Morgan Heritage have just released their new album Mission In Progress and are part way through a European tour. Angus Taylor met Peter, Gramps and Mr Mojo in London to discuss Music, Madonna, and why the police always turn up at a party after they leave...
The new album is kind of... angry.
Was this a conscious thing?
P: Very conscious. A lot of our records from the past were very spiritual, very conscious. And on this one, it’s not just that we’re angry – the world is angry and we wanted to reflect that. American society is going into recession, people can’t afford mortgages, people are losing their cars, losing their homes. I was in Germany watching the BBC news and a family were saying they cant afford what they need in London – they just buy food for kids. The husband and wife were doing without. So if you really want to see what’s going on in the world, Mission In Progress reflects the world. Not just for Morgan Heritage – but what’s happening in Jamaica, what’s happening in Brooklyn, what’s happening in London or Paris – and don’t even talk about the Middle East, or Africa! When people listen to Mission In Progress twenty years on they can know what was happening in 2008.
There are a lot of political songs. Were they based on anything specific?
P: It’s more of a general thing – starting with the election in Jamaica, the election in America, the election in Zimbabwe; I mean they still can’t get a count after two weeks! What kind of ting that? Tony Blair stepped down and there’s a whole lot of things happen politically – and it’s almost like it’s just happening amongst politicians and the ordinary people are getting pushed out. So that’s why we say “why should we trust in politicians, why should we vote in their elections – because everything they discuss and do is not based on the benefit of the people, just for their own gain. Y’understand? America has been in Iraq for so many years – first they say they must find weapons of mass destruction, then they say have to take down a terrorist, Saddam, but he is dead now so why you still here? Let these people run their country!
You can’t build a country from the outside.
P: Exactly - let them run it from inside! So there’s a hidden agenda but everyone sees it and they just stand and fold their arms and let them do it…
G: Even Jesse Ventura (ex professional wrestler and actor) is a politician – maybe he’ll run for president - and he said on Larry King the other night that what Bush did is like what Hitler did to the Jews – they went to someone’s country, overturned the leader and killed him – that’s communism!
And they didn’t even execute him themselves – just turned it over to the Iraqis so they can’t be held accountable.
G: Yeah! Why should we trust these people?
The rock influences have really come together on songs like 12 Shots and Cross Wi Border - in some ways more successfully than for self proclaimed black rock bands. Which recent rock bands do you listen to?
P: Ah yes! To be honest, its not even rock – its specifically punk rock. It originated here in London. And this has been brewing for years. We did a tour in 2001/2 – on tour with No FX, Antiflag, Floggin’ Molly who are an Irish punk band. And when you hear their lyrical content and message it’s serious and aggressive and they’re not backing down. We learned so much because when you listen to them on record and playing live you get the same energy. And when people saw us live they used to say “wow you sound better than your record”, “I didn’t expect you to sound that good”. So we realised our live sound is a notch above our record, and we thought “how we gonna get our concert sound on a record like these punk bands?” and that’s what we’re doing, building momentum. And that’s why we call our sound Rockaz, not rockers from the movie y’understand? So it’s been 6-7 years in the making.
How did you decide to cover Steel Pulse?
M: In putting together the album we knew it was time to pay tribute to the history of our music. And Steel Pulse were a huge influence on us in the 80s. They were the most experimental, trying to infuse different genres of music into reggae like Bob did in the 70s.
I was just going to say there are some parallels: pushing the envelope while staying true to the form.
M: That’s exactly it.
Tell us a bit about the Raid Rootz Dance video.
M: Given that it’s a tribute to the pioneers of our music we wanted to pay tribute to the Jamaican film industry – so we rein acted the scene from the movie Rockers – that’s r-o-c-k-e-r-s – when Horsemouth visits Jack Ruby’s lawn and his bike got stolen. Then we put a little twist to coincide with the song. It was a pleasure for me personally as it’s my directorial debut along with a gentleman called Winston Mayhew. We had three of the premier Jamaican video directors on set, so it was history – we had Rass Kassa from Guru films, you have Jay Will who works with Shaggy, Ras Kassa works a lot with the Marleys, and Winston Mayhew works with Busy Signal. So it we were happy to be a part of it.
The message is still very relevant – particularly in France (In February the Veterans All Stars dance in Paris was raided) Has this ever happened to you?
M: A dance get raided?
P: (laughs) It always happen after we leave. People say “you guys missed the party!” We wake up and people say “police come lock down the party and ting!”
That’s kind of good for you isn’t it?
M: Our main experience was what happen to Sizzla in 2004 at our concert East Fest when he got arrested for explicit lyrics. We thought that was unjust because Beenie Man was using explicit lyrics and they didn’t arrest him – which is why we wrote about it in Tell Me How Come.
