Interview with Tippa Irie [Part 1]
07/18/2016 by Angus Taylor
It’s 1986. South East London’s Saxon and their collective of talented mcs are ruling England’s sound system scene. One of them, Papa Levi, has already made history by scoring a Jamaican hit, Mi God Mi King. Another, a skinny youth with sleepy eyes and a cheeky grin, is about to crash the UK pop charts via a jazzy lovers ditty called Hello Darling…
Fast forward 30 years and that young man, Tippa Irie, has recently celebrated his 51st birthday. The U.K. reggae-dancehall industry has experienced ups and downs since the explosion of possibilities in the 80s. But Tippa has come through it well enough. He’s CEO of his own production company Lockdown. He travels the world bringing enjoyment to audiences at live shows, using his still preternatural ability to entertain. And he has just released his 13th album Living The Dream: a diverse collection of transatlantic crossover tracks (whose striking artwork features Tippa surfing atop dollar bills wearing a crown).
On the day of this three part Reggaeville interview Tippa is at his home studio in Streatham. Pictures of his dear departed mother and sister stare down at him from the walls as he works. He plays new songs he is voicing with master engineer Scientist. One is a do-over of Money – The Root Of All Evil that will please fans of his 2010 collaboration with Far East Band, Stick To My Roots.
Tippa has a bad cold. But that doesn’t stop him from talking for nearly three hours about his life and career. Part 1 of the discussion concerns how his musical dream began…
Let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Dulwich.
Yeah. I was born in Dulwich hospital in 1965. We grew up in Dulwich for a while and then we moved to Brixton – aged about 10 or 11.
The house in Dulwich – the whole family was living in one room?
Yeah. That was when we my parents had just come over. The kids were born pretty close together. My sister is one year older than me and my younger sister is a couple of years younger than me. I was the middle one. My dad had a little corner shop in Dulwich and we lived above the shop in one room. Then my dad found a shop on Eastlake Road off of Coldharbour Lane and we moved there a little bit after leaving Dulwich.
Where in Jamaica did your parents come from?
They were both from Trelawny. They met there. They come from a place called Troy which is in Trelawny, up in the hills, near a place called Christiana. They came over here around 1963.
They came shortly after independence? Looking for a better life?
Yeah, basically that. Because obviously Jamaica was a hard place. Even when my dad wanted to go back to Jamaica when I was about 16 my mum didn’t want to go with him. She stayed because she thought it would be the better, we would have had more chance over here than if we went to Jamaica.
Was your dad in a greengrocer in Jamaica?
Yes, he was a farmer. In Trelawny he used the plant yam amongst other things. Then he used to drive down to Ochi to the market to sell his things. That’s how he made his living. He also had a little sound system in Jamaica. It was called Musical Messiah. So from there, that’s where the music came in, because of my dad. My mum, she could do a lot of things. She was a great cook, so she worked in school doing the meals for the kids and stuff like that. She did it in Jamaica and over here sometimes as well.
So your dad’s shop in London, was that somewhere where you could get fruit and veg from Jamaica?
Yeah he would supply the fruit and veg from the Caribbean and normal stuff the English people ate as well. We used to get up in the morning and I used to go with him to Billingsgate market and all these markets and buy the product and we used to sell them in the corner shop.
Because your dad was involved in sound system – was he getting records sent to the UK?
I am not sure because obviously he had records so he just brought what he had with him. Occasionally he might pop to… I’m not even sure if there were record shops then! But he just brought whatever he had with him and we just used to play that.
What kind of stuff do you remember him playing when you were very young?
Well, our superstar really was Dennis Brown for my age group. I used to hear a lot of Dennis Brown, a lot of Gregory. You’d hear the odd Bob but it was mainly Dennis, Gregory Isaacs and that. And then of course you’d hear Dennis Alcapone, U Roy and people like that. Just the old school revival music that he used to play from Jamaica.
When did your family move from Dulwich to Brixton?
We lived in a couple of places. We moved to Helix Road when I was 13 or 14. I think Helix Road was before we went to Coldharbour Lane. I went to Coldharbour Lane when I was about 15.
Was there any difference between living in Dulwich and living in Brixton?
I don’t think there was that much difference really. Because all of the same issues we had in Dulwich you had them in Brixton. Things and times were different then because there was more of a community vibe than there is now. Because there was a lot of racism, a lot of skinheads and we used to get it from the police as well. Hence why the riots and all of that came about. I guess there was more of a community vibe. There were a lot more youth centres. And there was a lot more respect for elders. It was more of a family community that it is now.
Would you say you had a strict upbringing?
