Twenty minutes with reggae legend Don Carlos
Stephen Cooper and Don Carlos at Reggae on the Mountain in Topanga Canyon, California in July 2016
By Stephen Cooper
With his signature sweet voice and a successful career spanning over four decades, Don Carlos is unquestionably a legendary figure in reggae music. The worldwide appeal of Carlos’ unique style of conscious roots reggae music is well-documented; an often-cited example well-worth watching on YouTube is from a concert Carlos gave in 2010 in Nairobi, Kenya; a massive crowd of an estimated 150,000 joyous fans turned out despite a sweltering African sun to dance, to praise Jah, and to listen to Don Carlos sing.
On April 8, 2017, I interviewed Don Carlos for approximately 20 minutes after he and his band Dub Vision performed before just a few hundred lucky fans at the Belly Up Tavern in San Diego, California. The many topics we discussed included: the controversy involving non-conscious dance hall music; new music he has released; a relatively new family-owned recording studio called Jus Time Records in Portmore, Jamaica; the importance of having a good sound engineer; the Jamaican government’s failure to properly invest in Jamaican music; and the influence that reggae stars Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs had on his career. What follows is a transcript of the interview modified only slightly for clarity.
Q: Mr Carlos, there exists a bit of controversy concerning what I would call “non-conscious dance hall music”; music that promotes discrimination, violence, a certain slackness and hyper-sexuality, the debasement of women. Is this controversy over-hyped or is this a serious problem that hurts reggae music?
Don Carlos: Yeah, that is a problem. Because you see, they are trying to divert the true message of the music. And that’s not right, you know. We have this music to enlighten the people. To teach the people about positive things. Instead of trying to break the vibes in a negative way. Every song from my mouth is supposed to be a positive pertaining to the Most High. Instead of negativity, you know?
Q: Absolutely. Now, I’m curious. I thought you were going to sing the brand new single you just released, “Peace and Love.” But you didn’t sing that song tonight. Why not?
Don Carlos: Well, you know, the musicians [I’m touring with] have to get familiar with it. Because they are not the ones who recorded it.
Q: I read once where you said that you always make sure the band you are playing with knows how to play your songs.
Don Carlos: Yeah.
Q: So that song is not ready for them to play live just yet?
Don Carlos: True.
Q: Now that new song though, “Peace and Love” – it is such a beautiful song. I wanted to tell you that. And of course, the message of the song is clear. But, I wanted to ask you anyway: Was there some particular inspiration behind it?
Don Carlos: Well, really that song was written by [my son], Geo [George Spencer]. Geo wrote that song. But when I hear the lyrics, you know, I thought it was positive. So I decided to sing it.
Q: I’ve heard Geo sing before. He is very talented.
Don Carlos: True. True.
Q: Now I understand at some point in the future, the two of you, father and son, you’ll be collaborating on some songs?
Don Carlos: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: That will be fabulous – the two of you singing together. Oh man.
Don Carlos: Yeah mon. Geo has a good voice. And his writing is conscious.
Q: This new single Geo wrote for you, Peace and Love, you recorded and released it on a record label called Jus Time Records. I want to ask you more about that. Now this is a relatively new recording studio located in Portmore, Jamaica, right?
Don Carlos: True.
Q: And I think your fans would be interested to know, so I hope it’s okay to ask, but this recording studio is family-owned?
Don Carlos: Yeah. That’s owned by my nephew, Marlon Spencer. He has a studio down there and he works with a number of artists.
Q: In a 2010 interview you were asked if there was anything you would do differently in your career. And you said, you would “do it all yourself.” Because the technology has improved such that you can now create your own studio and make your own music. So I was wondering if working with your nephew Marlon – in this family owned studio – is that part of an outgrowth from that thinking?
Don Carlos: Yeah. Well, you know the thing with me is, once I get involved in music, I just want to go all out. So I’m in a studio [now] that works with me, night and day.
Q: Whenever you want?
Don Carlos: Whenever I want. I have enough time to pull up, you know, and fix things.
Q: You once said “producers are reducers” because they “don’t get artists their proper value.”
Don Carlos: Yeah. True. [laughing]
Q: But you have also said that it is important to have a good sound engineer. And I was curious about that, because later this summer I’m hoping to interview [Grammy award winning sound-engineer and producer of Bob Marley’s “Legend” album] Errol Brown.
