Words by Sabia McCoy-Torres, Photos by Martei Korley—
Reggae music is always evolving, layering new sounds over classic percussive phrases, and incorporating musical trends of the moment in original ways. Dancehall tracks produced by today’s riddim makers have a feel completely different to those from even a half-decade ago. Considering this rapid change, paying respect to a musical champion of the classic sound seems in order.
Paul Henton, better known as Computer Paul, is a well-regarded producer and musician who has built tracks for Bounty Killer, Capleton, Beenie Man, Super Cat, Sizzla, Shabba, and Buju at the height of their careers. He is also the man generally credited with pioneering the production of reggae tracks using computer technology. On top of this he created the epic Corduroy riddim. ‘Nuff said. The Corduroy riddim is one of those that will never die. A game changer when it was released in 1994, it lingers in your head long after the party is over. On that riddim Beenie Man made his classic “World Dance,” which many credit with bringing dancehall’s unique dance culture into the spotlight, giving a platform to legends like Bogle. But Computer Paul’s career began long before that.
“Born come sing it yuh nah mean?” Paul says of reggae. He chuckles and describes an only-in-Jamaica high school moment. Everyday jam sessions spontaneously broke out in the school auditorium where Paul played with other young musicians who would all go on to establish careers in reggae, like Tyrone Downie, the keyboardist for Bob Marley and The Wailers. “It took me away,” he says with nostalgia. Computer Paul first recorded at age sixteen playing bass guitar for Fred Locks, sharing the studio with greats like Sly and Robbie. “I was green,” he says of that experience, but Robbie and Locks both vouched for him and his talent. Tracks recorded that day would include Locks’ “When O When.”
In ’79, when Paul was in his early 20s, he moved to Brooklyn. Shortly after his arrival he found himself a member of the band Monyaka, which went on to make the Billboard-charting hit “Go Deh Yaka.” However, after the label behind the release made significant profits from the hit, it folded to avoid giving Monyaka their fair share, Paul says. He found himself at square one again, a Jamaican youth in Brooklyn looking for a musical outlet, though not for long.
Amidst his Brooklyn journeys, Paul linked with a man who had recently bought a basement studio in Brooklyn, and secured access to the studio by agreeing to set up all the wiring. This coincided with Paul’s return from a trip to Japan with a reggae artist. In Japan, Paul saw a Japanese guy in a music store—this was the 80s, let’s not forget—demonstrating how to use a computer. The computer was hooked up to a keyboard, several modules, and sequencers allowing him to play drums, bass, and strings at once.
“Whoa,” Paul said to himself, “I need to get a computer.” Back then, people bought what were called clone computers, reassembled from parts of other computers yet as expensive as today’s Macs. Paul got his hands on one and stepped into the studio scene using a computer and sequencer while others were still using simple drum machines. Recognizing him as the first producer to use a computer to make reggae riddims released on record, his peers dubbed him Computer Paul.