Interview with I Kong (Part II)
04/24/2015 by Angus Taylor
In part two [read part one here] of our interview with I Kong we discuss how he made his classic album The Way It Is and his new album A Little Walk…
How did you link up with the 12 Tribes musicians in the early to mid-70s? Were you involved with the organisation?
Actually I was never involved with 12 Tribes. I had brethrens who were 12 Tribes. If memory serves me right then at one time Bob was associated with 12 Tribes when they were known as Chapter 13. It was years after that I realised that. My brethrens were 12 Tribes but I never liked the idea of a join up business because anything join pop off! but I had these brethrens and I used to go with them. Plus when I used to go to Trench I used to smoke with the most notorious men of the time – Feathermop – who was the don for Jungle. Feather, for some reason he just loved me. He used to like my spirit and I used to smoke the chalice with him so every time I used to go there I would drop off my brethrens at the 12 Tribe place and go there.
Ironically it was me that got blamed years later saying it was that made them have to chase them out of there but it was nothing like that. For many years some 12 Tribes people had me off, not knowing that Jah Love the owner was my schoolmate Earl Belcher. Because a lot of people don’t know that Belcher used to be a fantastic middle distance runner – one of the best school boys ever. I Lawi – Albert Malawi – we grew up together. So those things never troubled I and I but some people out there did have it until one day it came to a head and one of my rudeboy brethren boxed off the turntable record and scratched one of Earl’s prized records which I was really pissed about. So we had to really thrash it out and make them know “Yow, nothing like that”.
Why was this happening?
Because, Jamaica had this politics thing PNP and JLP and it was rumoured that the JLP were using 12 Tribes to infiltrate into Jungle. So when the Junglist them chased them out now they blamed me naturally because of the guy I used to smoke herb with and because I wasn’t really a 12 Tribe member even though my brethrens were 12 Tribes. Like my brethren Desi who is now down in Shashamane – when Selassie gave them the land in Shashamane he was one of the first persons who went out there and since then I have not heard from him. Jah bless him wherever he is. So they blamed me unfortunately but I didn’t make those things.
You were also working with Vivian Jackson AKA Yabby You.
I used to do background vocals for Yabby You and the Prophets because Yabby You used to live near me when I was living off Molynes Road. We were very, very close and we used to go to U Roy every morning to lick chalice before we went out on the road. I did harmonies on Chant Down Babylon and I did a lot of his horns arrangements for Yabby. He always said he liked how I arranged horns.
You were also good friends with Bunny Rugs of Third World during this period – you sang with him as Ricky and Bunny.
Bunny and myself we grow up together. Clarkie as we’d call him. If Clarkie hadn’t made it as a singer he would have been a great comedian. Very funny.
He was a painter as well.
He was. And myself. I did the art thing but I left that out years ago. Bunny lived with me for nearly five years. We used to sleep on the same bad until one day we said “Rasta, if someone comes in and see’s two man sleep in the same bed they go think we funny” so we sold the damn bed. I bought the bed for $3000 and sold it for $300. We put a mat on the floor – not even a mattress but a Mexican mat and put two rock stones as pillows. That’s why me and Bunny always loved that song by Bob. We used to say “Bob a sing that but we do it!” We used to go by Lee Scratch Perry who we had known many years before and then Bunny did a song for Scratch called Sweet Caroline. A lot of people don’t that was the beginning of Bunny Rugs’ career. We used go jam with Scratch and Scratch used to love us because we had the same vibe musically. So I would hear all these things and see the changes go through the Upsetters. Because Boris Gardiner did a lot of bass work for Scratch.
Yes he did.
Incidentally the original bass line for Small Axe was actually done by my good friend Winston Wright.
Yes, a lot of people don’t know he was a good bass man. So we were there one day and we did a record named Bushweed and Corntrash as Ricky and Bunny – me singing the lead and Bunny harmonising. We did that song because we used to smoke so much that people used to tease us “Pure bush weed and corntrash” because we used to smoke the herb in the corntrash. We did that song one evening for Lee Scratch Perry and he and I actually did the production on that. But Scratch’s name was there as producer – all part of the game and thing.
So anyway after we had done Bushweed Corntrash maybe a year before Scratch said “Ricky, Bunny me have this riddim I think would suit you”. When he started playing the rhythm I realised it was Junior Byles Beat Down Babylon rhythm and then I just started singing this tune “I and I A Freedom Fighter” it just came out. He said “That man! That we fi do. Finish write it tonight and we do it tomorrow”. So the whole night me and Bunny lay down in bed harmonising upon the floor with the rockstone pillow and the music came naturally. I would say I did 80% of the writing. The other 20% was shared between Scratch and Bunny in the studio – little minor one word changes. By the time we went back the next day we had it packed man. We did about two cuts and did it. Freedom Fighter. Which incidentally was about Tivoli Gardens and it was even a forerunner of the incursion that occurred at Tivoli again. That song was also instrumental in Scratch’s so called burning down of the Black Ark.
