“Big Up Yourself Johnny Wonder”
You don’t have to be a dancehall head to know Bounty Killer. He featured on No Doubt’s Grammy-winning pop smash “Hey Baby” and lit up Instagram this May during his epic Verzuz battle with Beenie Man. Arguably the most influential artist in modern dancehall history, Bounty Killer is thoroughly respected for many reasons—his prolific catalog of recordings, his stylistic impact on the art of deejaying, his advocacy for ghetto youths, not to mention the many artists he personally helped to “buss,” or break into the music business. Even the most casual dancehall fan should be aware of the major stars who benefited from Killer’s support early in their careers. Without Killer’s co-sign the world might never have experienced the talents of Elephant Man, Mavado, Busy Signal, or Vybz Kartel—to name just a few. With no Kartel we’d have no Portmore Empire, no Popcaan, and so on and so forth. But who helped Bounty Killer buss? The usual answer is to that question is King Jammy, who did produce Killer’s breakout hit “Copper Shot.” But how did that song become a hit? As Peter Tosh once sang, “half the story has never been told.” The world might not know this legend of Jamaican dancehall if not for an Italian youth from Brooklyn named Johnny Wonder. Full Story After The Jump…
BOOMSHOTS: EVERYBODY TALKS ABOUT KILLER BUSSING ARTISTS.
JOHNNY WONDER: Yeah, but we buss Killer. Jammy’s never want no gun tune. If me never put “Copper Shot” on the DAT and carry it to New York…
The year was 1992. Rodney Price was a youth from Seaview Gardens in Western Kingston with aspirations to become a dancehall artist. It was hard enough just getting through the iron gate outside King Jammy’s legendary studio at 38 St. Lucia Road in Waterhouse. Security was tough and no idlers were allowed inside to mingle with the biggest artists in Jamaica. But once he made it inside, he discovered that the yard could be a big “waiting room” for unproven talents. Getting the chance to record a song was a next-level challenge. He called himself Bounty Hunter, and later changed the name to Bounty Killer. His first big break came when he recorded a dubplate special for the respected selector Skyjuice that got some play on the mighty Metro Media sound system. It was a clash tune called “Dub Fi Dub” and Killer’s booming voice cut through the riddim, making soundbwoy’s ears perk up all over the world.
“Skyjuice buss the ‘Dub Fi Dub’ pon Metro Media,” Killer recalled in a video posted on Johnny Wonder’s IG, “And ah so Jammy’s them gimme likkle leverage inna the yard.” King Jammy first realized that the youth from Seaview had some potential when overseas selectors started requesting Bounty Killer dubplates. “Me realize me name ah come pon the list for dubplate from foreign and me no have no song,” Killer said. “‘Ah who him? Me no voice him, and people ah send fi song?’ Serious thing that inna the yard! Your name come ‘pon dub list, and you nah have no song? Take him up!'” Jammy’s brother Trevor “Uncle T” James, made a record of “Dub Fi Dub” that got some play in Jamaica, but Killer’s real buss was still to come. When he got the chance to voice on Jammy’s lick of the “General” riddim, he laid down some lyrics inspired by a real-life incident when he was struck by a stray bullet while walking through his ghetto community. “From a man back him gun blood ah go run,” Killer chanted “Like a River Jordan ah come down…”
King Jammy was not feeling the gun lyrics at all. He was a man of respect, a pillar of the Waterhouse community, and he didn’t want his sound system to be associated with rude bwoy business. Jammy preferred vocalists like Dennis Brown, Johnny Osbourne, and Cocoa Tea. DJs like Admiral Bailey and Shabba Ranks were gaining popularity and his sons Baby G and John John were more into that sort of thing, but the King strongly discouraged all forms of badness, lyrical and otherwise.
Johnny Wonder had grown up in the streets of New York during the 1980s, when crack was booming and the city was on fire. As a youth he was taken under the wing of legendary Jamaican musicians like the saxophonist Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall who schooled him on survival skills. Badness was not something he celebrated but he understood that it was a reality of his environment. Those lessons served him well when he began traveling to Jamaica and spending time in Waterhouse. He met Jammy, offered his services as a New York distributor, and a link was formed.
“When Johnny heard ‘Copper Shot’ he went crazy. He knew the record would go over big in NYC.”
