Lincoln Barrington Minott was born in 1956 in Kingston, Jamaica and first entered the music business as a member of a harmony trio called The African Brothers and which also included Tony Tuff and Derrick Howard. They recorded various tracks for several producers like Rupie Edwards and Coxsone Dodd (“No Cup No Bruck”). Their self-produced track “Torturing” was a hit and the group founded their own label, called Ital. They broke up just after recording the Studio One track but Minott remained at the studio, employed as a session musician and soon got to cut some sides for the legendary producer. Two albums followed: Live Loving and Showcase in 1977. These two albums launched his career for good and in 1979 the Bittersweet LP came out, with two outstanding tracks: “I’m Not for Sale” and “Right Track”. In 1980 Minott founded his Youth Promotion/Black Roots label. Several albums followed like Black Roots, Roots Lovers, African Girl and Ghetto-ology. Two important hits led to Sugar Minott’s move to England in 1980: “Hard Time Pressure”, a hard-hitting “conscious” tune, and “Good Thing Going”, a cover of the Michael Jackson song which entered the British charts in 1981 and resulted in Minott appearing on the British weekly music show Top of the Pops for a memorable performance. At the time “Lovers Rock”, a distinctly British brand of soul reggae, was developing and Minott contributed to its growth. In the 1980s Minott’s popularity kept growing both in England and in Jamaica, and Minott was the headliner for 1986’s Japansplash at which he performed the then recent songs “Herbman Hustler” ,”Slice of the Cake” and “Nah Go a South Africa”. Minott also took his protégés Frankie Paul and Tenor Saw with him and thus gave them some international exposure. He also appeared at the Jamaican Reggae Sunsplash festival in the mid-1980s and took time out to nurture the careers of rising deejays Captain Sinbad, Ranking Dread and Ranking Joe. The singjay Tenor Saw and the dancehall star Frankie Paul also got their start thanks to Minott and his Youth Promotion operation. Minott produced Tenor Saw’s stunning 1985 Dancehall Fever album. The albums Sugar and Spice, Rydim, Wicked a Go Feel It and Time Longer than Rope consolidated his reputation and were all instrumental in pioneering the new dancehall style thanks to his work with Sly and Robbie and the producer George Phang. The Sly and Robbie-produced “Rub a Dub Sound” is a good example of that trend. So is “Herbman Hustling”. Buy Out the Bar and Sufferer’s Choice, both released in 1988, showed two very different sides of Minott’s artistry and Minott continued to record in the latest “raggamuffin” style, scoring a hit in 1989 with the song “Funking Song” on the “Mind You Dis” riddim. In the 1990s Sugar Minott continued to release quality albums like 1991’s Happy Together, and the 1994 Tappa Zukie-produced Breaking Free album which featured the hit “Sprinter Stayer”. Minott continued to appear at the Reggae Sunsplash festival where his performances were always well received and released an album entitled International in 1996. Musical Murder followed in 1997 and Easy Squeeze in 1999. In 2008 New Day was released.
On July 10th 2010 Sugar Minott was admitted to the University of the West Indies Hospital after complaining of chest pains and died there.
Sugar Minott’s importance in the history of reggae music can be better appreciated by looking at two aspects of his artistry that contributed to establishing him as a major performer and songwriter. First of all, many critics have pointed out Minott’s ability to write new lyrics over old “riddims”, thus reinvigorating reggae music and nudging it towards the modern dancehall style. Secondly, Minott was able to straddle many styles and was very versatile in his approach, performing at times as a roots singer, a lovers rock crooner or a dancehall “singjay”.
Minott’s ability to perform new lyrics over old time-worn rock-steady or reggae riddims has often been noted with regard to his first two Studio One albums, Live Loving (1978) and Showcase (1979). Indeed on these two albums Minott proved particularly adept at riding old riddims just in the way some deejays were doing in the dancehall, in a live context. On Showcase we find him doing new versions of established rock-steady riddims like “I’m Just a Guy” (“Vanity”), “Pressure and Slide” (“Oh, Mr DC”), “Far East” (“Jah Jah Children”) and “Tonight” (“Try Love”). Minott’s take on the “Tonight” riddim (originally a hit by Keith and Tex) is particularly effective as the original song was about a love affair and Minott switches the focus to divine love by singing “Just try your best and Jah Jah will do the rest”. The move from human love to divine love reinforces the idea that Minott was not only using an old rock-steady riddim but also giving his own interpretation of the song. “Jah Jah Chilcren”, his cut to the “Far East” riddim, nicely complements the idea of looking to the “East”, that is to Africa as the old prophecy by Marcus Garvey suggested.
