Obituary: Junjo Lawes

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The Independent Culture
HENRY "JUNJO" Lawes was the hottest reggae producer of the early part of the 1980s, the originator of the "dancehall" style that has dominated Jamaican music since the death of Bob Marley in 1981.

Such names as Yellowman, Eek-A-Mouse, Barrington Levy, and Josey Wales all owed their careers to Lawes; more established acts like John Holt, the Wailing Souls, Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe also enjoyed revivals after recording over his rhythm tracks for his Volcano label, released in Britain by Greensleeves Records, who put out 42 albums of his productions; with his pairing of the DJs Clint Eastwood and General Saint, he even reached the British charts.

Junjo Lawes's murder in a drive-by shooting in Harlesden, north-west London, reflects the uneasy relationship between music, crime and politics that has long characterised the reggae business. Dancehall was a rough, immensely catchy "street" style of reggae and Lawes's ghetto credentials were impeccable. Born in 1960 in Olympic Way in the slums of West Kingston, he spent much of his youth in McKoy Lane in nearby Whitfield Town - "badman territory", as one person who knew him described it - where he was a teenager during the lethal undeclared civil war of the 1970s.

The neighbourhood was the fiefdom of Jack Massop, the father of Claudie Massop, a "ranking" gunman for the Prime Minister Michael Manley's People's National Party (PNP) and an acquaintance of Bob Marley. Due to the efforts of the legendary record producer Bunny "Striker" Lee, always keen to discourage local youth from such a potentially lethal existence, Lawes veered away from following a similar career and in 1978 began singing with the Grooving Locks trio. The same year, however, he began to produce records, working first with Linval Thompson.

Within 12 months he had booked a series of sessions at Channel One studio, employing the Roots Radics group as backing band, that were to alter the sound of Jamaican music. The tough sound of the Radics, who often employed old Studio One rhythms, was slower and more penetrating than the "rockers" style of the Revolutionaries, Kingston's other dominant studio house-band; thanks to his street-corner connections, Lawes was assiduously adept at sizing and signing up the newest talent and for these studio dates he used the mixing-desk skills of Hopeton Brown, a young engineer who became famous under the sobriquet of "Scientist" (eventually releasing such records under that name for Lawes as Heavyweight Dub Champion): as a result, Barrington Levy's Bounty Hunter album, which emerged from these Channel One sessions, came to be considered a classic.

Success came fast. Soon Lawes was producing such archetypal hits as Michigan and Smiley's "Diseases" (a warning of the dangers of unrestrained sexuality), Frankie Paul's "Pass the Tushenpeng", and John Holt's "Police in Helicopter". The astonishingly prodigious Yellowman, who released 16 albums between 1982 and 1983, recorded several of them for Lawes, including the classic Mr Yellowman.

To combat the indifference of Jamaican radio programmers, in 1983 Lawes launched his Volcano sound system. Using his own unlimited supply of dub plates, Volcano became Jamaica's top sound system, playing almost nightly all over the island.

Playing the part of benevolent despot that is the stance of every ghetto youth striving for what in Jamaica is known as "Donship", Lawes was known for the uncharacteristic financial respect with which he would treat his artists. "I no really check fe money," he said. "Every man gwan 'ave a equal share, an artist, a producer, instrument player and everybody. The set-up now is unlevelled."

"I always found him to be a straightforward person to deal with," says Chris Sedgwick of Greensleeves Records. "Right from the start, he made arrangements for us to pay many of the artists' royalties direct to them. He struck us as pretty fair."

Joining the Jamaican exodus to New York in the mid-1980s, Lawes attempted to set up Volcano there. He had friends, however, who were on the fringes of the drug posses - although he always claimed his connection with them was only one of association. All the same, Lawes was sentenced to a prison term in the United States, and deported back to Jamaica in 1991.

On his return he worked with several artists, including Cocoa Tea, Ninjaman, and John Holt once again. But it proved hard to emulate his rapid success of the previous decade.

When he was shot, Junjo Lawes had been in London since last Christmas. He was planning to return to Jamaica the next week.

Chris Salewicz

Henry Lawes, record producer: born Kingston, Jamaica 1960; (21 children); died London 14 June 1999.