I’ve interviewed plenty of people I consider to be legends, but I’m quite sure I’ve never interviewed someone who has sold over 20 million records. I had the pleasure of interviewing reggae legend Jimmy Cliff for Massey Hall’s Performance magazine; here are excerpts from the piece and my full conversation with Mr. Cliff.
Who knew he was a Green Day fan? Also: note his odd, rambling answer to my innocuous final question.
Jimmy Cliff plays Massey Hall in Toronto tonight, July 19.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t reach beyond its namesake genre very often. Which is why Jimmy Cliff, inducted in March 2010, is one of only two reggae artists (so far) to be deemed worthy of inclusion alongside the likes of the Beatles, James Brown, Ray Charles, AC/DC and hundreds of other legends.
The list of international reggae superstars can be boiled down to two names: Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. It was Jimmy Cliff who starred in the movie The Harder They Come, which introduced Jamaican reggae culture to the world. That film’s soundtrack—dominated by Cliff classics like the title track, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” and “Many Rivers to Cross”—was the best selling reggae album ever, until the 1984 release of Bob Marley’s posthumous greatest hits album, Legend. And it was Cliff who first discovered Marley as a hungry and confident 16-year-old performer, auditioning in a rum bar in 1962.
Cliff himself was only 14 at the time, and had just scored his first local hit with a song called “Hurricane Hattie,” which reached #1 in Jamaica. Cliff grew up in the district of Somerton in rural Jamaica, where he shared a house with eight siblings, and started singing in church. His father brought him to Kingston at age 12 to attend a technical school, studying TV and radio and trying to find someone to record his songs. One day he walked in Leslie Kong’s shop, a combination ice cream parlour, cosmetics boutique, and record store. Kong wanted his shop to be stocked with exclusive product, and this young, enterprising youth convinced him to start making records—starting with Cliff’s.
In 1964, Cliff made another key connection, when young Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell invited him to take part in the Jamaican contingent of ska singers for the 1964 World Fair in New York City. This peaked the interest of American record companies, who released ska compilations following the fair; one was co-produced by Curtis Mayfield and featured a couple of Cliff numbers.
At Blackwell’s suggestion, Cliff moved to the U.K., which was the largest market for Jamaican music off the island. Four years later, Cliff would release his debut for Blackwell’s label, Island Records, and score a huge hit in Brazil, “Waterfall,” which prompted a short stay there.
After extensive touring in South America, Cliff scored an international hit with “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” which served as his introduction to North America. Cliff then returned home to Jamaica, where he started developing younger artists, and scored another hit with a cover of Cat Stevens’ song “Wild World.”
Then came the pivotal moment in Cliff’s career, when he was tapped to star in The Harder They Come, a 1971 movie about a rural Jamaican trying to navigate the bullet-ridden, drug-infested alleys of the music business. The film became a cult hit around the world, offering many people their first glimpses of reggae culture in Jamaica. Cliff credits the film not only with the commercial height of his career—the soundtrack has sold millions of copies—but with the international reach of reggae itself.
The Harder They Come—which was transformed into a Broadway musical recently—marked Cliff’s commercial peak, but his recording career never slowed down, scoring hits in the ’80s (“Reggae Night,” with Kool and the Gang) and the ’90s (“I Can See Clearly Now, from the film Cool Runnings) and travelling the world. Now 62, he divides his time between Paris and Jamaica, where he recently built a studio and finished work on his latest album, Existence, with young Jamaican studio musicians (who will also comprise his touring band).
April 22, 2010
To my knowledge, you haven’t played a full show in Toronto in eight years.
That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to it. They are great fans of Jamaican music, but also my brand of Jamaican music. Toronto has always been interesting and important place for music in general, and for reggae music. I remember on my first North American tour, when my movie had just made a big impact all over the world, what the media said in Canada kind of filtered through to the rest of North America. That makes Canada particularly Toronto, very important.
Did you know any of the reggae music coming out of Toronto at the time? Or people like Jackie Mittoo or Leroy Sibbles or Willie Williams, who all moved to Toronto?
