“I’ve never been in the comfort zone. I started my career on an international level.”
Birmingham born Bitty McLean hit the UK pop charts in the 90s with covers of the Shirelles Dedicated To The One I Love and Fats Domino’s It Keeps Rainin’. Since then he’s released On Bond Street, a set of revived Treasure Isle rhythms that garnered huge respect for this fresh faced, silky voiced link to reggae’s formative years. Now, he’s releasing Movin’ On, a collaboration with the Rhythm Twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. He and Angus Taylor had a chat about the record, his influences and the state of the reggae scene today…
What first inspired you to become a singer?
I always say my dad’s sound system was my first insight. If it wasn’t for my dad having a sound system and playing pre-release music and rhythm and blues in the house on a daily basis music wouldn’t have been in the blood so to speak! My Dad’s sound system, the big speakers, the valve amps, that was just a regular thing round the house as a child growing up. So that was my first insight into music. Singing? That was kind of incidental to be honest. I didn’t set out saying “I want to be a singer” but I think I remember one time just messing around on the sound system with my brothers and I just started singing – it was like “Wooah!” “Do that again!” “How did you do that?” So it kind of started from there, I was about eight yours old, and by the time I was ten, eleven, I was singing on local sounds in Birmingham, Wassifah, Now Generation, we’d have like Carnival at Handsworth Park, which would have fifteen, twenty sounds playing in the park and you’d just bounce from one sounds to another, just like create a vibe, just kind of improvise? They’d bring a rhythm track and you’d just improvise a style or a vibe and then move onto the next sound. That’s how I got my apprenticeship so to speak as a singer around sound systems in Birmingham.
Who were your favourite singers when growing up?
Again, it was all out of my dad’s record box. It would be people like Delroy Wilson, who was the first singer I could relate to because my Christian name is Delroy. He was my favourite. And John Holt, Jackie Edwards and Nat King Cole. He was like a Sunday singer. On a Sunday [in my house] it would be nice soft easy singers like Nat King Cole, John Holt and Alton [Ellis]. I mean we’ve been spoilt in reggae music haven’t we? So it was always the best to be honest. There was rarely if ever a bad artist that came out of Jamaica in the early period, in the Seventies, which I grew up in. Anything you heard on wax was, nine times out of ten, a wicked artist on a wicked rhythm track so I’ve kind of been spoilt in that sense.
And which up and coming singers do you like right now?
(THINKS)… Etana! And Queen Ifrica. I think those two took last year. The impact they had in the last twelve to sixteen months has been wicked. It’s been long overdue that we had some more females breaking through in reggae music. And Tarrus is going on good as well. So yeah, mainly the singers to be honest. I’m not really into the dancehall feel, singers are more my kind of thing. I don’t believe there’s enough singers out there man. There’s kind of an imbalance of deejays to singers so we’re kind of a rare breed in the popular reggae scene of the moment.
You get a lot of deejays trying to sing as well…
(LAUGHS) No comment!!! I plead the Fifth Amendment! I’m not making any comment on that! Haha!
Are you pleased with your new album?
I’m always pleased with my work to be honest man. It’s like my baby. You spend nine months, a year, a year and a half working on an album. You can never predict the success of a record. It’s never happened like that for me from day one when I first started making records. So I just do my best and hope that there’s an audience out there that will appreciate the music and the standard productionwise, vocal, melody whatever – you know what I mean? It’s a big world out there so I’m sure there’ll be a few. I know my mum will be one of my fans! (LAUGHS) But yeah that’s the only thing you can say to be honest. If I wasn’t happy with it, it wouldn’t be on wax and it wouldn’t be on cd. So I’m more than happy with all my products in that sense man. Like I say, you can never predict success and that’s not really my vision when it comes to making music. I just want to do my thing and bring what I can do to the platform of reggae music…
And move on?
Yeah! (LAUGHS) Move on as opposed to standing still! Instead of doing the same thing year in year out. That’s the thing for me, I’ve never been in the comfort zone. I kind of started my career on an international level. And where some artists might think “I’m in a comfort zone. I’ve sold lots of records now. I can sit back in fourth gear now and just cruise through this” that’s not really my mentality as an artist. I come from a sound system background which is like, every dance you play is different, every crowd you play for is different so you have to up your gear every time you step on stage. Every time you’re in the studio you have to move into a different gear and give a hundred percent every time man. It’s not an easy road and I don’t necessarily want it to be an easy road. Working with Sly & Robbie kind of ups the gears a few notches to push myself as an artist, as a writer and as a singer as well.
