Jimmy Cliff is to Jamaican music what James Brown was to R&B, if Brown had just worked a little harder. Cliff helped get ska off the ground, he popularized reggae, he wrote huge hits for himself and other artists during all eras of Jamaican music, and he even starred in the first reggae movie, The Harder They Come. His uplifting soulful island rhythms have inspired fans as diverse as Jerry Garcia, Keith Richards, Madness, Willie Nelson and Arthur Lee—and of course punkers such as the Clash, who referenced him in their song “Guns of Brixton.” In the present day, Cliff has returned the favor by covering that song on his recent EP, which was produced by Tim Armstrong of Operation Ivy and Rancid. Touring this year with Armstrong and a tight band of mod-looking youngsters who know their history and have mastered the 60s rocksteady sound, Cliff seems set to inspire the world yet again. This interview by D.M. Collins.
You were 14 when you had your first hit!
Jimmy Cliff: Yes! It started in Jamaica. It was a song called ‘Hurricane Hattie.’ It was a song about a hurricane that took place in Belize and was quite dangerous. I made it into a type of love song.
Is it true that famed record producer Leslie Kong founded Beverley’s Records because of you—you ran into him at a restaurant and he got the idea from you to start a label?
Jimmy Cliff: It’s true! He had a restaurant, ice cream parlor and record shop called Beverley’s. And one night I was passing by after being a little frustrated, not getting through with other producers. I saw the name ‘Beverley’s,’ and I had an idea about a song. And I just kind of finished the song, and I walked in with the song. And they were closing, and I stopped them and tell them I was a singer, and it was three brothers, and one liked my voice and the other two didn’t like my voice. And Leslie Kong was the one who liked my voice.
And he started his label just to make that voice be heard?
Jimmy Cliff: Right! He said he’s not in the business. I said, ‘But you could be! Why not get into it? I know people, I know bands, and I know some other artists that you could get.’ And so we took it from there, and that’s how it took off.
That’s pretty visionary for an adolescent! I guess only a few years later, while you were still a young teen, you were brought to New York City to represent Jamaica at the World’s Fair in 1964?
Jimmy Cliff: It was the World’s Fair, so they had people from different parts of the world representing their countries for different things. For Jamaica, it was music. And I was one of the artists there. And it was a very successful thing for me, because I got a record deal from there, which was Island Records! The Island Records boss was Chris Blackwell, and he had his eyes on me from Jamaica, and I also had him in mind—I’d heard about him. It so happened that we met in New York after that World’s Fair.
And he took you and moved you to England, where you lived for a couple years in the late 60s. Was that a culture shock, after living in Jamaica?
Jimmy Cliff: England was not such a culture shock after New York. But to live there, facing things I’d never faced in Jamaica, like cold, snow and racism, all of those things … ha ha ha!
In America, we may have had even worse racism, but what were things like in the 60s in England?
Jimmy Cliff: In England it was equal! I’ve never experienced someone tell me to move out of a property because they don’t like blacks. I’ve never heard that in my life! That was shocking for me.
Did you ever meet the band the Equals—one of the first interracial rock bands in England?
Jimmy Cliff: Oh, yes! Actually, I know Eddy Grant—the leader, writer, the engine of that band. We met over there, yeah, and we talked. We actually were planning to do some things together! It never took place then. It could still happen!
You toured with the Spencer Davis Group, right?
Jimmy Cliff: Well, we were on the same label, Island. Their first hit was ‘Keep on Running,’ and I was in the studio when they were cutting it. And they were having a difficult time getting it together. And I was just sitting there, and when they’d start I’d stand up and count it off, and say ‘Yeah! Yeah! Alright! Yeah! Okay! Yeah!’ And if you listen to the record, you’ll hear my voice on the leakage of that song.
What other bands did you see?
Jimmy Cliff: One of the best bands I’ve seen! They were so unique, blending rock with funk—it was a fantastic band! I saw Cream, with Ginger Baker, and Steve Winwood was also in the band, and Eric Clapton. I saw Hendrix. Hendrix actually opened for me when he just came over! I did two sets, and he did one set, and he was so unique and creative!
Did you worry that hard rock bands were going to be the new thing, and that danceable music such as yours was on its way out?
