In the 1980's a "white boy" with a love for reggae music left England to carve a name for himself amongst Jamaica's top musicians and some of the Island's most notorious gunmen. Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. interviews Dominic, the original white rapper.
How did you get involved in the black music scene?
The way I got involved in black music or attracted to black music was through a close friend of mine, the bass player of the Clash, Paul Simonon. I was always aware of reggae music growing up in Ladbroke Grove. My sister was very much into it because she was into the punk scene and Johnny Rotten had turned a whole nation of punk rockers into reggae fans. But it really came to a head around the 80s, when people like Yellow Man and Eek A Mouse came out and that’s when I really got into it big time and then I was introduced to the more older stuff like Studio One and Rock Steady.
I was into a lot of Ska and Blue Beat stuff, in the days when we used to be Mods. But it was when that record Wha Do Dem by Eek A Mouse came out, that was what really turned me and a lot of youths into that whole ‘dancehall’ reggae sound. At the time I was working freelance for a magazine called Zig Zag and obviously if you’re writing about something, you want to write about something you believe in, so I wanted to start writing about reggae music. I did a feature for Black Echoes, which was based around the whole Shabeen culture in Ladbroke Grove and then from there I took it further.
I went to Jamaica for the first time in 1983 to interview artists for Black Echoes and New Musical Express and Billy Boyo said, [Jamaican Accent] “So, Dominic, Yu can DJ?” And Junjo Lawes said, “Mi want a white man who can chat pan de mic.” I saw an opportunity and also realised that this was my calling. So although there were probably white kids who were doing it before, like Snow Man and Judge Dread, I can safely say I was the one that went back to the heartland and did it right.
The first microphone I ever held was on a sound system called Romantic in McKoy Lane, Kingston 11, with Little John and Barrington Levy. They wanted me to sing but Barrington Levy said my voice was flat like the road, so I couldn’t sing. So I started to DJ and at first it was just a novelty, it was just like local area dances and that, then Junjo gave me a lickle chat on the mic on a warm up section for Volcano.
I went on to interview Super Cat and Early B cos they were hot at the time, with Kilimanjaro sound system. Super Cat and Early B are two of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. They just took to me and said “Yeah man, you can DJ.” When Super Cat heard me DJ, he said “Mi a stop DJ yu know, yu too bad?” And so then, I was out with them every day. How they DJ is how they live, they’d be singing, “A de kitchen mi de, mi de listen reggae.” And they’d have a tape playing and be cooking fish and all of that in the kitchen. It was wicked.
By the time I returned to England, I’d begun to develop a little bit of an ability, I began writing my lyrics and riding the rhythms and I hooked up with Sandy and Rusty and Tippa Irie from Saxon and started going to Saxon dances. Well, I thought if I’m gonna get involved, I wanna be with the best. In those days, Saxon used to play all over England, Leicester, Reading, the whole country, and I would travel with them carrying the speakers and I’d get one chat on the mic. Respect to Muscle Head and Dennis Rowe and all of them, cos they gave me a little start.
In 1985, I was in jail and when I was there, I got a cassette and on it was Papa Levi saying, “Easy Dominic, yu have fi finish yu apprenteship before yu can hold de mic.” And the whole jail, the whole wing heard that and that’s when I said, ”I’m down for this, I’ve got one life and I don’t care if people don’t appreciate it because of my colour, my life’s gonna turn around.”
How did you end up in Jamaica after leaving prison?
In ’85, when I was in jail, I got a visit from George Pang; he turned around and said, “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.” I thought he’d be impressed, cos he’d been in jail loads of times himself, but he wasn’t impressed. When I came out of jail, him and Michael Palmer came over with Half Pint and we went to a studio and recorded “Greetings” and then recorded a tune with the lyrics “Youts like Dominic and other friends a me.” After we did that with George Pang, we went back to Jamaica and he gave me a place in Arnet Gardens to live. Because I was living in Arnet Gardens, I was automatically involved with these kinds of ‘bad men,’ because they all grew up together, so it would be, “This is Cut Throat John, and this is Killer Harry,” but surprisingly enough, a lot of these people, as much as their reputations preceded them, had better ethics and principles than a lot of people I deal with on a day to day basis in England: law abiding, supposedly respectable citizens.