Don Carlos: Oh yeah?
Q: Yeah. Now I know Mr Brown was the sound engineer on “Suffering” [your first solo album, released in 1981]. And you have been quoted saying Mr Brown was very “gentle” and “patient” with you. Can you say a little bit more about that? How was Errol Brown such a good and important guy for you to work with at that early point in your career?
Don Carlos: Well, you know, he would take time to make certain that everything is right. When you’re singing, he would stop you. He would say, “Don’t do it that way, do it this way.” He was so helpful in the studio to make sure that whatever you are doing, you are doing it perfect.
Don Carlos: Yeah.
Q: So he has a good ear for the music? A sense for when things sound right?
Don Carlos: Yeah. Yeah. He’s an excellent engineer, you know.
Q: Mr Carlos there was an article published in the Jamaica Observer in February that I want to ask you about. It was called “whither the future of reggae.” The article asserted that the government of Jamaica has not done nearly enough to invest and promote reggae music. That it has not realized the wealth-potential reggae music could bring to the country. What do you think about this?
Don Carlos: Well, from what I know about music and the government… the government [has] never really support[ed] Jamaican music as a whole. Whether reggae, ska, or rocksteady. Because really, you don’t find reggae music playing on the radio in Jamaica. They mostly play foreign music. American music.
Q: That was one of the points made in the Observer column. That they are blending different music on Jamaican radio stations and that there really is not as much reggae playing as you would think.
Don Carlos: Yeah. Not as much Jamaican music.
Don Carlos: Well, I don’t know.
Q: Well, let me ask you about a theory that I’ve heard. I’ve heard it from several Jamaicans that I know. They say that there is still discrimination that lingers against Rastafarians in Jamaica. Because Jamaica is predominately a Christian country. And so, while Bob Marley’s music is accepted, or at least given a pass, because Rastafarian singers are singing about Jah and not Jesus Christ, because they have dreadlocks, and because they use marijuana, they are still not accepted by mainstream Jamaican society. Is there any truth to this? Is this something that has held reggae back?
Don Carlos: Well, I think really, the reason why they fight against Rasta is because of Marcus Garvey, you know. The politicians think that Marcus Garvey came to change the program and take over.
Q: And shake up the system?
Don Carlos: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: Because Rastafarian roots singers are singing about problems with the government. And the government doesn’t want that?
Don Carlos: True. Because you see the government wants to control the masses of the people, you know. And Rasta is more like a rebel to the system. Because [Rasta] tries to do more natural things.
Q: This discrimination against Rastas bothers me. Because as I was telling you before we started [the interview]: Listening to your music is such a spiritual experience. It is music that makes me – and I think anyone who listens to it – want to be a better person. And it doesn’t matter what you call God or what your religion is. Also, Rastas are actually singing about verses and passages from the Bible. So it bothers me to hear that in Jamaica there is still an unwillingness to invest and promote reggae music because of a fear of Rasta. A fear of rebelliousness.
Don Carlos: And you see, the government can’t control Rasta. Because as brother Bob say, “Rasta don’t work for no CIA.” And Rasta don’t mix up in certain things –
Q: Systems, “isms”, and schisms?
Don Carlos: True. So you see, if they allow [the Rastafarian religion] to really spread out, all of Jamaica would be Rasta. And then they wouldn’t get to control the people. That’s what they do in politics: Divide and conquer.
Q: Because of the younger generation coming up in Jamaica, is there reason to hope for a change?
Don Carlos: Well, it’s changing right now. Because the youth grow up and see the violence. And they don’t like that. Growing up [in Jamaica], you try and break out of that. So gradually, gradually, things change.
Q: The Jamaica Observer article I mentioned noted that, due to a lack of funding, the annual Dennis Brown concert had to be moved this year from its historical site on the Kingston waterfront to another substandard location. You’ve said before that Dennis Brown was a big influence on your career. Did you actually know Dennis Brown?
Don Carlos: Yeah mon. I love Dennis Brown. Dennis Brown is one of the humblest singers that I have ever known.
Q: Did you meet him at the recording studio? I know when you were young you would hang around the different studios and sound systems. That you followed folks like Desmond Dekker and Ken Boothe. And that that’s how you met them, outside of the studio. Is that also how you met Dennis Brown?
