Nick Manasseh and Jon Jones have been busy in the Roots Garden
“I came back from Jamaica and I was so enthusiastic about it all that I went to see an old mate at Virgin. I said “look I’ve got all this amazing stuff, can’t we re-start the Frontline label! Let’s do something”.”
Nick Manasseh was talking about the time he returned from JA having voiced Freddie McGregor, Jahmali and Luciano. It was great to hear that he still had the fire to try to take the music business by storm.
It was Roots Garden Records that actually released the fruits of Nick’s Jamaican adventure. Jon Jones from the Brighton based label also orchestrated our meeting down on the south coast. The main objective was to signal the release of the label’s latest rhythm. However it became an opportunity for them to shed some light on an alliance that has yielded some of the deepest, most consistent and sophisticated Reggae releases of the last few years.
Jon made a cup of tea and explained how the label came into existence,
“Roots Garden, the club, started in ‘95 in Brighton. It was a weekly Reggae session. Through booking sounds and producers I built up a big network of friends who were doing good music and I’d always wanted to start putting out some records. Nick played at the third ever session and continued to come down once or twice a year, so we kept in contact. He gave a few sounds ‘Black Starliner’ by Johnny Osbourne on dubplate and every time I played it people were saying “what’s this? It’s a killer Johnny Osbourne track”. When I thought about starting the label I approached Nick about putting out a new mix as the first Roots Garden release.”
Although Roots Garden was already a trademark for discerning Reggae fans it would still have been difficult to anticipate how well the label would flourish. As Jon admits,
“When I first started it I didn’t envision getting Nick to produce all the music for Roots Garden. I imagined that I’d be approaching different producers and seeing what they had. I’d an idea of the quality I wanted and that it should be melodic music that was in keeping with what Roots Garden was about. With the Brother Culture ‘Dark Side Of Town’, Nick just happened to have it finished. I loved it and said “let’s put it out”.”
Nick had produced an album with Brother Culture, but the release date was delayed, so they picked the track to release as a 7”. It’s an intense and multi-faceted song; an early symbol of one aspect of the Roots Garden rationale. Jon explained
“I didn’t want to be just making music for the UK soundsystem market. I never wanted to put out records that just appealed to the hardcore people. I wanted to put out Reggae tunes that could be played on radio or that people could listen to in their front room.”
“It gets a bit boring if everything you do is about soundsystem. Thats not all it’s about. I guess for me some of the most spiritual reggae music is mellow, and some of the most militant; look at Earl 16’s ‘Malcom X’. Many of the tunes produced at Channel One and mixed at King Tubby’s in the seventies were recorded by singers and bands with great ambition. Bob Marley, Culture and Dennis Brown were all out there doing it, and maybe they could be next. I think Jon has some of that kind of ambition for the label, and I know I do as a musician. The thing about ‘dubplate’ music originally is that it was always a quick early mix before any overdubs (sessions with musicians, backing vocals or whatever) were done. Or maybe as a final thing after you’ve done your main mixes; you might run off some stripped down ones without even thinking about it too much. But for me, and I suspect many of the old school producers, it’s all about that main mix - your original vision for the record. Sound system music, especially in the Shaka style where the sound system is being rassed up a bit, works better when its basically drum and bass and a bit of skank. But it often doesn’t work as well when you’re not listening to a big sound. For me, working with great guitarists (Sadhu-nuff respect!), horn players and percussionists makes the tracks come alive - literally!” ”
Jon and Nick’s discussions had an intellectual cut and thrust. Answers from both were articulate and considered. Almost like a Reggae version of Late Review. We had gathered at Jon’s place in Brighton, a town often perceived as a satellite of London in fashion and attitude. A centre of ‘bohemian chic’. However this was an entirely unpretentious atmosphere. They simply have an affiliation that hinges on a shared musical vision and the collaboration has intensified with time. As Jon confirmed.
“It’s progressed. I met Jah Marnyah and he did ‘Stormy Weather’ as a dubplate for me on a yard rhythm that was out at the time. The vocal really went down well, so I sent it to Nick and he came up with the rhythm track we released. We re-voiced Jah Marnyah at Jamtone in London. I voiced Ras Zacharri down here and Reuben Da Silva who’s a Brighton artist. That was the first rhythm where I had some creative input, in the sense that Nick was sending me mixes and I was giving him feedback. It was nice to have some influence and to create a product together. It’s been a bit of a balance since then. I suggested to Nick that we should do something that was kind of late eighties/ early nineties digi Jammy’s sound and he came up with the ‘Levi’ rhythm.”
