Pioneering Observer: Niney Talks Dennis Brown, Joe Gibbs and Jo Jo Hoo Kim

Reggae producer, singer and songwriter Winston Holness, Niney the Observer
Winston ‘Niney the Observer’ Holness is one of the reggae industry’s founding fathers and an unsung hero of Jamaican music.

As an artist, he is best known for his 1971 roots anthem Blood and Fire , but his production and songwriting skills were employed on a countless number of classic hits throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including many of Dennis Brown’s groundbreaking early albums.

Earlier this year, we caught up with Niney, 60, at his new studio in Kingston to chat about his career, contemporaries and opinion of Jamaica’s current crop of musical talent.

The interview below provides fascinating insight into the good, bad and ugly aspects of the Jamaican music scene.

What’s your earliest memory of music?

The whole of my family loved music. My granny could sing and I grew up with her. She used to go to church often and they would sing, beat drums and play music; that was in Hanover and St James.

How did you get into the business?

From my school days; I got into it from a very young age. But I didn’t really start as a producer; I was singing before that and I was always writing.

What were your first big-selling productions?

My first big tunes are songs that were never really revealed to the public: Love of the Common People for Nicky Thomas, which reached number nine in the British singles charts, and I produced and did a little writing on Money in My Pocket with the original singer who wasn’t Dennis Brown.

The original singer was someone else who came up with the idea and we helped him put it together. When I heard the song, I realised he couldn’t manage it so I told [label owner] Joe Gibbs (below) to give him some money and let Brown sing it, but I don’t think he got anything, which wasn’t right. I got vexed over that too. All these little things get people upset.

We made two rhythms, gave them to Gibbs and eventually decided to record Brown and Big Youth, and it just took off.

I got recognition for Love of the Common People, but only from a few people; mainly the musicians who were around at the time. But the majority of people don’t really know my involvement.

In those days, you had guys like Gibbs who had a label, but he might credit himself, John Tom, Upsetter or whoever as producer, so it didn’t matter what song you made, once you gave it to them to distribute, they got the praise and the money.

Reggae producer and label owner Joel Gibson, Joe GibbsIs this when you decided to set up your own label?

No, because I still worked with Lloyd [Lawrence] who had a band called the Last Half Soul Syndicates. We got some members, picked things up, and I started to freestyle and make and sell rhythms.

That’s what I used to do; make beats and sell them. Producers would put what they wanted on the rhythms and if it was a hit, my name wouldn’t be credited.

I don’t want to call any names, but there a lot of songs out there I made that people claim are theirs, which is ungrateful because I used to make the rhythms and sell different cuts to a lot of producers.

Name some of the producers you sold beats to…

I sold to nuff producers. I even went to [Studio One founder] Coxsone Dodd, brought Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett and made nuff beats in his studio. I heard them come out on the Studio One label, but it was really me and Family Man who did those things.

It’s the same with Joe Gibbs. He couldn’t make a record or produce. We were around him and made the tunes.

In regards to the music you made but were never credited for: with the benefit of hindsight, do you wish you had done things differently or do you think it was a good learning process?

It’s just work in different kinds and forms. If I were to start all over or if I had the knowledge I have now when I was 15-years-old, it wouldn’t happen. But it was just a learning process and at the same time, I like the business and love what I do so it just happened like that.

I don’t regret it, but I can see what’s happening now with a lot of those songs in terms of the revenue from writing and publishing I didn’t get, even with Dennis Brown’s songs; they were all taken by different people.

I made the rhythms for most of those songs and showed [Brown] how to sing them, and some of them I wrote, but nothing comes to me.

Sugar Minott With Lots of Extra
But your name is credited as producer on many of Dennis Brown’s early albums…

Yeeeaahh, my name is there as the producer and I wrote some of the songs, but I’m not getting any money from that. People will say: ‘Niney produced them,’ but I don’t get any money.

It’s the same with a lot of the songs from [record label] Channel One. There, I produced a lot of songs by Don Carlos, Yellowman and Sugar Minott (above), including his album With Lots of Extra, but I don’t get any money from them. But that’s just how it goes.

Which is your biggest skill: songwriting or music production?

The two of them.

But which do you prefer?


It’s all the same to you?

Yes. Talking to you right now, everything I have said; you’re going to write and that’s a song. All I have to do is put music to it, so I’m still writing.

Tell us about your songwriting process…

My writing comes with artists. It’s not always about sitting down and writing a song. Sometimes we’re in the studio and a vibe just comes and from that I’ll say: ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do.’

I might come up with the first line or verse, the artist takes it from there and I co-write the rest. Sometimes I will write a song and say: ‘Sing it,’ but I don’t like to do that. When I’m working with an artist, I like it to be a partnership.

