Afropop Worldwide’s Sam Backer got the chance to talk to reggae legend Jimmy Cliff about his new album, his lengthy career, and the state of Jamaican music.
Sam Backer: Hello. It is an honor to speak with you sir. I just want to start by congratulating you on your new album, which is fantastic.
Jimmy Cliff: Thank you, Sam. Thank you very much indeed.
S: The album, Rebirth, is in many ways a return to the form of your classic work, both in style and in the way that it was recorded.
S: What were you trying to achieve with it? And do you think that you were successful in that?
J: Well -on the latter part- yes. I think I am successful in doing what I want to do. I can’t say if I am successful commercially. It’s still got a way to go.
I wanted to do the album for the reason that there was a point in my career where I knew I had to go back to these roots. I had gone into other music forms, and recorded other types of music and all of that, and I knew I wanted to go back to this. So when I linked with Tim Armstrong, this time seemed like it was the right time to do that.
S: How did you link up with Tim Armstrong?
J: It was a suggestion from my management. I had known about Tim Armstrong’s music via Joe Strummer of the Clash, and from the time when we spoke on the phone, and then when we finally met in the studio, everything just flowed.
S: What was it like working with Tim? How is he as a producer and…he co-wrote one song, right?
J: Yes- I mean, he co-wrote more than one song. Tim is very cool and like sensitive and understanding. Plus, he is a reggae connoisseur, so he would throw it ideas, and I would throw it ideas, and we would bounce off each other. And that made it creative and exiting- exciting for me.
S: He’s well known for being an enormous reggae fan. Had you worked with someone who knew the music so well as a fan before?
J: Maybe not? Maybe not. I have to say- I’ve worked with people in the past who were fans, but maybe not to the degree of Tim.
S: I loved your cover of “Ruby Soho,” and I was wondering- how much of Rancid and his work had you heard before?
J: Not a whole lot. I mean- I saw him do his version of “The Harder They Come,” and, you know, some of his other classic stuff. I’ve listened to some of those.
S: One of the things I really liked about the new album was that there was a heavy rocksteady, kind of ska influence in a lot of it. What lead you to take that route?
J: Because the reggae music started out like that you see. Started from ska, to the rocksteady, to the reggae, so I really wanted to cover the whole spectrum of it. So that’s where I think we were successful in doing that.
S: Yeah, because they really got the feel, I thought.
J: Yeah, and that was quite an amazing thing, that he put together all of those musicians, who were like connoisseurs themselves too. That was the great thing you know. And the instruments that we used- I didn’t even know that it was still possible to get those instruments, to get the same sound that we used then. So, it was really a great journey.
S: It was all vintage instruments?
J: All vintage instruments.
S: Wow. How big was the band?
J: Two guitars, base and drums, keyboards, and we all played percussion.
S: You all played percussion?
J: Well, I played percussion on some of them, and some of the other musicians played percussion on some of them as well. Because percussion is one of the things that we put on, not all the time on all the tracks live, but was something that we dubbed on later. But most of the other tracks were live.
S: Just cut straight live?
J: I think that you can feel that all of the live feeling that comes out on it, and the togetherness and the feeling off each other came out on it. So yeah- I’m really pleased myself.
S: In preparation, I was reading some of the interviews that you had done for the album before this, in 2004. In a lot of those interviews, you express what sounds like some real frustration with the record industry, and the music scene in general. And I’m wondering if anything has changed since then.
J: That’s why it took me so long to really make another album. Because the music business has changed so dramatically, I had to try to find the right way to fit in terms of having the right people around me and all of that, in every aspect. Because I was kind of frustrated with how the music is changing. You know, it’s my livelihood, it’s what I love to do, and I’m happy that I’m doing what I love to do and making a living from it, but the whole commerciality of it has changed so much, you know. It’s just the artistic part that brings the joy now.
S: In your experience, how has the commerciality changed?
J: Well, you know- if I should be frank- the music industry doesn’t make a lot of money like it used to, at all. Artists don’t make a lot of money like they used to. Because a kid from this generation, he can just go and download some thing, you know, sometime he don’t even have to pay for it. So all of that has taken away a lot from the creative artists. But the creative aspect of it is still joyful.
