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World Music Legends

Steve Barrow

By Matt Scheiner
Published December 7, 2007

Reggae has left such an indelible impression on Blood and Fire Records’ A&R pro Steve Barrow that not only can the passionate 60-year-old remember the first time he heard the music (in a London club during the winter of 1963), but the first reggae single he ever purchased (Derrick and Patsy’s “Sea Wave”)—and for a man with 22,000 7-inch singles, that’s no easy feat. Barrow has been helping to preserve the music ever since, from organizing “dances” to showing up at reggae artists’ doorsteps, contract in hand—all because he loves the music. And when he gets tired of reggae (which he does) he switches over to his enormous jazz collection, or throws on some late ’60s Brazilian music, which he has become so fond of lately that he even purchased a Portuguese dictionary to better understand the lyrics.

What is the history of Blood and Fire and what is your label’s mission?
Myself along with Bob Harding and the management company of Simply Red got together with the idea to offer good quality reggae reissues. When we started 13 years ago there wasn’t really anyone doing coherent programs with decent packaging, top quality sound and restoration—it was all sort of haphazard. There was some good stuff out there, but we felt there was a gap in the market for something that was similar to the respect afforded to the back catalogues of well-known jazz labels like Blue Note and Prestige.

What are some of your current projects?
We run a sound system that we take all over the world where we have reggae artists deejay over rhythms. We met up with U-Roy in Japan and decided to put together a compilation of all of his old material (from 1969-1975) that hadn’t really made it onto CD. Basically we found every single he made during that period and put it on CD. So we are working on some additional projects with U-Roy and we are also putting out a low price vocal sampler called Singer Man, which highlights about 20 vocalists from our catalog. It generates more income for our artists and introduces the label to people.

Would you ever consider signing new artists to your label?
I’ve got to be honest—the music I am hearing today is too derivative of hip-hop and R&B. I like reggae, you know, I like the original reggae, and in my opinion it can still take more exposure commercially because when I play it around the world with the Blood and Fire sound system people love it. They don’t care that the record was made in 1977 or 1981 or whatever—they never heard it. And so that music comes in like fresh to them because it’s got the vibes and dynamics of live musicians working together to make the rhythm. It gets through to the people who appreciate that naturality.

What are your thoughts about the current reggae scene in Jamaica?
I think that because the music is so easy to make people do a lot of the shortcut business where they get a rhythm, and they get a dozen or so people to come in and voice on it, but they don’t really put any of the creativity that we saw with people like King Tubby and Prince Jammy, back in the heyday of Tubby’s Studio. There doesn’t seem to be that creativity—obviously things are more expensive now as well, and if you want to use live musicians you have to pay them money, but I think people should pay the money and put out less records and make sure the records are better because otherwise reggae is going to be like the Sean Paul syndrome where they graft in some hot DJ to add a bit of ‘island’ flavor or some R&B jam. Reggae is a music in its own right.

How do you approach the reissue business of securing talent?
No one really does it like us. I go to Jamaica, I find the people, and I meet the people in their house where they live and they can see me and after we’ve signed the contract they can access me by phone or whatever. I think you have to be truly involved with these artists. I never wanted a job