Labeled the “Jamaican Bob Dylan”, and one of the first Jamaican exports to hit the shores of the UK, Jimmy Cliff was instrumental in introducing reggae to the world. After a disagreement as to how the artist saw his career versus how the label saw it, Cliff broke ties with Chris Blackwell and Island Records, in pursuit of his own dreams. (Blackwell, meanwhile put his efforts behind a young Bob Marley.) As Cliff was poised to ascend to become one of reggae’s earliest spokesmen, he turned his eye and ear towards soul.
Working with the Memphis Shoal Sound on his album 1971’s Another Cycle, Cliff trekked down a road that would blend soul and roots music and never looked back. In doing so, Cliff said he never officially closed his “reggae chapter.” With his most recent recording, Rebirth, Cliff returned to his reggae roots to complete the long unfinished chapter of his career.
Recently, Consequence of Sound caught up with Mr. Cliff to talk about the new album, working with producer Tim Armstrong of Rancid, and why he’s returning to roots music.
Quick question: You were born James Chambers. How did you go about choosing Cliff?
When I left the country and I went to Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, to go to school, I left with a few songs that I had written with the hope of getting them recorded. I felt that I wanted to change my name. So, I was born in the cliffs of Somerton, in the mountains, the cliffs, you know. So, I just thought that, “Well, that’s quite appropriate. I will just put Cliff to my name.”
You have always been quite prolific. You’ve released almost an album a year since 1969 up through 2004, with your release of Black Magic. That album is notable because it’s one of Joe Strummer’s final appearances on record. You’ve also said that Joe Strummer introduced you to Tim Armstrong [of Rancid], who produced Rebirth. That was almost ten years ago. What took so long to work together with Tim?
He introduced me to Tim’s music, Rancid, because reggae music was influential to punk music. I had to kind of reassess my career after 2004, after that Black Magic album came out, because the music business had changed so much in so many ways. So, in terms of company, in terms of management, in terms of agent, in terms of where I want to record, with whom I want to record, how’s it going to go out and sound? All of those things. I had to reassess and contemplate how to go about it. I was still writing, but I had to try to make the right move.
So, did you discuss with Tim for a while before you started working?
There was quite a number of people that [were] suggested I work with on the album, and then when I spoke to Tim, I just knew that he was the right one, because his energy felt so good. And then when I met him, that sealed it, because when we met and everything flowed so smoothly and comfortably in the studio with him, I just knew that was it.
You said in a recent interview that when you first started off as a singer you wanted to travel the world and introduce reggae music to everybody, which you did. When asked why, for your new album, you went back to your ’70s roots reggae sound, you said something to the effect that we need music to have a message right now, and that you wanted to let people know that reggae was still around. Do you consider yourself a savior of reggae, and are you re-introducing it to the world?
I think it needs a re-introduction, especially the aspect of roots reggae, our roots, and culture, and the aspect of the area where we used to address social, political issues. Not only reggae music, but there were other artists in other parts of the world that were doing the same thing. That is kind of missing in music today. Nobody seems to be interested in doing it for whatever reason. When I perform some of these new songs on stage, I see how the young people are lapping it up like there was a thirst and a hunger for it. I’m very happy that I had this opportunity to work with Tim Armstrong. That encouraged that too, because that’s what they do in punk music too, express social, political issues. That’s a great thing here.
You’ve said that the reason you’re going back to do a reggae album is because you felt like you never completed your reggae chapter in the early ’70s. What did you mean by that?
After the album called Wonderful World, Beautiful People – that album had on it “Vietnam”, “Wonderful World, Beautiful People”, “Hello Sunshine”, and a few other songs that were quite popular — I didn’t continue on the same track of reggae music. I went to Muscle Shoals in Alabama and recorded an album called Another Cycle, and so that chapter of reggae was not completed, and it was kind of not pleasing to a lot of my fans, and friends, and critics, and all of that. I knew in the back of my mind, always, that I had to complete that chapter.
Do you think the reason why it wasn’t completed back then was because of the death of Leslie Kong [Cliff’s mentor and producer]?
No, it wasn’t actually the death of Leslie Kong. I am one artist who really likes to experiment, and going to Muscle Shoals to record that album was an opportunity to experiment. The most popular song that came out of that experiment was “Sitting In Limbo”.
