LargeUp Interview: Chatting Nirvana with Little Roy

March 14, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer, Photo by Steve Gullick—

Little Roy has a soothing manner of speaking that makes one feel as if you’ve been sitting on his porch reasoning all night—even when you’re speaking with him by phone from across the Atlantic for a few minutes in the morning. A pioneering reggae artist who cut his first single at Studio One with Jackie Mittoo at the age of 12, Roy is perhaps best known for “Bongo Nyah,” the first reggae hit to introduce the soon-to-be-ubiquitous themes of Rastafarianism. More than four decades later, Roy is enjoying a new wave of attention and recognition thanks to Battle for Seattle, a 2011 album of Nirvana covers produced by Prince Fatty (known for his work with Mutant Hi-Fi and Hollie Cook).

The unlikely pairing of the veteran reggae messenger’s earnest vocals and the tortured Cobain’s lyrics and arrangements has resulted in one of the most interesting cover albums since Johnny Cash’s American Recordings project. Roy, who lived in Brooklyn for a spell in the 1980s, makes his return to the US on Friday with a performance at the UK Bass Culture showcase in Austin, at South by Southwest.

LargeUp: What has it been like to have a whole new phase this late in your career, having done a cover album of modern rock songs…
Little Roy: When it comes to music, it is a universal thing. I feel like most music could be transformed to another genre of music. Even reggae could be transformed to rock if some rock guy decide to play some reggae songs in this style. Ya know, just how like Jamaicans used to use a lot of soul songs and turn them into rocksteady and reggae from those times.

LU: What about the experience? What are some of the things you’ve done since releasing this album that have been different from what you’ve done in the past when you were promoting a regular reggae record?
LR: I am mixing into different audiences. I did a show in Austria on the 10th of February and it was just a total white audience. There were just two blacks that were there and the reception was so great.  And the youths, you know, you wouldn’t believe it was reggae. It was more like if it was a pop artist doing you know, doing the work. I really appreciate what is going on. All I have to do is keep it strong and I am determined to do it.

LU: You were very young when you started recording. What kind of music was inspiring you when you first sat down to write your own music?
LR: The kind of music that inspired me was like calypso ’cause in those days there was The Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener. And when it comes to American artists like Sam Cooke, The Impressions, Stevie Wonder were inspirations to me as an artist, ya know? Those are the songs that used to play at my home. I would say the sound that started my career came from my bigger brother because he used to love singing. He used to sing a lot of soul songs. One day he was watering the garden and a song came to him and after school one day I followed two of my friends to Studio One because it was in the same area as where I went to school. I played a song for Jackie Mittoo, he said I should sing him something. This was at the age of 12. He told me to come back and record it and my friends to come over and rehearse. I have to give thanks to Jackie Mittoo for recognizing me from a youth.

LU: I’ve seen a version of your “Bongo Niya” record that says “Little Roys.” Was that a group you were in?
LR: In the beginning of my career, I sang two songs for Prince Buster. We were living in the same neighborhood. He didn’t even know my name, so he gave me the name Little Roy. When I started going to St. Andrew Technical High School, there was this friend of mine named Donovan Carless. I don’t know if you have heard of him because he do some work with Soul Syndicate. He’s still working with them. We joined forces and recorded that song. And being that I already had the name Little Roy, Matador [Records] just gave us the artist name “The Little Roys.”

LU: I’ve heard that was the first song that was well-known or charted that talked about Jah and“Rastafari. Is that accurate?
LR: It was the first commercial Rasta song to really hit the charts, to be No. 1 spot for 6 weeks on both [Jamaican radio] stations. Before that, Rasta songs were mainly like Nyabinghi chanting songs but this was something different, ya know, putting across Rasta. If you listen to that song, the melody is kind of recognizable because it was written from this nursery rhyme song called “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” yuh nuh? That was like the punchline. “Bongo Nyah” goes like this [singing] Baa Baa Baa Baa and it’s like “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” yuh nuh? And I just write things to show that. I was Rasta from a young age and there are things that we used to say among us—”none for the pork eater” because a Rasta we don’t pork. We can’t have those kind of things. And “fire redder than red” Rasta, we know that the judgement is with fire. Those ideas, I kind of put them together and that is how that song is created.

