Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee is one of the most influential and pivotal producers in the history of Jamaica, and the history of popular music. With a career spanning over 40 years, his contribution is undeniable: breaking some of reggae’s biggest names, having a literal and metaphorical hand in the creation of dub, and pioneering the deejay sound that would later form the backbone of rap music. I was asked to interview Striker a while back now by Westbury, his publisher, and after about 3 days of waiting round and re-arranging times due to Bunny’s hospital visits, we finally met up in a bar in Brixton. It turned out to be a pretty unbelievable afternoon – we were interrupted by Niney the Observer, only then to be gatecrashed by Tappa Zukie, and it all ended up with me singing ‘Natty Dread A Weh She Went’ in his face (he asked for it, literally). Dressed in a full red suit and his signature fisherman’s hat, the 70-year-old producer has some serious stories to tell. I have tried to touch the tip of the reggae iceberg…
Where did you get the name Striker from?
The name Striker arised from long ago when i was growing up. A [film] came to Jamaica starring Frankie Lovejoy and Edmond O Brien, namd ‘Hitchhiker’; I went to see that show and I kept talking about it to my friends. The man them start calling me ‘hitchhiker’ and then it got cut short to hiker, chiker, then finally Striker…
So you could have been Bunny ‘Hitchhiker’ Lee?
Yeah. And I was given the name Bunny when I was born, like a little bunny rabbit and it just stuck as a pet name. I used to get the name ‘aggrovator’ from this guy Larry Larry; when someone said to him ‘hey Larry your friend Bunny’s calling me agro man, I liked it and when I came back I started calling the musicians The Aggrovators.
Another of your signature things is you hat, what’s the story behind that?
I saw a serial called The Seahawk, in twelve chapters, with Buster Crabbe. There was a man in it called the Admiral, who was basically the head crook, in his captain’s hat. I always liked the hat so I wanted to get myself one, so I went down town and I saw a hat like it and I bought it and the rest is history, I always buy them wherever I see them.
How many do you have?
Quite a few, in all different colours, but I mostly wear the white one. Anywhere I see them I always buy 2 or 3. It’s my trademark. I’ve been wearing it for years, even before I was in the music business.
Before you got involved in the music business, what were you listening to?
As a young man there was American RnB playing in Jamaica, with live bands before the soundsystem. People were getting fed up with [the musicians] cos they’d drink up the rum and eat up the food, and the people didn’t have anything to sell because of them. So it was a great relief when the soundsystem came in cos you’d just put on the record and play. These musicians used to take long breaks and the promoters couldn’t make money so they were glad when the soundsystems came in.
In the early days it was all RnB, calypso, mento, and quadrille. Jamaica used to have quite a few calyspo artists but Trinidad was the main one cos they had Lord Kitchener. We used to listen to it on the radio but there was only one station, ZQI.
So then when the soundsystems started getting more popular in Jamaica, was it a regular choice for young Jamaicans to get involved in it?
Yes, because it was new. There was Goodie’s, Count Nick the Champ, Count Smith the Blues Blaster, then Sir Coxsone came in, King Edwards the Giant, Duke Reid, Prince Buster. Merritone is one of the surviving sounds that’s still there now, 50 years on, the oldest surviving one. It’s a nice quality hifi.
Right now there’s Stone Love, Bodyguard, a few others, King Tubby’s sound is not on the road, but Jammy’s is still on the road.
You started out your music career as a radio plugger, did you have it in your mind as a way to get into production?
Duke Reid promised me some studio time in return, I’d just lost my job at the time. I used to plug for Duke Reid, Lesley Kong and Beverly’s Records, Coxsone, I used to take their records to the radio station and get them played.
How did you go about getting the records played?
I used to know the announcer, there weren’t a lot of radio stations, there was RJR then JBC, and JBC then got a TV station but the media in the record business was different. So we’d buy time and get our record played on both stations, say half hour, so people can hear what you have that’s new and go down to the shop. We had a show on a Thursday night, sponsored by Randy’s Records, until I could set up on my own.
