Sunday, April 19, 2009

Brixton Hitman Interview: British Lovers Rock History

In preparation for a presentation that ForwardEver gave on April 17 at the 2009 EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, WA, we linked with KUSF FM radio DJ Brixton Hitmnan who gave a very informative interview.

Brixton Hitman is the host of Saturday Nite Rockers on KUSF 90.3 FM. The show airs weekly Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. (PST) and is San Francisco's longest continuously broadcasting reggae program. Brixton Hitman is heard alternating weeks along with co-host Humble Lion.

Brixton emigrated to the US from London in the 1970s, and his knowledge of British Lovers Rock music is extensive. Lovers rock reggae music features heavily on Brixton's SNR program, which features new and old, exclusive and rare British reggae recordings as well as the best from Jamaica. Needless to say, fans of UK lovers rock from coast-to-coast and internationally tune in to Brixton as it's sadly one of the few outlets giving the music regular airplay.

Here then is the interview with Brixton Hitman it's entirety. Enjoy!
“We weren’t born in the Caribbean, so we had to create something for ourselves.” -Brixton Hitman

Interview with Colin “Brixton Hitman” Broomfield (KUSF FM - Saturday Nite Rockers, English Pound Radio). Recorded April 3, 2009

ForwardEver: Tell us a little about your personal background.

BH: I have Jamaican parents and was born and raised in London. I first encountered the [reggae and lovers rock] when my parents would go to my uncle’s house or at family parties. This was the late-60s. I heard groups like The Pioneers, Alton Ellis, [and labels like] Studio One and Treasure Isle; ska, Jim Reeves, R&B and whatever. In high school I used to play soccer and we used to have little dances after our matches and I would DJ. I started my collection from there, in my early teen years.

Reggae at that time was kind of popular, record companies [like Trojan and Pama] were actually trying to promote it -- artists like Nicky Thomas, Pioneers -- that kind of stuff was going on, and the skinheads were getting into the ska. There was acceptance [for reggae] in England, it was definitely the second home for Jamaican reggae, rocksteady and all that. The sound was more uptempo, it wasn’t that revolutionary music, it was happy kind of sounds going on at that time.

The week after high school, I left to come to America. My father remarried, and I was hanging out with some college guys that went to school at Berkeley and USF (University of San Francisco) who were all West Indian. We used to hang out and play soccer at the Caricom. After every single game we’d get together, have a party in the Berkeley area. They’d party all the time, the few records that I had, I’d slip them in while they were playing their soca etc. That’s how it developed for me in the States.

It’s the late-70s now, record stores like Rasputins (Berkeley) were importing reggae from England, San Francisco also had good import record stores and I could get the latest stuff from England. My relatives would send tapes by David Rodigan, Steve Bernard so I’d know exactly know what was going on, and I’d have my cousins send them over.

What types of reggae was catching your ear at the time in the late-70s?

I was really into the lovers rock scene at that time cause it was all about happy times, dancing with girls etc. And that was a unique blend of music from England, which was a mix of R&B and reggae and that was mixed together, which created lovers rock.

We would sneak out at night and go to the 'blues parties' (small house parties), get close to a girl and play lovers rock all night. A bunch of clubs around London would be playing that late-night. In those days you go to a blues party at 2 a.m. and they’d finish at 8 a.m.

When I came here to the States, you’d couldn’t go to a dance until age 21. I was shocked, so I was lucky to be hanging out with these older guys.

Were the blues dance parties held because of the Afro-Caribbean community was being excluded from other clubs? Was it because the music was not being played elsewhere, or was it more of a “community vibe” thing?

It was a community thing, and also, it wasn’t being played very often on the radio at that time. Later on it was something you could hear on pirate radio. The only places you could hear it was outside at a club or blues dance. There weren’t many places at the time where you’d hear just reggae. You could hear a mixture of reggae, soul and pop, but not exclusively reggae music.

The music was being made and consumed by strictly first and second generation West Indians, it wasn’t a mixture [of people into it] at that time. It was mostly black people dancing to that music.

However, since people lived in mixed ethnic neighborhoods, people would hear lovers rock coming through the door of an apartment, or from the barber shop -- that’s when white England would hear it. Other Brits in Birmingham or London would be hearing it on from their neighbors yards, or jukeboxes in pubs, or whatever, but it still wasn’t in the mainstream.

The (white) skinheads in England were into ska and rocksteady at first, then in the '70s the punk thing was happening and [punks and skins] were definitely not into the lovers rock music. They liked the roots music, the revolutionaries, the hardcore, Tappa Zukie, Big Youth and those artists, 'cause those artists were talking about revolution, that’s what they had in common.

