Seminal radio DJ, artist, producer, and TV host Mikey Dread may be best-known in the U.S. for his work with old school punk heroes the Clash, but in his Jamaican and adopted British home, his legacy is seen as much more than that. Born in 1954, in Port Antonio, Jamaica, Michael Campbell came to national prominence in the '70s with a weekly radio show on JBC (Jamaican Broadcasting Company). Taking the name Mikey Dread, the DJ's four-hour spot, which he called Dread at the Controls, was a revelation. Jamaican radio had not revolved around local talent, but rather imported music mostly from the United States. Even as the Jamaican recording industry had flourished across the '60s, this aversion to local music had not diminished. Some of the labels had overcome this handicap through a pay-to-play system that wasn't exactly payola, but a system of advertising. Thus Studio One, Treasure Isle, and the island's other larger labels would buy blocks of advertising time, during which they would play their new releases. This led to advertising coming solely from those labels with adequate cash and with only two radio stations servicing the island, there were few alternatives to reaching national audiences. Dread's radio show changed that. He not only featured Jamaican music, but played the hottest new songs within days (and even hours) of their pressing. The DJ also knew his musical history, and one of his favorite tactics was to spin the original classic songs whose rhythms were currently mashing up the dancehalls.
But Dread didn't stop with anarchic patter and hip music; his jingles — which were recorded at King Tubby's studio — were as groundbreaking as the show itself. The DJ employed whichever vocalists happened to be in the studio at the time, including two school girls, Althea Forrest and Donna Reid, who Dread soon began to favor. The pair had recently cut a song with the production team the Mighty Two, as a feminine retort to DJ Trinity's hit "Three Piece Suit," which Dread utilized for a jingle.
In response, the Mighty Two released the cut "Uptown Top Ranking" toward the end of 1977, which went to the top of the charts in Jamaica and Britain. Dread seemed to have the magic touch and so he took a shot at repeating his on-air success in the recording studio with the help of Lee Perry. The resulting debut cut, "Dread at the Controls," quickly became the DJ's anthem. It was swiftly followed by "Schoolgirls" and the potent "Homeguard." More singles followed, including a clutch with the Mighty Two, and "Rootsman Revival" for Sonia Pottinger. Meanwhile, Dread's radio show continued on, delighting audiences and infuriating the DJ's conservative bosses at JBC. By 1979, however, Dread had tired of the constant battles at the station and resigned. He initially took a job as an engineer at Treasure Isle, but soon linked up with producer Carlton Patterson, for whom he cut the "Barber Saloon Haircut" single. The pair also joined forces behind the recording desk, and together produced Ray I's hit "Weatherman Skank."
Before the year was out, Dread had launched his own label, Dread at the Controls, which was also chosen as the title of his debut album and DATC's first release. Its dub companion, African Anthem Dubwise, followed and featured dub remixes by King Tubby, Prince Jammy, and Dread himself. Both albums featured excursions into deep dub and were cut up by jingles, spoken word segments, and toasts. As the new decade dawned, Dread was on his way to England to open for the Clash's month-long tour. Afterward, all five went directly into the studio where Dread oversaw the group's seminal "Bankrobber" single. The Clash had initially composed the song with a ska arrangement in mind, but Dread would have none of that and publicly made his opinions clear. He then set about completely restructuring the song into a heavy dub monster. Dread would also record his own DJ version of "Bankrobber," under the title "Rocker's Galore — U.K. Tour." The recording sessions moved to New York City where Dread joined the Clash for their next single, a cover of Eddy Grant's "Police on My Back," as well as "One More Time," a song that would soon appear on the band's Sandinista! album. While there, Dread recorded a single of his own, the bruising "Rocker's Delight." More sessions were set up in Kingston, but were aborted because the group became the intended victim of every thief in town. The Clash disappointedly left for the safety of home and Dread turned his attention back to DATC and his own recordings. Continuing to co-produce with Patterson, the label unleashed a string of crucial singles aimed at dancehalls by such seminal artists as Sugar Minott, Edi Fitzroy, and Junior Murvin. Dread had maintained his relationship with King Tubby as well, and his remixes were often featured on the label's B-sides, another crucial element to the label's success. Meanwhile, Dread also cut a number of his own singles, "Proper Education," "Love the Dread," and "African Map" amongst them. These inevitably featured seminal dub remixes on the B-sides, created by Patterson, Dread, or King Tubby, and often the records were pursued by fans exclusively for the dubs themselves. Dread's new album, Beyond World War III, arrived in 1981. The next year brought Jungle Signal, which interspersed vocal offerings with great slabs of dub. The "Jumping Master" single was a major hit that same year, and Dub Merchant arrived soon after, boasting eight blinding remixes of that song.
While Dread and his music, label, and productions were having a massive influence on the U.K. scene, it was evident that Britain had also made an impact on Dread. Lovers rock had swept across the U.K. reggae scene, and in response, Dread released S.W.A.L.K., his third album of 1982. Not blessed with the sweetest of voices, lovers rock was perhaps not the wisest choice of style for Dread's nasal tones. And the U.K. was undergoing another revolution as well, with the launch of the nation's fourth television channel, Channel Four. This station, although not government-controlled, was set up to cater to minority interests, a counterweight to the more broad-based entertainment offered by the nation's other independent station, ITV. Obviously the channel would offer music shows, but in keeping with its protocol, was looking at more alternative styles. Jamaican music was an obvious starting point, and a six-part series on the island musical scene, Deep Roots, was commissioned. The choice for narrator was equally obvious and Dread accepted the offer. The following year, Dread was back in front of the Channel Four cameras as host of the Rockers Road Show, which featured live performances. Dread himself provided the show's theme song, "Roots and Culture." That song would be among the many highlights of 1984's Pave the Way. Self-produced and boasting some of the greatest musicians from both Jamaica and the U.K., the album remains one of the most creative reggae records ever recorded, assuming that's how it's categorized. Pave the Way Part I & II arrived the next year, but it would be five years before Dread returned with another full-length album. His output of singles was even more sporadic, as he concentrated on television work.
By the time he returned to recording with Happy Family in 1989, most people had stopped paying attention. 1991's Portrait, another lovers rock set, fared little better, although its dub companion, African Anthem Revisited, suggested a return to stronger sounds, it failed to live up. In the new decade, Dread briefly moved to the Rykodisc label and released Obsession in 1992, which found him still obsessed with lovers rock. That same year he was involved in ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin's debut album, Izzy Stradlin & the Ju Ju Hounds. Another four years passed and in 1996, Dread returned with Come to Mikey Dread's Dub Party. Since then, he has again lapsed into a lengthy period of musical silence. In front of the cameras, however, Dread has remained an important figure. Some of his projects include the video history Deep Roots Music and the British TV series Rockers International. In 1991, Rykodisc released Best Sellers, featuring early singles and the best cuts from albums. At the end of the '90s, Music Club treated listeners to the Prime of Mikey Dread: Massive Dub Cuts 1978-1992. ~ Jo-Ann Greene