The Godfather of Reggae

Clint O'Neil, legendary radio DJ and guardian of Jamaica's musical heritage, stirs it up at 'LRN

The Hard Rock Cafe, four o'clock on a Thursday afternoon in late February. The occasion is a press conference for the upcoming Bob Marley birthday concert in Bayfront Park. Marley's mother, Cedella Booker (a singer herself, known to her friends and admirers as Mother B), is here, as are several of Bob's progeny, all of whom are to perform at the show. The scene is a virtual who's who of Miami's reggae community. The crowd is fairly evenly divided among journalists, musicians, and people whose occupation can best be described as "something to do with the Marley family." TV cameras are everywhere. As the formal proceedings are about to get under way, a man walks in dressed in black Jordache jeans and a striped cotton shirt. Nobody pays him much mind until a local record producer shouts a hearty "Clint O.!" which initiates a perceptible shift in the room dynamic. A young woman smiles. "You're Clint O.?" she beams. Strangers walk over to shake the man's hand.

The object of this sudden attention, the man who is to co-emcee the Marley event, is agreeable but not enthusiastic. He nods hellos. He shakes hands. He shifts his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. He is an uneasy schmoozer. At the first opportunity he excuses himself from the modest throng, pays his respects to Mother B, small-talks with a few other Marley clan members, and leaves.

A clean, albeit slightly awkward, cameo, executed by Miami's best-known reggae DJ, Clint O'Neil.

You probably wouldn't recognize Clint O'Neil if he walked silently into a room. But the minute he spoke, odds are anyone who has ever tuned in to WLRN-FM (91.3) on a late night would have him pegged. And should someone in that room happen to tell a really good joke, O'Neil's cover would surely be blown. The DJ's trademark laugh, a cross between Wolfman Jack's howl and Eddie Murphy's bleat, with a touch of Bruce Lee's martial-arts grunt thrown in for gusto, is as unforgettable as it is frequently issued on-air, infectious and unsettling, playful and primal.

Cueing up an extended sonic cocktail in honor of Marley's birthday A "One Love" seguing into twelve-inch mixes of "Jamming" and "Coming in from the Cold" A O'Neil is a frenetic blur at the DJ console at WLRN's downtown studios, singing along, bouncing in his chair to the rhythm, head bobbing herky-jerkily like a ventriloquist's dummy as he scans knobs, faders, clock, VU meters, monitors, CD player, and tape deck. He pauses only to sip from a cup of coffee and to light his first Winston of this marathon session, the No Smoking signs posted throughout the studio no match for the DJ's 30-year habit.

Tonight is oldies night, but don't expect to hear Smokey Robinson, the Drifters, or Paul Revere and the Raiders. Between the wee hours of 12:30 and 6:00 a.m., it's oldies rub-a-dub style, courtesy of Clint O.'s overnight show, a staple at the Dade County School Board's public radio station for nearly fifteen years.

O'Neil takes a drag off his cigarette, claps absent-mindedly, dons headphones, and reads a public service announcement for a benefit concert sponsored by S.M.A.R.T. (Single Mothers All Rallying Together). The acronym elicits a chuckle from the DJ, who quips, "Sounds like a union, eh?" Then comes the laugh.

For O'Neil, this "day" began at 11:30 p.m., when he wiped the sleep out of his eyes, donned his clothes and his seven gold necklaces and eleven gold bracelets ("I'm on duty 24 hours, just like 7-Eleven"), drove his Jeep (the two-tone black-and-blue one with the "CLINT O" license plate and "RUBADUB" emblazoned in six-inch-high letters across the hood) to WLRN's downtown studio, arriving just before midnight.

The shift didn't begin smoothly. There was no sugar to be found anywhere in the studio, so the coffee had to be swallowed bitter. And Clive Crystal, a popular club DJ with an extensive collection of rock-steady and early reggae from the Sixties and Seventies A Prince Buster's Bonanza-inspired "Little Joe," the Gaylads's "Chip-monk Ska" ("Ooo-eee-ooo-ah-ah-bing-bang-walla-walla-bing-bang"), Sugar Minott, and Alton Ellis A had agreed to be O'Neil's guest DJ, but he was late. Not that O'Neil was worried. After twenty years in this capricious biz, he long ago learned to roll with the punches. A man who is on-air more than any other DJ in South Florida (six nights per week, six hours per night) is not about to be rattled by the specter of a late-arriving guest. At the very worst, he'd have to do the whole show himself. It wouldn't be the first time.

The phone rings, and O'Neil takes the call on the intercom to keep his hands free to work the control board. A flirtatious voice, recognizable as that of Andrea, the woman who recorded the DJ's "Clint O., the nighttime music-maker" promo spot, illuminates the room.

They trade greetings and chatter about the Marley birthday concert. "You make me feel a million better," O'Neil tells her as they hang up.

Another line lights up, then another. One listener wants O'Neil to play Marley's "Crazy Baldhead." Another wants to know the name of the Arabic song he played on his Reggae from Around the World show the night before. (O'Neil's program goes by several names. On weekends, for instance, it's called Sounds of the Caribbean, and the DJ often refers to his programs collectively as Radio 1, a nod to the station's position at 91.3 on the FM dial.) A shy female caller just wants to hear O'Neil's voice on the telephone. Polite to a fault, O'Neil accommodates them all, dispensing Iries like benedictions.

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