Exclusive: Speaking to The Independent for Windrush 75, the musician born Anthony Henry speaks with Nadine White about staying successful over a four-decade career, racism in Britain and his new biography Stick To My Roots.
I guess I have two heads," Tippa Irie says, of his personas in private and the public eye. "When I'm on stage, I transform into Tippa Irie who is more courageous and confident, if you like. Whereas Anthony Henry is a bit more reserved and shy. When I'm not performing, that's who I am."
Tippa is the man who helped to popularise the "fast chat" style of emceeing in the UK dancehall scene. His was an original sound: cheeky, conversational lyrics about everything from love to social justice, delivered with astute, contemplative flair over pulsing rhythms.
Armed with charisma and imagination, not to mention a formidable stage presence that puts him in a league of his own, Tippa has been hailed by music legends including Yellowman and Peter Metro. In reggae scenes around the world, he is revered as a pioneer.
Throughout his illustrious career, Tippa has collaborated with a number of global artists. You might have heard him on "Hey Mama" by US group the Black Eyed Peas in 2004, for which he earned a Grammy nomination. Maybe you've heard his collaborations with Jurassic 5, soul icon Alexander O'Neal, the Far East Band and Congo Natty, aka Rebel MC.
It's not surprising, then, that the 58-year-old is inundated by fans as he sits down for an interview in Brixton, the south-London district that welcomed his Jamaican parents after they migrated to England in the Sixties. "Tippa, I just have to shake your hand. Legend," one nervous fan tells him. "Tippa, big up yourself!" says another. "Long time, Tippa," one old pal says, greeting him. "How are you?"
Brixton is where Tippa created his first track, aged 17, before joining Saxon Studio International, an iconic south London sound system responsible for launching the careers of Maxi Priest and Smiley Culture, to name a few. At its peak, this collective was The Beatles of UK dancehall. Tippa enjoyed an explosion in success during the Eighties, as he and his Saxon peers were courted by labels including Island Records, Greensleeves, and Virgin Records.
After signing a recording contract with Greensleeves in 1984, Tippa released a string of hits including "Good To Have That Feeling", "You're The Best", "Complain Neighbour" and "Hello Darling", which hit No 1 on the UK reggae chart and crossed over to Number 22 on the UK Top 40 Chart.
He has gone on to tour across all seven continents around the world and in between, captivating crowds and releasing numerous tracks over the years including more recent offerings "I'm An African", "Flat Foot Hustle" and "Hot Like Fire".
Yet, for all his success, Tippa comes across as unassuming and laid back, as we chat over chicken wings, fried plantain and orange juice in a Jamaican restaurant on "the ends". Soul music plays softly in the background, while the glare of J Wray & Nephew rum bottles bounces off Tippa's brown skin and against the reflection of a mirror on the wall.
Dressed in a black Adidas tracksuit, he is frank and down-to-earth, regaling me with tales of his busy day, which has included shooting an interview for a forthcoming documentary, and a swimming session at a David Lloyd fitness centre.
When Celeste and Stephen Henry stepped off of the plane in 1963 for a new life in Britain, neither knew that their only son would go on to become one of the country's most renowned music artists.
Perhaps it should have come as less of a surprise; after all, the Henry family is a musical one. Tippa started his musical career as a teenager on his father's sound system, Musical Messiah in the 1970s.
The senior Mr Henry ran a greengrocers shop just off Brixton's Coldharbour Lane by day and hosted shubeen parties by night.
Meanwhile, Tippa's older sister Jacqui would perform at gigs at legendary jazz venue Ronnie Scotts, as a member of the band Metropolis, while his late younger sister Avril, who went by the name "Miss Irie", was also an MC who regularly performed with her older brother. She died in 1999.
Tippa's own music career was sparked by rave reviews from his schoolmates after he performed chatting lyrics in a school assembly when he was 15. Word of the sleepy-eyed teen's talent spread, and he began to enter competitions around Brixton. Many of the local sound systems in the area also recognised his talent and invited him to perform on their platform. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not everyone immediately envisioned the heights to which Tippa's talent would propel him. After his father retired to Jamaica in 1981, when his son was 16, he was amazed to see Tippa performing onstage six years later at Reggae Sunsplash, a leading festival or 'stage show' in the country at the time.
"My mum was always supportive of my career," Tippa says. "She'd ask, 'Why are you always sitting down writing lyrics?' I replied, 'Mum, you will see.' When 'Hello Darling' came out, then mum saw me on Top of The Pops. She said, 'I get it now.'"
Following the success of "Hello Darling", Tippa bought his mother a house. "I was always confident that I'd make it in the business," he says. "I believed in myself."
The pioneering Windrush migrants brought with them an effervescent energy and the unique sounds of the Caribbean. This didn't just influence the UK music scene…it transformed the sector altogether.
