Words by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Mark Dixon—
“Prospect Park is like a home away from home,” Robert “Screechy Dan” Stephens says of the massive park at the center of Brooklyn, ground zero of New York’s Caribbean community. “You barbecue, you bring your blanket, you take a nap, when food ready somebody wakes you up and says, Food is ready, dinner is served…”
After meeting at the Church Avenue train station near his home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, we head over to the park and the nearby Parade Grounds for a literal stroll through memory lane with the dancehall artist best known for singing the praises of girls inna dem pum pum shorts, on 1993’s “Pose Off.” Though originally from Kingston, Jamaica (where he lived in the infamous Concrete Jungle area), the diminutive deejay and sometimes singer has spent most of his life in Brooklyn.
He first arrived in 1977, settling in Crown Heights. “When I came that was the wickedest snowstorm I ever seen,” Screechy says of his culture shock-inducing greeting to life outside the tropics. “People walk [ed] on top of vehicles because the snow was so high.”
As a kid in Jamaica, his father, also called Screechy (“I’m Screechy the 3rd—my grandfather was also called Screechy, my son is Screechy the 4th”) established his own sound system, mainly for his kids’ entertainment. “He built it for me, because he knew I enjoyed music,” Screechy says. “He would go out and buy me records, and he built a set. That made me love music more, because I was supported by the father that I loved so much. When I came to New York, that’s when I wrote my first lyrics. In ’78, I was talking about design, and clothes, like Sergio Valente and Calvin Klein. I must have been the first person talking about flossing.”
While living on President Street in Crown Heights, and attending nearby Prospect Heights High School, Screechy formed the Vital crew and sound system with neighbors and classmates James Bond, Night Rider, Daddy Pecka and the late singer Trevor Sparks.
“There was five of us growing and writing lyrics together, and [we] started chatting at basement parties and little events in the neighborhood and became the neighborhood superstars,” Screechy recalls. “[We] used to make cassettes, and did a lot of duplication of tapes—next thing you know, [the] cassettes start reaching England, different islands, and we actually start touring off the strength of the cassettes. The first time we traveled to do shows, it was in Bermuda. I can’t count how many times I’ve been to Bermuda.”
Other friends at that time included female deejays Sister Carol and Shelly Thunder, before either had begun their forays into music. In fact, Screechy says it was he who gave Shelly Thunder the idea for her signature hit, 1988’s “Kuff.”
“I didn’t involve with the writing, but I told her she should do a song kuffing out some man,” Screechy says. “The artist Lecturer had a song “Nasty Gal Fi Get a Lick,” talking about slapping up some girls. I told Shelly you should do one smacking the hell out of some dude, kuff them up.”
His first official label release on his own was a record called “D.J. Pattern D.J. Impersonation.” Cut for the Stereo Pride label sometime around 1984 or 1985, the single showcased Screechy’s uncanny ability to replicate and imitate the voices of of other dancehall deejays, including Brigadier Jerry, Toyan and a young Super Cat.
Around this time, the Vital crew was absorbed into Startone, a Brooklyn sound system and record label run by selector Acka T, members of which also included Jango Thriller, Amsha Rankin, and current radio host Candyman. Vital, meanwhile, formed its own label, Vital Roots, for which Screechy cut records including “Wrestler,” on which he fancied himself a pro fighter grappling with the likes of ’80s WWF stars Hulk Hogan and Junkyard Dog.