by Eric Doumerc
Lincoln Barrington "Sugar" Minott was born in 1956 in Kingston, Jamaica and first entered the music business as a member of a harmony trio called The African Brothers with Tony Tuff and Derrick Howard. They recorded tracks - including "No Cup No Bruck" - for producers like Rupie Edwards and Coxsone Dodd; but their first hit "Torturing" was self-produced and allowed the group to found their own label, called Ital. Though the trio broke up just after recordng the track at Studio One, Minott stayed with Dodd, working as a session musician in the studio, and he soon got to cut some sides for the legendary producer.
Two albums followed: Live Loving in 1977 and Showcase (1979). These two albums launched his career internationally, backed up in 1979 with Bittersweet came out, boasting two outstanding tracks: "I'm Not for Sale" and "Right Track." Minott's ability to perform new lyrics over old rock-steady or reggae riddims stands out on these first two Studio One albums. Indeed, on these two albums, Minott proved particularly adept at riding old riddims just in the way some deejays were doing in the dancehall, in a live context. On Showcase, we find him doing new versions of established rock-steady riddims like "I'm Just a Guy" ("Vanity"), "Pressure and Slide" ("Oh, Mr DC"), "Far East" ("Jah Jah Children") and "Tonight" ("Try Love"). Minott's take on the "Tonight" riddim (originally a hit by Keith and Tex) is particularly effective as the original song was about a love affair while Minott switched the focus to divine love by singing "Just try your best and Jah Jah will do the rest." "Jah Jah Children," his cut to the "Far East" riddim, nicely complements the idea of looking to "the East," that is to Africa, as the prophecy by Marcus Garvey suggested.
In 1980, Minott founded his Youth Promotion/Black Roots label, releasing several albums such as Black Roots, Roots Lovers, African Girl and Ghetto-ology. Two important singles led to Sugar Minott's move to England in 1980: "Hard Time Pressure," a gutsy "conscious" tune, and "Good Thing Going," a cover of the Michael Jackson song, which entered the British charts in 1981 and resulted in Minott appearing on the British weekly music show Top of the Pops - giving a memorable performance. At the time 'Lovers Rock,' a distinctly British brand of soul reggae, was developing and Minott contributed much to its growth.
Minott's flair for the reinterpretation of old Studio One riddims is also apparent on his 1981 African Girl LP with the track entitled "Love Jah Forever," which recycled the rock steady hit "Love Me Forever" by Carlton and the Shoes. On the 1985 Rydim LP, Minott went to the timeless hit entitled "Pretty Looks Ain't All" by the Heptones for a biting social commentary track called "Chatty Chatty Mouth" about a gossip who cannot help to "labba" (to chat) all the time behind people's backs. As late as 1993, on the track "Run Things," the classic reggae hit "The Sun" by Cornell Campbell was being recycled to devastating effect:
Dem a gwaan like dem alone run things
But it no go work.
Dem a gwaan like dem alone run things
Want come treat us like a jerk.
But the race is not for the swift, neither for the strong,
But for the men who can endure to the end.
His roots side is most visible on the Ghetto-o-logy, Black Roots and African Soldier LP's. Ghetto-o-logy came out in 1979 and established his name in the reggae world. The musicianship is faultless, but the album is still outstanding today for the quality of the lyrics in songs like "Man Hungry," "The People Ought to Know," "Dreader Than Dread" and of course the title-track which makes the claim that to Minott the ghetto was a university from which he graduated in "ghetto-ology" whereas other people majored in science or biology. The jazz-like arrangements on tracks like "Walking Through the Ghetto" distinguished the album from many other roots albums of the day and Minott's singing was full of passion.
Black Roots contained two massive hits, "Hard Time Pressure" and "River Jordan." The former was based on a memorable bass line, while the latter recycled the old negro spiritual and a well-known Studio One riddim called "I'm Just a Guy," a very good combination.
