Roots and Culture 

Reggae superstar Mikey Dread makes rare Nashville appearance

Reggae superstar Mikey Dread makes rare Nashville appearance

Mikey Dread & the Dread at the Controls Band

Playing July 17 at Slow Bar

He’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as pioneers like Lee Perry, Prince Buster and Coxsone Dodd, but Michael Campbell, a.k.a. Mikey Dread, is a critical figure in the evolution of reggae music. Despite his prolific career as a broadcaster, engineer, producer and singer—and his facility in styles ranging from dancehall to dub—most rock and pop fans, and even some reggae lovers, know Dread only as the producer and co-writer of a half-dozen tracks on The Clash’s Sandinista!

Dread’s relative obscurity in this country reflects the way that reggae specifically, and international music in general, tend to be marketed in America. Unlike the way it’s presented to English audiences, who’ve been accustomed to hearing Jamaican music since the days of ska, reggae has been treated as something of a novelty in the U.S. Indeed, pop-influenced acts like Third World and Shaggy have clicked here largely by watering down reggae’s overpowering bass lines and Rastafarian influences. Dread, by contrast, has never shied away from social and political content, and he has always favored addressing spirituality over sexuality.

Though he’s enjoyed a multifaceted career, Dread, who plays the Slow Bar this Thursday, places primary importance on performing and promoting what he terms “roots and culture” music. “My role in the development and internationalization of reggae is much overshadowed,” Dread says, alluding to the common misperception among rock and pop audiences that reggae begins and ends with Bob Marley. “But the reality is that if I had not done what I did in the ’70s to put [the music] on the radio when I did, today you would only know about Bob Marley and the current commercial artists that get airplay.”

As a young audio engineer and DJ with the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), Dread developed a radio program in 1976 called “Dread at the Controls” that quickly became the island’s most popular show. He smartly blended topical patter, social commentary and musical analysis, winning Top Radio Personality of the Year honors in 1977 and 1978. The show also marked the beginning of Dread’s immersion in engineering and production, as he experimented with feedback, dubbing, turntable scratching and echo during his shows. He was so drawn to this aspect of the music that he resigned from the JBC in 1979 to begin working as a producer. Soon he was making his own records, as well as producing hits for artists like Sugar Minott and Junior Murvin—and, before long, The Clash, including the single “Bankrobber.”

“Working with The Clash was a good vibe...a multicultural and racially mixed environment,” Dread recalls. “I approached their productions like I was working on my own music.... My fondest memories were working with Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer on the music we made in the early ’80s.

“We all had fun together,” he goes on. “Joe Strummer was a perfectionist and an intelligent individual. I can remember him cautioning me certain times about wandering the streets alone because the skinheads were not too into blacks and they would accompany me if I wanted to venture out before or after a concert. The lesson I learned from the collaboration with The Clash is that blacks and whites can work together in unity and harmony without the stress of the color barrier.”

While living in London, Dread also studied at the National Broadcasting School, graduating with special commendations in 1980. He later earned degrees in TV/video production and international communications. Meanwhile, he continued to work in broadcasting, including stints on radio and television stations in England and America; for a time, he even served as a photographer for a daily newspaper in Miami, where he still lives today. He’s also hosted reggae specials and documentaries, notably the acclaimed six-part series Deep Roots Music, which aired on Britain’s Channel 4 in the mid-’80s.

Ironically, Dread’s gifts as a vocalist are often given short shrift by music critics. He’s hardly as versatile a singer as, say, reggae stars Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. Still, Dread’s crackling delivery on such singles as “Barber Saloon” (which hit No. 1 in England and Jamaica in 1979), “Roots and Culture” and “The Sound (of Your Divorce)” evinces considerable flair, whether he’s speaking out against injustice or unraveling a wry narrative.

His first album, Dread at the Controls (Trojan), made him an international star, while subsequent records like World War III and the dancehall smash “Reggae Hit Shot” proved that his early success wasn’t a fluke. A 1991 compilation on Rykodisc, Mikey Dread’s Best Sellers, gathered several of his finest tracks, while Profile and African Anthem Revisited included reflections on social and economic inequities, praise numbers and the occasional romantic or novelty tune. “Can’t Hear ’Em,” a 1992 duet with Guns N’ Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin, introduced Dread to a new generation of rock fans, even if it demonstrated more of a rote rock sensibility than a reggae one. Dread’s latest album, Rasta in Control, represents a return to his reggae roots, but nothing on the disc is on a par with his past hits.

Recently, Dread has obtained the rights to his recordings for the RAS, Heartbeat, Rykodisc and ROIR labels, and is reissuing them, with bonus cuts, on his own Dread at the Controls imprint. He’s also preparing a compilation disc, Rockers Vibration, featuring artists he’s produced, and plans to issue albums of previously unreleased material. It’s all part of his desire to preserve his legacy and, with it, the “roots and culture” movement he helped define.

“I know my place in the history of my music, culture and heritage,” Dread says. “I am happy now to see my works were not in vain.”

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