Jimmy Cliff: Well, Hendrix came up and he said to me, ‘What’s the name of your band, man?’ I said, ‘Jimmy Cliff and the Shakedown Sounds.’ He said to me, ‘Maaaaaan, you can sing! I can’t sing, I can just play my guitar.’ So he confirmed: I knew I had one thing going for me, which is my voice. That’s still quite unique! And I could lend my voice to any type of music form. And I can still do that. So I really didn’t have much fear of change.
That was around the time that Desmond Dekker had the first big international ska hit, with ‘Israelites.’ Were you jealous?
Jimmy Cliff: Oh no, I auditioned Desmond Dekker for Beverley! I had hits in Jamaica before him, and he had a hit in England before me while I was in England. So no, we were really kind of proud of each other, and the proof of that is that after that, he recorded one of my songs, ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want,’ which was a hit for him in Europe.
At what point did you realize you had really actually made it?
Jimmy Cliff: ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People.’ I wrote it in South America, and went back to Jamaica and recorded it, and it became a hit! I saw that I had photos in the international market all over the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, Africa … all over the world! So, from then.
But then you became a Muslim.
Jimmy Cliff: You know, in our search in life, searching for self-identity, we go through many doors. The religious thing was one of the many doors I went through. It was just another classroom I studied. I’m graduated now! I was raised into Christianity, and most Jamaicans are Christian. Then later I became a Muslim, and was for many years. But now I believe in science.
I don’t hear Rastafarianism in that list.
Jimmy Cliff: Oh yes, in a very, very small period between being Christian and finding Islam. Rastafarianism is very much like Christianity, so it was not a hard change from Christianity to that as it was to converting to Islam.
Now Jamaican music has moved from positivity to a lot of thuggish violence, as well as some questionable stylistic choices. Has it lost its way?
Jimmy Cliff: I think they are expressing the times. There are two versions: one is girls and cars and superstars, and the other is what we call roots and culture! But the sound on this album I have just completed is like the completion of a path or door that I had not completed. After I had that hit record with ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People,’ I left and went to Muscle Shoals, a completely different type of music there. I was kind of criticized by reggae purists for leaving reggae! So it was an uncompleted chapter. Of course, in the rocksteady era I was not even in Jamaica, so I didn’t record much rocksteady. Even though this isn’t a rocksteady album, it’s still reggae from the origins, from ska coming up. I decided it’s the way to close that chapter.
Until recently, Bob Marley has been the face of reggae internationally. For many people, he is the only reggae star they know and the only one they listen to. If it had gone a different way, do you think you would have been that figure?
Jimmy Cliff: No, I wouldn’t have been that figure. He became what he should have become. I did what I had to do, and I’m still completing my path.
You seem to have inspired more cover songs than he did, if that’s an indicator. But what is your favorite song that you have covered?
Jimmy Cliff: Well, let’s say for instance, the cover of Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World.’ We were, again, with Island Records, and the same publisher. One day they played me this demo, and they said, ‘Steve [sic—Ed.] wrote this song, but he doesn’t like it.’ I said, ‘WHAAAAAAAAAT!?! Ha ha ha! I like it!’ So I called Steve up right away and I said, ‘Yeah, I like the song!’ So he took his guitar up over the phone, and said, ‘What is your key?’ And I start singing, and he just played it in my key. And with what I gave him over the phone, he went out right away and got a West Indian band and went in, cut the track, and called me up and said, ‘Come listen to this!’ I went in, put my voice on it, and boom! Smash! It went smash, right up the UK charts, and then smash, all over Europe. But then, we were both on A&M Records in the U.S., and A&M chose to put out his version and not my version in the U.S. So that’s why my version didn’t come out in the U.S. But I recorded the song before him!
Perhaps you could return the favor by giving him some advice on how to ‘graduate’ from fundamentalist Islam?
Jimmy Cliff: Ha ha! Well, it was one of the collaborations that I did that I really appreciate. I had a really good rapport and good artistic exchange with him. He’s one of the artists where, if the door opened again, I would be open to collaborate again, with Yusuf Islam as he’s called now.
The first time I became aware of you, I was a young boy, and I saw you in the movie
with Robin Williams.
Jimmy Cliff: Fun, fun, fun memories! With Robin Williams, it was never a dull moment. He’s a hilarious man! Always keeps you laughing! For the other comedians, they had their other moments—even Peter O’Toole was a really fun man to have around you!
Aside from Club Paradise and The Harder They Come, what other films have you been in?
Jimmy Cliff: In Marked for Death with Steven Seagal, I played a singer in a club, like a cameo role. But then I had another kind of autobiographical movie called Bongo Man, which was kind of my concept. There was this German producer who wanted to do the movie. That’s another one.