By this time Roots Garden Records were really hitting their stride. Even those record buyers who’d managed to sleep on the previous releases had to wake up and take notice. Nick returned from Jamaica so inspired that he attempted the above mentioned foray back into major label territory. When he challenged his connection at Virgin to sponsor a mass market release of the ‘Levi’ rhythm he didn’t quite get what he asked for.
“He said “we’re not going to do that, but you can produce a big chunk of Ava Leigh’s album”. It meant that we got her on the ‘Levi’ rhythm and it was my idea to get her to sing the Gregory Isaacs tune ‘Over The Bridge’ which I’d always loved. It had crossed my mind while I was in Jamaica how right that song would be for that rhythm because it’s got this watery, fluid kind of quality to it. Ava added a real bit of class to it and I knew that Virgin ought to be into us putting that out. They’re pragmatic enough to see that.”
It pleased Jon as well,
“It was good for Roots Garden to be affiliated with a singer who was supporting big name acts like UB40 and getting airplay on Radio One. And we got a female artist on the label which I’d like a bit more of.”
One of the tracks Nick took to Jamaica had already been utilised by the mysterious Bob Skeng for the song ‘The Lion’.
“Skeng came down to my studio in Somerset to see what I had. I’ve worked with him for about twenty years. He’s a total one away! A clever man and you can hear that when you listen to ‘The Lion’. It’s an amazing, an incredible lyric. Everyone who understands Roots music will appreciate that’s a special vocal”.
Jon certainly did,
“When Nick sent me that tune I said it was the deepest vocal he’s ever worked on. I haven’t heard anything that surpasses that lyrically in recent years. From a writing point of view anyway.”
Nick travelled to Jamaica in 2007 with a musical wish list. Right near the top was a desire to voice Freddie McGregor’s ‘Rastaman Camp’ on the rhythm. It was an expedition where plenty went right. Freddie’s new vocal was later released as ‘Rally’. Jahmali recorded the beautiful ‘Jah Works We Tek Up’ and Nick managed to contrive a session with Luciano, an artist he admires very much.
“He’s a totally world class singer. He could be a ‘voice for the world’ like Paul Robeson was. There’s so many great Luciano songs, particularly from his first five years or so; but I always think that it would be great if he worked with some really top writers as well. Carlton Hines from Tetrack is one, or Mikey Bennet.”
This could have made it difficult to accept Jon’s reaction to the track when he first heard it.
“I felt ‘River Jordan’ was too typical of what Luciano does. I felt bad saying that after Nick had gone and worked with such a big artist.”
This could have been a big test of their alliance, but Nick welcomes collaboration and values Jon’s contribution. After some reflection the track was released as a combination with Ras Zacharri. Jon was impressed,
“I thought it was a brave step to voice a big artist and to make it into a combination with someone less well known. Some people would have been adamant about giving the namebrand artist space on the rhythm, but I think it totally made the track.”
“Totally. There’s a lovely in and out place for Ras Zacharri’s vocal. As soon as I thought of making it a combination, I knew where his first bit should end. It wasn’t contrived and Luciano was totally cool about it.”
A backlog of material encouraged them to release two volumes of showcase LPs, but they will be returning to their favoured seven inch format for the new ‘People’ rhythm. Yet again with a Roots Garden release, all the cuts are essential. Nick explained how the recording came about.
“Jon found the Casio keyboard, with ‘Sleng Teng’ on it as a pre-set, at a car boot sale. He gave me the sounds from it, so I just wanted to do something with them.”
Jon was delighted with his find,
“The legendaryMT-40 for five quid! That was kind of the inspiration behind the rhythm. It captures some of the original digi vibe, but it’s contemporary at the same time.”
Dark Angel was the first artist to voice it. Nick was happy with the result,
“It’s an amazing vocal, really powerful. I initially heard of him when I mixed the first record for Foundation Sound. Sammy, the producer, gave him the ‘Levi’ rhythm and he voiced it beautifully. I built a new rhythm track around that vocal which was released on Roots Garden Showcase Volume One and is called ‘Free Da Minds’.
“He’s a bit of an enigma. An amazing artist with really good lyrics and style. But he doesn’t seem that forthcoming in terms of approaching producers or wanting to jump on every rhythm.”
Nick likes his vibes,
“Actually he’s a bit reticent, and it’s a nice quality that. He’s a good artist, based in West London and he’s experimented with the Bashment scene in the recent past.”
Dark Angel’s song is called ‘People Come To’, Bob Skeng returns with a tune called ‘Caution’ and Kenny Knots appears for the first time on Roots Garden. This was important to Jon.
“Kenny Knots is someone I’ve worked with for a few years. He’s come and done events with us down here in Brighton. He’s a singer I’ve always loved. So I’d wanted to do something with him for a while. I knew he liked that kind of late eighties digi style. We booked a session at his studio in East London and both went up. We kinda nailed it in a few hours. He’s quite a perfectionist and very disciplined. What people don’t realise about him is that he’s been to college and done sound engineering. He’s interested in the whole production process. He’s not just a singer.”