How much did it cost for half an hour?
In 67, half an hour was about 12 pounds. But it was at 11 at night, it wasn’t primetime but people got onto it and it became a way of life, every Thursday night on both stations.
So people got onto it and you started getting a name for yourself and started producing too, what kind of equipment did you have avaialbe to you at the time?
At that time we only had two tracks. Jamaica wasn’t that developed. There were only a couple of studios, there was Federal Records, that later became Tuff Gong, and WIRL records, that later became Dynamic Studios. Those were the two main people, they only had 2 tracks. Byron Lee then acquired West Indies Records and changed the name to Dynamic Sounds, they pressed a lot of records, local and foreign and Byron Lee would send away the samples and make the records and made it into a business.
Were you using very small means?
Definitely. If a man make a mistake, you’d have to start again. Now if someone makes a mistake, you can just drop them out, when the music stops you can put it back on by himself. Technology has changed that…the first time a man would make a mistake you’d just let it stay.
Which is what happened with dub, wasn’t it? It was sort of born out of a mistake?
Dub came later down the road when Byron Lee had bought a 4 track machine. We used to call it version and before that we called it part 2 and part 3, we didn’t have the money to make new riddims for it so we’d use the same riddim like 10 times, with different singers, sometimes you’d dub on the guitar, change it up, the phrasing..but something to make it feel different.
Dub started at Duke Reid’s studio. King Tubby and myself was there, with Smithy the engineer and a popular soundsystem man from Spanish Town named Ruddy Redwood, he used to put a lot of dubs, this evening we were all talking, Smithy started the dub and forgot to put in the voice. He was gonna stop it, but then we said ‘no man, make it run’, and when it started running we said now take the right one out with the voice, we forgot about it. Ruddy was in Spanish Town, the old capital of Jamaica, and I went to his dance on a Saturday night, and when he played this tune, a Paragons tune I think, people were going wild, when him play the vocal and then play the riddim, the people them start singing over the riddim. On Monday morning you know when I come back to Tubby’s in Kingston, I said ‘Tubb’s you see that Duke business, we have to do it, the people love it.’ So we started doing it. Slim Smith have a tune called ‘Ain’t too proud to beg’, we’ve made several versions of that now, Slim starts singing and Tubby drops out the riddim, and then lick it back, and play with the controls. That became very popular until we eventually put it on record. It was an experiment.
You and Tubby were quite young when this was happening weren’t you? I suppose you and Tubby and Winston Riley and Lee Perry were really a new generation of producers who were challenging what was happening…and experimenting with new things, like you said…
Tubby [was born] in January, and me in August. He’d be 70 if he was alive, but some stupid people kill him. Such a waste. Jammy was a couple of years younger. Me and Lee perry go back a long way. Before I started, Lee Perry was at Coxsone and he was the main producer at West Indie’s Records, so when I went down they fired Perry and I became the house producer but me and Perry were friends so it never make any difference. Roy Shirley told me the boss had fired him but that didn’t stop us doing our thing together. I brought him to England.
Did you set out to do something different to what the older producers were doing?
Yes you have to try and do your own thing. Those days Coxsone and Duke Reid had the whole monopoly on the business. I started putting the names down on the records with who played what. There used to be Joe Gibbs and The Professionals, Joe Gibbs was like me, he can’t play music, I changed that, I put their names on the album, so people get to know them. Every man build himself as a star.
There has always been some dispute about who invented what and when when it comes to Jamaican music, do you feel like you haven’t got the credit for certain things?
Yes. Toots was in prison at the time when reggae was invented. Tell him to come here and I’ll tell him he’s a liar, it was between me, Lee Perry and Clancy Eccles. It was started by us in ’68 upstairs in Duke Reid’s studio, and the same with the version ting. I don’t want to blow my own horn, my records speak for themselves. But i came [to the UK] in 1968, and Pama were pirating tunes, we formed a company with them and a label named Unity and I used to come here and get money from them and take it back to Bob Marley and their people. Trojan used to do the same thing, we tried to stop that, and get the artist paid.