How much of The Harder They Come was similar to your own life’s story?
Jimmy Cliff: Most of the first part of the movie, a lot of it is like my story. The second part, where he became really violent, I just don’t have experience of that. But the first part—country boy comes to town, innocence, pure, has to learn the ways of the city—when I first came to Kingston, I could have gone either way! If it hadn’t been for music, for me, I could have gone the way of Ivan [Cliff’s character in the film--ed].
Are things the same in Jamaica now? Could Ivan’s story be told now, just with updated music and updated clothes?
Jimmy Cliff: Strangest thing is, the movie had some kind of impact on the violence situation in Jamaica. Sadly for me, when I look at it. So yes, you will find that today.
You think your film promoted and glorified violence?
Jimmy Cliff: In a lot of ways. It was black on black violence! There were two things that I disagreed about with the director and the producer. I don’t think my character had to die. And again, I don’t think everything—everyone that comes out of the so-called ghetto has to take a violent path in order to make a positive impression on society. And I’ve always had an idea about making a sequel that could show that. I’ve been working on it, and it’s still on the table.
Right now in Jamaica, homophobic violence is still a huge problem, and dancehall artists like Beenie Man and Elephant Man have had hits with songs that call for the murder of gays. As an influential role model in Jamaica, how do you feel about that?
Jimmy Cliff: Well, Jamaica … it’s a complexity of Jamaica, with strong Christian background, and so it’s one of the things that I say … I’ve graduated from the religious view of things. Because if you look scientifically at the gay situation—when a child is in the womb at four months, it’s four months before you know whether the child is going to be a man or a woman, male or female! And some people are born male in a female body, and vice versa! From the scientific part of me, there it is. So, if gays are in the army or whatnot, why not? Everyone has got a right.
Much of your music speaks out against violence. You’ve decried the evils of war in songs like ‘Vietnam’—and in fact when I saw you last, you’d changed the lyrics to ‘Afghanistan’ and spoke of the urgency of getting our soldiers out of Afghanistan.
Jimmy Cliff: Yeah, it’s very important to me! I think the duality of the human being, the good and bad … we can polarize that duality to more on the positive. I am confident of that because of my own experience in life. So yes, I don’t think we as human beings are ever completely peaceful, because if you look at a baby—a baby growing up, a year old, if two babies meet each other, the first thing they do is not hug and kiss, the first thing they do is ‘Give me that! Give me that! It’s mine!’ You know? It’s in our nature to challenge: the war part of us is there! But I am more for the peace situation. I think that we’re able to do this as human beings.
On your recent EP, you cover ‘Guns of Brixton’ by the Clash, which celebrates taking up arms. Did you have a problem with the sentiment of that song?
Jimmy Cliff: Well, again, that’s a song expressing one of the human conditions that I have experience of. I lived in England for a number of years, plus I knew Joe Strummer fairly well. The last song he recorded was with me! Plus the song talks about The Harder They Come and all of that, so I felt very comfortable to record it. I like to flow naturally. This thing with Tim Armstrong, it flowed so naturally!
Maybe because he knows your history! What are some your favorite moments of your career?
Jimmy Cliff: The time I went to South Africa. It was during the apartheid years, and I played in Soweto, I played in Durban, I played in Cape Town, and it was the first time people of all races came to that concert, particularly the one in Soweto. So that was a part of the beginning of breaking down the apartheid system. I met Nelson Mandela once, and he said that we in Jamaica with our music had helped to overthrow apartheid!
Any final words for our readers?
Jimmy Cliff: I think we’re coming into a new civilization. People talk about the Mayan’s calendar … actually, we, the ancient Egyptians gave it to the Mayans. We gave it to the Tibetans, who gave it to the Hindus, who gave it to the Babylonians. And yes, I know from studying ancient Egyptian tablets that we are coming into civilization this year. It’s just a new positive energy that’s come to take over the world. It’s started already. People are going to want more proof of things, rather than fictional bits. The higher energy is going to be ruling in the new civilization. And it kicks in in December. I’d just like to put it out there to make people feel more hopeful! Not that we’re going to go through political and economic changes, but to see that a better day is coming!
JIMMY CLIFF PLAYS APRIL 13 AND APRIL 20 AT COACHELLA. VISIT JIMMY CLIFF AT JIMMYCLIFF.COM.