Minott’s flair for the reinterpretation of old Studio One riddims is also apparent on his 1981 African Girl LP with the track entitled “Love Jah Forever”, which recycled the rock steady hit “Love Me Forever” by Carlton and the Shoes. On the 1985 Rydim LP, Minott went to the timeless hit entitled “Pretty Looks Ain’t All” by the Heptones for a biting social commentary track called “Chatty Chatty Mouth” about a gossip who cannot help to “labba” (to chat) all the time behind people’s backs. As late as 1993 on the track “Run Things”, the classic reggae hit “The Sun” by Cornell Campbell was being recycled to devastating effect:
Dem a gwaan like dem alone run things
But it no go work.
Dem a gwaan like dem alone run things
Want come treat us like a jerk.
But the race is not for the swift, neither for the strong,
But for the men who can endure to the end.
In 1994 the tune “Sprinter Stayer”, produced by Tappa Zukie, successfully revived the old rock steady rhythmic workout “Bangarang”, thus showing that Minott was still holding his own in the mid-1990s. His talent for grafting new lyrics onto old tracks was indeed remarkable and has often been compared to the work Jamaican deejays do in a live setting or during sound system clashes. But this technique is also reminiscent of a jazz aesthetic which consists in improvising a melodic line over a bass and drum workout or a musical accompaniment. Minott’s vocalising was indeed at times similar to the scat singing tradition used by some jazz singers. His vocal delivery was rhythmic and melodic at the same time, as shown by the song “Herbman Hustling”.
Minott’s success also came from his ability to work in many styles and to move from one style of reggae to another one. He was a roots singer, a lovers rock crooner, and a dancehall artist.
His roots side is most visible on the Ghetto-o-logy, Black Roots and African Soldier LPs. Ghetto-o-logy came out in 1979 and established his name in the reggae world. The musicianship is faultless, but the album is still outstanding today for the quality of the lyrics in songs like “Man Hungry”, “The People Ought to Know”, “Dreader Than Dread” and of course the title-track which makes the claim that to Minott the ghetto was a university from which he graduated in “ghetto-ology” whereas other people majored in science or biology. The jazz-like arrangements on tracks like “Walking Through the Ghetto” prevented the album from sounding like so many other roots album of the day and Minott’s singing was full of passion.
The Black Roots LP contained two massive hits, “Hard Time Pressure” and “River Jordan”. The former was based on a memorable bass line, while the latter recycled the old negro spiritual and a well-known Studio One riddim called “I’m Just a Guy”, a very good combination.
Minott also worked in the lovers rock style which flourished in England in the 1980s. After moving to the UK in the wake of the success of “Hard Time Pressure”, Minott recorded a version of Michael Jackson’s “Good Thing Going” which entered the British charts in 1981 and led to an appearance by the Jamaican crooner on the Top of the Pops programme. Throughout the 1980s Minott was to record many lovers rock classics like “Lovers Race”, “The Girl is Mine”, “Sandy”, “Make It With You”, and “Happy Song”. His voice and delivery were ideally suited to soul reggae arrangements, as evidenced by the track entitled “If I Did Not Love You” on the Rydim LP. That LP was recorded in 1985 in Jamaica under the tutelage of George Phang, but the powerful rhythm section driven by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, perfectly complemented Minott’s sweet vocals. That track is a good example of mid-1980s Jamaican lovers rock or soul-influenced reggae.
But Minott’s artistry consisted in breaking down barriers and transcending the limitations of musical genres and a track like “African Girl” on the eponymous LP did just that. Indeed that song could be said to be a cultural or roots track from the point of view of lyrics, but the musical backing certainly places it in the lovers rock or early dancehall category.
In fact Sugar Minott contributed to the development of the early dancehall sound by recording a number of songs with Sly and Robbie in the mid-1980s. The monster hit “Herbsman Hustling” was one of the first computerised tracks and had an edge and a minimalist sound which heralded dancehall. Minott’s delivery, half-way between singing and deejaying, was very innovative and forward-looking. Another important early dancehall track was “Rub A Dub Sound”, also produced by Sly and Robbie, on which Minott’s flow was in synch with the bass line. The 1986 LP Sugar and Spice featured some of these Sly and Robbie productions.
The 1989 Gussie Clarke-produced”Funking Song” (about the need for more reggae music on the radio), the Jammy’s production “Rub-A-Dub Style” and the 1993 track “Run Things” are further evidence that Minott’s singjaying style continued to serve him in good stead throughout his entire career. His versatility, talent and generosity will be sorely missed.
Greene, Jo-Ann. “Sugar Minott”. www.allmusic.com.
Thompson, David. Reggae and Caribbean Music. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002.