Houghton: A lifetime in dub
Britain is a diverse melting pot of distinguished international culture whilst music has benefited significantly as a result of immigration and communication. It’s formed the backbone of what we listen to today, our communities, how we dance and how we choose to identify. Here is the story behind how one man fell in love with reggae and a lifestyle which followed suit…
So we’ve come together to have a little chat about your roots, your history, where you come from. Where did you start going out? How did you get into reggae in the first place?
It was coming out of the windows of the house next-door more or less, where I grew up. I grew up in Brixton, South London, with probably the first generation of kids from the Windrush generation. We integrated with black kids and white kids at school, it was quite difficult not to be aware… On a Saturday night you could walk across the street and hear two or three parties, each really loud. It was hard not to be curious. Also at school – the skinhead movement came and went, in 1969 I was 15 and I was a skinhead. It was a double-pronged attack really. I didn’t really care for skinhead music much but the difference between what was played at blues dances and what was played at funfairs /school discos was quite remarkable. That’s what interested me.
As in like the real deal roots, ska and whatever coming in?
Yeah, people started buying… outside of Jamaica. I think England was the first country in the world to import reggae significantly. Bunny Lee, who I’ve subsequently met a few times, apart from being a good producer and being in the business for fifty odd years, realised that there was a market – what white kids wanted. He went back to Jamaica and produced records for them. I preferred finding out what they were dancing to.
The Bunny Lee productions were being released for the white market? What sort of tracks?
Not 54/46 because that stuff was made before the skinhead thing started, they had a rocksteady thing… So you’ve got ‘The Return of Django’, all those really sort of fast tracks. If you play the skinhead revival stuff it is the same set of records. That’s the difference there, the other thing about going to the blues dances was there were lots of pretty girls there.
Were you alright getting in at 15 then?
Well it depends, some wouldn’t let you in but I wasn’t 15 forever! I don’t suppose I had the confidence to go in on my own until I was about 16 or 17. By then I used to go with my West Indian mates who I knocked about with and you were always alright then. There were only a couple of occasions when I knocked on the door and they said “it’s a private club you can’t come in”.
So when did you start buying records, was it around that age?
I got a paper round and I used to get 17 and 6 a week on a paper round, which is nearly a quid for records. Records were 6 and 8 which is 37.5p or something.
A fair bit of your…
Yeah but I had to go and buy them and I left school when I was 17. I got a job where I worked in a hotel and I got tips. I had to give my mum two quid or something and the rest of it I’d spend on records really. There was a switchboard at the hotel where I worked, I covered the girl’s shifts at lunchtime and I used to ring Derrick Harriot’s shop in Jamaica and order records. I’d send a tenner and I’d get 12 or 13 records back.
That’s pretty mad. He’s been quite a key player over the years…
Yeah he’s still got his shop in Kingston. It’s not much of a shop, it’s in one of the plazas, he’s still got a presence there.
So you were basically dialling internationally from the phone board to get your music..
Yeah if I had have phoned Jamaica from my home my dad would have beat the living daylights out of me.
From a pretty young age you were tapped right into the main… were they like “who’s this” or was there a fair bit of commerce going on anyway?
No! Not really, there were records going backwards and forwards but they didn’t do any mail order. The first time I phoned it was a bit strange…
Did you just think “fuck it I’m going to go direct to the source”?
Well yeah, because they were… actually I would have got more than 12 or 13 because they were a quid each pre-release for record shops.
They would be playing them to you down the phone?
Nah – it was like this is what I want. Or I’d just leave it to him. But that only lasted around seven or eight months at that hotel. I left and went to live in squats and ended up not working or not in a conventional manner anyway. I carried on buying records, it’s just one of those things. Like you, wherever you go there’s a record shop and you gravitate towards it…
It’s got bloody expensive now though hasn’t it?
Luckily, I got in while they were cheap… but relatively they were still a lot of money. I can remember earning £25 a week and £20 went on records, the rest of it I just wasted. You had to go out too!
So you were going to the blues to start with, I guess that was just for several years? It wasn’t happening in mainstream clubs was it?
No. The first thing I did with a mate of mine was built a soundsystem.
At what age?
