Jamaican super-producer Donovan Germain recently celebrated 25 years of his Penthouse label with the two-disc compilation Penthouse 25 on VP Records.
But Germain’s contribution to reggae and dancehall actually spans closer to four decades since his beginnings at a record shop in New York.
The word “Germane” means relevant or pertinent – something Donovan has tried to remain through his whole career – and certainly every reply in this discussion with Angus Taylor was on point.
He was particularly on the money about the Reggae Grammy, saying what has long needed to be said when perennial complaining about the Grammy has become as comfortable and predictable as the awards themselves.
How did you come to migrate to the USA in early 70s?
My mother migrated earlier and I came and joined her in the States. I guess in the sixties it was for economic reasons. There weren’t as many jobs in Jamaica as there are today so people migrated to greener pastures. I had no choice. I was a foolish child, my mum wanted me to come so I had to come!
What was New York like for reggae then?
Very little reggae was being played in New York. Truth be told Ken Williams was a person who was very instrumental in the outbreak of the music in New York. Certain radio stations would play the music in the grave yard hours of the night. You could hear the music at half past one, two o’clock. Then Ken Williams started at WLIB doing the daytime programme. From four hours on a Saturday it expanded to all day Saturday and then it expanded to the weekend and then to seven days a week.
I contributed to the growth because at the time I was working at Keith’s Record Store and we used to get records from Jamaica every weekend. I would go to the airport and collect the records and I would always take a sample to the radio station to give to them to play.
You have been compared to Gussie Clarke in your career. Your studios were near each other geographically, you both started producing in the roots era and you both brought a sense of history and sophistication to dancehall. But Gussie actually gave you your first job as a distributor in New York. I guess you went back even further than the 70s?
We were at the same high school so I knew Gussie from when we were in school together. Me, Gussie andAugustus Pablo at the same time. We were free spirited young people who didn’t have a care in the world. We were at school having fun, we didn’t have to pay any rent or mortgage! (laughs)
Did you see in them what they would become?
No, not really. Because basically we were having fun in high school. We didn’t really have a choice in our occupation at the time. Augustus Pablo was playing his harmonica but I didn’t think at that time he had set out to be in the music industry. The thing about music is it is an addictive thing. Once you get into it you can’t leave it.
You’ve said that Gussie and Lloyd Campbell taught you the ropes as a producer – what they teach you?
Going into a studio you have to know what to listen for. You have to know the jargon to speak to the musicians and to speak to the engineer to bring to life what you want in a song. So you would basically work with them and see how they communicated what they wanted in a song – the sound and the tempo they wanted in the song, what drum sound they wanted – stuff like that. You’d listen and take note.
Your first label was Revolutionary Sounds – which specialised in roots music. In your work with Cultural Roots there is an early sign of you bringing something older to the new sound because this was one of the last of the harmony groups – a style that had ruled the 60s and 70s.
I started with the group Cultural Roots. They were young unknown people. Sly and Robbie were the musicians. That was the kind of music that they brought to the table – a music that was the voice of the people of the inner city – their hardships and their aspirations. It was using harmonies as a group with horn sections. It was a total musical arrangement with roots. It was not like today where you had some basic things as the rhythm. You had harmonies, three guitars, three or four part horn sections, keyboards aplenty and the groove was a little bit slower. That was what roots music was to me. The lyrical content was hard core – people were singing about their hardships. I used to be a roots producer when I started and I still make roots songs now. But somehow it just doesn’t resonate to me as the previous people like Burning Spear, the Gladiators and those hot topics they took on.