It was difficult to equate the man sitting alongside me with the voice from the fabled Manasseh radio show on Kiss FM. To me it had seemed such an intoxicating broadcast; beaming the throbbing pulse of London’s Roots scene directly into our homes. An electrifying crackle of excitement in the dark and untamed hours before dawn. Yet Nick is such a languid character. Unassuming and with nothing to prove. He’s clearly not feeling any pressure and is enjoying life and music. It was only when he popped up as a guest and ran selection on the Sufferah’s Choice show the following week that the memories of those eight inspirational years he had on the radio came flooding back.
The ambition and entrepreneurial energy appears to emanate from Jon, the younger half of the team. Drive and self confidence must have been essential because, as he explained, promoting Reggae in Brighton was no easy ride.
“I don’t know if Reggae is that popular here. Brighton isn’t hugely multicultural. There isn’t a big black population or many Jamaican people, but it is a music capital and a party town. People are spoilt for choice. As a promoter you’ve really got to be on the ball. It’s a transient place with two universities; every year you’ve got new students, including a big percentage from abroad. Going back to the seventies there was a sound here called King Tafari Love which was affiliated to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Gussie P used to supply their dubs in the eighties when they played big dances across the country and blues parties around town. Reuben Da Silva learned to sing on that sound. By the mid nineties there was a hardcore of about two or three hundred people on the Roots scene. They were really into the Steppers thing and would go to Jah Shaka and a local sound called Good Vibes Uprising who’s dances were really well attended. By 1995 when we started Roots Garden I was checking for a lot more than just UK Steppers. We decided to market it as an accessible Reggae night and just keep the music policy Roots. It drew a mix of students, old Reggae heads and people from the Steppers scene. It grew from there and became a staple weekly event where people knew they could get quality music and guest selectors once a month.”
Nick Manasseh always enjoyed his guest appearances at the club and paid tribute to Jon’s achievements with it.
“There’s a diverse Roots scene here in Brighton because Roots Garden have made it happen. When King Tafari were playing back in the eighties they were doing it for a strictly Rasta crowd. There wasn’t anyone doing it for the mixed crowd. Jon did Roots Garden - that’s why it’s here”.
‘El Toro’ by Etherealites, which Roots Garden released in 2007, is such a hit with a mixed crowd that Nick still gives it a spin nearly every time he plays out.
The weekend after we met, the League One football fixtures pitted Brighton & Hove Albion against Southend United. In UK Reggae this represents one seaside Roots strong-hold against another. Southend have the upper hand in football terms but it’s the music coming from Roots Garden that stands out.
Nick thinks he knows why,
“The music we’re doing might stand out a bit because there’s always good players on it. Even if its only one other person apart from me, it makes such a difference: Sadhu’s guitar on ‘Over the Bridge’ for example. On “Rally” there’s Earl 16 and me on backing vox, Idris Rahman (from Soothsayers) on flute and Jonah Dan on percussion.”
Jon speculated that a lack of new Roots tunes from Jamaica might have an impact on the scene,
“Europe is feeding off what happened in England in the past, during the ‘golden generation’ of the early nineties. There’s a lot of nostalgia for that era of minimal UK Dub. If there was more good music coming out of Jamaica it would be more healthy”.
Nick has always been a champion of Jamaican music,
“There’s definitely a lull at the moment. The musical community in Jamaica is absolutely tiny. The amount of people making music is as small as it’s ever been. A depression has swept over that community and people don’t know what to do. Generally speaking, we’re more affluent in this country so people can have a job and release the odd tune or whatever. Jamaicans have been used to getting paid for their music, so this crisis in the music business is different for them. But there’s still good stuff coming out. I love Collie Buddz, Queen Ifrica and Busy Signal.”
Nick has been in the music business since 1985 and has experienced massive changes since then. He’s not too perturbed by the current situation and indulged in some speculation about how the Reggae scene might evolve.
“This is just off the top of my head. But that kind of hardcore minimal Dub from the early days will begin to go more with Dubstep, because a lot of the Dubstep DJs also like UK Dub. That will cause a divergence and it will separate more from UK, Jamaican and American Roots - the kind of stuff that’s all about the song, not just about Dub. So what I’m saying is that there’ll be a difference between the Roots Reggae and the Dub and Dubstep”.
This view was uttered with optimism rather than dread. Less a warning and more an invitation to come and enjoy the view.
A strong partnership has been cultivated on the south coast. There’s every reason to expect that the new crops will be as good, if not better, than the last. All in the Roots Garden is rosy.