The Maestro Speaks On The State of Reggae Today, The Real Buju Banton, and His Own Musical Legacy

For me, it started with Full Attention. Hugh Beresford Hammond’s first album for V.P. Records began with a drum roll and a saxophone tendril that laid the foundation for the textured tenor to plead his case with a lady who didn’t seem to know he was alive. It was full-on lovers rock reggae with R&B and soul sensibilities made by a man who dreamt of crooning like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. The music was accessible—at least more so than the Sugar Minott, Burning Spear, and Culture records that spun in my New Jersey home on Sunday mornings over cornmeal porridge. Beres may not have had any honorific titles laid onto him, like the Crown Prince of Reggae, but for my money he’s every bit as legendary as any of the greats that came before him.

You can start with his voice, which is as strong as it is soulful and soothing. When he belts out a tune, even when his grainy vocals are pushed to the limits, it feels effortless. The voice works with the music to emphasize the words, always telling a story about real people, inflecting meaning where there previously was none.  Hammond sings like he’s wrenching the emotion from each word. My mother once told me one of her favorite songs was “Ain’t That Loving You” by Alton Ellis until she heard Beres sing it. On the other hand you can start with his songwriting. The best Beres Hammond songs distill relatable situations and feelings into clever, meaningful couplets wrapped in sticky melodies.

Relevancy is a tough coin to spin for a lot of artists, but throughout his thirty-year career Beres has managed to glide his distinctive voice through the dancehall revolution, partnering with wicked up-and-comers like Buju Banton. In high school, when all my friends were blasting Sean Paul’s Alton remix, I was hanging tough with “Who Say.” Hammond has lasted while maintaining his trademarked effortless cool. That’s why it was such a thrill to speak with him about his latest album One Love, One Life. To me, he’s like the reggae version of Jay-Z—so it’s fitting that he’ll be performing with The Roots tonight on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and that he’ll take the stage tomorrow night at Barclays Center, the home of the Brooklyn Nets. Sure, many great artists have come before him, but to paraphrase Hov: No one’s been this good for this long, or this pop or this hot, with so many different styles. For that reason, Beres Hammond will continue to have my full attention. Interview After The Jump…

DAMIEN SCOTT: Thank you for taking the time out to speak with us. We just heard the brand new album and it sounds great.

BERES HAMMOND: Thank you. Thank you very much.

I think my two favorite songs right now are “More Time” and “Don’t You Feel Like Dancing.”

I’m happy that you even like one [Laughs].

They’re all pretty good. I wanted to talk to you about the album. This is your 26th album, yes?

At some time we stopped counting because of inflation and all these things happening around us, down here in Jamaica. I just knew I needed to put some songs out right now. I stopped counting, so thank you for the reminder.

Talk to me about the creation of the album. Going into it with the decision to make a two-disc album is a pretty big endeavor. Did you go into the album process thinking you would make a two-disc album?

Actually, no. It was meant to just be 14 songs. Usually we try to prepare 30 songs so they can choose from them. The more they listened to them, it was like ‘We can’t leave without this song off or we can’t leave without this one.’ [This happened] until they ended up with about 18 songs. When I checked it I realized they didn’t have two of my favorites… even though I don’t have favorites—just two of the songs that I deemed favorites for this project. I had to ask them if they could reshuffle and get those two on. They never wanted to take anything off so they added two more and it became double.

What songs were those?

It was a song called “Sleeping Beauty” and the other, I’m not too good with titles but it’s a song on social commentary. Now that I’m speaking to you, I can’t think of the titles but people need to get more aware of themselves, politically and otherwise.

So the original plan was to just have 14 songs?

Yes. But it was bad on my part to prepare 30-something songs for them [Laughs]. I should’ve given them 14 but guess what happen now? I made some songs and I never wanted to get into the process of deciding. I just hand the program over to someone else so they could choose. They chose mostly the lovers rock situations and even though there are some real serious songs about every-day life, they never chose many of those and I never questioned them.

