Wycliffe Johnson, a keyboardist and producer known as “Steely” who helped to steer Jamaican music for nearly two decades and to modernize the dancehall genre, died last Tuesday, September 1. He was 47. Johnson died at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital in Patchogue, N.Y., following a heart attack, longtime friend and fellow producer Cleveland Browne said. Johnson, who lived in Kingston, Jamaica, had been diagnosed with kidney failure last December while in New York City, where he had sought specialized medical care, Browne said. Doctors told Johnson he had a blood clot in his brain.
Although Johnson was best known for helping to produce numerous hits in Jamaica during the 1980s and 1990s, he first drew acclaim as a keyboardist on Sugar Minott’s 1978 album “Ghetto-ology,” and later as a member of Roots Radics, a pioneering early 1980s dancehall band. As an 18-year-old, he played keyboards on Bob Marley’s recording of “Trench Town.” Johnson then joined with Browne, and the duo became known as “Steely & Clevie.” They went on to help transform dancehall — a rawer, more sparse variant of reggae — with their early embrace of digital studio technology. Besides working with top Jamaican talent, the duo collaborated with global acts such as No Doubt and Heavy D. They also helped Sean Paul and Sasha on their 2004 chart-maker “I’m Still in Love With You.” Browne said that he and Johnson had been working on a tribute album of Jamaican reggae classics from the 1960s and 1970s, but that it was put on hold in late 2008 because of Johnson’s declining health. Browne said he’s unsure whether the album will ever be released