Words by Jesse Serwer, Photo by DJ Gravy—
Last week, we brought you a taste of our recent reasoning session with dancehall legend Nardo Ranks. In round two of our interview, Na-na-na-na-na-Nardo reflects on his apprenticeship on Jamaica’s Caveman Hi Power sound, his early sparring sessions with Wayne Wonder, and why New York City embraced his music before Jamaicans did. And we had to ask him for the stories behind the favorites for which he is best known: “Rikers Island” (with Cocoa Tea), “Burrup” and “Them a Bleach.” True to form, the self-described “different kind of actor, natural kind of character and human factor” delivers each tale in colorful fashion.
LargeUp: Nardo, who was the first producer that you went in and recorded for?
Nardo Ranks: A guy named Panther. Not the selector Panther from Black Kat, this other guy—him used to work at Harry J studio. I don’t even remember the song, just the hook: “love to see dem girls dress up in a mini-skirt, dress up in a mini-skirt, dress up in a mini-skirt,” something like that. It never really went nowhere, him really not have a lot of resources. This was in like 1988. Professionally, I start my career from 1985. I was deejaying on a soundsystem called Caveman Hi Power. That era was just ending when I came on the scene. I got the last of it. That’s the same sound that years after discovered artists like Sizzla Kolonji and Luciano. My salary was 40 Jamaican dollars per night in 1985. At the time, that would be a little bit over 40 American cents. It was a lot of money in Jamaica at the time, and I was a kid. I had just left school and had no real responsibilities, and I was doing it for the love of it.
Nardo Ranks at Kingston College Mayfair, 1989. Photo: Sherman Escoffery
Robert Ffrench, he was big at the time, was the resident singer on the sound. There was another deejay named Shorty Rankin who was popular in the dancehall but never had a record. When the business started to turn, when the live artist thing started to fade, him never turn with it. I loved music so much I had to roll with the flow. By working at the soundsystem, I discovered people like Tompa Lion who had two hit songs back then, another guy named Culture T, this other deejay named Chicken Hawk. These guys made records, but they never really evolved too far in the industry.
At the time the business start changing, I knew Wayne Wonder. Wayne was someone I grew up with but he was at another soundsystem named Youth Hi-Power. I started with the studios around the same time he did as well. Then we met up at King Tubby’s one day, realized we had the same mission and we just started sparring. People dun no, Nardo Ranks was the first deejay Wayne Wonder spar with. Even the first 45 record I had released was me and Wayne Wonder in 1989, a song named “What Happened to You Soundboy” produced by Winston Riley from Techniques, may him soul rest in peace.
LU: When did you come to New York?
NR: The first time I came to New York was in 1989. Me, Wayne Wonder, Little Lenny and a deejay named Sancho. At that time, Little Lenny had the No. 1 song called “Gun in a Baggy.” It so happened that America just gravitated to my stuff more. I don’t know why. But because of the crossover appeal, NY automatically became like a second home for me.
Nardo Ranks on The LargeUp Sessions radio show on RadioLily.com
NR: A lot of people thought so but no. “Rikers Island” was originally recorded by Cocoa Tea alone. The producer decided he wanted to do a remix with me. At the time, I didn’t even know where Rikers Island was, if it was even located in New York. But, by rolling with gansgstas and thugs, who were friends of mine who already had the experience of being at Rikers, they told me stuff about it, and that’s how I wrote the lyrics. People thought I was living in New York because “Burrup” had so much success in New York. But I was never a New York artist like Bobo General, Sleepy Wonder, Screechy Don, Shaggy, Mikey Fungus, James Bond, Mikey Jarrett, Rayvon. Even this kid Vicious. Those are the original New York artists I saw on the scene when I start visiting New York.
LU: Did you create the style on “Burrup” specifically for that song. Did you roll your ‘R’s like that on the sound systems?
NR: When I was on the soundsystem I did not have that style, that came about after. The style is like a Jamaican slang, it basically means on the move. Like how they now say “tek weh yuh self,” In Jamaica we use to seh “burrup” at the time, cause Jamaica was full of slang. The street talk was like, “I make this move, me just run and go seh burrup.” I don’t remember exactly how it got incorporated into that song but however it came about, it worked.
