Words by DJ Gravy
It seems, in this ironic world, that true innovators are usually last to be credited for the global phenomena they ignite. Many great artists have had to pass on before their work was recognized–and often as not, it’s some ambitious biter that gets all the credit. Sad to say that Saturday, July 10th 2010, we lost one such, one of of the most crucial artists to ever rise out of Jamaica or for that matter, the world.
Starting his career at the end of the 60’s, Sugar Minnott performed with Tony Tuff and Derrick Howard as The African Brothers, and released several singles including the classic “No Cup, No Bruk,” before their own break up. As a solo artist, Minnott found himself at Studio One with the island’s top producer, Clement Coxsone Dodd. With Coxsone, Sugar would voice riddims from popular tunes with new lyrics, often outdoing the original hit. While this was common practice in the live dancehall circuit, it was a new concept in the studio, a concept that would help change the direction of Jamaican music.
That innovation alone would have secured Minnott a place in history as one of the founders of the new genre called dancehall–not to mention the art of freestyle lyricisim–but his contribution doesn’t end there. As a producer and soundsystem operator, Minnott also had a prophetic ear for other’s talents and debuted or discovered numerous stars in the making who themselves altered the course of reggae, including crossover sensations Musical Youth–one of the first black artists to be played on MTV–and conscious revivalist Garnett Silk. A who’s-who of other pioneering dancehall singers and deejays got early exposure on his soundsystem, Youth Promotion, and label, Black Roots. Many deejay/toasters like Jah Stitch and Rankin’ Joe honed their skills at his dances, while his label put out early releases by Barrington Levy, Horace Andy, Barry Brown, Nitty Gritty, Junior Reid and Yami Bolo. Tenor Saw’s lyrics for “Ring The Alarm”–“four big sounds inna one big lawn / Youth Promotion play the other three keep calm” came together as a freestyle at a sound clash where Saw was reppin’ Sugar’s sound. History in the making, dammit!
In his own performances, Sugar was wildly explosive and full of swagger. The way he’d run up and down the stage with complete confidence and agility was unprecedented in those times, but became a blueprint for how Jamaican artists handled stageshow appearances through the 80’s and 90’s.
For me personally, Sugar happened to be the first official Reggae show I ever saw, at the tender age of 17, I was clearly taken by reggae and dub, and had a growing collection of records, tapes and CDs. I knew several of his tunes but enjoyed his entire show. As I continued attending reggae shows, Sugar (who was living in Brooklyn at that time) was kind of the resident artist at S.O.B.’s weekly Tuesday Reggae events. I remember screaming out requests, only to be surprised that to hear him call out those same tunes to the bands and deliver me my favorites, as he had quite a repertoire (over 60 albums in fact…). His 1984 single with Sly & Robbie “Rub a Dub Sound” aka “Tune In” is one of those 45s that along with Johnny Osbourne’s “Sleng Teng” provided the template of Jamaican music for the decade (or two) that followed it. Although his 40-year (!) catalog is far too deep to do justice to here, it seems only right to honor him with a raised lighter and tune in one last time: