One of the many voices of the roots era, Prince Far I was absolutely unique. He certainly cannot be categorized as a singer, although at times — especially during chanted passages — there was definitely a singsong quality to his vocals, and in that respect the closest comparison was to Winston Rodney of Burning Spear. However, that group actually wrote lyrics, while Prince Far I vocals were a stream of consciousness that belongs in the DJ realm. But to call him a toaster is equally inaccurate. His delivery was reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet, railing at the wicked, a seething outpouring of religiously inspired righteousness.
Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, in 1944, Michael James Williams actually started his career in the sound systems, DJing for the Sir Mike the Musical Dragon setup. That certainly didn't pay the bills, however, and the young man also worked as a security guard at Joe Gibbs' studio. Eventually, he was then employed by Coxsone Dodd as a bouncer for the producer's own Studio One sound system. It was a sheer fluke that Williams ended up cutting his debut single for Dodd. The producer had a session booked for DJ King Stitt one day in 1970 and the veteran toaster didn't show. On the spur of the moment, Dodd allowed the bouncer to take the mic instead, the end result was the "Queen of the Minstrel" single. It was released under the moniker King Cry Cry, a name foisted on him by the producer, who'd witnessed more than once his employee bursting into tears when angered. Williams kept the name even after he began cutting singles with other producers. The following year, King Cry Cry scored his first minor hit with "I Had a Talk," recorded with Bunny Lee. Coincidentally, in the U.K. this song was paired with "Zion Train" by a still unknown Burning Spear.
Back in Jamaica, King Cry Cry's follow-up single, "The Great Booga Wooga," a version of Lester Sterling's "Spring Fever," did equally well. However, the artist's career progressed slowly and as the titles to his early singles show, he had yet to find his true voice. Even after producer Enos McLeod recommended changing his name to Prince Far I — the Voice of Thunder, under which name he was credited on the "Let Jah Arise" single, the performer had yet to set the island alight. He did, however, chalk up another minor hit with the Coxsone Dodd-produced "Natty Farmyard," a version of Larry Marshall's "Mean Girl." The newly crowned Prince was also involved in several collaborative recordings, including one with Bobby & Tommy, and another with the Maytones, for the fabulous Alvin Ranglin produced "Creation Time." It wasn't until 1976 that Prince Far I recorded his debut album, Psalms for I. Produced by Lloydie Slim, it comprised ten tracks in all — the Lord's Prayer and nine psalms, across which the artist first previewed the sermon-esque deliveries that would become his trademark. And while the album had a marvelously rootsy sound, the missing element was rhythms heavy enough to support the artist's apocryphal vision. In the meantime, there was the "Zion Call" single to keep Jamaica interested.
Producer Joe Gibbs finally supplied the missing ingredient in 1977 for the seminal single "Heavy Manners." Utilizing the rhythm from Naggo Morris' "Su Su Pon Rasta," the producer spun a deeply dubby sound, the bass line as heavy as a rhinoceros and just as dangerous. Over this fierce, dread backing, Prince Far I sarcastically addressed the trenchant of laws enacted by the government to stem the tide of violence that had covered the island. "Heavy Manners" immediately elicited an outcry of rabid support from Rastafarians and ghetto youth who were living under virtual martial law, and of outrage from those who saw no other solution. This included Lord Stitch, who replied with the "Crazy Joe" single cut for Bunny Lee and Clive Chin. The latter man's shop, Randy's, was a mere stone's throw from Gibb's own and Chin bellicosely blasted the single from his store day and night. But Prince Far I and his "baldhead followers" were not chased out of town, as Stitch suggested they ought to be, far from it. Instead, the artist was hard at work on a new album, Under Heavy Manners. The Roots Radics laid down the thunderous rhythms, from which Gibbs created the doom-laden, dread-laced atmosphere and the artist himself delivered Rastafarian diatribes and scathing political comments.
No album better summed up the mood of Jamaica in 1977. The year before, the island had experienced a blood-letting of previously inconceivable proportions that began during a meeting of the IMF held in Kingston and crescendoed during the election campaign. Calm was now returning, but the wounds were deep and paranoia now gripped the island. The past political chaos was partially responsible, but so was Culture, whose single "Two Sevens Clash" had captured the imagination of the inhabitants with its message of the upcoming apocalypse (which the group prophesied would occur in 1977). Into this maelstrom came Under Heavy Manners with its own doom-laden prophesies, righteous wrath, and revolutionary political polemics. Britain, undergoing its own upheavals, was also taken by the album and it became a cult hit across Europe. With its success, Prince Far I inked a deal with the Virgin label's subsidiary Front Line. The first fruits of this new union appeared in 1978 with the Message From the King album. Self-produced, the record was nearly the equal to its predecessor and filled with more classic songs, including "Blackman Land" and the aptly titled "Armageddon." Long Life was released later that same year and was almost as good; its only major flaw was the omission of the spectacular "No More War" single.