Did you have a good relationship with Trojan?
I was there when Trojan formed, I took Dandy round there, he was working with Rita King, and Pama gave Dandy some money to make an album. Everybody wanted Duke Reid’s product, but Duke Reid is a man who carries around like 6 guns, no-one wanted to pirate his ting cos if they went to Jamaica they’d have to deal with him. He was an ex-policeman. but a very nice person. So they got together, Blue Cat and Island and form the Trojan label. Island and Trojan put out the same tunes, even now. They first put out Dandy Returns, sold 15,000, and then Trojan set up a shop named Music City. When I come up I started Pama records, in the late 60s, and they became as big as Trojan. At one point bigger. Island were putting my stuff out here first.
Were there also a lot of foreign people coming over to Jamaica to take music back to sell?
Yeah, they used to come and give us an advance and take the tunes.
How did you make sure you got your money?
We weren’t that interested in the money, so long as our tune go and we get the advance. And the artist get exposure and people bring them to the country for a stageshow and all that.
Is that what happened with Max Romeo’s ‘Wet Dream’?
‘Wet Dream’ was a tune I sent to Pama as a B-side to make up numbers. Them call me the night, I tried to ask about 7 different people to sing it and they wouldn’t sing it. Maxy was a salesman at the time, so Maxy would always sing on a b-side, so i said ‘Maxy go sing this tune’, so Glen Adams told him to do it. The rest is history. Maxy, Glen and Coxsone went in the studio, one cut and it done. Then Maxy was one of the first big artists to come to England, the thing hit. 6 weeks in the chart. It was in the top ten. But it couldn’t get airplay. It was one of the first reggae tunes that hit up here, in 67. Along with ‘Train to Skaville’, by The Ethiopians. They were the first set that came up to tour.
Did you see a difference after ‘Wet Dream’ came out?
Yeah. The BBC would play plenty reggae. John Peel, the great David Rodigan, Steve Barnard on Radio London. Now it’s pure pirate stations, they don’t pay for business and them don’t call the artist name.
‘Wet Dream’ was obviously one of your landmark hits, but what about when the the deejay thing started with U-Roy, that was a foundation moment for reggae and dancehall too…?
Yeah. I recorded U-Roy with Duke Reid at Tubby’s, me and Lee Perry recrod U Roy doing ‘Wake the Town and Tell the People’
Did you realise it was gonna be a big moment in reggae history?
Yes. You see talking over the riddim, you have other deejays who used to do it, Sir Lord Comic and Machuki, they used to do that in the dance, chat and do a whole heap of rhyme, but they weren’t being recorded. Duke reid recorded U Roy, he’s like the godfather now, he started it and then a whole heap of deejay started recording, everbody got on on the deejay thing, it started a craze. Plenty youth who were doing bad things at the time, they developed the deejay thing, it gave them a chance and make themselves a man out of it.
With all of those young artist who were passing through the studio when you were there, did you give people you didn’t know a try?
My thing was open, there was transparency. If a man want to come sing a session, you can come and see and get the vibes, so if someone says ‘hey I got a tune I wanna sing’ say let’s try it with the musicians, and sometimes it’s a hit. Sometimes they can’t make it, but at least they try. And some keep trying until poof one day they make a hit. So you have to give everybody a try.
Is there anyone who you didn’t know who turned out to be a good recording artist?
Plenty. Johnny Clarke came in and tried his tune…
So this year is the 50th anniversary of independence, you’ve lived through all the genres from calypso to bashment, what holds the biggest place in your musical heart?
I love all of it.
Shout to Westbury for the link. For a comprehensive account of Striker’s life, his biography is due out this year.