Niney the Observer: Sledgehammer Dub

Grant Smithies:

Niney the Observer: Sledgehammer Dub:

Hot on the heels of the recent Linval Thompson "Phoenix Dub" set, UK label Motion Records now whacks us 'round the ears with more ganja-friendly bass'n'space tomfoolery in the shape of the aptly-named "Sledgehammer Dub" from Winston "Niney The Observer" Holness. How did this gruff, ghetto-fabulous producer aquire such an excellent nick-name? He lost a thumb in a workplace accident as a young man, leaving him with just nine fingers. As for "The Observer"? Beats me. Perhaps this bit was given to him by the Jamaican Occupational Health and Safety Department as a hint that if he watched what he was doing in the workplace, he'd hang onto those digits. But back to the record. A compilation of alternative mixes to Dennis Brown B-Sides from 75/76 (many of the vocals can be found on the "Deep Down With Dennis Brown" LP), "Sledgehammer Dub" was first released on the Observer label in late 1976 and original copies have been the subject of bidding wars between reggae collectors ever since. Why? Because the bugger ain't just a quarter century old and damn good, it's also seriously scarce. The initial pressing run was tiny, somewhere around 300 records, so all praises due to Motion for making it more widely available. And also for digging out Niney's number for me so's I could have a natter with one of my long-time musical heroes in person. In the rush to deify his contemporaries such as King Tubby, Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs, the mighty Niney has often been overlooked, yet time has treated his distinctively hard-edged productions very well. Less eccentric and sonically fanciful than Perry, Holness nonetheless shared his better-known brethren's affection for slow, unorthodox, gritty and "dread" rhythms, and had few peers when it came to rendering both the fleeting joys and the underlying anxieties of ghetto life as recorded sound. Nowhere is this more evident than in the song that kicked off Niney's solo career, the tense and vengeful "Blood And Fire", still one of the most powerful tracks in the history of Jamaican music. Holness recorded it in 1970 after freelancing for most Jamaican studios of note, and it became a huge hit. So huge that Wailers' organist Glen Adams paid the producer a visit, claiming Niney had ripped off his organ sound and demanding money at knifepoint. A fight ensued and Holness ended up in hospital. "A likkle terror go down between bredren" says Niney from a friend's apartment in London. He's just got out of the shower and sits in his bathrobe pondering his seventies heyday; his deep, parched voice like sandpaper on wood. The producer lives in New York these days but travels to England regularly to visit family. "Adams lash out, my blood it flow and I still have the scar. These things happen. But that song start me off. I was anxious to find somet'ing to make me own name, and Blood and Fire is the record that took me out there on the street and open the way for me." Holness talks of being obsessed with music from childhood, his favourite artists being American soul acts The Temptations, The Impressions and Al Green. He became conductor of his school band and, upon leaving school, hung around the Kingston studios until he was given the chance to prove himself by organising auditions and helping run recording sessions. "Before I branch off on my own I was workin' with Joe Gibbs, but I start earlier with Derrick Harriot, and before that Derrick Morgan. I also hook up with Bunny Lee, inna the same kinda syndicate as Lee Perry, Joe Gibbs and everybody, we all doin' our ting back den. I got no credit for lots of hits I produce back then, but this is always the way because you don't know about the business when you start. You just want to get inna the studio, you not lookin' for any credit or publicity or copyright or nuttin', you just want to prove you have some talent." Niney was such a quick learner and a gifted and intuitive producer that he was running sessions on his own within a matter of months. Many huge late-sixties Jamaican hits were credited to other men but in fact produced by Holness. "In those days I do some great songs with Joe Gibbs for his Amalgamated label, we do songs like 'Money In My Pocket' and t'ings with Nicky Thomas and so on, and I do some riddim for Coxsone at Studio One, and before that with Bunny Lee. When I was with Bunny Lee, the nighttime was my time! The daytime I work for him and the night-time I take for myself to try to create my own ideas. I do good song with Bunny Lee like 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg' and so on. Bunny Lee leave me