Words by EchoSlim
Photos by Ravi Lloyd
As a producer, all I ever wanted to do was make music that people could dance and sing along to. Then I met Bunny “Striker” Lee, and my whole perspective on producing music changed. I was lucky enough to spend a few months with Mr. Lee and his family in Jamaica, and work in his studio. There, I began to realize more than ever how much of a responsibility we artists, musicians, and producers have to the people and, most importantly, the children that look up to us. Mr. Lee always stressed to be positive, clean, and don’t trouble people. Just spread love and a good message, and your music will take off.
Mr. Lee’s consistent practice of these virtues, along with his amazing work ethic, has helped him gain an impeccable reputation, and the admiration of artists and fans alike. His respect and demand is so high that he still travels the world at 74 years of age, spreading the history of Jamaican music — not only reggae — sharing his first-hand accounts of its growth and development. Tonight, in Lee’s adopted hometown of London, England, an illustrious list of reggae legends will come together to celebrate the 48th anniversary of his career in music.
As I grew to learn more about Mr. Lee, I observed that he truly was in the middle of everything regarding reggae. Coxsone, King Tubby’s, Chris Blackwell, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Jacob Miller, Sly & Robbie, Beenie Man… Striker Lee has worked with them all. He has been greatly influential in the expansion of reggae music internationally, shaping the sound, the fashion, and the culture. Hopefully this interview is as enlightening and fun for you as it was for me.
LargeUp: Respect Mr. Lee. You have probably heard almost every question possible in your illustrious career, so hopefully I can ask a few that you have never answered before. There are a lot of reggae fans out there, young and old, who love the music, but don’t truly know the history. Who invented the term reggae? Which song would you say inspired that word, and why that word and not another word?
Striker Lee: In 1968, upstairs in Duke Reid‘s studio, a song named “Bangarang” was created. The organ shuffle in the music is what you call reggae. Reggae is a word that comes from streggae. We started calling the music streggae, then we changed it to reggae because the radio stations in Jamaica at the time would not play a streggae tune. Back in those days we used to call a bad girl who was a prostitute a streggae, so we changed it to Reggae to get radio play. Myself, Lee Perry, and Clancy Eccles. “Bangarang” was the first Reggae tune. Plenty people talk about reggae, but they don’t know that the organ shuffle in the music is what really is reggae.
LU: A lot of people immediately think Bob Marley was the first international reggae star. In your view, who was the first really big reggae artist in Jamaica, and outside of Jamaica, before Bob Marley became popular?
SL: You have people like Derrick Morgan, that is one of my teachers, Slim Smith, Delroy Wilson, John Holt, Owen Gray, Wilfred “Jackie” Edwards, and Laurel Aitken. They were all big in the U.K. Laurel Aitken started off doing calypso. Duke Reid started doing calypso as a producer. Coxsone, too. These people were popular before Bob. It was people like Derrick Morgan who put Bob Marley on the stage first. Bob’s first tunes were “Judge Not” and “One Cup Of Coffee” for Leslie Kong‘s label. Derrick Morgan produced those songs, before the Wailers were formed. Derrick Morgan is an icon. A living legend. Here is a story about Bob that most people don’t know. When Bob came out to Derrick’s farewell show, along with Prince Buster, Derrick brought Bob on stage to sing. Once Bob started to sing, the crowd booed him off of the stage. Derrick Morgan, being the peoples choice at the moment came back on stage and told the crowd “Give the yute a chance.” Bob went on to sing “Judge Not” and the rest is history. So you had some great stalwarts in the business long before Bob and you still do.
LU: Which artist do you personally think could have achieved the same success as Bob if he or she was given the right opportunity with the right record label behind them.
SL: John Holt! Without a doubt! John Holt was popular like Bob too. Ken Boothe was also good. Desmond Dekker was one of the first superstars. But color plays a hell of a roll in the marketing of music. John Holt is a brown man, Ken Boothe and Desmond Dekker have dark complexions. Maxi Priest has a similar complexion as Bob and he made crossover hits. Shaggy, too. Look how great Dennis Brown can sing. Bob can’t sing like Dennis Brown or Slim Smith, but he got the honor to carry the banner. Chris Blackwell invested a lot of money in Bob. Not to take away from Bob’s talent. He is great.
LU: Why was the U.K. so important in the growth of Reggae music?
SL: Because a lot of immigrants came from Jamaica. Calypso came to the U.K. first. Blue Beat Records was the first label. Reggae just came in 1968 when we made “Bangarang,” and Trojan Records and Pama Records started. Emil E. Shalit started Blue Beat Records. You have a next woman from Stamford Hills named Rita King [from R&B Records], and her husband name Benny. They were stalwarts of this music industry. They all died and people don’t talk about them. They did a lot for the music business. The music business is very ungrateful, the people that made this music popular don’t get the proper recognition. Even now, one of the greatest men to carry the banner is David Rodigan. He got the MBE for playing Reggae music. That means he has the Queen of England and the whole palace listening to reggae music.You have some people in our business that fights against a great man like David Rodigan. If it wasn’t for Rodigan, Jamaican music wouldn’t have reached so far.
Chris Blackwell also invested a lot of money in reggae music. Lee Gopthal of Trojan Records, the Palmer Brothers of PAMA Records all did so much for reggae music. Max Romeo’s “Wet Dream” was my first big hit in England. That was also before Bob Marley hit the international charts. “Wet Dream” spent 26 weeks on the British charts.
