Although reggae icons Bob Marley and Peter Tosh passed away many years ago, the music and spirit they championed is still being celebrated by one of their best-known peers, Burning Spear. Winston Rodney adopted his stage name in 1969 when he started out as a duo with Rupert Willington. With Marley's encouragement, he went to Kingston's [Jamaica] Studio One and met producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. That set the stage for a career that really took off in the late 1970s, with such groundbreaking discs as Marcus Garvey, Man in the Hills and Dry & Heavy. Blending Rastafarianism, black history and other social concerns, the charismatic singer fronted a series of exciting reggae bands and enjoyed considerable success in the U.S. and Europe, as well as in Jamaica. He's been nominated for a Grammy numerous times, and in 1999, the introspective Calling Rastafari finally won for Best Reggae Album.
The business side of Burning Spear's career has been checkered. He's been on numerous record labels, often with disappointing results, and has at various points strived for greater autonomy. His latest move in that direction was the creation, with his wife, Sonia Rodney, of the Burning Music label in the wake of his Grammy win. His first release for the new company was the excellent 2001 set Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Two years later, his debut studio CD for the label — aptly titled Freeman — received a Grammy nomination. And so has Spear's latest, Our Music, which is widely being hailed as one of the best albums of his 40-year career. It was designed, the singer says, to be a return to past form.
“I was thinking to go as close as possible to the '70s,” he says in his thick Jamaican accent from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he moved a number of years ago. “My reason for that was when you listen to [reggae] music today, nobody is carrying that kind of sound anymore. For some of us, it's our duty to achieve that original sound — don't lose it. Therefore, that sound will go down in the history of reggae music.”
Work on Our Music began in February 2005 at the Magic Shop in New York's SoHo district. The studio's comfortable family vibe and the vintage recording equipment and instruments were exactly what Spear was looking for. He recorded the basic tracks there during a period of a couple months using his studio band: Leroy Wallace on drums, Linford Carby on guitar, Michael Hyde on keyboards and I Palmer on bass. “I have a different set of musicians for live music,” Spear notes.
“We do the basics, and after that, I do percussion, call in another keyboardist for vocal dubs and two different lead guitars,” he adds. “The horn section came later, and afterward, I worked with the backup vocalists and also did the lead vocals.” Handling the engineering for the roots-reggae artist was Barry O'Hare, who resides in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and does the bulk of his work there. Spear and O'Hare have been working together on various projects, including the Grammy-wining Rastafari, for about eight years.
O'Hare comments that Spear “will come in with a little voice recorder that has vocal demos. The musicians will vibe that and create music [around the demo]. Lyrically, they're never complete; they're just ideas, possibly with choruses, but not so much of verses. So you'll hear him singing and the guys will use their imaginations to create melodies for the verse. Then Spear will tell them how to shape everything. It's always an experience, where things come from and how they end up.”
To capture their efforts, O'Hare used the Magic Shop's wonderful-sounding vintage 1970s Neve board (which was formerly owned by the BBC), recording to Pro Tools at 24/96. In addition to the board's EQs, he also used vintage Neve preamps, a Lexicon PCM-42 (which he says was great for dub effects), a Neumann 87 matched with a Tube-Tech compressor for the lead vocals, a standard drum-miking setup (D-112 on the kick, SM57 on the snare, 421s on toms) and various plug-ins ranging from a Digidesign EQ to Compressor Bank. The musicians worked six days a week, typically putting in about 10-hour days.
Commenting on creating the album's classic reggae sound, O'Hare says, “The musicians you have working on it are a big part of it. The drummer he brought in, Wallace, used to play with him in the '70s and does that type of drumming. Then, also, you don't use a lot of electronic stuff, like a synthesizer or other weird sounds. Instead, it's acoustic piano, organ and everything live — no sequences. We don't cut and paste anything; even background vocals go from the start of the songs to the finish. This was definitely different from what we have done in the past, because Spear really wanted to get that feeling. So the differences are actually more musical than sonic.”
O'Hare, who's worked with many of the top names in contemporary reggae, including Ziggy Marley, did the mixing, too, using the same Neve board. He says he kept most of the instruments fairly dry, with minimal EQ'ing. He used outboard gear and plug-ins to approximate the “fatness” of 2-inch tape, which he loves. Spear was present for all of the mix sessions, and says, “We work closer together when we're mixing than when we're recording. I don't actually do the mixing, but I know all the instruments, the arrangements, where things should go and what I want. I really love instruments, especially horns. When it comes to equipment, I like the top-of-the-line because they can help you get the sound you want. I still like tape and think it has an edge over Pro Tools. But you don't see those types of machines around much anymore, and we did Freeman on digital tape.”
Spear, though, didn't go totally old school for Our Music: The release is a 21st-century DualDisc, with a DVD on the CD's flipside. He thought embracing the new technology was a good and positive business decision, both for himself and for reggae in general. For a small, independent record label, it was a big move. As Spear puts it, “You have to come strong and different with this music.” O'Hare, on the other hand, says that it required nothing additionally of him technically; he just had to get used to a camera crew shooting while they worked.
Generally speaking, though, the production and mixing of Our Music went smoothly and was remarkably stress-free. “Spear went the extra mile on this album, and there's a real vibe on it,” O'Hare notes. “I remember Spear's wife calling and telling me it was going to be a great album. She said, ‘Make sure his vocals are done well, and if he gives you any problems, give me a call.’” [Laughs] O'Hare never had to make that call.
Meanwhile, the reggae star, who has already started working on material for his next album, waxes philosophical about his career path. “I've been in this business since 1969 and saw all these guys [before me] do it. They were just thinking about how to carry out a couple of dollars. But I wasn't paying attention to them. I was thinking about the show onstage and thinking about the future.”