Duckie Simpson talks Black Uhuru and the reality of the music business
Derrick “Duckie” Simpson, founder of the world’s top-selling reggae band after Bob Marley and The Wailers, has been in the music business for over fifty years; but, at 66 years young you’d never know it, because as anyone who has seen (and heard) Black Uhuru perform recently can attest, Duckie Simpson is an ageless, still spry, reggae icon; like fine wine, his artistic beauty and complete mastery of reggae music has only matured over the years, ripening and deepening in its richness and maturity.
On the evening of September 1, I was blessed through the tremendous hospitality of Ajang Music Production, Black Uhuru’s Booking Agent/Tour Manager, Mr. Robert Oyugi, and Duckie Simpson, to be allowed backstage just minutes after Black Uhuru’s encore performance ended at the Belly Up Tavern; that’s in San Diego County, California, just a mere hop, skip, and jump away from the majestic waters of Solana Beach.
There, in a small, stuffy, windowless, undecorated room, right off of the slightly nicer and more expansive “green” room area – a room whose only furnishing was a collection of raggedy maroon couches – I interviewed the legendary Duckie Simpson for a full twenty-five minutes.
With as little modification as possible, below are Duckie’s enlightening comments on the state of reggae music, the cut-throat, “doggy-dog” music industry, and many other topics of interest to curious and open-minded citizens of the world, and especially, to lovers of timeless and conscious roots reggae music – Black Uhuru’s trademark.
Q: Why isn’t reggae music more popular in the world today?
Duckie Simpson: I disagree with that statement. Reggae’s big all over the world; [it’s just that] reggae’s not selling. ‘Cause I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen the results. It’s big everywhere I play; I’m closing shows in Columbia to like 99,000 people and I’m the headliner, you know. Brazil, Africa, Europe … I just finished doing a show in Europe, and there were about a half a million people there, man … in Scotland … Edinburgh.
Q: How come reggae music is not selling or on the radio as much?
DS: Because, the internet came you know, and it’s on the internet for free. So, why should people buy it, unless they’re a diehard fan?
Q: But what about on the radio stations? Reggae is not played as much as it should be. In the United States, for example, you have the top 40, the Billboard rankings, and what you see is collaborations. Like at the top of the charts, you might see Major Lazer collaborating with a few people —
DS: Well, them white guys dominate that Billboard thing, like [the Santa Barbara, California-based band] Rebelution.
Q: I’d like to read you a quote from a Mother Jones article that was written by Bruce Dancis in December of 1982. The article is called “Marley’s Ghost: Reggae Today,” and just before it acknowledges that Black Uhuru “is probably the hottest reggae act in the world,” it reads, “[a]t the heart of reggae’s difficulties in the U.S. is unquestionably its blackness. Rooted in Rastafarian music and Jamaican anticolonialism, performed by dreadlock-coiffed, herb smoking singers with exotic” accents to non-Jamaicans; it’s a hard music to sell in the U.S.
DS: That was just one of them clowns. One of the things I don’t like is these guys from America or wherever they’re from who think they know much more about reggae than us [Jamaicans]. You know, they have all kind of talk. All these books have been written about Bob Marley. They’re all written by white guys who come down to Jamaica on a vacation, and F-around, and think they know everything. I don’t listen to them.” (laughing)
Q: But, Duckie, did you ever feel, at least in the eighties, and maybe even now, that one of the problems that Rasta singers have, that reggae singers have – in selling their music to music executives and music studios, is that the music industry heads are uncomfortable.
DS: Racism is always a problem, you know. You’ll always have racism. White people are racist, Indian people are racist, Chinese people are racist, and Black people are racist. It’s an in-born concept all over the world. [Look,] I hear people say ‘reggae is dead.’ Reggae is more prominent than a lot of music, it’s just the destabilization that these big monopoly record companies [use to diminish] reggae music … like giving reggae artists their Grammy [awards] back stage. And, you have some mumbo jumbo children music [whose artists are] presenting on TV and giving it. So, they don’t respect reggae. You know what I did with my Grammy? I gave it to my son to play with, and in two days he knocked the funnel off and throw it down the balcony. (laughing)
Q: Why don’t they respect reggae music is the question though?
DS: They don’t respect Jamaicans, period.
DS: Because, we’re so smart. We have the fastest man in the world. We have the best boxers. We’re just champions from a small country, man. Everything we do, we do it to excess. We got a lotta shottas, you know. There are shottas all over the place … But, in my time, in my stepping, we were robbed. Straight out robbed.
Q: How so?
DS: We were manipulated by Chris Blackwell. Chris … you know that cat I’m talking about? He owns Island Records. He tricked us into signing a contract for nothing. And, we did. So, we didn’t earn a F-ing cent. I’ve never seen a [financial] statement from Chris Blackwell in my life. Nothing about all my sales. My album, Red, sold 18 million. My album, Anthem, that won the Grammy sold 10 million copies. Apart from Bob Marley, who do you think is the biggest seller in reggae? But, I’ve not earned a cent from that work. I got famous in 1979. And, we were the biggest thing behind Bob Marley. When Bob Marley died in 1981, the taking was for us, and [former Black Uhuru lead vocalist] Michael Rose was bribed by Chris Blackwell and all these other followers and he left the group at the peak of our career. Because of greed. He left the group at the peak of our career. And he thinks, he can do it all alone. He was like the wasp that can make the comb, but can’t make the F-ing honey. And all these people around the world thought Michael Rose was the man … (laughing) . And he is not the man up to this day, and he can’t prove that he’s the man.
