Chop Up: Exclusive Q+A with Cutty Ranks

October 13, 2011

Words by Jesse Serwer

Before he was Cutty Ranks, the deejay, Philip Thomas was a butcher at a meat shop. Knowing that makes it a lot easier to call up a guy best known for the lines “Limb by limb we ah go cut dem down/send fi deh hacksaw, take out deh tongue” and the infamous catchphrase “Six million ways to die…choose one.” If you know what I’m talking about you probably recall that back in the early and mid 1990s, Cutty Ranks was once one of dancehall’s sharpest lyrical swordsmen. Even those who don’t may know his voice, as his intimidating, distinctive delivery made him a favorite among hip-hop producers and especially jungle DJs, who, as DJ Ayres aptly put it in this space, sampled his voice so much that it basically became their genre’s third element.

Unless you somehow caught “20 Inch,” his 2006 single with Toronto rapper Kobra Khan, it’s probably been a while since you’ve heard Cutty’s name, though. Surprisingly, the deejay was not as elusive as one might figure and, with a little help from our  Sherman Escoffery, we tracked him down a few weeks back, as he was just about to the finishing touches on an upcoming album he plans to call Full Blast.

LargeUp: It’s been a few years since we have heard some music from you…
Cutty Ranks: Well, I have a new album coming out real soon. The name of it is Full Blast and I produce all of it. Probably one or two other producers who I did tracks for, I will take those tracks to put with what I have. But the whole album owned by me.

LU: Are you making rugged dancehall in the vein that you were known for in the ’90s, or is it something different?  What can you tell us about it?
CR: It is a mix. I have some roots music on it because look, roots music is the type of music [that] will have a longer life span in the music business, especially if you put a serious message on it, talking about injustice and suppression and oppression or robbing and stealing and what is going on around the world.  I mean like economical slavery. People who sending other peoples kids go to war and none of them kids go to war. People haffi talk about these things because most of the new artists dem now in Jamaica turn hip-hop artists. They nuh really push out the real message behind the music. I have a couple of dancehall [tracks] on [the album] also. I have these two reggaeton kind of beats. Reggaeton is really is the old school Steely & Clevie and Sly and Robbie type sound like “Wake De Man.” It really is the same kind of beat. It is not Puerto Rican originated. It’s old school stuff they play around with and callit reggaeton. But at the end of the day I am working with some of them because it is what it is, right? I can guarantee those two tracks are hits. I think one of the beats was made by one of Jermain Dupri’s soliders. It brings back memories of the old school, mixed with a little new school. One of the tracks, “Genuine,” is like a reggaeton mixed with hip-hop banging dem hardcore track. It’s really about fashion because I’m a fashion fanatic. When you are going to dress up, you try and wear the best. I think it could be good for the fashion industry.

LU: I’m curious to hear what think about current fashions in general and specifically in dancehall?
CR: Look, I am a fashion fanatic. I go with current fashion and you have old school fashion, which probably some of it look good. As long as it look good, I’m with it. I’m not going to live in the past, like I am Fred Flinstone or a caveman.

LU: So when will this album come out?
CR: I know this album probably going to drop by early next year because we have to give the single time to work in the market. This album is going to be a smasher.

LU: Which is the single?
CR: One of the single is a one drop, “Full Blast.” I have another with a lovers rock type feel, a combination with a new artist named I Volume which I am producing in Jamaica. We are not linking anymore but I still have the song and the song is good. We shoot video for it and a video for “Full Blast” so I am going to drop those two songs first. I have this electronic track named “Take It Away” on this album. We are going to drop those three singles and there is a possibility we are going to put out a EP/CD with about five or six tracks from the album.It’s kinda hard for somebody to pick something off of it for a single. Because we have the Beres Hammond combination and you have one with Luciano.

LU: Have you been making music for the past ten years?
CR: The music business change. And when I said change, not in a lyrical way because I always love lyrics, I always competitive, I always good. But [there is] too much corruption in the music business and conspiracy to keep out artists. Dem wan run the music business like politics. Too many politics in the music business will distract you. Or they take payoff from the other people to play other man’s songs. These things are going on in Jamaica. It’s really di disc jockeys dem and sound selectors who is messing up the music industry right now. So that is the reason why you don’t hear from me. I put out lots of songs for the past 10 years but these people won’t play the songs. Dem want me to pay them money to play it. I don’t do that shit.

