Words and Interview by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Alex Solmssen, Dawn Penn’s dress by Gureje, Inc.
Dawn Penn‘s rocksteady single “You Don’t Love Me”—or, as it’s somewhat better known at this point, “No, No, No”—is one of the bedrock foundations of reggae music, a tune that will never stop coming around as long as there are sound systems playing dances. Despite the ubiquity of the track (which has been versioned or sampled by everyone from Sean Paul and Rihanna and Vybz Kartel to Ghostface Killah), until recently not much was known about Penn, who disappeared from the music business for decades before returning in the early ’90s to cut a new version of “No, No, No” with Steely and Clevie which made the song a hit all over again. Recently, the singer, who left Jamaica in 1970 to settle in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands before moving to Brooklyn and her current home, London, released a dubstep single called “City Life” and penned an autobiography, Story of My Life. We spoke with Penn on her most recent visit to the U.S., over food at Soule Restaurant on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, where she was joined by her son, rapper/singer Continental Crooks. As it turns out, that restaurant has since been re-named Caribbean Soul. We can’t think of a more fitting description to describe the music Penn has made over the years.
LU: Your book—it has been published already?
DP: Yes, you can get it on the Net, and in the Kindle format where you can read it on the Net. I don’t have any sponsor for paperback yet and the hard copy, but I’m gearing up to get the hard copy with some pictures. I spoke about my recording career up til about 1970. I was speaking more about myself growing up until my adult years. And I sort of briefly stopped close to when I went to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands to look for my roots, and my dad’s side of the family. I’ve always been the one searching for my family; I went to Santo Domingo.
LU: So your parents, family, weren’t originally from Jamaica, they had some from other islands?
DP: Yes my dad is from Tortola, and my mom is from Jamaica. Her family is from runaway slaves. All these things are in the book.
LU: What is your connection to the Dominican Republic, to Santo Domingo?
DP: My father took his brothers to Santo Domingo, because they had a aunt who didn’t treat them so well, There was enmity when their father got married twice. The first marriage was a girl and the girl could not be an heir to the property, and the second marriage was to a dark skinned lady who they didn’t really like because of her skin color, but she had six boys. My father was the first male child and became the heir by law to what the father had, and it involved lots of things in the British Virgin Islands which I didn’t go into in the book at that time but I am intending to do it at a later date.
LU: There’ll be a second book, Part 2?
DP: Memoirs, my memoirs
LU: I saw a video with you re-recording ‘You Don’t Love Me’ fairly recently and Sly Dunbar was playing drums, I think it was in a documentary…
DP: OK, it was Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae.
LU: Well, that got me thinking: how many times have you recorded that song?
DP: What it is, is that I sing the song a lot on dubplate because sound systems want me to sing it for clash purposes when they want to go against another sound, so it’s either ‘No, no, no, you don’t want me’ or “Yes, yes, yes, so and so and so is going to kill you.” Or the both of them in one, the counteraction, or whatever lyrics they want. That song has that shelf life like that. I recorded it originally for Studio One, and I recorded in Studio One twice then not until the reunion in 1990, and I also did a version for Jammy’s, which he did not put out, but he made Kendall[Ken Boothe?] sing it, he made Dennis Brown sing it, and when he heard it was hitting the British charts, he put Bounty Killer on it. Now the track has put my music in 53 countries all over the world, hence I’m able to travel a lot to do shows. But right now I’m taking it seriously, trying to remain current, because it is very hard when you are not in the forefront to get back into that space. I did loads of festivals this year.
LU: Which is your favorite version of the song?
DP: I would be tempted to like the Studio One version, but we have some eerie feelings about these first things that we did for Studio One because the right things didn’t happen. Steely and Clevie came by a rehearsal for Studio One’s 35th anniversary, and when we went to rehearsal and they heard me sing the song, they said “Lord” and cursed a bad word that I don’t want to say, and say, “She don’t lose nothing.” So from there they got a deal with Heartbeat Records in America to record an album called [Steely and Clevie Play Studio One Vintage].
LU: Had you completely stopped recording music for those years?
DP: No. What it is, is that after 1970, I left Jamaica to go to Tortola because of family members on Tortola called my dad on the phone from Tortola and said “Uncle I need you to come here.” Based on that—I was working at the Jamaica Telephone Company at the time—I went to Tortola to meet them, and I was there for a while and then when I left my dad and went on holiday with another sister and from there we started to uproot my family history on my fathers side.
