In the early 1990s, Nirvana released what is considered one of the greatest and most pivotal albums in rock history, Nevermind. Some sources credit album sales in excess of 30 million copies, but one thing is for sure: the album catapulted the Seattle-based band to mainstream success while popularizing a new subgenre of rock n’ roll, known more generally as alternative rock, and more specifically, grunge. Grunge blended elements of metal with punk, and would impact the course of the music industry for the next decade.
Notorious for dynamic shifts from quiet to loud, distorted guitars, power chords and anguished, often bleak lyrics, Nirvana’s swift rise from an indie band grinding out a living in the Northwestern United States to a worldwide sensation paved the way for many other indie/alt-rock/punk bands during the 90s, creating a shift in the music biz where major labels opened up their wallets to unknown musical groups with the hope of cultivating the next number one with a bullet.
You may be wondering, why is Rootfire writing about Nirvana?
The response to that question is Battle for Seattle, an album of Nirvana songs performed inna reggae stylee, the topic of our latest Throwback Thursday article.
While Battle for Seattle is labeled as an album of venerable roots reggae singer Little Roy, who provided vocals throughout, it truly was the work of one of modern reggae’s more ingenious producers, England’s Mike “Prince Fatty” Pelanconi. Prince Fatty has been a prominent producer, re-mixer and deejay in the U.K. reggae/dub scene since the 1990s, and his popularity has enabled him to perform as a selector internationally. American listeners may know Prince Fatty from his reggae version of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” which was featured in an episode of the hugely popular AMC television show, Breaking Bad. Known for his ability to modernize classic Jamaican riddims while still staying true to their original vibes, he has six studio albums credited under his own name as well as many other projects that he’s been involved with, among them, the lauded music of British chanteuse Hollie Cook, and of course, the topic of this article, Battle for Seattle.
Battle for Seattle has to be one of the most unexpected hidden treasures within the reggae universe. Upon considering the concept of an album of reggae versions of Nirvana songs, the typical reaction is surprise and disbelief due to the presumed incongruous nature of the genres of grunge and reggae. After surveying some friends about the emotions that come to mind when thinking of Nirvana’s music, responses included depressing, disconnection, stormy, heaviness, numbness and isolation; words not usually, or ever, used to describe the feelings elicited from reggae music.
While it can be argued that both Nirvana and roots reggae speak to the experience of suffering, generally speaking, the content of roots reggae songs largely speak to societal injustices, whereas Nirvana’s lyrics were typically more personal in nature. Vibe-wise, Nirvana’s music evokes a mood of sadness and despair, while roots reggae music, with its melodic bass lines, tends to connote jubilance.
Despite this implausible idea, Prince Fatty manages to pull off this album successfully. Selecting ten tracks from four different Nirvana LPs (Nevermind, Incesticide, In Utero and Bleach), the music, despite its agonizing lyrical content, nevertheless proves to be uplifting and lighthearted.
How does Prince Fatty achieve this?
A prime example of his genius could be found with the song “Polly.” Perhaps Nirvana’s most disturbing song, sung from the point of view of a murderer torturing his captive, Fatty speeds up the tempo and punctuates the song with playful “woo-woos” throughout. The result changes the tone of the song from haunting to impish, at worst.
Another element of the album that helps to accomplish this transformation is the prevalent organ sounds reminiscent of the British second wave ska bands The Specials and Madness, whose use of the instrument always struck me as sort of sinister, yet more mischievous than evil. It provides the perfect texture for this album that adeptly toes the line between dark and light.
My favorite track on the album is the Nirvana’s lesser-known single, “Sliver.” I had not been aware of the song until its inclusion on “Battle for Seattle,” but what a joy it had been to discover it! The song, delivered from the perspective of a young child who, to his chagrin, has been left at his grandparents’ house for an evening, features the line “I couldn’t chew my meat too good,” and a chorus of “Grandma take me home” repeated over and over. Evidently, Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, the icon of gloom, wanted people to know that he was not without levity, and it was a brilliant move by Prince Fatty to include this song as a nod to Cobain’s sense of humor.
In order to gain some insight into the creative mind behind this project and learn a little more about his passion for reggae music, Rootfire reached out to Prince Fatty with some interview questions. He was kind enough to respond while on tour in Brazil.
Rootfire: In your bio it states, “Finding himself frustrated by the tempos and mixes of certain records he loved—typified by DJing one time after Don Letts who had already played half his selection—he set about recording his own versions with a supergroup of London’s finest reggae musicians….” in reference, I assume, to your debut release, Survival of the Fattest. Could you expand a little bit about this story?