Well, I was still at home but I wasn’t at home for very much longer. I bought two speakers, an amplifier and a turntable – we had an old guitar amp that someone had adapted for us. We used to do parties every Saturday night but we’d play all kinds of music, at blues parties they played soul. We thought of ourselves not as collectors. We looked at records as something that we could play to entertain people, you know? So we did that and we had our parties for quite a long time in various squats.
So those parties, they were in the squats you were living in and you’d just charge people on the door?
No I didn’t charge.
When was this? Early 70’s?
Music was coming out of Jamaica so fast, absolutely pelting out of Jamaica. I still look at charts and I can remember buying 90% of the releases but there were so many things I’d never even heard of. So that was 72… ‘Skylarking’ by Horace Andy, that was massive in Jamaica. A Dennis Alcapone track called ‘Teach the Children’. They had two radio stations in Kingston, both had charts. Number one on the pair of them. We used to go to Roaring Twenties every Saturday but some Saturdays was Coxone’s club on Carnaby Street. I never liked the big dances that much because I was tall and if people were looking across the room for someone to go and pick a ght with… It used to happen to me a lot because I was above everyone else.
Angry young men looking to fight?
Yeah it used to happen to me a lot at those big dances, although I never really got into any trouble at them. I wasn’t really a massive fighter back in those days. Getting hit, it hurt! I didn’t like it that much. Some kids did but I didn’t. I never used to go to lots, only when I knew people and they knew me. In all the time I’ve been going to things like that here or in Jamaica I’ve never suffered any…
Oh no, there was prejudice. In Jamaica there is a section who don’t like white people, much like here, there are white people who don’t like black people. I’ve never come to any grief.
So you were doing your own parties… were your parties quite mixed?
Full of people who should’ve been shuttled up and put in hospitals and prisons. People would come straight from the pub.
You’d have your own bar?
No! We weren’t organised at all. Seems weird. We didn’t though, and we cleared up. The place afterwards would be a tip, but we were just kids really.
Having a good time.
So you’d go to Coxone’s and a few of the big dances, when did you first go out to Jamaica?
Oh not until about ten years ago.
No, it never occurred to me. I never left this country, we didn’t go on holiday when I was a kid so I never left this country until 1978 when I went to India. When I was phoning Jamaica to buy music: Chris Lane, who runs Fashion Records, was two years younger than me. He was already writing for Blues and Soul magazine, wrote a reggae section. He said to them instead of paying me to write the articles and waiting for artists to come here why don’t you send me to Jamaica and I’ll interview a whole bunch of artists. We’ll have articles for the next year. So they did, they gave him a ticket. He spent his 18th birthday with Lee Perry!
Bloody hell… Did you know him then?
No, I remember the name and the articles but I’ve only known him for about 20 years.
So you’re doing your own parties, what came next?
So after 1975 you’ve got disco 12”s coming out and more roots things, by then I’m 21. I had two kids, twins.
Were you playing out at other places or just your parties?
You couldn’t play. Everyone had their own thing. We’d go to a pub and ask if they had a room, and they’d ask “what are you gonna do”? We’d tell them that we “were going to bring our soundsystem and play reggae in here”. They’d say “no you ain’t, we don’t want our pub full of all that kind of shit.”
It wasn’t easy to do. I don’t think I ever got paid. The good thing I did was… we used to have a little local sound called Nashville. The selectors for each sound were a little bit older than me and they’d come and watch me play. You know how it is when you start playing, you’re nervous, especially when people you know in the business are there. You start shitting yourself. Well, they came over and helped and gave me good advice and were really kind of generous with how they were. I learned a lot.
What was the next sort of significant section? Didn’t you spend a lot of time around Notting Hill?
No, I was there occasionally because my dad’s family is from there but I never went very far from Brixton. I disappeared for a bit, the 80s. In the 90s I came round.
All our records were together and as far as I knew they’d disappeared. I’d been here, there and everywhere and the other bloke, we merged two record collections together for the soundsystem and we recorded a tune. It’s on x” and I called myself Young Dude. They misspelt it so I’m called Young Dug. You can buy it, it’s on Discogs.
