CONNECTING REGGAE’S GREAT PAST TO ITS PROMISING FUTURE
The list of first-generation reggae stars still taking the music to the world is now a short and sadly shrinking one. Holding a prominent place in that group are much-loved veterans Inner Circle, scheduled as the headline attraction at this year’s TD IRIE Fest in Toronto, on Aug. 2 at Fort York’s Garrison Common.
WORD tracked down founding member Ian Lewis in Miami recently (the band have long been based there), and found the 61-year-old bassist/songwriter to be an eloquent interviewee. He is clearly proud of the fact that the reggae genre has taken deep hold around the globe with its mix of hypnotic rhythm and positives messages.
“What people don’t understand, we have all these racial divides in the world, but the essence of music is that it is a cultural message. Sometimes that transcends all racial and political boundaries. Our greatest ambassador of reggae is Bob Marley. A lot of his songs are like stories, about common-day life and all the aspects of our lives. That is universal. That is why reggae music is universal and can appeal to everybody, because it talks about everyday life. That is a great thing, to influence the world, from the ’60s and ’70s. That influence is still felt in the world of popular music. It is like you are making a dish, you have to start with the basics. You have to use the right ingredients to get the right flavour. I think that’s why reggae music has contributed to the world, just like blues music.”
Inner Circle continue to tour extensively, having earned a loyal fan base around the globe, as Lewis explains.
“People around the world have stuck with us, in places like Thailand, Indonesia, and New Zealand. We have been to so many places that are not usually on the reggae calendar. That is what we like. We leave the audience with a message and a vibe and then good things happen to you.”
Keeping the Inner Circle name out there is continued radio play for such earlier hits as “Bad Boys” (something of a signature song for them) and “Sweat.”
“We have got a lot of recurrent play,” Lewis says. “People will hear a song on the radio, a 15 year old kid, and they’ll go ‘I like that song. Is it a new group?'” He is confident the group can still come up with new hits too. “In 2014, we did a song with Chronixx, one of the up and coming young guys in Jamaica who is branching out now. We did this song, an update of one of our hits, “Tenement Yard,” and it got played in Britain and it has mushroomed. Now Warner Music are going to release it internationally. We have a new song that is just coming out, “We The People Have To Talk.” The message of the song is that people from every part of the world have to talk. I think that is a key necessary thing. we have to talk, find a common medium. There should be a new Inner Circle album coming soon too.”
Inner Circle have now been active in six decades. Ian and his brother, guitarist Roger Lewis, formed the group in Jamaica in 1968, and early members included Cat Coore and William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke, who later found fame in Third World. Ian recalls that “we started out as one of the top dance bands in Jamaica, playing everybody’s music [mostly American soul and pop hits]. When we came onto the roots scene, it was through our singer Jacob Miller and the songs he wrote. Then when the hits came, that was a whole different thing.
In the ’70s, Inner Circle had record deals with Capitol then Island, and their first hit album, Everything Is Great, came out in 1979. Tragically, things derailed when Miller, one of the great singers of reggae, was killed in a car crash in 1980, prompting the break-up of the band. That’s when the Lewis brothers and bandmate Touter Harvey moved to Miami.
They revived the band in 1986, with new singer Carlton Coffie. In 1989, they released the track “Bad Boys.” one that later became a huge global hit after being adopted as the theme song of the real life crime TV series Cops and the Will Smith Bad Boys movies. Another hit came in 1993 with “Sweat (A La La La La Long),” and Ian Lewis tells us he gets angry when Inner Circle are termed ‘one-hit wonders.’
“There was once a special on one-hit wonders and they included us and that made me mad. I was going to call the producer and go, ‘what’s this? There are at least four songs the world knows, and two really big ones. We should come out of that situation.'”
He also explains that people misinterpret “Bad Boys.” It was used for the TV show and the movie, but it was originally written about a teenage kid growing up in a house. The actual line I wrote first was ‘bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do when life comes for you.’ It was about being given the tools to change your route in life. But then it changed to the context of police chasing the bad guys. It was not written for Cops.”
Projecting positive messages remains of crucial importance to Lewis and Inner Circle, and they have been critical of the negativity of dancehall. ” Dancehall is more out of hip hop,” he tells us. “Kids turned to a level where it was ‘I’m more gangsta than you,’ so I have to say crap so you’re scared of me. It went off in that direction. In Jamaica that came with the youth getting BET and so on. It was like when we were in Uganda, there was no African garb. It is all the fashion they got off the television, all western styles. You go to Africa for the culture and the vibe, and then you see that. It’s like, put crap in your body you’re going to get sick.”
It’s interesting to note that Ian’s son, working under the name LunchMoney Lewis now has a huge international hit, with the track “Bills.” “His influences are more hiphop than reggae,” the proud dad acknowledges. “He knows reggae, but growing up as a young kid in Miami, his influences are more hiphop. I know that eventually he’ll switch and do some reggae. It is in his DNA!”
To Ian, the key Inner Circle is
“understand one another. We won’t have a perfect utopia, but let’s start with that. None of us is a paragon of virtue, none of us say ‘I’m the most righteous man because I cry Rastafari.’ No, but there is a certain level on the human side of life you can create. That is where reggae music is at right now. The youth are crying out and they are sending out a message and asking questions. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Through their successful Circle Sound studio and production company, Inner Circle have been collaborating with younger reggae artists. “We see it as like a relay, with your first, second and third runners. You must have the baton at the finish. I think we can pass the baton to a younger group. There is a set of young kids, like Chronixx, Jesse Royal, Protege, about five or six of them. I label them the young lions, and they are coming with a strong message of Rastafari.”
In turn, Inner Circle deservedly enjoy the respect of their peers. The band’s 2009 album State of Da World featured such guests as Luciano, Damian and Stephen Marley, Junior Reid, Mutabaruka, Bushman, and David Hinds of Steel Pulse, while their 2012 album Dubets featured collaborations with Peetah and Gramps Morgan, Ken Boothe, Marcia Griffiths, Glen Washington, and Ali Campbell of UB40.
In the twilight of their illustrious career, Inner Circle remain an important band. Their appearance at IRIE Fest promises to be a real treat.