The album combines different styles. Was that something you set out to do from the start?
I think the vein for the album is really Sly & Robbie. They’re so versatile that everything they play whether its soul influenced, or roots or rockers, you can always say Sly & Robbie. There’s an ongoing vein through the album, which is the consistency of Sly & Robbie. Their influence goes back for however many years they’ve been doing what they’re doing. From Grace Jones, Gregory [Isaacs], Dennis [Brown] you name it they’ve been there and played for all the top notch artists. So that’s the vein through the album for me. Whether it’s an old rhythm track, a brand new song or a cover, the interpretation that Sly & Robbie can bring to a song or a rhythm, their stamp, is unmistakeable.
How did you come to work with Sly & Robbie again?
It was kind of incidental you know? We’d just released On Bond Street which was the album prior to Movin’ On. And I had a call from someone saying “somebody’s looking for you, they want to do an album with you, Sly & Robbie” and I thought it was a joke to be honest, “yeah, yeah, yeah whatever”. Then I got a call from Hawaii from some friends of mine who run a label saying “this guy based in France is trying to get hold of you. He’s been round the world trying to find you and he wants to do an album with Sly & Robbie”. And what it was, was he had mentioned my name to Sly & Robbie and they’d said “we know Bitty, we’ve worked together and stuff”, and they’d heard On Bond Street. So it was just like, yeah, conversation, and they were like “cool, we’d love to do some work with Bitty” and we started from there to be honest. There was talk of doing a Studio 1 album after On Bond Street (because that was based on old Treasure Isle rhythm tracks from Duke Reid’s studio). But I think things happen for a reason in music and I don’t think it would have been much of a progression doing an album from the same rocksteady period straight after Bond Street. Working with Sly & Robbie was like moving up a notch. It was like “okay, I’m going to have to sit down and start writing some songs and bring something to the table because I know when Sly & Robbie get together it’s going to be awesome”. So there was no kind of record company [pressure] no preconception. Just a simple conversation and from there it was “Bitty anything you want to use from the old catalogue and then come down to Jamaica and we’ll lick some new rhythm tracks”. In 2006 I was in Jamaica and we laid some new rhythms. And by then I’d started sampling some of the old Taxi catalogue, songs like Gregory’s Oh What A Feeling, Sitting And Watching by Dennis Brown. There’s a barrage of rhythms we used, some of which haven’t made this album. A Barrage from that eighties era which I’ve still got to work with. So that was it really: just an incidental conversation.
What are Sly & Robbie like to work with?
Easy. I’d worked with them back in ninety four, we’d done an unplugged session for Radio One where they were the house band. And you wouldn’t believe it. You think you’re going to meet people who are established in the business and they might be a bit egotistical and not want to talk to you and stuff like that. But it’s SO the opposite man! With Sly & Robbie there’s no ice to break. You can just be yourself and straight away you can talk about music or whatever. So they’re very easy in that sense. And I think I can say with hand on heart that there’s a mutual respect. I’ve been working with them now for a good period of time, we’ve just come back from Japan and stuff, and yeah there’s a mutual respect there. Obviously I’ve been listening to them from childhood. You can’t tell them that though because they’re still young see? (LAUGHS) But it’s very easy and they capture the vibe very quickly. There’s no dwelling or going round and round for hours on a rhythm track. They’re very quick in terms of interpreting your ideas. Easy is the word when working with them and it’s a pleasure every time, in the studio, on stage, it’s always wicked man.
All three of you know your way around a studio. Did it get crowded ‘round the desk?
(LAUGHS) Not really no. I kind of took a backseat in Jamaica because we worked at Sly & Robbie’s camp in their studio. So Rory Baker was the engineer where we were laying the tracks down. So that was cool for me just to take a backseat, do my little guide vocal while Sly was putting down his beats and Robbie Lyn and Robbie [Shakespeare] was doing his stuff. And it was like that to be honest because when I came back to England I’ve got my own little studio where I voice and stuff. So I was kind of cool with that really. I didn’t have to be sitting round the desk and Sly & Robbie were cool as well. They just let Rory engineer the session and it was an easy process. I tend to take charge when it comes to mixing! I like being in charge of the mix. I’ve always mixed everything. You’re going to say it all sounds rubbish now aren’t you??? (LAUGHS) I kind of like that last stage with the mixing and the mastering. I like to be involved and oversee that. I like the mix stage as well as recording, the last stage before it’s presented to the public ear so to speak.