So you wanted the album to have more of the conscious and socials sound?

Not really. The fact that I sing them, I want a mixture. There are two songs I really do appreciate. Sometime as an artist through the years, you grow and you witness a lot of things politically, socially and otherwise that you want to share with the fans. When the people know of you more as the lovers rock type of person, I think the authorities want to put more of an emphasis on that. But whatever they chose—it’s Beres. I give thanks. Yeah, it’s still Beres. Mm-hmm. Still Beres. Maybe that should be the title of my next album, “Still Beres.” [Laughs].

That would be a great album title.

For real mon, with all these songs I’m talking about. Some of them, people probably never anticipated but they can be like ‘This is still Beres.’

I’m sure everyone would say they love it just the same.

Yeah mon. Bless up!

You said you’ve grown over the years and have obviously seen some things.

Yeah, and I usually chronicle them and put them in songs. A lot of times when you’re making music, you get to the studio and something is still on your mind so you record it. It’s like ‘Let me get this off my chest, musically.’

I know a lot of stuff you’ve written in the past for artists like Jah Cure is more conscious sounding. Do you feel like now you want to use yourself as a vessel to get these songs out opposed to writing for other artists?

I’ve still got songs that are like 15 years old that have never been released and they’re just the same—parts of man that I would’ve loved to share with people. I would’ve loved for them to been out there and for them to understand that Beres only does things about love within the family, love for a woman, or love for a nation. We have our thoughts about how the governing of a nation or the world should be. I would’ve still loved to share those thoughts with other people because everyone’s got ways of thinking on how we need to make steps. I’m not less than them, so all of this comes out in the sound. I just wanted to share it amongst folks but I’m not rushing or anything. Whenever it comes, it comes.

Yeah. That’s interesting. The thought, the want, and the need to make people know that you are like them. I think one of the best things you do, which made me a fan many years ago, was your ability to take everyday situations that everyone goes through and explain them in such a way that when you listen to it over and over again, you understand it even better. I feel like that’s great for love songs and things like that…

Let me explain something to you. There’s a power within love songs that people tend to not pay not much attention to. There’s a power when a man is singing love songs to his lady and then they’re talking about family now. The love song reaches a woman telling her all she needs to know or all she wants to hear about love, care, and purity and all these things. She hears it, then she’s happy. Now, the gentleman in the relationship sees that she’s happy and then he’s happy too, right? The woman is happy, then the man is happy so the children share and enjoy what they call ‘happiness.’ So here you go. A whole family is happy because of one love song. The world can’t take a love song lightly. It keeps a family together. You understand? So a love song to me is along the same page as social commentary. There’s a value in social commentary because all we seek in this life is happiness, son.

That’s very true.

Everyone’s seeking happiness both ways—going and coming in. If a love song can provide joy and happiness for a family that family should extend it to another family. Then, we’ll have a wonderful and happy world. So don’t take a love song for granted.

Also, on some songs in this album, the idea of loving yourself more when you say we have to respect ourselves more, it kind of all boils down to having love for yourself and love for being Black and having that love for other Black people.

Mm-hmm but it’s just Black. It’s just Black—what other color is being oppressed? The same goes for everyone but you have to notice this about yourself first and you have to respect yourself and the values you stand for. If you don’t do that, you’ll fail. If you don’t tell someone the person you are, they’ll treat you based on what they think you are—which is nothing. You have to give yourself that room to express yourself. You say “Listen, I may not have this or that. But with time, I can prove to you that I’ll be the person you thought I never could’ve been.” Everything’s up to you.

You have to make them understand that you’re diamonds, gold, and pearls. If not, they’re gonna treat you like yesterday. Sometimes I try not to get in too deep about it, being a love singer but I have to say it because imperative for someone like me to say it. I say it in a very subtle way but people who read in between the lines will understand what you’re saying. Even if you subject yourself to all the rules and regulations they have in the workplace, there is no place there for you. You have to create some of your own rules and regulations to stand by. That’s all I was saying in that song. I’m sorry if it ever sounded offensive—it was never meant to be.

