju Banton, Tony Rebel, Cutty Ranks and Mad Cobra to launch their international careers in the early 90s. Other artistes like Jah Mali, Ras Shiloh or Assassin would benefit from Germain's professionalism to reach an international fame.

Making new careers was not only Penthouse's strong point, but restarting and maintaining the careers of veterans was also par for Germain's course. Artistes like Beres Hammond, Marcia Griffiths or Nana McLean saw their career starting again after collaborating with Donovan Germain.

The Penthouse studios also became an invaluable training ground for the technical people. Talented engineers and musical producers like Dave and Tony Kelly, Andre Tyrell and Lenky took benefit from their passage in Penthouse's studio to acquire experience and a recognition enabling them to create their own labels.

Buju's debut album Mr Mention (Penthouse, 1992), produced by Donovan Germain, earned Buju more number one singles than any other Jamaican artiste, including Bob Marley.

Augustus 'Gussie' Clarke
One of the great dancehall and reggae producers, Gussie Clarke has been a successful Jamaican producer since the early '70s, when he helmed Big Youth's debut, Screaming Target, and the 1973 debut from I Roy. More known in Britain than in America, many of Clarke's early records were issued there by the Trojan label. Later in the decade, Clarke worked on landmark tracks by Dennis Brown (To the Foundation) and Gregory Isaacs (Never Be Ungrateful) and eventually he presided over a two-volume set issued by Heartbeat records, titled Dee-Jay Explosion. In 1988, Clarke had another creative and career breakthrough when he opened the Music Works studio. It immediately gained a reputation among the reggae community as the place to record, and soon everyone from Shabba Ranks to Maxi Priest was stopping by to lay down tracks. Clarke was still going full-tilt in the '90s, releasing a two-CD retrospective in 1996 and continuing to produce out of his Music Works home base.

Sly (left) and Robbie

Sly and Robbie
Drummer Sly Dunbar, along with bassist Robbie Shakespeare, rose to international prominence as one-half of the duo known simply as Sly & Robbie, widely regarded as reggae's best and most innovative rhythm section. Together, the duo have lent their rhythmic punch and near-telepathic interplay to some of reggae's most important sessions, as well as recording their own albums throughout the '80s and '90s, and accepted invitations from rock artistes to put in guest appearances at recording sessions. Dunbar has also recorded several solo albums.

Sly had an affinity for the drums from a young age, even constructing his own set out of empty food cans. At age 15, he began playing real drums in his first band, the Yardbrooms; after dropping out of school and briefly taking a day job, he decided to concentrate on music full-time.

Dunbar met bassist Robbie Shakespeare in the early '70s at a recording session headed by producer Bunny Lee. The two discovered an instant empathy, and in 1974, they formed their own Taxi Records label and began marketing themselves as a production and rhythm section team. Their stature grew quickly, as they were asked to perform with reggae giants like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Burning Spear; however, the duo's real break came in 1976, when Peter Tosh featured their rhythm work on Legalise It and made them part of his touring band two years later. The increased exposure spelled success for Dunbar and Shakespeare' careers as producers, musicians, and label heads, as Taxi released a number of important recordings, with Sly & Robbie as backing musicians.

The first official Sly & Robbie release came in 1981 with Sly and Robbie Present Taxi, and during their partnership
they have played on an estimated 200,000 tracks in the past thirty years, producing an astonishingly high percentage of perfect bass lines. Dunbar has pointed out that when you play the same reggae kick-drop rhythm every day for a year, not only do you get good at it, you have an urgent need to find new variations on it.

The two have been on the pay-roll of everyone from Bob Dylan to No Doubt. But it was their production of Grace Jones' eighties club classic Pull Up to the Bumper that first demonstrated that Sly and Robbie were also superheroes of funk.

King Jammy
Lloyd James, better known as Prince Jammy or King Jammy, is definitely one of the foremost record producers in reggae/dancehall and is hailed as the man who played a decisive role in the digital revolution that transformed Jamaican music in the eighties.

He started out his career by building amplifiers and repairing electrical equipment from his mother's house in Waterhouse in the late 1960s, and later started his own sound system. He also built equipment for other local systems. After leaving Jamaica to work in Canada for a few years in the early 1970s, he returned to Kingston in 1976 and set up his own studio at his in-laws' home in Waterhouse and released a couple of Yabby You productions. When Phillip Smart left King Tubby's team to work in New York, Jammy replaced him, getting to work with the likes of Bunny Lee and Yabby You.

In the late 1970s he began to release his own productions, including the debut album from Black Uhuru in 1977. In the 1980s, he became one of the most influential producers of dancehall music. His biggest hit was 1985's (Under Me) Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith, with an entirely-digital rhythm hook. Many credit this song as being the first digital rhythm in reggae, leading to the modern dancehall era. Jammy's productions and sound system dominated reggae music for the remainder of the 1980s and into the 1990s. He continues to work as a producer, working with some of today's top Jamaican artistes, including Sizzla.

Robert 'Bobby Digital' Dixon
Bobby Digital is an influential reggae and dancehall producer. He began working with King Jammy in Kingston in 1985. He was given his nickname 'Bobby Digital' because King Jammy had begun experimenting with digital rhythms at around the same time. Bobby struck out on his own in 1988 and formed the Digital B label. Among the artists with hits on Digital B are Shabba Ranks and Sizzla. Bobby is credited with creating reggaeton's distinctive beat.

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