Q: I just started writing about reggae. I’m a rookie at this game. And, when I did some research on you, one of the critiques of Black Uhuru that I came across — that I think is b.s. — is that, because of the changing line-up of Black Uhuru, that Black Uhuru is supposedly not the same band, and not as good as it was when it was at its peak: When it had Michael Rose and Sandra “Puma” Jones. Now, I disagree. From what I just saw [and heard at the Belly Up Tavern in San Diego], the state of Black Uhuru is strong.
DS: To tell the truth, I love it. I don’t care what people want to talk. It was good in the sense of “image.” And, all the mumbo jumbo b.s. presentation. Music business is a show. It’s something you put on for the people. What you see is not what you get. What you see up there is not that behind the scenes. It’s all doggy-dog, and all these [very unpleasant people]. You understand? So, that is what the music business is about. It was better in a sense for some. But, it was not better in my pocket.
Q: Has that situation changed at all for reggae artists in Jamaica? Are they still getting screwed?
DS: Yeah. Beenie Man and those guys. After my era, after I got famous in Jamaica, the gate was closed. No other famous international act came through as a group until Yellowman, Beenie Man, and Bounty [Killer]. Those guys make good money; they started to make good money because those guys saw how burned we were [and they learned lessons from that]. And [they had better] management.
Q: And, there are also some people now in Jamaica who are training young, emerging reggae artists about music royalties, copyright law, and how to get their full monies from their art.
Duckie, I saw this in the Jamaican Observer; it was about you, it said you were very upset with King or Prince Jammy about a reissuing of your album, Life Crisis, where they basically re-did the songs and sent you no money …
DS: Love Crisis. That was my first album. I did it for the guy, Jammy. You call him “King” Jammy, eh?
Q: Is it “King” or “Prince”? There are two guys, and Prince is the protégé.
DS: Whatever you want to call him. A king, to me … I don’t praise people or give people title. The only king I [care about] is King Selassie. [Any] other king is mumbo jumbo. Anyhow, I did an album for that guy. It was my first album, and it was his first album. So, it was good for both of us. And, that guy thieved us.
Q: Was it because you were young?
DS: We were hanging together, yeah, we were friends. And he was King Jammy’s engineer. And King Jammy is from my neighborhood, from Waterhouse. We meet down the street every day. Me and Jammy were definitely friends. And, this album was released in 1975. You see all kinds of different dates, but that’s when it was released, in 1975. And, this album has been released five times within forty-one years, with different companies, and has produced 125 singles.
This album is one of the most manipulated F-ing albums in the history of albums (hip hop, rock, whatever). No album has ever produced 125 singles. And, I’ve never seen a cent or [financial] statement. And now, understand, they’re back again to release this album [Love Crisis] with ten guys, some of whom I don’t approve of. F-ing up my moral rights. Jammy is infringing on my moral rights. Some of these guys I don’t want to work with on my album.
Q: You don’t want them singing your songs?
Q: It’s your music?
DS: Of course, it’s my music. In Jamaica, it says the artist owns “the stuff.” Jammy ain’t no artist. He’s a producer.
Q: What advice would you give to young reggae artists in Jamaica today who are just starting out? How can they protect themselves?
DS They’re not gonna protect [themselves] … it [isn’t] gonna happen. ‘Cause you see, when you’re an artist and you’re young, you don’t see things. When people tell you, you don’t see it, so you gotta live it.
Q: So, you have to get burned?
DS: Yeah. You gotta live it. Or, you’re lucky to meet a [good] manager. And, these managers [can be] damagers, you know? [You can] get burned from the managers or burned from the record company, you know?
Q: What’s the most important thing a reggae artist can do practically to avoid getting burned, have a good manager?
DS: Yeah. Have a manager. If we’d had a good manager, we’d have made a lot of money. So, we didn’t make the money from that era. None, up to this date. Chris Blackwell sell our stuff to Universal. Universal owns all my catalogue now, and Chris Blackwell is saying a couple of us should get together and sue Universal — that [very unpleasant man], you know? Thief.
Q: Mr. Simpson, because I have such a respect for your world view, and because Black Uhuru means “black freedom,” I wanted to ask you about a few things that affect black freedom here in the United States, and see what your thoughts are.
You sang the song “General Penitentiary” tonight. Every time you sing that I think of many of my former clients, most of them black, who are behind bars.
Did you know, in California, they’re going to vote on the death penalty, which disproportionately affects black people? They’re going to vote on whether to abolish it. Do you have any thoughts about that?
DS: I wouldn’t go for the death penalty in America. Because, I see a lot of prosecutors framing people, you know? Literally frame people and put them on death row. They frame a lot of people in America.
Q: Mr. Simpson, thank you for being so gracious with your time. One last question for you tonight, California is also going to vote on whether to legalize marijuana in November. Do you have any thoughts on that?
DS: I love that. I was living in California for like 17 months, you know. I just got back home. I had a chance to live in a couple of places in the U.S. But, I chose California strictly because of the marijuana.
Q: It’s fantastic, isn’t it?
DS: They have good weed all over the place. I got a stalk of sensimilla, yeah mon.
Photos by Stephen Cooper
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. His twitter is: @SteveCooperEsq