But Minott's artistry consisted in breaking down barriers and transcending the limitations of musical genres and a track like "African Girl" on the eponymous LP did just that. Indeed, that song could be said to be a cultural or roots track from the point of view of lyrics, but the musical backing certainly places it in the lovers rock or early dancehall category. Minott's popularity grew throughout the '80's, both in England and in Jamaica, and Minott was the headliner for 1986's Japansplash at which he performed new songs "Herbman Hustler," "Slice of the Cake" and "Nah Go a South Africa." As part of his Youth Promotion operation, Minott took his proteges - dancehall star Frankie Paul and 'singjay' Tenor Saw - with him and gave them valuable international exposure. He also appeared at the Jamaican Reggae Sunsplash festival in the mid-1980's and took time out to nurture the careers of rising deejays Captain Sinbad, Ranking Dread and Ranking Joe. Minott produced Tenor Saw's stunning 1985 Dancehall Fever album. The albums Sugar and Spice, Rydim, Wicked a Go Feel It and Time Longer than Rope consolidated his reputation and contributed to the new dancehall style thanks to his work with Sly and Robbie and the producer George Phang. The Sly and Robbie-produced "Rub a Dub Sound" is a good example of that trend, as is "Herbman Hustling."
Throughout the 1980's, Minott was to record many lovers rock classics like "Lovers Race," "The Girl is Mine," "Sandy," "Make It With You" and "Happy Song." His voice and delivery were ideally suited to soul reggae arrangements, as evidenced by the track entitled "If I Did Not Love You" on the Rydim LP. Recorded in 1985 in Jamaica under the tutelage of George Phang, and with a powerful rhythm section driven by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, it perfectly complemented Minott's sweet vocals. Sugar Minott contributed to the development of the early dancehall sound by recording a number of songs with Sly and Robbie in the mid-1980s.
In 1994, the tune "Sprinter Stayer," produced by Tappa Zukie, successfully revived the old rock steady rhythmic workout "Bangarang," thus showing that Minott was still holding his own in the mid-1990's. His talent for grafting new lyrics onto old tracks was indeed remarkable and has often been compared to the work Jamaican deejays do in a live setting or during sound system clashes. But this technique is also reminiscent of a jazz aesthetic which consists in improvising a melodic line over a bass and drum workout or a musical accompaniment. Minott's vocalising was indeed at times similar to the scat singing tradition used by some jazz singers. His vocal delivery was rhythmic and melodic at the same time, as shown by the monster hit "Herbsman Hustling" - one of the first computerised tracks it had an edge and a minimalist sound which heralded dancehall. Minott's delivery, half-way between singing and deejaying, was very innovative and forward-looking. Another important early dancehall track was "Rub A Dub Sound," also produced by Sly and Robbie, on which Minott's flow was in synch with the bass line.
Buy Out the Bar and Sufferer's Choice, both released in 1988, showed different sides of Minott's artistry and he continued to record in the latest "raggamuffin" style, scoring a hit in 1989 with the Gussie Clarke-produced "Funking Song" (about the need for more reggae music on the radio). The Jammy's production "Rub-A-Dub Style" and the 1993 track "Run Things" are further evidence that Minott's singjaying style continued to serve him in good stead throughout his entire career.
In the 1990's, Sugar Minott continued to release quality albums like 1991's Happy Together, and the 1994 Tappa Zukie-produced Breaking Free record which featured the hit "Sprinter Stayer." Minott continued to appear at the Reggae Sunsplash festival where his performances were always well received and released an album entitled International in 1996. Musical Murder followed in 1997 and Easy Squeeze in 1999. In 2008, New Day was released.
On July 10th 2010, Sugar Minott was admitted to the University of the West Indies Hospital after complaining of chest pains and died there. His importance in the history of reggae music can be best appreciated by looking at two aspects of his artistry that contributed to establishing him as a major performer and songwriter. First of all, many critics have pointed out Minott's ability to write new lyrics over old "riddims," thus reinvigorating reggae music and nudging it towards the modern dancehall style. Secondly, Minott was able to straddle many styles and was very versatile in his approach, performing at times as a roots singer, a lovers rock crooner or a dancehall singjay. His versatility, talent and generosity will be sorely missed.
Greene, Jo-Ann. "Sugar Minott." www.allmusic.com.
Thompson, David. Reggae and Caribbean Music. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002.
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