The Godfather of Reggae

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

Shortly after 1:00 a.m. Clive Crystal appears, shadowed by his eerily silent assistant Bobby. Crystal has brought along his own turntables and mixing console, as well as several crates of classic reggae albums and singles, most of them initial pressings. (Crystal stresses the rarity of his records; on this night, as some of his oldest platters are spun, he nods approvingly to O'Neil at their scratches: authenticity.) From the Hiltonaires' Ska Motion in Ska-Lip-So LP featuring the group's legendary rendition of "Tom Dooley" to Basil Daley's "Hold Me Baby," each and every groove of Crystal's collection is on vinyl.

Two a.m. comes and goes, and the music thrums on, Crystal taking special delight in selecting tunes O'Neil hasn't heard in more than twenty years. He, O'Neil, and Bobby talk shop, conversing in a patois as thick as curry, as speedy as an auctioneer's. "I got a whole posse of street sweepers. They listen to me all night. Damn, I didn't even know them things had radios in them!"..."Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, John Holt, Carlos Malcolm all livin' in Miami now. They could do one hellfire oldies thing!" Occasionally one will dance in place to a song, dipping a hip, stepping, swinging arms in that singular reggae style.

They carry on that way until the sun comes up, Clint, Clive, and Bobby, three Jamaican homeboys grooving on classic ska and rock-steady tunes from their youth.

Clint O'Neil is the godfather of reggae in this town," proclaims Peggy Quattro. The publisher and editor-in-chief of Reggae Report and an authority on the local and international reggae scenes, Quattro has been involved in the reggae business since 1981 and has witnessed the rise in both the music's popularity and O'Neil's. "Clint has been here from the beginning," she says. "It couldn't have been easy to convince the station to let him do his thing when he started. In 1981 I couldn't book Jimmy Cliff into a 500-seat nightclub in South Florida, even though he was selling out stadiums all over the rest of the world. But the music has made great strides. Artists like Beres Hammond, Marcia Griffiths, and Robbie Shakespeare have bought houses here. Every record label has a representative in Miami. Chris Blackwell set up South Beach Studios. The Caribbean Satellite Network is based here. [Local reggae band] Inner Circle has become so popular and now they've won a Grammy.

"If Clint plays a record enough here, the buzz will eventually reach CMJ," Quattro continues, referring to the College Music Journal, "and their charts will pick it up, which can lead to national airplay and exposure."

According to WLRN station manager Roger Kobzina, the last time the station obtained Arbitron ratings that included O'Neil's time slot was 1992. The DJ was drawing a mind-boggling 29 percent audience share. (By comparison, WLYF-FM (101.5), one of South Florida's most popular stations, recently topped the daytime charts with a fourteen percent share.) Of course, market share is a percentage, and 100 percent of a small number is still a small number. But anecdotal evidence suggests O'Neil's audience is substantial.

"There are eight phone lines completely lit up while he's on the air," offers Kobzina. "No gifts, giveaways, or premiums. They just want to talk to Clint."

O'Neil tells of a fighter pilot who tuned in while training at Homestead Air Force Base and painted "Clint O" on the nose of his plane, which is currently flying recon missions over Bosnia. Listeners call in requests from the Bahamas. Fan letters arrive from Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Friends vacationing in Jamaica report back that they caught O'Neil's program while sipping drinks at Rick's Cafe in Negril ("I don' know what kinda operation they usin' down there, but they pickin' us up," O'Neil says). Promoters fly him around the hemisphere to host Caribbean music festivals in exotic locales such as Cartagena and Rio. Also, according to the DJ, a deal is in the works to syndicate his show two or three nights a week in Tokyo.

It's a far cry from the early days, when O'Neil was working only four hours a week at WLRN and thinking about selling cars or driving a truck to make a living. O'Neil credits an old friend, a fellow named Robert Nesta Marley, with providing a dose of much-needed encouragement. "When I had ideas about quittin' and go do somethin' else, Bob would tell me, 'Man, don' worry about it. You work, you mus' get paid. Go ahead an' do whatcha doin'.' We used to be in the old Lindsey-Hopkins building, and he'd come over and hang out with us," O'Neil recounts, invoking his predilection for referring to himself in the first-person plural. "That was 1979; Bob was already very popular. It was one thing that maybe convince us: If he had faith, it's gotta work out."

O'Neil was working in New York as a club DJ when he first got to know Marley and he was somewhat surprised to find Trenchtown's favorite son in Miami, living at the house he'd bought for Mother B. "I knew he was sellin' a lotta records, but I didn't realize how rich he was until one particular day his financial advisor came down to the house and said, 'You know, I told you you should put a million or two in gold yesterday,'" O'Neil remembers. "I looked at Bob and I said, 'A million or two?' He was not a person that you could tell how much money he had. You'd go to the Hungry Sailor, you couldn't ask Bob Marley to buy you a beer because money was somethin' he never walk around with. I mean, he never had money.

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