The Unbroken Circle

How cold is it in Milwaukee? "Too cold," says Inner Circle's Ian Lewis, on the phone from a suburb of the Wisconsin city. Of course, it's cold in Sweden, too. Inner Circle, on the other hand, couldn't be hotter.

And, for not the first time, the popular Miami-based reggae outfit can thank Sweden for the glorious blaze. Their latest smash hit, "Sweat (A La La La La Song)," first broke in that Scandinavian nation, where it went on to top the charts for eight weeks. From there, "Sweat" hit in Denmark, Finland, Austria, Israel, Germany, and several other nations on the other side of the pond.

In Germany the song stayed at number one (on the pop, not the reggae, chart) for thirteen weeks. "Sweden is our biggest marketplace," Lewis says. "Then Germany, Holland, most of Europe. We've sold a million -- no, close to two million -- singles over there. It's our first bastion. It's great, man, in Sweden to see these kids, twelve- to fifteen-year-old kids, go crazy. See, we are not hyped, we don't take our shirt off and make a cute look, there is no marketing."

The same sort of popular success happened with the song the Circle is best known for, "Bad Boys." According to Lewis, the band sent a tape of the song (later appropriated by the TV show Cops) to an independent Swedish label, which, without a phone call, much less a signed contract, simply released it. The Circle was on tour in Europe during all this and they decided to drive into Stockholm and find out what the deal was. The deal was that the label had gone bankrupt. "They didn't want to give the tape back," Lewis recalls. "We had to physically straighten it out." Suffice it to say, they got the tape back.

The track, of course, went on to be one of most popular reggae songs ever. And sometimes the overkill can hinder an artist who becomes forever tied to that one tune, especially considering it's played on prime-time national television at least twice per week. "We're getting over that," Ian Lewis says. "Now we have 'Sweat.'"

Yeah, they have "Sweat" -- and several tons of great material recorded throughout their off-and-on eighteen-year career. After all, they're no New Dread on the Block.

Most everyone in Miami has followed that career. How songwriter-bassist Ian Lewis and his brother, guitarist Roger Lewis, formed the group in their native Jamaica in 1975, with singer Jacob Miller. How they came to the U.S. in 1977 and were discovered by Journey's manager, who helped them land a deal with Capitol, where they recorded two albums. How the deal went sour ("We got burned," the band's Touter Harvey told New Times back in 1988). How they went on to sign with Island and released Everything Is Great, which went gold. How Jacob Miller died -- in a car wreck in 1980.

There was a long hiatus during which Ian Lewis and keyboardist-songwriter Harvey opened a studio in Miami. After taking the early Eighties off, Roger Lewis returned to the fold and the band came full Circle again. Carlton Coffie took over vocals just in time for an August 1986 baseball stadium show. With guitarist Michael Sterling and drummer Lancelot Hall (one of the most in-the-pocket drummers in any genre and a one-time member of Miami's Zero Crew), an amazingly talented and versatile sextet was set and ready. The album One Way removed all doubt that these guys were major contenders. (Sterling does not appear on the band's new album, Bad Boys, but will perform with them in concert.)

Local musicians recall how Inner Circle members have helped them out over the years. The Circle members are roundly admired everywhere they go. Which is everywhere. Press materials note that "the largest selling reggae band in the world...will embark on a major North American tour beginning November 9 in Greenville, South Carolina" that brings them to the Cameo Theatre tomorrow (Thursday). That's true, but misleading. "Oh, man, we've been on tour now about a year and a half straight," Ian Lewis says from Milwaukee. "We have to tape the Today show and then we're off to Singapore."

For all the years and all the hits -- which are influenced by many styles -- Inner Circle remains a true, legitimate, traditional reggae band. Sure, "Sweat" might lean heavy on R&B, but that is simply diversity within the form. "They're totally roots," says one Miami musician-producer who worked with them. "Always touring, always working, an example of what perseverance can do."

The Circle certainly persevered through the biggest reggae craze yet: dancehall. The raplike subgenre has stormed the charts and brought reggae a whole new cachet (as in cash), one that most traditionalists shun. Not Ian Lewis. "You have to understand that in every youth explosion they have to have something to call their own. It's recycling old Jamaican rhythms in an ad-lib situation. Some try to make real songs to get people up. I don't see that as a detriment. Shabba and so forth, people are listening to the music. UB40 updated reggae, too."

That helps justify dancehall's popularity, but Inner Circle's success is not so easily summed up. They hopped on no bandwagons, instead sticking to their artistic guns. "Yeah, we came from left field," Lewis says. "We're not Nirvana or New Kids on the Block. You see, you can hype a record, but you can't force people to buy it."

When the Circle was touring Europe just before "Bad Boys" exploded, they did so in a cramped Fiat van. Surely with the success of their latest material, that's changed. "Yeah, now we have a tour bus," Lewis deadpans. "That's not so important. What's important is that reggae is still alive."

Thanks to bands like Inner Circle.

Inner Circle performs at 8:00 p.m. Thursday at the Cameo Theatre, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 532-0922, and at 8:00 p.m. on Friday at the Carefree Theatre, 2000 S Dixie Hwy, W Palm Beach, 833-7305. Tickets for the Cameo show are $15 and $20 at the Carefree.

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