The Godfather of Reggae
The Hard Rock Cafe, four o'clock on a Thursday afternoon in late February. The occasion is a press conference for the upcoming Bob Marley birthday concert in Bayfront Park. Marley's mother, Cedella Booker (a singer herself, known to her friends and admirers as Mother B), is here, as are several of Bob's progeny, all of whom are to perform at the show. The scene is a virtual who's who of Miami's reggae community. The crowd is fairly evenly divided among journalists, musicians, and people whose occupation can best be described as "something to do with the Marley family." TV cameras are everywhere. As the formal proceedings are about to get under way, a man walks in dressed in black Jordache jeans and a striped cotton shirt. Nobody pays him much mind until a local record producer shouts a hearty "Clint O.!" which initiates a perceptible shift in the room dynamic. A young woman smiles. "You're Clint O.?" she beams. Strangers walk over to shake the man's hand.
The object of this sudden attention, the man who is to co-emcee the Marley event, is agreeable but not enthusiastic. He nods hellos. He shakes hands. He shifts his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. He is an uneasy schmoozer. At the first opportunity he excuses himself from the modest throng, pays his respects to Mother B, small-talks with a few other Marley clan members, and leaves.
A clean, albeit slightly awkward, cameo, executed by Miami's best-known reggae DJ, Clint O'Neil.
You probably wouldn't recognize Clint O'Neil if he walked silently into a room. But the minute he spoke, odds are anyone who has ever tuned in to WLRN-FM (91.3) on a late night would have him pegged. And should someone in that room happen to tell a really good joke, O'Neil's cover would surely be blown. The DJ's trademark laugh, a cross between Wolfman Jack's howl and Eddie Murphy's bleat, with a touch of Bruce Lee's martial-arts grunt thrown in for gusto, is as unforgettable as it is frequently issued on-air, infectious and unsettling, playful and primal.
Cueing up an extended sonic cocktail in honor of Marley's birthday A "One Love" seguing into twelve-inch mixes of "Jamming" and "Coming in from the Cold" A O'Neil is a frenetic blur at the DJ console at WLRN's downtown studios, singing along, bouncing in his chair to the rhythm, head bobbing herky-jerkily like a ventriloquist's dummy as he scans knobs, faders, clock, VU meters, monitors, CD player, and tape deck. He pauses only to sip from a cup of coffee and to light his first Winston of this marathon session, the No Smoking signs posted throughout the studio no match for the DJ's 30-year habit.
Tonight is oldies night, but don't expect to hear Smokey Robinson, the Drifters, or Paul Revere and the Raiders. Between the wee hours of 12:30 and 6:00 a.m., it's oldies rub-a-dub style, courtesy of Clint O.'s overnight show, a staple at the Dade County School Board's public radio station for nearly fifteen years.
O'Neil takes a drag off his cigarette, claps absent-mindedly, dons headphones, and reads a public service announcement for a benefit concert sponsored by S.M.A.R.T. (Single Mothers All Rallying Together). The acronym elicits a chuckle from the DJ, who quips, "Sounds like a union, eh?" Then comes the laugh.
For O'Neil, this "day" began at 11:30 p.m., when he wiped the sleep out of his eyes, donned his clothes and his seven gold necklaces and eleven gold bracelets ("I'm on duty 24 hours, just like 7-Eleven"), drove his Jeep (the two-tone black-and-blue one with the "CLINT O" license plate and "RUBADUB" emblazoned in six-inch-high letters across the hood) to WLRN's downtown studio, arriving just before midnight.
The shift didn't begin smoothly. There was no sugar to be found anywhere in the studio, so the coffee had to be swallowed bitter. And Clive Crystal, a popular club DJ with an extensive collection of rock-steady and early reggae from the Sixties and Seventies A Prince Buster's Bonanza-inspired "Little Joe," the Gaylads's "Chip-monk Ska" ("Ooo-eee-ooo-ah-ah-bing-bang-walla-walla-bing-bang"), Sugar Minott, and Alton Ellis A had agreed to be O'Neil's guest DJ, but he was late. Not that O'Neil was worried. After twenty years in this capricious biz, he long ago learned to roll with the punches. A man who is on-air more than any other DJ in South Florida (six nights per week, six hours per night) is not about to be rattled by the specter of a late-arriving guest. At the very worst, he'd have to do the whole show himself. It wouldn't be the first time.
The phone rings, and O'Neil takes the call on the intercom to keep his hands free to work the control board. A flirtatious voice, recognizable as that of Andrea, the woman who recorded the DJ's "Clint O., the nighttime music-maker" promo spot, illuminates the room.
They trade greetings and chatter about the Marley birthday concert. "You make me feel a million better," O'Neil tells her as they hang up.
