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March 8, 2007 


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INDUSTRY PROFILE


Clement Dodd & Chris Wilson
(Photo by Barry Morganstein)
Chris Wilson
Posted: March 8, 2007
By Jane Cohen and Bob Grossweiner

Having grown up in Jamaica, Chris Wilson, vice president/A&R at reggae label Heartbeat Records in Boston, could not have found a job more suited to him. He oversees the records from inception to finished product - working with marketing, distribution, art work - everything that makes the final package what it is. He also checks earlier releases to see if there are ways to improve them, "to make sure that every album we release is of the highest quality," he stresses.

Heartbeat was launched in 1981 by Rounder Records founder Bill Nowlin and Duncan Browne, with three of the hottest import records of the day -- new albums by British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, Clash associate DJ Mikey Dread and Jamaican toaster Big Youth. Since then, Heartbeat has cultivated a back catalog of more than 250 albums, representing the cream of Jamaican music, including Everton Blender, Richie Spice and Beres Hammond, Gregory Isaacs, the late Dennis Brown and former Black Uhuru frontman Michael Rose. Burning Spear's Calling Rastafari album brought the label it's first-ever Grammy Award in 2000.

Chris came to the United States in 1969 to go to college and attended Boston College and Boston University. Before joining the fledgling Heartbeat label in 1983, he managed a couple of Strawberries record stores and played guitar in a Boston band called the I-Tones.

"We put out a version of 'Walk On By"' that sold 10,000 copies on a 12-inch," he quips. "It was a big local thing. I quit the I-Tones when I was hired in 1980 to play in an all-white band that was set tour the U.S. with Lee Perry, but the tour fell through at the last minute When I came home, I started playing in the I-Tones again, but when our schedule slowed, I went out and got a job at the Harvard Coop. I soon left the Coop because I wanted to do something in music besides being in the I-Tones. That's when I went to Heartbeat, where I oversaw the records from the beginning I'm basically doing the same job now that I was then. My title may have changed, but that's probably all."

At the time, Heartbeat was basically the only reggae reissue label, and Chris set out to establish a new standard and not simply throw any old thing into the marketplace. "I paid attention to the music, found out what the producers of the music wanted people to hear, talked to the artists, got the stories for the liner notes and searched for vintage photographs," he explains. "I wanted to put together the best collection you could find. And now, everybody tries to do that.

"So I went to the Rounder office, which in 1981 was located in East Cambridge," he reminisces. "When I walked through the door, Bill Nowlin and Duncan Brown were standing inside holding some of the first Heartbeat releases, which were, if I remember, Big Youth and Sugar Minott. We got to talking, and one of the first things I said was that I would bring them Studio One -- Jamaica's most prolific recording label for more than 40 years --because as far as I was concerned, that was the Holy Grail."

He made good on his promise. "If you are going to be taken seriously by collectors and fans of reggae music, you have to be able to offer them the best, and that was Studio One," he adds. "So I contacted Clement Dodd, the pioneering producer of Jamaica's reggae music scene and founder of Studio One, and explained what I wanted to do, which was to give the Studio One catalog the showcase it deserved, and we took it from there. I first met him in 1968 while I was still living in Kingston." Dodd died in 2004 at the age of 72 due to a heart attack.

A serious collector himself, Chris has amassed a Studio One collection from his years in Jamaica, and in all the years since. "All the moves I've made from Jamaica to the U.S., and from apartment to apartment, those records have always come with me," he says nostalgically.

"I made 65 albums with Mr. Dodd, and now I'm just able to go back and really work on them, put them out on vinyl again, since I have extra tracks. The early albums didn't have writer credits or a lot of the information that's compulsory today, so if I'm going to redo the packaging, I might as well redo the whole thing from A-Z.

"Almost every release on Heartbeat, if the artist is still alive, or the producer, I will have worked with them on some level, whether it's interviewing them for the liner notes or recording a new album or putting together a compilation," Chris adds. "Some are new compilations by producers who never released a LP before, like Lloyd 'Matador' Daley."

Last year, Heartbeat unveiled a series of fully re-mastered and expertly annotated CDs celebrating Dodd -- the project was the brainchild of Chris. The first releases in this series include individual albums by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Freddie McGregor, Delroy Wilson and Alton Ellis. There is also a series of dynamic compilations of Studio One classics that track the story of Jamaican music from its earliest, ska-flavored roots in the early 1960s into the dancehall age.

Heartbeat's current artists are Michael Rose, Everton Blender, the Nazarenes and the Abyssinians. They also had Culture until Joseph Hill's passing in Berlin on Aug. 19, 2006.

