Many Moods Of Buster – Hailed As Singer, Rapper, Songwriter, Record Producer, Sound System Operator, And Self-Styled ‘Defender Of The Underdog’
The passing of Cecil Campbell, better known as Prince Buster – the legendary Jamaican businessman, singer, rapper, songwriter, record producer, sound system operator, and self-styled ‘defender of the underdog’ – has left an almost irreplaceable void in Jamaican popular music.
Buster, as he was popularly known, died at his home in Miami, Florida, on September 8 after a prolonged illness.
He first came to public attention in the late 1950s as a strong-armed gateman at dances put on by sound system operator Clement Seymour Dodd, also known as Coxson, the founder of the Studio 1 record label.
But contrary to what many thought, Buster revealed to me in an exclusive interview that he never worked with Coxson in the sense of being employed to him. Buster claimed that he only defended him because he was new in the sound system business at the time, and in his characteristic manner of being a defender of the underdog, Buster felt that Coxson needed that protection against ‘badmen’ from opposing sounds.
Buster was resolute as he explained: “I want to get this clear with everybody. I never work with Coxson. I don’t know why, but I am always the protector of the underdog and I became the man fi him and I do a lot of things fi him. Him was mi frien’, and when I say frien’, the way I feel, I still love him, I just didn’t love things whe him do”.
TOUGH STREET CONDITIONS
Born in May 1938 in the Mecca of early popular Jamaican music along Orange Street (or Beat Street as it was sometimes called) in downtown Kingston, Buster grew up under tough street conditions and became a fearless youngster who knew how to defend himself.
As a young boy living at 130-3/4 Orange Street in proximity to the action, I was privileged to watch some of the events unfold as the relationship between Buster and Coxson took a turn for the worse. It was triggered by Buster’s decision to start his own sound system. Friends suddenly became rivals and the relationship was never the same again. Buster had in fact started to build his own sound system, which he called ‘The Voice of The People’, while still with Coxson.
He cited his inspiration and the uniqueness of the venture: “I am coming from the people and they (the other sound operators) weren’t. They were business people from different areas. I have always been the people’s man. From a boy I learn boxing early and it help me to voice and hold my opinion for the people and the whole system of how my sound was made up, it was made up by the people – my friends at Matthews Lane – and we get board and things and we stop when it short and then we start again”, Buster said.
Out of disappointment sometimes comes success, and Buster’s career is a case in point: His dream was always to become the most successful sound system operator in the land, but that dream came to a screeching halt when he was unceremoniously stopped by an immigration officer, thereby thwarting his effort to purchase records abroad like the others via the farm work programme, to compete against the likes of Coxson, King Edward, and Duke Reid. Buster was adamant that it was a set-up designed to prevent him from dethroning the other sound system giants.
CAN’T CUT CANE
“I pass every test, and is go wey mi a go wey the morning, yuno, and the man (immigration officer) jus come and sey, ‘Mek mi see yu hand middle. This hand can’t cut cane!’. That cause me now to turn to Drumbago at Baby Grand, explain mi problem, rehearse the band every night from 1 a.m., – 4 a.m., and give him mi style. Yu see, a lot of money was spent and I can’t turn back now, so I have to find a way out,” Buster lamented. His initial intention was to do his own productions to play on his sound system.
As it turned out, Buster was gradually getting himself into the recording and production side of the music business. A record store, still situated at 127 Orange Street, was one of his main thrusts. Ironically, Derrick Morgan, with whom he was later involved in a musical war, and a more seasoned campaigner, was most instrumental in getting him started. Little Honey, an undistinguished cut, was his first outing, but it was the follow-up, They Got to Go, on Buster’s Voice Of The People record label, that established him as a vocalist. The recording was a verbal attack on the economic situation then in Jamaica, which often favors the rich:
“The rich man got money, the poor man got nothing” ran the first line.
“You’ve had your fun
The time has come
You’ve played a game that you’re not worthy of
So make way and take away
Since it’s my sound that goes around.
They got to go,
They all got to go.”
Buster ensured that his recordings were unique by including handclaps and mouth organ riffs into a slowed-down Ska beat and boasts, “My song, my arrangements, my riff, my bassline, my tempo. I didn’t sound like the American R&B that they were playing. The brew that was mixed up in my head was Jamaican and I was overthrowing a music and putting in its place something truly Jamaican,”.
One of the most influential figures in ska and rocksteady, which gave birth to reggae, Buster created and released hundreds of top-class recordings for himself and others in the instrumental and vocal styles at home and abroad. The signing of a recording contract with UK-based Melodisc Records ensured the distribution of his recordings in Europe.
Some of his most enduring and best-remembered cuts include the negro spiritual Wash Wash, and his rapping as the uncompromising magistrate on Judge Dread. Others were Blackhead Chinaman, Time Longer Than Rope, Enjoy Yourself, Over and Over, Hard Man Fi Dead, and his seminal production of Oh Carolina, by the Folks Brothers, which became the first Jamaican recording to move away from the general trend of imitating American R&B and into Jamaican Rastafarian culture.
Prince Buster will be one of the honourees at the upcoming One World Ska and Rocksteady Music Festival at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre from November 26-27.