LU: So did you notice an impact on the culture. Was it starting to become more accepted to be Rasta at that time? You know when you have a song that everyone is hearing that’s talking about that, that’s on the radio or was that still a long ways away?
LR: Well, a lot of people didn’t recognize me as Rasta in those days because I was still going to high school, yuh nuh? I have to comb my hair going to school. I couldn’t preach Rasta in school. But there were friends that I would congregate with in the evening and I would talk about Rasta…but to the outside world, it wasn’t recognizable that this youth is a Rasta.

LU: So in that era of the 70’s what did reggae music do, as far as making it more acceptable, to be a Rastafarian? Or did it?
LR: Well, you see when I started singing those kind of lyrics and things, there wasn’t much artist singing those kinda lyrics, ya know? Producers would rather record a song from an artist singing about love and girls and those kind of things. It was just through my culture, I started writing different things, songs like “Hard Fighter” and in the early 70’s I wrote songs like “Prophecy” that’s been re-recorded by Freddie McGregor, and “Tribal War.” Then people see well, it’s great writing those kind of songs after I set the trend. And then you find other artists sing about truth and rights too and cultural things. But I would say I took that charge from a young age. Maybe that’s why my career has been suppressed. I asked myself a question because maybe I took the music to a different direction that maybe the governments and people in society didn’t want in those days to be preaching in that direction. Then Bob came along and start writing great songs.

LU Did you continue working with Jackie Mittoo?
LR: Ok umm, I did that one song in 1965 but in the ’80s I did an album with him called Live On. It was close before he died. Me and him and Ernest Ranglin, ya know we did at a studio New River in Fort Lauderdale. We worked with the Miami Sound Machine’s percussionist and horns player. The group that used to play with Gloria Estefan. Me and Jackie Mittoo, we did a lot of work before he died.

LU: Who played the organ on “Bongo Nyah”?
LR: Oh it was Boris Gardiner, another talented musician from Jamaica. He is mostly known as a bass player but he happened to play organ on that song.

LU: How as this Nirvana project pitched to you? How did you end up making this music?
LR: [Producer] Prince Fatty introduced it to me. I have been working with him before and he knows what I can do. There maybe a vision that I could re-work these songs in great fashion so he introduce it to me and I say yes I’ll do it. Because I’m an artist I go feel a way to be experimenting. The musicians and the riddims were sounding good and I voiced them ya know, and it came out good. It’s been acceptable. Radio 1, Radio 2 and all the big stations are playing it. I will say his vision was great and he did some great mixing on them so ya know, it came over good. So I have to give him his praise.

[audio:|titles=10 Lithium]

[audio:|titles=04 Come As You Are]
“Come As You Are”

LU: Do you remember listening to or do you remember hearing Nirvana’s records when they came out 20 years ago?
LR: I heard Nirvana songs sporadically. I wasn’t really a Nirvana fan. I can’t say I knew Nirvana songs like how I’m used to the songs now but since I recorded Nirvana songs I came to love his version so much and its unbelievable that those kind of songs pass me by and I did not recognize them. Now I recognize [Kurt Cobain] as a great song writer and a great singer. Cause a lot of people try to look at me and they can’t believe how I really see Nirvana as such a great singer but I know he’s great. He’s great overall. He’s a great songwriter, he’s a great singer and he’s a great musician.

LU: Did you do research, or study him when you were making this record?
LR: No not really. Well after I start, I start doing some research, and start listening to him more, go on the Internet and play songs. Cause you can’t sing someone’s song and don’t know anything about him so I started listening to him and I’ve seen documentaries, a lot of documentaries about him. Talking about him and when he went to school. I know at one time he was a janitor and those kind of things. I’ve learned, I won’t say a lot, but enough about him. I would love to learn some more.

LU: Have the other members of Nirvana heard the record? I’m curious to know what they thought about it.
LR: Yes, they have heard the album and I would say they have endorsed it. They say they love it. And they wished it good. I would have to just say blessed for them that they didn’t talk anything bad about it. They endorsed it and they gave it their support.

LU: Who, if anyone, in Jamaica or in reggae music, does Kirk Cobain remind you of?
LR: Well, reggae is a different thing from rock. Cause Bob Marley has surpassed many artists, so I wouldn’t try to compare reggae music with rock music. Cause rock artists and its music get a bigger support than reggae artists and reggae music. It’s easier for a rock song to be played on the medias than a reggae song. It’s easier for a major company to pick up a rock album and promote it than for them to pick up a reggae album and promote it so I can’t compare the two.

Photo: Rachel Wright