Yeah, very strict. There were a lot of clubs that I wanted to go to and I couldn’t go because my dad wanted me to study. “Study your book!” We were running a business so there were chores that had to be done. A couple of times you would get the strap. Well, not a couple of times – quite a lot! (Laughter) But at the end of the day, it stood us in good stead because it taught us discipline and established boundaries. So yeah, it was very strict growing up with my dad.
Who was stricter – your mum and your dad?
I’d say my dad. My mum was always defending us when she could. If we were out of order then she’d say “Well, you’ve only got yourself to blame because you were out of order“. But if she believed that he was hitting us for something really minor then she would stand up for us.
As a south Londoner – how did supporting Arsenal football club come into the picture for you?
It was from a young age, really. I think it was from the George Graham and before that era. Frank McClintock. Pat Jennings.
Charlie George? Or was that too early?
Charlie George, yeah. That was in the 70s. And there was a guy called Alan Sunderland that scored the winner in an FA Cup final. But for some reason I just got attracted to Arsenal. One of the reasons was that I went to school with Kenny Sansom and Paul Davis. I was a fan before meeting them but because they went to my school it has always been a love, I developed a love for the team and it just stuck.
Did you play a lot of sports at school?
I did. I was very good at football when I was younger. Very, very good. A lot of my friends thought I would have been a professional. But the thing was our parents. If I had a dad like Michael Owen he would have taken me to it and been there supporting me but they were like “Go play your football“. They didn’t take it seriously. They didn’t think that was a living. They wanted you to go and study your book. “Football? Me ‘ave no time fi football“. That was the Jamaican mentality. But I knew I was good. I was on the bench once for South London. My teacher took me to South London for trials. I passed the trials and I got on the bench. I was pretty good but as you get older things change.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Brockwell School in Tulse Hill. Then I left Brockwell and went to Loughborough Primary which is in Brixton. When I left Loughborough I went to Beaufoy School which was in Kennington with people like Commander B from Vibes FM. Jigs from Choice FM, now Capital Xtra, he went there. Kenny Sansom went there. Paul Davis went there. So yeah, it was a decent school. I had fun there. I didn’t leave with many qualifications but when I left school my mum got me a job doing plastering, or labouring really. I was just mixing cement. I wasn’t very good so that didn’t last long! I took up the music soon after that.
Did you like any subjects at school? As a lyricist you weren’t interested in English?
Not really. It was just sports and music. Because when I was at school I was in most teams. I got trials for London. In the cricket I was an all-rounder, a good batsman and a decent bowler. I played basketball for my school. I was pretty small so it was hard to start but I would get the occasional start. But football was my main thing. I guess music and sport for my main thing at school. But I left with enough knowledge. I did learn to read and write, thank God! (Laughter) What I needed to survive – and common sense.
And your dad used to keep dances?
Yeah. He used to keep dances on a Friday and Saturday in Brixton in the basement of where we used to live. Every Friday and Saturday night he used to set up his little sound and play music down there. People used to come and play and gamble, play Ludi, dominoes obviously. People used to dance until the wee hours of the morning. Then we used to just clean up and go to bed.
So you used to hear the bass coming through the bedroom floor and sneak down?
Yeah of course. All of that. Obviously after a certain time he’d run us upstairs. But after a while you just get used to going down and being an MC is part of the culture. When you’re listening to people like U Roy and these guys you just try to imitate them. So that’s what I did.
So did you start by copying the records at home? Or did you try to take the mic at a dance?
Yeah, you’d copy the records because the set was downstairs. When there was no one around I would go in and he used to complain! But when you’ve got the love for a thing you would know he was out and go and switch it on and start practising. Then family were saying “Tip, you’re starting to get good. You need to go out to the dances“. So that’s what I did. When I was 15 or 16 I started to go to Sir Lloyd dances. They were kind of a lovers rock sound really. It’s funny, I just saw one of his sisters just as I was going to meet you. I went to his dances and then I used to chat for a guy called Mikey Dread who had a sound that’s called MJR Roadshow now. He was kind of the first sound I used to MC on officially!
Wasn’t there a small sound you used to chat before on called Younger Frontline?
Yeah that was me and Commander B and a guy called Andrew Chung. We were schoolmates. We used to go to Paul’s house and we decided “Yeah, we’re gonna make our sound“. Because there was this sound called Natty Frontline which was a bigger sound and they used to have Welton and Fluxy MCing on that sound. We were young so we called ourselves Younger Frontline. I think Commander B had rustled the money together to get the equipment. We were just schoolboys so we didn’t have a big sound. We just had a little thing that we were trying.
