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

At 1:00 p.m. on Christmas Day, Mikey Dread sits in the maroon chair behind the control board in WAXY's on-air studio. Actually he doesn't sit in the chair so much as he bounces in it. One of several friends gathered in the studio mentions that his kick drum is too loud. "My kick drum?" Dread responds. "What are you talking about?" His foot is pounding out a rock-steady beat, and he's oblivious to this idiosyncratic habit.

A ream of papers is scattered across the desk in front of him, a Holy Bible resting inches from his left hand. The fingers of his right hand hover over the yellow and green buttons on the studio's CD-cartridge players. Dread speaks into an intercom that connects him to the board operator in the adjacent control room: "Me, then the music," Dread tells the engineer, signaling for him to turn on Dread's mike as Shabba Ranks rings from the in-house monitors, cranked full-blast so the half-dozen people gathered in the studio can enjoy Dread's selections.

Monique Richards shuffles through stacks of vinyl, asking Dread what he wants to play next. "We don't have a playlist this week," she says, half exasperated and half excited by the show's spontaneity.

"Write down what we just played," Dread commands over the intercom. "Quicker on the music, no space, no dead air. I'm putting effects on this, play the CD after the commercials and hit mono, less delay. Music!" His improvised team follows the instructions, and the segue from commercial to song is flawless. Under his breath and off the air, Dread allows himself a comment: "Good." Then, back on the intercom, "Me. Then a jingle. I cue you, okay?"

Even as his instructions are being carried out, Dread improvises. "Bob Marley after this." Boom, boom, boom his foot taps. "No, after me, then Bob Marley. Okay. Then I do a contest." His mike comes on, and in a melting chocolate timbre, Dread tells his listeners: "Robert Nesta...from ...Jamaica." After the Marley tune, Dread announces the contest -- name two artists on the Strictly the Best Vol. 13 CD, and get a free copy of it. Dread notices the phone lines lighting up and comes up with another on-the-spot idea. "Let's take these calls on the air. Hey, how do you take calls live on the air here?"

The first caller seems to be a middle-age woman. She can't answer the trivia question, but Dread coaches her through a few "shout outs" to her friends and tells her he's sorry she didn't win. "Okay, okay," she responds in a maternal tone. "You go on playing your music, and we'll all pretend we're there." She is referring to Jamaica, of course.

A flyer is handed to him, and Dread goes live on the air to plug a Christmas-night DJ competition on Key Biscayne featuring Richie B., who's sitting across from him in the studio. Richie B. smiles, shakes his head, slightly embarrassed. Then Dread tells him to go into the adjoining room and cue up a track from a Super Cat CD.

Despite the fact that he's doing a thousand things at once while broadcasting lively and vital reggae music, Dread seems in control, ultimately relaxed, and at home. His "assistants" never seem bothered by his perfectionism. Then again, these are Jamaicans, people so at ease with gentle positivity they had to invent their own word to describe the feeling: irie.

WAXY-AM (790) allows anyone to buy time and go on the air with a program. Dread availed himself of that opportunity at the beginning of December, accepting the responsibility for generating his own advertising or sponsorships to foot the bills. On some level, Dread resents having to pay to play, being forced to recruit and nurture sponsors to finance his 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. slot every Sunday. But that's exactly where the reggae pioneer and broadcasting veteran finds himself in 1995.

"I feel this is an obstacle I'm trying to overcome," he says. "I'm trying to prove to program directors that they're wrong when they say playing two or three reggae songs back-to-back turns off listeners. I think it attracts thousands of listeners. I'm not just a radio personality, I'm part of the reggae fraternity, a producer and artist, so I know what the industry needs to help it thrive in a market in close proximity to the Yard [Jamaica]. New York and London are farther away but more in touch. This is an uphill struggle for me to come up with X amount of thousands of dollars. Right now some of that is out of pocket."

At June's Catering and Restaurant at 18400 NW Second Ave., Dread holds a bottle of Mount Teman roots tonic and carefully twists off the cap to release the foamy pressure. While his three guests indulge in a meal of whole snappers, rice and "peas," oxtails, and ginger juice A authentic Jamaican cuisine prepared lovingly A Dread stops at another table to chat with a couple. When he sits back down to enjoy his root juice, another man walks over to talk about the music business with him. In the West Indian-Caribbean-Jamaican enclave around North Miami's 183rd Street, Mikey Dread is still considered a celebrity.