I knew a lot of the guys. I knew Willy Haggart and a lot of people don’t really know the truth about why he got killed and who done it, but what is in darkness will come out into light. There has been a lot of repercussions about his death since. The same with Bogle. I was absolutely devastated when I heard that he had been murdered.
There has been a lot of talk implicating Beenie Man to the killing.
Beenie Man is a little bit like myself in the sense that he goes on like he’s bad, but deep down he ain’t a ‘badman’ at all. He’s a genuinely nice person. The reason why they suggested it might have been Beenie Man is because Bogle did actually disrespect him. But a lot of people have been quite disrespectful to Beenie Man. I heard Sizzla boxed him once and things like that. I think a lot of it is based on jealousy, because Beenie Man is probably one of the most successful DJs.
How did you feel about being around some of Jamaica’s most seasoned killers?
When I was around Zeeks and all his people around Matches Lanes, West Street, across the road literally is a road called Oxford Street and that was where the best weed was sold, and all the ‘Spanglers,’ they couldn’t go over there cos it was enemy territory, so they’d always be like, “Go on mate, you know you’re white, go and get the food.” [Laughing] It was funny but it was also heartbreaking to see that black people were being separated by something that had been orchestrated by white people, basically Edward Seaga (JLP) and Michael Manley (PNP) (former Prime Ministers). It really does anger me, because the only time I ever experienced animosity was when people felt that I was siding with the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and the people from Tivoli Gardens and that’s the only time I experienced any form of violence or any bad feeling. The guys from Jungle began saying, “Dominic, yu switch, a wha de blodclat.” I brought out a lot of lyrics about it. “What de fuck yu a talk bout mi switch, mi look like any electrical gadget, with a socket, So, what de hell yu a talk bout mi switch, I’m not Jamaican, I’m English, mi know how to ring bell and how fi knock fist.” I dropped that at a dance and the people loved it.
What’s your take on where we are now in regards to black music in England in general?
I like the music scene here a lot. I like a lot of the music that my son is into, I like the Grime scene, I like the fact that the kids are constantly writing lyrics and challenging each other lyrically. I’m not too supportive of the concepts of the lyrics, because it’s mostly based on guns and killing each other, but I’d be a total hypocrite to lick out on that.
Why? Because you were around at the start and change in the lyrics to slackness and gun talk in the 80s?
Yeah, but you see, it’s a very fine line, because when Ninja Man and Super Cat were talking about gun crime, the same with Mob Deep or Capone and Noriega, it was done on a level where you understood what they were about. They were saying, “This is what we’ve come through, this is our experience, this is fucked up.” Like “Ghetto Story” by Sham. If you listen to what he’s saying, “My bed was one piece of foam,” I know people who slept on a piece of foam and that was how they lived. So they were showing, this is where we come from and the violence is part of that. But now they’re saying “Yeah, let’s just murder a pussy ole and splatter marrow upon wall,” and all that. They’ve lost it. It’s gone out of the context of what it was all about in the early days. It’s gone completely berserk.
But aren’t people now living that reality, not perhaps sleeping on foam, but certainly living a reality if their friends are being murdered?
Yeah, but then what happens is, it becomes life imitating art, art imitating life. And what we’ve got now with all these teenage killings in England is the youths actually missing the point. The point of when Ninja Man said “Murder them,” he meant murder the system, murder society, murder the politician, murder the oppressor. Not murder your own black man who lives next door to you. People take that out of context and that is the problem now.
How do you believe it got so bad? Don’t the musicians have to share some of that responsibility?