A lot of people didn’t know that. There was a lot of political vibes coming up to the 1980 election which was hot like fire. Scratch was getting flak from both PNP and JLP which I did not know until years later. I started talking to certain people and they said “So you did that tune with Bunny Rugs which went to rahtid and that’s why Scratch burn it down”. It started leaking out hearing from the PNP and JLP because I used to move amongst the rudeboys of both camps. Because I’m a people person and if you don’t fight against me I got nothing against you. You’re my brethren and I got nothing against you. You and society go fight but we no go fight.
So what happened to your solo career in the mid-70s between finishing your singles with Warwick Lynn and The Way It Is album in 1976?
The funny thing is all those years after I did those songs, to me they never made the splash that I thought they would have made. So I was sort of disillusioned in a way but I never gave up. But then I started drifting from the Father’s work which was the message that he gave me to carry on from The Way It Is 45. I did not fulfil it. I was like Jonah who was sent to Nineveh to warn and Jonah ran away and they put Jonah in the belly of the whale. I was like that. I ran away from His work. Actually I don’t see it as a work. I see it as a movement, a message that I had to carry. I ran away from that and started doing things which I wouldn’t want to talk about now.
To do with politics?
I was never a politician. I liked one set of people but even from back in the days up until now I can go anywhere I want to go. I have friends who are Labourites, friends who are PNP. I’m a people man. I have my opinions and of course, naturally, you should have your opinions too but you shouldn’t fight me and I shouldn’t fight you. Tappa Zukie comes to mind as one of my best brethrens. We love each other like good food. Claudie Massop was also one of my good brethrens and Claudie was the don for Tivoli and as I said Feather, Burry and all the Junglists. So I was here there and everywhere - Wareika – all over. I’m not a politician and I don’t really care who I know. They were my brethren. Jah says if a man don’t fight you, you don’t fight him. They used to value my reasoning and they loved my music. Even badmen love music. This thing even comes from the Bible because remember when King Saul was a badman and he had a rage where he went and killed a whole heap of people, the only one who could calm him down was David the Psalmist playing upon the harp. Which would be like a singer now playing on the guitar. It’s the same thing. “Nothing is new under the sun”, Solomon said it.
So how did you come back into the music?
Actually the first works that I did after those 45s mentioned before with Warwick and Tommy was The Way It Is project with Jah Mikes. My brother who is my junior by one year, Vincent, his wife Ruby had some brothers and one of the brothers was and Mike Lee – Jah Mikes – were friends. So he told Mike about his brother in law as he would call me, saying “Bwoy, the man can sing and have music Rasta and thing” and Mikey said he wanted to meet me. Mikey came to my yard and we hit it off instantly. Although Mike has more Chinese in him than I, we thought the same way. We saw things through the same mind’s eye. We just had a natural coming together.
Now a lot of people don’t know this and I hope it reaches the world, but Mike Lee – Jah Mikes – was the executive producer for the album The Way It Is – done in 1976. A lot of people say 1978 but it was actually 1976. He was the executive producer. He borrowed the money from his father to finance maybe three quarters if not all of the album works that we did which cost us a ton of money back in those days. Because up to now people say “The Way It Is – there is not a second album like it out there”. Robbie Lyn would tell you if he was here that I used so many horns that when he came in the studio he saw so much horns he turned idiot! Eight or nine hornsmen all upon the session all at once. But I like that full sound because it has a heavenly vibe.
Sounds like those sessions were quite an experience.
Yes. The album concept was mine. I saw that in my mind’s eye. Father gave me all of that and I just told them. All the arrangements came in my head as I heard it. The lyrics I had been doing for years and years because all these songs kept coming up in my head and I kept singing them. We used to rehearse some of them when I was with the group the Jamaicans and others came after I left the group. It just naturally evolved. The way it was, was a magical thing.
Most of them claim “I Kong, it was a party him have in the studio”. Byron Lee one time when he was in Nassau he heard I burned down the studio. Because this guy, apparently he got a message and when he opened up the door the amount of ganja we were smoking and the amount of smoke coming out meant he thought the studio caught fire and called Byron Lee saying the studio was burning down – the idiot! Byron Lee cussed me because Byron is a man who cussed bad words like me. I said “How can the man tell you I burned down the studio when I was using the studio? What kind of idiotness that?” It was magical. I enjoyed it.