LU: Were you able to make a living through the songs you were recording during the rocksteady period in 1968, 1969?
DP: No, I was actually going to school. I wouldn’t even say make a living, but later on… I always had a job anyways, so music wasn’t at the forefront for me. Music was secondary because I had a job. It wasn’t really anything to go over to Studio One or go to Duke Reid or check Prince Buster, to do some recording. I would never sign any papers. We didn’t know anything about publishing. The only thing we really knew about was copyrights, and when I say copyrights, PRS was based in Jamaica, and that’s about it.
LU: So had you actually recorded songs before “You Don’t Love Me”?
DP: There’s this track called “When I’m Gonna Be Free” selling on Ebay for 1,760 pounds .I was blown away when I found out. That record was done in 1966
LU: So you didn’t know that it had been released?
DP: I didn’t know. About six years ago or so I found out that this song was being sold on Ebay for auction. The producer is supposed to be Derrick Morgan. When you check the PRS records, I own 100% of the song but I never received any royalties on it. So, come to find out now it’s Universal that has this track, so I tried to speak to them on a legal aspect. They told me “We’ll look in to it” but nothing has happened you know.
LU: So is Derrick Morgan the first producer to find you?
DP: He didn’t find me at all, what happened was I used to live [near] Beverly Records was there, and he used to be over there and he was an elder person if you know what I mean. Now I’m trying to find out how did he get that song, but it seems to me that I went to the studio, maybe even Beverly’s where we were recording or doing rehearsal and the song came out, but that song sounds fantastic to me and it’s two minutes and something long.
LU: So when did you move to England?
DP: I moved to England from America in 2003. From 1994, I was coming to England to rehearse and then going to Europe to do shows, like 30 shows in one go, with a live band, sometimes operating with Desmond Dekker or sometimes operating with The Pioneers. But I actually came over to live in 2003.
LU: So how long did you stay in the Virgin Islands for?
DP: 17 years
LU: OK, so you came to New York in the late 80’s then?
DP: I came to new York around the 80’s. In 1987 I left Tortola to come to Jamaica, and from that time I was going back and forth between Jamaica and the States.
LU: I was listening to the new song you made a video for…
DP: “Never Hustle the Music?”
LU: It is more of an R&B then a reggae song, and after that I listened to some of your early rocksteady songs and your vocals, more than others from that period, sounded just like a Motown R&B vocal.
DP: To be honest I used to like Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles, Aretha Franklin. I did “Long Day, Short Night,” that was a Dionne Warwick song, then there was another Dionne Warwick song I did. Some of them I wrote and then I covered some.
LU: So when you do music now are you more inclined to do R&B instead of standard reggae?
DP: What it is, is that the album, Never Hustle the Music, I was working with John Forte of the Refugee Camp, I worked with [hip-hop producer] Charlemagne… and this was in America so that’s why you have that influence on the tracks
LU: If you were going to produce a record right now yourself what would you want it to sound like?
DP: Well, I would have the lyrics already, so I would be creating a melody to go with those lyrics, you never know what the lyrics might turn out to be, you never know what the melody might be, you never know what the beat might to out to be. I don’t set a standard and say I’m going to be doing this beat or this melody at this time—it depends on what grabs me at the time. I have my own label now, Da Beat records, and I’m doing my own music. My son, artist called Continental Crooks, is on the label as well and helps me run it.
LU: Based on what you were telling me earlier about your community work in North London, I’d like to hear your perspective on the riots there this summer. Were you nearby?
DP: It started in Tottenham, You could almost say it was near where I am. I work in Tottenham. It was a chain reaction. It then went to about ten different areas in London, a chain reaction like dominoes, it spread to Manchester and Birmingham and all these things, really disgusting.
LU: Was it something that you sensed coming?
DP: I go to this church, and we have this modern day prophet, who says things that really happen, so I remember him saying once that Tottenham must be careful, because there will be problems there, he did say that. When it happened I wasn’t there and I had to call him on the phone and say, “Imagine, look what you said and look what has happened,” but we didn’t know it was going to be like this. We knew some problem was afoot but not to the extent that this turned out to be.