LU: How do you like living in England as opposed to living in Jamaica? Is there anything in England that you feel reggae artists or musicians in general in Jamaica could benefit from, and vice versa.
SL: I’m going to tell you the truth. You see Reggae singers all over the world, whether they are in England or America, from they are singing the right songs and clean music, and they don’t trouble people, they will get on. Some of the guys in Jamaica that say they are Rastas and are singing homophobic lyrics are bringing down the music which we fight so hard to preserve. So artists should pick sense out of nonsense. You have great artists that live in England that come from Jamaica. Reggae music can be made in any part of the world. Not Jamaica alone. From you have the music in you, you can play it anywhere. Don’t follow anyone who says reggae can only be made in Jamaica. Those are some bad-minded people who are trying to trick the listeners. Plenty of Bob’s big tunes where made in England. Jimmy Cliff is another great artist that did well in the U.K. He also had something to do with Bob getting started with Leslie Kong.
LU: Aside from your signature sound as a producer, you also have a signature style in fashion. What is the story behind your signature captain hat? Is there any superstition behind it?
SL: I got it from the movie The Sea Hound with Buster Crabbe. There was a guy in the movie named the Admiral that created pure havoc. He was the head crook. I liked his hat. I started wearing it in my teens, long before I got into the record business. It became my trademark. There was no superstition behind it. People got used to it and started calling me “Captain,” “The Hit Maker from Jamaica,” then “Striker Lee.” All kinds of different names.
LU: Was fashion important to you? Do you feel it complimented your music?
SL: You always have to come with your own fashion to stand out of the crowd. People would always ask “Where dat guy deya come from?” I always had my walking stick. You had some great people like Sir William Bustamante. He was a great dresser. So was Norman Manley. Even Marcus Garvey. Whenever you see pictures of him, he is wearing a three-piece suit. People like to see you looking clean. I did an interview the other day with Beenie Man, and he told the people he followed me with my hat and my fashion. You have to dress to match what you are doing. Cleanliness is Godliness so you always have to look good.
LU: When was the first time you wore a pair of Clarks?
SL: I always wear Clarks from I have sense and can buy them. From a baby is born in Jamaica and you ask him which shoes him love, he will say Clarks. From the early days when Clarks were in Nathan’s Shoe store, and they brought them to Jamaica, they were a favorite of Jamaican people. Clarks makes the best loafers. We call them slip-on shoes. All the rudebwoys, lawyers, doctors, and everybody else loved Clarks.
LU: There is a video on Youtube of you in the studio with King Jammy’s, at that time known as Prince Jammy’s. The session must of had some serious vibes because you did some dances I never seen in my life. Did you normally have those vibes in the studio? What is the craziest studio story you can share with us?
SL: There are too many studio stories to mention. That would take me about a year to tell you. In that session with King Jammy’s, that riddim was called None Shall Escape the Judgement. That session had nuff vibes. You need vibes to stay alive in the business. I was dancing to the mix, giving the engineer vibes. When you’re making tunes in the studio, you have some guys in there that we call “Vibes Man.” If you don’t see them dancing, your music is not going on with anything. You’re soft! They may drink all your beer, but at least you know you made some music that they could dance to. Sylvan Morris, for example, was a great engineer, but if you don’t see him dancing, you have to ask him what he thinks of the song, and if he don’t feel the vibes, you have to stop the session. You keep a cut of that take, but the engineer should go in the recording booth and tell the band what he thinks they are doing wrong. Sometimes it works out better than the original recording, This music thing goes on vibes.
ES: A lot of people don’t know how extensive your catalog is, and that it is heavily sampled by artists around the world. How many songs do you think you recorded in your lifetime and can you name some newer artists that have sampled your work?
SL: You have Junior Gong, Stephen Marley, Capleton, Sizzla, Joe Mersa, Too much to mention. “Cherry Oh Baby” alone was covered by The Rolling Stones, and then by UB40. UB40 did over Stick By Me too. The catalog is heavy. It’s huge! Plenty of Coxsone‘s tunes that he produced and released in England are actually my songs. He just did them over. That all stopped when I came to England in 1968. I let the producers there know what was going on. Then I started working with PAMA Records, then we opened Trojan Records. Several other record labels came in after. When Virgin Records came over to reggae with Simon Draper, I gave them two Johnny Clarke albums and some I-Roy albums to distribute. I made plenty of music. I used to work day and night. Mrs. Pottinger from Tip Top Records used to say. “Bunny Lee, I’m going to give you the name, The Ghost that Haunts the Studio.” I always worked. That’s why the catalog is so big. The biggest reggae catalog in the world.
LU: Can you share with us some of the new projects that you are working on right now with your son Striker Jr or anything you would like to promote?
SL: We have a lot of unreleased songs that we are looking to release soon. We are working with yourself, Mr. EchoSlim. Your album is coming out next year with some remixes of my catalog. Now that the studio is newly refurbished, we will be recording a lot of new music. Only great things to come. The sky is the limit. Look out for a lot of remixes from the catalog in the near future.
LU: Lastly, do you have any advice or words of wisdom for any new artists trying to come out in this new digital era?
SL: Yes. Stay in your lane. Leave people’s sex life alone. Stop this homophobia business. Love everyone. Do clean, good music with good content and you will survive. And lastly, stop degrading women! All of us come from a woman. We have mothers.
LU: Thank you for your time and all your contributions to music Mr. Lee. You truly are an inspiration for myself and many others.
Special thanks to Peckings Records.