Johnny Osbourne’s Mum wanted him to be an accountant. But Johnny had other plans, he wanted to sing. Thank Jah for that. I mean, what would you do if you grew up just down the road from Studio One? And in the ‘60s no less.
I’ll tell you what Johnny did — he found Rasta, changed his name from Errol (he’s a massive Johnny Mathis fan) and dedicated his life to music.
But it wasn’t all sweet and dandy. After battling to be heard by Studio One (considered to be Jamaica’s Motown), Johnny had to gap it to Canada. Kingston was kicking off with violence akimbo, so his Mum wanted him the heck outta dodge.
When he returned to Jamaica a decade later, Johnny went on to become a musical powerhouse. His classic album “Truths and Rights” (1980) launched him on a track of success and Johnny smashed out hit after hit over the years. Numbers like “Rewind” (1984), “Buddy Bye” (1985) and “Rude Boy Skank” (1988) gained him massive respect and notoriety both locally and abroad, making him a staple in the selecta’s crate and one of Jamaica’s golden boys.
Johnny reckons his sound is the perfect combo of new school meets old school. Since Diplo sampled his track “Mr Marshall” for “Jah No Partial” (2012), we tend to agree.
At the age of 69 The Godfather of Dancehall finds himself on tour to Australia and New Zealand this month, bringing his trademark voice on tour alongside Max Glazer. Grindin’ got to have some chats with the man himself.
You ever been to Australia or New Zealand before?
Nah but I’m looking forward to coming there.
What have you been up to this year?
This is my first tour for the year, but last year was busy. I toured in Mexico, Europe, Brazil and Russia.
What does the reggae scene look like in Russia?
Moscow was crazy; I was so surprised. I was there last August and found that it can get very hot. There we were one Saturday, in Gorky Park and it was massive. I was surprised that I was so well received. I must say I really enjoyed it.
When people come and see you perform, what do you hope they leave with?
People who know my music and is familiar with me, them’s who follow me know I’ve been around since the ‘60s, ‘70s an ‘80s to know I’m still here making music. My voice gets better with time, like vintage wine.
If your voice is wine, what are it’s characteristics?
It is pure.
So your time at Studio One must have been crazy awesome
Oh yeah man, it was the Motown of Reggae.
Are there any moments there that really stick out in your memory?
Ya know, I’ll tell you that I was tryna get in the studio from when I was young and I tried, and I tried, and I tried and I didn’t [get in] cos it was hard. There was a lot of talent but I was there – tryna audition every Sunday for years. Each time I go back there and I go back there, and there was always more people waiting for an audition. Sometimes the auditions finish and I don’t get the chance to be in the number for the day. So I am doing that until I had to migrate to Canada, but the return to Jamaica was when I get my real chance in the studio, ya’know – get my foot in the door. So I make this album called “Truths and Rights” for Studio One and that was the album for me, cos I had been trying for years to get my foot in the door, and I couldn’t. It was not easy.
What was it like working with Coxsone Dodd?
Well I knew Coxsone a long time because I used to live near Studio One. I used to be outside of the studio everyday – looking in and hanging around. Then in 1969 I made an album called “Come Back Darling”, but soon after I migrated to Canada. Coxsone he was listening to that album; he heard me, he know me, but I didn’t get no record deal.
So when I come back to Jamaica, I get right in there. I was a little more of a vocalist by then and I had done work that he knew about. Coxsone brushed off some old 4 track tapes with local riddim that I like, marked me on them, get ready and start recording. I didn’t have to audition that time… I just come in, pick the thing up and deal with it. Listening to them now, it’s very memorable.
What did Ishan People mean to you?
In Toronto, Canada, Reggae wasn’t very strong, but I decided to keep up this thing that I’m tryna do. So Ishan People was about hard work, and the members was doing some music that I really liked. Soon we decided to do some recording together, we would do it come night time. Right there I had a chance to really express myself vocally as I was one of the resident lead vocalists of the band. That was such a memorable part of my journey. After Ishan People fell apart, that was the time for a new calling, so I went back to Jamaica and back to Studio One.
The sound of Reggae is so sunny and positive, upbeat and optimistic, however, the message is often about oppression, or social revolution or conversations about brutality. Could you talk about why these opposites work so well together as a duality?
Reggae and Jamaican music in them early days, they is mostly love songs and about the struggle we find in love. We were listening to a lot of American music and American singers — all that really influenced Jamaican music. And everyone loves a love song; Bob Marley and the Wailers, they did a lot of songs about love. But as times go by, times they got tougher and tougher and the struggle got harder [in Jamaica]. So we had to sing about the pain we feel and the struggle that we are in. Later we had Black Power and we learn about the apartheid in Africa, so we started in a lot of freedom songs. The music had a journey of it’s own.
Rastafarianism is at the heart of so much good music: “Truths and Rights” is a good example of that. How does your spirituality influence your music?
When I was in Canada I was really out of my comfort zone I migrated there because my mother, she wanted me to go. Jamaica was getting very serious; politically, and a real upsurge was starting. My mother was worried that I would get caught up in the uprising; I was from West Kingston where it was very violent. I spent a lot of time there thinking about what I wanna say and what I wanna do. Once I get back to Jamaica, these songs are in my mind. They have been there for years. This is what I want to say. This is what I feel.
I grew up around a lot of elder Rastaman. Cos in them early days there wasn’t a lot of young Rasta, but I go around and I really admired this way of Rasta life. I hung out with a lot of Rasta so it’s in me from when I was young. But when you are living with your parents, you can’t do what you like. Most of us who grew up then in Jamaica, grew up Christian. We grew with this Christian life; I used to have to go to church with my Grandmother. So when I get older and I start finding the Rasta way, my family they be mad at me because of what I was getting into. They weren’t seeing Rasta as anything big, they were fighting against it. They want me to be an accountant and they thinking this Jah way of life is what’s making me want to do all this singing and music instead. They really fight against it; I didn’t have the support from my family about being a singer. It was not what they wanted me to be. I had to rebel. Just do my thing.
I think you made the right decision.
Yeah, I think so too. My family, they are proud of me now, but there was problems. Rasta was about thinking different.
You’ve been known to reference people like Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and Johnny Mathis before
Yah man! Nat King Cole is massive, one of my mentors. Those guys, they influence my sound, because each of these singers had something about them I really like. I take something from each of them, I learnt a different piece of craft from each. I think Nat King Cole is so relative today.
If you could go back in time and let the younger you in on some advice, what would you say?
Wow, I can go back in time (laughs)! Well the only thing I would say is ‘I’m sorry that I didn’t get the chance to start in this business earlier.’ If I knew that I had this talent, I should’ve been starting from about nine years old. I didn’t know that I could do this seriously; I didn’t know I could sound so good. I should have been up on it earlier. I would say ‘You should’ve been singing all your life man’.
Could you tell me what your definition of Grindin’ is?
The definition of Grindin, is working. You’re on the chop. You’re on the hustle. You’re working for your money. That’s your grind. Me, I’m always on the grind. I’m always working nah-mean?
Interview by Larissa McMillan