Roger, of course the whole world now knows Inner Circle from smash hits like 'Sweat (A La La Long)' and 'Bad Boys', which eventually ended up becoming the theme tune to 'Cops', but it all started with two brothers jamming together at home. At which stage did you start to take things more serious, contemplating a career in music?
Roger Lewis (guitar/vocals): "I don't think we ever really sat down and planned anything in terms of a career. We both just loved music. We just kept on doing what we were doing and I guess things started changing when we started backing artists like Toots Hibbert, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, even Bob Marley, the list is endless…"
In those early days the line-up of Inner Circle also included members who would later go on to become Third World.
Roger Lewis: "Yeah, we were all either school buddies or neighborhood friends. Most of us lived in Mona (a neighborhood in southeastern Saint Andrew Parish, approximately eight kilometers from Kingston, red.)."
What made you guys eventually split up?
Roger Lewis: "I don't really know and I never dwelled on it to be honest, because in the end it turned out great as Jacob Miller came into the picture and started working with us. Up until that point we'd mostly been a backing band playing other artist's tunes, but now we could start working on a repertoire of our own. And boy did we turn out some nice tunes like 'Tenement Yard', 'Tired Fi Lick Weed Inna Bush'… too many to name really. It was a great period, as we were all sharing the same house; the place was literally brimming with creativity!"
When Jacob first came to introduce himself to you guys, he didn't do it modestly to put it mildly.
Roger Lewis: "Well, Jacob used to follow us around trying to convince us that the singers we were working with were all fools and amateurs, that we should get rid of them and hook up with him as he was the greatest in the whole world! (laughs)"
Now, so many years after his tragic passing in a car accident, how do you remember him? What kind of a person was he?
Roger Lewis: "Let me tell you this… I haven't met a person since who loved life more nor had a more positive attitude then Jacob did! I've never seen him down or depressed, and considering his background and family circumstances - his father never really wanted him and his mother left him behind to fend for himself - the fact he was always upbeat was already amazing. In 1979 Chris Blackwell had us opening for Average White Band and Ian Dury and the Blockheads, two big acts at that time, but Jacob was so great he simply blew these guys away. I can still remember Ian shouting in his Cockney accent: "What the hell do you guys think you're playing at? This guy is fucking great!" He loved to laugh and was a great prankster as well. I miss him a lot, but may he rest in peace!"
You guys also played on Eric Donaldson's 'Cherry Oh Baby', one of most famous tunes in reggae history. How exactly did you get involved in those recording sessions?
Roger Lewis: "In Jamaica you have what's called the Jamaica Festival Song Competition, a talent show, that's been running ever since the nineteen sixties. Now in 1971 we were enlisted as the backing band for all the competing artists right down the state finals at State Theatre. You'd back up the fifty or sixty artists a day and traverse the island going from location to location. One day Eric came to Kingston and he presented us with this ska song he'd written called 'Cherry Oh Baby'. We immediately recognized the potential of the song, but felt it would sound better if he'd slow down the pace to a reggae beat. Eric was reluctant at first, but when we eventually reached the state final we only had to play the intro to get the crowd roaring. That same night Donaldson was whisked away by Tommy Cowan and Claudius 'Claudie/Jack' Massop, who were under orders of Bunny Lee to bring to Dynamic Sounds as soon as possible so they could record the track. We still stayed with Eric for quite some time touring the world and performing that song countless times on various stages."
You mentioned Tommy Cowan there. Over the years Inner Circle crossed paths with him on various occasions. What's the balance of those collaborations?
Roger Lewis: "I'd say he definitely had a strong influence on the Jamaican music business at one point and we ended up doing a lot of interesting stuff with him. Like 'The Same Song' for example, the debut album by Israel Vibration, where we were the studio band. Thing is not a lot of people know that as we were never credited for it…"
That's kind of what I was getting at… If we add it all up, you guys were behind a lot of music you were never credited for. How did you guys deal with that, as there must have been some frustration?
Roger Lewis: "Well, to be very honest, whenever someone decides to judge us only on the merits of songs like 'Sweat (A La La Long)' or 'Bad Boys', or when they claim we're not a roots reggae band as we only play happy poppy tunes, it stings you know, because we were at the forefront of a lot of great music that was being produced in Jamaica back in the day. Back in 1971 and 1972 we were even part of Michael Manley's PNP Bandwagon (an island wide political campaign involving musicians who helped him promote his candidacy for prime minister, red.), backing artists like Max Romeo, Clancy Eccles, The Wailers and Dennis Brown. Yeah, it hurts sometimes, but we know what we did!"
After Jacob's untimely demise, you guys decided to leave Jamaica and relocated to Miami.
Roger Lewis: "Yeah, it was just a very dark and depressing period and part of us felt a change of scenery might help us overcome our grief. Jacob's death felt as if we were kicked in the stomach by a football we hadn't seen coming, leaving us grasping for air."
In hindsight it wasn't a bad decision at all, as you guys managed to build up a very successful studio complex over there.
Roger Lewis: "Some of the biggest names in the American music business and beyond have recorded at Circle House. From Pharrell over Puff Daddy to Shakira, Lauryn Hill, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, they've all used our studio. 'Bam', the lick Jay-Z and Damian Marley did of 'Bam Bam', which contained a lyrical sample of Jacob's 'Tenement Yard', was also recorded at Circle."
In 2015 you also recorded a revamp of 'Tenement Yard' featuring Chronixx. It must feel gratifying to have this new generation of Jamaican reggae artist coming to seek your knowledge and expertise?
Ian Lewis (bass/vocals): "Well, a tree can't stand up without roots. We were part of the roots of the music, so I think it's only natural these youths are now turning to us for inspiration. I believe that reggae music is at a crossroads right now, but the greatest thing this music has demonstrated to the world is that it isn't prejudiced. I'm seeing Jamaican artists using American or European backing bands, but if you close your eyes you won't even hear the difference!"
How did your 'Bad Boys' tune end up becoming the theme tune of that reality show 'Cops'?
Ian Lewis: "When we first got Circle House going the first artists we attracted were Miami hip-hop acts like 2 Live Crew, but one day our drummer, Lancelot Hall brought over this girl telling us they were shooting this docu-drama and asking if we could contribute a song for the soundtrack. We just gave her a cassette tape with the song on it and really didn't think more of it, but after a few months they contacted us again and told us they'd listened to a few of our songs, and that they would like to use 'Bad Boys'. At that point we could have never imagined this little show would become a worldwide phenomenon though."
Of course that song also earned you guys a Grammy. The Reggae Grammy has been getting a lot of criticism in recent years, as it doesn't seem to reflect what's really going on in the reggae scene.
Ian Lewis: "I think the big problem is that the voting is done by people who don't know the first thing about reggae music. It should be done by a jury of our peers, people who know what good reggae music is all about."
I was also asking because in 2012 you guys launched the 'Saving The Reggae Music' campaign; an attempt to decrease the influence of US music in Jamaica.
Roger Lewis: "I wouldn't exactly put it like that, as a lot of Jamaican foundation artists from back in the day were influenced by American rhythm and blues and soul. Coxsone Dodd used to bring American records back with him all the time, but also King Sporty (best known as co-writer of Bob Marley's Buffalo Soldier, red.), who worked on a shipping line for some time and brought over stacks of US records for Mr. Dodd. And it even goes back further than that, as Jamaican ska was really nothing more the Jamaican interpretation of American boogie-woogie. So with 'Saving The Reggae Music' we weren't as much campaigning against American music, but we wanted to emphasize that in Jamaica, Jamaican culture should but put to the forefront again. Just give us back a little roots and culture, you know!"
You're also one of the driving forces trying to set up a Reggae Hall of Fame in Jamaica.
Ian Lewis: "Yes, it's a project I've been working on for some years now, but we'd need about 2 million US dollars in funding to make it a reality. It's crucial we do this now, because a whole generation of reggae artists is disappearing and if we want to keep their names from being forgotten we need a place to honor them permanently! The music will never die, but we should do our best to make sure the people who created it aren't forgotten either. I think it's a mix of ignorance, lack of initiative and funding that has kept us from coming up with a place like this ages ago already."
In the span of your 50 year career, which role has Rastafarianism played in your music and on a personal level?
Ian Lewis: "Every man can grow locks and shout: "Jah, Rastafari!", but what you have to understand is that Rastafari is really the single most binding factor that has kept this music alive! When Leonard Howell was still running Pinnacle, those guys were growing ganja and selling it on the market to keep things afloat, but because these early Rastafarians didn't have locks yet, the British just let them go about their business. They were really just a community of self-sustaining farmers. It's only when Jamaica became independent that the powers that be started seeing Rastafarianism as a possible threat to their newly gained power. So they started putting out an image of Rastafarians as being the incarnation of evil, the so-called "blackheart man". It was only when middle class musicians like Third World and Inner Circle also started turning towards Rastafari that things slowly began to change. And then there was Bob who carried the message all across the world and made it a global and unstoppable movement!"