As far as I knew, when I came to Bristol in the 90s, I thought I’d lost all my vinyl. I went into a shop in Kings which is a video rental now, he had loads of records, a bloke called Martin. I started buying records from him… My mate got in touch with me and he brought some cassettes up full of our old tunes, we sat down and he told us that he still had all of our old records and offered them up on one condition, that I didn’t sell them. This was 1991.
So you were playing at Chocolate City in Bristol, what other stuff were you doing?
I used to put on things myself, played at St Nick’s House which is gone now. It’s difficult to think.
Stuff at Cosies?
No, not then. I played mostly at Blue Mountain and St Nick’s House, they were easily available but I was only doing it half-heartedly really. I wasn’t putting everything into it. Blue Mountain is a legendary club in Bristol, home to loads of stuff that was quite big over the years. St Nick’s House is on St Nicholas street, John Stapleton used to have a night there called Get Off and Le Boom which played 60s and soul. It was a really good room, then the owner turned it back into a house and packed it all in. It came down bit by bit.
You can’t do a feature on Bristol without John Stapleton.
So John used to put me on at The Tube; reggae nights.
The Tube was amazing. That takes me back. That was Massive Attack’s members club. Some of the parties there were incredible. Kerri Chandler playing, you lot doing reggae. Early dubstep, Skream before anyone had heard of him. That was a fertile time in Bristol’s history. Did you play down there a lot then?
So he’d alternate it between me and Derek, DJ Derek. The thing about me is that if you put me on a poster, a lot of people won’t turn up. However, if you put me in a club with a lot of people, they won’t go home. Well, actually people do come…
I would strongly disagree. You have a good following.
That’s thanks to you!
People know you, certainly in Bristol. It’d be good for people elsewhere to get to know you. You’ve got a ridiculous record collection, let’s go back to that. A lot of ska, rocksteady, heavy reggae…
72-75. Ska finished. It was too hot in Jamaica to dance that fast. Rocksteady was really nice – harmonies and melodies but kind of slow. The fast reggae they made for skinheads was popular over there too. Then they started being more experimental.
What happened yesterday, nobody is interested in it. They all just want what’s happening now. What’s fresh. You had Bunny Lee’s studio, you had Coxsone, you had Treasure Isle, King Tubby’s studio.
I’m a big fan of Tubby’s…
You have to be. If you don’t… pack up and go home! It got much more experimental on the production side of it, you know. That was what made it exciting. I had a tune from Randy’s, by Lloyd Parks – it’s called “Ordinary Man”. All they did – it seems facile – is they’d run tape backwards with the volume up. There’s a bit of studio chat and that goes on and it’s all brand new. You’ve also got a period when the rocksteady music was based around really good instrumentals, especially out of Studio One. You don’t know if it’s ska or rocksteady it’s a bit of both.
Is that what you’d call the heavy reggae?
Nah the heavy reggae… the lyrics started to change. It starts to become sufferers music with political comment. The DJ’s would comment about the literacy program launched in the early 70’s to help people read. They’d talk about that, the DJ’s would talk about what was happening topically. It got more political and the influence of rastas became more and more prominent. Channel One started making music, it was fantastic.
How do you approach DJing?
I generally look at who’s in front of me. As a DJ it’s your job to entertain who’s there, make good decisions. Carry enough of this, that and the other.
Do you still carry it all in a suitcase?
Nah… I used to love that suitcase… I’ve got a magma camou aged padded one that you take on a plane and a couple of other boxes. I’ll see what goes down, you never know what goes down on the night do you? Take a box of records, play for a day…
Have you got some special, rare records that you’ll play?
I’ve got specials yeah. I’ve got Johnnie Clarke and Cornell Campbell – they mention my name, they’re dubs. There’s a few things I’ve got that not many other people have got. But generally they’re not… I’ve got an Alton Ellis cut of “If I Ruled This World”. I’ve got a different cut of “Better Days” that only 3 people have got. It’s a killer tune. I’ve got a few things that I keep that I really like and that people tend to like, but a lot of the time if it’s just the warm up I play things people know. I was up in Chester one night and every record was £1000 and it weren’t doing nothing so I said why don’t you play something people know.
I like your approach to it. You have a collection that would a lot of people go wow but you’re not pretentious about it.
It’s about the dance, I think that’s really important. It’s not about me. It’s about the people there. That’s what you’re paid for, not to impress them with who you think you are.