❉ These four albums show the man at the peak of his powers.
Prince far I’s deep, resonant and gruff verse came from the pit. Or so it seemed. His lyrical style was not that of a typical Toaster, so much so that he christened his unique method ‘chanting’, He continues to stand alone in the roots DJ world as a true pioneer.
His distinctive sound came to prominence of his legendary record Psalms For I (1975), a slow, deliberate recital of bible chants over dub reggae grooves. He recorded four albums for Trojan Records between 1979 and 1983, when he was senselessly gunned down in a cold-blooded murder in Kingston. The world had lost another great, an underground hero who bridged the distance between the streets and scene of the Jamaican capital and the UK.
The albums in question are Free From Sin, Voice Of Thunder, Jamaican History and Musical History. Three are about to be released for the first time on CD via Doctor Bird Records, a division of Cherry Records specialising in vintage Jamaican sounds licensed from the Trojan catalogue. These four issues represent some of the finest DJ roots music of any era and show the man at the peak of his powers.
Michael James Williams (Prince Far I) was born in 1945, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Growing up in the Waterhouse area of Kingston, the young Michael got his inspiration at local dances where MCs did their thing over the grooves pumping from the speakers. He became a Sound System DJ on the island in the early sixties and his initial moniker was King Cry Cry, apparently as a result of his tendency to burst into tears when angry.
In the early 1970s King Cry Cry made his first recording, The Great Booga Wooga, with ‘Striker’ Lee. He also worked as a security guard for Joe Gibbs and Coxsone Dodd. It was this latter role that gave Michael Williams his break. King Stitt, the regular DJ at Studio One, failed to show for a session and he stepped in. The resultant cut launched King Cry Cry’s career and he went on to record Natty Farmyard and Queen of the Minstrel for Dodd.
It was his appearance on the B-side of The Cordells’ Simpleton that got things moving. A weird series of grunts and oddly phrased utterances over a sparse, clear backing, created Simpleton Skank. A template for his career had been laid out. And he never moved on from this – he had arrived virtually fully formed.
At King Tubby’s Studio in 1975, legendary singer and producer Enos Macleod recorded Let Jah Arise and christened Williams ‘Prince Far I’ in the process. It was on the flip side of Little Joe’s Bag-O-Wire. The name change pushed the door open for the man to create two of the greatest reggae DJ albums of all time. Albums up there with Screaming Target by Big Youth.
The fore-mentioned Psalms For I was released in 1976 on Carib Gems. ‘Striker’ Lee, together with house band The Aggrovators, laid down dub grooves, and Anton Ellis produced. The ‘lyrics’ were readings of psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Far I preached with a resonant, gruff growl. It was not the same as the toasting of Big Youth, Dillinger, U-Roy and the like. It was more primal, almost beast-like. With a consciousness.
Psalms For I was followed up later that year with Under Heavy Manners, released on Joe Gibbs’ label, and produced by Michael Williams himself. Talk about releasing sounds representative of the times. Kingston in 1976 was a violent, terrifying place. A state of emergency was declared, and the title cut gave Prince Far I his first big 45, hitting the mood of the island –
‘discipline is what the world needs today and etiquette, you know.
For one of the noblest things a man can do is to do the best he can, yeah.’
Far I used his newfound notoriety to set up his own label, Cry Tuff in 1976. It had one arm in Jamaica, and another in the UK using new hotshot Adrian Sherwood’s recently formed label, Hit Run Music. Rhythms and grooves were laid down in Jamaica by with the mixing and over-dubs carried out in London, an approach continued to this day. Far I began to divide his time between Kingston and London, finding acquaintances in the growing UK punk scene.
Between 1978 and 1980 Far I released a series of dub albums that fused these parties further. The third of these, Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter III, particularly tightened the alliance. Far I voiced super-low verse, Steve Beresford and David Toop mixed in noises, sonics and doodles, whilst Ari Up of The Slits added backing vocals. Dub grooves were courtesy of Jamaican syndicate The Arabs. Cry Tuff Dub Encounters Chapter III was made in lightening quick time, with a healthy DIY attitude. Adrian Sherwood handled the final mixes. It remains a landmark album in UK reggae – ‘It marked a handing on of the producer’s baton from Far I to Sherwood.’ (Pressure Sounds)
The first of Far I’s Trojan releases emerged in 1979. In the same year as his final Trojan record came out (1983), he was murdered. The voice that could quake the earth had chanted its last verse.
As with all Doctor Bird issues, the compact disc package includes an informative booklet complete with archive photos. The artwork features front and back covers from the original releases. It is a full package which gives a history lesson as well as a selection of top tuneage.
Free From Sin was released in 1979 and shows the man working alongside a new, younger group of musicians, the Roots Radics (AKA The Arabs). A fluid group, containing young talent who went on to shape Jamaican sounds in a similar way to The Dynamites, The Revolutionaries and other syndicates before. Together, they were working in roots and dub near the end of a golden age for the sound. Hence it is an important document, ripe for its digital release.
It kicks off with title track’s deliciously deep bass drive, courtesy of Errol ‘Flabba’ Holt. Far I’s verse mixes current affairs, biblical chants and Rastafari. His chanting on When Jah Ready You Got To Move is akin to a preacher, referencing ‘eternal life’ in his gravelly tone over a spacious dub backing. A technique repeated throughout. Far I’s main lyrical strength is not merely chanting a series of bible passages but linking them effectively to the contemporary world. He had a conscience and was ‘conscious’. Hence his popularity with the island’s youth.
The familiar intro of Don’t Deal With Folly provides a brooding dub landscape for Far I to spit out verse. This track closed side one of the original Trojan release.
The musical mood is lightened with Light Of Fire’s opening bars. Vibrant and sunny sounding. A standout track is Go Home On The Morning Train. The youthful musicians provide a tough backing, edgy, complete with busy percussion and pumping organ rhythm. Superb.
Siren, has its righteous conviction fused with law enforcement references –
‘Every time I hear the siren blow …’
grinds Far I, a line pertinent to the youth of 1970s Kingston. And 1970s Wandsworth and Brixton, for that matter.
I And I Are The Chosen One closes the original Trojan release. The violin, played by guitarist Noel ‘Sowell’ Bailey, is effective, giving an alternative sonic alongside Far I’s Rastafari laden lyric.
The Roots Radics backed Far I on Jamaican Heroes (1980). Included in the line-up this time are Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, plus Winston Wright from The Dynamites on keys. The solid backing of Deck Of Life gives the new line up plenty of scope to strut their stuff and is coloured by subtle keyboard flicks and guitar phasing. Far I deals out a deck of cards one by one, each card relating to a religious principal. This is enhanced by the noises and echo explosions in the mix. Courtesy of Williams himself in conjunction with Dave Hunt and Steve Beresford, a collaborator with The Slits. Ari Up also appears on the album, once again tightening the link between the UK punk scene and Far I.
The Vision continues the dub sonic of the opening cut, with plenty of flourishes colouring the sound. Far I’s delivery dominates regardless. He operated on a limited sonic palette, and his lyrics were ever earnest, taken from repeating sources. However, the man’s individuality is constant. Natty Champion showcases Far I’s storytelling, with the daily struggle of the Rastafari leading to eventually being crowned ‘Champion of the Universe’.
Read A Chapter features a sparse dubscape, almost silent in places. Side two of the original vinyl issue kicks off with Golden Throne, Far I preaching to his brethren to leave Babylon and return to Africa. However, the album’s finest cut is undoubtedly the title track. It showcases another aspect of Far I’s work, a passion for Jamaican history. The island’s founding fathers and contemporary figures feature in the title track, sequenced deeper on in the album –
‘They say Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica
But I discovered music.’
Calling Paul Bogle and William Gordon,
Calling Norman Manley and Bustamante,
Calling Marcus Garvey, the Prophet of the All.’
A fantastic cut performed with soul, featuring heavenly backing vocals courtesy of Ari Up and others, which really add to the reflective vibe. It is a track right up there with roots reggae classics, although one that has been forgotten over the years.
A nicely reverbed keyboard and jangly guitar line adds to the feel of Prison Discipline, with Wright and Anderson showing what can be achieved with the ‘less is more approach’. The album is closed with Jah Will Provide, featuring distorted guitar breaks courtesy of Sowell Bailey. The lyric has religious conviction, humility and positivity –
‘Two little dreadlocks were walking one day,
Down by the riverside,
Singing and praising Jah,
And Jah will provide’.
The first disc of this collection closes with a bonus track, David. A dub work out, containing instrumentalism and sparse verse from Far I.
In 1981 the voice of thunder released Voice of Thunder. This work was released on CD previously. What a record. A true monster of an album. Sounding like a voice from the very depths of Mount Sinai, Far I gnarl out the introductory line –
‘This are the Ten Commandments
Were given by ah unto Moses.’
The track is Ten Commandments, of course. The backing is again sparse, with the exemplary horn of ‘Deadly’ Headley Bennett. Biblical references sent by Jah in musical form, with Rastafarianism to the fore.
At its best, dub reggae is a soundscape, depicting a land with simplicity and space to breathe. With occasional lightning bolts and rumbles of thunder thrown in. This is the case on all four albums. The listener can imagine cruising through these lands, taking in barren spaces, or looking at life in the inner cities.
Bob Marley died the same year, and Far I pays tribute on the second track, Tribute To Bob Marley.
