Mikey Dread: Renaissance man of reggae

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The Independent Online

Just as punk rock was peaking in the UK in 1977, a young technician called Michael Campbell took on a graveyard shift as a DJ at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC). He adopted the radio name of "Mikey Dread", and the show soon earned him national and then international celebrity, helping to popularise "dub" reggae. It also brought him to the attention of the British rockers The Clash, and reggae veterans UB40, both of whom Dread eventually recorded and toured with.

Dread's innovative DJ-ing had a wide influence, as did his style as a producer. Reggae's renaissance man also became a recording artist in his own right, founded his own record label and later worked in television in both the UK and the United States. He gained a reputation as a shrewd businessman, almost unique among Jamaican artists in gaining control of his entire back catalogue. He was a hard-working and dapper performer; his fedora hat and jacket became a visual trademark.

From an early age, Campbell showed a voracious appetite for learning – a life-long attribute that would serve him well. Electronics fascinated him, and he taught himself the basics from books. His biographer Trevor Holland notes that he improvised with batteries and old bicycle lamps to supply lighting for his mother's house. At Titchfield High School in Port Antonio he began to make broadcasts after persuading the headmaster to get the school a licence.

Later, while studying electrical and mechanical engineering at the College of Art, Science and Technology in Kingston, he applied for a position as a technical operator at JBC in 1976. By 1977, this work had led to him being offered a shift DJ-ing six nights a week from midnight till 4.30am, but because of his professional status, he wasn't supposed to talk on the radio. Thus he began using jingles and sound effects between songs rather than spoken word intros – a style emulated ever since on reggae shows the world over.

Dread at the Controls focused on the rootsier side of local music at a time when most Jamaican radio favoured imported sounds, and it soon became the nation's most popular radio show. Tapes circulated among music industry figures, spreading his reputation to the UK. Mikey Dread's association with Jamaican musicians such as Lee Perry and King Tubby gave him exclusive early access to dub plates and artists they were producing.

He also got to use their studios, where he made the jump to recording artist in 1978 with "Love the Dread". "Dread at the Mantrols" was another early work featuring him toasting over Perry's classic "Dreadlocks in Moonlight", but the song that really propelled him into the limelight was "Barber Saloon", a number one hit in Jamaica.

In 1979, friction between JBC's conservative management and Dread led him to quit. He had already founded the 40 Legs record label with his JBC colleague Pam Hickling, and now had his own label, Dread at the Controls, which allowed him to produce influential cuts for the likes of Sugar Minott, Junior Murvin, Earl Sixteen and Edi Fitzroy. Often working with the engineer Scientist, his sides between then and 1981 are widely credited with helping to repopularise dub at the time. His first album was Dread at the Controls (1978) and the classic African Anthem (1979) would later prove a fertile source of samples for US rappers.

In January 1980, he finally responded to a stream of calls from The Clash to join them on their "16 Tons" tour, shortly afterwards producing "Bankrobber". "I couldn't understand what Joe [Strummer] was saying," Dread recalled of the two-day session, in which he also supplied backing vocals on the song. "So I told him to slow it down, and we could make it reggae-style."

The result became a Top Ten hit, and spawned an enduring craze for reggae among punk rockers. Dread also worked on the subsequent albums Black Market Clash and Sandinista!, and relocated to the UK for much of the early 1980s. He was invited to tour with UB40 in 1982 and reputedly had a hand in mixing their 1983 comeback smash "Red Red Wine".

It was also during this period that Dread became involved in television, working as a researcher, presenter and narrator on the Deep Roots Music series in 1982, and then Rockers Roadshow in 1983. By the mid-1980s, he was beginning to work more in the US, thus precipitating a move to Florida. He eventually resumed ownership of the rights to his entire back catalogue, and was thus able to re-release it on his own label. The Dread did seem to be in control.

In 2004 Dread appeared at Glastonbury, which introduced him to a new generation of fans. He was back in the UK on a short tour in 2006, and continued to work until a brain tumour caused him to lose his voice last spring.

Jon Lusk

Michael George Campbell (Mikey Dread), DJ, broadcaster, producer and singer: born Port Antonio, Jamaica 4 June 1954; married (four sons, two daughters); died Stamford, Connecticut 15 March 2008.

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