The Soul of Urban Culture

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By Phil Vassell

Photo by Aram Kilimli
With the starring role in the ground-breaking film, The Harder They Come, a recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, over 24 studio albums to his credit and a three month-long North American tour, Jimmy Cliff is definitely not slowing down. In fact he says he’s now embarking on Act Two of an incredible career. The singer/songwriter, actor and screen writer still believes his best work is yet to come. I caught up with him on the phone from Paris where he spends a lot of time, when not in Jamaica.

WORD: Take back to the early years a bit. How did you get your start in the business?

CLIFF: I started my recording career with various recording producers in Jamaica until I finally got really close with one and we stayed together until he passed away. His name was LeslieKong, a Chinese Jamaican.

WORD: And would you say that was a very productive partnership between you and Leslie?

CLIFF: Very much so because all of my hits were in that partnership. Even when I left Jamaica to reside in England and when I went back to Jamaica to record, was also with Leslie Kong. So not only my local hits, quite a few of my international hits like “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”, “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and so on.

WORD: What was it that made that relationship so productive?

CLIFF: I think it was the chemistry was that we believed in each other. It was his first time venturing into the recording industry in Jamaica when I went to him. He had never been into the recording business. I had only recorded two songs prior to that but they were not hits; they are just played on local sound systems; they weren’t hits on the radio. And so our partnership produced hits. So we believed in each other.

WORD: You resided in the U.K. How long were you in the U.K. for?

CLIFF: I resided in the U.K. for about 10 years but during that time, I frequently came back to Jamaica to do my recording.

WORD: There was a period in which you also had a relationship with Chris Blackwell. Can you talk about what that was like?

CLIFF: My journey to England was a result of Chris Blackwell inviting me there. He was the founder of Island Records and he invited me as an artist to come. After he had sucessfully produced and established Millie Small who was another Jamaican with a song called “My Boy Lollipop.”

So, we had a relationship for most of the earlier part of my international career. While I came back to Jamaica and recorded with Leslie Kong, it was still being released on his label. We had a long relationship. And we still have a good relationship. Even though he is not so involved in the record business, but if one knows the history of Jamaican music, one knows that he played a very integral part in establishing it internationally.

WORD: I read somewhere that you helped Bob Marley established his career?

CLIFF: That went like this – after Leslie Kong became quite established now, myself and other artist like Derrick Morgan, other artists were coming in. And myself and Derrick Morgan were like the A&R people who listened to whoever came in and introduced them to Leslie Kong. And that was how I happened to meet Bob (Marley). He came in and before Bob, it was Desmond Dekker. They both use to work at the same place and Desmond Dekker came and I listened to his songs and he got his first hit recorded and then he went and told Bob that he met Jimmy Cliff and Derek Morgan and Bob came and I listened to some of his songs and we chose three of his songs and that was his first time in the record business.

WORD: Do you feel like a godfather?

CLIFF: Well I would term it more like the shepherd who opens the gate and let the flock through. How I evaluate that is, er, the movie that I did — The Harder They Come — was actually the movie that really opened the gate to the culture and music to the world. And I starred in that movie and I was the first to go to so many places: Africa, Japan, you name it, South America. My role is like the shepard, I go and open the gates and then the flock follows.

WORD: Let’s talk about the film vs the play for a second. The film is one of the legendary films in filmmaking because as an independent film, its considered one of the all time great films and I’m wondering its easy to say that now. When you were maing that film, did you have a sense of what the potential of what that film could be?

CLIFF: Well, I can’t say that I did vividly, you know but I went in with a very positive attitude. I heard about Broadway and Picadilly and West End and all of these places while living in Jamaica. And Hollywood and all these places and I just felt that, that’s the place for me. And so I went into the movie with that kind of mentality saying well, this movie has to go those places; so it eventually did and Perry Henzel who was the part writer and director said: he’s just making one movie and this movie has to make it. So I guess we all went into it with a vision of conquering the world!

WORD: Do you consider yourself more of a songwriter than a singer?

CLIFF: I’m a combination of the lot. I’ve just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an artist. Singer, performer but they also have a category for songwriter, cause I saw that, while I was inducted. So, down the line again I may be inducted as a songwriter.

WORD: Now that must have been a special moment for you because to my knowledge, you and Bob Marley are the only Jamaican artists that are there. Correct?

CLIFF: Yes to my knowledge as well.

WORD: Can you describe what that feeling was when you are finaly there, when you are going through the ceremony – what was that, can you describe that?

CLIFF: Well, really and truly, what it was for me was like a stepping stone to more, further success and further glory. I used it as a platform for that. Now, the feeling, hmm, I got pretty emotional which I didn’t think I’d get emotional about. But I got pretty emotional when I remembered, quite particularly my grandmother who was very instrumental in encouraging me on this path.

WORD: What was it particularly that made you think of your grandmother?

CLIFF: Well, she encouraged me, I mean my family was pious Christians. To go into this field was, out of the way. She was the only one who encouraged me.

WORD: What are your thoughts on the state of the reggae music industry. Is it better or worse than when you came into the industry

CLIFF: It is not the new music force that it was. However, it is still very much alive and healthy. Because what is happening now is you have two branches. You have the branch which we call Roots and Culture which is inspirational and uplifting like myself. Then you have the other areas which I call girls and cars and superstars. People like Sean Paul or Shaggy and them. So its very much alive in two areas and you know there’s all kinds of popular music. And you know we have the “agreeable” and the “disagreeable.” And that’s happening a lot in the reggae medium. But its very much healthy from my point of view.

WORD: What I find really significant now is that guys like Third World say once upon a time they would be the headliners for shows in reggae in Europe: Summer Jam, Rotterdam and all these other places in France. But now you have a number of reggae artists that are local to those markets that are now headlining.

CLIFF: Yeah, even in Japan too. But music is like that. The Beatles did not originate Rock and Roll. It originate with Chuck Berry and all those other people and then they took it and put their history, their environmental feelings and put it in it, and they became great and came over to the U.S. and conquered the world. So we ought to expect that reggae as a music form that we created in Jamaica, is here and that people are going to adopt it and put their own touch to it. And it will become like that. And that’s what’s happening. We just have to be calm and continue being creative! That’s what we do, that’s what we have to do to be always in demand.