New arrivals like Tippa's parents carried with them Jamaica's sound system culture and a fusion of creative influences that eventually birthed quintessential Black British genres, from UK lovers rock to homegrown iterations of Jamaican dancehall. Newer genres such as grime music would follow decades later.
Faced with chronic discrimination, alienation from wider British society and a lack of access to mainstream broadcast platforms, the Windrush migrants and their children had the fortitude to develop a sense of community and preserve their culture through music.
And, for those who were present to witness Black Britain in the Seventies and Eighties, it seemed that a reggae industry was beginning to thrive through the production of music, formation of labels, launching of record shops, importing of records from Jamaica and staging of events for Black Britons by Britons.
In 2023, such an industry does not exist. Few venues consistently host Black events, and even fewer are Black-owned; reggae and dancehall music is marginalised in commercial spaces. Many of the great artists of yesteryear, who came up with Tippa, have long been forced to either give up music or perform on evenings and weekends, alongside their 9-5 jobs. Where many of them should be millionaires and household names, not many people outside of Black communities know who they are. So what happened?
"Racism," Tippa says, without hesitation. "That's the reason. As Black British artists of my generation, it's difficult for us because we're here and our tunes are not being played on the radio stations that pay money. Even "Silly Games" by Janet Kay or "Hopelessly in Love" by Carroll Thompson don't get played on Smooth or Magic, but you may hear a Bob Marley."
He continues: "The people at the helm of these stations don't respect our music. You can't tell me that if they play 'Sexual Healing' by Marvin Gaye, they can't play a smooth Don Campbell, Lloyd Brown, Peter Hunnigale or Bitty McLean track.
"If we got played on these stations, we'd have more money and power. Evidently, this isn't what gatekeepers want. Even when there was a reggae industry, the mainstream didn't support us. Our music is just as good as any other genre…so why isn't it getting played on the radio?"
He quotes an old saying: "If you get airplay, you get a lot of say."
"The reason why a lot of artists are broke is because of this lack of support," he says. "We need to have a fair playing field, so that listeners can judge for themselves, the kind of music they want to hear.
"A lot of time, if you don't get played on these stations, it's harder to tour. It's sad, and depressing that institutional racism – that's what it is – has brought about this situation. The people in England don't really support their own; this is not our country, really, as Black people.
"Then when we go to Jamaica or the US, they're not paying us no mind there either. I'm one of the lucky ones and I'm grateful because I'm still managed to survive."
Four decades down the line and over a dozen studio albums later, Tippa is still able to live off of music on a full-time basis, collecting publishing cheques, operating a recording studio, voicing dubplates, touring and releasing new music. He also runs his own production company, Lockdown.
As the UK celebrates the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush shop on Britain shores in 1948, many people of Black Caribbean heritage describe the occasion as "bittersweet", while victims of the Windrush scandal are still waiting for compensation.
"It's a shame because there's so much money being wasted in this country – the PPE scandal, billions on Brexit – but the government can't give some of those billions of pounds to the people that came here to help build it," he says.
"That's just another reason why I'd never accept an MBE. I can't relate to this country when it comes to our people, Black people, because we're always getting the rough end of the stick because it's not our country. We're the minority here and maybe if we had a bit more unity amongst ourselves too, we might be a bit further along.
"Still, when it comes to Windrush Day, we have to big up our mums, dads, grandparents; they put up with a lot when they came here, so that we can be here doing what we're doing."
The Windrush scandal brought into sharp focus a dilemma that many Black Britons feel: where to truly regard as 'home'. Is it the land in which you were born, and can evidently be expelled from under certain circumstances, or the land of your parents' birth?
"Us Black Brits, because we're not accepted in England and then when we go to our parents' birth countries, we are still regarded as foreigners," Tippa summarizes.
"I really love Jamaica. I love the food, the tropics, the weather…but as much as it is like home, it's still not because I am not from there. It's difficult."
Tippa describes his new biography, Stick To My Roots, out in August, as a "history lesson" that breaks down his life and times to date in intricate detail, from soaring to the top of the industry to dodging bullets as villains stuck up his performances in gritty, New York-based dances.
It's certainly been quite the journey.
"Focusing on my craft, investing in myself and putting my energies into what I do has enabled me to survive in the music industry for 40 years," the artist says.
"I've managed to be disciplined when it comes to writing songs, who I work with, how I treat people – you treat people how you want to be treated yourself. A lot of people get sidetracked, whether it be by drugs, alcohol, women or whatever. Sometimes these things present themselves and, if or when that happens, you have to be disciplined and know that's gonna mess up what you're doing."
We all make mistakes, he points out, and we've all done things that we regret. "But it's important to be disciplined," he says, "because it will carry you a long way."