Words by Sherman Escoffery
Photos by Martei Korley
While visiting Jamaica in the summer of 2014, I decided to drop in at 135 Orange Street, home of the late Augustus Pablo’s Rockers International Records. Formerly a tenement dwelling known as Big Yard, and the birthplace of Jamaican music legend Dennis Emanuel Brown (CD), 135-135A Orange Street was also the location of producer Leslie Kong’s record shop and ice cream parlor Beverley’s, until his passing in 1971.
Today, Rockers International is under the supervision of Ainsworth “Mitchie” Williams. Our friendship goes back decades to high school at Kingston College, a Jamaican institution that boasts musical alumni such as Jackie Mittoo, Augustus “Gussie” Clark, Mikie Bennet, Tyrone Downie, Clive Chin, and, of course, Augustus Pablo. (If I was to continue naming Kingston College alumni who helped to shape Jamaican music, it would be a never-ending list.) During and after high school, we also both worked for my cousin Winston Riley at Techniques Records, before I left to continue my formal education.
I had initially reconnected with Mitchie several years ago while trying to track down Terror Fabulous for an interview. “Call Super Beagle,” he said, “he sorta manages Terror Fabulous.” I ended up with two really great interviews instead of the one that I had sought.
For Mitchie Williams, managing Rockers International Records is a daily struggle to shrug off the cloak of antiquity, and not have it fade into oblivion like the rest of the record stores and studios that once lined Orange Street to West Parade in the glory days of Jamaican music. Places like Prince Buster’s, Trevor Douglas (aka Leggo Beast), Joe Gibbs, Techniques Records and Randy’s. Today, Rockers International and Randy’s are the last two remaining record stores in downtown Kingston, and possibly the last vinyl specialists in all of Jamaica. When Winston Riley was killed by unknown assailants in 2012, his dream of transforming Techniques Records into a museum also died with him that day.
Rockers International Records is located two blocks away from Liberty Hall, the Jamaican headquarters of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. Musical history and the struggle for black identity runs deep in the rectangle encompassing North Street, King Street, Orange Street and West Parade. But there it stands, a relic from the past, screaming: “I am important! I am important!”
Rockers still has that rustic, vintage look. You feel like you have stepped into a time warp when you enter this small store. On a normal day at Rockers, you might still run into veteran Roots Radics bassist Flabba Holt or Carlton from Carlton and the Shoes. If Augustus Pablo’s son Addis Pablo is in Jamaica, and not touring internationally with his group Suns of Dub, he will also be there.
This interview is not about the music of Augustus Pablo. You’ll have to come back for that. It is about one of the last physical record stores in Jamaica, as it tries to stay relevant and transform itself into a museum of sorts, a connecting bridge back to the past glory of Orange St, Jamaica’s musical Beat Street, in a country where there is often little respect paid to history and symbolism.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Rockers—Original Rockers.
LargeUp: Who owns Rockers International?
Mitchie Williams: The store is owned by the Augustus Pablo Foundation. I am the curator. I have been here for about 15 years.
LU: How long has Rockers International Records been here?
MW: Well, the store was opened in the late 70’s, 1978 I think, by Augustus Pablo and his brother, Garth Swaby, and it was mainly to push their own product on the Rockers International label. We have stood the test of time, and right now this store is a must visit for anyone coming to Jamaica trying to get their hands on some original vinyl records.
LU: How did end you up at Rockers? When I left Jamaica you were at Techniques Records working with Winston Riley.
MW: Well, we all knew Garth from when we were both at Techniques Records, right? When I left Techniques, I was working at Randy’s for a while, but I used to come to Rockers and link up with Garth. After Augustus Pablo left us in 1999, Garth said he needed a second, and so I came to Rockers; eventually I just took over managing the place. Not too many people have the love, knowledge and experience that I have.
LU: Tell us a little about Addis Pablo.