Another line lights up, then another. One listener wants O'Neil to play Marley's "Crazy Baldhead." Another wants to know the name of the Arabic song he played on his Reggae from Around the World show the night before. (O'Neil's program goes by several names. On weekends, for instance, it's called Sounds of the Caribbean, and the DJ often refers to his programs collectively as Radio 1, a nod to the station's position at 91.3 on the FM dial.) A shy female caller just wants to hear O'Neil's voice on the telephone. Polite to a fault, O'Neil accommodates them all, dispensing Iries like benedictions.
Shortly after 1:00 a.m. Clive Crystal appears, shadowed by his eerily silent assistant Bobby. Crystal has brought along his own turntables and mixing console, as well as several crates of classic reggae albums and singles, most of them initial pressings. (Crystal stresses the rarity of his records; on this night, as some of his oldest platters are spun, he nods approvingly to O'Neil at their scratches: authenticity.) From the Hiltonaires' Ska Motion in Ska-Lip-So LP featuring the group's legendary rendition of "Tom Dooley" to Basil Daley's "Hold Me Baby," each and every groove of Crystal's collection is on vinyl.
Two a.m. comes and goes, and the music thrums on, Crystal taking special delight in selecting tunes O'Neil hasn't heard in more than twenty years. He, O'Neil, and Bobby talk shop, conversing in a patois as thick as curry, as speedy as an auctioneer's. "I got a whole posse of street sweepers. They listen to me all night. Damn, I didn't even know them things had radios in them!"..."Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, John Holt, Carlos Malcolm all livin' in Miami now. They could do one hellfire oldies thing!" Occasionally one will dance in place to a song, dipping a hip, stepping, swinging arms in that singular reggae style.
They carry on that way until the sun comes up, Clint, Clive, and Bobby, three Jamaican homeboys grooving on classic ska and rock-steady tunes from their youth.
Clint O'Neil is the godfather of reggae in this town," proclaims Peggy Quattro. The publisher and editor-in-chief of Reggae Report and an authority on the local and international reggae scenes, Quattro has been involved in the reggae business since 1981 and has witnessed the rise in both the music's popularity and O'Neil's. "Clint has been here from the beginning," she says. "It couldn't have been easy to convince the station to let him do his thing when he started. In 1981 I couldn't book Jimmy Cliff into a 500-seat nightclub in South Florida, even though he was selling out stadiums all over the rest of the world. But the music has made great strides. Artists like Beres Hammond, Marcia Griffiths, and Robbie Shakespeare have bought houses here. Every record label has a representative in Miami. Chris Blackwell set up South Beach Studios. The Caribbean Satellite Network is based here. [Local reggae band] Inner Circle has become so popular and now they've won a Grammy.
"If Clint plays a record enough here, the buzz will eventually reach CMJ," Quattro continues, referring to the College Music Journal, "and their charts will pick it up, which can lead to national airplay and exposure."
According to WLRN station manager Roger Kobzina, the last time the station obtained Arbitron ratings that included O'Neil's time slot was 1992. The DJ was drawing a mind-boggling 29 percent audience share. (By comparison, WLYF-FM (101.5), one of South Florida's most popular stations, recently topped the daytime charts with a fourteen percent share.) Of course, market share is a percentage, and 100 percent of a small number is still a small number. But anecdotal evidence suggests O'Neil's audience is substantial.
"There are eight phone lines completely lit up while he's on the air," offers Kobzina. "No gifts, giveaways, or premiums. They just want to talk to Clint."
O'Neil tells of a fighter pilot who tuned in while training at Homestead Air Force Base and painted "Clint O" on the nose of his plane, which is currently flying recon missions over Bosnia. Listeners call in requests from the Bahamas. Fan letters arrive from Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Friends vacationing in Jamaica report back that they caught O'Neil's program while sipping drinks at Rick's Cafe in Negril ("I don' know what kinda operation they usin' down there, but they pickin' us up," O'Neil says). Promoters fly him around the hemisphere to host Caribbean music festivals in exotic locales such as Cartagena and Rio. Also, according to the DJ, a deal is in the works to syndicate his show two or three nights a week in Tokyo.
It's a far cry from the early days, when O'Neil was working only four hours a week at WLRN and thinking about selling cars or driving a truck to make a living. O'Neil credits an old friend, a fellow named Robert Nesta Marley, with providing a dose of much-needed encouragement. "When I had ideas about quittin' and go do somethin' else, Bob would tell me, 'Man, don' worry about it. You work, you mus' get paid. Go ahead an' do whatcha doin'.' We used to be in the old Lindsey-Hopkins building, and he'd come over and hang out with us," O'Neil recounts, invoking his predilection for referring to himself in the first-person plural. "That was 1979; Bob was already very popular. It was one thing that maybe convince us: If he had faith, it's gotta work out."