I knew all of those artists before they moved to Toronto. We have always known that Toronto is a very important place.
It’s also one of the first places that The Harder They Come musical opened. Was it not the first place it opened after London?
Yes, it was. I came not for the opening of the musical, but I did some promotion before the musical opened there.
How did you feel about the musical? Was it something you ever envisioned happening?
I didn’t really envision it as a musical, so I was pleasantly surprised at the way it turns out. I saw the opening in London. I was surprised because I did the movie and I had not really aware that much about the power of the music. So having seen it in a musical, I see it in another dimension.
A lot has happened since the last time you toured. Along with the musical, you received a doctorate, an order of merit, and last month an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Obviously that means a lot, but does it mean as much to you as the fact that you’ve sold millions of albums that are in people’s homes?
I’ve always wanted to touch the world with my art. It’s what I do. I have achieved a good portion of that. I’m an established artist internationally, but I have not done all that I have set out to do. I’m quite happy with what I’ve achieved so far.
What are your goals yet to be fulfilled?
I have not made any #1 albums on the Billboard Charts. I have not made any #1 singles on the Billboard Charts. I am playing halls like Massey Hall and theatres, but I am not playing arenas and stadiums. (laughs) So I still have goals!
You don’t want to rest on your laurels.
Not at all! Those things I just named out there are really things that I still intend to achieve.
And you have a new album to help you do that.
I’m very happy with this album. There are two albums that I’ve put out that I feel I’ve been chasing over the years. I feel like now I have caught up with those two albums and surpassed them with this album. Those two albums I’m talking about are of course the soundtrack to the movie and the album Wonderful World Beautiful People.
So this is your best record in 30 years?
I’m feeling like that, yes. It’s difficult to say concretely. Every new album I make, I aim to make it better than the last one. Songs are like a woman giving birth to children: you love all your children, but the last one gets the most attention.
Usually because it’s the loudest!
Do you still live in France or are you back in Jamaica?
I used to be based in England, and after I left there Jamaica became my base. Having said that, there are places where I’ve spent a lot of time like here in France. I spend maybe three quarters of the time in Jamaica—not straight—and another quarter of the time in France, but on and off.
What appeals to you about France?
It’s a good music city. You get creativity from all over the continent of Africa and Asia. There is a mixture of cultures here that makes it interesting.
When did you first get the sense that reggae became and international music, that it wasn’t just Jamaican music anymore? It was embraced around the world—not just England or the U.S.—and lots of local cultures had their own takes on it. When did you notice that happening?
I think it was when The Harder They Come came out. Prior to that, there were people like myself, Desmond Dekker and quite a few others who had hits in Europe, particularly in England, and also in North America. But people had not seen it as a new music form. It was like novelty hits. When The Harder They Come came out, people said, ‘Oh, here is a new culture, a new music making a big impact on the world.’ That was the turning point.
Reggae is so indelibly part of the culture—when I think of Jamaican culture the first thing I think of is reggae music—and yet the way the music has travelled around the world, it’s become very independent of Jamaican culture, the way people use reggae in their own music.
I think it has become like a lot of other popular music forms, like rock’n’roll, or jazz, R&B and country. Whatever part of the world people adopted it to their own culture, they put their own experiences in it and it turns out a little different from what the authentic ones are, and it’s great.
I notice you’re playing some theatres on this tour, but you’re also playing Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, diverse festivals with a lot of young audiences.
Oh, how exciting, huh? I’m really looking forward to that. One of the festivals I’ve been doing in Europe, people who have seen the movie brought their children, so when I look into the audience I see different generations. Some people say, ‘My parents listened to this music and that’s how I became a fan.’ But I have not really had that experience in North America. Every generation got their own take on it, and why they like it.
You’ve always been about the uplift and about the positive and you want your music to reflect that. What do you say to people who find it hard to be positive in times like this?
Even more in times like this do people need this kind of music. We want to be able to appreciate our own lives, to appreciate living in this time of so much uncertainty: psychologically, spiritually, economically. People do need this kind of music. No matter how difficult you may find it to be positive, you always want something to make you feel good, to not stay in that state of mind all the time.
