It was mid-August 1980, a typically hot day in Kingston, Jamaica. I had just entered Channel One Studios for the first time, in the distinguished company of Freddie McKay and Bongo Herman. The week before, producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes had seen me backstage at the Carib Theatre for the Independence Day show. Upon hearing that I was a good guitarist, he told Freddie and Herman to bring me by the studio first thing Monday.
The session was already under way when we got there. As I peered through the glass of the control room, back behind the drum gobos I could see an energetic person in a plaid shirt and a brown knit hat, waving a pair of drumsticks wound with masking tape. “Ready, Style?” the engineer called over the talkback. He yelled back, “Ready, red light!” counted off the tune, rolled in the band, and the earth shook. Roots Radics at full blast through the enormous Channel One speakers was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was thunderous, raw, powerful, and aggressive. What’s more, it was clearly very different from the straight four reggae grooves I’d been hearing in the States. What I thought I knew about this music was clearly outdated. Some serious recalibration was in order.
After one take, the band came into the control room, and listened to the playback, then went back out into the studio to work up the next song. I was stunned. Fifteen minutes later, they had another track done, then another, then another. I couldn’t believe how fast they worked and how great it sounded. Finally, Junjo sent me into the studio. Forty minutes later, I’d recorded two songs with Style, Flabba, and the Roots Radics crew. Then it was back to the regular players, and the session went on into the night.
Time was money in the Kingston studios, formalities were minimal, and talk was sparing while at work. The band had barely grunted at me, other than Flabba’s instructions to “pick with the bass,” and Style was for the most part hidden in the drum booth. However, the next day, on Idler’s Rest, I was introduced to Style more formally. He was crouched on the sidewalk, waiting for something to happen. We all were.
Idler’s Rest, whose formal name was Chancery Lane, was an alley that ran north from the Parade, between Joe Gibbs Record World and VP Records. On the right were, from south to north, VP’s western wall, Winston Riley’s Techniques Record Shop and Gregory Isaacs’ African Museum. On the left, oddly enough, was the Salvation Army headquarters. Scattered in and around this small area on any given day were some of the greatest Jamaican singers, musicians, and DJs who ever drew breath.
Idler’s Rest was the downtown clearinghouse, hiring hall, social club, networking and information center of the Jamaican music business. In a time and place where telephones were a luxury, a producer looking for artists or session musicians to record, or a promoter putting a show together, could come to Idler’s Rest, leave a message, and reach everyone he wanted.
It was also the place where any musician or artist who wasn’t working would hang out, hoping to be hired. In August 1980, the Roots Radics were at the very beginning of their run. Although they were starting to make a name for themselves, there were plenty of days where Style, Flabba Holt, Bingi Bunny, Steelie, Sowell, Bongo Herman, and many others (myself included) would lean against the walls of the Salvation Army or the stone wall of the North Parade and watch the day go by, trying not to spend money. In such circumstances, musicians will talk. Style and I did a fair amount of talking.
Style didn’t speak much about his early days other than to say that he had learned something about drums in the military. He had spent some time in England in the late Seventies and it had been an important experience for him. He had worked with Adrian Sherwood, a producer he held in very high regard, and had toured with Don Cherry and the Slits, among others. I got excited when he mentioned Don Cherry, and he beamed. “You know Don? A wicked jazz musician dat! Him was very interested in our music. A very inspiring person.”
I had to confess that I didn’t know Don personally (I was to find that many Jamaican musicians assumed that all good American musicians knew each other, as tended to be the case in Jamaica) but the fact that I knew who Don Cherry was and loved his playing was enough for Style. He’d been polite before, but now I was in. I got the impression that Style found it frustrating that an association he took so much pride in hadn’t registered much with his peers.
From that point on, we regularly shared a part of the sidewalk, talking about music, work, and our dreams. Style was quite blunt about the fact that he liked me and liked my playing. And he didn’t care much what anyone else thought. As a starving musician far from home, Style’s warmth and acceptance meant a lot to me. Many of the older musicians like Bobby Ellis were friendly too, but Style was my own age, and that was important.
Style burned with ambition. He was devoted to his band; he felt that Roots Radics was the future of the music, and he intended to prove it every time he got behind the drums. We were all pretty hungry at that point, but I got the impression that the desire for respect, not money, was Style’s primary motivation. There was clearly a back story there, but I never heard it. Style talked a lot less about the past than the present and the future.
For the rest of the year, Style and I hung out on Idler’s Rest with Roots Radics and the other downtown singers and players of instruments, survived the 1980 election (no small feat), talked, drank an occasional beer when funds permitted, and worked sessions when we could get them.
At the beginning of 1981, I joined Lloyd Parks and We The People and Dwight Pinkney joined Roots Radics, replacing Sowell Bailey. With Dwight burning up the lead chair, I worked a lot less with Radics, and since I now lived in New Kingston, I was on Idler’s Rest less often. Things also got a bit more cliquish in the studio, though if Dwight wasn’t available for a session, the other Radics welcomed me warmly.
We all ended up playing together anyway at various times, cliques or not; that’s Style on Dennis Brown’s “I Can’t Stand It” with Allah from Chalice on piano, Lloyd Parks on bass, and Bo Pee and I on guitars. I tended to see Style more on stage shows, as Gregory Isaacs and Radics often shared the bill with us. From my vantage point, success didn’t change Style very much. He was the same person I knew from Idler’s Rest: warm, blunt, and passionate, though his wardrobe did diversify a bit after a couple of tours.
After I left Jamaica, I didn’t see Style for decades, until we ran into each other unexpectedly at breakfast in a French hotel on tour. Style could not have been happier to see me, or more excited. After we caught up, Style insisted on introducing me to everyone in his touring party who didn’t already know me. He told them all about how we struggled together on Idler’s Rest and how proud and happy he was that we had achieved so much. It was a great reunion; sadly, it was the last time I would ever see him. I can’t believe that he’s gone.
Like most drummers, Style’s playing was the way he was: militant, inexorable, determined, powerful, full of passion, and a bit rough around the edges. He had some idiosyncratic ways of doing things and he had no interest in technique for its own sake. Creating the most powerful groove possible was the point. For Style, the emotion created the expression, which is how it should be. The rap on Style was that he copied Sly Dunbar, but I never heard him that way. It’s easy to tell them apart. Style was such a strong personality that his individuality came through even on the simplest parts.
There are too many wonderful Style studio performances to list, but perhaps the most famous is Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse.” I’m fond of the Scientist dub albums that he played on for Greensleeves, not least because I’m on some of them. His work with Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound is great too. There would have been more to come; Style was by no means ready to ride off into the sunset when he was taken from us.
I have a lot of memories, but when today when I think of Style, I see him crouched in front of the Salvation Army wall, his brown knit cap with his short dreads peeking out from underneath, pulling on a spliff. “Hail, Andy. Come in nuh. Yeh mon, mi de yah. Nuttin naa gwaan fe now, yu no see it, but our time soon come. Hold tight. Dem cyaan stop we.” RIP, Style. You had a great run before they stopped you. Thanks for everything.