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Prince Hammer - Interview

  by Adam Coxon

published: 9 / 9 / 2020

Prince Hammer - Interview

Pioneering Jamaican DJ, singer and producer Prince Hammer chats to Adam Coxon about his storied career and his experiences working with luminaries from the worlds of dub, reggae and punk.


Prince Hammer is a truly original artist. Born Berris Simpson in Kingston, Jamaica, Berris recorded the songs, 'Tel-Aviv Rock' and 'A Whole Lotta Sugar' under his own name with legendary producer Glen Brown before adopting the Prince Hammer moniker. He had his own record shop on Orange Street, Jamaica as well as running a fleet of other businesses at the same time and sustaining a career of one of Reggae music's most interesting visionaries. Hammer was unique in the fact that not only would he sing on the records but he would also produce them and distribute them himself. His 1979 album, 'World War Dub Part 1' is now seen as a truly legendary Dub record. Adam Coxon went to meet Prince Hammer to hear how his walk landed him a part in legendary Jamaican movie, 'Rockers' and how his energetic stage show and style caught the attention of Lee 'Scratch' Perry and The Clash. PB: How did you get into deejaying on the Vee Jay sound system? PH: I was born and raised in Central Kingston itself. Where I lived, Vee Jay, the Dub master lived in the following street from my lane. We lived close by. Each community had its own sound system, I watched them play and I introduced myself. I got myself involved and started using his mic. That’s where it start up. PB: How did you progress from there to getting to work with Glen Brown? PH: In the community where I lived, there were a few artists that lived on the same lane. I lived on Foster Lane. Freddie Mackay and Glen Brown. Every so often you'd see Eek-a-Mouse. So I'd known Glen Brown for many, many years as a boy growing up in the community itself. Seeing him and knowing that he's an artist, I've always admired him. Freddie Mackay too. PB: Glen had already been working with Gregory Isaacs and Little Roy at the time. Did you know those guys too? P: I know Gregory Isaacs very well, he's like my right hand. Little Roy, he's a great friend of mine. I recorded him about two years ago now. I did a track with him that I've not released yet because I'm gonna put that on a Various Artists album that I'm putting together with various different artists from Jamaica and here. I was with him last year at the Big Western Club in London and we had a link up there. I sent him the rhythm for him to voice it and he sent it back to me. It's gonna be for a various artists album with Fred Locks, Al Campbell, Sylvia Teller, a whole variation of artists. PB: You started off deejaying and singing, how did you get into producing? PH : I start off in 1976. Glen Brown is the person who recorded my first songs, 'Sugar Down Da' and 'Tel Aviv Rock' as Berris Simpson, my real name. Glen Brown took me to King Tubby’s studio where I voiced my first songs. I saw him and I said, 'Yo Glen, you know something, I've got some lyrics. I'd like to try a thing'. Glen said, 'The next time I see you, we'll talk about it'. So, when I saw him the next time, I shout him again and we talked and went to King Tubby's studio. That was the first time I heard the rhythms, the very first time and I voiced it one time and done! I voiced two songs at the same time. Then Glen gave me one of his rhythms, I voiced that and that rhythm that he gave me, I started doing my own thing with it. I started producing my own songs. That's where everything started, from that one rhythm that Glen Brown gave to me. I built, 'King of Kings' and 'Addis Ababa'. Those are my first two rhythms that I properly built. Glen Brown gave me some money towards it too and I put my bit towards it. Those were my first ever production songs. PB: One of my favourite of all of your productions is the Rod Taylor album, 'If Jah Should Come Now'. PB: That's an excellent album. We both write that album together. In those times, we used to be on Idlers' Rest. Chancery Lane we called Idler's Rest. If you come from England or America and you want to find the artists, you have to go to that lane. You have Randy's record shop one side, you have African Museum which is Gregory Isaacs' shop, the Technics shop and you have Joe Gibbs' shop. Everything is just there. You'd find 60 or 70 artists just on the lane and everyone interacted with each other. Those were good times and that's how I met Rod Taylor on that corner. He was a part of that crew, the body of people that used to be there, so we had a good time. One time I said to him, 'OK Rod, I feel like recording you, let's put it together’. We sat in my house and we wrote all these lyrics and I took him to Channel One Studio where I built the full album. It was like Sly and Robbie and all those guys. At the time they called themselves revolutionaries. Ansell Collins and all those guys. It was a body of people who you would go to if you wanted to build a rhythm. You knew that if you went to them they would come up with something excellent. So that's where I built my rhythm with these guys. I gave it to Adrian Sherwood and Little Luke and they put it out. It went straight to Number 1 on the black echo chart and stayed there for six or seven weeks, Number 1! And the single, 'If Jah Should Come Now', that was Number 1 also for about five or six weeks. The album turned out to be an excellent album. From that album, I produced my album called, 'World War Dub'. Some of the rhythms on that album are from the Rod Taylor sessions plus a couple of added ones. That was Number 1 too. PB: Where did the name Prince Hammer come from? PH: In those days, you used to have names like Clint Eastwood and Josey Wales. We used to name ourselves after these stars. John Wayne and all these people. That's how the Jamaican artists used to do it at the time. They used to name themselves after these movie stars but I used to call myself my proper name. My brother Willie Lindo said to me, 'You need to change your name man! Call yourself Prince Hammer!' That's how the name Prince Hammer came! PB: You were quite revolutionary yourself in the respect that you did everything yourself. You wrote the songs, you sang the songs, produced them and distributed them yourself in your own shop on Orange St. What was it like managing it all yourself? PH: Well, it was a lot of work to do. I had bars, restaurants and a big grocery shop too. I was running a lot of different businesses plus the record shop on Orange St. The record shop was designed so that when people come in, they're gonna get educated. I set it up that way so that when young kids and the like come in, there's something educational on the wall for them. To get interactive with. The steps coming up to the shop, on each step there's an artist's name. On each step going straight up there's a different artist's name. It was really a good shop. When I was running the shop and it was really going fine, I came to England and was doing other stuff. Working with Adrian Sherwood from Hit and Run Records. I met him through Prince Far-I and I sent him a box full of vinyl. I wanted to license my tapes. In those days we used to have a little bag and put it over our shoulder and go from record shop to record shop and sometimes go for miles. We'd leave three records in one shop, six in another. Sale or return. Prince Far-I and I came together. My shop was called Prince Hammer Records but we came together and I gave him the position of manager of my shop and I changed it to Prince and Prince Records. It was getting a lot of attention. PB: What was the idea of having several different labels instead of releasing everything on one label? PH: Many times I said that to myself! The best way to go was to have one label and everything would have just been there. For some reason, I start off with Mount Zion label etc. and a lot of different labels came along the way. If you notice, most of my labels are about girls. They're all named after girls or some girl I had something to do with before. I like to give them respect. I name my labels after them because they are the light of the world. They are the strength of the world, so I always give them the preference. I have a label called Melinda. That was for my ex-wife. Most of my labels are named after ladies. That's how the business goes. PB: How did you come to be involved in the film, 'Rockers'? PH : I moved from the South side to the West Side. I met up with Little John, Ranking Tie and Super Black. All of the guys lived right in the community where I moved into where my gran lived. I'm near Selassie Drive. I started to have a good time, everything started to develop properly. My name was all over the place and I was doing very well when it came to the music. One day, we just cooked some food with these guys and we headed into town to Randy's record shop. The producers from ‘Rockers’ movie were there. Dirty Harry, Horsemouth, they were there. The way I walk, I'm a real stepper. I walk with a swagger and they saw that walk. They said, 'Wow, who's that?' Dirty Harry said, 'That's Prince Hammer'. From the way I was seen walking, they had a spot in the movie for me. There was loads of other people in the shop. Randy's Records is a top shop for selling 45 records. They just loved my walk. They said, 'Can you come and meet us tomorrow at the Sheridan Hotel?' I went to the Sheridan Hotel the next day and signed the contract ready to start filming. Some guys were talking about the movie on Facebook the other night and they were saying it's the greatest movie to come out of Jamaica. Both of them were giving it that accolade. It's an iconic movie. There are loads of films that come out of Jamaica but ‘Rockers’ stands out in the crowd. PB: It's nice to see some footage of Jacob Miller as well. PH: He was my close friend man. Close, close friend. He was fun. A big guy but everything that came out of him was good. I just loved the guy but he went. Life is like that. PB: You are a message writer and singer. One of the purest messages I heard in one of your songs is when you were expressing that people are the reflection of their parents. When you go out into the world, be good and be kind to people because you are representing your parents. What do you think is the most important message that you've written about? PH: Humanity itself. There's so much bad reflection on people themselves. People just don't have any time for each other. It's exhausting the way that people behave. There's so much compromise with people sometimes and then no compromise other times, it broke my heart. I just preach love because I'm a Rasta. I'm a Rasta man, I see everyone as equal, as a unit. We're all one unit. Doesn't make any difference if you're white or black, it's irrelevant to life. Your heart beats the same way. You might not think the same way because we all have different minds and thoughts, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't interact in the right and proper way. I grew with my grandmother, she's been gone a long time now. I've learned a lot just being around her. As a little boy I used to go to Church every Sunday. I've learned a lot of good more than a lot of bad. When you grow with your grandmother and when you grow with your mum, it's a lot of different feelings. Your grandmother nurtures you and makes sure you do the right thing. With your mum you can get away with things but your grandmother you don't! She will always put you back on the right track. You learn from that. You learn naturally so that when you go into the wider world you need to accept people for who they are. In Jamaica, you might do something on the street and the neighbours on the street was say, 'I'll be reporting this to your grandmother tomorrow! I will see Miss Ruby tomorrow and I'll have a talk with her about what you did.' And when you go home tomorrow, you get a clip around the ear! The times when you get clipped is when you're not really expecting it. It's like dinnertime, when they call you to come for dinner and you're sat at the table. You can't run, you can't hide! You learn to respect and to treat life with respect. To show and give love. A lot of my songs are about love. Whether it's a Rasta song or a romantic song about girls or whatever it might be. The love factor always has to be there. This is what we need to generate. PB: In 2018, you released a track called, '400 Years of Slavery'. That track seems more important than ever at the moment given everything that's going on in the world. How did the track come about? PH: At about 3/4 in the morning one night I was laying there and these ideas came to me. I started to write some lyrics. I was trying to sleep and other ideas came to me. I went to Earthman Studios in Manchester and that's where I built the rhythm and voiced it there. I sent it to Kingston Connection Records in France. PB: How come you moved to Manchester? PH: I was living in London. When I came here in the early days, I was living in London with my wife and kids. This never went the right and proper way. When the Brixton riots were happening, I sent her a track from Jamaica called, 'Brixton Trail and Crosses'. I was going to open a shop in London and start a business down there. I went to America and lost my passport and then I had problems in Jamaica. With the elections and things that were happening, no-one could leave the country. The riots started over here in Brixton when I was in Jamaica. Johnny Osbourne did a song called, 'Ice Cream Love'. I built a copy of the same rhythm but I didn't know that Johnny Osbourne song was on that rhythm. I sent a copy of that track to her and during my time in London I introduced her to Johnny Osbourne, they got to be friends. So, I sent back that track to her and she put it out. Johnny Osbourne song went in a number 1 and my one went in at number 2. I couldn't move Johnny Osbourne off the number 1 spot for about 6/7 weeks in the Black Echoes charts. A lot of people did go out and buy that song. PB: One of the most interesting things about your career is that you've constantly evolved and changed up your style over the years. You've done roots, dancehall, lovers, soul music and then things like 'Gangster Love' which is totally different. Is that because you're interested in different aspects of the music? PH: Okay, I'm a roots artist. Definitely a roots artist but sometimes I've got other friends who've got different tastes. They want to hear something more relaxed instead of getting deeper in the mindset about slavery or the depression or whatever it might be. So sometimes instead of doing of deeper roots song, I'll do a lovers song, 'Kiss me up, hug me up' or whatever it might be. I've got other fans, not just one set of fans. I sing for the girls and I sing for the boys. You get a variety in my songs. Most people see me as a roots artist. If you listen to the, 'Back For More' album, it's a broad type of soul, R n’ B type of stuff. Most of those tracks is about my wife and my four kids here in Manchester. I'm singing most of those songs to express myself to her. I'm just trying to keep on the right track with you. That's what I felt at the time. PB: To build a track, how long will you have to be in the studio for? PH: It depends. If you're building a live track, it depends how many tracks you're building. I'll book the studio for a day or six hours or something and you can maybe build two or three tracks. I play some of the instruments but not all of them. Most of my songs have been built by guys that are studio session guys. PB: How did you come to work with The Clash and The Slits? PH: I came over here and did a tour called Roots and Counter Part 1 with Prince Far-I and Bim Sherman for Adrian Sherwood. We did all of the Dingwall circuit, right up to Scotland and then to Holland. Then back to England. During that tour at Camden Town, we met The Clash because they came to the shows. That's how I met The Slits, The Boomtown Rats, The Clash, Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious. These guys used to come to all of these shows. Punk used to really get involved with reggae. It was a part of reggae life. They take to the music so good and love it. If you notice a lot of punk rockers made reggae song themselves. I ended up touring with UB40 and that was another good experience. Prince Far-I had a thunder voice. I'm like a stage act. I play like a judge, a soldier, I do all of these little plays on stage and then I start my show. I'm like a stage man. Bim Sherman was cool, like a Gregory Isaacs type of singer. Effective. That's how those guys chose me to tour with them. Don Cherry, Neneh Cherry's dad, I toured with him too. PB: Just because it's so good, can you tell me the story about Clancy Eccles giving you your first live show? PH: I'd just come into the business and I was trying to get to know all of these guys. I'd go up to Bunny Lee's shop and I'd see Johnny Clarke and all of these other big stars there. I tried to get to know these guys. I was trying to push myself. If I was good around them then I would learn the way that the music business would go. That's how I met Clancy Eccles. He said he put on a show at Gaiety Theatre and he said he was gonna put me on the bill. This is my first time that I'm ever gonna go on a stage. The theatre was rammed with people and I'm the opening act. I went onstage and I start singing, 'It's not everyday we're gonna be the same way. There must be a change somehow...' That's a Dennis Brown song and it's close to my heart. I went on stage and I did that song. The place went crazy! When I was singing the song, I realised there was no spotlight, no pretty lights. Where's my light?! I stopped the music and I said, 'Could you please shine the spotlight on me'. The crowd went wild! That's my first show. That was an excellent night. My first experience of being onstage, it was really powerful. Clancy said, 'I can see what you've done. I've got another show coming up at Carib Theatre and I'm going to put you on the bill'. A bigger theatre now. The Rolls Royce of theatres, up in the market! I'm young, I'm fresh, I'm supple, I used to dance, foot shuffle, split. I used to throw my microphone up in the air, spin around and catch it. A real stageman! This is the second time I'm gonna go onstage. These are things I've seen other artists do onstage before. I was learning before by just being in the audience by noticing how these artists were onstage. I went on stage and I really strike up the theatre, I'm really got them going. When I came off the stage, I was walking and there was about four guys standing at the column, I was passing them and one of them said, 'Hey man, come here man, come here man'. I went over to him and he said, 'What's your name?!' I said, 'It's Prince Hammer'. He said, 'Listen man, you are the best stage man I've ever seen for many a year.' The person who said that to me, I don't know him! He was a big star but I never met him before. I walked away because I wanted to get my accolades. There was loads of people in the theatre. So I walked away I was talking to another guy and he said, 'Do you know who that was that you were speaking to a while ago?' I said, 'No?' He said, 'That was Lee Scratch Perry'. Lee Scratch Perry! And he said I was the best stage man he had seen for many a year and that's only my second time on the stage. If I knew it was him, I would have interacted more and get my chance to record for him. Naturally he would have given me a chance to record for him. Eventually we get to be friends. He invited me to his wedding in Switzerland. He's a very, very good guy. His studio Black Ark Studios. One guy came from abroad and bought him a toaster, a bread toaster. He nailed up that toaster on a long piece of log. He put it outside the gate. People said to him, 'What's all this about the toaster?' He said, 'It's because I am a toaster!' PB: He can toast! PH: Yes! It represented him because he's a toaster! PB: Can you tell me about the new music you're working on? PH: 'My God Is Real' is a new track that I've done at Earthman Studios in Manchester. It's to make people understand that there's a light out there. You don't see nothing in this time, you hear everything. Just believe. Always carry that word with you, 'believe'. There's a Jah out there. I've gone through so much journey up and down. To be here and to feel so fresh and so young, my God is real. I'm trying to put a new album together. I've got a few tracks that I've voiced. I've got a new track that's about being in love with your best friend. I met this girl when we were at school, our eyes met. All those years I've grown up and known her, we've been friends and all of those years I've loved her and I've never told her. I made myself a promise, that one day I'd make her my wife. All those years I've been carrying that love in my heart for her and she didn't know. I never told her that I love her. One day I said to myself, I need to tell you. I kind of explained to her. All of these years I've been around you, I've loved you. I love you so deeply. I ask people the question, how do you tell your best friend that you're in love with them? Would you keep it a secret until the end? The song is about being in love with your best friend but how are you going to find a way to tell them that you're in love with them all this time. PB: Did you tell her? PH: I did and we're boyfriend and girlfriend now. In the end I say, thank you for giving me the first start, it's like you gave me the key to your heart. PB: Thank you.

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