Words by Saxon Baird
Prince Buster, the self-proclaimed King of Ska, passed away yesterday at 78. The late singer was a Jamaican music pioneer who played a critical role in bringing the local music of Jamaica to the world.
Buster’s career exemplifies the hard-working, entrepreneurial approach to music behind so many multi-talented Jamaican artists who have risen to worldwide fame from humble beginnings. Born in downtown Kingston as Cecil Campbell to a railman father and a mother who worked in a match factory, Buster sang in vocal groups in the early 1950s while making a name for himself as a street boxer and gang leader. His big break in music came when he was hired as a bouncer for legendary producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, who needed a strongman and a sidekick for his Downbeat sound system parties. According to Buster himself, Dodd approached and befriended Buster after seeing him chase down an intimidating local thug with a knife.
Buster would take this first-hand experience in Jamaica’s burgeoning music scene with Dodd to start his own rival sound system, Voice of the People, while also opening up a shop, Buster’s Record Shack. It wasn’t long after that Buster hit the studio as a producer, feverishly recording with numerous musicians including ska guitar innovator Jah Jerry, trombonist Rico Rodriguez, and Rastafarian drummer Count Ossie — particularly on the crucial Folkes Brothers track “Oh Carolina” (later revived by Shaggy) and Buster’s own “They Got to Go.” The hard work not only churned out numerous ska hits, but would be pivotal in creating a distinctly Jamaican sound shortly after the island’s independence from Great Britain.
Prince Buster’s own work in front of the mic would solidify his star power as the self-proclaimed “King of Ska” through the second half of the 1960s. Hits like “Judge Dread” and “Shanty Town” spotlight Buster as a commentator on life on the streets of Kingston, chronicling the rise of the Jamaican rude boys and the dire living situation for many downtown Kingstonians. Released in 1964, “Al Capone” found popularity not only on the island but in the U.K., where it became the first Jamaican single to reach the Top 20. The hit would allow Buster to tour throughout England in the late 1960s, becoming one of Jamaica’s first international stars and paving the way for others to follow — most notably, Bob Marley. Meanwhile, slack tunes like “Whine and Grind” and “Wreck a Pum Pum” made Buster a trailblazer in bringing candid sex chat, or slackness, to Jamaican music.
Despite the wane of ska and rocksteady in Jamaica by the 1970s, Buster’s music and slick fashion sense would continue to make an impact overseas when the London-based outfit Madness (named after the song by Prince Buster) would record their top 20 hit “The Prince” and spark a short-lived ska revival in the UK. Despite keeping his distance from the scene, Buster would eventually return to the stage in the late 1980s and 1990s, with remaining members of the Skatalites as his backing group.
Buster’s invaluable contribution to Jamaican music was officially recognized by the island’s government in 2001 when he received the esteemed Order of Distinction.
Here’s a look at some of the singer, producer and musician’s most noteworthy tracks.
“They Got to Go”
This early Prince Buster track features Jah Jerry’s clipped chords accompanied by saxophonists Stanley Ribbs and Lester Sterling, on what would become an often-imitated style that would define the ska era.
This energetic ska scorcher features Buster’s signature spoken word style, but the title also references the fascination among Jamaican rude boys with American gunslinger outlaws — a fascination that would inform the style and sound of the 1960s, as well as later generations of reggae and dancehall. The track reached the Top 20 in the U.K., paving the way for Jamaican music across the pond.
Here, Buster presents himself as a draconian judge from Ethiopia (perhaps referencing Jamaica’s growing Rastafarian movement) who sentences four rude boys to several hundred years in jail for their violent acts. The 1967 track shows Buster’s inventiveness in the studio, and is another example of his zeroing in on life in Kingston— this time the growing violence around Jamaican rude boys — as a source for lyrical inspiration.
Prince Buster at his most overtly political, “Shanty Town” references the dire living conditions of those in downtown Kingston and the ruthless bulldozing of the area’s shanty towns by the government, amid a tense political atmosphere.
A spooky rocksteady burner, Buster offers heartfelt goodbyes to those gone too soon, including many infamous posse members who lost their lives in the violent, politically-charged times of the 1960s, while envisioning an after-life where the sound system dances rage on, albeit without Red Stripe sadly.
“Wreck a Pum Pum”
Prince Buster returned in the mid ’70s with a liberal approach to lyrics, advancing the cause of slackness in Jamaican music by singing of sex in frank terms, as opposed to the double entendres of earlier times. The colorfully titled “Wreck a Pum Pum” was Exhibit A.