Ready, Freddie, Go: McGregor Talks Business, Royalties and Rastaman Camp

Singer, songwriter, producer and Big Ship label owner Freddie McGregorAlthough the term ‘living legend’ has become something of a cliché, it’s a suitably accurate description for Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer Freddie McGregor.

After all, McGregor started his career at Jamaica’s most famous record label, Studio One, aged just seven-years-old and is still very much in demand five decades later.

Moreover, he is the only surviving Studio One musician currently heading their own thriving label, Big Ship Records, which maintains its relevance to the younger generation through McGregor’s sons, Chino and Stephen aka Di Genius.

Below, McGregor talks about his latest album, Di Captain, reveals what he learned working at Studio One, and explains why Jamaican musicians must focus on business rather than entertainment, if their industry is to survive in the 21st century.

You’re currently on tour – how’s that going?

We’ve just completed a tour of the US east coast and Europe, which included the Reggae Jam and Geel festivals, and now we’re in the UK where we’ve just done a show in Manchester and another at the Jazz Café in London.

We have a number of other London dates, the Leeds Carnival and a BBC special coming up, so we have a lot of work to do.

Tell us about the new album, Di Captain, which features hits like Bag a Hype (above)…

The purpose of the tour is to propel the promotion of the album and it’s going very well; we’re out there promoting and won’t stop until the end of the year.

In America we’re getting a lot of airplay. Chino was on the tour there because they really love him as a young artist.

We sell a lot of copies each night on tour. Over the past two weeks in Europe I signed a lot of CDs, which is an indication that people are buying the album, so it’s a good look.

Di Captain includes a collaboration with British dancehall rapper Gappy Ranks, Standing Strong, which is an update of your Studio One classic Bobby Bobylon. What was it like working with Gappy?

Gappy is one of my favourite artists. He’s a really wonderful kid and I decided to work with him on this collab because I knew it would work for us.

Pioneering singer and producer Linval Thompson claims he never received his fair share of the revenues from your breakthrough single Big Ship, even though he was responsible for the song. Is that true?

He was responsible for it as the producer, although I actually produced the record. Linval wasn’t even in the studio when that song was produced, and that has been the case with a lot of the early work I did.

You work with a producer and the material comes out and it ends up great, but the producer whose name is on the product gets the credit.

No disrespect to Linval still; he is my brother, but I was the one who went to the studio. He organised the session, I dealt with the musicians and created all the songs for album, and at the end of the day, we share the publishing.

Linval and I have a great vibe and he is one of the most honest producers I have worked with. We had planned to go to England and get certain things done, and he stuck to his part of the agreement.

Today, Linval and I are best of friends, and that’s how it should be in music because we all have to look after, look out for and take care of each other.

Freddie McGregor album Love at First Sight, produced by Joe Gibbs, Errol Thompson and Niney the ObserverI recently interviewed Niney the Observer who claims that he took you to Joe Gibbs’ studio and produced your album Love at First Sight (above), but never received any credits or royalties. Is that true?

Niney was involved in the production of that album so I would be surprised if he isn’t credited, but if not, that would be his fault in terms of making sure he is credited for what he’s done.

The only thing I know for sure is that Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson were part producers. I am credited for the songs I write and I pretty much arranged all the songs and had almost everything to do with that album.

In terms of [Niney’s claim], I don’t get involved, that would be a situation for Niney and Mr Gibson (Joe Gibbs).

But I’d like to add that Niney has re-released my album (Mr McGregor aka Freddie McGregor) over a dozen times or more, and I don’t get any credits or royalties [laughs].

So sometimes you don’t have to cry over everything, because I don’t. I’ve seen my album all over the place and never complained.

What’s the one thing you’d most like to change about the Jamaican music industry?

For the artists, entertainers, musicians and everyone involved to understand the business. Because if we do, things like what happened with Niney would not happen because people would know how to get their credits and protect their rights.

That’s what’s lacking in the business, even today; we still don’t understand how to protect our rights.

