In the final part of our full career interview with Tippa Irie, he recalls how he was able to diversify into the worlds of football, hip hop and theatre, the challenges of surviving as an independent artist, and why, despite this, he is still Living the Dream…
Tell me a bit about how you recorded the 1993 Arsenal song Shouting For The Gunners with Peter Hunnigale? That was the year the Arsenal won the double wasn’t it?
Yeah that was the double year! There was a guy, a friend of mine, I can’t remember his name because it was a while back now and he was in that circle, the football circle. I think his name was Fred. He said “Tip, you know I’ve got an idea. I think the Gunners are going to do the double“. He came to me with the idea and I went to Peter with the idea because I thought that Peter could do the music. I just came up with “I know and you know we’re shouting for the Gunners“. Then of course I’m an Arsenal supporter so it was easy for me to write the lyrics. Peters is a supporter too.
We just got together and we did the song and we sent it to all of the radio DJs that we knew supported Arsenal. Like George Kay and Jigs in all these guys from Choice. They all supported Arsenal so they started to play on the radio. Then London Records, Pete Tong and these guys, they heard it so they signed it. It started to blow up from there and it got to number 33 in the charts. We nearly made it on Top Of The Pops but George Graham wouldn’t let the team come on Top Of The Pops at the time. If they did that it would have shot up the charts but because they didn’t it stayed in the 30s. But was still an achievement. We all did a video together.
And are you still in touch with any of the players?
I know Ian Wright well. If I see him we have a chat but I haven’t spoken to any of the other guys – no.
As the 90s became the 2000s you started to meet and collaborate with some of your hip hop peers. Tell me about meeting KRS One…
I just met him once. Had a show in America. In Humboldt County I think it was, in the late 90s. I went to the gig and I met him and he shook off my hands and was like “Respect“. It was the same with Busta Rhymes. These guys have all got mad respect for us because in the 80s they were in their heyday and we were in our heyday. So the mutual respect is there.
What about Jurassic 5? How did that link happen?
Well Chali 2na is an admirer of mine. I think I went to one of their shows at the House of Blues in Los Angeles and Chali brought me out on stage. I just tapped up the mic and from that day we became friends. We did that tune called Come On together on one of his mixtapes and they asked me to do a tune on their latest album. We did this tune called Struggle and Chali and a couple of the other guys liked it but a couple of the other guys they weren’t feeling it, so it didn’t end up going on the album because two of the guys got outvoted. But that’s how it happened. Me and Chali became friends. We did a couple of recordings together and then we did some shows. When they come to the Academy sometimes I bring them out on stage.
In 2003 you appeared uncredited on the Grammy nominated Black Eyed Peas track Hey Mama. How did you meet will.i.am?
I was doing a tune with this producer called Motiv8. Motiv8 wanted me to do this tune with him and he’s got a studio in the same building as Will, so I was doing something for him and Will came by. He heard me and said “Who the hell is this guy?” I said “One day I’m going to have something for you“. And he said “Okay“. Then he called me and he played me the rhythm track to Hey Mama. So I just took it away, vibed it, came back and it made the album. (Laughs)
And then you heard you were nominated for a Grammy?
Yeah. That was amazing man. It was a nice experience.
Had you and him lost contact by then? I know you’ve said recently that you didn’t feel like you’ve got the credit you deserved.
I mean Will is a strange dude. He’s a very talented guy. Very gifted musician and artist. But sometimes over there, the way they treat people or how they talk to people is not my way, I am not like that. I don’t talk down to you because you work for me. I don’t disrespect you because I employ you. I don’t know if it’s an American thing or just people in general. That is why I am happy that I am self-employed because I work for myself…
So you don’t have to put up with strange behaviour because someone’s the boss?
Exactly. That’s what I found with Will. We’d just come off a plane and be getting to the bus and all of a sudden he doesn’t want to sit on the bus with us. So his manager would be like “Get in the bus fool!” And I’m thinking “Why doesn’t this guy just wanna sit down beside us on the bus?” And he’d be hating on Fergie but I am saying “Fergie is a woman. Guys want to sleep with her. Women want to be like her. You can’t compete with that bro. You’re not a woman.”
