The Godfather of Reggae

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

Station manager Kobzina seconds Quattro's opinion. "He's not only a good DJ, but he's got heart," says the WLRN honcho. Both Kobzina and Quattro cite O'Neil's annual Christmas toy drive, now in its tenth year. The DJ collects a full container of toys ranging from sneakers to farm implements and matches them up with 500 to 600 tots in orphanages in Kingston and in the countryside.

"Clint goes down there with his posse and passes toys out like Santa," Quattro quips.

Despite his kvetching about the demands on his time, O'Neil probably wouldn't want it any other way. In recent years South Florida has become a hub of activity in the reggae music industry. Artists who used to record in New York or Jamaica are now making records here. The "overnight success" of twenty-year vets Inner Circle has drawn attention to the area. (While the band has only recently garnered the attention of white pop audiences, Inner Circle once backed Bob Marley in the pre-Wailers days and they performed with Jacob Miller at the legendary One Love concert in Kingston in 1978, the show best remembered for Marley's symbolic on-stage locking of hands with then-Prime Minister Michael Manley and his bitter political archrival and successor Edward Seaga.) Hopeton Lindo, who has written songs for the Mighty Diamonds and Gregory Isaacs, lives here now, as does Wayne Wade, who scored a number-one single with "I Love You Too Much to Ever Start Liking You" (O'Neil: "Wayne Wade used to walk; now he drivin' a Mercedes, you know?"). Hotshot young producers such as Island's Andy Carr and independent operator Computer Paul have set up shop, too.

The boom in local talent is directly reflected in O'Neil's show. As recently as five years ago, when he tried to dedicate an hour or two per week to locally produced reggae, he had a hard time finding enough good music to keep the idea afloat. In recent years the quantity and the quality of the material he gathers have grown to the point where Monday nights are now completely given over to local entertainers. Guest DJs and artists are common on O'Neil's shows now, as well. Popular club DJs Richie D, Mixmaster Steve, and the ultra-hot Waggy T often stop by to spin, as do Clive Crystal and Count Stocky; performers such as Bigga and Jimmy Cliff have paid visits, too.

The success of the Monday-night idea encouraged O'Neil to experiment with other theme nights. On Tuesday he plays reggae from around the world, featuring material in French, German, Hebrew, Arabic, African dialects, and Spanish. Wednesday is oldies, Thursday dancehall, while Friday and Saturday are usually reserved for the most popular tunes, regardless of category. Of late, that, too, has meant dancehall. O'Neil was one of the first U.S. radio DJs to step to the dancehall beat. The genre, a sort of stripped-down, drum machine-heavy, formulaic hybrid of reggae and rap, has taken the reggae world by storm. O'Neil is philosophical about the innovation: "The reggae I grew up with, that one-drop thing, Bob Marley or whatever, that's like the Grateful Dead of reggae music. Now we're trying to preserve this art form, this culture. That's why we do the show on Wednesdays. Maybe the young kids get familiar with it.

"These young artists A Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton A what they do is fine," the record-spinner continues. "Nowadays they get all the exposure on MTV and Video Jukebox. Imagine how popular Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Third World would have been if they had videos. But all styles of music comin' closer together now. Blues, rock and roll, soca, reggae, whatever. Shabba Ranks make a record with [American R&B superstar] Johnny Gill. You have a couple people like Burning Spear still doin' that culture thing; Lucky Dube from South Africa, trying to keep that tradition 'cause that's the way they learned it. But look at Sly [Dunbar] and Robbie [Shakespeare], the old guys. They the ones who doin' it now, producin' all the dancehall music." To underscore his point, O'Neil cites the fact that the two most-requested tunes on his show in recent weeks have been Born Jamericans's "Boom Shack Attack" and Terror Fabulous's "Number Two," both dancehall songs.

When asked to comment for an article about O'Neil, Bob Marley's Mother B, who is one of those people whose inner radiance and dignified bearing render many who approach her momentarily speechless, offers this: "I been knowin' Clint a long time now. He was always around the house. He's roots. He's doing great things for the music."

Reggae Report's Quattro goes a step further. "Clint can make or break a record," she states flatly. "People are constantly trying to press things on him, to influence him, but it doesn't work. If it's lousy, he won't play it. He's an innovator."

Such praise makes the DJ uneasy. "We've done everything there is to do in radio," he says. "Concerts, nightclubs. We've produced records. They always tell you about pirates in this business. I produced a number-one hit record [Althea Ranks's "Murderer" in 1983]. Sold thousands of copies but I never collected one dollar. We did the whole thing single-handedly," O'Neil adds, once more lapsing into the first person plural. "We did it to make reggae work in Miami. And now it's workin'. We been doin' this a long time. I wanted to see a major outdoor festival in Miami, we got together some folks and made the Jamaican Awareness Festival happen. I was a director for six years; it's standing on its own feet now in its tenth year. Years ago, when I came here, I'd play a calypso song and people would laugh at it. Now I look at Carnaval A thousands and thousands of people; if you don't have a car rented weeks ahead of time, forget about it. In my mind I have a wonderful feeling, a personal satisfaction I can't share with anybody. I tell my boss, 'You don't know what you done. You give me a spot, you allow people to find out about me. Even if you fire me now, it don' matter. I have a place in this community.'"

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