A report from Drexel Now.
A pair of reggae innovators will visit Drexel University this fall to share their experiences in the music industry with students in Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and to explore the trove of Philadelphia soul music in Drexel’s Sigma Sound Studio Archives. Bitty McLean, a reggae artist with three top-10 hits as a performer and a No. 1 album to his credit as a producer; and Guillaume Bougard, who operates one of the most successful independent reggae record labels in Europe; will serve as Westphal’s 2017 Rankin Scholars, holding a mixing demonstration in the Pearlstein Gallery on Nov. 2 and a series of lectures from Oct. 31 to Nov. 8 while also working on a new album in Drexel’s recording studio.
“An integral part of the Drexel Music Industry Program student experience is learning from and working with industry professionals,” said Darren Walters, an associate professor in Westphal’s Music Industry program and director of the College’s student-run record label MAD Dragon Music Group. “This residency allows students in the business and recording arts and music production concentrations to work side by side on a commercial project while interacting with the principles on the process of recording and marketing a unique album.
McLean, a British-born artist with Jamaican heritage, built his successful career around melding his reggae sound with that of early American rock classics. His chart-topping hits, covers of Fats Domino’s “It Keeps Rainin’ (Tears From My Eyes),” and The Shirelles’ “Dedicated To the One I Love,” were a natural blend of powerful lyrics with his soulful sound. In his week at Drexel, McLean is looking for another opportunity to revive some classics — this time looking toward the Philadelphia soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“Over the years, Jamaican music has always included a heavy element of soul and ska, rocksteady or reggae artists like Alton Ellis, the Wailers, or Ken Boothe have sung their own version of soul music,” McLean said. “Many of us have covered hits first recorded by American soul artists in a reggae style. At the same time, Jamaica has offered the world its own musical approach, which has been used by international artists, so it’s a continuous back and forth movement between Jamaica and the rest of the world. I come to Philadelphia to expose my experience as a reggae artist but also to explore the soul flavor that Philadelphia is famous for. This cross pollination promises to be a unique experience.
Bougard, who co-produced McLean’s “Movin’ On” album with Jamaican legends Sly & Robbie on his TABOU1 label, also manages a large catalogue of Jamaican music and brings years of experience in the music industry to his teaching residency at Drexel. He provides a unique perspective from his experiences as a producer and as an advocate representing more than 250 Jamaican recording artists in a $4 million French copyright lawsuit.
Bougard and McLean are taking advantage of their time at Drexel to check out some classic soul tracks from the Drexel Audio Archives’ Sigma Sound Studios Collection and are working with Reservoir to add a few of them to the “Bitty In Philly” album they’re working on.
The pair sees soul as a natural candidate for their album because McLean’s voice is frequently compared to American soul singers from the early ‘60s, when the genre was king in Philadelphia. And they point that Jamaican artists and producers have deep admiration for the sound of Philadelphia soul music. Some of them, like the Third World band, have covered hits from the O’Jays and even recorded Philadelphia’s Gamble and Huff in the ‘80s.
“I’m very excited to share my passion for Jamaica’s rich musical culture with Drexel students and show them how Jamaica, a small third world island, has been influencing music worldwide for more than 40 years now,” Bougard said. “While Jamaican artists frequently revisit existing reggae and dancehall beats and instrumentals, what Bitty and I are doing, thanks to Reservoir and Drexel, has never been done before. It’s all about experimenting and interacting with Drexel students in the process. We’re really looking forward to hearing what it will sound like. Bitty’s fabulous voice is perfect for these instrumentals. Last, I can’t help noticing the word ‘Rankin’ — it is also a Jamaican patois term denoting something ‘superior’ and ‘strong,’ so it augurs well for this project!”
Drexel acquired the archives, which include more than 6,500 mastered audio tapes of the legendary studio’s pop, soul, disco and R&B recordings, in 2005 and has steadily been working to pair up artists with the record labels that own the rights to the songs so they can be reintroduced to the public in partnerships like this one.
“Archival materials are preserved with the intent to be used. Partnering with Bitty McLean and Reservoir is a perfect way to give these materials life and visibility,” said Toby Seay, an associate professor in Westphal College and project director of the Drexel Audio Archives.
Working with Faith Newman at Reservoir, the company that holds the copyrights for dozens of songs in the archive that were originally recorded under the Philly Groove label, McLean and Bougard have already identified a handful tracks that they’re planning to work into the album. The songs, which were stripped of their vocal tracks for the “Bitty in Philly” project, will be used to create the background for McLean’s new vocals.
“Reservoir is thrilled to continue our partnership with Drexel,” Neuman said. “It’s exciting to watch new generations and audiences explore the Philly Groove catalog. The Bitty McLean project will breathe new life into these historic songs as it blends the cultures of reggae and soul.”
As part of their visit, McLean and Bougard will hold an interactive lecture and performance to demonstrate Jamaican production techniques, with an emphasis on dub, a technique invented 45 years ago that has spawned the genre now known as “electro music.” The event will be held in Drexel’s Pearlstein Gallery on Nov. 2 in conjunction with its contemporary Caribbean photography exhibit. McLean and Bougard will spend the duration of the week in classrooms, the sound archives and the recording studio working with students.
The Rankin Scholar-in-Residence award, established in 2006 to honor former Westphal Dean Marjorie Rankin, brings to campus noted individuals who excel in fields related to media arts and design. The award is funded through continuing donations by her friends and colleagues with the goal of inspiring students, stimulating faculty, invigorating the professional field and aiding in the development of the college.