Forty years ago this month, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell introduced the world to Bob Marley and the Wailers with the groundbreaking album Catch a Fire. The seminal work smoothly blended pop and protest with a slow, syncopated shuffle. It broke racial, religious and musical barriers and put Marley on the map.
Now, half a century after the famed producer got his start selling ska singles out of the back of his Mini Cooper, Blackwell shows no signs of slowing down. Rolling Stone called him in Paris and he paused to chat about the new wave of Jamaican music, being saved by Rastafarians, making rum and how Fats Domino helped pave the way for reggae.
What are your thoughts about Catch a Fire 40 years after its release?
I think Catch a Fire is fantastic. I think it’s really stood up well. When it was finished and coming out, I was really excited. I felt it would be a really important album. I thought very early that it would sell a million copies. But it took a good few years to sell a million. The first six or eight months, it was very disappointing because you have none of the things going for you like singles. They didn’t get radio play. And they weren’t really touring at first, either. So, the album was really based on the merits of its own content until it started to build a following.
A few months later, you followed up Catch a Fire with Burnin’. How does that album hold up?
I never felt that Burnin’ was an album that had the same point of view as all the others. It seemed a bit scattered. It didn’t play like a single. Catch a Fire plays like a single. Burnin’ never played like Exodus, Kaya, Survival or Natty Dread. It was definitely the weakest one, but only because it had no focus. I thought it was a bit distracted.
Has Jamaican music changed much in the 40 years since you released Catch a Fire?
It’s changed a lot musically. It’s been through a process. It went from reggae in the Seventies to dance hall, and that became really huge. Then dubstep came, and that had some Jamaican elements to it. Now, there’s a whole new wave of artists, songwriters, actors, musicians. There’s a really creative new wave emerging in Jamaica right now.
Can you give some examples?
There’s a guy called Chronixx I think is really great. There’s a band called the No-Maddz who are more like theater than a group. They’re actors. It’s this whole audio-visual kind of thing. It’s different. But they’re really good, really talented and really smart. There’s the band called Raging Fyah that has the essence of classic reggae, but it doesn’t sound like old music from 50-odd years ago. Then there’s also the oldie but goodie, Shaggy. He’s doing some great music. Those four are good examples. They also happen to be groups I’m talking to. So, check them out.
Speaking of signing groups, is it true that you once passed on Dire Straits?
It was more like they passed on me. I had the opportunity to see them playing at a pub. They were playing downstairs, but I never went downstairs because I saw some people upstairs. My wife at the time said, “You should come down, these people are really great.” But I didn’t come down, I kept talking to the people upstairs. You know, one thing led to another and I was there longer than I intended to be. And when I went downstairs they were finished. They were really pissed off.
Why were you known in the music business as “the Croc”?
That was mainly the people at Polygram. They thought that I was, well, whatever a crocodile represents. It was just playing fun.
What else are you working on these days?
I’m working a lot in hospitality and agriculture. We’re trying to get Jamaicans that have traveled abroad to get experience to come back and work and live in Jamaica. We’ve found some chefs already. But we are always looking. Now, I spend a lot of time looking for bartenders. I’m also operating an organic [company] that supplies my hotels. My concept is to come stay with us and to eat very good fresh food. It all starts with the food and the quality of the food.
What’s the difference between running a farm and producing an album?
Everything grows very, very fast in the tropics. It’s amazing how fast things grow. And it’s a lot of work. You have to keep on it. Running a farm is about solving a problem and that’s always interesting to me. But it’s a constant process. It’s something I enjoy. It’s kind of like producing an album and keeping it on track. But when an album is finished, it stays finished. With a farm, nothing is ever finished.
Why is your hotel, Strawberry Hill, popular with musicians?
It was a coffee plantation and a very iconic property just behind Kingston, 3,100 feet up and only half an hour away. It’s incredibly beautiful. It has a totally different temperature; the air is completely different. It feels like you’ve gone to another country when you go there. Over the years, lots of musicians have come and done lots of recordings. The Rolling Stones did a video there. Peter Tosh did a video there. When Bob Marley was shot in an attempted assassination in 1976, I took him up to Strawberry Hill to recover. He went down three days later and did the concert. You could say it’s restorative.
What’s the connection between rum and music in Jamaica?
In the late 1950s, the liquor store owners also owned the sound systems. When dance halls were booked out, they would take the bar and the person that booked them took the gate. They’d also get a fee. They played kind mostly American music, what they called at the time “race” music – a lot of jazz and groove kind of music like Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” They also played a lot of records from New Orleans, particularly Fats Domino, who was incredibly popular in Jamaica. If you listen to his records, they have a lot of that shuffle rhythm. It’s that shuffle rhythm that Jamaicans initially tried to emulate. That was the sort of ska sound. It started there.
It’s come full circle now that you have your own brand of rum, hasn’t it?
That’s funny. I haven’t thought of that. Yes. Well, a friend of mine suggested the idea make rum. He said dark rum was the next big thing. I doubted it at the time because it was lighter rum that sold. Anyway, he thought I should put out a rum in my name. My grandfather owned a rum company in Jamaica. So it was a curious chain of events. It’s going slowly, but it’s doing well. I wanted it to go slow. I wanted to see if people genuinely like it. It’s exciting. It’s like a hit record. It’s feeling like a hit record. I’m enjoying it.
Is it true that Rastafarians once saved your life after you were stranded on a mangrove island?
Yes. In 1958, I was stranded in a mangrove very far from anywhere. I walked for miles and miles to find someone. I was literally dying of thirst. I came across a little clearing and in the clearing was a little hut. I called out and this Rasta man poked his head through the window. At the time Rastafarians were really ostracized in Jamaica. They were totally outside the system and considered very dangerous. I recently read about how seriously badly people treated them, how they had no rights. Anyway, I remember at the time I was terrified of the man. But I was dying of thirst so I asked him for water. He gave me some water in a gourd and he was as sweet and gentle as any man could be. I laid down and fell asleep. After several hours I woke up and there were several of them surrounding me and I got terrified all over again. But that was just for a minute. Eventually, one of them took me back. It had a profound impact on me, and changed how I saw Rastafarians.