And makes a good mix for you?
Oh that’s a hard one! That’s the million dollar question. It’s a bit like the lottery, no one would know. You could mix a track today and then mix it tomorrow and it has a totally different emphasis. In that sense it’s like painting a picture. You’ll never paint the same thing twice exactly the same. [With] Everything I mix the song dictates the mix. I don’t go in with like a set way of mixing, “that’s where the drums are set, that’s where the keyboard goes, that’s where the vocal goes”. I think the song decides how the mix pans out so I approach everything fresh like a blank piece of paper. The vocal’s the key though. Don’t tell Sly & Robbie that! (LAUGHS) But just make sure the vocal stands out! (LAUGHS)
I saw Sly & Robbie play last year and there were no vocals for about an hour!
Awww… that’s like the dub session! It’s that drum and bass to your head man! Wicked wicked. But I love that. They’re still out there gigging. Because it’s so funny that there’s always a new generation with reggae music. That’s something I’ve found throughout Europe. I do sound system shows in Germany, Italy or Sweden, and there’s a young audience from maybe eighteen upwards now who are into the modern kind of stuff which is out. But you’ve still got a generation which are looking back, which are saying “reggae’s not just a one dimensional thing. It’s not just dancehall, it’s rocksteady, there’s ska!” You know what I mean? And that’s what I find is really good which is why it’s good to have people like Sly & Robbie still on the road, still accessible for people to listen. Like I say, it’s not just one dimensional, reggae, it’s got many colours.
What made you cover Try A Little Tenderness and Lately on the album?
Lately was a tune from going back to the days of improvising on sound systems. And when I got to Jamaica in 2006 Sly gave me about four or five rhythm tracks and said, “Bitty just acclimatise yourself to Jamaica because we ain’t going to start no work for a few days. See what vibe you get on these rhythm tracks”. And when I heard the Taxi rhythm, because I think Buju [Banton] was out by then with Driver – big tune! – Lately just came to me. I think there’s actually video footage of me in the hotel room doing a little sound system thing, singing Lately on the rhythm and we thought “yeah man – let’s just do it!” Because it kind of goes like there’s a theme, and it goes right back to my days on sound systems. And when it comes to choosing a cover song it’s not like, “oh, how many copies did that record sell when it was first released?” or “was it a number one record?” or whatever. I think it’s just the mood that a song brings. That’s why I choose to sing a cover song. Now, Try A Little Tenderness, me, Sly & Robbie recorded back in nineteen ninety five. We recorded a tribute album of Otis Redding songs which was never released. It was [due to] record company politics. And I just thought, “I’ve got an album here sitting on the shelf. I’d like to use a couple of the songs” and we just decided we were going to lick two of the songs back again, which were Try A Little Tenderness and Come To Me. I’m not a politician so I don’t want to get caught up in record company politics. Because I don’t record records to sit in my cupboard, you know what I mean? So that’s all it was, I just felt they needed to be heard to be honest. There’s enough Bitty Mclean stuff that’s been locked in some cupboard somewhere. I’m an independent artist with my own label. I do my own thing, I do my own production now and I don’t have to answer to anyone. So I’m just going to go for it and put those two songs on the album. And it’s kind of a continuation of the relationship that we’ve built up since nineteen ninety five. Those songs just needed to be heard. It’s not a case of choosing a song because it’s famous or nothing like that. I think it goes back to the point, that, if you’re into reggae music today you might not relate to Stevie Wonder or Otis Redding (as crazy as that might sound!). I mean I can because I’m 37 years old and can relate to that period where Stevie was… well he still is famous… but I was listening to Stevie on the radio, or my Dad’s Otis Redding records. But to the average eighteen year to twenty five year old, those artists aren’t necessarily what they relate to. So for Bitty McLean to interpret a song from that era I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all man.
It works both ways of course. People who don’t know reggae but love the song get to know you and people who only like reggae get to know the song.