LU: So have you been doing other things with your time outside of music, professionally?
CR: Well look, I tour. I toured Europe a couple of times in the past few years. So I am still doing it. I was in California last year and did about five shows there. All of those shows sold out. I was supposed to go to Japan last week but the promoter and the guy who is handling the business messed up everything because they were supposed to send me the advance which is 50% of what I’m supposed to get for the tour and they just kept beating around the bush. They booked the visa, hotel, plane ticket. Everything I get, even the visa but still they don’t send the advance. They sent me about half of the advance and I tell them I’m not going to take it. So I sent it back. So that is the reason why you probably could get me right now. Because I was supposed to be in Japan on tour.

LU: You were a butcher before you were recording…
CR: I used to work in a meat shop. Because look, everybody has to do something. You haffi work in order to be in civilization. So everybody do something before they step up in this game. It’s just I was a butcher at that time working a meat shop selling meat, and that’s where I start out from.

LU: Is that how you got the name Cutty?
CR: Yes, exactly.

LU: Did being a butcher influence your lyrics in songs like “Limb by Limb” or “The Slaughter”?
CR: Well, to be honest, when I was writing those lyrics, I was never really thinking about the line of work what I do, or my working in a meat shop. It just comes natural. It’s just things I learn in the streets because I grew up in the streets and I knew what’s up in the streets. I still have that street link so I know what is happening in my surroundings. You have to live or hang out where it’s happening to know the real truth. You have a lot of journalists reporting and they’ve never even seen it for themselves. That’s why you people like CNN, BBC News will fly right to another country and go right where its happening to see it personally. Although some of it is trumped up or organized, so sometimes you don’t hear the whole truth. You have to see the poverty, you have to see the injustice, you have to see the lack of education or the limited education, yuh see me? You haffi feel them things for yourself.  So I am writing my lyrics now on some issues, yuh understand? You have some artists now who deejay or sing songs or rap and the beat sound nice but the lyrics, you don’t feel that pain. The pain must be in it man, so it sounds real. If yuh don’t have the pain yuh don’t have shit that make people know that its real so when people listen they feel the same pain you feel in that lyrics. There is no pain in these lyrics of some of these guys that spring up in the industry.

You have Vybz Kartel and a whole heap of artists but all dem a do is divide youth. Instead of uniting youth, dem a turn youth against each other. It’s division dem create. As long as dem getting money, dem talking about about a bunch of crap. It’s the same thing with the sound system selectors. If you are going to have a clash, a competition, do it the right away. Make it be a competition, don’t make it physical. You know 8 Mile with Eminem?  I like that fuckin’ movie. When they battle on stage, that is the real shit. That’s what I’m talking about. Eminem battles some other artist and even if they wanna get ignorant or whatever, him not gonna fight back with them. He use his lyrics to destroy them.

LU:  Does that movie remind you of the way clashes used to be when you were coming up?
CR: Exactly. That’s where Eminem and all these rappers learned it from—us. Because that’s how we used to do it. That old school thing we used to do, the rappers take it over. And they’re doing it well. When West Coast used to go against East Coast and rappers used to fight against rappers in the United States, the Tupac and Biggie Smalls issue, a man get shot and people dead. You noticed the business change?  Everybody is united, everybody from the East Coast, West Coast and Atlanta is doing collaborations. That’s how the thing supposed to happen in Jamaica. These guys went against each other and then the sound selectors dem change the dynamics.

Then you have radio disc jockeys taking payoffs, now radio disc jockeys turn producers, and some of them start to sing too and they play their own stuff on the radio. If you bring a CD to them and say we have this product to put out, them take it from you and throw it down in a box if you don’t come to them and give them—some of dem don’t say total amount, dem send somebody else to tell you that them want 200,000 to bust this track. Why you supposed to bust my track? The track is already good. All you have to do is play it. If you play it and it blow up, and you come to me and I feel like giving you a million dollar, out of my own will, then so be it because I appreciate it and decide to give you some money. Because everybody haffi eat. But don’t try to stick me up like you’re a loan shark. I don’t play that.

LU: So who were some of your mentors in the music business when you were coming up chatting on sounds?
CR: Well, I used to deejay on sound systems in those days when dancehall was really nice man. You deejay from 6 in the evening till 6 or 7 the next morning before dance finish. Sometimes at 8 o’clock dance still going on. You remember those days in New York when people used to go to club back in the days, down in the basement and its 3 o’clock the next day before that finish. That you call party. You don’t find those kind of stuff happening anymore. The same thing used to gwaan inna England. That’s not happening anymore either. The man dem mess up the industry. Right now, its just one type of people who make the money. It’s the man who deal with computers and the software. I think computers and digital download of CD rob artists of the rights in terms of sales of music.

LU: You signed with some American labels in the ’90s, Profile and Priority. Did you feel they promoted your records properly?
CR: Probably, Profile did a good job with The Stopper album and Fashion Records in England. But Priority Records and the other companies never really do anything for us. They used us for tax write offs. They used me for tax write offs. They never promoted my album, and they never give me the justice I supposed to get. And yet still, that album sold a lot of copies and I still don’t get no royalties off that album named Six Million Ways to Die.

LU: It seemed like in that period, there was a rush for the American major labels to each have a dancehall artist. Right after Shabba.
CR: They never knew how to market—they claimed that they never knew how to market—dancehall music at that time, and we just fall through the cracks.   That is what they said. But probably they just never interested the market nothing, they just interested to slow us down and the money that they spend they can always claim it back for taxes when they file them tax return. But now we’ve reached a stage where artists can put out their works and build them own website and sell them own shit. So now the record company, them feeling it. Them never know it would happen like this. But you still have other entities in the business like Amazon, iTunes, other people who they never give you no advance but just to put it out they want half of your stuff. That is bullshit.

LU: A generation of listeners were introduced to you through the remixes and sampling of your voice by the jungle producers and DJs in England. You became one of those voices where you’d be hearing a sample of a sample kind of thing, just everywhere.
CR: I go to some places when I’m on tour, even in Israel, and I am established. I’ve never been to these places but people know me in Israel and Moscow.  When I go in there and start to sing “The Stopper” or “Wake De Man” or “Limb by Limb,” everybody know the songs man.  I’m surprised.  When I go in Russia, in Moscow, dem people are party animals. Dem drink dem vodka and a party all night. So I mean, the music is powerful.

LU: What is the origination of the  “Six Million Ways to Die” sample from “Who Seh Me Dun”? I’ve never known where that came from…
CR: Well, really, that came from the streets. Jamaicans, we always make up a lot of slang, yuh see me? I did that song first for Shocking Vibes, and when I leave the studio, I have a couple of friends who was there and they was criticizing my song, saying it was a stupid song and they was laughing at my song. So my friends dem come back and tell me. On the first one, I never put the “Six million ways to die” on it. When I find out what they was doing, laughing at me behind my back, I say okay. This guy named Courtney Cole who used to have a club in Ocho Rios named Roof International and a label with that name, him come and tell me him have a song for me. And when I heard the “Murder She Wrote” beat [The Bam Bam riddim-Ed.] blend with this other classic beat Jimmy Cliff used on this classic “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” I say this beat is awesome. Something just come to me and I said, these people who criticize me, I’m gonna come up with an idea for them. I’m gonna put this intro on sending a message to them so I said, “There’s six million ways to die, choose one” and I never really take it as nothing. I just do it.

There was a lot of discouragement in my mind but I was so determined to get back at them I just said, “There is six million ways to die, choose one” and started to laugh and then I said “Wake di man, a who dat a come” because that’s what they was saying behind my back. And they think I’m finished. So I come with that song and then it just turn out to be a major hit. Like a home run. I start to fuck Jamaica up real bad. I start to spread totally. When they see me, dem silenced, dem couldn’t say nothing. And I still never ask them anything.  I act like I don’t know what they said. I just watched them eat their words.

LU: So that’s actually your voice saying “6 Million Ways to Die, choose one?” Because it doesn’t sound like you. I figured it was a sample from a sound tape.
CR: Its my voice but, you know, they used machines. Look how much people do song and they put Autotune on it and it don’t sound like them.