In 2004, I did an investigation, The £100m Reggae Robbery, which revealed how during the previous 40 years, a large number of Jamaican musicians were cheated out of their royalties by international record labels and companies. Has that situation changed?

No, it hasn’t changed. There are still a lot of unrecouped royalties out there to be collected.  The question is whether people understand how to collect them.

Sometimes it’s easy to point fingers at people, but then again, we have to look out our situation and ask ourselves: ‘Where did we go wrong?’

Is the reggae scene in a good state?

It could always be better. We need to work and try harder if we want to get back to where we came from. We have to try our best and I think that’s what we’re doing.

Is the reggae scene better now or when you first came into the business?

When I came in it was way better, and everyone in this business will know and admit that. But then again, nothing stays the same forever so to be honest with you; we just expect the best and hope it works that way.

Going through your catalogue, I found an amazing single from 1976 called Rastaman Camp (above). Tell us how that tune came about…

[Laughs] Those were the times when we were searching for greatness. That was made with an intention to do what people thought we couldn’t; create great lyrical content and rhythms.

We were pushing ourselves to the maximum limit, and fortunately I can say we achieved that.

Rastaman Camp was an effort to try and do our best. That’s how I get my music sounding the way it does; it’s always an effort to do my best.

It’s like when I put out All in the Same Boat; that album was also an attempt to show that as entertainers and musicians, Jamaicans could do what others were doing and be successful.

First album on Big Ship label, Sings Jamaican Classics by Freddie McGregorWould you agree that Sings Jamaican Classics (above) was another landmark album in your career?

Yes, because that was my premier release in that it was the first album that came out for [my Big Ship label].

And like any young artist, I was excited about it because I knew we had some great songs on there. That was a very special album for me.

What’s the most important thing you learned working at Studio One?

To be your best in music. But the thing is; I realised from early that to be your best in music was not the only thing that was going to get you to the top. You also have to understand the business you’re in, which is most important, but a lot of people tend to ignore that.

Yeah, we are great singers, songwriters, [rappers] etc, but have we done enough to guarantee that our business is being taken care of? We have to ask ourselves these questions.

Name your three favourite singers…

Dennis Brown (below) is number one in my book. I respect Beres Hammond, and Marcia Griffiths is definitely the queen of Jamaican music.

But there are a number of other artists I really like such as Jah Cure and Maxi Priest who are great singers; I’m not prejudice to greatness.

And your three favourite producers?

I’ve always respected and loved working with Gussie Clarke. Niney and Linval are great too, and so is Stingray. There are some others I may have left out.

Did you know today marks exactly 10 years since the Jamaican government honoured you with an Order of Distinction for your contribution to music?

No, I didn’t realise that [laughs]. Time goes so fast. I had no idea it was 10 years already; that was a great honour.

I’ve received a lot of awards, but to actually get one from your home and the people and government of your country is something really unique, and that is the most special award for me so far.

You are chairman of the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JARIA). Tell us about your work with that organisation…

JARIA is an organisation I am passionate about. We’re doing a lot of work to support and defend the music industry.

We have accomplished a lot in terms of creating awareness for artists and musicians to learn how they can collect royalties and stuff like that.

We’re doing what we can and I just hope the artists will heed our call to step up the game and do what they are supposed to.

What advice would you give a young artist coming into the business?

Be vigilant with your work and make sure it’s done correctly because only the best is good enough. The second thing is: don’t lose it. We tend to lose it too much; try and keep it together. I think that’s good advice for any young artist coming through.

Oftentimes, we see young artists coming through that we love and put our hopes in, but for different reasons it doesn’t work out and we have to go back to the drawing board.

People are always overly excited about the business, and rightly so, but please try to learn the business you’re in; that’s too important to lose focus of.

What does the future hold for Freddie McGregor?

Hopefully more tours, albums, doing the best I can and what I love best, which is music; that’s where my goals and focus are set.

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