He has edged his way into the spotlight often over the years, from his days as a radio star in Jamaica in the Seventies to his work with big-name British bands such as the Clash and UB40 at the beginning of the Eighties. His image was beamed into British homes when he narrated one series and produced another for Britain's Channel 4 in 1981 and 1982. And albums have flowed from him all along, from 1979's Dread at the Controls to 1993's Obsession.

Miami seemed to offer yet another chance for Dread to explore the possibilities of the media spreading his faith in reggae. He moved here in the fall of 1993 to take a job with the Caribbean Satellite Network (CSN), a Miami-based TV linkup to 53 countries with programming emphasizing island culture. News, sports, and even cooking shows were included in the mix, as well as a plethora of Caribbean music videos. ("It was a good idea to have the station," Dread says now. "A novel idea.")

CSN was the brainchild of Jamaican entrepreneur Delroy Cowan, who in 1992 sold three houses and three businesses he owned to come up with the seed money for the venture. In October 1993, Cowan hired a new program director for CSN A Michael "Mikey Dread" Campbell. But things didn't work out for Dread. By June of this year, Cowan had fired him, and shortly thereafter the owner pulled the plug on CSN altogether, citing financial problems. But Dread thinks Cowan's vision was too broad for the network to succeed. As program director, Dread made a mark with CSN's coverage of Jamaican-related material: Bob Marley's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which he claims to have covered using his own money); the Miss Jamaica Miami pageant; and a "dubplate" show in which Jamaican acts would lip-synch, creating instant clips for songs that otherwise would go videoless. But his efforts regarding the rest of the Caribbean fell short, causing him consternation.

According to Dread, Cowan and others felt that Mikey's hard-core reggae sensibilities left little room for the rest of the Caribbean. "I got shit from inside the network," Dread says. "The CSN logo used Rasta colors, but the Trinidadians wanted more calypso. They didn't understand that there weren't enough new and exciting videos coming from Trinidad." (Delroy Cowan declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Dalton Narine, a CSN colleague now working on a screenplay and book about his experiences in Vietnam, sympathized with Dread's plight. "He was willing to get into other areas of Caribbean culture," Narine says, "but like all Jamaicans, he was loyal to their music. To me reggae is a lifestyle, not a music. Still, he was willing to go to Trinidad to host a two-hour special on calypso."

It wasn't enough. Station management was criticized constantly from within and without for tapping a dreadlocked reggae star to be program director. "He weathered that storm," Narine says. "But I remember one time he showed me a letter criticizing him, and he asked me, 'What am I doing wrong?' I told him you've got to be you. Once [calypso singer] Mighty Sparrow was in town and we needed an interview with him. Mikey asked me to do it. That's how sensitive he was to the backlash."

To this day, Dread believes CSN was "good for the industry." But he also complains that the network had a poor relationship with record companies, that some programming changes he didn't approve of were made (such as the airing of a show he considered a Caribbean version of the Home Shopping Network), and that CSN lacked the budget to realize some of his programming ideas.

"He faced tremendous odds," Narine continues. "Certain employees didn't cotton to the direction he was taking the station. He was perceived as egotistical, that he wanted everything Dread's way. I don't know. He was hired to do a job, there were no parameters other than that he should try to get CSN on its best footing. He had all this experience [in England], but he was entrenched in the Jamaican mystique and culture. Others felt they had a right to be heard, too. So he faced pressure inside and outside."

Because of his green-card status, which prohibits his absence from the United States for a year or more, Dread decided to stay in Miami for a while after CSN fired him, even though the opportunities offered in England tempt him often. "I try to keep a clean record," he says. "I might get famous, and people dig up skeletons, find out I violated immigration law. Maybe I won't get famous, but maybe I hit the lottery. Also, I have no defeatist attitude. It's cheap for me to fly to Jamaica, so I decided to settle here and try to get something going." (Though never married, Dread says he has a half-dozen progeny, including a daughter and two sons living in Jamaica.)

After his demise at CSN, Dread began approaching local commercial radio stations with his pitch for a reggae show. "No opportunity," he says. "There are lots of Jamaicans here, but nothing for us, no way to transmit our culture to our own people."

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."

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.

Pleased with Dread's other studio contributions and enamored of his music, the Clash invited Dread to open for them on their next tour, and backed the "Bankrobber" single with a Dread song written about the tour ("Rockers Galore...UK Tour"). (The 1993 Legacy/Epic CD Super Black Market Clash contains another collaboration, the previously unreleased "Robber Dub.")

