Words by Sabia McCoy-Torres
Photos by Martei Korley
Reggae music is always evolving, layering new sounds over classic percussive phrases, and incorporating musical trends of the moment in original ways. Dancehall tracks produced by today’s riddim makers have a feel completely different to those from even a half-decade ago. Considering this rapid change, paying respect to a musical champion of the classic sound seems in order.
Paul Henton, better known as Computer Paul, is a well-regarded producer and musician who has built tracks for Bounty Killer, Capleton, Beenie Man, Super Cat, Sizzla, Shabba, and Buju at the height of their careers. He is also the man generally credited with pioneering the production of reggae tracks using computer technology. On top of this he created the epic Corduroy riddim. ‘Nuff said. The Corduroy riddim is one of those that will never die. A game changer when it was released in 1994, it lingers in your head long after the party is over. On that riddim Beenie Man made his classic “World Dance,” which many credit with bringing dancehall’s unique dance culture into the spotlight, giving a platform to legends like Bogle. But Computer Paul’s career began long before that.
“Born come sing it yuh nah mean?” Paul says of reggae. He chuckles and describes an only-in-Jamaica high school moment. Everyday jam sessions spontaneously broke out in the school auditorium where Paul played with other young musicians who would all go on to establish careers in reggae, like Tyrone Downie, the keyboardist for Bob Marley and The Wailers. “It took me away,” he says with nostalgia. Computer Paul first recorded at age sixteen playing bass guitar for Fred Locks, sharing the studio with greats like Sly and Robbie. “I was green,” he says of that experience, but Robbie and Locks both vouched for him and his talent. Tracks recorded that day would include Locks’ “When O When.”
Computer Paul at his studio in Harbour View, St. Andrew Parish, Jamaica
In ’79, when Paul was in his early 20s, he moved to Brooklyn. Shortly after his arrival, he found himself in the band Monyaka, which went on to make the Billboard-charting hit “Go Deh Yaka.” However, after the label behind the release made significant profits from the hit, it folded to avoid giving Monyaka their fair share, Paul says. He found himself at square one again, a Jamaican youth in Brooklyn looking for a musical outlet, though not for long.
Amidst his Brooklyn journeys, Paul linked with a man who had recently bought a basement studio in Brooklyn, and secured access to the studio by agreeing to set up all the wiring. This coincided with Paul’s return from a trip to Japan with a reggae artist. In Japan, Paul saw a Japanese guy in a music store—this was the 80s, let’s not forget—demonstrating how to use a computer. The computer was hooked up to a keyboard, several modules, and sequencers allowing him to play drums, bass, and strings at once.
“Whoa,” Paul said to himself, “I need to get a computer.” Back then, people bought what were called clone computers, reassembled from parts of other computers yet as expensive as today’s Macs. Paul got his hands on one and stepped into the studio scene using a computer and sequencer while others were still using simple drum machines. Recognizing him as the first producer to use a computer to make reggae riddims released on record, his peers dubbed him Computer Paul.
Paul at work, with long-time engineer, Fergie
At first, Paul experienced the prejudice that Jamaican musicians who relocated to the U.S. often faced, and his music wasn’t received well. “You know there’s a likkle prejudice to that foreign ting,” he explains to me. “At that time they didn’t have much respect for musicians outside of Jamaica making reggae music. It was ‘ahh, it foreign dat. It somethin’ like a foreign riddim,’ ya know?” But real recognize real, and Computer Paul’s talent couldn’t be denied. “I kinda stuck to it and kinda proved them wrong ‘cause I started making hits… Eventually you had all kinda clients coming in there, Super Cat, Barrington Levy… that was the little spot in Brooklyn.”
After building a name for himself, Paul moved to Florida, where he could travel as frequently as needed to Jamaica and work with top artists like Shabba, Capleton, Bounty Killer, and Jimmy Cliff. He also worked with the band Inner Circle, who had also relocated to South Florida. But it wasn’t long before he made his way back home. Florida wasn’t cutting it. “It still kinda felt like America where if you go check your bredrin down the road, you haffi call him first and tell him you gwan come look for him yuh nah mean? In Jamaica you just show up a man gate and a man don’t feel offended by it.”
Outside the studio with noted Jamaican musician, Everald Gayle
One of his greatest breakthrough moments happened shortly after his return— the making of the Corduroy riddim. “I tell you, I did the body of the riddim first and just, when they were about to put the riddim to tape—everybody was happy with it—I said, ‘let me put an intro on it,’ and that intro I put on actually became the whole theme of the riddim. I did the intro and everybody said ‘hold dat part!’ and the whole place was like jumping, and I was like ‘yes!’”
DJ Gringo of Brooklyn, NY recalls when it first dropped: “The riddim took the world of dancehall by storm. Almost every song on it was big. It’s still big in the sound clash scene and all these years later I use it to hype up a party.” With the Corduroy riddim, not to mention others like M16 and Dot.com, in his catalog, Computer Paul’s legacy in reggae is sure to never die.
“Reggae means everything to me,” Paul shares. “There is no other music in the world I’d rather be playing. I love reggae as much as I love Jamaica and I’m passionate about Jamaica.” He adds, “The big fear that we as the defenders of reggae have in the business right now is seeing it moving in that hip-hop direction.”
Understandable. Reggae developed as an original expression of Jamaican people, a leading sound, pioneering trends of the moment, not following them. But, Paul observes, “Reggae music is a big music that will always survive. It will never die. It’s like one of them plum trees in my neighbor’s back yard and every time he cut it down it grows back in like a month or two. It just doesn’t stop, it keeps growing. Reggae is kinda like that.”
Plaques hanging on the well celebrate Paul’s contributions to Akon’s Konvicted and Shabba’s As Raw As Ever albums
Fergie and Everald listen intently as Paul runs back a mix
In recent history Computer Paul has contributed to the growth of that tree working with Sean Paul, Shaggy and producing Akon’s “Mama Africa,” one of Akon’s few distinctly reggae tracks, one that captivated audiences and went double platinum. Other recent projects included working with the Jamaican Cultural Development Commission as the Executive Creative Producer of songs for the country’s 50-year independence anniversary festival. He is also collaborating with singer Jack Radics and managing singer Stevie Face. It’s safe to say he’s on his grown man business.
Defender of reggae, technological innovator in music, and creator of one of the most popular riddims in dancehall history, what does this man have to say for himself? “Them say where your navel string cut is where you always come back, and mine was cut here in Jamaica, right where my studio is… I’m still here, not disappeared yet.”