Be specific: Island Records founder Chris Blackwell on his Island Records book

Chris Richards of the Washington Post talk to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell about his new book, Keep on Running: The Story of Islands Records.

Chris Blackwell is the man given credit for turning the planet onto reggae music.

The Island Records founder helped launch the careers of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff — along with U2, Grace Jones, Roxy Music, Nick Drake and a slew of other non-Jamaican superstars. Blackwell’s story is captured in “Keep On Running: The Story of Island Records,” a new coffee table tome offering a visual history of the pioneering imprint. You can get your copy signed when Blackwell visits Georgetown’s Govinda Gallery (Washington D.C.) on Friday from 6-8 p.m.

But first, flip to page 182 and check out the three-page entry on Washington go-go. In the ’80s, Blackwell tried to break Washington’s indigenous funk music to a national audience the same way he popularized reggae. In 1985, he signed local legends Trouble Funk. In 1986, Blackwell’s Island Pictures produced the feature film “Good to Go” — a movie Blackwell hoped would do for go-go what “The Harder They Come” did for reggae. It didn’t.

Click Track spoke with Blackwell about his dalliance with go-go and asked why he thinks the music never found a national audience.
When did you first encounter go-go music?

I would guess about 1982 or 1983. I was coming back to my hotel late at night in New York and I heard on my radio a Chuck Brown song… That was the first track I heard and this was before you could program drums, before there were drum machines. And the drum patterns were unbelievable. I thought, “This couldn’t have been made by a human.” That first track really lured me into it. I

I tried to track him down and eventually ended up with (artist and TEDD label founder) Maxx Kidd. Somehow either Maxx Kidd owned the track… or… I can’t quite remember. But I decided to go down to D.C. one weekend. About five of us went down to a basketball-sized stadium and it was packed with about 6,000 people. Absolutely packed! And not one of the bands had I ever heard of. But Redds & the Boys were on. Trouble Funk, maybe. Another one, Rare Essence? I’m not sure if they were on…

What was so incredibly exciting to me was that [go-go] was somewhere between Jamaica and Lagos. It was very African in the fact that it was unstructured — songs that would go on for a very long time in a trance-like way. From a Jamaican point of view, it was very soulful.

I felt like this is a new music [but] it isn’t going to work on radio. The songs aren’t strong enough. But if you can bring people to the music and get them into it, it could really break. So I was thinking in my head about the example of what “The Harder They Come” did for Jamaican music. People can get a sense of where this music came. So that’s when I decided to get involved.

Bottom of Form

The go-go scene is still thriving here in Washington but many still wonder why it never broke nationally. As a label mogul who tried to help it break out nationally, why do you think it’s never happened?

It wasn’t song orientated. The grooves are really why it’s so great… James Brown had great grooves but he also had really strong sort of songs with hooks. Their music was so — it was like Jamaican or African — it was so powerful. Just really powerful.

Have you seen any kind of scene like this? An insular community where the music has to be experienced live?

Nigerian music was a bit like that. Fela [Kuti] never really wrote a lot of cover-able songs, or radio songs. He would just play. And the band would play, like, six or seven hours. It’s a trance-like thing, like King Sunny Ade. It wasn’t confined to a Western concept. You were just there and you were transformed.

About the book, Vogue had this to say:

After working as a production assistant on Dr. No in his native Jamaica in 1961, Chris Blackwell nearly ditched music for movies instead of becoming, as the founder of Island Records, one of the industry’s most influential figures. Some 50 years after he released his first disc, Blackwell has put together Keep on Running: the Story of Island Records (Universe), a volume of photos, cover art, and reminiscences about his label’s extraordinary odyssey.

The book’s scattershot collection of essays by music writers and producers yield interesting nuggets from inside the workings of pop history, like the London DJ whose extensive R&B record collection became a resource for the Rolling Stones. We learn about the level of business sophistication Bob Marley and the Wailers—one of Island’s greatest successes—had achieved long before they joined the label, and about the personality traits that could make one talented artist take off but another fail to connect with the public.
More impressive is the sheer scope of material that Island has released—driven by Blackwell’s discerning, eclectic taste—from its beginnings in Jamaican music to such seminal British bands as Traffic and Free to Grace Jones and U2 all the way to Pulp and PJ Harvey. Though Blackwell is no longer involved in the label, having sold his stake to Polygram in 1989 and resigned as CEO eight years later, Island continues to sign such idiosyncratic acts as Amy Winehouse and Florence and the Machine. Leafing through this book, with its procession of richly iconic imagery and album covers, is like watching the energies of pop culture churning before your eyes.

For the original interview go to http://blog.washingtonpost.com/clicktrack/2010/12/be_specific_island_records_fou.html

The vogue review can be found at http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/keep-on-running/

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