It was a note from The Clash that clinched world fame for reggae's first rapper, Mikey Dread. No sooner had he returned to his native Jamaica after signing a record deal in England, than he received the message that the punk-rock group wanted to meet him and that a ticket back to London would be waiting for him at the airport. It was 1980, and Mikey Dread had never heard of The Clash. "I'm not going cuz I don't even know who they are," Dread recalls thinking. "It's scary just for me to go to a foreign country, and I don't even know who I'm going for and what I'm going for."
But they insisted, so he went. As radical musically as they were politically, The Clash wanted to blend the hypnotic bass and drum rhythms of reggae with the jarring guitar of '70s punk. Over the next year, Dread helped produce The Black Market Clash album, a reggae/rock hybrid that went triple platinum and introduced the Jamaican sound to an international _ and predominantly white _ pop audience. After the barren age of disco, here was a fertile fusion of styles, which would influence the development of rap in America and rock all over the world.
"I went from next job to next job," Dread said, "cuz everybody was having success with what I was doing for them."
The musician with the magic touch had humble beginnings. He was born Michael Campbell in Jamaica in 1954, the fifth and last child of a fisherman and a housewife. In college, Campbell earned a degree in electrical engineering, securing a job afterward as a transmitter engineer at Jamaica's national radio station. But after six months, he traded in his tools and took over the controls as a deejay.
It was 1976 and Dread's sights were not yet set on the world. Instead, he aimed to introduce a distinctively Jamaican element to his program at a time when mainstream American and English pop dominated the nation's airwaves. Back then, Bob Marley was gaining influence, and reggae music began to rock Jamaica with its political and spiritual message. Campbell visited the local studios, receiving fresh releases.
In the wee hours of the morning, from midnight to 4:30 every day, Mikey started mixing strange brews that would soon catch the world's attention. Calling his show Dread at the Controls, he injected little bits of movie soundtracks, jingles and one-liners into the music. It could be anything _ a Bugs Bunny voice, Clint Eastwood talking or a woman screaming.
"I would mix soundtrack vocals into the mix so it would sound colloquial," said Dread, who has long dreadlocks and a piercing gaze. "The type of music you hear at my show is what you would hear at Jamaican parties."
Dread's music proved to be ahead of its time. The technique of inserting borrowed segments of speech into different musical arrangements, called sampling, is the foundation of many of rap's instrumental backdrops today. And he says that many of his one-liners from that time _ sound bites like, "Rhythm full of culture, Yaa," and "Oh my gosh, the music just turns me on" _ appear in rap samples by bands like Public Enemy and Erik B. Rakim.
Dread stayed at the station for three years, eventually becoming deejay of the year in 1978. A year earlier, he had started producing his own albums, drawing on the wide variety of production techniques and styles he had picked up over the years.
One of the first few albums, Dread at the Controls, starting climbing to the top of the reggae charts in London as soon as it was released there in 1979. Dread made his first trip to England to promote the album and sign a record contract. It was then that The Clash decided to get him into their act.
Thus started the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. After the Black Market Clash album, Dread toured with the band through England and America in 1980-81. In 1982, he co-wrote and produced five songs on the punk band's four-album set, Sandinista, which was a statement against the U.S. involvement in Nicaragua. By 1982, Dread was traveling across the globe, producing rock music from England to Germany, Jamaica to Japan.
But soon, he encountered some sour notes. While in New York with The Clash, he was once barred from entering his own hotel by a doorman who mistrusted his Rastafarian appearance. Worse yet, the young punk fans were not receptive to his reggae rap. Sometimes they tried to boo him off stage. "I was scared at first," he said. "I wouldn't go to the front of the stage. They was violent, mon. And impatient!"
Gradually, however, his music caught on, and gradually rap _ the genre that so closely reflected his creations of the '70s _ gained a foothold in the '80s. Today, Dread keeps experimenting. He has used his engineering skills to produce new sounds on the keyboard and drum machine. His efforts to bring reggae to international media include an English documentary he narrated called Deep Roots Music. His video, The Source (of Your Divorce), is currently on Black Entertainment TV in the Unites States. His new CD of greatest hits comes out soon. And a tour of Europe is in the offing, keeping Dread alive and well around the world.
AT A GLANCE
Mikey Dread on Saturday night, 8 p.m., at the Kingslawn Cauldron Restaurant, 2302 E Seventh Avenue, Ybor City. Tickets $7.50 advance, $10 at the door.