I remember talking to David Hood a few years ago about that session with you. Was Chris Blackwell [head of Island Records] the reason you went to Muscle Shoals? Because I know that he took Traffic there at one point in time.
Yeah, he suggested it. I played my songs to him, and he suggested it, and so I went there. The first recording I did was a song called “Going Back West”, and he helped to produce that song, and then after that he sent Traffic there.
So Traffic went after you? You were first?
Citing your song “Many Rivers to Cross” as your “I Shall Be Released”, Johnny Marr of the Smiths has described you as a Jamaican Bob Dylan. And Bob Dylan, himself, has said your song “Vietnam” is the best protest song he’s ever heard. Neither Jamaica nor the United Kingdom really had much at stake in the conflict in Vietnam. What prompted you to write that song?
I’ve always had a global outlook, and [have been] connected and tuned in to what was going on globally, so the Vietnam war effected me just as it would have effect someone who was living in the US or UK. But, furthermore than that, I had a good friend who had migrated to the US and got drafted into the army. The war blew his mind. He came back from Vietnam and he didn’t know me. I was his best friend, and he didn’t know me. It blew his mind. And he was an artist too, a brilliant artist. He could draw and all those kinds of things, in school. And this really effected me a lot, so it’s a combination of all those things.
Wow. That had to have broken your heart.
When you first began recording, you did an unusual thing staying with the same producer, while most artists back in Jamaica at the time bounced from studio to studio, and sound system to sound system. What do you think it was that made you stay with Leslie Kong rather than following the trend of bouncing around?
Leslie Kong was such an inspirational person. He always had brilliant ideas, you know. “Why don’t you do that? How could you do that?” I like to bounce off people, and I like to be around people I can bounce off, and Leslie Kong was one of such people. He was the one who really first believed in me in Jamaica. I had two producers prior to him, but he was the one who said to me first, “You’ve got the best voice that I’ve ever heard in Jamaica.” And when he said that to me, I said somebody believes like I believe. [Laughs.]
So, when he passed away, is that why you decided to self-produce a lot of your material, rather than try and find a new producer?
Partly. Partly because of that, but at the same time I was also part producer with Leslie Kong of the work that we were doing. I was always very much involved, hands on in all the aspects of my career, as well as the production. So, it was just to continue doing that, and if I didn’t find somebody like Leslie Kong, who I clicked with so much, I felt it would be better just to go alone on my own.
When Chris Blackwell first invited you to come to London, why do you think you waited six months before making a decision?
Well, because I did kind of have an offer in the US as well, and I felt that the US was really where I wanted to be. But then I considered one statement that Chris Blackwell made. He said, “There are many good singers in America like you, but if you come to England, there are not quite many like you in England, you’d have a better chance at making it from England than from America.” That statement stuck in my mind.
But they kind of dropped the ball, didn’t they? Didn’t Island kind of fail you?
I did go on the invitation, however, “dropping the ball” is maybe not the complete statement, because Chris Blackwell, I think, had his own concept of how he wanted to market Jimmy Cliff, and I had my own concept of how I wanted to be in the world. I guess we weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on all of that, so that’s how we parted company for some time before we got back together.
For the 1972 film The Harder They Come, you were initially hired to write the film’s score. How is it you ended with the lead role?
When Perry Henzell [film’s director] saw me, and I answered him to one question, he asked, “Do you think that you can write some music for a movie I am making?” I answered him, “What do you mean ‘if I think’? I can do it.” [Laughs.] So, that answer made him say, “This is the man that I want to do my movie.”
That’s amazing. So you weren’t even expecting that? That was a surprise to you?
Yeah, it was really a surprise. And, next thing I heard, the script came to Island Records, and they said, “He wants you to play the part.” I felt good, because I knew the character. As a child growing up, I knew about Ivanhoe Martin.
Your nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began as a petition by an American named Charles Earle. From what I could tell, he’s not really anybody in the music business, but rather just a fan. At the time, were you aware of his campaign to get you inducted?
I was not aware, and after I was nominated, I looked him up online and saw who he was. To tell you the truth, I would really like to meet him one day, and just look in his face, and say, “Thank you for recognizing what I’ve done, and for what you have done.”
You haven’t met him?
No I have not met him. Not yet.
We have to get you two together.