O'Neil was working in New York as a club DJ when he first got to know Marley and he was somewhat surprised to find Trenchtown's favorite son in Miami, living at the house he'd bought for Mother B. "I knew he was sellin' a lotta records, but I didn't realize how rich he was until one particular day his financial advisor came down to the house and said, 'You know, I told you you should put a million or two in gold yesterday,'" O'Neil remembers. "I looked at Bob and I said, 'A million or two?' He was not a person that you could tell how much money he had. You'd go to the Hungry Sailor, you couldn't ask Bob Marley to buy you a beer because money was somethin' he never walk around with. I mean, he never had money.
"[Reggae singer] Bigga used to drive Bob Marley around in his Jeep. He learned most of what he knows about music from Bob Marley. Everybody would hang out at Bob Marley's house. Hangin' out with these guys every day, you never wanted to go to work. That was a major problem for everybody, including myself. Nobody wanted to work. Everybody wanted to hang out. Luckily, Miami was cheaper in those days."
O'Neil doesn't like to reveal his exact age, but he confides that he was born a year or two before Marley (who would have turned 49 on February 6) in Halifax, Manchester, a small mountain town in central Jamaica. After he moved to New York with his family at the age of fifteen, his love affair with reggae blossomed. "In the part of Jamaica where I grew up, people made their own instruments out of whatever. Washboards, saws. Reggae music was completely new to me when I found it. Maybe that's why it still feels new," O'Neil speculates.
A quiet teenager, he broke into the music business by DJing at parties, preferring to spin records rather than get involved in all the drinking and cavorting. (Bob Slade, host of WLRN's Off the Beaten Path cutting-edge rock program, says that to this day it is next to impossible to get Clint O. to consume so much as a beer.) He was a quick learner and he soon made the transition to nightclubs, at one point commanding the turntable at La Martinique, a popular club across from Carnegie Hall.
These were the pre-Marley years, when reggae was just beginning to gain a foothold in the U.S., thanks in no small measure to the success of the movie The Harder They Come and its soundtrack. By 1972 there were enough dance halls servicing the northeast's Caribbean community for an enterprising young DJ to live in New York but travel regularly along a self-designed circuit from Toronto to Washington, D.C.
Which is precisely what Clint O'Neil did, pulling in decent money for work he enjoyed immensely, until fate dealt him a cruel blow A or so it seemed at the time. "We had just invested in new equipment an' bought a truck, all cash," he recalls. "We had a mixing board, a mobile studio. We had the whole schmeer in the truck. An' somebody stole the damn truck!" O'Neil pauses, shakes his head at the memory, and smiles resignedly. "Before that, we were laughin' at the radio. We were makin' ten times the money the radio stations were offerin'. But when I lost all that equipment, I had to go to the radio. There was no choice."
In 1978 O'Neil vacationed in Miami. He never went back to New York. "All these people down here wearin' shorts an' sneakers A that was enough to convince me," he says. "For a long time I couldn't get a job. I tried a couple of commercial stations, but the program directors never heard of reggae music before. They thought it was raggedy music; they threw me out, basically. I had to convince 'LRN to try this. I gave them some demographics, I said, 'You got all these Caribbean people from Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas. You need this!' Finally we convince 'LRN to give it a try. By this time I had been away from the clubs for almost a year; I was basically broke."
He started doing late-night reggae at the station, from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. "One Saturday night when I first started workin', I fall asleep," O'Neil recalls. "I figured, 'Wow, man, this is it. I'm fired.' But Monday mornin' everybody called the station worried about me. 'What happened? What happened?' they wanna know. That was 1979. Since then we've been able to pay the rent and buy some food and cigarettes."
Everybody in the world needs some help in the reggae business," O'Neil will tell you ruefully. And not surprisingly, when people need help, they call Clint O'Neil. Studio musicians fresh from Jamaica and in search of a band. A club owner who needs a DJ. A concert promoter who needs an emcee. A high school that needs a speaker for career day. A producer who needs to find a singer. A singer who needs to find a songwriter. A songwriter who needs to find a producer. A tourist who loses a passport. A prison chaplain in Georgia who needs literature about the Rastafarian religion. A convict in Maryland who wants to say hello to his girlfriend in Miami. They all call Clint O.
"Somehow we managed to wind up the diplomat, the mediator, with the trust of all the people," O'Neil says. "I don't know if I'm a social director or what. Whatever the deal is, if it's in the community, it comes to me some way. Fundraisers, dinners, concerts A you name it, we'll be in the middle of the mix."
Says Reggae Report's Peggy Quattro: "Some people in this business have gotten down on me or criticized the magazine because I'm white. Clint doesn't see any color barriers. He has defended me and supported me." When asked if she can supply the names of local reggae people who have been helped by O'Neil, Quattro's response is immediate: "My God A everybody!"
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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