(Exerpt from an upcoming feature on Lord Sassafrass)
R. Lowe February, 2013
It was 1986 at 2:00 in the morning, the night was especially hot and without a moon. Sassafrass was driving a motorcycle through the outskirts of Western Kingston with Ginger Tea, his hype man riding pillion. A hype man is a person who cheers on a performer at a dance which encourages the crowd to join in. This was not Sassa’s area, he was moving through a neighboring area, hoping to pass without drawing attention. In the darkness, Sassa steered left around a corner and Ginger Tea was steady leaning and looking right, at some activity on the corner. This caused the motorcycle to lose balance and wobble. Hitting the brakes, the bike came to a halt. Immediately, two men approached the bike. As they approached, the shorter, stockier man turned his head and exclaimed, “Hey Sassafrass! Ya gone foreign and mi nah hear ya voice again! Come chat pon the sound fe me.” The short man motioned over to the corner where Ginger Tea had been looking and Sassa could hear the music coming from beyond the zinc fence. Although Sassa was feeling kind of “boomy” (apprehensive/jumpy), there was pressure to comply given that he was not in his own area, but was being shown some decency.
Once inside the yard, there was a crowd of people moving in the darkness. A small set of lights were strung in the corner and on either side, Sassa and Ginger Tea could see a sound system with individual groups of men. This yard had two neighborhood sounds competing and Sassa immediately recognized the dj working the mic on one of the sounds, it was Gregory Peck. Sassa comments on many of the dance goers, “Them nuh really know Peck. So I stand up beside him to support him.” As Sassa settles into position, Gregory Peck turns to him and in his clear voice over the speaker boxes he shouts out pure attack lyrics against Sassa, trying to kill him! This was Peck defending his area as he was the local favorite. Quite likely that Peck wanted bragging rights of killing a hot dj who was scoring on the charts. Peck had not yet recorded much and had not yet made impact on the music scene, but he was ready for a fight. Peck then proceeds to run through a few riddims aggressing toward Sassa in relation to his recent time spent in New York, him being fat, and any other crafty insult he could manufacture. Sassafrass was almost knocked over, “I come there to support this guy and he try to kill mi man! Being a dj, ya have to be great to go into another dj area.”
Once Peck had his time on the mic, the crowd recognized that Lord Sassafrass needs to make his response and they beat the fence. At this point Sassa’s hype man Ginger Tea grabs hold of the mic and shouts to the crowd, “We nuh mix wid dutty bungle! All weh we deal with a nice n deacent peeeple. Hear dis, a strickly one, one. One me dealwid tonite people. Ecko Mnott one, Gentrees one, Sassa one! Come dung now Horseman.” Standing next to Ginger Tea, Lord Sassafrass takes hold of the mic and djs his song “Pocomania Jump,” “Poco jump, poco jump, make we do the poco jump…grow a Marveley inna one tenement. Month end come an me couldn’t pay mi rent…” Sassafrass commented, “The place tun over.” Sassafrass was able to depart that night with his pride, but was still struck at how Gregory Peck attacked him without provocation. Sassa recalls, “The little bwoi a try.” The next day, he reasoned with Echo Minott about the incident. Echo said, “Yeh a kill im wa kill u, a bus im waa bus, weh u tink? Yu was like dat bak in a de days. Yu want piece a everybody. Yu wrenk and feisty.” Ironic that it was Gregory Peck that followed Sassa’s Poco lyrics lead and later recorded one of his most recognizable songs “Poco Man Jam.”