Experience & Advice
Sometimes you deal with people who create good music but who in the end prove to be much different from what you expected. I also regret not signing Dawn Penn's big hit "No No No" to Zomba instead of to Atlantic, which eventually got the song from Heartbeat. In retrospect the Zomba offer would've turned out better for Heartbeat. It all came about after I went to Studio One's 35th Anniversary show in Kingston, Jamaica in 1991. Dawn Penn performed "No No No," which was a minor hit for her and Studio One in the late '60s. She was flat as a performer, but the crowd erupted when they heard the song. I ran into Steele & Clevie at the concert, who were the hitmakers at the time in Jamaica, and jokingly told them they should remake "No No No." Well they did, and our release of the song, out of the blue, became an underground club hit in New York, which caused us to put it out as a single and that single blew up. Heartbeat, at that point, really wasn't able to push "No No No" in the pop world. We were a small label with no prior hits, so we were looking for a way to take the song to the next level. Labels started calling, and we ended up at Atlantic because I was a fan of the label when I was a kid.

For the most part I've really enjoyed working with the folks here at Rounder, especially Bill Nowlin, and it was really an honor to work for so many years with Clement Dodd of Studio One. He and Bill taught me a lot about music and the business. I was already a big fan of Studio One before Mr. Dodd and I started working together, and he turned out to be greater than anything I could've imagined. He was all about the music, it was his total focus. I guess I'm even more of a fan now that I got to know him.

Which artists have you signed to Heartbeat over the years?
I generally sign all the artists that come out on Heartbeat, although I didn't sign Burning Spear. He was signed by the owners directly. I signed Michael Rose, Everton Blender, Richie Spice, the Studio One label and many other important Jamaican labels and producers including Treasure Isle, Joe Gibbs, Channel One, Lee Perry, the Matador and Niney the Observer, to name a few.

What do you look for in signing artists to Heartbeat?
Signing reggae artists is different than signing U.S. artists. For example, we released albums by Richie Spice -- his first -- and Beres Hammond. These artists also release records on different labels. This has been going on in Jamaica since the '50s. Many of the big artists record for a variety of producers to take advantage of the big rhythms that each producer might have in their arsenal. So it is harder to sign an artist exclusively, although some top artists like Sean Paul, an Atlantic artist, do now seem to be satisfied being connected to one label.

How would you describe the reggae marketplace now as compared to five years ago?
Reggae goes through ups and downs as does the music industry in general. It's not immune to market fluctuations, and we at Heartbeat must be judicious and careful about what we decide to release, and who we decide to sign. A few artists sell a lot of records, like Sean Paul, but the vast majority of the reggae artists don't do anywhere near as well. The reggae sections in stores have been shrinking for years, and there are fewer stores stocking reggae so this has made it more difficult to reach out to the consumers who would still support the genre. The reggae market has also split between those fans who support the cultural or roots artists, like Burning Spear, and those who support the dancehall artists like Sean Paul, Shaggy, and Beenie Man. Heartbeat has traditionally been more of a roots label because that's what we all like here at the label and having been allied with Studio One, Jamaica's premier label since 1983. We've concentrated on reggae's greatest records. In fact, Heartbeat in the early '80s spearheaded the revival movement that has focused on the great Jamaican recordings of the last 40 years.

Today you have to be focused and creative in getting your records the attention they deserve. Our Studio One series has been successful in getting attention, which speaks to the quality of the material. There has also been a lot of sampling of Studio One rhythms over the last few years as well. Lily Allen, an EMI artist, used a sample of "Free Soul" by the Soul Brothers, released by Studio One in 1966 for her "Smile" single, which topped the U.K. charts last year.

How would you describe the reggae concert marketplace now as compared to five years ago?
It's certainly not as active as it was. I remember putting Richie Spice on tour, and there was little interest for him at the time from promoters. It will be interesting to see if his current success as a recording artist changes that. Burning Spear has developed quite a following, but I don't see many other artists enjoying his success. The play it safe attitude also means that the promoters usually round up the usual suspects so you always see the same names appearing on shows throughout the country, but there are promoters, like the Sierra Nevada festival, who always arrange for an eclectic grouping of obscure and popular acts. Some of these acts no one will ever see otherwise.

Has reggae ever found a successor to Bob Marley?
Well, that's the question! For the roots crowd the answer will probably be no, and if you were around when Bob Marley passed away, you would've seen many of the major record companies dropping all of their reggae acts, so they certainly felt there was no successor. However, acts like Sean Paul and Shaggy sell a lot of records and probably many more than Bob Marley did when he was alive, so I guess they could be considered successors. But, if you look at Bob Marley entirely as the phenomenon that he was in life, and the effect he had on so many people in so many countries, the answer would have to be no.