At the same time, The Harder They Come is not a happy story, and that’s what you’re best known for.
Not at all a happy story, no. However, it gives one hope even though my character didn’t fare so well toward the end. At the same time, it’s still a story with a national universal theme. You still find a young boy from Quebec or wherever coming to Toronto, the big city, and saying, ‘I want to make my fortune here.’ The choice my character took led him down a road where it was a dead end.
The new album is called Existence. That seems like a broad theme.
It’s a big heavy title! It is our existence on this planet at this time: ecologically, economically, spiritually, socially, all the aspects of our lives of living on this planet and beyond. People are starting to doubt religion and looking for the reality of life and people are not finding it in organized religion. All of these aspects on the planet and beyond, people are really concerned about them.
What role do you think music plays in a culture that is turning away from religion?
It depends again on what the artist is putting out there for the people. I am still putting out music with a positive twist, because the reality is that we always have these two choices in life. The positive and the negative do exist, and it’s how we balance it that gives us some sanity. I try to do that in my music. I’m coming out of a situation where I could have taken any road, and I managed to see the other way and choose that way and balance it with the disagreeable way I could have taken. And if I bring that to the lives of people, hopefully they will find some comfort in it, some direction.
You’ve collaborated with many people over the years. Who are you working with on this new record?
I am working with a young set of Jamaican musicians, who are very creative. They grew up listening to my music, and now they say they have something they can contribute to me. That made it special to me. I am going on tour with them. Who would I like to work with? For me, the way I look at it is if the vibe is right. On my last album I did some things like Sting and Annie Lennox and Wyclef Jean and a few other people. It just happened—we were talking and said ‘let’s do something.’ It’s a mutual feeling. I think it works better that way.
These young people, are they artists in their own right, are they studio musicians?
They are studio musicians who have their own band in Jamaica. I picked three from that band and two from that band and one from that band and put all their creative energies together and take them on the road.
What do you see of yourself in these young musicians? You had your first hit at 14, and you were quite bold in stepping up and starting a record label. You were very active very young.
What I see in these young musicians is that they have a lot to offer. They want to offer it to the world internationally. They see me as someone who established myself out there but still very viable and current in this time.
Is there anyone you greatly admire right now in terms of young artists, carrying that kind of positivity and openness that defined your career?
There are a few people in Jamaica. There is this female artist, Queen Ifrica, she is touching on subjects that most artists wouldn’t touch, like incest. She is really empowering young girls, about education and those kind of things. She makes some love songs too, but she really touches social and cultural subjects and empowers young girls to try to make the best of themselves. I appreciate that. [Queen Ifrica plays a free show at Toronto’s Harbourfront on Saturday, July 31, as part of Caribana.] Then there is Tarrus Riley; he is also touching on those kind of subjects. That’s on a local basis. Internationally, there are some rappers that I like. Some R&B people I like. Some rock people; I like the band Green Day. I like Jay-Z because as a rapper he’s been out there and staying on one level of consciousness that I really appreciate. R&B people: Mary J. Blige.
I’m sure you’ll see a lot of younger artists when you play these large festivals with different artists, too.
How old are your youngest kids right now?
I like to make that subject very clear. The subject of children: I look at it from a perspective of the African way. Every mother is a mother; every father is a father.
The way I grew up in my village in Summertown, Jamaica, if I’m on my way to school or on the street out there, and I do something out of order, any mother or any father could catch me and scold me. When I went home, I dared not say anything or I’d get another scolding on top of it. Or, if I need something to take me on to school, a kind word or bus fare—well, we didn’t have buses at that time—or lunch money, the community takes care of everyone. So having grown up with nine of us in one household, and not all of us were from the same mother and father. But we look at each other as brothers and sisters.
So in that sense, I think this is the right concept and I think this is what is missing today, why families are breaking down. Because if I say ‘these are my two children, and these are your two children’ and we look at it that way, it’s not covering the whole situation. I think the old African way where the village takes care of the children, I prefer it that way. I wouldn’t look at my own biological children and say ‘these are my only children.’ I see all the children as my children.