Do you feel there’s a lack in reggae music, or music overall, that makes people feel messages like that?

I think since the ’80s, we’ve lost quite a bit. We’ve lost some of the voices of the guys who had serious solutions to these problems. Some died and then the new generation came on board and they came and saw. They enjoyed. They didn’t ask any questions like ‘Who cooked this meal? Let me see the chef!’ No one asked that so they started doing their own thing without having the recipe. I’m still very optimistic and I think some things will change. They will stand up and say ‘This is what my folks before me were fighting for.’ I can’t honestly tell you that what’s happening in Jamaican music now, I can say kudos to. I know we’ve got some wonderful talents down here but I think we’ve lost the message. But I’m still optimistic and looking forward to having them interested and engaged in social commentary and history.

It’s interesting to me, being in America and my family’s from Jamaica, hearing the artists here make songs that are heavily influenced in reggae. Then there seems to be artists in Jamaica making music geared to people in America. It’s like more “pop”and more… 

Can I correct you there for a moment?

Sure.

The ones that I am hearing presently, it’s not reggae. But you’re right when you say they’re appealing to an American audience. When you as a country, an island provide the world with one of the finest riddims and carry it on your back and appease others with an American riddim, it’s like they don’t even want that. It’s like an audience that’s not even asking for that. They’re asking you for what you have as a Jamaica person but you’re giving them what they’re dishing out to you as an American. To me, we’re lost in that capacity.

When you say ‘reggae’ just make sure it’s reggae ‘cause it’s… I don’t know if it’s world music because it’s not really world music or Jamaican music. They’re fusing it with R&B and hip-hop riddim. There’s nothing wrong with that but when you concentrate on trying to make it the order of the day, it’s a problem with that. As the smallest dot in the world, we could be the biggest internationally. We need to learn to preserve that. Yeah?

I completely agree. You said there were some young people coming up that made you hopeful. Can you name any?

I used to be able to call a few names but now it’s hard for me to call names. What I do know is that they all have great talents. They can all be whoever they want to be. They can sing like Tom Jones and they can sing like Aretha Franklin. We’ve got them down here—the focus just isn’t where it needs to be. We’re not thinking about country, we’re thinking about self. To me, that’s not good. I think that our music needs to get us across the borders, across the world. I’m not sure what they think when they think. I can’t blame them though forever which way they think. Like I say, this damn thing’s on a platter and they never ask who cooked the thing. They just know they’re enjoying the meal and they’re experimenting. I don’t blame them, I blame the media for not educating them on the jewel that we have.

True. It all goes back to love for self and for the people you have around you.

Yes! The love of the people, proud! When I get on stage, I’m happy I represent Jamaica— I’m proud all around the world. I sing a lot of ballads and all these things because I never told myself I was a reggae singer. I told myself ‘I’m a singer who happens to sing reggae amongst other genres of music.’ So when reggae came into my thing, I realized how valuable this is and what my duties are. I’m selling my country. I’m not sure how much the people out there will think the same but I know the elders, the ones before me, will think the same thing. The other ones are the ones I’m kind of concerned about because they have no necessary path. It’s a bling-bling thing and whatever else. I’m not sure but I’m still an optimist. In the next two or three years they’ll realize singing for your country is more than singing for yourself.

You’ve mention Jamaica a lot but are there any other events or happenings over the years that have struck a chord with you that…

I’m gonna be honest, before you even finish your question. There’s a lot to me that the government in Jamaica could’ve done to uplift our music internationally. I haven’t seen any form of signs that say ‘Yes, they’re working in this direction.’ Just like it was with the sports folks, the athletes, they had to go away to some foreign country to get the right treatment. You know how you should approach this international game—Jamaica never provided that, not to my knowledge.