MW: Well, Addis is Augustus Pablo’s only son. Though he was born in America, he is still identified as a Jamaican, and he has been walking in the footsteps of his father and building on his legacy. He has taken up the same instrument, the melodica; he is also deeply involved in the production of a lot of roots music like his father. When he is not in America or on tour, you can find him here at Rockers, too.
LU: Why should people come to Rockers International Records?
MW: Because you want to come and experience a big piece of history before it might be gone. It’s like a museum, but you can never tell what will happen… So many other great places that should have been landmarks have disappeared. It’s like when you go to America, and want to visit the statue of Liberty or the White House, which are monuments that speak volumes about American history. Well, Rockers International is one of the last remaining monuments of Jamaican music and culture. If you come to Jamaica and you have any interest in music, you should definitely come to Rockers, even if you are not buying records, but just to feel the spirit and experience the vibe that made Jamaican music great; that energy is still here. You might even come here and run into Lester Sterling from the Skatalites, Papa Kojack, Trinity, or Cedric Myton from the Congos.
The author (at right) with curator Ainsworth “Mitchie” Williams, inside the Rockers International record shop at 135 Orange St.
LU: What else is going on on Orange Street itself today?
MW: Well, it seems like no one from the Ministry of Culture recognizes the history and potential of this whole stretch, but I have a lot of visitors coming from South America of late—Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, San Andrés, you know. The various people who run the reggae tours around Kingston, they also bring a lot of visitors. Now, a lot of the older or veteran artists will still drop by and come hang out with me down here, from ska and rocksteady artists to dancehall artists; because people know I am always here. So I will record some dubs with them for a lot of sound systems owners abroad. People like Ernest Wilson, Glen Ricks, Papa Kojak, Carl Dawkins, Super Beagle, Terror Fabulous, Wayne Palmer, they always come by here and chill for a while. Sometimes people will order a record and ask if I can get it autographed. I try to accommodate them. When visitors are leaving here, I might send them to Randy’s, but they have nowhere else to go down here. Techniques Records locked up and the downstairs is a wholesale so it’s just Rockers alone here, just being Rockers.
LU: Do you still have a lot of original vinyl, 45’s and LP’s?
MW: Of course! We will run low on albums every now and then but we have a lot of 45’s, we also still get a good amount of originals and a lot of re-presses from the original producers. We have a lot of original Rockers productions. If we don’t have it, we can try and get it or track it down for our customers. We still get a lot of Studio One stuff.
LU: So if someone wants some Jacob Miller or Hugh Mundell, you are the person to come see?
MW: Yea man, anything on Rockers, I haven’t been getting a lot of Joe Gibbs stuff of late but I am working on it.
LU: I see you have been getting some press recently…
MW: Well, Shaggy came and did his photo shoot here recently, Taurus Riley did something here. This singer from Germany call Oceana came here and shot a lot of her video for “Thank You” recently. We were featured in a recent documentary about Jamaican music by BBC. You had that guy Saxon Baird, he did something for Afropop [Worldwide] about Jamaican music’s influence on British music, so I was featured in that. Addis Pablo is out there with Suns of Dub, and spreading the word, but whenever he is home in Jamaica, this is where you can find him.
LU: Is there anything we should be looking for from you and Rockers International records right now, or in the future?
MW: Well, we are doing some refurbishing right now; it should be finished soon, so we are operating from next door to the original building for the time being. We are repressing a lot of Rockers productions. I am launching my personal record label, Oranje Streetz Musick, soon. Addis Pablo has a lot of music coming out with Suns Of Dub. And I am taking your advice, so I will soon be launching Rockers International TV from right here on Orange Street so people can get a glimpse of some live visuals and music right here on Orange Street, in Kingston, Jamaica. So wherever you are in the world, you can check us out. You can also visit our Facebook pages, Rockers international Records Fan Page, Vinyl Records Reggae Sale, Garth Swaby, Isis Swaby, Addis Pablo; they all lead back to Rockers. We are the root, a big part of the foundation, and we are still here to Rockers.
Scroll through Martei Korley’s photo gallery for a trip inside Rockers International.