So your dad went back to Jamaica and then you and your mum moved to Streatham…
Yes, when I was about 16. That’s where all the magic happened. That’s where I wrote Hello Darling and all those tunes.
And your dad took the sound with him?
Yeah I guess so. He just took stuff that he thought he would need because he had a little property there. He’s got a little house in Trelawny. I haven’t even been back there in years. He used to do his farming but he still used to keep little dances out there.
Was he fed up of London life?
Yeah. It wasn’t for him. He said “No, I can’t do this no more“. So he left but my mum stayed.
It must’ve been a big decision for your mum to stay.
Yeah. But she was a strong woman. She is why I’m in this house now. She is why I got the place in Jamaica. She was the backbone of the family. I miss her daily. It was a strong decision but she made the right decision because it turned out to fruition.
You mentioned racism and the police when you were growing up. What was your first experience of racism?
Once me and my sister and my mum got on this bus. We must’ve gone to sit down and this woman must have pushed us out of the way and said “You black bastards. Move out the way. I am sitting here“. She sat down and then, of course, my mum saw red! She just laid into her. Just lost it! We just ended up scuffling so they stopped the bus. She just went into the woman and she was like “No, no, no!” My mum just took us off the bus and said “We’ll wait for next one“. That was the first time that I really experience somebody being racist. And we were pretty young. We will maybe six or seven. My mum wasn’t going to take that at all.
So I must’ve been a shocking experience but there was also something formative in that experience about standing up for yourself?
That was it. And she has always set an example for us that we have to try to stand up for ourselves. She always used to say “You’re too nice!“
And what about the police? Did you ever have any problems?
Not that I can really remember. I was around when the riots were going on. Because it was Lorna G’s sister [who was shot by police]. In fact, she’s supposed to be coming here on Sunday. We are going to do a song together. I was there but I was kind of on the fringes. I wasn’t in the battlefield. I was young so I just used to see what was going on. But you have got friends and you’ve got family so people would tell you stuff about what they had gone through.
Did you go around in groups a lot? Did you take care where you went?
That’s right. Because it was there and certain areas you just didn’t go. If you could avoid it you just didn’t go. And later when I had Hello Darling in ’86 when I was driving I just kept getting stopped. I was like “Why do you lot keep stopping me?” But obviously I had a Golf convertible. A black guy in a Golf convertible who is young. I said “I am a singer bruv. I have had a hit. That’s why I can drive this car. So can you leave me alone?“
Going back to music, U Roy, Dennis Al Capone, Trinity, Big Youth. These were the deejays that sparked it for you?
These were the pioneers. Wake The Town And Tell The People and these tunes. My dad used to play them so when I heard those guys I just got into it. I connected with those artists.In the latter years you had Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, Brigadier Jerry – those guys. After that, it was Papa San, Lieutenant Stitchie, Professor Nuts. They were more our age group. It was just that connection from a young age to the foundation artists like Big Youth and them, then you’d just catch their vibe and then vibe off of them. Take little bits from them and after a while you’d develop your own style.
Which local sounds inspired you?
Shaka was one of the main ones. You had sounds like Quaker City, Sir Lloyd, Nasty Rockers, Jamdown Rockers, King Tubbys. You had sounds like Buchanan from Battersea, Young Lion was another good sound that we used to clash with a lot. You had Unity from North London, then you had Volcano, and in the early part you had sounds like Moa Anbessa and Woppi King, which was a real old school sound. And I used to just dance because I was a dancer as well. One of my sons is a choreographer. I think he gets that from me because I used to be a good dancer. I used to go to the Shaka dances and just skank.
Shaka was playing roots. So you had a schooling in that?
Yeah. Definitely. When you are of age and you can go out, and when my dad left the restriction wasn’t so stringent.
Which venues did you go to?
Lewisham Boys Club, Brixton Town Hall, the Abeng Centre which was on Gresham Road, opposite Brixton police station, but the other end. There was Providence which I think was in Battersea. They used to be a youth centre in Kennington right near to Beaufoy school. Cowley Estate which was off of Brixton Road – there was a hut there. When you go past the Jamm in Brixton and you go up to the next lights, right in the corner there was a hut and that was where the a lot of the dances used to be kept with King Tubbys and Jamdown Rockers and all of those. We used to go to Dick Sheppard Youth Centre and a lot of dances were kept there. Ferndale Sports Centre – a lot of dances were kept there. Norwood Hall, there were a few. People’s Club, Praed Street Paddington. We used to go there a lot.
Did you keep it south generally or did you go further afield?
Well there was the Four Aces. But this is when we were more of a sound. One Saxon started going. Growing up it was mainly south.
Was it dangerous to move? Was it territorial as it is now?