Don Carlos: Yeah, at the studio. Really, I met Dennis Brown through Gregory Isaacs.
Q: “The cool ruler.”
Don Carlos: Yeah. You see, Gregory Isaacs was my teacher. He taught me a lot in the music business. Gregory Isaacs lived in Waterhouse [an impoverished district in West Kingston]. Every day I use to go and check him. He would boil cornmeal porridge and me and him share it, you know. He taught me most of the things that I know in music.
Q: I love Gregory Isaacs. I’m a big fan of his.
Don Carlos: He’s my brother, man. It’s only when he got involved in drugs that he acts like he don’t know me.
Q: Is that right?
Don Carlos: I think he feels ashamed. Because, you know, one morning I went to check him at his record store in Kingston. And it was early in the morning. I saw him [Gregory Isaacs] talking to a DJ. So I stand across the road waiting on them to finish the conversation. So while I was waiting on them, he stepped across the road to me and he was smoking a spliff. And with the spliff in his hand [Gregory] said, “Carlos, I would give you a smoke off of this, but this is not for you, you hear? This is not for you.” And I didn’t even realize what he was saying. Because in those days I didn’t know anything about drugs.
Q: Interesting. How old were you when that happened?
Don Carlos: I was in my early twenties.
Q: Still young.
Don Carlos: Yeah. You see, if he had given it to me, I would have taken it. Because Gregory was like my brother. So if he had given it to me, I would have taken it.
Q: He was looking out for you?
Don Carlos: Yeah.
Q: Let me ask you, since I did interview Duckie Simpson [of Black Uhuru] right here in this very same room in September. I know there is a lot of history between you two. Maybe even some bad blood that has developed over the years. But since I love your music and also I love Black Uhuru’s music, is there a chance you guys can peace it out? Or is the friendship too far gone?
Don Carlos: Well you see, for me, I don’t carry any grievance. I want my heart to be light like a feather. I don’t say we can’t get together again, you know. We can. If it’s going to happen it just has to benefit me [and not only Duckie Simpson].
Q: When I interviewed Duckie in September he was upset that King Jammy [a record producer in Jamaica] was going to remake the famous “Life Crisis” album [also known as “Black Sounds of Freedom”] that both you and Duckie [and the third founding member of Black Uhuru, Garth Dennis] first released in 1977. Duckie said Jammy offered him a paltry, offensive sum of money and he complained that – like many Jamaican musicians – he’s been swindled out of royalties over the course of his career. In past interviews, you’ve also voiced similar complaints. Are you still fighting to get the money you are due for your old music or are you moving on?
Don Carlos: I’m moving on. Because you know what? Most of the producers – them that rip us off – they’re broke now. All of the money that they get, they don’t have anything from it.
Q: It’s a dying breed, those guys?
Don Carlos: True. And right now I am living a better life than a lot of them. Jah has taken care of me. I’m happy. And you know what too? Sometimes, I don’t blame them. Because if [those old-school tight-fisted Jamaican producers] didn’t put those songs out, I wouldn’t be known. I am still reaping the benefit from what they did.
Q: I read that your dad was a tailor and your mom was a dressmaker when you were growing up in Jamaica. Is that why you always dress and look so cool?
Don Carlos: [Laughing] Yeah mon.
Q: I know times were difficult for you growing up in the notoriously tough and poor Waterhouse district in West Kingston. Do you think your parents could have ever imagined this incredibly successful career you’ve had – traveling all over the world, turning out hit songs over the course of almost 50 years?
Don Carlos: [Laughing, shaking his head] No. They never imagined it would be like this. My dad used to say, “What you wanna do? You wanna go around and sing rock songs?” He didn’t want me to be a singer. He thought it was a low-life thing. Like I would just sing in bars, you know?
Q: But he would be so proud of you know if he could see the joy your music brings people. The joy it brings to the world.
Don Carlos: Before he died, he kind of realized, you know. What was happening.
Q: That you were able to, through your music, spread this great message of peace and love.
Don Carlos: Yeah.
Q: It’s truly an honor to have had this time with you, Mr Carlos. I understand you’ll be touring in Europe and Africa later this year. And also, performing with Slightly Stoopid. Good luck to you, please be safe, and thank you.
Don Carlos: Jah bless.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq