Thursday, September 8, 2016

One Step Beyond, a personal Tribute to Prince Buster

Like many people, I came to know the music of Jamaican Blue Beat legend Prince Buster through 2 Tone ska groups like The Specials, Madness, and the (English) Beat, who covered many of his landmark 1960s sides in a dedicated fashion, over a decade after their initial creation. Buster was a boxer, sound system operator, label owner, impresario, and a performer with the charisma to match one of his personal heroes, Muhammad Ali. He was a key player in the genesis of the Jamaican music and recording industry and was an idol to those in his homeland as well as to British mods, skinheads, and Caribbean ex-pats worldwide. His forceful reputation and rough riding sounds also reached their way to North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in the late 1980s, and a young man named James Bell.

As a teenager, Bell was inspired by UK subcultures and began to adopt the crisp, sharp, rude boy look of 1960s Kingston, Jamaica, as filtered through London, England: Short, cropped hair (w/ essential shaved side part), Levis' Sta-Pressed trousers, colourful Ben Sherman or Brutus button down shirts, black boots, braces, sheep skin or donkey jackets, and 3-button sharkskin suits w/ all of the necessary details in place. The soundtrack was original Jamaican ska, rocksteady, and reggae on vinyl along with American soul, R&B, and second wave UK ska acts like The Selecter, who were still touring across the United States and Canada in the 1990s on the back of their late 1970s/early 1980s success in England. The 2 Tone artists were very vocal about their first wave island influences and it didn't take long to understand, even in the pre-Internet era, that an artist like Bob Marley had a somewhat secret and extensive pre-dreadlocks history from the ska, rocksteady, and early reggae eras waiting to be discovered. With limited options to find such treasures on the west coast of Canada, James would travel to the UK and buy as many records and clothes as he could afford with his working class salary. Upon return, he would gladly share what he had discovered.

By the mid-1990s, Bell was DJ'ing under the Lockjaw moniker (*clue) at The Twilight Zone club in Gastown (now the Portside Pub) to a small, but dedicated selection of subculture practitioners, misfits, Japanese exchange students, and the odd curiosity seeker. Attending Simon Fraser University at the time, I would venture down each week and listen to James play, to watch how he spun the records, learn from his collection of 7" and albums, drink pitchers of beer and long island iced teas, dance the night away while dreaming of meeting a dancing partner, and then return home to my family in Coquitlam with my ears still ringing from the proceedings and my mind buzz with thoughts of ska, sex, and school. Prince Buster's "Al Capone" was a song that I'd request at every Twilight Zone session, the inspiration for another fave, The Specials' "Gangsters." There was something about the attitude, rhythm, and Buster's raw delivery that touched my soul. It's a feeling that still burns from deep within in my heart. Whenever a Buster song would come over the speakers, we'd rush the floor, pretending we were at a sound system dance or street party in Kingston in the mid-1960s.

From their I went deeper and learnt as much as I could, buying CDs and vinyl when possible. The Prophet, a compilation disc released in 1994 on the Lagoon label, was a particularly well done set and an influence on my archival work in terms of curation and presentation. Eventually, I started DJ'ing myself, and loved trying to get people off of their feet to Prince Buster songs like "Wash Wash" and "Cincinnati Kid." But the music could only take us so far. After years of brotherly love, dressing up/not down, party times, and maximum dance floor pressure, James committed suicide at the dawn of the new millennium. Keen to continue his legacy, I inherited one of his most prized possessions, a gold label FAB 7" pressing of Prince Buster's "Rock & Shake," said to be one of the first dub songs with its use of reverb and delay. James had bought this tune directly from Lionel Young, the compiler of Trojan's "Solid Gold" From The Vaults series, yet another key influence in my musical development. I will always play this single with pride.

When I heard the news about Buster's passing earlier today, I couldn't stop crying. I pulled out a few records, but mostly rode the rhythms on Youtube. Songs like "The Prophet" (a killer Chuck Jackson cover), "Nothing Takes The Place Of You" (another R&B classic, this time by Toussaint McCall), "Sit And Wonder," and on and on. I thought of James, I thought of my youthful dancing days, and I thought of the global influence of a legend from Jamaica born Cecil Bustamante Campbell on May, 28, 1938.

Prince Buster, I'll forever be your student.

PS - You too James ; )

Eternal love,
Kevin "Sipreano" Howes
Voluntary In Nature

- Prince Buster from his Pain In My Belly LP

- James Bell (aka Lockjaw, RIP)

- Gold label FAB "Rock & Shake" 7"

- Prince Buster (with baseball hat) dancing with friends outside of his record store on Orange Street, Kingston, Jamaica (image taken from his Pain In My Belly LP)


  1. *Special thanks for Birdapres for the Pain In My Belly LP

  2. Shared! Just listened to Pain In My Belly (CD)today...

  3. Nice one FCV! What a loss, but what a legacy!!!