That’s it. It’s something I found when I did the previous album and did the song Walk Away From Love. David Ruffin from The Temptations had sung that song. But the rhythm track was an Alton Ellis rhythm and a lot of people thought “that’s Bitty McLean’s rhythm”. So it’s kind of an education where people go, “no that’s not an original rhythm, Alton Ellis was the original”. And then people start digging and go, “oh yes, Alton Ellis!” So I think it’s kind of cool man. I think the whole foundation of reggae music was based on cover versions and interpretations of different songs and rhythms. I mean people are still interpreting classical music, which is so many hundreds of years old. I ain’t got a problem singing cover versions and bringing the music to another generation.
You’ve been re-interpreting the classics for years. What makes a classic song?
(LAUGHS) That’s the lottery question again! You just do your best to be honest. Sometimes it’s the melody, sometimes it’s the lyrics, sometimes it’s the rhythm. We have a saying: “All kind of people come a dance”. That means it’s not just one type of person that goes to a club or a dance. You get some people who go because they might want to listen to the music, some people come because they might want to go out for a drink or smoke. So there’s no one format. I don’t know what it is to be honest! If I knew I’d make hit records every minute! (LAUGHS) Sometimes it’s the hook, sometimes it’s the rhythm track. All I know is I try my best when it comes to putting my voice on a record. If I don’t feel it I’m not going to put my voice on it or it won’t be released.
You’re known for singing sweet love songs but the album goes into deep roots in the middle.
Yeah and I don’t think that’s in any way contradictory. A few people have mentioned that. I did a couple of interviews last week and people were surprised to hear Johnny Osbourne and Bitty singing Jahovia. And this is it again: it’s not just one dimension. Bitty Mclean isn’t just singing love songs. That wasn’t the influence I grew up with. I was listening to Burning Spear, Culture, Gladiators. That’s that whole background to me coming out to be honest. I’ve got nothing to hide or feel ashamed to sing about Jahovia or anything conscious or write a song that’s kind of food for thought if you know what I mean. So that’s just me as an artist, I’m glad that I’m moving on and have had a chance to do that. Because with the previous album it was very much in the rocksteady era which was very romantic. It was the most romantic period of Jamaican music was rocksteady. It would have been impossible to sing a cultural song on those rhythm tracks so it was another branch to the tree to show the songwriting skills and the vibe which I grew up with. The music was very conscious back in the seventies and that’s what we were absorbing while listening to the music.
Consciousness is an interesting one. Some people like Alpheus who I interviewed last year see love songs as conscious songs.
Well there you go. We have a saying “God is love” so if you’re singing about love you’re still conscious in that sense and you’re still singing about consciousness. I got no problem with that. I do love writing love songs and that’s kind of my vein but that doesn’t mean I’m not watching the news or how people are living and that. People are being stabbed every week in London and there’s shooting and stuff like that man. It affects everyone man. So there’s got to be a time when you’ve got to sing something conscious and not run away from it.
What do you think of the current UK reggae scene? Is it in good health?
Awww… come on! You know it’s not, Angus!
That’s a much more direct answer than I’m used to hearing.
It’s something I get asked about all the time and I say it’s not just one thing that means British reggae is at the low level it’s at right now. The one thing I always point to is that there’s no scene anymore where you can go out on a Saturday night and hear the local sounds string up and play the latest music and pre-releases or whatever. That kind of scene has gone whereas in Europe it’s still there. You can go out and listen to sounds weekly. So that’s one drawback to where the state of British music is at the moment. I’ve been kind of spoilt. My career was launched on an international level so I didn’t just make music for England or for Birmingham (where I’m from). I always had an insight from an international level where I could be selling records in South Africa, or Hawaii or in Europe. So I’ve always had that vision that if I make a record or an album there’s a worldwide audience. I’m saying the whole world’s going to love what I do but around the world there’s going to be territories, which are into reggae where the music can be marketed. And I think there’s a lot of artists, the majority of artists, who have focussed too much on the base of England and not looked overseas to launch themselves in different territories around the world. Again, self reliance is the key. You can’t always depend on other people to do that [for you]. That’s something I’ve always done. I’ve always done my own little bit of networking because I was only signed for two years as an artist. And that was only an independent label, it wasn’t a major or nothing like that. So I’ve kind of tapped into a little market for myself and done my own research. I don’t know. There’s a number of issues for British scene. I mean, how many distributers have we got distributing the music? How many labels have we got signing reggae acts? How many venues have we got where reggae acts can play live? You might have a one off big show at Brixton Academy or wherever but I’m taking on a weekly or monthly basis. Once a month where you can see an up close and personal live show with a British act. What we tend to do is always an event, whether it’s Valentines or Mothers Day or Christmas or New Years. Outside of that there’s rarely any shows any more unless it’s an event or some kind of diary date, which is ludicrous to me. Because, like I say, you can jump on the Eurostar, get into Europe, and you know for a fact, on a Friday or Saturday, there’s somewhere you can go and listen to reggae music. Germany works, Italy works, whereas in England you’re going to be searching. You might have a club night where the pirate deejays might be playing but I’m talking about live music, which in the whole scene is what keeps the foundation under the artist. I don’t know if that ever existed anyway to be honest. I don’t remember a scene where you could see live acts within reggae, within the UK. It was very much PA based which I don’t think helped build an artist’s career. Doing PAs, [compared to] when you’re standing on stage with a live band, well, that’s really the real thing. But the sound system culture is the big minus, that’s where the business, well, we lost our footing. When we couldn’t go out and listen to a sound system anymore. Sound systems have stopped stringing up on a regular basis.
