The Music Diaries | Sugar Minott a dancehall pioneer
Just two days ago, May 25, we observed African Liberation Day. Quite significantly, the late great singjay and music pioneer Lincoln 'Sugar' Minott, who liberated several youth and aspiring artistes from the doldrums of poverty, was born on that day in 1956. As we pay tribute to him on this 62nd anniversary of his birth, we recall the formation of his Black Roots record label and his Youth Promotions organisation in the late 1970s, which brought to public attention artistes such as Tony Tuff, Barry Brown, Junior Reid, Tenor Saw, Jah Stitch, Captain Sinbad, and others. His projects also involved his Youth Promotions Sound System, which gave added exposure to many young performers.
But that, perhaps, represents only one half of Minott's contribution to Jamaican popular music. Current dancehall music also owes a lot to the works of Minott. He pioneered a style that was central to the emergence of dancehall music. While with producer Clement Dodd's Studio 1 label in the mid- to late 1970s, Minott developed a unique style that saw him singing and rapping over existing Studio 1 rhythms. It was the first glimpse of what would become known as dancehall music.
One of the first recordings that demonstrated this new trend was Oh Mr DC, on which Minott rode the rhythm of the Tenor's rocksteady classic Pressure and Slide. He proved that music done in a kind of rap-singing style on existing rhythms could be just as sweet as the original. In the song, written by Minott, he related an encounter with a lawman:
"Coming from the country with a bag of collie,
I buck upon a DC, him want to hold me.
Don't you run now youthman, you won't get away,
If you slip you will die,
And if you run you can't hide,
For I've got my dick stuck in my hip.
Oh DC don't you take my ishence,
Don't you take my collie.
My children dying for hunger and I man a suffer.
So you've got to see
It's the collie that feeds me."
This and similar compositions like This Old Man and Vanity on the rhythms of Alton Ellis' Get Ready Rocksteady and I'm Just A Guy, respectively, gained for Minott a very huge following at the time. Is It True was equally impressive, while in the recording Vanity, he warned:
"Don't put your trust in vanity for it will let you down
And you'll be on the ground."
Born in Kingston, Minott grew up there under tough conditions, which, no doubt, inspired his altruistic character in later years. Showing an interest in music from a pre-teenager, Minott's first influence came from the sound systems. His burning desire to be a selector brought him within touching distance of the 'Sound of Silence Keystone' sound system on which he operated for a couple of years before starting his own sound, Gathering of Youths, in his early teens.
The second phase of Minott's career saw him venturing into group singing around 1968 with The African Brothers, which included Tony Tuff and Derrick Howard. Among their standout cuts were Party Night, A Di System, Righteous Kingdom, Youths of Today, Mysterious Nature, and No Cup No Broke, which was their last song together and their debut for Studio 1.
The group broke up shortly after, but Dodd was eager to capitalise on Minott's talent, which seemed to him quite rare. He first engaged him as a studio apprentice and a session musician before discovering that he had this extraordinary gift of composing new lyrics to fit over old Studio 1 rhythms. His debut album with the label was Live Loving, while the follow-ups - Showcase and More Sugar Minott - helped to consolidate Minott's position as a true dancehall pioneer and a godfather of the genre. Suddenly, Minott was doing the unusual and the unexpected: rocking the physical dancehall buildings with a genre, fittingly called dancehall.
Minott's desire to have full artistic control and publishing rights for his works and his eagerness to help promote young singers from the ghetto forced him to leave Studio 1 in 1979 and form his own Black Roots record label and his Youth Promotions organisation. By the beginning of the 1980s, the hits kept rolling out unabatedly to the extent that he became well known on the international circuit, triggering his decision to relocate to the United Kingdom in the early 1980s. Picking up where Bob Marley left off, Minott suddenly became one of reggae music's brightest stars with classics like Herbman Hustling, Rub-A-Dub Sound, No Vacancy, and his biggest hit, Good Thing Going, which climbed to No.4 on the British charts.
Returning to Jamaica in the mid-1980s, Minott redirected his efforts to his Youth Promotions organisation, while continuing to record with varying degrees of success throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. His later works were confined to collaborations with other artistes and on-stage performances. Minott's hectic schedule may have taken a toll on his health in later years. He was diagnosed with a heart problem in 2009. It worsened in May 2010, and he succumbed on July 10, 2010, at age 54.