Greensleeves: A dream that endured

The men behind the legendary label and Shepherd's Bush shop speak for the first time in 30 years to Ian Burrell about how they brought reggae's star names to the world – without Bob Marley
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To name a reggae record label after an English sonnet most commonly associated with King Henry VIII is odd enough. To turn that enterprise from a small shop in a London suburb into one of the most iconic names in black music is stranger still. But to say you have achieved that status not because of Bob Marley, the undisputed all-time ruler of reggae, but in spite of him is truly extraordinary.

Then again, the two men who founded Greensleeves Records 30 years ago this month are not without their eccentricities. Chris Sedgwick is a quietly spoken Dubliner who quit accountancy to set up a record store and is now training to become an astrophysicist. Chris Cracknell is a spiky-haired former DJ, who developed his love for black music as a 14-year-old at a skating rink on the Norfolk coast.

They have not told the Greensleeves story before but agreed to do so to mark the label's anniversary. On their three-decade long journey, they have nurtured a love of reggae among great British musical rebels such as John Lydon and Joe Strummer, built a global reputation, and created hits that have topped the British pop charts. The venture has been largely responsible for introducing the world to such artists as Yellowman, Eek-a-Mouse, Dr Alimantado, Barrington Levy and, more recently, Shaggy and Beenie Man.

Greensleeves began as a small shop in Ealing, west London, before moving to nearby Shepherd's Bush, where the record label was founded. The earliest days coincided with Marley being propelled to new heights by the release of his classic Exodus album, but the mood among the Greensleeves clientele was less than enthusiastic.

"Bob Marley with a lead guitar," recalls Sedgwick. "Everyone used to cringe when the lead guitar came on because reggae was never into lead guitars. It was always just a part of the rhythm section. Somehow it seemed doctored to appeal to another market."

Cracknell agrees: "We didn't sell a lot of Bob Marley in our shop, he was selling in the mainstream shops to a mainstream audience. We were selling Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, those sort of artists."

But much as Greensleeves tried to go its own way, the shadow of Marley continued to cause problems. "Because of the precedent set by Bob Marley, everything that came out, any band like the Gladiators or the Mighty Diamonds, was always compared in the papers with Bob Marley and deemed not as good," says Cracknell. "Although Bob Marley made reggae very popular, it wasn't as if anybody else came through on the back of that, really."

Sedgwick believes that the myopia of the critics was, and still is, partly a nationality issue. "Because Bob Marley is Jamaican everyone thinks reggae music is Bob Marley, whereas he was, in fact, one of half a dozen superstars in any genre of music over the past couple of generations – up there with the Bob Dylans and the David Bowies. Bob Marley isn't reggae – there's a whole culture and dozens of artists. It's like saying you are not going to listen to English music if it doesn't sound like David Bowie."

Greensleeves stuck to its origins, working with the Jamaican producers and artists who would beat their way to the Shepherd's Bush store. One such visitor was Dr Alimantado, whose album Best Dressed Chicken in Town quickly became a cult with London's punks.

Barrington Levy, now recognised as one of Jamaica's greatest singers, visited Greensleeves as a shy 14-year-old. "I think Barrington had a bit of difficulty understanding because he'd never been outside Kingston before. But he had this incredible voice and stage presence. He did a gig at the 100 Club in London and he was just unbelievable – he had this fabulous sweet voice that soared."

For a short while, reggae enjoyed a happy marriage with punk. "Like punk, it was a bit of a rebel music," observes Sedgwick. But fashions changed. Greensleeves' strategy was to maintain faith in the grassroots music of Jamaica and Britain's Caribbean immigrants, confident that hits would emerge. "We always stuck close to the core," says Cracknell. "We thought there was such good music coming out that every once in a while there's going to be something unstoppable, so good that it's going to cross over to a wider audience. We didn't want to doctor music for the pop market."

The lack of support from mainstream radio made things difficult. Radio 1's Kid Jensen latched on to London artist Tippa Irie's cheeky "Hello Darling" after hearing it in a club and propelled it into the top 30 in 1986. The maverick John Peel, inevitably, was another champion. "He was fantastic," says Cracknell. "He played [Wolverhampton group] Capital Letters's "Smoking My Ganja" for about two years, at least once a week."

The pair are also quick to acknowledge the support they received from pirate radio stations. Indeed, when Kiss FM, now a major commercial broadcaster, first pulled down the skull and crossbones to go legal in 1990, its opening tune was "Pirates' Anthem", a Greensleeves production featuring Shabba Ranks.

The big breakthrough for the Greensleeves label came with the leftfield "Oh Carolina" by the New York-based artist Shaggy, which went to the top of the British pop charts in 1993, the first of the four Shaggy songs that would go to No 1 in the UK. It also hit the top 10 in Holland and Belgium. Further crossover hits have included Beenie Man's "Who Am I (Zim Zimma)", which went top 10 in 1998, and Mr Vegas's singalong dancehall hit " Heads High" from the following year.

Sedgwick and Cracknell, who are now both in their mid-fifties and who sold the label to Zest Music last year, say their ethnicity has never been an issue. "The word was out that it was an English-based company run by us. We've never had any problems. We always set out from day one to deal with people in the right way and encourage them that if we did things properly they could have a career."

Greensleeves releases about 20 albums a year and continues to embrace the fresh new music of Jamaica, and Cracknell has no doubt that the hits will keep coming. "It's as exciting as it's ever been," he says. " It's a scene and there's always something happening."

'From Dubplate to Download, The Best of Greensleeves Records' is out now