And then sometimes you’d see him and he’s cool. You’d sit down and you have a nice conversation. The other guys were cool. Taboo and the other brother there they were alright. I got on with them. Fergie was okay. But obviously Will calls the shots in the group. The other people are just “Yes people”. He’s the one that is dealing with the hierarchy. So I don’t have anything against the guy. I’d love to work with them again really because he’s in a position to deal with the hierarchy. You know me, Angus, man. I haven’t got anything against anybody but a lot of people – a lot of artists I could be around them – but I’m not like them. Because my mentality is not like that I’d rather keep away.
You can see certain parallels in the way the way the Assassin has appeared uncredited on tracks by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. It’s done good things for him but it’s like those artists are saying “Here’s a bit of Caribbean flavour on what I’m doing” rather than a collaboration.
Why? It is like everything with them has got to be business, down to them giving you a credit on a tune. Kendrick Lamar is one of the biggest hip-hop artists in America right now so Kendrick Lamar featuring Assassin – what difference is it going to make? Who is it going to hurt? All it’s going to do is get the people that like Kendrick Lamar to check out this guy Assassin. Simple.
Is it to do with American exceptionalism? Or is it just business?
Well that’s how they are. It’s like that. You have to remember there are people who don’t come out of America. They’ve never been outside the States. So they don’t know any better. If I go to America and do a reggae concert at the Dub Club in Los Angeles there aren’t any black people there. The black people that are there nine times out of ten you can count them on one hand or two hands. You might get about 20 but if Dub Club in LA is packed it is not packed with black people. And how many black people are there in Los Angeles? Thousands.
Because it is not a city with the Caribbean community. The community there have got their own thing?
It’s like guys saying “Oh man, he’s going to do some reggae. Wow“. I spoke to Rusty the other day. He lives in Texas now and he said “These people them, they’ve got no culture“. This is what I am saying. You would think that these are black people so reggae music should go together. But obviously they don’t look outward. We’re not speaking Spanish. We are speaking patois but it’s English still.
But also where does hip-hop come from?
It didn’t just grow one day in New York.
Tell me about how are you started your own production company – Lockdown Productions.
Well, it is just need – innit? You do things because of need a lot of the time. It’s like I could always be going to somebody and saying “Here’s my new album. Would you be interested in putting it out?” But sometimes you get to the point where you know what to do, so you just do it. Because of my gigs and royalties I am in a position to be able to fund myself. So I just do it myself. It is hard because a lot of the time you need a team of people to do it properly but I’ve linked with a lot of groups. Like I linked with Commander B and Flutie, Peter and myself to do Raggamuffin Girl. That would’ve been a good team but it fell down. All it takes is one bad apple or one person and then you think “No, I don’t want to be a part of that“.
And then linking even with Pato and Grantley, somebody does something and you think “You know what? This is not going to work“. And you move on again. A lot of the times these situations put their head up amongst us in the black community or just people coming together in general to try to do something to step forward.There are times throughout my career where I have linked up with people to do things and because you’re not the only person at the helm of the thing you have to move on because it’s not working out for you or it’s not just right.
That’s why I started my own thing. Because now I call the shots. I can make the decisions that I feel are right. It’s hard because you try to help people but people also need to help themselves. A lot of artists haven’t got that drive to do that. Even though I’ve been in the business a long time you’re still learning about people. You have to learn how people are and how people see themselves or value themselves. And if people haven’t got that drive like you it is very difficult. But that’s the reason why I started Lockdown because I wanted to have my own identity and call my own shots.
Who taught you about things like registering your songs, royalties and all those things?
The music union. I went to the music union, I became a member. This was probably soon after Hello Darling. Because of Greensleeves, Chris Sedgwick and we had Grantley as well. One thing about GT I have to give him, is we set up our own publishing. A company called Lift Money which was run through Greensleeves. We had our own publishing company from an early age so we knew that is where the funds were. We had to set up that so that we could register with the PPL, the Performing Rights Society and all these organisations. There is no point in doing all of this product and not seeing anything down at the backend. It is important to register your stuff.
So after you got big in the 80s with Hello Darling you still had Saxon. There was always that dimension. What happened, did you leave Saxon in the end?
If you’re getting hit tunes you’ve got to go out there and promote these tunes. And that’s what was happening with me. Saxon was like a ground you could go back to and get your training or go back to your roots if you like. But the sound wasn’t run like a business. So I couldn’t stay there.
It’s like asking Maxi the same question – “Why didn’t you stay around the sound?” Because the business, the people that were in control of that just don’t have the right vision to take the thing to the next level.
So was there a point where you parted company? You still appear with them at Notting Hill carnival sometimes…
It wasn’t really that I parted company because I am still working with the sound today. Last year I did something at the carnival and then I went to Rototom with them. But I kind of parted because I had Hello Darling so I was doing that but I still come back to the sound, but then you had Raggamuffin Girl, Superwoman, Stress this one and that one. See you getting all these hits so you’re just going to do Tippa Irie.
But it is the business aspect of it that just wasn’t feasible. If you look at sounds like Shaka. Shaka has an agent, Nicky Culture. Nicky takes care of his bookings and he just turns up and plays his role which is to be Jah Shaka. If you get a manager you need the manager to manage. If you have an agent your agent books your shows. And as the performer you liaise with your agent and your manager and you provide your service which is to perform and deliver. With Saxon it’s not like that.
Tell me about your connections in Germany. You had a link to Gentleman that led to you recording with the Far East band doing your album Stick To My Roots. You’ve crossed into many different genres, hip-hop, jungle but this was a landmark album in terms of roots and culture, more singing – a whole other side to you.
Gentleman was a guy that used to come to my shows in Germany and jump up on the stage and say “Give me the mic! Give me the mic!” so I used to give him the mic. We just became friends and me and his brother and Stephan Schulmeister who was his manager became really good friends. From there we made that connection. The band, I was in Los Angeles doing some shows and then I met them at Long Beach Arena. They used to keep big Bob Marley Day festivals at Long Beach Arena.
I saw Marco Baresi the drummer and he said “Tip man, I have got some rhythms” and I said “Okay brother, send me the rhythms“. The first that he sent me was the Stick To My Roots rhythm and I said to myself “Anything that comes into my head I am going to go with that“. And everything just clicked and I heard “Stick to my roots, stick to my roots” and boom it just came. I sent him that and he said “Yes, Tippa! Wicked!” and I said “Send me what else you’ve got“. He just kept sending me tunes and I wrote the songs and then we met in Germany to mix the album together.
But Gentlemen, he’s a good artist. I like him. Sometimes they forget but, hey! You just keep moving. A lot of them, they could give you a little help with certain things, but good luck to him. He’s doing well. He chose to spend his money in Jamaica and it worked for him. I have reached out to him a couple of times in the past and said “Brother – make we do a couple of tunes together?” But I don’t hear anything. So it’s like “Hey, cool“. It’s all good.
Around that time you also did some work in musical theatre.
Yeah, I love theatre.
Given your skill set, was getting involved in drama something you could have done when you were young – if things had gone a different way?
Yeah! I just think I was a bit frightened of acting because my reading wasn’t the best. But I did like it. I did a couple of plays like The Magic Dutch Pot where Janet Kay was the Queen and I was the King. That was cool. I do love theatre and my friend Lorna G she is in theatre now. She’s made a career for herself in the theatre. I know I could do it because I know how to think on my feet if I make a mistake and I’m used to the stage.
It’s just because my reading wasn’t the greatest, that kind of put me off. Because obviously I can write and practise my songs but theatre sometimes when you go to the audition you’ve got to read and it’s not easy. If somebody writes something with me in mind then I’ll do that. What I could do is probably just take the script away and just rehearse my parts and go back and read. But sometimes when you go to these auditions they just want you to read something off the bat. I could read it but then it’s getting into that character and reading at the same time.
Tell me a bit about your recent work with Prince Fatty and the Skints and that whole kind of scene?
Where did I meet Prince Fatty? Where did I meet Mike? I think it was mainly through Horseman that I kind of linked with him.
Horseman was briefly in an incarnation of Reggae Regular like Patrick Donegan back in the 80s…
That’s right, yeah! It through Horseman that I linked with Fatty and through Fatty I linked with the Skints. Because what happened we all went to Thailand together so I became friends with the Skints. They asked me to do a couple of tunes on their latest album FM so I agreed and we went down to Fatty’s studio in Brighton. That’s where that connection came. He had to pull the studio down didn’t he? Because they wanted to double the rent.
You’ve also been working with some of your colleagues in the jungle scene as the UK All-Stars…
The UK All-Stars is an idea that came from Rebel MC – Congo Natty. And it consists of Daddy Freddy, Tippa Irie, Sweetie Irie, Tenor Fly, Top Cat, General Levy and Rebel MC himself. We got together to do a track for his album, Jungle Revolution. That tune UK All-Stars was the biggest jungle tune of that year. We had a couple of festivals, Boomtown Fair and whatever and so when we made the video we did the follow-up single. Recently we’ve got together last month to do an album. We’ve done the album now vocally so it’s just for Rebel MC now to finish the product. It’s coming in the New Year.
And you’re also doing some ensemble work with your original colleagues the Saxon MCs.
Basically it is just us five MCs, the Famous Five as we called ourselves back then. We’re getting back together to do a tour with Trevor Sax. We’ve got some songs that we’ve done from back in the day and we’re going to revamp them and get them out, then go on tour. So before October, it’s my job to get the first single ready. Then we’re going to tour London, Bristol, Nottingham and hopefully Scotland, Ramsgate and Birmingham as well. We just going to do a little tour of the UK.
You’ve also got some music coming with Scientist. He was another Greensleeves artist for better or worse!
Well Scientist and me met in America, in Los Angeles. He is in California so I linked with him at the Dub Club in in LA.
Through Tom Chasteen.
Yeah that’s right. Scientist was playing there so I went on stage and did Rebel On The Roots Corner with him and another artist called Tippa Lee. I like his album, it’s not bad. And they filmed it and it went on YouTube and I got a really good response. They said “Tip, we’re getting really good feedback! Maybe you and Scientist should do some shows“. So I recorded two songs for his new project. They sent me the Fat Ting rhythm which is similar to the Sleng Teng and Money Money, the Horace Andy. I need to send them the a cappellas actually. I’m going to send that today. Then hopefully they’re going to make that project and maybe in November I should be doing some shows with him.
So let’s talk about your album Living The Dream. The cover shows you flying on US currency!
The artwork was done by my friend Tracy Treacle. I had a lot of ideas and a couple of people sent me suggestions. But when I saw that it kind of reminded me of the clouds like I was having a dream of me being this character, an MC, a rapper making loads of dough and Living The Dream. So the concept of Living The Dream is just the reality of my life at the minute. Because at the end of the day I am living my dream because I am happy. I am content at the moment. I’ve got through some personal issues which were very painful but I got certain people out of my life which is making me feel more at peace.
I am making music. I am financially secure, whereby I can live off my music which I have done most of my life. I’ve got my retirement place in Jamaica where I can go and chill. I’ve got a good place, good family, everything is stable in my relationship, everything is pretty cool. I am in a good place so I’m living my dream. I am happy. And once I’m doing music and travelling I don’t want any more than that.
My favourite track is Ebola with General Levy because it uses the Derrick Morgan Kill Me Dead rhythm.
Yeah! That’s Baker! JB Baker built that rhythm. John is like my engineer. General Levy came to visit me to do some dubs and once I get people around like that I’ll say “We’ve got to do a tune“. Ebola was the topic of the day. All of a sudden it’s disappeared again but it was the topic of the time so I said “Yeah man, make we write a lyric about Ebola” so that’s what we did and we put it together. I am pretty happy with that tune.
You’ve also done a soca tune on the album – Big Jamaican Man.
That’s with Safiyah. She is from St Vincent and the producer, my engineer he is from Grenada. Most of the album was written in Jamaica at the house and we just said “Let’s do a soca tune“. Because John, the producer of the tune, he has had a couple of tunes that have been on Road March in Grenada. I used always say “Vincy!” because she’s from St Vincent and she’d say “Yes, big Jamaican man!” So I said “Yes, that’s the tune!”
Recently in the media there have been a few things about dancehall versus soca and the different islands friction with Jamaica. What’s your take on that?
I don’t get involved. I haven’t really been paying any mind at all. I just think we are one people. Caribbean is Caribbean. There are different vibes in each island. Different mentalities. Because Barbados is completely different from Jamaica. I just think it’s a lot of childishness really. Good music is good music no matter where it comes from. We should just embrace each other as people and embrace each other’s music. That’s it.