But just the same, I’m not looking for them to make a difference in the music business because they’re politicians. So I’ll keep doing what I’m doing in my very little, humble capacity… hoping that some youth will adapt and say ‘This is the path I’ll like to take.’ I still remain convicted to reggae music because I know what it carried with it. Somewhere down the line, I home that in the school curriculum, music is a mandatory subject. When you do that at a very early age, the kids will have been exposed to so much of it and have a choice.

That’s powerful. It you teach kids music and its history, it makes quite a difference.

You know something else? Let me explain something. Sometimes I sing a very simple love song but you know we have a lot of simple people in the world too. We have a lot of simple people who don’t want to get too in depth and into the story. They just want to hear what they want to hear. That’s who I sing those songs too. The vast majority of people in this world don’t want nothing too complicated, son. They just want something to get them by for the minute; you understand what I’m saying? I could get a little deeper but I want to have songs that the people can sing back to me from on stage and see them out having a wonderful time. I hope that this album provides a little bit of that.

I think that it does.

And I thank you for believing in that. What I mentioned about them being a little scared some, I would like to do a little more ska in this time and age. This generation and the one before had no idea about ska. To me, it’s one of the finest forms of music that Jamaica produces. I’d really like to record some more ska music to make them understand the music that comes with ska. Ska is a period when everyone shows off their wares.

It shows you how well people can play and this and that. I hardly see that now. Everybody gets a solo and a chance to be the best they can be. It’s always wonderful so we need to have that thing introduced once more. Next year, I would love to do a lot more ska because the younger generation have no inclination of what it is. If I can appeal to a certain generation with a certain form of music, I think it’s imperative for me to pick up that mantle. I don’t want to push myself much but I want to introduce it once more. They will get a chance to listen to what we’ve been missing.

Yes, I think that’s very needed. I know your time is very limited but before we go…

I’m enjoying it.

As am I. I want to ask you about two things that are not really music related. One is about Jamaica’s performance at the Olympics—that was such a big stage for the country to have it near the 50th anniversary. How did you feel at that time?

I’m still in this boat of not believing that they’re still so powerful—I’m still in that boat. We’ve always had bright ideas to share with the world, now only if the world would’ve listened to us. I’m too proud, I’m too proud. I don’t think I have the words to express my pride.

Wow, that’s big. I also wanted to ask you… this is a sensitive topic, we don’t have to discuss it but you and Buju were really close and I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on his incarceration. Your thoughts on his situation…

I don’t know. Whatever they charged Buju for, it’s beyond my comprehension. Comprehension meaning the relationship we had—I never saw this coming. The person that I knew was not that kind of person. If he was that kind of person, then he kept it far from me. I don’t want to get too deep into this because the courts have already decided that this is this and it should be a punishment. He was found guilty and I’m speaking to Jamaica now, not the friend. The punishment is kind of harsh. For me it’s kind of harsh because this kid has much more good to do being out here. Buju has some lyrics that I can’t even mention. It makes bad people wanna do good, so in my estimation, he would do more good out here than being in there.

I’m not saying one shouldn’t pay for his crimes if there were any he committed. I’m just saying be gentle with my sentence and understand what more good I could have been out here in society. That’s all I’m saying. I never expected that to happen but the law of the land, as it prevails, they did what they deemed was the right thing to do. Personal relationship has nothing to do with the law but I really wish that he was out here. We’re missing one of our messengers, ya know? This is me speaking from the heart. We need people like him out here, I’m really sorry about that. He’s still my bredren, nothing will change that.

Could you talk to me about The Wizard? That’s your daughter, right?

Oh she’s fine! I don’t know where she got these things from. I’d like to say she got it from me but she has her own thing. I’m proud of her, she’s doing extremely well. She approaches the business of producing in the same manner I approach producing. She may be a little more subtle than me though, I just get wicked like “Sing the tune! Yo!” Nas [Nastassja] is lyrically contained but she has a very subtle way of making artists do what she wants them to do. That’s a little bit above what my approach would have been so I really give her much respect and love. I’m learning! I don’t know if it’s a little too late but I’m learning!