in the studio and he say- well, you go on and produce these artists- and so I get to exercise myself in the studio, so I give thanks for his help. Then me and Bunny Lee have a likkle fuss, and I move on to Coxsone. He give me studio time and for a while me an' him do some business 50- 50, then I leave there too. After that I do Blood and Fire for meself and everything change." Holness is gratified to hear that there are reggae fans who know and love this song as far afield as New Zealand, and that many of his other works are also well known down here, particularly his production work for Max Romeo and Dennis Brown. "After Blood and Fire everybody want me to make riddim for them, so I start by making a few riddim for Max Romeo like 'Maccabee' and 'King James Version', and then we do song like 'Rasta Bandwagon' and 'Coming of Jah'. After that I do 'Silver Words' for Ken Boothe, which was another huge hit. Then I meet the youth Dennis
Brown and we start to build songs together. Me and him and Joe Gibbs hook up together and then we create a monster, you know?". He laughs long and loud. "Around the same time I also make Delroy Wilson's 'Rascal Man', which was another huge hit, all about these guys who claim them a rasta man but dem really just black heart rascal. Today, of course, the world is still full of false rasta, as was prophesied by that song." The secret to the success of all his best works, says Holness, is in the rhythms. Not the lyrics, not the skill of the singer, the band or the producer, but the power of the rhythms themselves. "A great riddim have to capture your soul and your heart. When you hear a great riddim you know it straight away. Like when you're eating dinner and you think- hey, this is really seasoned good, it taste perfect, you know? A good riddim is like that. A weak riddim can't draw you, there is no attraction, you don't hear no energy in it. A good song needs melody too, a melody so nice and sweet and simple a likkle baby can sing to it. And for my riddims I always use the Soul Syndicate band. At first they were just youths but I thought they had the potential and I teach them until they reach perfection. Most day we make some riddim together and we sell the tapes dem back to man like Joe Gibbs so me and the musician could eat a likkle food." It is the Soul Syndicate (George Fullwood, Carlton Davis, Tony Chin and Earl "Chinna" Smith) who provide most of the backing tracks on "Sledgehammer Dub", though the searing "Tribulation Dub"- probably the albums heaviest track- was cut at London's Chalk Farm studio with The Cimarons because Holness wanted to prove that top-shelf reggae could be made outside Jamaica if the right man was behind the mixing desk. Why was it named Sledgehammer Dub? "Well, most of dem tracks were mix by Tubby's, apart from about five of dem mix by Errol Thompson at Joe Gibbs studio. And when Tubbys mix, him mix strong! Is like a ton of rocks rolling at you through your speaker. When him cramp up certain sound and release it again, is like a sledgehammer, beating you in your head. Tubbys was a genius, man, but him is not no greater than me or Joe Gibbs or Bunny Lee or Lee Perry or whoever, because without we, there can't be no Tubbys. When we make a riddim, Tubbys play it on his sound and mix it down and become a hero in the business. People run come see Tubbys, but he couldn't do none of that without the good riddim to begin with, and the good riddim is what the rest of us provide. Is a team effort, y'unnerstand?" Holness tells me he's started singing again, that he's just released a single with Mafia and Fluxy and has recently been in Jamaica putting the finishing touches to an album with Sly and Robbie. He's also busy scouting for new talent to produce. "I want to get some new youth to work with and look forward to the future. Everyone is always asking about the 60's and the 70's but we want to make a new catalogue of music so in years to come people like you will be phoning to ask about classic tunes that were made in 2005 or 2020. T'ings change, you know? It is a different music business down in Jamaica these days. Is not like a rich guy can come down there now and take away people's music like they used to in the seventies, like- Oh dem singin' about sufferation, so I'll go down there with a thousand pounds and buy alla dem music. That plan not work anymore." Niney laughs long and loud, his voice taking on the rumbling apocalyptic tone that graces some of his best records. "Dem have to come with a hundred thousand pound now, you know what I mean! Ghetto bwoy smart now."

Album available on CD and vinyl from the Motion website.

Posted: Sat - April 12, 2003 at 07:22 PM