You were recently held up as a good example to other reggae acts in the “is reggae dead?” article by Davina Morris – due to your work ethic and international touring schedule. Are these priorities for you?
M: It’s important for us because we identify that the music and its listeners are changing. So it’s important for us as ambassadors of reggae to make sure these new listeners know reggae is alive and reggae has evolved like everything else – this is Morgan Heritage, this is Rockaz, y’understand?
P: You look at someone like Madonna. Her new single with Justin Timberlake – Four Minutes To Save The World. That song is just as hot as any artist in their twenties if not hotter. And she’s in better shape than most people in the business. And this is what get me very upset in particular over the years. People say reggae music is dead. But reggae is the only music that still sounds like it did in the 70s – other music has evolved. But when you do something to elevate it – change the tempo, upgrade the vibe they say “that’s not reggae”. But I thought they said reggae was dead!
There must be a story behind Nothing To Smile About?
P: Well its more just bringing to light the life of everyday people in Jamaica. To tell the truth its close to a real story, but a bit… fabricated. Basically Europeans when they go to Jamaica they don’t go Montego Bay, Negril, Americans go there. Europeans want go to Kingston, May Pen, the real Jamaica, not what the tourist boards say. So I show you Jungle, Raytown, Riverton, life is hard. And the video we just shot will show you. But that’s not to say Jamaica is a bad place – it’s a beautiful place and we never turn our backs on Jamaica, but ninety percent of the country is poor. And so we say - lots of people come to Jamaica, and don’t know how we live, and see everything nice and full of vibes and ting because every night is a dance. But the reality is people walk the street and don’t smile, they have no breakfast this morning, and child can’t afford to go to school. So this album is very social and we tried to go into the lives of our peers as we have nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters in New York that struggle and so do people in Jamaica. So we could have stuck with what we did before – very spiritual and conscious – but this is reality too – this is consciousness too.
Was it deliberate to contrast the harsh message and easy going rhythm?
P: That happened naturally. It all happened naturally. For example, when Mojo first made the track for The Fight he didn’t want to use it for Morgan Heritage, he was producing for a rapper and I said “no man you got to rap on that”. In the past Mojo would just bust an eight bar or twelve bar rape and this time I said “no we got to make a rap song and say, THIS is Brooklyn and make something the youth can relate to”
If you had to choose - which is better – Brooklyn or Jamaica?
G: I say Jamaica.
M: Brooklyn too rough - gimme paradise!
G: Brooklyn is rough but there’s no paradise, while Jamaica is rough but it’s a paradise.
P: Give me Jamaica!
How has your European tour been?
M: We’ve been on a promotional tour for last two and a half weeks, and we took a different approach. Y’see everything starts with the dancehall – not the music, the place – where the people go to listen. And it was important to connect with the listeners of this new Jamaican music. So instead of just interviews and in-store acoustic performances, we’re gonna give people a chance to get close to us and show our own grass roots.
What’s your favourite part of Europe?
M: On this trip – Sicily.
G: Yeah man – for years we been coming to Italy. And then we came to this club in Catania and we realised – why haven’t we been to this part before? The people were VIBRANT! It was like a little Jamaica! They have the flaming torches and everything!
P: IN the club!
G: We got back in the dressing room and said “Yo! What a place!” So this time Italy but Europe is a great place, a melting pot of many cultures.
Are you going to play London?
P: (draws breath) We’re thinking about it. We haven’t played there for 3 years.
Did it fall through? Because that’s happened with other artists I’ve spoken to.
P: That hasn’t happened with us. It was just a decision of ours to have a break. We played London every year since Protect Us Jah with Buju Banton. We just decided to have a years break and it turned into three years. But we plan to come back.
Where does Morgan Heritage go from here?
P: Well the album’s just dropped so we hittin’ the road for our world tour…
M: Reggae In Progress!
P: To bring this sound to a new generation, a young generation. Jay Z did it – he had to re-introduce himself to the young generation, who listen to Weezy, to TI, they don’t rate Jay Z so he had re-introduce himself. If you want to be like the Rolling Stones and U2, you got to keep reinventing yourself, not just do a record in the 60s and 70s and leave it at that. Those guys can go onstage with a young band and kick their ass!
G: Its like the Ojays, they played for 50 years, they started as gospel group. But they keep evolving themselves…
P & M: The Isley Brothers!
G: Sorry, I meant the Isley Brothers. They always continue to reinvent themselves. Like Ronald Isley turned into Mr Big when he met up with R Kelly. So you can’t just be doing the same thing – “here comes another Morgan Heritage record – check it!”
P: And with this album we haven’t heard from people “this is just another Morgan Heritage record”. We’ve heard “they changed – this is different” - we want controversy man! (laughs)
Interview by Angus Taylor