This was 1992, the same year Dr. Dre dropped The Chronic and suddently “gangsta rap” was all over MTV. Jammy was more interested in “Miss Goodie Goodie,” a cover of Oleta Adams’ poignant ballad “Get Here If You Can” sung by Colin Roach and Galaxy P on the same riddim.
“A good ting Colin Roach dem come deh and hear the song pon the tape,” Killer recalled. “Colin Roach come mix him song himself—caw Colin Roach an engineer too yunno. So Colin Roach come mix him song and hear ‘Copper Shot’ and he mix it down too.”
“Miss Goodie Goodie” soon took off—Colin Roach’s sweet vocals contrasted nicely with Galaxy P’s roughneck DJ flow—but “Copper Shot” was not released until Johnny Wonder took a DAT tape with both songs back to New York. He pressed up a 12-inch with “Miss Goodie Goodie” on one side and “Copper Shot” on the flip.
“Johnny Wonder ah de man who release the sittin’ dem time up deh,” Bounty Killer stated during the IG video, recorded during a casual studio convo with the artist Serani.
“Me never realize say Johnny Wonder did have such an integral part,” said Serani, another artist who worked with Johnny Wonder.
“Ah Johnny Wonder make me buss!” Bounty Killer emphasized. “Yeah.”
“Never know,” Serani excalimed. “Big up yourself Johnny Wonder.”
“Johnny Wonder now put out ‘Miss Goody Goody’ and then put Bounty Killer ‘Copper Shot’ pon the fuckin’ flip side. Ah so the people them find ‘Copper Shot’ now, caw ‘Goodie Goodie’ ah de big song—Galaxy P and Colin Roach. So the whole ah New York wan’ ‘Miss Goodie Goodie.’ So everybody weh buyin’ Miss Goodie Goodie’ end up with ‘Copper Shot’ pon the next side.”
“Ah Johnny do that?” Serani asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, Johnny Wonder do that,” Killer repeated.
“Is a plug that name yunno bro bro!” Serani exclaimed.
“Yeah, that’s why me and Johnny Wonder end up so close in the end,” said Killer. “Cause Johnny Wonder have everything to do with my success.”
“True,” Serani added. “Johnny Wonder help me big too.”
“Johnny Wonder help a lot of people,” said Killer.
“General, when we deh a New York,” said Serani, “Johnny Wonder carry me everywhere. And make sure say… You done know me, me’s not a bredda who need, me no need nobody fe tell me…”
“He’s in distribution, he help producers,” Killer went on to say. “Johnny Wonder play a big part in the development of dancehall. Not just Bounty Killer career, but many careers.”
“Many!” Serani agreed.
“Yeah. So that now, Johnny Wonder ah de man who put it out. And then it run ‘way a New York. That’s why you see me have a thing deh ah Brooklyn. Caw Brooklyn it run ‘way first. You know ‘Copper Shot’ buss a foreign before it come ah yard. And when King hear say ‘Copper Shot’ buss in New York? ‘Oh, put it out!'”
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The first time I interviewed Bounty Killer for VIBE magazine, it was Johnny Wonder who put me on the phone to speak with him. The same is true for many other reggae journalists, although not everybody is so eager to give the man his due respect for his contributions to the culture. The truth is, most people wouldn’t have cared enough to interview the future icon if not for people like Johnny who pushed hardcore dancehall in New York.
I first met Johnny when I was working at the Lower East Side record shop Irie Ites. He would come in from time to time offering brand new releases for sale like the Super Cat classic “Sweets for my Sweet.” Never one to bite his tongue, Johnny believed in dancehall music with all his heart. He would always make a point of bigging up artists nobody else cared much about, people he knew personally from Jammy’s like Panhead and Little Twitch and Tullo T. “What about artists like Tullo T—rest in peace—who never got their due respect?” Johnny told me recently, still sounding as passionate as ever. “Who do you think wrote a lot of those songs? Tulllo T! He was always there to put a verse. He used to hang out with all of the DJs. People like Pompidoo, Little Twitch, Major Worries, Shabba, Chaka Demus—all of them.”
