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reasoning with Maxi Priest about Saxon Sound time

This is just a small section of a forthcoming reasoning I had with UK reggae legend, Maxi Priest. We spoke on a range of things including his time, the impact and importance of the world-renowned Saxon Sound. They're foundation to what many have unknowingly carried on in various MC-based scenes in England. Check out what he had to say below.

Marvin Sparks: I've heard so much about Saxon Sound. To me, I don't feel like people understand how big and the impact Saxon Sound had, and still have especially when considering the popularisation of the fast-chat style. What was it like being part of it? Could you sense what you were doing was special or were you just going along with the vibe?

Maxi Priest: Everything at that time was special. There wasn't a road map of what to do. You have to also imagine the climate at that time. We were cutting through racism. Just walking the streets, you had to walk with a crowd of people. Skinheads, greasers, NF's… All of these different people that thought we weren't supposed to be here. They just thought we were black and not supposed to be in this country.

Thank God we were able to cut through all of that racism stuff and still keep a focus. Or it helped us to stay somewhat focused, almost like I want to dig through this hole. It was dark, grey and cold. Home was the Caribbean. As soon as you stepped out the front door our neighbours were not into our culture. If the ball went over one side of the garden it would get cut up. If it went to the other side - there were some black people living there - the ball would come back.

It was silly things like that, and I say silly things like that now because we've passed that time, but we have to remember those times because if we don't remember those times we won't know where it is where supposed to be going. I think that's one of the problems now; they don't remember those times.

As you asked with the Saxon thing, we were writing the road. We were writing our way out of a situation because it was confusing. We were told we didn't belong here but Jamaica or the West Indies were saying 'You're English'. I remember sitting down thinking 'Well, what am I meant to be then?' We were always searching for a sense of belonging and that's the thing about the music and the sound system.

Music would - especially reggae music - gave us a direction or understanding of where we came from as black people. We would gravitate to the music to have a lifeline of a self-belief and belonging to something. When we would play the music it would create a gathering for us as a community. Even though we would bring our white friends into it, that was our refuge. Sound system was our refuge. This how our community moved. We could translate information. It wasn't about radio or TV.

The sound system was our haven. That was our sanctuary. That was our place. That was our church. That was our meeting ground. How we were gonna come together as a force and make people know we are somebodies. That's the foundation of sound system for me. What we created on top of that was a platform, a stage where we can now reinvent the wheel. 

We could create our own stage now with artists and performers. We created this live performance around spinning the b-sides of tracks and creating live entertainment in a party or a club. Now we became a unique situation because not only we were offering the sound system, we were offering a live  performance from a deejay standpoint or a singing standpoint. We created something that was blowing up north, south, east, west of England and then through cassettes would go back to Jamaica. From Jamaica into the United States. 

People were playing it in their cars just like how you hear pirate radio stations today is how we were playing cassettes. If you went to the frontline of Brixton it would be about the cassette you've got and he's got. A good six/seven times it would be about Saxon because we brought a live performance around the thing. 

From there we brought another page elevating sound thing to studio. I met up with a man called Barry Boom - Paul Robinson. My mum would always ask him to do something for me because I'd been singing from sound system. He then took me to the studio, taught me to write and structure songs. We produced 'Mi God, Mi King' with Papa Levi then we got major record company interest. We signed Levi to Island. That song took him to Jamaica for Sunsplash, 10-15mins standing ovation, number one in the reggae chart in Jamaica. Wow. I guess we thought we landed.

Giving us strength to say that we were somebody. We went through rioting and these things just for people to say we were somebody. After we achieved that success, various record companies were asking about me because I had a song on the b-side of that. I then chose to sign with Virgin records and stayed there for 17/18 years.

Marvin Sparks: Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie had UK hits, Papa Levi got the number one in Jamaica,  in addition to your UK success, you reached number one in America with "Close To You." I know you have American influences alongside Jamaican, so that must've been a really big deal for you back then.

Maxi Priest: Massive. I mean, before that, the success we had in the pop charts over here. We were Top of the Pops. Almost feeling at home on Top of the Pops because of the times we went there. It might be a little bit strange but I've always looked forward. Even to this very day, I look forward. I don't really look backwards until somebody asks me a question. That's just my nature, that's just the way I am. 

I'm very optimistic and I wanna look forward and keep going. Where there is hope, where there is life, where there is strength. I've always had an outlook that I'm not doing this for myself. There's a whole lot of people that have been brought up the same way I have. When you look at the teachings of Marcus Garvey and people like that, we're not here for ourselves, we're here for the generation that comes after. 

That's the way that I've always looked at it so I don't sit down glamourising myself about whatever success I've had. I appreciate what I've done. I appreciate whatever success I've had and I always remember that success wasn't just by me alone. There is a lot of people who are involved in the Maxi success. This wasn't done by me. There's a lot of people who have helped along the way and the fans who have gone out there and purchased the songs. Without the purchasing of the songs, we'll always be handed leaders and icons.

I've always been aware of that, whether it's through my mother's pentecostal teachings to Rasta, from being in a place that never really from like home and thinking there's better to come. That's just been my outlook. I walk with things like 'It's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice'.

Rest of the interview will be posted soon. Buy Maxi's latest (banging) album, Easy To Love from here.

Smiley Culture - "Police Officer" UK top 20 in 1984.

Tippa Irie "Hello Darling" UK top 40 in 1986

Maxi Priest "Close To You" US #1 in 1990

Saxon Sound in north London, 1989


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