Meet Edmund Leary, the ex-drug addict who lives in a homeless shelter and just so happened to have produced one of the most famous songs of the '90s.
You’ve probably heard the song “Informer” by Snow, even if you don’t know you have. A catchy early-90s dancehall reggae song with a “stop snitching” message, “Informer” spent seven straight weeks at #1 on the Billboard Singles Chart in 1993, making it the biggest reggae single of all time. The album it was released on, 12 Inches of Snow, soon went platinum. What made the song so unusual wasn’t its sound, which is comparable to that of contemporary tracks like Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper,” but the fact that it was performed in Jamaican patois by a white dude from Canada with a George Michael haircut. At the height of its popularity, “Informer” was big enough of a cultural phenomenon that the song’s video was parodied by Jim Carrey as “Imposter” back in his In Living Color days. Das Racist, who devoted their song “Fake Patois” to the phenomenon of American performers trying to sound like they’re from Kingston, included the line “My man Snow had a fake patois/Even Jim Carrey fuck with the patois” in reference to the song and ensuing parody. Their use of the past tense “had a fake patois” gives a pretty good idea of what became of the very-much-alive Snow in our collective consciousness: he disappeared.
What almost nobody realizes is that Snow’s album (the only one that matters, anyway) was produced largely by a man named Edmond Leary. Though the main production credit goes to legendary Queensbridge rapper MC Shan, Leary is credited as co-producer and co-writer and claims he put in most of the work. Unfortunately, the relationship between Snow and Leary didn’t yield any more hit singles and over the past 20 years Leary has struggled with crack addiction and homelessness while continuing to make music and hoping to relive some of his past success. He’s also made a name for himself as “The Bubble Man,” making giant bubbles for children in Madison Square Park and Union Square.
I first met Leary, better known as Ed, when I was hanging out in a courtyard on 28th Street around the corner from my old temp job. I used to talk with some of the people who kicked it there, mainly African street vendors who sold fake purses and assorted other contraband on Broadway. Eventually I struck up a friendship with Ed, who lives in the Prince George, an old hotel now used by the non-profit Common Ground for supportive housing. One of the first things I noticed about him was his endless optimism—even if he’s bitter about being fucked out of royalty payments, he still sees a bright future ahead of him and is thankful he’s been able to overcome his demons and lead a relatively comfortable life. The other thing that struck me right away was his natural storytelling ability – he was always more than happy to relive his “Informer” days and joke about working with Snow. I interviewed him in his small apartment overlooking the courtyard where we met. Full of equal parts bravado and gratitude, self-promotion and humility, he was never at a loss for words.
Noisey: Where were you born? How did you initially get into music?
I was born in North Babylon, Long Island. I was always into music. My father had a heavy jazz collection, I used to listen to his songs. I played drums in elementary school and started there. Picked up the guitar at ten years old and a year later I started playing bass. I grew up in North Babylon with a band, some guys in my town, and we played music, you know? Backed up a lot of bands.
Tell me about your first beats.
Well actually, I did the band thing for a while and I used to play piano in my house. Me and my partner Dwayne used to make up songs. But I basically didn’t get a break to be able to put my stuff out besides doing some parties and working with a crew that I formed with some friends of mine around ’87. I actually didn’t get a break in the industry until ’93. So from ’86 to like ’91 I was just making beats with Mike Greer, who also worked on the Informer album. So I was just working a regular job with my father at New York Telephone doing maintenance and my friend Michael Greer ended up meeting a rap artist – one of his brothers – and the introduction was made. And that’s how I got involved in the industry. That was MC Shan.
Did you meet Snow through MC Shan?
Yeah, we used to go down to Jamaica Avenue and one day there was some Jamaican brothers whose father had a studio on Jamaica Avenue and 168th street. We went over there one day and there was a kid named Marvin Prince. And he actually came up and said, “Hey, you’re MC Shan, I know you. Look: I got this white guy, his name is Snow. Darrin O’Brien. He’s really hot, I want to try to hook you up with him.” So a couple days later, Snow was down there. Did what he had to do, came down to New York. That was probably…we’re talking like ’92. It took a year to make the album.
What was your initial impression of Snow when you met him?
He was an Irish white kid from Canada exposed to Jamaican culture. He definitely was a talented kid. He sang a couple of songs…at that time “I Wanna Sex You Up” was hot—he sang that and some other songs. And then he sang “Informer.” That was his song. He wrote “Informer.” He spit a little of that for us and another joint he spit was “Lady with a Red Dress On.” That was one of the singles off the album. And you know, I have a good ear for music. I never read music; I only played by ear. So I kept that melody and I went home and put that song together. Most of the words to those songs. So we worked with him steadily for a couple of weeks until his money ran out. He had to go back to Canada. Once he made that move, his next little heist or whatever he was doing at the time—‘cause he was a booster, that was his thing—he came back.
He would steal stuff?
That was his thing. Boosting back in the days, you know? Clothes and stuff. He did his thing and he came down—he was there for a month and we put the album together. I had already been working on a lot of different tracks of my own, and as it came together I would just, off the top of the head, sing a little something and Shan would say “Yeah, Ak,[i] write it down.” So actually, if you want the truth of the matter, if we hadn’t done it equally and had to split up the money I would have gotten 70% of writer’s [royalties] off that album they probably would have split up 30, because I wrote most of that album. Most of the words were mine, and the ideas and structures and backgrounds in the vocal booth with me telling him what keys to sing the harmonies in and what have you. So I had a lot to do with that sound that became so popular and went Platinum.
And you got co-producer and co-writer credits?
Yeah, I had a problem with that, being that I did most of it. I thought I should have gotten two [percentage] points on that album but they had me split it with the engineer who did one track on there. And the main gripe I had was my credit of keyboard. See, at that time Teddy Riley and all these people were popular and everybody knows who the keyboard cat is: that’s the cat that’s really putting it down. So they chumped me on that and gave me co-producer credit. "Keyboard" would have said it all, would have set the record straight right then. But God’s will is what it is and it happens for a reason. We finished in like May ’92, and the night we finished his last track, the next day he went off to jail in Canada. He did about eight months.
That was for assault?
His uncle and him were together, as he tells the story, and some guys tried to jump him. They were outnumbered and you got to take care of yourself so he grabbed whatever he could grab, do what you got to do. So he got an attempted murder charge.
What did he grab?
A crowbar or something, to back these dudes off him. I mean, you’re with your uncle and your boy, and there’s seven to ten other guys. It’s self-defense, you know? He served his time, but the ironic thing about it is when he was in jail, his video hit. January 19th. It just passed—January 19th was the 20th anniversary of the introduction of Snow on the set with “Informer.” He was in jail at that time and cats were really bugging out like, “Yo man, that’s you up there on that TV screen! What are you doing in here?” So he got a little taste of what it was like to be out there before he even stepped out of jail.
So did Snow grew up around Jamaican immigrants?
Marvin Prince is actually the key here. I feel my duty is to give the credit to the people who did not get their credit. It’s because of Marvin Prince, his best friend. He would take Snow around to his different friends and they would make dubplates. And, you know, Snow was exposed to a lot of different things, listened to a lot of different things. So his style is actually a lot of other people’s style. Since then he’s developed into some other stuff. I’m hoping to connect with him again and bring him back to basics. Let’s get back to the beginning of what you do: R&B, Hip-Hop, and rapping in there. With some singing too—he’s a decent singer—but he’s lost the element of that Hip-Hop, R&B, Reggae thing, because let me explain something to you: Snow was the Eminem of Reggae and he still is the Eminem of Reggae when he does what he does best. I have a few tracks I’m going to submit for his new album. I provide them with the proof—they can see who did what. You can look at everybody’s track record—it’s nowhere. They haven’t done anything. People in financial problems. The lie can never be the truth, you know? So actually, he grew up with a lot of people and Marvin Prince was the one who gave him the name Snow, which stands for "Super Notorious Outrageous Whiteboy": SNOW. So that’s how he got that name. Marvin Prince had a lot to do with Snow getting on. That was his key in.
And what did Marvin Prince do?
Marvin Prince actually did, which he sued for, and had I been there—unfortunately at the time I was incarcerated—Marvin Prince actually did "Runway," which was a track on the album. Matter of fact it was the first track, if I’m correct. "Runway" was Marvin Prince’s contribution to that. He tried to sue for it and I can verify and witness that Marvin actually put the track together. He actually produced that track and he brought it to me. I was a vehicle for a lot of people getting on.
So the lyrics to “Informer” were mainly by you?
No. "Informer" is the only track on there that I didn’t write myself. That was Snow’s track and that song was about the whole incident of him getting incarcerated and the experience that he went through. People don’t know that. Matter of fact, that was the first time MTV ever had to put subtitles at the bottom of the video so that people knew he wasn’t just mumbling some words—he was telling the story of how he got incarcerated.
But when he recorded it, he wasn’t incarcerated yet.
No, but he was already in court negotiations about that. It had already happened so the story was about that.
So it’s a story about someone informing on him.
Yeah, all he’s trying to say is he had to take care of himself, protect himself. He’s not wrong, is what he’s saying.