Johnny loved everything about dancehall and he was about that life in every sense of the term. I watched him open some record shops of his own, a spot on Bowery called Ujima, opening up later on St. Marks Place. I bought a lot of vinyl from him as I was spinning at a few spots around the city starting in the late 80s and early 90s. I would see him everywhere, spinning at The Reggae Lounge on Canal Street (which was later renamed the Island Club). “The thing about juggling with Jammy’s was they had the riddims,” Johnny told me. “You could play the tunes back and forth, back and forth. And you gotta give DJs like Rupert and Roger and the Reggae Lounge their props. Rory from Stone Love will tell you the story about how he heard them mixing riddims. You play the rhythm and juggle it. I remember when Rupert played that Admiral Bailey ‘Old Time Something Come Back Again,’ cause that record was big in the streets. And then he brought in the riddim and I swear to God that was like an explosion.”
Johnny had a weekly Sunday night gig for a while juggling at Sticky Mike’s, where you could find Run-DMC, MY Lyte, and many more hanging out on the regular. Another regular spot was Ki-Om Hi-Fi in the Ukranian Center on Second Avenue, where I would sometimes spin tunes along with Johnny Wonder and Bobby Konders. I even clashed against Johnny once at the infamous CBGBs. In my mind it was a friendly clash, but he came hard with the big Capleton “Gun Talk” dub cut at Jammy’s. Johnny wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with, but I learned a lot from him and admired his commitment to the culture.
He worked with many artists early in their careers and continued making big tunes buss. Riston Benji’s “Passport Buddy” and Pinchers’ “Bandelero” were just two of the classics that he brought to the U.S.
When Bounty Killer signed his deal with TVT Records in the U.S. Johnny Wonder was the man who connected him with some of the biggest stars in hip hop—Busta Rhymes, Raekwon, Mobb Deep, The Fugees. These were some of the tracks Killer brandished during the Verzuz battle, songs that have become part of popular culture. I find it ironic in this Instagram era that Johnny Wonder doesn’t even have a blue tick on his account. Maybe it’s because he never holds back from speaking his mind. Let’s just say he’s not the most politically correct person. But real is as real does.
Johnny didn’t just get the records made, he made them buss. Shooting videos with The Fugees and Busta at the height of their stardom, getting Killer on big stages. “The Fugees calling out Bounty Killer on Hot 97 Summer Jam. Peeeeeople Dead! That was a big deal.” Things were going well when a mishap on the road sidelined Johnny for a while. We kept in touch while he was away. I sent him copies of VIBE magazine to make sure he kept up with my Boomshots column. In the mid 2000s Johnny was back on the scene and he hit the ground running with his Dancehall Draft Picks DVD and album, which would be many people’s introduction to artists like Aidonia, Mavado, and Tony Matterhorn who was just making the transition from selector to recording artist.
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Johnny Wonder also executive produced the documentary and box set King at the Controls, paying tribute to the work of King Jammy. In the opening scene you can hear Johnny and the late great Jammy’s engineer turned hit producer Bobby Digital marveling as the look over the audio archives in Jammy’s tape room, jam-packed with priceless reels dating back to the 1970s.
Having worked with many artists at the outset of their careers, it was only natural that would get into producing and distributing as well. He runs his own JWonder 21 Music LLC distribution company and JWonder Digital with offices in Kingston Jamaica. Some of his most recent productions include “Crocodile Teeth” by rising star Skillibeng and “Stimulate” by Teejay, an artist he championed early. His latest juggling is the “Brooklyn Streets” riddim, a musical tribute to his home town featuring NYC stars like Screechy Dan, Red Fox, Noah Powa, and Majah Hype.
BOOMSHOTS: NEW YORK HAD A BIG IMPACT ON THE EVOLUTION OF DANCEHALL
Absolutely, absolutely. Rory from Stone Love would go to Reggae Lounge and listen to KISS FM, listening to Sting International and them. New York had a big part to play in dancehall. I don’t think there’s any other city outside of Jamaica that had a bigger impact on dancehall. London had a real big impact in dancehall too, because they brought a whole other way to play sound. London had a real big impact, but you gotta give New York its props.
WHAT DO YOU USE TO DETERMINE WHEN A SONG IS GOING TO BE BIG?