Prince Fatty: Stussy were behind the first release of Prince Fatty. Initially, they invited me to DJ alongside Don Letts at one of their parties. I played after Don Letts. However, during his set he played a similar selection of Studio One that I had planned to play. This encouraged me to play a very different set of music.
Coincidently, I’d been record shopping that day and found Afro treasures and old-school RnB records. With these on me, I played a selection of Fela Kuti, Etta James, and Ike and Tina, mixing into the set the classic reggae versions. The party had a great energy and I believe the Stussy crew were surprised. They loved and enjoyed the unexpected selection, and from that moment on, we moved forward, creating together.
This made me realize I needed my own private cuts to DJ with. Around the same time, Ol’ Dirty Bastard died, inspiring me to record a version of “Shimmy Ya” in memory of and to show my respect. I actually used to hold a 1 minute silence for Dirty, which was not easy in a club at 1AM. Following the success at shows, we kept making versions for the sound system. To fulfill my contractual obligations with Mr Bongo, I gave them multiple versions, as I wasn’t keen to assign any original tunes. This was around the Supersize album period.
RF: Also from your bio, about your time bouncing around from studio to studio where you cut your teeth and learned the craft, you stated, “They knew I was either going to leave or get fired but during the first six months I would learn as much as I could, whether it was the equipment or the way the rooms worked, but then after a while I’d get bored and want to switch.” What intrigued me was the comment, “the way the rooms worked.” For those of us who are not recording engineers or musicians, could you explain that in more detail? Is that just a reference to how to use the equipment, or something more abstract?
PF: Equipment is one thing but the invisible aspect of sound and the understanding of acoustics is the Jedi aspect of sound. These are also linked to our senses and vary due to the environment in the rooms, sound changes with humidity and temperature. The same rooms could produce very different sounds depending on the people involved and the mood created. A good example of this is to compare 1970s music recorded in Jamaica or Miami and comparing it to recordings made in New York or London.
RF: You refer to Little Roy as your “Dub Supervisor and Reggae Jedi.” That’s one hell of a cool title. Can you speak a little bit about your relationship with Little Roy—how you first connected, your work together, and your thoughts of what makes him a special artist?
PF: Firstly, I believe the bio you make reference to is at least 10 years old.
I first met Little Roy as he was recording for On U Sound. Adrian Sherwood used to use my recording studio at that time. Little Roy would use the studio and I used to record dub plates for him and I’d do the occasional mix. He would bring over artists such as Dennis Alcapone, Winston Francis and Fred Locks to name a few, natural vibes at the time, and we recorded some great music. The Battle for Seattle album actually ruined our relationship in the end. I turned down Eric Clapton when he showed interest in doing guitar solos on the album and all hell broke loose. It started at the famous 100 Club in London when we put on an album launch (which was sponsored by Converse). Unfortunately, the musicians and myself saw very little of the money, so I had no other choice but to bail on the promo. After that, I took no further part in the project as I was aware of musicians being underpaid and treated unfairly for their great works. It reminded me of something Don Letts once said to me: “Some are more bread than dread,” and it took me a minute to understand his point. No hard feelings, these are the choices we make in life.
RF: I read that your earliest introduction to reggae came during your youth when a friend’s mother had inherited a record collection from an old Rasta boyfriend and the first records you had heard were Garvey’s Ghost by Burning Spear and The Same Song by Israel Vibration, which happens to be one of my all-time favorites. What about the music attracted you? Was it instant love, or did it take a while to grow on you?
PF: I love all music with a good bass line and dub blew my mind. At the time, the instrumental and atmospheric aspect of it appealed to me. I still remember being in class with my friend telling me he had found the records and there was no vocals on them and I was intrigued. In the end, I was very lucky to start with such a good selection of records and it set a standard that was often hard to beat. The dub version of The Same Song album, which is mixed by Fatman, is still one of my favorite dub albums of all time.
RF: With reggae, there is so much culture behind and intertwined with the music, culture that is essential to understand to forge a career in this genre. How did you learn about the history and culture of the music from your earliest introduction as a teenager to your days cutting records with legendary Jamaican singers? Did you have a mentor, or were there several people and/or experiences that you learned from?
