Tippa Irie (born Anthony Henry, 1965 London) is one of the UKís most acclaimed foundation dancehall mcs. He first came to prominence on the legendary Saxon Sound system in the early 80s and crossed over into the pop charts with the hit single Hello Darling in 1986. Since then he has collaborated with international stars from the worlds of reggae, hip hop, pop and R&B. Angus Taylor spoke to him while he was resting his leg following an accident on stage in the summer of 2009.
Your dad had a sound. Were you always going to be in music or did you ever consider another line of work?
Necessity makes you consider another line of work! (LAUGHS) When I left school I was doing building work. I did plastering for about two years, mixing cement, doing labouring. My mum got me that job: Friday I left school, Monday I was mixing cement. I did that for two years and then I made my first tune and then I started to make progress on Saxon and sounds and that so I said, ďthis is for me. This is the path I wanna takeĒ. So when I became a musician full time I couldnít see myself doing nothing else. This is my destiny.
And who was your biggest musical influence at that time?
Iíd have to say U Roy because he was the first deejay. And then I used to listen to Brigadier Jerry and people like Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin, I used to like them guys when I was younger. People like Papa San, Professor Nuts, Lieutenant Stitchie, all those guys kind of came from my era. Then later on the humour of Yellowman and people that. But, then, I inspired those people just like they inspired me. So it was a good thing because Iíve seen those guys chat my lyrics and listened to them chat lyrics that I wrote. Thatís a blessing when them things happen because you know that what youíre doing is actually touching your peers.
There's some disagreement in reggae literature about who invented the ďfast chatĒ style. What's your take on this?
It was a guy called Peter King. I think he was the one that actually done that first and then Papa Levi. Thatís how it used to run around Saxon. If somebody came with something that was unique then everybody else that was around the sound would create a similar thing in their own style. So I think Peter King was more like the originator of that. He was the one that kind of stepped it up ďme neat, me sweet, me know how fi do it.Ē He kind of took it up because we was just chatting on that more laid back kind of thing. I mean in Jamaica it was like U Roy and those guys were VERY laid back and then when Saxon mcs came along we took it up another level because we sped things up. But then Peter King actually came with that style and then Levi made it international with Mi God Mi King. So I think we were the ones that came with it first but Peter King was the originator of that chatting style.
And who was the first to chat in a UK accent?
Well thatís a bit more difficult because we were from England so itís like us, as UK artists or UK deejays, we used to listen to Jamaica obviously. But we always had our own identity so to say that thereís one particular person is a bit of a difficult thing. Because Smiley had his style and he just decided to come up with the style called Cockney Translation, to show you the difference between how we would speak from somebody from the East End you know what I mean? But we used to have our own sayings and our own things that we used to see on tv ďthe man from Del Monte say Ďyesí, Saxonís the bestĒ or whatever. So I donít know who was the first one really! (LAUGHS) It just kinda happened! Because you write about things what you see and thatís what we did around Saxon. Whatever was the thing that was going on. It was like the News At Ten around our sound because whatever was the issue or the main event at the time, whether it be Brixton riots or Deptford Fire, things that happened bad in the community or things that we wanted to laugh and joke about, we would write about it. It could be about whatever. It could be Rupert The Bear! Iíve got a lyric about Rupert The Bear: I donít know how or why?!? Rupert The Bear was popular when we was growing up so thatís what we used to do.
Whatís your best memory of the Saxon days?
(THINKS) Wow.. thatís a good question. Because there was so many dances you know? I suppose when we won the world clash? Saxon won the world clash in í93 í94? I think it was in Milton Keynes or somewhere like that and we won a big world clash so that was a good night and an enjoyable night. I think it would have to be that.
Last year you did a tune with Mungoís Hifi. How did that happen?
Oh yeah! The guys up in Scotland. Basically they employed me to do some shows up in Scotland with them. So I went up there and did some shows in Glasgow I think and Edinburgh in a couple of venues with them and we got on very well. And they said ďTip, weíve got this track and could you put something on it?Ē So I agreed and I did my Ruff Mi Tuff for them and they were cool man. Thatís how it happens a lot of the time, they employ me to do a show and while Iím up there they say ďwe got this beatĒ. And we actually did a thing on Radio 1 on Ras Kwameís show together with Top Cat and Tenor Fly and that was good and I havenít heard from them since. But yeah, nice people. Had a good time up there and did something for them and they put it on their album.