Dread is credited on the band's triple-LP Sandinista! for his unmistakable nasal vocals (on the song "Living in Fame") and for some studio mixing; one side of the album is presented as if it were a Mikey Dread radio show, replete with sound effects, patter, and even a "live caller" on the phone.

While living in England in the early Eighties, Dread enrolled at the National Broadcasting School in London. On March 30, 1982, the school's principal wrote a letter of recommendation for Michael "Mikey Dread" Campbell, noting that Dread had "a special gift.... In the opinion of myself and my senior staff he is the most exciting and original presenter that the School has ever trained."

Meanwhile, Mikey Dread continued recording, with albums being released in the U.S. and elsewhere by the Heartbeat label: Beyond World War III (a revised version of 1980's World War III, considered one of his greatest works); S.W.A.L.K. (for "sealed with a loving kiss"); and Pave the Way (Dread appears on its cover with a bulldozer). In 1989 Heartbeat issued a CD combining S.W.A.L.K. and Dread-produced songs by Hopeton Lindo, Sugar Minott, the Ovationz, Michael Israel, and others.

He made a foray into television with a six-part historical documentary, Deep Roots Music, which he hosted, and a ten-part show, Rockers Roadshow (highlighting new acts such as Simply Red), which he produced, both for Channel 4. In the mid-Eighties, Dread moved to Los Angeles, where he ran a Sunset Strip nightclub called Sound Storm, and in 1989 he went home to Jamaica, recording a comeback hit, "The Source (of Your Divorce)," with American rapper KRS-1 co-producing. A video for the song received airplay on U.S. cable networks such as BET and MTV. But in 1990 he returned to England to head the Afro-Caribbean department of Spectrum International (a London-based multiethnic radio station), where he also hosted a morning show.

Throughout all this Dread continued to find time to tour, until 1993, when he retired from roadwork, at least temporarily. "It was too hectic," Dread says of his tour schedule. "It's not what you expect. Without a good agency to promote you, if you try to do it independently, it's more difficult. It took too much out of me."

Outside June's restaurant, Dread and his pal Michael Israel are waiting for Dread's friend Monique Richards to complete some grocery shopping. A striking woman with a fancy hairdo and a black dress walks by. As she passes, Dread grabs her by the wrist. "Did that haircut cost $50?" he teases her. "It looks like a $50 haircut. If you're gonna leave, I'm not letting go of your hand. If you'll stay, I'll let go." She says she'll stay, he lets go, and she leaves with a teasing jaunt and an over-the-shoulder smile. Mikey Dread thrusts his hands in the air like a prisoner. "You could never do that with an American woman," he confides. "She cry 'sexual harassment.' But it's okay. She was Jamaican."

As he makes the most of his WAXY air-time, he remains open to every opportunity to bolster the reggae fraternity. Recent projects include appearing in a new movie shot in Jamaica (due out this year), being interviewed for a BBC documentary, and recording with Guns 'N Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin. Even so, he says, "I love music, but broadcasting is my first love."

Back when he was an electronics student in Kingston, Dread would spend his time outside the formal classroom learning other lessons. He'd devote hours to gleaning the best tracks from the bins of local record stores. He might find a song recorded by a dozen different artists, or a dub version of a certain tune, maybe an extended mix of a cut. (Today his personal collection numbers at least 5000, and he culls additional material from distributor VP Records's outlets in Hollywood and New York City.) He recalls that when he found something really hot, he'd play the song on his radio show -- over and over, back-to-back, until his point was driven home that this was a must-hear selection, a hit waiting to happen. He added jingles to the stew, and always found it difficult to keep his mouth from the microphone for too long.

The JBC informed him that he was "spoiling" songs by "putting verse 'pon them," Dread says now. The big problem? People were going into record stores and asking for the versions of the songs with that guy Mikey Dread talking over them.

Today's challenge is reaching South Florida listeners with the same mix of jingles, songs, effects, and that squeezed-from-the-bottom-of-his-lungs, taut, compressed, breathless voice cutting in and out of the music.

"Miami is a cosmopolitan city, and we need to utilize that," Dread explains. "My dream is to be on FM or TV. I started reggae at the BBC by getting them to let me do a weekly update about the scene. Then the BBC launched a reggae show, but they got someone else to host. And they still have reggae shows. Here they turn your ass away. But the people are ready. Look at all the Jamaican businesses around here. We're too close to the islands not to have this.

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