Sometimes you write the song and give it to the singer, but if I don’t want to share; I don’t. If we have a partnership and I make the rhythm, and we put a song on it, the songwriting will be split 50/50, but some artists are very dishonest and craven because even if an artist is in the studio and I come up with a line, verse and melody; it’s my song not his, but you might share it.

And as you do; the first thing he does is copyright and publish it as his own, and that’s before the song even hits the road. Because he knows the title of the song, he will just publish it. That happened to me with nuff of Dennis Brown’s tunes.

Bob Marley's favourite singer was Dennis Brown
Who is Jamaica’s greatest singer?

Bob Marley said Dennis Brown was the greatest and I’d agree. Dennis could sing any genre; opera or Jazz, and in any chord. I remember when [South African singer and civil rights activist] Miriam Makeba came out here; all she talked about was how talented he was.

Out of all the songs you’ve worked on, do you have a favourite?   

I’ve never made a song that was popular in every country around the world, and that is what I used to work towards. We were trying to do that that with Dennis Brown, but at the same time, I don’t think he knew what direction he was going in because he was a writer of love songs, but would sing a rebel song when you showed him that direction.

He was a man who went two ways and was unsure which side he was on; whether the love side or the rebel side. So he was caught in between.

Bob Marley could send a message definitely. If he was gonna sing a love song it would be something way out and different.

We tried to work with Dennis, but the relationship became strained whereby we couldn’t even sit down to get things right.

When did the relationship become strained; after he came back from his first trip to England?

Yes, a lot of things happened over there. After he came back, I sent him up again to Castro Brown to do some work. I saw to it that he married and got his papers sorted out so he could come back and work. But he got corrupted while he was in England. Nuff of the guys he was around started to put poison in his nose and a lot of these things.

When you do things like that you get hooked and carried away. And the vibe wasn’t there again that much. So when I said: ‘Let’s go and do something,’ someone else around the corner would distract him and when he remembered the feeling of the poison; it influenced him.

So Dennis Brown stopped listening to you?

He wasn’t even listening to God so who am I for him to listen to? That’s how the relationship and the empire we were building broke down; that was around 1976.

Dennis Brown album, Words of WisdomNevertheless, you and Brown still managed to make brilliant albums such as Words of Wisdom . Tell us how that album came about…

I made most of [Dennis Brown’s] tunes that came out on Joe Gibbs’s label, and most of the songs were written by songwriters.

The guy who wrote the title track for Words of Wisdom had lots of words written down on a piece of paper. I remember Joe Gibbs came to my yard one morning and said he wanted to record the song at the studio, but he wanted to me to break down the song.

I put the words in order, formed them into a story and made the rhythm. I used Tommy McCook to put horns on top and then told [Brown] to voice it, and he never looked back.

And you didn’t receive any songwriting credits for that?

No. Even Freddie McGregor; I took him to Joe Gibbs’s studio and recorded the album Love at First Sight. Gibbs wasn’t around, but my name is not credited anywhere on that album, even though I produced it; that is how those producers worked.

Joe Gibbs is dead now so I don’t want to say anything bad, but the truth is the truth because I started to speak about these things even before he died.

Those [label owners] couldn’t go into a studio and make songs or tell musicians like Sly and Robbie who worked for them: ‘This is how I want the bass’ or ‘Break down the rhythm like this.’ [Gibbs] could only tell them: ‘I want to make a song like the hit record that’s on the streets’.

Did Channel One studio and label founder Joseph ‘Jo Jo’ Hoo kim treat you the same as Joe Gibbs?

No. Jo Jo had some ideas and knew how to record songs he liked, but I don’t think he could come up with the real thing from zero. All of them were like that. When you come up with a song from zero you have to be creative, almost like a mad person.

Producer, DJ and Studio One founder Coxsone Dodd

Name some of the ‘mad people’ you know who were genuinely creative producers…

Lee Perry can do it and Coxsone [Dodd] (above) could come up with supm.

What about Bunny Lee?

He was alright, but he would go off of a song that he’d heard. If you listen to Bunny’s songs he did a lot of cover versions. He went more for older 1960s songs and put them in another context.

I used to do a lot of work with Bunny and made rhythms like [Slim Smith’s] Ain’t Too Proud to Beg and Slip Away . Lee Perry put Dave Barker on the Slip Away rhythm and made Prisoner of Love.

[Label owners] weren’t in the studio when I was making them rhythms, but my name isn’t credited because I was just a man who was working for them.

But the artists loved me so much, they would call musicians like Family Man and Ansell Collins and say come and play on this.

Read part two of our interview with Niney here.

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