Who was playing on The Way It Is album? Familyman was playing bass.
Yes, Family Man, Robert Lyn, Geoffrey Chung, Mikey Mau Chung and all the great hornsmen – Tommy McCook, Headley Bennett, Marquis, because I grew up with that era and loved them. Fil Callender. He played the drums on the album version because when we went to the studio the fools them locked up the instruments so we couldn’t find any drum sticks. Fil said “Watch ya man. Find two hanger ginny” and that’s why it has that different sound! If you listen to the drums on The Way It Is album it has a different sound to any other drums because of the sticks that Fil was using.
Well he was always trying something different!
Yeah, that’s Fil. I had about eight engineers on – Sylvan Morris, Stephen Stanley and Lee Perry too. Pablove Black played organ, Bunny Rugs played guitar – if I was to give credit to everyone on that album we would be here the next five years! (Laughs)
Did you take the name I Kong before you started that project?
Right when I started that project. Actually, Mikey had a hand in that and also Jahnoi the photographer who took that picture. Because the first time I performed as I Kong was when Sly and Robbie did this big show at the National Arena in 1978-79. That was the first time I came out as I Kong in my Chinese attire, barefoot. Because that’s the way I saw it. Mikey and myself reasoned it out. Mikey flew in the costumes. We had to get a local tailor to make some little adjustments. But that was the first time I presented myself as I Kong on stage and it went down very well.
You were reclaiming the different aspects of yourself into this identity.
That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Because Ricky Storm was a nom de plume. Kong is my name so Mikey said “I Kong man. I the Kong”. I said “Drop out ‘the’, put ‘I Kong’”.
When the project was finished – what happened next?
(laughs uncontrollably) It’s a mystery you know, my brother! I gave the album to Tommy Cowan to distribute. Because a lot of people out there think Tommy Cowan produced the album. Tommy never had anything to do with the Way It Is album. Not one damn thing other than he did The Way It Is 45 original which was a different version with Cat Coore playing the guitar. We gave it to Tommy to distribute on his Top Ranking label. I never even knew how it reached England. We were young and foolish and didn’t know that side of the business. I still don’t know a lot of the thing. I am supposed to be the most pirated artist from those times until now. I didn’t make any money out of that thing. Mikey made no money. Man said “Bwoy, that music was supposed to sell millions but it can’t because of this and that and the amount of people who have it out”. In the past, to be truthful, I was angry. I was very disillusioned but as you grow older and you grow more wisdom I can say “Well at least I got a little recognition” and this is laying the foundation for the works I am doing now that my son can benefit from.
So after the election in 1980 the music began to change. How did you react to that?
Change is life is inevitable. People don’t see it that way most of the time but it is. It’s a natural progression of man’s livity. Changes have to come. The change that I didn’t like and I still don’t like up to now is when after Bob’s demise the dancehall thing came in. What I really didn’t like and still don’t like about dancehall is that it took on much more of an overtone of violence. The sex I could deal with but the violence was contrary to what I’ve always been singing and what Rastafari is all about. I still have a grouse with that and I think that’s when we drifted. But musically I didn’t mind the changes.
When I said musically I meant the lyrical content.
The lyrical content is what I have a grouse with – not the music. I like what’s been done with the music. To be fair when I hear people talk about dancehall now in its current form it is not reggae. It has nothing to do with reggae. I don’t care who wants to say what – I will stand by what I say and defend it. It is not reggae what is being done in the dancehalls now. They have used too much of the American hip hop influence and diluted it to nothing. Dancehall music is drum and bass – the roots of reggae. If you’re not playing that hard core drum and bass you’re not playing reggae. So don’t come dilute it and pretty it up and come talk about reggae.
Back in the day when it was U Roy, Dennis Alcapone, Super Cat, Shabba, General Trees, Lone Ranger, those guys. All those deejays – to me that was dancehall. It was kicking up a rumpus in all its glory. But then it started going down that lane of hip hop influence. That’s one thing about Jamaica, we love to copy. But one thing I have noticed is every time we have done over a foreign song most times it’s better than the original. Whether reggae, rocksteady or whatever, we have that knack.
In my interview with Kiddus I he said he saw Michael Smith the day he died and recited a poem to him. But you also saw him that same fateful day in August 1983.
Yes! He had left Kiddus I and come to me. Mikey has always been one of my closest brethren from back in the day along with Stafford Ashanti Harrison and Jerry Small. Mikey he had his political views which were in line with my political views at the time! He would come by my house in Stoney Hill and chant his poetry and we’d jam and play drums with Chris Stanley. He had just left my house and went to Stoney Hill when he got in this confrontation with the politician guys from the other party and they stoned him to death in the square. I couldn’t believe it.