There are a lot of artists in Jamaica who could have been in contention but for whom the promise hasn't panned out. When Bob was at Studio One, Mr. Dodd, the label head, took an active interest in him and great pains were taken in his repertoire in a very Motown context. He was groomed to be a star, and so when Bob Marley appeared on the world stage years later, he was well seasoned both as a performer and as a songwriter. In Jamaica, the current producers don't take the time to establish the upcoming acts as they should.

How do you feel about free downloads off the Internet?
If we could find a way for these free downloads to pay for the artists on Heartbeat, who in many cases aren't rich at all, to live and for their children to be taken care of, I'd be OK with free downloads.

What kind of tour support does Heartbeat offer its artists?
I prefer to put Heartbeat's resources into the marketing and distribution of the records and leave the touring aspect of an artist's career in the artist's hands. We do support each tour with publicity, both press and radio, and we advance each date. It has proven effective for all the artists we've worked with. For the most part, our artists can sustain themselves on their tours.

What makes for a good Studio One reissue?
Having grown up in Jamaica I heard most of the songs in a Jamaican context. So my records have a more distinct Jamaican quality about them which sets them apart from the U.K. reissues that are also available. I also spend a lot of time on the sequencing of the songs which has become a lost art in this age of disposable music. Sequencing a record properly allows for each song to be showcased while a poor sequence can render a lesser song, but one with merit, forgettable.

I like my records to showcase the great hits of the label rather than becoming a rarities collection. I put some obscure material on the records if it fits in with the other songs, but I'm attempting to showcase the greatness of Studio One, and you achieve that by putting the important songs on the releases. Collectors can search and find the obscure songs themselves, and I encourage collectors to do just that. I collect songs myself that I like, but often I can't see them on any release. Funny as it may seem, sometimes records are obscure for a reason.

How do you decide what to put on a compilation
I look at what was important for the producer. For example, I knew Mr. Dodd very well, so I knew how he felt about his own legacy, and the records are kind of a homage to what he felt was great. Or there's something like Version Dread, which is my homage to what I think is great about his releases. A great CD comes down to a number of factors, but the main ones are, if you were trying to introduce somebody to an artist, what would be the songs that you would want them to hear? Forget if they're the famous ones or not -- just what are the best songs you could play them and in the best possible sound quality.

How do you ensure the best quality from the master tapes?
In 1982, when CD technology was being introduced there was a great deal of discussion about its limitations. Since we were working from the master tapes rather than vinyl like other reissue labels, we needed as much control as possible to ensure the best quality and to match what I was hearing on the tapes themselves. Working from the original tape sources allows you to focus on the sound rather than on fixing the vinyl problems, and in many cases the songs really get a new focus because you're almost hearing them for the first time. I was so used to scratchy Jamaican vinyl pressings that I was floored when I started to hear how great the recordings actually were that I was working on. Many of the Jamaican engineers were simply world class, and I really wanted them to get the recognition they deserved.

Do you do all your own re-mastering?
I wasn't doing it originally when the albums were coming out on vinyl, but when we started pressing CDs, and it was important that the job was done properly, that's when I started. I didn't have any real technical training, but I'd been working in studios for a while, it was simply a matter of wanting to make sure that what we put on CD sounded as great as it possibly could.

Is vinyl rather than CD the preferred way of re-releasing reggae music?
I love vinyl. I've bought vinyl all my life, and I still collect vinyl. Beatles, Kinks or Studio One singles. Vinyl is very tactile, you can hold it, look at the cover and read the cover. CD's and downloads are OK, I guess, but they're disposable. People throw away the covers, and most consumers don't know the name of the producers, musicians etc of their favorite records. When I was a kid, I was obsessed by information, and I felt I couldn't get enough. We get a lot of demand for reggae vinyl so I'm glad I can still supply the format.

A lot of your re-mastering is done with Toby Mountain
Toby is a great mastering engineer. We've done hundreds of records together so we symbiotically know each other and know what the other wants to do. We talk about the weather rather than talk about what we're doing because we understand. He'll know that if I don't like something, he'll hear it, but we've worked together so much that he knows exactly what I like.

Any long term plans?
Right now my ambitions are all about Studio One because I truly believe that Mr. Dodd and Studio One are as important, not just to Jamaican music but to music in general, as George Martin or Phil Spector, The Beatles, the Stones or the Kinks, Studio One is up there alongside all of them, and if I have a mission, it's that I want these records to be heard.

