Greensleeves: Celebrating 30 Years
- Words: Jesse Serwer
If Island was the label that brought Jamaican music to the world, it was London-based Greensleeves Records that made sure the music's core of international fans kept their crates full with the latest tunes outta yard. Currently home to Vybz Kartel, Busy Signal, and Macka Diamond, among others, the label is as relevant today as it was during the late '70s and early '80s, when it issued breakthrough albums from such dancehall luminaries as Barrington Levy and Yellowman. In their first-ever joint interview, Chris Sedgwick, Greensleeves' former owner and managing partner, and Chris Cracknell, its long-time director of A&R, talk about three decades worth of rockers and why, after three decades, they are turning the label over to new hands.
XLR8R: How did two white guys from England end up starting a Jamaican music label that ushered in the era of dancehall?
Chris Sedgwick: Greensleeves started as a shop in (London suburb) West Ealing. Upstairs we did soul and reggae, downstairs we had everything else–pop, rock'rish, Polish. Everyone seemed to go straight upstairs, so we specialized in black music once we moved to Shepherd's Bush (in West London) in 1977. [At that time], disco and jazz were mostly controlled by the big companies, but reggae was much less organized. Mainstream rock had become predictable and unexciting. There was a bit of revolution in the air: punk was starting, Island were putting money into Bob Marley, and suddenly everyone got into reggae. We were meeting producers and artists, so we decided to try putting out records.
Chris Cracknell: There were a lot of sensational records we got as imports once or twice, and weren't able to get again. We had also built a large mail-order business. We'd send out a list of records once a month and, by the time people ordered them, they would often no longer be available due to the erratic pressing of 7" singles in Jamaica. Because there was such great music coming out, we felt it should be more widely available.
As a small label, was it logistically difficult working with artists in Jamaica then?
CC: It was very much a producer-led business. Producers would come to London with a dozen albums on offer from various artists and we would license the albums from the producer. Henry "Junjo" Lawes was very significant for us early on. We have a large catalog of his material, and worked closely with him, and he suggested artists who we might record. Our friend John Bull would travel to Jamaica quite often–we gave him tracks that we liked and were interested in, and he'd try to make contact with various producers for us. The producer community was small then so word quickly got 'round that there was an English company looking for material.
to reggae and dancehall, thanks to Tony McDermott, your in-house artist.
CC: When we had the shop, albums might arrive from Jamaica in plain bags with no information as to who played on them. We wanted to present the albums in a unique way, and Tony was on a similar wavelength to us. He obviously came up with the "Carnival of Reggae History" disco bag, which became one of our trademarks. Because of the success of that sort of cartoon thing, when we decided to gather [The Scientist's] dub mixes onto a series of albums, we came up with those crazy album titles and added sound effects to enhance the themes.
Although you weren't the first to release one, you helped pioneer the rhythm album as a dancehall institution. When did it occur to you to collect all these different versions on a single album?
CS: In the early '90s, we'd find we'd have five or six 45 singles on the same rhythm, all with the same b-side, and it suddenly seemed cleverer to put them together on one album. On a soundsystem, different deejays go on the same rhythm and compete with each other. We figured on an album, people could judge that as well by hearing all the different artists on one rhythm, one after another.
CC: We've always stressed the importance of the producer, and we designed the series to include the producer's logo on the front sleeve, so the competition is not only between artists but producers as well. VP had put out single albums with rhythms on them but the idea of having the double vinyl is what really made the series. On single vinyl, to mix the tracks together you'd have to buy two copies. It didn't really make a lot of sense.
Why did you sell Greensleeves?
CS: Well, I'm 60 years old. I wanted to do something else for the rest of my life. Steve Weltman, the chief executive with Zest, which bought the label, is the new managing director, and a guy named Marcus Lee is taking over the financial side of my job. There's going to be more emphasis on breaking artists, as I understand it. There'll be changes gradually but, in the early stages, it's going to be just as before.
Riddim Rundown: Chris Sedgwick and Chris Cracknell recall some of their label's most forward-thinking releases.
Best Dressed Chicken in Town (1978)
CS: Best Dressed Chicken was the first album we released, and continues to be one of our best-sellers. We spent months putting it together with Alimantado and various other people, trying to track down old 7"s where no one had a copy left. A lot of it was dubbed from disc.
CC: Junjo would bring artists to London to perform, and he would come with reels of their music. I vividly recall a young Barrington Levy–he was about 14–came on one of those trips, along with [the recording of the album] Englishman. Most reggae albums were just compilations then, but Englishman was a proper album. We shot the cover photo with the Rolls Royce here in the West End.
"Under Me Sleng Teng" (1985)
CC: King Jammy used to come to London often. He brought a Casio keyboard back to Jamaica with him, and Sleng Teng was born from one of the preset rhythms. We got to hear it early on... We've always tried to move things ahead and influence the music, so it was an obvious song for us to put out.
Diwali Rhythm (2002)
CC: Diwali created so many hits: Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go," "Get Busy" by Sean Paul, Lumidee's "Never Leave Me." A lot of people didn't realize those come from the same rhythm–[Stephen] "Lenky" Marsden made sure the songs on it sounded different. The U.S. really seemed to connect to Jamaica through that rhythm.
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