There have been various reissues of The Way It Is over the years. How did these labels get hold of the album?
It’s a long story mix up. I have a brethren I remember who said that one version that came out was Bob’s former chef Gilly – he put it out. I remember Mikey and myself one day said we were going to look for Gilly. Gilly said he loved the album and we had it on cassettes and he asked if he could keep one of the cassettes. Which is why when it came out people said the quality was not great. Things like those. You get burned but we give thanks that we are still alive and we live to fight another day.
Wasn’t there also an album called Africa Calling that Gilly put out as well?
That was the Way It Is in Gilly’s version. That’s what I found out later. I have never spoken to Gilly since then and we have never been in contact. I have no animosity towards him on that. Probably if we meet now we’ll laugh and smoke a chalice. That’s just how I am.
So was Gilly responsible for VP getting it in 2006?
No. VP was given it by Tommy Cowan. Tommy came to me and said “Kong, you know the man there want it” because I know them from Randy’s days and I think we have some blood relations between Jason and myself. I said “Alright” and he said we’d get a little change off it. But I don’t know the arrangements that were made because I’m not like that. I don’t want to be seen to be a money shark who runs down money. I don’t need money. Everyone needs money but I see myself as, if I put the money first my music is going to suffer. The work that the Father gave I to do is going to suffer. So I don’t jump too much on the money although I realise that’s a wrong thing I do because I have youths them who could have benefitted.
What records did you put out in the 80s?
I did music but a lot of them weren’t put out. That’s why some came out on the Forgotten Man album. I did Children Of The Night where everyone said “Bwoy, I Kong, I cyaan believe you sing that song deh. It’s one of the best switches from tenor to falsetto – it’s flawless”. But I’ve always had that knack of singing those things. I was nurtured and rounded by Martin Williams who taught us harmony. I owe him a lot and I can’t talk enough about Martin. He was dear to my heart. He is the eldest member of the group the Jamaicans. He’s in his 70s now. God bless him and I’m so glad he’s still with us. I’m a person who loves to talk about people like those. I don’t hold back. I don’t have any selfishness with me because they were there – why shouldn’t I talk of it? If I can help in any way I will help. Even if it means I don’t have anything left that’s how it goes. They were there so I’m going to talk about them.
In ’88 I did the original Sir Gilbert for Hurricane Gilbert. I have the rhythm here. It was actually done before Lovindeer’s but Lovindeer’s one came out before ours but because his was getting so much airplay that we said “Nah, we nah go put it out”. But my one was so much more rootsier and actually had sounds like a hurricane and waves and lightning. It was a mystic. Winston and myself did it in his bedroom and then we went to Dynamics and we did it. In the 90s I recorded Children of the Night and all those things but I never put them out until the 2000s.
The digital thing in the 80s meant all the musicians you loved to interact with stopped working so much.
Well I’ve always recorded with live musicians. I’ve never deviated. The Forgotten Man album which I put out which was a remix of some of The Way It Is plus some that were never released before was Sly, and Jackie Jackson playing over the original bass lines that Family Man did, I had Gitzroy Hamilton as my guitarist, Winston Wright as my keyboardist and also Carl Ayton. We went to Switzerland but we got ripped on that album but it was an experience.
The Forgotten Man project was your first official album project after The Way It Is. How did that happen?
I met a brethren by the name of George Campbell who is known in the States as Sheribia because his religion is Hebrew. Shaquille’s mom, my lady knew of him before and she introduced me to him. He got to love my music when he heard it and he decided to try a thing but he wasn’t a producer and he didn’t have the finances to do it. He tried but when you don’t have the money you get squeezed as usual. We put it out with Tropical Sunset Records but when we gave it to Tropical Sunset to do the distribution we never got a statement. So that was the next downer. But as I said, all these things are like stepping stones to where I’m at right now. Earlier in my life I would have become very disillusioned but now I see them as like lights, like the stars in the sky, that light the ways.
How have you survived outside of music?
Well as I said, Father gave me works to do which I left to do other things which I don’t want to talk about. Suffice it to say it might have been a little outside of the law! Everyone in Jamaica, we survive, we make do. But it’s nothing like killing a man or robbing a man. Nothing like that. But that’s how I survived. People who have known me over the years. People I have known over the years have [helped me] in little ways. Then I went to St Elizabeth and built this house. That’s when Shaq was born. I have been there twenty odd years. Leaving Kingston was a blessing in disguise. Because if I was in Kingston still maybe I could have lost my life or maybe I could be abroad like the rest of the acts.