LU: Let’s talk about “Them a Bleach” for a minute. This was the first song, 20 years ago, to touch the topic of skin lightening, which has grown as a phenomenon in recent years.
NR: That whole concept is a mental inheritance that we got through slavery as a people. There’s a shade complex in Jamaican, from when I was growing up them always seh, “bwoy, your black and ugly.” Dem associate black, or being of a dark complexion, with being ugly. And, in Jamaica, the lighter complexion people, they get ahead better then the darker complexion people. It’s a whole mental thing, some of dem just feel not proud of dem self. So how “Them a Bleach” came about is Buju Banton had a song, “mi love mi car, mi love mi bike, mi love mi money and tings, but most of all mi love mi browning.” It became a trend after that where the man would say, “mi want a browning,” that’s how the bleaching thing really jump off. The darker complexion ladies start feel left out, dem start feel inferior so dem start bleach.
At that time when you said “bleaching,” that can mean someone who stay up in the night and don’t sleep. I am the one that let people know that’s what we call it in Jamaica when someone is basically doing a chemical peel. I used to talk to a girl named Candy at the time. If we were going on a date, I would see her getting ready, with a lot of white stuff on her face, doing a homemade facial, but basically she bleaching, and by the time she would be ready to go, she is like a whole new person. Her complexion is 10 different shades lighter in that short space of time! That made me really decide to do the song. I didn’t know that it would live on so long, or that this thing would get so out of hand it would be such a big thing years after. When I wrote that song, it was the women doing it, but now in Jamaica the men are also doing it. You can see Kartel, and it’s not only Kartel alone, he’s just a public figure… a lot of men who say dem a so called, quote unquote badman and shottas, they look like Kartel, too. They bleach like that and so. I think it’s a mental thing, handed down through generations, via slavery. It’s ridiculous. People who do dem things are very insecure with themselves.
LU: Did women respond well to the song, especially darker women?
NR: Most definitely, “Them a Bleach” kind of took Buju Banton’s “Browning” out of the top running. That’s why he came back and had to do [“Love Black Woman”], he was trying to counteract it. Over the years a lot of artists have done renditions of “Them A Bleach.” Busy Signal did a song two years ago on the same riddim, he sang “dem a rub on,” and sampled my voice. He was on tour in Amsterdam just before he got into his problem, singing his song, and the crowd wasn’t responding much, then he said, “I want to show you how long this rubbing stuff been going on”, then he went into “Them a Bleach”and the whole place mash up, as we seh in Jamaica.
LU: You ended up being signed to profile records, at the time a pretty big U.S. label, but I never saw you in a music video. Did you ever make one?
NR: I wasn’t actually signed to Profile. The producer, Solgie Hamilton, had a distribution deal with Profile. I ask myself up to this day, why didn’t I have a video. Basically I got what Solgie had negotiated for. I was very young, I was in Jamaica, so I didn’t really know too much about the business. Probably Solgie was trying to get that dough. They weren’t really interested in this little kid and his career. But I respect Solgie and I rate him. I had recorded that same song “Burrup” for Donovan Germain at Penthouse in 1988, and he released every song on the beat, and didn’t like my song. Two years after, I re-recorded it for Solgie, and he had the faith in me. At the time, a lot of producers paid deejays some money, and took your credit. Solgie gave me my fair share. And he enabled me so, up to this day, I can still eat off that. So I give him nuff respect for that. No producer at the time in Jamaica was doing that, and he did. I came right as the business was changing. People before me like Alton Ellis, they went through hell. After mi find out about publishing, mi start tell a lot of youths bout dem things. A lot of reggae artists didn’t know how to secure their intellectual property.
LU: “Burrup” has been updated in various ways. Have you heard the Clipse song, “Mr. Me Too”?
NR: Yes, I know about that, and I am proud. Recently I did a remix with a reggaeton artist, Cosculluela. They did a version called “Prrrum,” I guess that’s “Burrup” in Spanish. It’s like that song never die. It’s very rare you have a dancehall deejay who have a record that plays still 20 years later, like that does and “Them a Bleach.” Not many dancehall deejays get that luxury to still hear their stuff be played primetime, and people still responding to it.