Yeah, definitely. There is definitely a responsibility and I do have a certain regret and I discussed it with Josey Wales recently. I said, “Don’t you think we have a responsibility for the way these youths are going on?” I discussed it with Tippa and Sandy because the youths are getting younger and younger, you know what I mean? It’s the ultimate paradox, where you wanna be strong, you wanna defend yourself, you don’t take no shit, you’re a political rebel, but at the same time, you don’t want to go out and commit mass genocide. Earlier, you asked me how I felt about being around people like Zeeks, Early Bird, Jim Brown, and all of those people… well, to be honest with you, I introduced my mum to half of them, and they were polite and as good as gold.
Jim Brown and the rest of those guys were linked to hundreds of murders. Can you not see a contradiction?
There’s a very big contradiction, but life’s a contradiction. It’s the same contradiction when Edward Seaga (former Jamaican Prime Minister) went to Jim Brown’s funeral, or when Michael Manley (former Jamaican Prime Minister) went to Feather Mop’s funeral; it’s very hard to explain. You didn’t suddenly just turn around to someone like Jim and say, “Listen mate, I heard you’ve killed a few people; therefore I can’t hang with you mate.” You know what I mean? I think there’s good and bad in everyone. I’m not gonna judge anyone, I’m not God. To how he dealt with me, he dealt with me decently, Zeeks dealt with me the same, George Pang dealt with me the same, but at the end of the day they were all hardened killers and they didn’t think twice, you know what I’m saying?
How is it that black DJs and artists find it so hard to really break through in Britain? There are no real black divas in the UK, while Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse are marketed globally. David Rodigan becomes the most prominent reggae DJ, Tim Westwood, Hip Hop and Tony Blackburn Soul. What is it that excludes black artists from their own music forms in the UK?
Because this is a racist society that we live in and it’s as simple as that. Let me be really honest. When you take a group of people and you take their knowledge of self and their culture and their belief and their identity and their god and their soul and you sail them up the river, then it is going to effect the children, the great-grandchildren of these people, for years and generations to come, in how they deal psychologically and interactively with other people. Then you put in the fact that they have been the victims of racism throughout their schooling, where people would say nasty things. It wasn’t that long ago where people thought spade was a totally acceptable adjective, that it wasn’t racist. Very few Caucasian people can really assimilate or even try to understand that angst.
I think it’s a crime that Beverly Knight, an artist whom I rate as one of the best singers that England has produced, gets some props, the odd magazine cover here and there, but they don’t give her that extra push to go the whole way. It does seem to be that if you are more of a coconut you get the breakthrough, if you’re too black, it’s offensive.
What are you doing now?
For the past ten years, I’ve been taking care of my son. Childcare is a full-time job. Besides that I’m writing a book which is basically about my experiences of living in Arnet Gardens and Concrete Jungle and the history of the area. It’s not a history of who’s bad, who’s tough, who-shot-who. It explains how Bob Marley got shot, the peace show, the politics behind that, and then it sort of carries into my experiences of when I went to live there. The book is called Concrete Jungle, so it’s basically about the people who lived and grew up around this lifestyle and the tentacles that spread all over the four corners of the globe. At the same time, the thread that ties through it is the musical thread. There have been several books about the whole Yardie thing, but I feel that as much as they were written with good intentions, they got it a little bit off centre. Laurie Gunst’s book Born Fi Dead, sort of romanticises the figures and the characters, whilst taking away from the fact, as you say, that these guys were stone cold killers. The other extreme is that book Shower Posse, which is like a marvel comic. My book is about the area that I lived in, the community. There is some stuff in it that people will think, “Whoa, bloody hell, that’s a bit heavy,” but I’m not writing a comic and it’s not a marvel comic either. It’s a book that I want people to look back at and respect. It’s as much about taking the kids from Stonebridge, Peckham, Moss side, wherever the young 14, 15-year-olds hear about being a gunman in Jamaica and thinking it means killing people and being wicked and all of that, and realising that actually no, it means being self sufficient, surviving through unbelievable conditions. So it describes that, survival, and hopefully, people irrelevant of colour, creed, class, or background will be able to understand that.
1st May 2007
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