Some popular radio DJs in the UK at the time were Steve Bernard and Tony Williams, Tommy Vance on Capitol Radio, then David Rodigan. Those were the main DJs playing [lovers rock], there weren’t many pirate radio stations yet. So you’d mainly here the music at a dance or a club, the young youth would be playing that, and that influenced what the DJs were playing.

When did lovers rock become a distinctly British music style?

It happened in the early '70s and mid-70s era. The focal point would have to be Louisa Marks “Caught You In A Lie” – that was a massive hit. Then you have a bunch of ladies after that: Carol Thompson, Investigators -- a whole bunch of people came after that . It was from the second generation of black Brits living in England. That was something that they could identify with and that’s something they developed. Producer Dennis Bovel played a major role in its development.

A whole bunch of people will say they were there in the beginning but that’s hard to trace. Everybody was into that vibe at the moment. [Lovers rock dances] were place you could get close to a girl.

Why do you think the second and third generation British Afro-Caribbean youth who created lovers rock had music tastes different from their parents?

Like anywhere, you listen to your parents music when you’re little but basically as you get older you’re living a different lifestyle, you may want to rebel, and [listening to your own music] is a way to communicate an acceptance of what is going on at the time. The [second/third generation] appreciated reggae music, but they weren’t into the struggle that was going on in Jamaica. So they created something a bit lighter. Trojan Records was putting out this pop Jamaican reggae, some of which was getting filtered through to the radio. So [our] generation created something truly British, and that was lovers rock.

Was the Black British identity changing from an immigrant identity to an assimilated one through the music?

Yes and no. At that time white British were more tolerant of black people than in the '50s and '60s. But still, being Black British, you weren’t accepted as being British. Even today, many black Britons don’t feel like they’re accepted as British. So for us [as Black British] to get together [at parties] we had to create our own music for that reason too. We weren’t born in the Caribbean, so we had to create something for ourselves.

Afro-Caribbean British music had a major influence on the sound of 1980s groups like UB40, the Police and Culture Club. How did lovers rock go from Louisa Marks and exploding in the 1980s to influencing Culture Club, Scritti Politti, Maxi Priest?

Those artists grew up on [lovers rock], so obviously its going to influence them. You go to school, someone might have a cassette, they’re playing reggae music and it was usually some lovers rock. And it was a friendly music.

How we danced in England in those days would probably be outlawed in most of the states in the US! We would lock-down for hours with a girl and just listen to some music that we could relate to.

Even today it’s still influential. There’s a whole bunch of white artists singing reggae – Lilly Allen, Amy Winehouse…

Have the original lovers rock artists been given their due respect in the UK?

No. Absolutely not. It’s a different time and era now. The artists making the original lovers rock sound are in their 40s and 50s now. Lovers rock during it’s peak wasn’t promoted at the time. It could have done very well if money was behind it. There wasn’t unity among artists and promoters either to bring it to a bigger level. It was definitely a UK thing, and didn’t have the chance to spread to America and the rest of the world.

Why did you decide to feature lovers rock on your radio program?

It’s simply selfish! I loved the music for a long time. I’ve been collecting for years and years. Most Brits my age were listening to roots first, then they got into the lovers rock scene. I didn’t want to do something different. I didn’t want to play Bob Marley…The local record stores in the Bay Area really did get everything that was coming out of the UK in the 80s. On the radio, I’m English, so I definitely had to support lovers rock.

Nowadays some British lovers rock artists are getting recognition in Jamaica. (Lloyd Brown, Peter Hunnigale have been recorded there, Mafia & Fluxie are respected production team). What has the relationship been between the Jamaican and British scenes?

Lyrically a love song from England is different from a love song from Jamaica, because of the environment or whatever. An English person singing will say, “I really, really like you…” and describe the feelings. There’s more lyrical structure. Whereas someone like Gregory Isaacs is just going to be like “Give you a key to my front door,” and “Night Nurse.” There was a story, but it wasn’t as intimate as [the British artists]. A Michael Gordon or Peter Hunnigale or Investigators are describing what that feeling is doing to them, that’s a difference.

But Jamaicans, like Gregory Isaacs, Susan Codogan and Freddy McGregor, made some great lovers rock. That was probably due to the fact that some of the engineers being English or having that influence. There are some great Jamaican lovers rock singers and songs but it is an English product.

(Pictured: Kofi, member of Brown Sugar and solo artist on Ariwa)

Why are there more female artists are involved in the UK lovers rock scene than in Jamaica?