1978 also saw Prince Far I launch his own label, Cry Tough, as a home for his own work and for other artists with a similar philosophy. (Some of the label's artists are featured on 1980's Showcase in a Suitcase album, whose tracks were effectively remixed by Far I himself). Utilizing the superlative Roots Radics (who appear as the Arabs), Cry Tough unleashed a stream of ferocious singles. Meanwhile back in Britain, a young electro-maverick, Adrian Sherwood, was taking notice and established his own Hit Run label, domestically releasing Cry Tuff singles. The Englishman was also responsible for remixing the excellent Cry Tuff Dub Encounter, the first in a series of dub collections all featuring the awesome power of the Roots Radics at their most menacing.
In 1979, Health and Strength should have been released, but wasn't because the master tapes disappeared from Front Line's London office. Boasting the "Uncle Joe" single (which paired Prince Far I with Gregory Isaacs), along with two more tracks utilizing Isaac rhythms and another pair of singles, "Frontline Speech and "Weatherman Tam," the album remained lost until 1998. In that year, a former employee came across an old cassette he had dubbed previous to the tapes vanishing. Taken in its historical context, Health and Strength would have made 1979 a very different year. Instead, fans received the far inferior Livity. A second volume of the Cry Tuff Dub Encounter series was also released just in time for the Roots Encounter U.K. tour with a lineup of Prince Far I and Hit Run labelmates Bim Sherman and Prince Hammer. Sherwood's label had sponsored the tour, but Sherwood himself had no part in the second dub volume and thus the annoyed Briton hit back with Dub to Africa, featuring tracks performed by Prince Far I himself. The artist was not particularly happy with Front Line and having now fulfilled his contract with them, he moved to Trojan and released the 1979's patchy Free From Sin, which swung from the fierce title-track to the mundane "Reggae Music." In fact, for the rest of his career, Prince Far I would record his best work not on his own for Trojan, but in collaboration with Sherwood.
Alongside the equally seminal Creation Rebel and Singers and Players, the artist recorded a slew of singles between 1979 and 1981, as well as the album Prince Far I & Singers and Players, which was released on Sherwood's new label On-U. (The Roots Radics, aka the Arabs, also recorded for Sherwood under a second alias, Dub Syndicate.) Compared to these recordings, 1980's Jamaican Heroes sounds positively banter weight with only a revised "Deck of Cards" really standing out, although lyrically and thematically, Prince Far I's vocal delivery was as strong as ever. The following year's Voice of Thunder is an improvement on its predecessor, with "Ten Commandments" of particular note. The third and fourth volumes of Cry Tuff Dub Encounter appeared during this period and featured further scintillating voyages into the heaviest of dub's doom.
In 1982, Prince Far I collaborated with the British band Sons of Arqa for the "Wadada Magic" single. Later that same year, the group and artist paired again during the Jamaican's British tour, this time on-stage in Manchester for a stunning show captured on The Musical Revue album. Prince Far I returned to Jamaica and released his final album in the new year, Musical History. It was not his best work as he had not yet come to grips with the shift in dancehall fashions.
Future recordings with the Sons of Arqa were planned and their dense and sinuous style and love of experimentation would have provided a more fitting backdrop than what was current in Jamaica. But that's only speculation, as the men never had the chance to enter the studio together again. On September 15, 1983, Prince Far I's proselytizing came to an abrupt end when he was killed during a robbery at his home. His legacy, however, remains intact and his power has barely diminished since his death. Through the power of electronics, Prince Far I lives on anew. In 1991, Adrian Sherwood sampled some of the artist's old vocals for the Dub Syndicate's new album, Stoned Immaculate. The band even took him on tour in 1996 and again, through the magic of sampling, Prince Far I provided the thunderous vocals to the group's musical set. In a way, the mysterious disappearance of Health & Strength was perhaps fated, its very belated release introducing a new generation to the artist at his peak and reminding older fans of just how powerful his message and vision had been. ~ Jo-Ann Greene