Inner Circle vocalist Kris Bentley recalls when the band performed for an audience of 60,000 at an 1995 outdoor festival in Switzerland. "We're playing with a lot of big guys," Bentley says, "Elton John, Page, and Plant."
"Lenny Kravitz," adds drummer Lancelot Hall.
"We're high up in the lineup among all these big names," the singer continues. "And those guys are sitting backstage and they're saying to each other: 'Hey, who the hell is Inner Circle?'"
The five musicians crack up. It's a familiar story, and they have similar ones to tell about appearing on bills with Cheap Trick and other stadium diehards. The Jamaican group has had a string of Top 10 hits in Europe, a U.S. platinum album (1991's Bad Boys), and in 1994 the band won a Grammy for Best Reggae Act. But Inner Circle is hardly a household name in the United States, even around its South Florida stomping grounds.
Indeed, despite its international success, the more than twenty-year-old band finds itself oddly hamstrung between the worlds of reggae and rock. The emergence of bands such as No Doubt, Sublime, Smash Mouth, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones has signaled the recent cachet of reggae and ska stylings in alternative and pop rock, but only when filtered through white suburban angst.
"When you play from the authentic source -- Jamaican reggae -- people say, 'Oh, that's old-time business. We heard that before,'" says Roger Lewis, who founded Inner Circle with his brother Ian in their native Kingston. "Yet when the white kids take it up, people say, 'Man, that's the latest thing.' You can have two people playing the exact same song and they're going to classify one as pop and one as reggae. [When you're Jamaican] Mr. Store Man going to put you over in the reggae bin and that's it."
At the same time, reggae purists find Inner Circle's no-problem party music insufficiently rootsy.
The result is a band that, despite its radio-ready melodies and overseas acclaim, remains relatively faceless. Ironically, the group's most famous song is perhaps the ultimate testament to its obscurity. "Bad Boys" is known to millions as the theme song for the cheesy television show Cops. Only a handful realize that the foreboding anthem is performed by Inner Circle. "We think it's time to cross the color out of music," bassist Ian Lewis says. "Look at a song like 'Bad Boys.' People don't know who's singing it; they hear the song and they like the song. They're not asking if we're a black group or a white group."
The Grammy and other music awards sit on a table at Circle House, the band's private 48-track digital studio in an expansive Mediterranean-style home in North Miami. After their success with "Bad Boys," the musicians built the studio two years ago and started their own label, Soundbwoy Entertainment.
Inner Circle's proficient amalgam of rap, reggae, and pop elements is not particularly daring, but it does offer an immediate appeal to the teenagers and young adults who are the band's core fans. Soundbwoy's debut release, Da Bomb, weds loping reggae rhythms to upbeat melodies and hip-hop beats. Of the fourteen songs, which include a dancehall version of the Chaka Khan hit "Tell Me Something Good" and a jaunty rendition of the Heptones' soulful "Book of Rules," Bentley alternates between ballsy toasting and R&B sweetness. Arrested Development rapper Speech and Jamaican rapper Skatta make guest appearances.
And with a plush new studio at their disposal, the quintet has wasted no time in recording a new disc. On a recent afternoon, while their chef prepares a vegetarian dinner in the kitchen, the band members sit around a massive console in the studio, debating what kind of synthesized keyboard effect they want to back Bentley's vocals on "One Life, One World." They decide on some lush, intergalactic chords, which lend the song a sound common on hip-hop recordings. The new track carries a unifying message that the band hopes will infiltrate today's balkanized music industry.
"For us, music has no color," says Roger Lewis, a beefy guitarist with waist-length braids.
But the music industry does. The band members insist they would enjoy more exposure in the mainstream press and would be better known to pop audiences if they weren't Jamaican, and black.
On the other hand, Inner Circle simply doesn't fit the exotic image CD-buyers have come to expect from Jamaican bands' releases. The band members talk more about proper wine storage than the almighty ganja. And while Da Bomb includes a dedication to "Jah, our mighty God," the Inner Circle clan prefers braids and bandannas to dreadlocks.
"People think we're going to be like Bob Marley with dreadlocks and weed, because that's how reggae's been marketed," Roger Lewis laments. "If you don't have dreadlocks and you're not high, they think what you're doing is not reggae music.... Not everyone likes our style, because we rock, man."
"You can't put reggae music in one pocket," his brother Ian adds. "There are many kinds of reggae music. There are different styles."
Journalists, however, tend to paint the band with a broad brush. A perfect example: Reporters inevitably ask questions about pot just because they're Jamaicans. Once, after band members patiently explained to a Swedish reporter that in their culture the plant is considered to have medicinal and spiritual properties, they opened the next morning's paper to the headline "Inner Circle Says Smoking Marijuana Is Good for You."
The Lewis brothers joined the burgeoning reggae scene that began percolating in Kingston in the Seventies, around the time that producer Chris Blackwell was using his radio-friendly producing and marketing talents to boost Bob Marley and the Wailers to cult status on Island Records. International attention was focused on the Jamaican scene, and Capitol signed Inner Circle in 1976.
The band started touring early on, and its first gigs outside the island were at a Jamaican social club in New York. "Leaving Jamaica to play in New York was just like playing in Jamaica," Ian Lewis says. "The audience was the same." The five got their first chance to play before a largely white American audience when they backed Toots and the Maytals at a 1977 San Francisco concert.
"That gave us the experience to say 'Hey, we can play our own music and people respond to it,'" Ian says. "The people loved it. That experience was our first real eye opener."
In 1978 Island offered the up-and-comers a better deal, and put them on the international festival circuit to support their second album Everything Is Great. But that year, original lead singer Jacob "Killer" Miller died in a car accident. The surviving members were so bereft that they didn't record again until six years later, when they drafted vocalist Calton Coffie and released the album One Way on New York-based RAS Records.
Four years of touring followed. The band played to huge festival crowds in Europe, South America, and Asia. In 1991 "Bad Boys" reached number one on Scandinavian charts. The band's subsequent single, the grinding "Sweat (A La La La Long)," was a hit in Europe. Here in Miami, the song was a dance club staple in 1994, although few of the dancers could identify Inner Circle as the band performing the tune. The same year, Coffie fell ill and subsequently left the band to go solo. He was replaced by Bentley, former lead singer of the Jamaican band Skool.
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After testing the waters with Da Bomb and the new release, the group plans to start producing other reggae-oriented bands, particularly those that don't fit into the major labels' marketing plans.
Last month, Inner Circle celebrated the birth of its new recording company and the release of Da Bomb with a back-yard party at Circle House. As if to symbolize the band's dreams of a colorblind world in which pop and reggae can seamlessly coexist, the guest list included Bob Marley's mother Cedella Booker and Top 40 DJ Footy, from Y-100.
Singer Betty Wright joined Inner Circle during a brief performance, adding some deep soul to the band's euphoric reggae version of "Tell Me Something Good." As the band riffed on the rap classic "The Message," sliding into "Bad Boys," Bentley waved the guests to their feet. "Let's do this up," he shouted, "before the neighbors start complaining.