Reggae legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jimmy Cliff will bring his storied career to Pensacola Beach and the DeLuna Fest stage. / Thomas Sheehan/Special to the News Journal
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It would be difficult to overestimate Jimmy Cliff’s impact on music and culture. The Jamaican singer, songwriter and actor is among the most influential recording artists of all time, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recipient of his native country’s Order of Merit, its highest honor for artists, Cliff helped to popularize the reggae genre worldwide with songs such as “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and “The Harder They Come,” and with his starring role in the film “The Harder They Come,” brought an awareness of Jamaican life and culture to a wider world. His songs have been covered by the lives of Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Garcia, Elvis Costello, Joe Cocker, Joe Strummer and Fiona Apple. Among his native countrymen, perhaps only the late Bob Marley rivals his status and influence.
In 2012, Cliff is as prolific as ever, having just released his latest album, “Rebirth,” produced by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. And he’ll be bringing songs from throughout his legendary career to the DeLuna Fest stage on Saturday.
Cliff spoke about his long career, the impact of “The Harder They Come” and reggae music, and what he has in common with “The World’s Fastest Man,” Usain Bolt, in an interview with the News Journal
Q: How much of “The Harder They Come” is true to life of Jamaica in that time?
A: The character actually did exist, the character I played. When I was a child growing up, I heard about him. It would strike terror into the minds of people when you hear the name Rhyging (in the film, Ivan). In that time, for somebody to have a gun and to have actually shoot a police was an awful, amazing, dreadful thing. So that existed, but the part about the music side of it is adopted from what was going on in Jamaica in the music business of that time.
Q: So if you were to make a record, you would really have a producer that would keep the DJs from playing it unless you agreed to do it for what they wanted, and that sort of thing?
A: The music business was like a payola situation. Like the guy said, “no money, no music.” So it was like that, and to a large extent, the music business internationally is still like that.
Q: How did you ever break out of that?
A: For me, Leslie Kong was my producer, and Leslie Kong seemed to have a very good system of how he did it. I’ve never known of him payola, doing it. I don’t have any knowledge, but I don’t know how he did it. But I know that we aimed at making good music that would resonate with the people, and the rest of it is up to Leslie Kong, how we did it from there on.
Q: How did the movie change your life?
A: The movie kind of propelled me to a much larger audience, to the world. Prior to that, I was known as a singer/songwriter, but the movie showed me to the world as an actor, and representing a new music form, and a new culture to a great extent. That really changed my life a whole lot.
Q: The movie and soundtrack are credited, to a great extent, with introducing Jamaican music to the States. Do you feel that’s true?
A: Well, yes, definitely. It was the soundtrack that showed where the music was coming from, because prior to that, I had hits like “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” or Ansell Collins had hits like “Night of Love,” and Desmond Dekker had hits like “Isrealites,” and so on, but they were just considered novelty hits. Nobody knew about it as a music form, as reggae, nor the culture that was attached to it, Rastafari. So the movie did all of that.
Q: While you’re still a relatively young man, so many of the artists that founded this genre have passed on. Does that make you feel any extra responsibility?
A: Not really, no, I never did feel any actual responsibility then, nor do I now, because I am aware that everyone has a path to walk in this life, and everyone’s path is different. I realize that I’m walking my path, and I’m still walking my path, like they did theirs. So it’s all good. I’m a long-distance runner.
Q: Speaking of runners, you were very vocal about cheering on Usain Bolt during the Olympics. Talk about your fandom.
A: You know, who cannot admire Usain Bolt? He’s to be admired for not just his talent, but as a character. Being born in Jamaica, he was born in Jamaica, it’s a good feeling to be someone you can feel good about. It’s great. I have a few movie scripts on the table at the moment, and one of them may include Usain Bolt.
Q: Watching him in the Olympics, there seemed to be a bit of similarity there between the two of you. The swagger he was exhibited was the same kind of swagger you exhibited as Ivan in “The Harder They Come.” Do you feel any kinship there?
A: Oh, yes indeed! (Laughs) I’m glad you noticed that, too! There is no doubt about that!
Q: You worked with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong as your producer on your new album, “Rebirth.” Obviously, he is someone who is very inspired by you and is a big fan of reggae and ska music. What was it like to work with him.