by Rich Lowe
Jamaican recording artist Lord Sassafrass (Michael Johnson) was born in Maverley, Kingston, Jamaica. Sassafrass is best known as a dancehall Reggae dj with the Black Scorpio Sound System. On Black Scorpio Sound, Lord Sassafrass introduced the world to General Trees, the entire Horseman Crew, "keeping a dance" lyrics, Obeah lyrics, and great live dj clashes with artists like General Echo, Johnny Ringo, and Nicodemus. Sassafrass went on to record the top selling album "Pocomania Jump" on Black Scorpio Records, controlling the number one slot on the charts with "Poco Jump." He recorded other great songs like "Jamaica Way," "Murder She Wrote" (with General Trees), and the enormous hit "Step Up In Life" (with Barrington Levy). Sassafrass left a distinguished trail of recorded music and live dancehall sessions as he moved from Jamaica to New York, and to his present location in Canada. In the mid 1960s Sassafrass began his musical education with Dj Wicked in Spanish Town and on Chika Sound System, but really cut his teeth in the early 1970's on Soul Expert. Desmond, the owner of Soul Expert, recognized his early talent and introduced Sassafrass to the recording studio. Their first session in 1977 resulted in Sassafrass' first song, "The Story of Roots." Soon after Sassafrass began work with Lee Perry ("The Upsetter") and recorded the classic "Green Bay Massacre" on the Upsetter record label. Sassafrass continued to sharpen his skills in during this classic era of 70's Jamaican Dancehall at Bamboo Lawn, Three-Piece Lawn, and The Student Union at The University of the West Indies. In the 1980s, Lord Sassafrass worked with Emperor Faith, Socialist Roots, Virgo, Killamanjaro, King Majestic (A St. Thomas Sound with a young Supercat and Early B), Black Star, and New York sounds, GT High Power and Third World Sound. Being a school friend of Jack Scorpio, it was a natural for Sassafrass to join up with Black Scorpio Sound. At the Black Scorpio Yard at 30 Headley Avenue, Sassafrass kept the crowds jumping with lyrics to last well into the morning. Enter General Trees. Trees was an apprentice at Caymanas Park horse race track in Jamaica. With horseracing lyrics in abundance, Sassafrass and Trees worked in combination. Often one added harmony as the other dj'd, which brought something new to the dancehall. The duo also used two microphones simultaneously. This combination was exciting in the dancehall and attracted huge crowds that would block off roads entirely. And Sassafrass and Trees knew how to cultivate the crowd. At one dance, Sassafrass brought the excitement to a new level when he rode a horse into a dance clash with the great General Echo. Much of Sassafrass' musical history is seen in the live dance. Similar to the career of Brigadier Jerry, Sassafrass was entertaining in an era of live djs, where recorded music was secondary to the live dance. Sassafrass maintained his focus on the Thursday night gathering at the Black Scorpio yard. He gathered his Horseman Crew: General Trees, Echo Minott, Papa Screw, and Shuka Shine. "Reggaemusiclovinpeople" from all over were drawn to the sound and drank plenty of Heineken and Guinness throughout the night. Obeah is a form of black magic. Sassafrass became known throughout dancehall as the "Obeahman," introducing "obeah" lyrics into the dance. Sassafrass' area is Maverley and there are four or more Pocomania Churches throughout Maverley. In the early 1980's Sassafrass worked with Bunny Lee to record the self-titled "Lord Sassfrass" album. This entire album was recorded at King Tubby's Studio in Waterhouse, Jamaica with Jammy's as the engineer. As Sassafrass says, "King Tubby was there at all time, he never leave that studio." Jammy's went on to open his own studio, "Jammy'$." In the mid 1980's Sassafrass spent time in New York, while working on his second album "Pocomania Jump" for Black Scorpio (with the help of advance money from Byron Lee). While in New York, Sassafrass worked on the GT High Power Sound, Papa Moke, and Third World Sound. It was through these sounds that Sassafrass was exposed to artists like Carlton Livingston, Lone Ranger, Mikey Jarrett, Nicodemus, Lui Lepke, and Peter Ranking. Sassafrass and many of these artists kept the parties going until early morning at Galaxy Ballroom, The Starlight, Colonial Mansion, The Reggae Lounge, and The Biltmore. At The Pepper Box, Sassfrass clashed against Johnny Ringo countless times. Sassafrass comments, "Any time Ringo see me, him start dj against me. Mi kill that all the while." As his "Poco Jump" song was topping the charts in Jamaica, Sassafrass was able to be a dominant player in New York and Kingston simultaneously. As Sassafrass enters his fourth decade in reggae, he has earned the respect of his peers and even his enemies. For example, a long-standing competitor with Black Scorpio Sound is the great Killamanjaro Sound. In a 2011 interview, when asked about Black Scorpio Sound, Papa Jaro was first to mention Lord Sassafrass: "Sassafrass was actually the teacher for General Trees. He was very exciting and he could make some lyrics that could make you laugh and have fun!" Recently, Lord Sassafrass has released new tunes "Don't Wait Too Long," "Sassafrass.com," and "Swine Flu." In 2010, he toured Europe with Jack Scorpio and Echo Minott and is planning another European tour in 2011. His work today carries out the tradition he started almost forty years ago - a sound that is completely unique and his own.
Rich Lowe WRUW Radio