You had chart success with Hello Darling. Youíve never been afraid of pop in your career.
Nah! Itís like I said: you do MUSIC. Because sometimes you want to ďkeep it realĒ as it were, but sometimes keeping it real donít pay the bills. And itís not like you were losing your self-respect because people actually do like Hello Darling. People from my culture and from the mainstream if you like, they do like the sound of it and like the vibe of it. It was actually a popular tune in Jamaica. So at the end of the day, for me, I just try to make music. What comes out comes out. Maybe I would have gone a lot further if I was more careful with my music or more controlled? But what I find is if somebody comes to me with an idea, and theyíre paying me, Iíll write what I feel and give it to them. And if they love it and theyíre happy I just say ďgo and do your thingĒ! Iíll leave them to get on with it and mix it and they do their thing and it goes out there. What I used to do is do a lot of different projects for different people and then out of all the projects Iíd just put an album together. But my new album with the Far East Band is an album where Iíve kind of taken control of everything. Even though they sent me the tracks I actually sat and physically wrote the whole thing rather than doing a project for this person over here, this person over there, itís a project that Iím physically doing with somebody you know? I think thatís why it may be my best work.
A lot of modern music coming out of Jamaica is very pop and some European reggae fans donít get it. What do you think of modern Jamaican styles?
Well it depends because thereís different types of producers. Thereís Don Corleon who makes some one drop and then he does the dancehall stuff that he makes with Sean Paul. Then thereís The Genius, Freddie McGregorís son, that does thisÖ I suppose you kind of call it dancehall music. And then youíve got the more elder heads like Bobby Digital and Dave Kelly at Madhouse. Some of it I like, some of it I donít like. Music is music, some of them are hits and some of them are not, some of it is good, some of it is not. Itís about opinions and in my opinion itís good when you have the right artists. I like a lot of the stuff that Morgan Heritage and groups like that do, and some of it is neither here or there and I can take or leave. I like a lot of the stuff that Shaggy and them do, you know Big Yard, their label. I think theyíre trying to do things that are not just the norm, like Bad Man Donít Cry. The way they put those kind of things, I think theyíre trying to reach the masses.
Are you bigger than reggae now?
(THINKS) Yeah. I would say that because I work with groups like Sublime, which are like big rock groups, and with Black Eyed Peas, all these kinds of hip-hop groups. But itís not like ďIím bigger than reggaeĒ - I just make music. My roots are from reggae so I will always do reggae because thatís my bread and butter. The majority of my work is from people that want me to perform on their sound systems. Ideally Iíd like to be doing all the big festivals with my band (and Iíve done most of them over the years). But I just want to be able to rehearse with my own band, tour with my own band and my own set up so that I can give myself 100 percent how Iíd want to. A lot of the time because of budgets, I have to make sacrifices and sometimes it affects my performance. Like the other day when I hurt my foot in Sardinia. I fly to Sardinia, send the guys there my music, and, then, when you get there, theyíre not playing the music on the cassette that you sent them. And then you might have one dayís rehearsal and then the next day is the show. The rehearsal might be fine, but then, because itís only one day, when it comes to the show, they donít remember what you did in rehearsal, itís not as tight, so your showís affected. But unfortunately, because of the scale of the position that youíre in or the circumstances, you try to accommodate the promoter because they havenít got the funds to fly me and my full band. Iím not huge like Beres Hammond. Beres can pull a certain amount of people so he can afford to have his band well rehearsed. But for a lot of the artists thatís downscale, itís hard for us to do that. And sometimes itís like youíre caught in the middle. I can stick it out and say ďif Iím not getting this then Iím not doing nothingĒ but then you donít get no work! So itís not as straight forward as people think and sometimes the music suffers because of it. And youíre not feeling good within yourself because you know theyíre not playing the music how it should be played. Itís not right but if you donít do it sometimes then months go by and you donít get no gigs and I gotta pay these bills! (LAUGHS) If you live in a nice house you have to pay for it! (LAUGHS)
Interview by Angus Taylor