A: Well, it was really fun working with Tim Armstrong. The thing is, we just started out with the intention of making an EP, and because the vibes were so good between us, we ended up making a great album. I was introduced to Rancid music via Joe Strummer of the Clash. And when we met, everything felt so good, and I really had fun working with Tim. If I had the opportunity, I would do it again.
Q: You cover one of his songs on the album. Talk about doing “Ruby Soho.”
A: You know, that was the first song we recorded, and when I heard the sound that he had on it, the rhythym, the feel that he had on it, it just took me right back to the early days of the music and made me remember that this sound, this feeling of what it was then is a chapter of my career that I intended to close that I intended to close which was not closed as yet, because when I did the album “Wonderful World, Beautiful People,” I did not continue on that same path, and I knew I wanted to come back to it. So that was one of the great things about it.
Q: You mentioned Joe Strummer, and you have a Clash cover on the album, as well — and interestingly enough, it’s a song that was really a nod at “The Harder They Come” to begin with. Talk about doing “The Guns of Brixton.”
A: Because reggae was such an influential music to pop music, in many ways — musically, socially, politically and otherwise — I just felt like I wanted to do one music from both sides of the spectrum of the Atlantic, and who would be better to do it than from the Clash and from Rancid? So that was part of the concept, to make this album round, to make this album round and accomplish what the goal and the aim was.
Q: Do you have a track on the album that you’re particularly proud of?
A: Well, I’m proud of the album generally, because the album is like a suite. You walk into the patio or the veranda, and you walk into the living room, then the kitchen, the dining room, the bathrooms, the bedrooms and so on. Each song kind of represents a part of the whole suite, so there wouldn’t be one particular one. But if I had to choose one, maybe I would choose “Cry No More,” for the fact that it’s like a lullaby, a family love song, which I’ve not written songs in that vein before.
Q: You talked a bit about the influence of reggae music. Do you think the average person feels the influence of reggae music on modern music?
A: Not at all, and that is one of the things, because if the history of things is not recorded, then it seems to slip over the head of people and credit is not given where credit is due. I’ve always had it in mind to write a book called “The True Story of Reggae,” so that people would really know what is coming from where and from who, and all of those things. I still hope to do that.
Q: What do you see as the future of reggae music? Who is taking the foundation that you built in new and interesting directions?
A: I can’t tell who will be the people that will come along, but there a few people I admire at the moment. There’s a girl called Queen Ifrica, I think she’s really a very prolific writer. She empowers especially young girls a lot. And she touches subjects that people wouldn’t normally touch, like incest and things like that. And then there is a very good singer, Tarrus Riley, who is writing some nice songs. And then there’s I-Octane. So there are quite a few that are budding, and I have hopes for them.
Q: How did it feel to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
A: That was a really high feeling of gratitude, to know that I contributed to a music form that has had this great impact on the world, and this music form was not European, not American, not African, not Asiatic, but maybe a mixture of all of those, and I contributed to it. So I feel really very gratified to be here, now, to be inducted in a prestigious institution such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was very encouraging for me.
Q: You’ve worked with all sorts of people, but is there anyone you’ve always wanted to work with that you haven’t had the chance to work with yet?
A: I have never put in my mind that I’d like to work with that person or that person. I kind of leave it to happen organically, like what happened with Tim Armstrong. I like when it happens like that. I’ve worked, like, even with Cat Stevens, as he was called then, and we did one great piece of work, and so on. The song “Trapped,” that Bruce Springsteen does in his set sometimes, was a song that I wrote and Cat Stevens produced it. So I like it when things happen organically, It just makes it more fun to me.
Q: Tell people about what they can expect when they see you perform at DeLuna Fest.
A: High-energy, big fun, uplifting message, great rhythms, colorful, something that when you go to a concert like my concert, you come away feeling good for the next 12 months. It energizes you, uplifts you. I’m going to do music from the new album as well as some of the classics that people are expecting. All of that.
It would be difficult to overestimate Jimmy Cliff's impact on music and culture. The Jamaican singer, songwriter and actor will share that impact with tens of thousands of fans at DeLuna Fest.
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