S: What is it about this style of reggae music that allows it to resonate so strongly after 40 years?
J: Well, I named this album Rebirth because it’s a time of rebirth for my career, and it’s a rebirth for the planet and the reggae music in this vein has always been an expression of the social, political, and spiritual aspects of a human being living on this planet. And this album has combined all of that. So I think that’s why it resonates a lot, and that’s why this kind of music has resonated with people. Because it’s not only dealing with the relationship aspect of human beings, but all the other aspects which I just mentioned.
S: So reggae music- in a way, its both personal and social?
J: Personal and social? Yes.
S: One of the things that I love about the album is that it has a kind of positive feeling and political engagement that I think is lacking in a lot of modern music, including a lot of modern reggae and dancehall. I’m wondering what you think has changed, that people don’t feel driven to express those sentiments as much as maybe they use to.
J: That’s a great question. In all aspects of music- because, when you mention dancehall, dancehall is really just dealing with girls and cars and superstars, and nothing to do with social, spiritual, and political aspects of human liberty on this planet. And a lot of artists they are not doing that in anyway. So, I cannot say exactly why, but I think the stress and the strain that people are going through today- sometimes they don’t want to be bothered to be reminded of the things that they are facing. But I think the way that I put it together here, I make you look at it, listen to it, and you can swallow it because I put so much positiveness into it.
S: So you think its escapism?
J: It’s one type of escapism. Just give me some music so I can dance and I don’t have to think. But, like I said, the way I put together my lyrics and all of that, I remind you that even with the world upside down, I put a spin on it and say, you know, what about love. And everyone needs love.
S: As you were saying, in modern Jamaican music like dancehall, things have changed a lot both lyrically, and musically. What kind of relationship do you have to more modern forms of Jamaican music?
J: Well, I really have a very good relationship with everyone, for example people like Beenie Man or Bounty Killer, or Sean Paul, or any one of them. I have really good relationship with them. Its just, you know, we have different points of view of the world, and I think there is room for all.
S: Do you think that the change in that point of view is generational?
J: Yes. Because artists, what we do is we reflect the time. And so what they are expressing and reflecting is also one reality that is of the time. It may be that you could have an optimistic reality and you also have a pessimistic reality.
S: I’m just thinking that a lot of the music that you made was also made in the face of harsh conditions. But it still strove for a change.
S: Do you think then that there is a kind of acceptance? If it’s just cars and superstars, that doesn’t open the possibility of change through music.
J: No, no. I don’t think so. I agree totally- that doesn’t do that. So it’s not all artists that are inclined to go the direction that I go, because you know we all have free minds. But what I do is what I feel naturally to do. And so I think that’s what gives my music the longevity, the timelessness of it, because a song like “You Can Get It if You Really Want” is still very relevant today, and I think will still be very relevant in the future, and “Many Rivers to Cross,” and songs like that.
S: In some of your recent interviews, I know that you’ve said that you would like to be playing stadiums all the time. But you certainly remain remarkably popular all over the world after 40 years. I was wondering what you thought allowed you to keep going when so many of your contemporaries have fallen by the wayside.
J: Well I guess it’s from my goals. I’ve achieved some of my goals, but some of my goals like, to play stadiums, becoming a stadium act is a goal that I’ve yet to realize, and winning an Oscar is a goal yet to be realized, and the string of number one hits, I still don’t think that I’ve written my best songs as yet, is a goal to be realized. So since I’ve set really high goals, I’ve set the bar very high for myself, I guess that’s what keeps me going, and maybe another artist might not have set the bar as high as I have set it for myself.
S: One last question- you’ve always been known as a “double threat.” You’re a stunning singer and a brilliant songwriter. Is there any one song on the album that you’re particularly proud of?
J: The album is like a suite, you know, and each song represents a compartment. So I couldn’t say that there is one that I’m proud of. Maybe, if I had to pick out one song, because I don’t think that I’ve written a song in that vein before- it’s a relationship song, but about a family relationship, and I don’t think that I’ve written one like that before, so it would be the one called “Cry No More.”
S: That’s a great song. So, thank you so much. I wish you the best of luck, congratulations again on the album, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
J: You’re welcome.