By Michael E. Miller
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The beard and the namesake dreadlocks have remained since that time. Dread has bulked up over the years, and his dark moon eyes now are flecked red and graced by a smiling twinkle. Favoring navy-blue slacks, dress shoes, and long-sleeve shirts worn untucked and partly buttoned, Dread takes the form of a benevolent bouncer, a big man with a strong presence. But the tough appearance is belied by his gracious demeanor and his words of peace and unity. Those dirt-dark eyes grin when he says, "Rasta teaches unity." And the Rastaman, in turn, teaches. "My life has been devoted to exposing reggae music."
His first opportunity came in 1976. Between bites of whole snapper, Dread's childhood friend and occasional collaborator, singer Michael Israel, joshes Mikey about his high school days, calling him Speller and mentioning how much more fun it was to listen to dub than to attend class. Dread insists he loved school, especially any lesson that might further his knowledge of electronic technology. Israel pulls out the stops by bringing up Safari Disco.
Since the Sixties, mobile DJs have been a popular part of the Jamaican music scene. Known as "selectors," they build sound systems that they then set up on the street or at parties, playing songs while talking before, during, and after each cut, repeatedly mentioning their own names as part of the performance. Mikey Dread was seventeen when he worked as a DJ at Safari Disco, and after some teasing by Israel, he admits that he didn't play "strictly reggae." Instead, he was likely to cue up the poppy "Funky Nassau" or, if a pretty girl came into his view, a slow, romantic tune.
Soon enough Dread landed a job as an engineer at the government-controlled Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) in Kingston. But his bosses bridled when Dread pushed for more reggae-only programming and for the station not to sign off at midnight but rather to air a live DJ in that slot. "They said yes," he notes, "and then asked who wanted to do overnights. No one did. So I volunteered. While they were sleeping, I had the whole radio station to myself."
According to published accounts, his show, Dread at the Controls, featured a mix of dancehall music (now a chart-topping genre, then an underground form), jingles, and special effects. By lifting sounds such as bits of movie dialogue and mixing together voice, music, and his found sounds, Dread set the table for the endless feast known today as hip-hop or rap. In the mid- to late-Seventies, Dread was making hours of "rap" on the air six nights per week. The JBC brass criticized Dread at the Controls for sounding too much like a sound system, but even as he was put down for being more like a selector than a traditional radio DJ, Dread was named Top Radio Personality for 1977-1978 by a Jamaican magazine.
Systematically, JBC cut back Dread's show: five nights per week, three nights, one. Later Dread would describe the corporate honchos in Jamaican radio to a reporter this way: "Them a wolf." Before he left the station, Dread spent time with producer King Tubby, learning a few phat tricks. The DJ was fooling around with a jingle called "Love the Dread" when Tubby jested that Dread "was starting his own business." Then Tubby seriously suggested the jingle be expanded into a song. It was, and in 1978 it went Top 10 on the Jamaican music charts.
That success led Dread to make the move from record-spinner to recording artist, and he also began writing and producing for Jamaican artists such as Sugar Minott, Junior Murvin, Rod Taylor, and Earl Sixteen. His first two solo albums, Dread at the Controls (for the Trojan label) and African Anthem (for his own label), were released in 1979. The latter remains a buzz-inducing listen, spacy effects boiling and sizzling, Dread tagging on his name in different voices, a woman moaning "Michael Campbell has got my soul under total control." (In 1989 African Anthem was reissued in the U.S. by the RAS label.) The Trouser Press Record Guide opined that those first two albums are definitive, and that they revealed Mikey Dread to be "an originator of sheer genius," while the Rolling Stone Record Guide reviewed three of his first four albums and gave each four stars.
Those early records led Brit protopunkers the Clash to call on Dread in 1980, asking him to produce some singles for them. At the time, the Clash was in pursuit of the dub, a style in which sound effects explode and burble, vocals are echoed and otherwise distorted electronically, rhythms are mechanically slowed down (sort of like playing a 45 at 33 1/3), and the bass provides critical riffs and even lead lines.
"The Clash was into my music," recalls Dread, standing outside a dub studio near the Dade-Broward line on a clear and sunny December morning. "They knew about my writing and producing for big acts like Sugar Minott and Junior Murvin and they'd heard [his radio show] Dread at the Controls [tapes of which were being sold in England at the time]." The band sent him an invitation and an airline ticket. At first he declined but eventually he relented. His first assignment: "Bankrobber," a track the Clash was seeking input on. "Slow it down," Mikey Dread said. Simple as that.