On Sugar Minott

In Jamaican parlance, a “selector” is a DJ, and a “DJ” is an MC. Before he became a great reggae singer, Lincoln “Sugar” Minott was both. Though he will perhaps be best remembered for his smooth voice and prolific recording career—forty albums in around as many years—it was his hustle and charm, cultivated in the highly competitive and wildly energetic Jamaican dancehall, that endeared Sugar to the world.

I interviewed Sugar just a few months before his death, at his recording studio compound in Kingston, Jamaica. When we entered the empty cement room that was to be the guesthouse at his studio yard, Sugar grabbed my recorder and squatted on a milk crate to deliver a well-rehearsed spiel: “Yeah I’m here, Sugar Minott, Black Roots Production, original Dancehall, original Lover’s Rock, original Reggae, you know? Comin’ from way back when.” Much of what he said during our interview felt like a dancehall toast; a healthy dose of bravado tempered by a steady pour of “big ups,” or shout outs, to Sugar’s contemporaries, his mentors, his protègès.

Many older Jamaican artists suffer from a “kids these days” attitude, but Sugar always had an ear to the street. When Jamaican youths in the turbulent late ’70s began to turn away from the roots reggae made internationally famous by Bob Marley, Sugar was one of the first to step in with a more danceable, relatable style that continues to dominate the domestic Jamaican market today: “reggae inna dancehall style.” Known as “The Godfather of Dancehall,” he took a continued interest in the development of his fractious godchildren. In the early ’80s, after establishing himself as a solo artist, Sugar formed his record label, Black Roots, and another organization, Youthman Promotion, a non-profit committed to cultivating and promoting young talent. Sugar could rattle off an impressive list of artists who’d come through Youthman Promotion’s doors: “people like Tristan Palmer, Little John, Tony Tuff, you know, coming up right to Junior Reid, Yami Bolo …” But when I met him, just months before his death, he was even more excited about the work ahead. “We have a band,” he told me, “we have a small sound system here, so you know, we’re just trying to build a guest house and looking to go to some festivals this year. We have a crew in New York, we have a crew in Japan, we have a crew in Germany, you know. Youth Promotion, we trying to spread worldwide.” He died with much left to do.

The obituaries keep mentioning Sugar’s smile. NPR called it adorable, the New York Times ran a quote from Roger Steffens, co-founder of reggae magazine the Beat, describing it as “a hugely gap-toothed smile that you could drive a minibus through.” Well I’ll have you know that Sugar Minott died with a gleaming set of gold teeth in his head. I remember because they matched his gold bracelet, his gold watch, and his gold Star of David ring. When I met Sugar, he was wearing a yellow do-rag, a red green and gold sweater vest, and a shiny heart-shaped pin. In videos from his youth, Sugar is stylish, spry, and endearing, but the Sugar I met was built like a bouncer, and carried himself with a slow swagger. Charming and helpful as he was, Sugar intimidated the hell out of me. At one point, flustered, I asked him why he switched from rootsier reggae to a dancehall style. “I’m the originator of dancehall,” he said, deadpan. “I didn’t switch to dancehall, I made it.”

Often when I write about musicians I play their albums in the background as I work. Writing about Sugar has quickly taught me the downsides to this method, since every few songs I’ve had to run to a full-length mirror for some emphatic dancing on the offbeat. In contrast to the emphysemic grind of his speaking voice, Sugar sang with a sweet, melty croon. I usually favor screamers and shouters who claw their way to emotional peaks, but I love how subtly Sugar’s voice gained intensity, rising in plumes until finally at the bridge it reached clearer air. Sugar was a versatile singer, shifting from dancehall to roots to Lover’s Rock with equal success. Some of his most enduring songs are his early ’80s politically-tinged hits like “No Vacancy” and “This Old World (Babylon),” but in the weeks since his death, it’s his very first solo album from 1977, the groundbreaking Live Loving, that I’ve been playing over and over again.

The innovation in Live Loving that earned Sugar the title “Godfather of Dancehall” is a relatively simple one. Instead of using a live band in the studio, he sang new lyrics over previously recorded instrumentals, or “riddim sides,” of old hit songs. Called “versioning,” this practice had been widespread in live Jamaican music since the emergence of ska in the late ’50s, but after Sugar brought it to the studio, versioning became the cornerstone of the emerging dancehall style. Some might consider this move artistically regressive; it effectively did away with studio musicians in Jamaica, and though dub reggae artists intricately reworked instrumental tracks, many dancehall producers played the original record straight through with few alterations. Over the years, the most popular riddims have given rise to hundreds of versions. While it’s usually untrained listeners who complain that all hip hop or all metal sounds the same, this is a legitimate critique of dancehall reggae, in which backing tracks are constantly recycled.

Nonetheless, by introducing the process of versioning to recorded work, Sugar helped to preserve and prolong the Jamaican music industry’s unique concept of intellectual property. Though unauthorized use of beats is common in hip hop, the basic premise is that at one point a producer and an MC decide to get together and make a hit song. In Jamaica, however, riddims circulate as unofficial creative commons, and the success of a new riddim is often gauged by how many different artists record over it.  Financially it’s disastrous. Many of the most-used riddims were made in the 1960s and ‘70s, while there were no copyright laws in effect in Jamaica until 1994. Sugar displayed the same ambivalence toward the situation as most artists I met. He complained of Jamaica’s “backward” publishing laws, but took pride in the dancehall tradition of musical homage. “When it’s a classic riddim that you bring back from memory, it’s nice, because people that are giving up on the music, say ‘Oh, this is something I can relate to.’ And then it’s modern enough that the kids can relate to it; it’s more stepping up.”

For the well-versed dancehall fan, the system of riddims and versions creates a unique listening experience. Any popular instrumental is entangled in such a web of songs that to hit upon one is necessarily to jiggle up the memory of another. So when Sizzla sings “Way Out,” over the  “M-16” riddim—originally released in 1968 by Lloyd “Matador” Daley —his song can actually be mixed rather seamlessly into Little John’s “All In The Game,” Bounty Killer’s “Mi Bad Mi Bad,” or Sugar’s 1983 song “Babylon.” Sure, a certain level of intertextuality is inherent in any art that exists within a canon. We have cover versions and remixes and allusion, for that matter. But it’s the centrality of musical recycling to dancehall that makes it unique. It’s Sugar’s legacy: the culture of big ups.

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