Tell us about your plans. You have a tour planned for the summer?
Yeah. We’re supposed to be out at the festivals, Sly, Robbie, myself. Summerjam, Rototom, there’s a list… I’m still looking at the itinerary at the moment! But that’ll be wicked because, like, the album really should have been out last year but then the diaries wouldn’t have matched. Sly & Robbie were out doing their thing, I was out doing my thing, so this year’s perfect in that the album would be out and we’d be able to tour it as well. We’ve just come back from Japan where we did a five night stint at the Cotton Club, two shows a night, which was really cool. That’s like taking reggae onto this, like, prestigious level, more of a jazz orientated crowd but that was cool.
What’s your take on the scene out there?
Again, you’ve got Club Jamaica; you’ve got lists of clubs. Like I say there’s a scene. So three nights a week you know you can go somewhere in Tokyo and listen to reggae music. And we were only in Tokyo so I’m not talking about Nagoya or Yokohama or all these other places in Japan. This is just one part, and there’s at least six clubs with regular sound systems having their base or their resident night. It’s exciting and I feel, that’s how we should have it here in England, you know what I mean? Where you can just walk into a club and hear the music that you’re into. It’s a shame what’s happening here, but it’s always exciting when you go somewhere else. They say the grass is greener on the other side but it is! It really is at the moment. I don’t know what the solution is to bring it back to how we once had it. I don’t know if it will come back to be honest. But we live in hope man. We live in hope.
Why do you think your classic no gimmicks style of reggae remains in demand?
Because there’s been a drought of it! (LAUGHS) If it wasn’t for Beres [Hammond]. I have to say Beres because he’s been so consistent. But there’s been a drought and it goes back to what I was saying before. The imbalance of singers and deejays makes it look like reggae’s a one dimension thing. It’s just dancehall music. I mean, going back to releasing On Bond Street, it was totally against the grain. There was nothing out there that was old but new, new but old. I think that’s the key to why it worked. And I’ve never strayed from the authentic roots of reggae music, which is drum, bass, organ, piano and guitar. I stay close to that formula because it works! (LAUGHS) The blueprint of Tommy McCook and The Supersonics, The Sound Dimensions, The Revolutionaries, The Professionals, all these great groups stayed close to that blueprint. So I’m not going out there to redesign the engine! I’m just sticking and bringing my original touch to out. And the only original thing that I bring to it is my voice, my melodies and my songs. But nothing new. I’m trying to say I’m reinventing it all or doing anything that Alton wasn’t doing, or Ken Boothe. The greats. I’m kind of staying close to that blueprint. It’s new but old, old but new. “Jamaican Soul” someone called it the other day. It’s soul music but it’s Jamaican. Totally authentic Jamaican music. So that’s me: I just stay close to that. I don’t go over the boundaries too far. Sing the odd soul tune or two, the odd groove, but stay close the authentic old one drop.
Photos credit : (c) (p) 2007-2008 Youri Lenquette, except for the photo wih Sly & Bitty McLean : (c) (p) 2006 Wonder Knack.
SOURCE: United Reggae