And just give people credit. It’s like the Vegas thing [about Drake not crediting dancehall artists]. Just give people credit for what they do! Why is it such a big deal not to give somebody credit for what they do? It’s like they want to take all of the glory for themselves! It’s all about me! It’s all about I! People, they don’t respect, man a lot of people are in it for the money. It is a business. They don’t really care about the art. Because if they did I would announce shows and they just sell out. I am not blowing my own trumpet but I know I’m good at what I do.
The single for this album is Big People Now. What’s the concept behind that?
I am 50 now so we’re the big people now. Basically is just saying what a lot of people say conversation “Boy, Tip, we are the big people now. We have to show them the youths of them the right way“. “We have to show them right from wrong. How to be firm and strong. Show them discipline for each other. Show them how to love one another.” We as the big people need to show the youths discipline and how to love one another and how to care for one another in a community vibe.
We can’t leave it for them. It’s not our parents anymore. Our parents’ time is up. It is our time now because all our kids are having kids and all our kids have grown up. My youngest is 19. We’re the big people now. The video should be here soon. The album is out now on all of the portals. The CDs are here. The video should be out on 20th June.
Can you say a few words about your mother and sister who are in the photographs on the wall and what they meant to you?
Well my mum passed away in 2013. She was the backbone of my family. I was upset with the NHS because I don’t like the way they deal with the elders. They’ve worked in this country for years and paid their taxes and when it comes for them to be repaid, to be looked after, they just don’t. That kind of upset me the way they deal with the elders when they feel like there’s nothing they can do for them. It’s like they just try to finish them off. But you know my mum was the reason why I’m in this place now. She is the reason and the backbone of the family.
My sister Avril was my little partner in crime. And sometimes you have little regrets because sometimes I feel like I should have had her under my wing everywhere with me. But because of budget or whatever it is not always feasible. And they get side-tracked into the wrong company sometimes. She had some nice guys that were probably going on the right path but sometimes they pick up a guy that is not going that way and you want them to say “Let’s go this way because that way is the path to wherever“. That is what happened with her. So it’s very painful when I look at the pictures and think of how she died and what for? To this day we still don’t really know what really was behind it all? But it’s just painful. You’ve just got to go on.
My dad, he was just a bit stubborn because he went to Jamaica and he was selling his food outside. He slept outside overnight, he’d wake up in the morning and sell his food. It caught up with him, he neglected himself and then the demise happened. Right now, these three people are very dear to me and I miss them. But what can you do? You’ve just got to crack on. Just get on with life and do what you have to do. And that’s what I do. I am still in a good place. It could be worse. There are a lot of people that can’t even walk.
Or they never knew their family…
Exactly. I have got memories. I can look at my Mum and smile and say “Mum, I am doing this you know?” She’d probably be saying “Tony! What are you doing with studio in my living room?” And Miss Irie? Sometimes we shed a little tear, Angus, man. Because it’s stupid. People, they just don’t think. They just don’t think, they do things and then they think about the consequences after they’re in jail. What’s the point of that?
You’ve been on the earth for over half a century. Are you still that cheeky chappy at heart?
(Pauses) Yeah, in some senses. A lot of the time I still got that rebellious bit that comes out. Like the tune on the album Motherland. “Step it out of Babylon, we have to move it“. Because there’s so much that is wrong with the system that we’re living in. How people are treated. Whether it be through the NHS, through the council tax. That’s what I was just sending off today. Because I pay the rent and my son pays the council tax. He must’ve forgot to pay something straight away, and, no reminder, I got a summons to court. £122. So instead of sending a reminder, saying “Mr Henry two months have gone by. If you don’t pay, we are going to take you to court“… No, straight to court. So he’s paid it now but I have to write a letter about the £122.
My final question is one that is going to be difficult to answer. I have watched you when you start a show and get the crowd on the side. Now, some artists from the 90s artists like Anthony B or Sizzla you can see the technique that they use. You hear their voice from offstage and everyone gets excited and then they come running on. But when you go on stage you start talking and you get the crowd onside immediately. There is no specific thing you do. How does it work?
What I do, I have learned over the years. You learn from people. You learn from your peers. But then, it’s just connecting. It’s just finding things to get the audience to join in with you. They feel like a part of what’s going on, on the stage. It’s difficult to say what the technique is. It is just that. It’s just connecting with them and getting them involved.