You can never tell. I can never tell what’s a hit. If I knew what was gonna be a hit I’d be rich. I’d be like Merlin or some shit. You know what I mean? Nobody knows. What really is the pulse is when you put it out to the crowd. You put it out and you’ll see, you’ll see in an hour or two hours if it’s gonna win, or if it’s gonna lose. And I don’t care how much money you put behind it, or how much constantly bombarding people with it—like on WhatsApp which is useless, wutless promotion. You know I mean? And all them other useless, wutless promotions like on LinkedIn and all of that. You don’t need none of that. When you put it out to the crowd, you give it a day and you’ll know what’s happening with it. You put out an artist, in a day they got 100,000 Youtube. You put out another artist they only even have 100 views. You understand? It’s not me. But when an artist has their fanbase they gettin’ them numbers. And they’re working with their fanbase. I don’t know if they’re coaching their fans or having meet and greets or what. But they have their fanbase. And Teejay has his fanbase.
ONE TIME YOU USED TO PUT IT OUT TO THE CROWD BY SPINNING IT AT REGGAE LOUNGE.
Yeah spin it on Ki-Om, spin it on my own Street Life, spin it on Reggae Lounge, walk it to Hot 97, walk it to BLS, walk it to WNWK. Nah mean? It’s not no email blast. And when you go to BLS you couldn’t park nowhere. It’s on Park Avenue and 42nd Street. There was never no parking up there. You had to circle circle circle circle and wait for Pat McKay or Bobby Konders to come out. And even back then you used to try to get the record to Red Alert. Red Alert used to give us love, man. He used to give a new reggae record love. If it was that big he would give it love. That was another way.
THERE’S ALWAYS THOSE REAL PEOPLE WHO GO BY THE QUALITY OF THE MUSIC.
Yeah, I mean Red Alert used to play hot reggae songs. If they were hot he’d play them. We used to send him some reggae songs and if it was hot he’d play it. We’d be like “Awww shit!” [Laughs]
THAT WAS A HUGE LOOK TO GET THAT SPIN ON KISS FM!
Oh hell yeah!
SO HOW DOES THAT PROCESS WORK NOW? HOW DO YOU PUT IT TO THE CROWD?
It’s a digital world. You put it on my website, Beatport, my Facebook, Instagram and alla that. You’re testing the water as soon as you post it on Instagram, you see what it’s gonna be. You’re testing the flyness of it. And now that iTunes is gonna be no more and Vevo’s gonna be no more, you’re gonna be having Apple Music and Youtube. So thery’re all really gonna be artist driven.
SO THE MAIN PLACE TO GET MUSIC IS THROUGH JOHNNY WONDER DISTRIBUTION.
Yeah. I got the world, the world, the world. I got the world.
AND YOU’RE DOING CARIBBEAN MUSIC POOL ALSO?
Yeah I got the Caribbean Music Pool too. Yeah. That’s also mine. I’ve been doing it by myself for the last year. Chrome’s still there in spirit I guess but I run the day to day thing. You know dem way deh. It’s for the DJs, the selectors, it’s for the Youtube bloggers, it’s for the Youtube kids. Everybody goes there to get their tune. And everybody knows if they put up the thing and it get blocked they know fi just leave it block. If that’s what the artists and producers them want, they don’t want anybody to have it, they only want to have it on the official artist channels.
IS DANCEHALL STILL DOING NUMBERS?
Well I’ll tell ya. Alright, let’s talk about it. If Dancehall isn’t doing any numbers, why is there so many distributors? Wanna know why? Because the numbers are real. The numbers are comin’ in. This is a million-dollar business. This ain’t no joke. I’m not gonna mention no names, but there are big distributors out here sitting back and collecting millions. You think it’s a little money? It’s a big amount of money. I’m telling you it’s a million-dollar thing. If there was no money in this thing, why are there so many distributors—which makes it like open land. There’s nothing exclusive for anyone. It’s not like one time where you have a producer and you’re his rep. People bouncin’ over here, bouncin’ over there.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO KEEP DOING WHAT YOU DO?
I don’t know who it’s going to affect. I know it just makes me feel good. You know what I mean? We’re in a world now where some people feel like dancehall is just a style and everybody makes their little remix. You have people like Justin Bieber and everybody else dabbling in the sound. That’s why it’s important for real dancehall, classic to be available to the people. I have the power to put it out, I’m gonna put it out. And I’m trying to get it placed in the right places so people can see it and click it and buy it. At the end of the day, I love this music. Even though it doesn’t always love me back.
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