Hold The Fort sees Far I really grind out the lyric. A real heavy backing which is accompanied with a sharp percussive element. Many a fuzzy head must have lowered eye lids and nodded heads to this. Horns come in early in Every Time I Hear the Word. The track is a slow burner, with the deep, smooth bass coming in well into the cut. As ever, the instruments glide in and out, only the drum and (eventually) bass staying level. A brilliant piece of work.
Head of the Buccaneer finishes side one of the original vinyl release. Hard-hitting as the title suggests, with Far I’s lyric comparing Captain Henry Morgan (‘Pirate’ Morgan) with Julius Caesar’s treatment of Christians, throwing them into the ‘fire furnace’. Captain Henry Morgan was hired by the British to lead colonialists in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century.
Side two opener Shall Not Dwell In Wickedness is a little brighter, utilising a sunny horn break courtesy of ‘Deadly Bennett’ in its introductory bars. Psalms from the bible are voiced and combined with Far I’s own lines. Give I Strength and Kingdom Of God are dub workouts complete with plenty of over-dubs and echoey mutterings.
The slashing opening chord of Coming In From The Rock snaps the listener out of any dubby haze. The melodic guitar riff, played in unison with the bass, provides a heavy backing as Far I growls out a lyric containing more psalms and Jah-speak, with lines from Genesis, Isaiah and Revelation, with Jah creating man, the bees and the honey. A prowling, menacing cut.
The final track, Skinhead has a touch of sarcasm and humour. True Rastas do not where polyester garments. Such as those worn as part of the ‘uniform’ of UK skinheads of the early 1980s. Far I spent a lot of time in the UK at the time, remember. The lyrics focus on the shaved head, flinging petrol bombs and inner-city violence. Far I was an excellent social commentator.
‘A shaved to a shaved,
She you gone a Manchester,
You wear a polyester.’
The final issue in the quartet is Musical History. Dancehall had come in by its release in 1983 and reshaped the reggae world. Far I was no longer quite so cutting edge. Musical History varies stylistically from the other Trojan releases and is a fascinating listen as a result – one cannot help but think what Far I would have gone on to record had he lived.
A minimalist dance groove backs the opening two cuts, with a sharp guitar courtesy of Sowell Bailey once more. Every Time I Talk About Jah is celebratory –
‘Every time I talk about Jah,
I feel good, good, good.’
Tell Them About Jah Love has a ‘hands in the air’ type vibe possibly aiming at the dancehall crowd, but with a lyric mentioning the Cold War weapons, and contrasting them to Ganja: ‘Tell me why, tell me why, tell me why!’
At The Cross is as close to a pop track ever cut by Far I and it closes side one of the original vinyl release. Side two begins with Working For My Saviour. It is almost funky, a little unconvincing possibly. The tempo drops for I Don’t Know Why I Love Jah So which sees Far I almost singing his verse, rather than chanting his spoken word. The title speaks for itself, the man’s reverence for THE MAN plain to see. What You Gonna Do On Judgement Day lifts the tempo again with a lively backing even The Clash alluded to at times on their Sandinista triple album released in 1980.
The album closes with Take Heed Frontline. A return to what he does best. A gnarling lyric is wrestled out, dominating proceedings. The album takes in the island’s musical fashions and is an interesting landmark, though its best moment are when Far I does what does best; his own, unique thing. Chanting consciousness.
In the late 1978, Richard Branston, accompanied by Don Letts and John Lydon, set out on an infamous trip to Jamaica. Their quest was to sign acts up for the reggae arm of Virgin Records, Front Line. Branson wanted a piece of the reggae action see. Prince Far I was one of the acts snapped up and ever prolific, recorded three albums very quickly for Front Line.
As roots and dub reggae’s popularity began to wane shortly after, Front Line was shut down as Branson cut his losses.
‘Virgin’s loss was to prove Trojan’s gain.’ – Malcolm Gillett
These four albums contain magical moments especially on Jamaican Heroes and Voice Of Thunder. All were crucial issues by a true pioneer. Despite the shift in emphasis from dub and roots reggae towards dancehall grooves, Prince Far I stuck to his unique individual spoken word consciousness-style. With the youthful Roots Radics syndicate he may well have gone on to produce material eclipsing his previous output. Musical History in particular, was probably a necessary experimental step along this path.
His influence is clear, from a dancehall star such as Shaggy to Hip hop’s Phife Dawg. UK Garage and Grime also can say a huge thank you to Far I.
The global music world should show appreciation for the man who stepped in for the original toasting frontiersman, King Stitt, at that session at Studio One. In these days of show and little depth, he was a performer who had substance dripping from every pore.
❉ ‘Prince Far I: The Trojan Album Collection’, 2CD (Doctor Bird DBCDD059) is released May 8, 2020, by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.