No. Kids today have got area codes and stuff. But it wasn’t like that. In England on the whole, nine times out of ten, even if you went to North London and you’re not going there looking for trouble then nobody was going to bother you. If you go looking for trouble then you’ll get trouble. Nine times out of ten we were cool.
What was your first introduction to what was happening in Jamaica? Was it sound tapes? When did you first see a master deejay plying his craft in person?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. Obviously, the deejaays used to come over. Like you had Ranking Joe with Ray Symbolic.
That was the famous 1980 tour that sparked a lot of the UK sound system evolution.
That’s right. So when those guys came through it was seeing them for the first time. Then you would see Brigadier Jerry, Charlie Chaplin, Josey Wales, they came through. We used to go to Cats Whiskers as well where Rodigan used to play in Streatham. Every so often David would bring through Billy Boyo and Bunny Lye Lye and these guys. I saw Josey Wales there once.
What sort of age were you when you were watching these artists?
I’d say about 15 or 16.
But most of what you are hearing was on cassette?
Where were you getting the cassettes from?
Just from whoever had them. My dad used to have some. Then you’d have family members that would say “Tip, listen to this!” It just stems from there. You’d just listen to the cassettes, listen to the records and just vibe off of them.
After Younger Frontline how did you get on to Mikey Dread sound and King Tubbys?
It was cousins, family. Because Mikey Dread is the cousin of Cecil from King Tubby’s. My cousin Gary was friends with Mikey. Me, Gary, Tony Fitzroy, Peter – they used to call them the Acre Lane Mob – we used to hang together. Mikey went out with one of my friend Tony’s sisters so through that I met Mikey. He heard me by being one day at my dad’s, I think, or my cousin Gary took me to one of his dances when I just went on the mic. I just started to vibe on the mic with them and they said “Yeah, Tippa you’re good man, you have to stay around the sound. Me a go bring you Tubbys. Make Cecil hear you“. So that’s what they did. They brought me to one of the dances and that was how I ended up linking up with King Tubbys.
So were you on Mikey Dread sound and King Tubbys at the same time?
Yeah. It’s just wherever you could get a mic. And in the early days, as much as I was on King Tubbys, if I went to Nasty Rockers or Sir Lloyd, or went to any dance and there was a vibe there and I felt like touching the mic, I would just go on the mic and deejay because you just want to get yourself known.
And you cut your first tune for Sir Lloyd – isn’t that right?
He did the live recordings at Dick Sheppard school. DSYC 1, 2 and 3. There were MCs like myself and General Slater – we used to spar together – you had Lorna G and Ricky Ranking and you had Lefty B and you had Champion. And all of these MCs – it was a competition. These competitions – he basically put them on vinyl and sold them as DSYC 1 2 and 3. So he knew my talent from these talent competitions. Then he was doing this tune My Valentine with a singer called Tokes and he got Drummie Zeb from Aswad to do the production and Tony.
They called me and said “Tip, we want you to do the B-side“. I went to the studio, can’t remember which studio it was, fell asleep and then they wake me up and said “Tip, it’s your time you know?” I just went in the booth and just knocked it out man! The Opposite it was called. It was just about opposites so “The opposite of Prince Charles was Lady Diana. The opposite of right is wrong. The opposite of weak is strong“. I did that tune and from there my career started.
How did that tune do?
It did very well because it was a popular tune at Valentines because the A-side was “My Valentine – I have got to make you mine“. It was a good lovers rock tune and it did very well at the time because lovers rock was in then.
So tell me about the competition at Ferndale that you won, where Musclehead and Dennis Rowe from Saxon saw you?
It was just like DSYC 1, 2 and 3. They used to keep a lot of talent competitions at that time and they were keeping another one in Brixton at the Ferndale. Dennis and Lloyd were there. I don’t know if their MCs were there like Levi or whoever, maybe not even Philip, it might have been someone else. But they were there anyway. At that time that was Musclehead. He was like that. He wanted everybody…
He was casting his net?
Yeah! Gathering people to come and sing on his sound. They just asked me and I said “Okay, no problem” because I didn’t really see it as anything major. But a lot of the sounds in Brixton were like “No man, no man, you can’t go to the Southeast! You can’t go to no Lewisham sound! You gotta stay over this side“. They probably wanted me to stay at Tubbys or join Coxsone. But Cecil, they would pay me £10. Cecil has always been careful with his money. I just said “No, let me go and check out these brothers over here and see what’s going on“. My friend Daddy Rusty, we were school friends and we used to be best mates, he came with me but Slater stayed. And the rest is history really. I just went over there and linked up with them and kept going.