Women were an integral part to the development of this music in the UK. Before Louisa Marks there were artists like Ginger Williams; then there’s Janet Kaye, Carrol Thompson…they were influenced by US soul artists Denise Williams and Minnie Ripperton. Those were their idols. They mixed that R&B expression with reggae music and created that lovers rock style.

A few of them were stars in the West Indian community – Deborah Glasgow, Sandra Cross. But at the time, everyone was doing lovers rock music, a lot of them were off-key, but the rhythm was still nice so you could dance to it.

Across the board its harder for the female artists unless you have a big record company behind you. They have to have a certain look. A tragic case is Deborah Glasgow. She was a fantastic singer but she didn’t have that mainstream marketable sex-appeal, or whatever, that the West was expecting. It really crushed her when Shabba Ranks re-released her song “Champion Lover” with Chevelle Franklyn.

(pictured: Peter "Honey Vibes" Hunnigale)

What’s the state of the scene in 2009 for established artists like Peter Hunnigale, Don Campbell, Lloyd Brown and others?

There’s many people who’ve been overlooked. Only a few people like myself who give them the opportunity to get airplay. Most people are looking to Jamaica for the music and they’re not looking for the slower music, they want the uptempo music. Most music executives are focusing on younger listeners. One bad thing about England is that they never give any of their own reggae artists props. They’re always looking somewhere else, either Jamaica or elsewhere. Maxi Priest will tell you, all the artists will tell you. They’re not given the same respect across the board. Unless it’s accepted in America, the [homegrown] UK artists are not given the love they deserve.

How did Jamaican saxophonist Dean Fraser helped British lovers rock music?

Ruddy Thomas’ hit “Teach The World” was a a massive hit in England as well as “You Know How To Make Me Feel” by Susan Cadogan. It was Dean Fraser’s first production with his own money that brought that record out. For years I’ve been friends with DF, met at Reggae Susplash. Everytime I’d see him I’d give him a cassette, he’d ask ‘What’s happening in England?’ He loves the UK lovers rock sound, but he didn’t know that he was one of the guys that helped put it on the map.

Does he know the British artists?

He does. He’s worked with the Ras Ites, he knows Lloyd Brown. One thing he says, and I agree with him, is that if they want to survive, they have to go to Jamaica and record and get a Jamaican sound, a bit more uptempo. And I agree with him because you can’t be singing and playing music that sounds like it was made in 1986. You have to be fresh and unique and show growth.

(pictured: Dennis Bovel)

How is the instrumentation in lovers rock unique? Did Mad Professor play a role in the development of the lovers rock sound?

Mad Professor stuck to his guns, he experimented, he was an electronic genius. He tried to emulate the sound of Jamaica’s Channel One and put that quality in a lovers rock sound. He’s got classic lovers rock hits with Sandra Cross, Kofi, John McLean and on. He’s a lover of classic R&B and soul so he’s got those inluences. And he works with a genius musician called Black Steel who does a lot of the producing.

Do you think artists like Police and Culture Club were directly influenced by lovers rock?

I’d agree with that. They also grew up with it so they were influenced by it. A lot of the reggae musicians of that era crossed over into the pop and new wave scenes, including Black Steel and Denis Bovell – they were producing different music as well.

Tell me more about Brown Sugar:

Brown Sugar was three women, and included Caron Wheeler from Soul II Soul, Kofi – they were on the Lovers Rock label. “In Love With A Dreadlocks” was one of the first records I ever bought. It was good. They were one of the most popular singing groups in the lovers rock scene.

Why is lovers rock a UK thing?

The term lovers rock was made in England. It’s a product that we developed. It is a fusion of different music. Artists like Gregory Isaacs took it over to Jamaica and called it lovers rock. It was all reggae at one time but the English sound is a little different. We has Steel Pulse and Aswad and that was like the [UK] roots stuff, but [lovers rock] was a distinctively different sound. There’s only a few singers from Jamaica that could fit into the UK style lovers rock category, like Al Campbell, Freddy McGregor, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott and Gregory Isaacs. They had their hits but they had to change their music to do it.

Who are you checking for now in the British reggae scene?

Peter Hunnigale, Lloyd Brown, Peter Spence, Michael Gordon, Vivian Jones, and Nerious Joseph – he’s a very underrated singer. Those are the most consistent singers.

What was the high point of lovers rock music?

The music from the late-70s early-80s. It made you feel good.

Did it foster a sense of Black British pride?

Definitely because it was one of the first things you could point to and say “that sounds different and is British made.” This is more a distinct British thing than say British R&B. Lovers rock is a British expression.