Love the Mikey Dread

David Katz looks back on the life of Jamaican producer Mikey Dread

Mickey Dread. Photograph by Candice Dixon

Mikey Dread was one of those unusual artists that Jamaica produces every so often. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly where dub was concerned, and during those heady, short-lived days of the reggae-punk alliance, Dread was the figure who best succeeded in stimulating interest in Jamaican music amongst a new set of overseas fans.

Throughout his 30-year career, Mikey’s intense live performances often lasted several hours, putting his band through their paces. I can still remember the first time I heard African Anthem: The Mikey Dread Show Dubwise, whose non-stop mix of cartoon noises, haunted-house shrieks and zany percussion made other dub albums sound tame. Better still were the dub B-sides of 45s issued on his Dread at the Controls label and brilliant extended mixes on 12-inch singles.

And Mikey kept the music coming long after his heyday, with recordings such as Rasta in Control and Life is a Stage. All of which made the news that Mikey had succumbed to a brain tumour on March 15 that much sadder, though the odds were certainly not in his favour when he was first diagnosed last summer.

He was born Michael Campbell in Port Antonio, on Jamaica’s northeast coast, in 1954. Mikey’s enduring love of music began young, and an early aptitude for electronics saw him running the radio station at Titchfield High School, then the only school in Jamaica with a broadcasting licence.

After moving to Kingston during the mid-1970s to study electrical engineering at the College of Arts, Science and Technology, Campbell began researching reggae history for a mandatory essay, and was introduced to influential music figures by an old friend from Port Antonio, singer Watty Burnett of the Congos. The most important link he made was with the master recording engineer King Tubby, who encouraged Campbell to begin voicing original material: his first single, the humorous Barber Saloon, was a local sensation. The follow-up, Love the Dread, was an equally popular single which led to his enduring stage name, although he did not actually wear dreadlocks until considerably later. Other early singles cut for Lee “Scratch” Perry, Joe Gibbs and Sonia Pottinger helped establish his reputation.

Some months before he began recording as a vocalist, Campbell revolutionised Jamaican radio with the Dread at the Controls show, a four-hour programme, starting at midnight, six nights a week, which would feature nothing but Jamaican music, instead of foreign material. Since he was not allowed to speak on air, the show made use of inventive jingles and over-the-top sound effects.

“I was supposed to be a trainee for a while, which was ironic,” Mikey once explained, “because in Jamaica, there was a lot of prejudism (sic) due to how black your skin is. So that force man like me, who is well black, to really excel inna whatever I-man doing in terms of academics. I go into the field as a transmitter engineer, but within six months I realised that I can take this to a next level.”

Immensely popular with the Jamaican public and overseas listeners who obtained copies on audio cassette (including British DJ David Rodigan, who became Mikey’s penpal), the programme was eventually deemed too wild by the station management. But by 1979 he had already assembled the albums Evolutionary Rockers, issued overseas as Dread at the Controls, and African Anthem, in the style of his radio broadcasts, which proved highly popular with punk audiences in Britain.

A major turning point came in 1980, when Mikey was approached by seminal punk group The Clash, with whom he subsequently toured and recorded, helping reggae penetrate a wider international audience. “We do some shows, but that was not an organised thing,” Mikey explained, “because for me to produce them, I wanted to hear or see what it was. In order for me to take a job, I need to know which sort of fans you have and how does your music go across? I was impressed when me see what the guys were doing, so we do the work and it was good.’

Following his involvement in the Clash’s experimental album, Sandinista, which was partly recorded at Channel One studio in Kingston, Dread attended the National School of Broadcasting in the UK. That led to his narration of Deep Roots Music, a six-part reggae documentary aired on British television’s Channel 4 in 1982, then hosting the television series Rockers Roadshow.

Meanwhile, in Jamaica, he produced impressive recordings by Edi Fitzroy, Earl 16, Rod Taylor, and Junior Murvin, as well as his own solo work. His album SWALK, cut in London with UK-based musicians, also saw Mikey straying into lover’s rock territory.

He linked up with UB40 around the time of their hit single Red Red Wine for extensive European tours and the laid-back album Pave The Way. By the mid-1980s, he began spending more time in the US.

He settled in Miami in the early 1990s, where he became programme director of the Caribbean Satellite Network and studied video production at the Arts Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

Mikey completed a degree in music and video production at Lynn University and opened a recording studio.

The entry into his life of Monika, a European medical student who became his wife, brought

increased stability. He continued to deliver powerhouse live performances right up until the sudden onset of his illness. He is survived by Monika, their infant son Zylen Jahlight, and five other children from previous relationships.

 

For more information, go to www.mikeydread.com