Weird, isn’t it? Jamaican rude boys and dancehall stars have long been obsessing over owning a pair of Clarks shoes for decades. Maybe it’s no surprise that songs about materialistic stuff coincided with the era of dancehall’s separation from roots reggae and Rasta ideals and the country’s post-independence economic depression.
Al Newman, aka DJ Al Fingers, had long been aware of the connection, but was even more intrigued when Vybz Kartel released “Clarks” a WHOLE SONG on the matter and decided to take a pilgrimage to Jamaica with photographer Mark Read, to document this phenomenon in his new book Clarks In Jamaica. As Al said during our interview, “There’s a comedy to dancehall that isn’t there in roots music.” And it's true, these guys singing about Clarks is not as conscious and shallow as, say, Kanye and Jay-Z asking whether the jacket is Margiela. Jamaican dancehall has a knowing irony to it. Or whatever, maybe I’m reading into it, so I thought it was best to go straight to the expert, and pick his brains about everything from what Clarks really means to dancehall and how Jamaica has affected British music.
NOISEY: So, what was the first tune to big up Clarks shoes?
Al Newman: John Dillinger's 1976 tune “CB200” is the earliest one I could find, really. It was a massive tune in Jamaica at the time, I'd say it boosted the popularity of Clarks, just like Vybz Kartel did with his tunes recently. It's about a Rasta driving around Kingston on his Honda CB200, getting various things from different parts of town. He goes to the bank, he buys some pants lengths and some ganzies, he goes to a shop called Baracatt’s – which was a shop that a lot of rude boys and musicians went to in downtown Kingston—and buys his Clarks.
There was also another way people got hold of a pair during Michael Manley’s import restrictions. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Manley imposed a total ban on importation of foreign-made footwear in 1973, but he lifted it pretty quickly. Still, he always imposed heavy duties and quotas so even when they could come into the country they were hard to get and very expensive. So during Manley’s time Clarks were coming in from the flocks of people travelling between Britain and Jamaica. They were cheaper in England so people were bringing them in suitcases for their friends and families. They weren’t bringing them to sell, but just to give out. Jah Thomas told a story about going up to a shoe shop in northern England and basically buying the whole place out of Clarks.
So these record producers and musicians, who started working with record labels in England, became providers to their own neighbourhood?.
You get status—Henry “Junjo” Lawes, for instance, would give them out to his rude boys. Ossie Thomas said to me, “There are no social services in Jamaica, so if you're a record producer, and you get the blessing to come to England to do some shows, to licence some tracks and make money, then it's your duty to come back and share that wealth with the community,” and the best thing that you could ever bring back, was a pair of Clarks. He said; “There's no greater joy than seeing your brethren in the hood coming out in his fresh new Clarks, and feeling like ‘the man’.” Also, Jah Thomas said he'd bring suitcases of Rizla, and there'd just be Rizlas spilling out everywhere.
Who else sang about the shoes?
There are loads but to name a few, Eek-A-Mouse mentions Clarks in a lyric in his tune “Wa Do Dem,” and Little John has a tune specifically about them called “Clarks Booty.” Before that Scorcher did “Put On Me Clarks” and Ranking Joe did “Clarks Booty Style.” And well before them Trinity did “Clarks Shoe Skank.”
So, in what way do you think the new crop of dancehall stars differ from these guys?
Back then it was centred around the actual dance hall. The artists would be at the dance hall every night; they’d have their turn on the mic and hone their skills that way. They’d develop their songs using lyrics that got the best crowd response. Then a producer would say, "Come on let's record that tune," and they'd go in the studio, record it and put it on vinyl.
And those sound systems would also be taped and distributed through cassettes.
Yes. There was a whole underground scene around that; it got pretty big, actually.
The lyrics are pretty different too. Now there's a lot more focus on bling-bling and even skin bleaching, not something roots musicians are into...
No they're not. Some people don't like Vybz Kartel at all for example. I think his music is amazing, but many of the old-school Rastas are completely against it. But things change, because "culture" changes and musicians bring about these changes. Being openly a bleacher, and unapologetic about it, Vybz Kartel made me look at it [bleaching] in a different way. Not that I agree with it, but him doing it and being like, “Yeah I do it, so what?” made me realise that he wasn't doing it because he was trying not to be black; he's obviously not ashamed of being black, he's just doing it for a style—it’s a way to show off his tattoos better. So while it's shocking, it’s interesting that he did as a fashion thing.
So you think it’s better to normalise it?
It's sad because most people are still doing it because they want to be light-skinned. But I still think Vybz flipped the meaning of it.
He's a big deal...
Definitely. And since he went to prison, let's be honest, dancehall got a bit boring.
Going back to the beginnings of the rude boy and Clarks culture, how did the two become associated with each other?
Rude boys have always been around in Jamaica, you know, Ivanhoe "Rhyging" Martin was a rude boy, infamous in the 40s. He was on the run from the police and became an underground hero. In the early '60s the rude-boy gangs really flourished. And these guys liked to dress in the most expensive stuff and look sharp, Clarks was always part of that uniform. Desert boots came out around that time, and because it was made in England it was a luxury, it was exclusive. Rude boys adopted it big time. You had to have a pair of desert boots; if you had to steal them you stole them. The association became so strong that if the police saw you wearing Clarks back in those days they would assume you were a rude boy and automatically want to arrest you or beat you. Because how else could you afford to wear such expensive English shoes?
Actually, there's an anecdote in the book about the police raiding a Coxsone sound system. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah, Joe Williams—who, in fact, became the head of the Jamaican police force later in the 80s—was a rude boy policeman and he was notorious for confronting the biggest, baddest men. He'd go into a dance, turn the music off and ask anybody wearing Clarks shoes to get to the side of the dance hall—that was his way of rounding up the rude boys. Then he’d lead them down to the station and beat them for wearing Clarks.
Your book touches upon this cultural exchange of sorts, between Jamaica and Britain.
English music has been hugely influenced by Jamaican music—in London more than anywhere else.
Like with Grime?
Yeah, I mean, before that there was Drum & Bass, and before that Jungle. You had people shouting out to "Junglists"—as in the Jungle area of West Kingston—and British producers sampling sound system tapes, live dancehall tapes even.
Is there any off-record stuff from the interviews you did for the book you can spill?
Let me tell you about the time Ossie Thomas went to Street in Somerset where Clarks used to be made. I asked him, "Will people see it the same today? Is it really worth it now because they don't make the shoes there any more?" He said to me, "Well, just for experience and knowledge of it, you go there. It's like if you were a reggae fan, and you'd take a trip to Kingston, you really need to go to Trenchtown, and Maxfield Avenue and Orange Street and all these places you see on the records, then you're going to feel happy. So me going to Street was the same kind of pilgrimage. I had to know Street. No matter where Street was, even if Street was in Scotland, I had to find it because you get a joy just knowing. To know, you get the knowledge and the joy, and to get the joy, I now say, ‘Yeah, I've been to Street; I know where Street is.’ You're happy."