Why did you leave?
I was getting disillusioned but I realised it was not what Father God wanted. So I was returning back to my roots so to speak. Just like Jonah was told to go to Nineveh to warn them and when he switched Jah punished him. It was like Jah punished me still by not letting me achieve from all these things. But suffice it to say that I’ve weathered the storm and I’m better for it now. I have more understanding of myself. I have my God. I have his work. And people like the I, and people that I meet every day of my life.
Your son Shaquille is building a studio in St Elizabeth.
I just assist him in any way I can. Because a lot of doors have been opening for him because I’m his father and musicians like Flabba and Robert Lyn who Shaquille calls Uncle Robert and Sly, the whole of them love him. He is way ahead of me in terms of the music thing. He can put it together and he can read music a little and play the thing. So we have started to get the thing in place. It was the garage we have converted into the studio. It has a voicing booth, a place where we can play live instruments and we are putting things like we need carpeting. It takes a lot of money and we don’t really have it. If Father God comes at the right time and I can hold some change hopefully I can invest some in it.
My son is doing some work with Clive Hunt and Jah Mikes and he has been linking with Scientist. My next project is the Mystic Warrior album and Scientist will be involved in that on the engineering side and also Stephen Stanley. Stephen is from the old school. They like his vibe, they love the thing he’s doing and he’s putting up his studio in St Elizabeth and Lloyd Parks and all of them are saying “Whappen Skunga? Why we no come in the studio Rasta? If we no bless it, it no blessed”. That will be something. I want to have the opening – whatever session we do it is going to be live. We will send it out to the world live straight from the studio. That’s what we are planning. It’s going to be special I know that. God willing, I’ll be there.
In the meantime you have a new album – A Little Walk with Switzerland’s Najavibes
I’m very upbeat and proud of this work. I met these youths through Leroy Horsemouth Wallace the great drummer. Horsey and I have been friends for I don’t even know how long. Because all these years the people who know me as a singer have never yet even one day said “Come open a show for me” – never. Leroy, through all these years has always spoken good to me and always remembered me. He used to play for me and now he is training these youth Najavibes and grooming them in reggae. Apparently they were having some discussion a couple of days before he was to leave them and go join the next band – because that’s what Horsey does now, he plays for other bands on the festival circuit in Europe. So apparently they were talking and saying “We want to go to Jamaica and record there and we want to find I Kong”. He said “You want to find I Kong? Four days before I came to Switzerland I was talking to I Kong – here is his number”.
So Mathias called me on a Sunday saying they were going to Mixing Lab to record on Monday. When they called me I didn’t have a cent in my pocket, I couldn’t move. If I needed a cent to save my life I was dead. I didn’t have $2000 to take a taxi into town and I was thinking how I would go hustle to get the money to do it. But I couldn’t let him know that so I said “I can’t make it til after Monday”. He said “How about Tuesday?” and I thought if I turn him down for Monday and turn him down for Tuesday it would feel like I was killing the vibes so I said “That’s alright”. I came in, they did the recording of the rhythms the Monday, I met him at Small World down Bravo at Charles Street. On the Tuesday I voiced two songs that evening and I did the other four the next day which was the Wednesday. And the rest is history.
How do you feel about this album?
I’ll tell you something. I hear people say “White people can’t play this, white people can’t play that, you have to record a yard”. But suffice it to say that these youths, what they have done on these rhythms is the closest to back in the days of the 70s. The album was incidentally mixed by Roberto Sanchez and he is good. When a man is good you don’t try to hide – you give him his due.
This album is really as mini album because it has ten tracks – six vocals and four dub mixes. But I love them. Of the six tracks, I wrote one with the band. I don’t remember the name because and Mathias said “You want to name the songs?” and I said “I’ve named two already – you name the rest". I named the title track A Little Walk, which, incidentally, was not made for the rhythm which I sang it on for this project. I had to chop it up because the song is not the entire song. So it was special and he chose it as the title track and it fit it. There’s only one lovers rock on it – which when I was going to voice it as I put on the headphones I saw Shaquille’s mom, my lady, it was like she appeared in front of me smiling so I just started singing When I See You Smile – that’s the name of the song. It’s very special and it’s nice.
I will be leaving Jamaica on 8th April for the album release on the 17th and the next day the 18th will be my Earth Day. So they have given me a birthday present and I love the guys for that. Then I come back home at the end of May from Switzerland and then I fly out between 1st-3rd June for the European tour of Rototom and all of them. Most of the big shows across Europe. I give thanks for my first tour in nearly 50 years. It’s been a long road but nothing before the time.
Photos by Veronique Skelsey