It’s never too late.

That’s true.

 

I love the song “A Moment In Time” which she produced, right?

Mm-hmm. She did all the instruments except the horns, the trumpets. [Starts singing] That’s a bad song!

Yes. How was it for you to have your daughter create something so beautiful with you?

A proud moment. A very, very proud moment. I have this one deficiency…

What’s that?

I have kids who have the gift of music and I never tried to promote them. I don’t know if it’s because of how I came from the business, fending for myself or if,… I’m not sure. One could arguably say that the machinery was there to propel them to a different stance in the business but my thing is if they truly wanted to be a musician or in the business, they had to do as I did. Give them your heart and your soul until somebody reprimands you. You get to say you did it by yourself. Like Bob’s kids, they have some hell of a talents but their name resonates with people. I just chose not to put my brand on any of my kids. I wanted them to go through the ropes and if ever they faltered, then I’ve got my safety net.

Like Bob said about walking the sidewalks, they should never have to do that so I still have the Beres safety net for anyone who wants to be a musician, a singer, a rapper, anything. I’ll be there giving them advice but I don’t want to be on stage saying they’re the greatest ‘cause in essence they may not be that [Laughs]. You fight through your way so when it gets tough, I can defend you.

Nas gives me all the reason to say ‘Fine job.’ She’s never done anything with her father’s name at the top of the thing. I have a son who plays on the radio too. They call him DJ Inferno so you noticed with all of this, no one mentions ‘Hammond.’ They’re doing their thing and I’m proud of them. Do I sound cold?

No. That’s the way to do it.

If you fail, don’t worry. If you suffer, come back to base. Am I making sense to you?

Yes, definitely. As I was saying before, one of my favorite songs on the album was…

You mentioned earlier, one of the ska songs and “More Time.” Beautiful love song.

Yeah, “More Time.” That’s a beautiful love song, how did that come about?

I don’t know. I don’t know if it was internal or what! [Laughs]

It seems internal, like very personal.

Yeah [Laughs]. I don’t want to get too much in detail. What I’ve noticed is that a lot people share the same sentiments, they share the same kind of story. Sometimes you break up with a person and it’s been many years maybe and then you realize that you broke up because of some silly, stupid things. You see them again and then you realize that the flame was never totally out so you try to rekindle [Laughs]. It’s a wonderful thing to pick up where you’ve left out but it’ll still take some time heal whatever wounds were there. Just give it time, ya know?

Yeah, it happens.

Sometimes you grow up and meet again down the line. Since both of you have learnt, it’ll be the perfect combination. Some simple little things I know about life, man. Some people approach me and ask me about love. I can’t really explain love, I don’t really know how to— even if I look in the dictionary I can’t fully comprehend it. But I’ve always talked about love, whatever, whatever [Laughs].

One of my favorite songs, I forget the title, but it’s like ‘I still want to see you tomorrow, Even if I can’t be your man …’

I still want to see you tomorrow even if you have a man or something, hey! I never told you either that you can’t flirt around with everybody but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be of help to me. I just want to see you because when I see you, you give me hope! Just your presence makes me feel like ‘Hey!’ That’s all it is, man.

My friends and I can definitely relate to that. Just seeing someone and be able to smile.

Yes, and you know what son? I’m so happy to be of service to a lot of folks I haven’t been able to meet. And by virtue of the song, it almost brings tears to my eyes. Seeing my audience, shaking everybody’s hands. I never really got a chance to do that until know. Thanking my fans. As artists, we never really understand the burden put on us—it’s a strange one.

Sometimes we either do shit or talk shit. I don’t blame the youths for the things they do now. As a grown person now, I want to say thank you for tolerating all those lyrics in those songs, thank you for tolerating and understanding. With my space in this business, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. Enough love, yeah?

Yes.

Thanks for inviting me into your mind! Bless up!


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Photography by Ravi Sidhu

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