Do you miss performing?
I don't miss live work. You spend a lot of time on shows where there's little financial reward. In the '80s you could live off live work, but that isn't true anymore for the average band. I've friends, younger musicians, who share $25 for a night's work. Not what I'd like to do anymore.

I do play on records. I worked with Michael Rose on a couple of releases, and I produced a record with Everton Blender called "King Man" where I wrote the music, and he wrote the lyrics. We recorded it in L.A. with some friends of mine who are now in a group called the Aggrolites, and we finished it in Jamaica with musicians like Robbie Lyn, Dean Fraser and Joseph Hill from Culture. I tried to hearken back to the sound of reggae from the '70s which is what I was playing when I started. I'm now working on more tracks for another project, but I haven't picked out the singer that I want to work with yet.

First concert attended
The first concert that I remember attending was at a family friend's party in Kingston, Jamaica that featured the Merrymen from Barbados. It was a calypso group. This was about 1961. It was really an outdoor party, but it was important for me because I really disliked them. They were like the benchmark for deciding what was good and what was bad.

The first good concert I remember going to was also in Kingston and was James Brown in 1965. The show opened with three Jamaican bands each featuring about four vocalists or vocal groups. The second time I saw James Brown in Kingston, the opening act was the Female Beatles.

First industry job
I managed a couple of Strawberries stores in the late '70s when Morris Levy was the owner. They're a long-running regional record store chain. My first industry job was with Heartbeat. I started there in 1983.

Career highlights
Working with Clement Dodd of Studio One whose label I'd been a fan of since the early '60s. A particular highlight was releasing some of his Bob Marley & the Wailers material. It was amazing to transfer some of those original Bob Marley songs on the original one track tape machine that they were recorded on.

Career disappointments
I don't really have any. I've been blessed to work with musicians, artists, labels and producers that I've loved for most of my life.

Greatest challenge
To promote and sell reggae in America where it has always been a niche market. Despite that certain reggae artists have enjoyed huge sales, for many reggae artists it's still a struggle. Since Heartbeat really puts out more of the cultural side of reggae music, it's been a challenge at times.

Best business decision
Accepting the job at Heartbeat Records.

Best advice you received
I got a lot of good advice over the years since I've been working at Heartbeat. One of the owners, Bill Nowlin, has always helped me by giving me very good advice. He's been around for a long time, and he really cares about music and Heartbeat in particular. Also, having worked with Mr. Dodd for 20 odd years and just talking about music and records and groups, he had a lot of insights into the business, since he had started years earlier in the '50s. So he basically knew every artist and had worked with all the major ones and understood what it was like to be in the business.

Bill and I discuss my ideas, either for particular artists or records, and he points out the realities of a particular signing. So you get to put the concept into perspective because if you're a fan like I am, you get driven by enthusiasm, which sometimes needs to be tempered. Mr. Dodd knew everyone in the reggae business so you could bounce ideas off him as well, and you knew you'd hear the truth. He could deal with artists that nobody else could so he was very astute.

Best advice to offer
Be patient.

Most memorable industry experience
When Burning Spear won his Grammy for Calling Rastafari in 2000. Spear had recorded a great album so it was a pleasure to help him with getting it out. It was gratifying to have such a positive response to all the hard work that went behind the album.

Favorite team
The New England Patriots. I'm just a big football fan, and I've liked them for years. I'm glad to see that they've finally become one of football's best teams. I also love the Red Sox, though liking them has often been a trial. Bill Nowlin, my boss, is an avid Red Sox fan, and we've gone to a few games together. He's an authority on the Sox; I'm just a humble fan.

Favorite restaurant
Legal Seafood...anywhere--it's a chain. My mother, who is 90 year's old, likes it so we go there a lot.

Favorite hotel
Metropole in Venice, Italy.

What friends would be surprised to learn about you
Nothing. I'm an open book.

Industry pet peeve
Britney Spears and anybody like her, including Ashlee Simpson. I don't like manufactured stars, like Pat Boone was in the '50s. There are so many great musicians not being heard because of some corporate mentality.

Office paraphernalia
I like my office bare because I'm always on the road, but I've a home studio, and my two cats are always in there when I'm working. I call them the Cat Brothers.

If I wasn't doing this, I would be...
a millionaire. All joking aside, I can't think of anything I'd rather do.

Industry mentors
Clement Dodd and Bill Nowlin.

Chris can be reached at: 617-218-4503; e-mail: cwilson@rounder.com

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