So did you know the song was going to be a big single when it was recorded? What were your expectations?
Yeah, “Informer” was like the main joint, you know? Actually, at that time I was homeless in Babylon, Long Island due to substance abuse and I used to go to a bar— Stillman’s—in Babylon, Long Island and I had heard Stevie Ray Vaughn’s album with the song “Mama Say,” and it had a very distinctive hip-hop drum break in there that was off the hook. I used to go in that bar and listen to it all the time like this [screws face]. I took it to Shan and that was the foundation to that song, along with him adding a few things to it. Yeah, we already knew from witnessing the people on Jamaica Avenue that this kid was definitely the truth.
How did it feel when the song blew up? When did you first know it was a big hit?
Once it hit the scene it was like a craze, because everybody wanted to know, “What’s this dude saying?” It’s the verses that they really didn’t understand, so people really jumped on to this. “What is he talking about?” Once MTV put the subtitles on it, people knew the story. It was big. Very catchy, you know? The “Licky boom boom down” thing. Just the track in general. I never expected it to go pop.
Did you get paid?
Well actually, that whole thing was…I always talk about God’s will and certain things happen, because like I said I had an addiction problem—substance abuse and alcohol at that time—so I realized when I got shystered out of my publishing, not knowing anything about the record industry, this artist actually stole my money, basically. And I realized God did something for me that I couldn’t do myself, ‘cause I didn’t need a million dollars worth of addiction habit, you know what I’m saying? Cocaine, crack, and these things. Alcohol. I didn’t need any of that money. So I ended up getting the writer’s [credit]—we split the writer’s three ways so I get writer’s to this day, but I don’t get publishing.
Was there one point when you realized you needed to turn your life around and go to rehab?
That was right after the money was done. I knew I had to go in. Little did I know I would struggle years after, on and off and go through the shelters and all that struggle that I went through. But I know one thing for sure: God says that with every hardship comes ease, so you got to go through something to get something. During that time, I had come out to the city after I got out of jail. That was 2000. I entered a program then and started getting my life together.
What were you in jail for?
I went to jail for a sale. When you’re buying somebody something and giving it to them and it’s the cops, you get the sale [charge]. You’re the middleman, but you get the sale because the money is in your hands and the drugs came from your hands to the cops.
This was crack?
This was actually crack cocaine, yeah.
How did you start doing the bubbles?
In 2008, I was going through a program on the Upper East Side, and a girl named Amy Connelly ended up asking me if I wanted a job, so I worked there ‘til just last year helping the homeless. I was the Clothing Coordinator the last year I was there. I was helping the homeless with clothes and working there on a stipend. Being homeless myself, my heart is for the people, so I was there to help them and make sure they get what they need. The blessings are coming back for that, because when you do good you get good. I ended up losing that job last year, because I have a heart and sometimes you go above and beyond and your boss doesn’t agree with that. But I had met a guy named Steven Duncan in my travels through Central Park. Central Park is a big part of my life. They have a big dance party—skating party—that I volunteered with and was involved with for several years. Steven was making these giant bubbles—very humble brother. He heard my music and was actually a financial backer on a lot of things. Once I was released from this job last year, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I realized that God removes you from one job to another, and it’s an even greater blessing because now I’m touching more lives and it’s the lives of children. So I coined the phrase, “Share the bubble love,” and it’s a phenomenon now. The kids come, you see the smiles. You see parents reflect on when they were a kid having bubbles. So I get all kinds of people at my bubble parties, as I call them. The main thing is when everyone’s finished bubbling I put them inside a bubble. That’s the ultimate vibe of sharing the bubble love. It’s a beautiful thing. Madison Square Park is my main area. Share the bubble love.
What’s the best part of the bubbles?
The joy of the kids, man. It’s walking down the street with my cart and my bucket and sticks and seeing a little kid with his parents and they look up at me with a look like their innate nature knows I have something good. When I see kids, it just makes me smile. I love kids, man. I work good with kids and the bubble love is definitely for the joy of the kids. It’s for the community, but it’s the kids, because they react and give me a high five and always want to be in a bubble. It’s just bringing joy and inspiration to people in the community. Having people say “Hey, I had a bad day but when I saw that SUV-size bubble it really made me smile.” And, you know, meeting people from all over the world and letting them know how to make bubbles so we can spread the bubble love. I try to tell everyone how to make the bubble love. The solution. Hopefully I can get that endorsement with Dawn dishwashing liquid and we’ll be alright.
[i] Ed’s nickname, Arabic for brother. Ed is a practicing Muslim.
Find Rob Bryan on Twitter - @rahbrine