The Music Diaries | Prince Buster: Jamaica's musical ambassador
Although Derrick Morgan is reputed to have worn several hats in Jamaican popular music, his good friend and competitor, Prince Buster, may not be very far behind. Buster excelled as a sound system operator, record producer, recording artiste, songwriter, music arranger, businessman, and an international music ambassador promoting Jamaican music in the United Kingdom and across Europe.
Growing up, Buster's dream was to become the champion sound system operator in Jamaica. He had always considered himself a defender of the underdog and underprivileged and wanted his sound system to represent that.
In a chat with Buster at 127 Orange Street in Kingston, he told me, "I have always been the people's man. From a boy, I learnt boxing, and it helped me to voice and hold my opinion for the people, and the whole system of how my sound was made up - it was made up of the people - my friends at Matthews Lane and Luke Lane." It wasn't a surprise then that Buster named his sound system 'The Voice of The People'.
Voice of the people
By the early 1960s, Buster's 'Voice Of the People' had made appreciable inroads in the sound system business in Jamaica, and in order to flop his opponents (Coxsone's Downbeat, Duke Reid The Trojan, and King Edward The Giant being the main ones), Buster decided to fly to the United States under the guise of the Farm Work Programme to buy hard-to-get vinyl records to play on his sound system. However, he was unceremoniously stopped at immigration by a Customs officer, who turned out to be a relative of one of his competitors. Alternatively, he turned to the recording business, and that's how he met Morgan.
Initially, the friendship with Morgan might have lasted longer were it not for a recording that Morgan did for his new-found producer - Leslie Kong - around Independence time. Ironically, the recording - Forward March - was designed to unite the nation, but instead, it did quite the opposite for Morgan and Buster. Buster pointed to a saxophone solo in the recording, which he claimed he created and Morgan copied from him. This, Buster claims, was his belongings that Morgan stole and gave to producer Leslie Kong. He magnified the drama in his recording Blackhead Chineman:
"You done stole my belongings and give to your Chineman
God in heaven knows, he knows that you are wrong
Are you a Chineman, are you a blackman?
You don't need no eyeglass to see that your skin is black."
It developed into an ongoing recorded lyrical exchange that became known as the first musical war. As a record producer, Buster benefited from Morgan's Shake A Leg, Monty Morris, Humpty Dumpty, and Money Can't Buy Life, and The Buster All Stars instrumentals African Blood and Mighty As a Rose. Buster himself produced and recorded the ska chart toppers Wash Wash, Time Longer than Rope, Creation, Madness, Enjoy Yourself, Hard Man Fi Dead, Judge Dread, They Got To Go, They Got To Come My Way and countless others.
Ska paradigm shift
Buster's productions, generally, portrayed a paradigm shift in the style and beat of ska by emphasising the after beat and introducing hand claps, mouth organ riffs, alongside a slowed-down ska beat. It was a style, Buster claimed, he created and coordinated with the Drumbago All Stars band. "I let him (Drumbago) know the type of sound I wanted, and from 1:30 to 4 a.m. night after night, is me and him a rehearse the band," Buster told me in an interview.
Getting into the business of the music, Buster opened his Prince Buster Record Shack along Charles Street in Kingston in the early 1960s but later moved to 127 Orange Street. It became a buzz of activity, focusing on the sale of records, electronic accessories, and a flourishing jukebox business. Buster, in the meantime, continued to record, produce, and release a string of hit recordings for himself and others. The business folded in the 1990s mainly because his hectic overseas business activities forced him to be away from home for prolonged periods.
Buster first left Jamaica's shores in 1963, along with Morgan, for a visit to the UK to sign a recording contract with Melodisc Records' Boss Emile Shalit for the distribution of Jamaican recordings in the UK on the 'Blue Beat' label. It opened the floodgates for the release of hundreds of Jamaican recordings in Europe. Buster's recordings, in particular, received a gigantic boost through his promotions.
Alcapone Guns Don't Argue was a massive hit for Buster in 1967, and he consolidated his position as the most popular recording artiste in the UK at the time when he recorded there with the George Fame band, the unstoppable ska, Wash Wash. He was indeed one of Jamaica's first musical ambassadors.
Buster, who had converted to Islam through the inspiration of his close friend Muhammad Ali, placed his pugilistic qualities on display in a four-round title contest against Gene Coy at Jamaica's National Stadium on October 3, 1964. Buster won by a knockout in the first round, but the purse was withheld pending an investigation into a questionable performance. It was later released.