Lester Sterling, the celebrated saxophonist trained at Kingston’s famous Alpha Boys School and member of the legendary Skatalites, didn’t realize Jamaican music pioneer Prince Buster was so multitalented when he first met him. None of the big producers in the 1950s and Sixties, after all, were also musicians, singers or performers.
“Everything he was doing at the time was good,” Sterling tells Rolling Stone. “He excited the dance world and the crowd! People would start shuffling — doing all kinds of moves, shaking a leg. Because he was doing what people loved.” He fondly recalls the recording of 1968’s “They Got To Come,” noting, “That’s when I saw him sing. It came out so good.”
From biking around Kingston delivering records by hand to becoming one of the foundational giants in Jamaican music, Cecil “Prince Buster” Campbell, who died on Thursday, left an enormous legacy as the King of Ska. The musician’s telltale bounce and clap of Jamaican ska is unmistakably as unique as its creator.
Campbell entered the public consciousness at a key time — in the years before Jamaican independence on August 6th, 1962. “Jamaicans were copying R&B style to keep current,” Herbie Miller, curator and director of the Jamaica Music Museum in Kingston and former manager of both Peter Tosh and the Skatalites, tells Rolling Stone. “This form of music was on the wane in the United States; the fans had moved on. In Jamaica, the fans were still into that kind music so [there was an] attempt to use local musicians to continue that flow of music — not identical, but close enough.”
Campbell, however, was different, playing music for the people, by the people. Departing from a reliance on American music, he “created a more indigenous music,” explains Miller. Tapping into a sensibility shared by many Jamaicans in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Campbell drew from the Afro-Jamaican spiritual movements of Revival, the Native Baptists, and Pentacostalism.
“He was feeding the spirit sound and coming with a lot of clapping and stomping,” says Miller. On tracks like the Folkes Brothers’ “Oh Carolina,” produced by Campbell and featuring a Rastafari adaptation of African drumming, Campbell was able to connect these spiritual and cultural sounds with the commercial market.
“This is ritual music and really endeared him to the public,” Miller says. “When you think of a song like [Campbell’s 1966 hit] ‘Hard Man fe Dead’ and you think of the Jamaican relationship to funerals and duppies [ghosts] and the anecdotal stories that surrounds that sort of thing, you are getting a feel that Buster touched a chord beyond the rhythm and dancing. It is going straight to the very fundamentals of African Christianity throughout the country and the diaspora.”
“He knew he came from the motherland — the heritage. It was there in the cellular level. He was a visionary. A man who could stand on his own two feet,” adds his son, Sultan Ali. “He brought in the ska rhythm. No one believed in it, but he was relentless and strong and his music catalysed the prospect of so-called independence. He stood alone until the people woke up to what his was doing.”
As a precursor to Bob Marley’s mixture of Rastafari belief and music, Campbell paved the way for this combination of popular songs and spirituality. He drew from Afro-Caribbean Christian tradition, though eschewed the Rastafarianism practiced by many Jamaican musicians in favor of Islam. (Campbell converted after meeting Muhammad Ali and subsequently became a follower of Elijah Mohammed and a Nation of Islam representative in Jamaica.)
Though not sharing the religion of the majority of Jamaicans, he maintained popularity through his awareness of injustice and praise of black consciousness. His series of Judge Dread songs act together as a one-man theatre piece in which Buster takes on the persona of a judge who adds hundreds of years of punishment for crimes — especially those committed against black people. Equally powerful with lyrics, storytelling, and instrumental music, Campbell had success with all three.
Vocal and production talents aside, Campbell was also a sound system pioneer, innovating the mobile discos that were set up in empty yards and lots across the island nighly since the 1950s. Calling his sound “The Voice of the People,” Campbell challenged the three mighty sound systems of the time: Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat, Duke Reid the Trojan and King Edwards the Giant. These battle royales were precursors of the sound clashes that continue today.
Campbell always held his ground, dealing crucial blows such as “Downbeat Burial” while jovially channeling sexual innuendo and suggestiveness as on “Wreck a Pum Pum.” After massive homeland success, Campbell was able to take his music from Jamaica to the UK, eventually becoming the figurehead of a whole new ska movement. His image became synonymous with 2 Tone British ska artists in the late 1970s, including the Specials and Madness (the latter taking their name from Campbell’s famous political song of the same name).
Campbell was a model of an artist that could do everything: be the producer, sing the songs, act as sound system selector, distribute music and own your own store. And all this is in addition to creating a genre of music. He showed how self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial ability came together. As Miller puts it, “he controlled his own destiny.”
“My father came from nothing,” Sultan Ali tells Rolling Stone. “All he had was a vision and a burning desire. The others had money. He persevered until he won the hearts of the people.” And he won the hearts of the people through music. As his son succinctly puts it, “Anyone who stands still to a ska rhythm is dead.”
But Prince Buster transcends music. Certainly, as Miller says, “If we should only rate him from a musical point of view, he is already a giant. But if we should look at his influence beyond music? Here is a young man with a whole heap of charisma; one who believes that through his music and his lifestyle, he could inspire black people in Jamaica and in the diaspora. To make them understand self-identity, self-worth, who you are as a black person in the New World and your connectivity to the Old World.”