Dread Reckoning

Dub architect, crossover dreamer, music exec, and all-around nice guy, Mikey Dread has kept the reggae fires burning for almost twenty years

He met with the program directors at black-oriented stations Hot 105 and WEDR. While Hot 105 program director Tony Kidd refused comment for this article, WEDR's James T. (Thomas) says his station would never go for a block show. "I believe it's a music that can hold its own," he says of reggae. "It can be a part of our programming, and it is. We play reggae songs. There are day parts when we play more of it, but we don't block it out [play reggae music exclusively in blocks]. People who love reggae love American music, too. Some people think the greater support [for reggae] comes from those of Caribbean descent. But I believe that's because others simply haven't been exposed to it."

That attitude rankles Dread, who rattles off a list of stations in other places that offer blocks of reggae programming (New York, Connecticut, Boston -- "and most big cities"). Of Miami's commercial stations, he grumbles, "They pity us and play a reggae song here and there. That's not good enough. Their listenership is partly us. Besides, you hear a song that's six months old by the time Hot 105 plays it." He goes on to point out that WAVS mixes together a variety of Caribbean music ("they're trying to be too diverse"); that Clint O'Neil of public-radio station WLRN is confined to overnights ("that's why I'm not on at night"); and that Steve Radzi's Saturday show on public-access WDNA is high quality but few people know about it.

Dread feels something deeper and darker than stubborn radio execs keeps him from reaching the masses. "Sometimes I take it personally," he says. "Maybe it's because I'm black. Or because I'm Rasta. But even black companies show resistance."

Desperate for air time, Dread was forced to create his own commercial programming block, which he pays to broadcast on WAXY. "CSN failed, so what next?" Dread asks rhetorically. "What could I do for up-and-coming -- and established -- artists? The American labels are promoting dancehall, so an established artist might not get airplay if he's not using computerized drum machines. The natural feel of musicians sweating and working out patterns and playing chops and real bass-guitar-drums...gone are those days of craftsmanship. We can't forget the Sixties, Seventies, even Eighties. Other DJs aren't part of the industry. People tell me I'm an originator, and that makes me want to be back in it. I was waking up one day, and I thought I should check out WAXY. An hour became available, I took it, then a second hour. Now we see what happens."

Michael "Mikey Dread" Campbell was born 40 years ago in Port Antonio, a town of about 10,000 on the northeastern coast of Jamaica, two hours by car from Kingston. Among the most beautiful areas of a beautiful country, Port Antonio is often used as a setting for movie shoots; the Blue Mountains, where some of the world's best coffee and ganja is grown, loom as background.

When he was a kid, Michael was called Speller. "Coca-Cola would sponsor these [spelling] competitions," Dread says during lunch at June's Restaurant. "And I was the champ from my school. But I really loved math and physics."

Among the artwork decorating June's is a painting of a place that easily could be Port Antonio. All the houses rendered in the picture have large verandas, as if some section of the American South had been airlifted out and then plopped down in the island nation.

Speller's father, Simeon Campbell, was a fisherman. His mother, Avril, was kept busy rearing the couple's five children. They were poor. "But growing up was fun," Dread says, sipping his root drink. "We didn't go hungry. If you starve in Jamaica, it's because you're too lazy and don't want to eat. The houses there have these things called verandas, like big porches, and everyone would sit out there. People would pass, and they would give you things, fruits, you know? Someone might walk by and give you a bunch of bananas. If someone killed a goat, they'd bring some of the meat. I mostly grew up eating fish. My father was born in 1904 and he's still living. He don't walk with no stick. He doesn't talk stupid. He can go anywhere in Jamaica and he won't get lost. That's from eating fish."

Speller evinced an early interest in electronics, despite the fact that his school provided little in the way of telecommunications courses; he figured things out on his own. By high school he was a pirate broadcaster. "I messed with electronics and tried to do some stuff," he recalls. "I built a transmitter, just a little one, very simple, with tubes, not transistors. I fixed it so I could preempt [one of Jamaica's two national radio networks] within a five-mile radius of my school. I'd put on an album and run to class." Eventually his headmaster caught on. But instead of whacking Speller's knuckles, he arranged for a license to make things legal.

Campbell then enrolled at Kingston's College of Arts, Science, and Technology to continue his studies of electronic technology. And that's where he discovered his African roots and became a Rastafarian. "With that," he says, "I decided to drop the pretense of the suit and tie. I grew a beard. I decided it was not right to judge by appearance. If you love God and read the Bible, you can be like you want to be."

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