PF: I left school at 17 and started working in recording studios in London. Very quickly I got involved as I found myself living in west London in a Jamaican and Irish neighborhood, working in Rebel MC’s recording studio where the Ragga Twins and Tenor Fly would come to voice and hang out. This is where the whole jungle music thing kind of started, in the 8 track demo studio in the basement, on long night sessions where we would sample old dub records for the bass-lines and speed up drum breaks taken from 70s funk records. This was in the early 90s, so hip-hop was a big influence on me. Hearing the breaks used in these tracks led me to find the original funk records. On the weekends via the sound systems and on the pirate radio I would hear killer reggae tunes and I would start digging the musical vibes. Reggae records were cheap at the time and I quickly learned that the records that had the centre/title scratched out were the best. I ended up with 100s of 45 records like this and I had no idea of knowing what the song was called or who the artist was until I put them on the deck.
RF: Focusing on the album we’re highlighting, Battle For Seattle, an album of Nirvana covers, how did the idea for this come about? At first consideration, it seems like such a stretch, yet the album pulls it off so beautifully. What were your connections to the grunge scene back in the 90s? Were you only a fan, or did you work professionally within the genre in any capacity?
PF: I saw Nirvana live by accident on their first tour at the Astoria in London and the show was heavy and crazy. I was 16 years old. I never liked the records as much when I’d hear them on the radio, but when I heard them live and raw first, nothing could beat that. Fast-forward years later and I heard the MTV unplugged album in a shopping mall and it got me thinking about it. I later mentioned it to the Mutant Hi-Fi (surf ska artist from UK) and he was very excited and the rest just fell into place.
RF: Did you set out with a specific tone or vibe in mind, or did you have any production goals from the get-go?
PF: Actually, my vision was for more of a dub feeling in the mix but the record company ARK disagreed, in the end, making me keep it light & straight. The original mixes I did were superior and more cosmic. However, the executives had dollar signs in their eyes due to the endorsement of Nirvana and the media interest and they were thinking that radio wouldn’t get behind a dub sound. As I wanted to move on, regrettably I kept to their wishes.
RF: How did you select Little Roy as the singer? Had Little Roy had any previous exposure to or opinion of Nirvana before agreeing to do the project?
PF: When I realized the connection between Kurt and Little Roy (in the sense of natural mid-range distortion they both share in the vocal timbre) it all became quite clear to me. Little Roy had never heard of Nirvana at the time but he was enjoying a revival of sorts so he saw the potential in reaching a new audience.
RF: How did you select the songs to be featured on the album?
PF: I was conscious of Little Roy’s Rastafarian beliefs and roots heritage, so as a Rasta singer doing over Nirvana songs, we tried to find a balance where the lyrics could be suitable for him to sing. After that, it’s a question of finding the songs that could be translated into reggae. Often, the unexpected is best.
I have to credit the Mutant Hi-Fi for the arrangements and his grunge-to-reggae conversion skills.
RF: Did you and/or Little Roy have any favorite songs on the completed album?
PF: Little Roy really got into the project and I seem to remember him liking “Lithium” and “Come As You Are.”
RF: I read that Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic “expressed their appreciation” for the record. That’s pretty rad. Could you expand on that at all?
PF: I was pleased to hear that at the time. I have always found people love hearing reggae versions of their songs.
Unfortunately, it had a negative effect in the end as the label had dollar signs in their eyes and it all turned very commercial. I remember feeling bad about what I had done. As far as I knew, that was exactly what Kurt disliked about the music business.
RF: Shifting gears back to your career in general, “After 20 years of making records and not getting paid any royalties I figured it was finally time to set up my own label. Tropical Dope will look after its artists and producers.” Artists getting ripped off has long been a theme of the music industry, particularly in reggae music. Rootfire has created the Rootfire Cooperative, where we give interest-free loans as well as label services to reggae artists to help them make and market their albums. Essentially, in addition to promoting the music, we want to support the actual creation of the music. What are your thoughts on this initiative?
PF: Sounds good to me as the reggae music fan base is huge and worldwide yet reggae artists find it very hard to get the backing they need to make good records and promote themselves professionally. The internet has helped to link fans and artists so it must start from there. I wish Rootfire success.
RF: What’s on the docket for Prince Fatty? Any projects in the works that you’re excited to get the word out about?
PF: Currently I am on tour in Brazil and promoting an album I produced called the Rolê of Monkey Man. This album features Horseman, Earl 16, Tippa Irie and my new singer Shniece McMenamin with Sao Paulo’s best MC, Monkey Jhayam. He writes conscious lyrics with rub-a-dub vibe.
I have also just finished mixing my next album called Prince Fatty In the Vipers Shadow featuring many veteran Jamaican artists. I love the music and vibes here in Brazil so I plan to come back next year and record more music with Brazilian artists.
Prince Fatty’s latest production release The Rolê of Monkey Man is now available world-wide.
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