Seb Carayol: I was hoping you’d be the right person when I email Anita Witter at the Domino League. Could have been a strange request.
Norris Regal: Well, she contacted me, and asked me if I used to do music business in the ’80s. I said, “How do you know that?” Nobody knew. She said some that guy had been asking if I was the same Norris McKenzie that used to be in the music business in the ’80s. I said “yes, that’s correct.”
When you did that song, was it your first and only song you put out?
Yes. The only one put out on official release. I did some other recordings but they were what we used to call dubplates. I knew a few sound systems and I did them for them in hopes to get a bit of recognition.
Were you in Birmingham back then?
Yes. Birmingham and in Rugby, ’cause I moved to Rugby. There was a sound called Leviticus, named after the book in the Bible, a sound called Champagne, I did some dubplates and some demos for them, really.
Did you start singing from a young age, or?
I used to go around with around system back in the day. You always needed someone to hold the microphone, someone to do the mixing, someone to do the selecting of music, and so I always used to be the one doing the microphone. The sound system was called Scientist, that was in Birmingham.
Was it related to the producer calling himself “Scientist UK”?
No, no. The guy you are thinking of is a producer, this was more of a young street level sound, should we say.
Were you born in the UK?
Yes, North London. Then I moved to Birmingham as a ten year old. Coming from a Jamaican background, obviously music is part of our culture, so there’s quite a strong connection to the original ska music, reggae music. By that time in the 80s naturally there was a mixture of Jamaican roots music, shall we say, and the English roots music starting to come out on the scene. You had bands like Aswad, Matumbi and Cimarons, Steel Pulse. All those bands because the elements of the roots music was really to talk about what’s happening at the time, and obviously the Jamaican roots music was to talk about what’s happening in Jamaica, so you found that a lot of English bands wanted to relate to what’s happening in England.
When was the first time you grabbed a mic with Scientist?
When I was a teenager. I couldn’t tell exactly what age, I was probably 16, 17. In those days, someone would hire a church hall, and you could string up your sound system and play till about 11 o clock at night. Teenage dances. Big sounds back in the day you had Coxsone, Quaker City, Mafia Tone, all those sounds –obviously we wanted to emulate them but on a smaller scale. That would be middle 70s -76, 77
Were you playing a lot of blues parties then?
Yeah, a few. But the more recognized sounds, they get those regular bookings. The small sounds, what you try to do is try to make a name so you have your competitions against other smaller sounds. You needed to have a mixture of everything, a good selector, someone who’s good at mixing, and someone who’s good at the microphone. Those days, they call it modern day rap but you have to do a lot of talking, sometimes over the dub sides of the records. So at school, I used to do a lot of poetry. So I found taking over the mic fairly easy cause sometimes you can recite some of your poetry.
Who were the selectors and mixers on this sound?
Oh gosh! Now you are testing me! I can’t remember some of the names to be honest. It’s been a while, you see?
Were you deejaying, or kind of singing in the same style you sing on Struggle?
I used to do more deejaying to be honest -the singing was more by chance. One day the selector put on some music, but there weren’t really heavy roots music, and it was more appropriate for singing. So I tried to sing rather than deejay, I found out that they could mix my voice quite good, and it didn’t sound too bad, that sort of made me think I could sing a bit.
What were some styles played? All reggae selection or some soul in the mix too?
It was mostly always reggae. With soul at the time you really didn’t need to do any rapping or so, because the beat was different, it was probably faster. So with the old style of reggae music, the beat was more steady, and slow, you could speed it up either with the mix or the type of deejaying you’d do. By riding the rhythm, people would know how to dance to the tunes because you’d find out they move more to your lyrics or the drum and bass.
What were some of your favorite versions to ride back in these days?
One of the songs that comes back to memory it was a song called Hard Not To Love You I think it was called, and I changed it up to Go Back Home to Zion.
Oh, you were doing roots and culture back then?
Yeah. If I’m honest, that was what I was into at the time. In the ’70s as a teenager, there was a lot happening in England and they came out with these things called “Sus laws” so you found that if you went out to parties and blues and you are coming back late at night, police sometimes would stop you, they had the right to search you on the spot. “Sus” was for “suspect”. Because of that, a high percentage of Black teenagers would be stopped on these Sus Laws.
It must have been pretty heavy in the UK in these times, right?
Well it always is, isn’t it? Especially when you are the minority. It might be the same for anyone. But you can only talk about your own circumstances really. I mean, we used to watch things on the television about in America and they used to go through some serious things you know, but we had our own problems over here I must admit, I’m sure France was about the same.
From there, deejaying that sound, what kind of dubplates did you record, and for who?
Those were just really for the sound, they were really basic. The lyrics would have more to do with the sound system to say your sound was better that the other. But it was good practice, teaching yourself about the trade. That’s how you learn.
From there, how did Struggle happen?
I went to a singing competition, a local one in Birmingham. And I got through to the semi-final. I won the heat, went to the semi-final. I can’t remember exactly, but I didn’t go to the final anyway. But I met some of the judges, and I don’t know if you remember a singer called Carol Thompson?
Yeah, she wrote that song Babylon Walls for Delroy Pinnock, yeah?
Yeah! One of its producers was one of the judges, so I took the liberty of doing a tape cassette with a couple of tracks on, of me singing over the sound system, and when I went to the final I managed to talk to this producer guy, and said to him, look, I’ve got this tape, and I’d appreciate if you could quickly listen to some of it, and tell me what you think and so on. We were behind stage and found a cassette player, and we played some of it and he said to me, ‘who’s the guy singing?’ And I said, “Actually, it’s me.” He said, “why didn’t come into the singing competition? Why aren’t you here in the final?” I said I got knocked out in the semi-final –there’s a little story to that.
But anyway, h asked if I had more songs. I fast forwarded to another song. He said, “who’s singing this?” I said, “it’s me again.” He added that I would have won the contest but I told him that at the moment I needed some advice on this tape. He gave me his phone number and it turns out that after when he went back to London, he was dealing with a record label called S&G records.
I phoned him up one day, and he told me he had some other projects coming up with Delroy Pinnock, Errol Bellott, and he mentioned a few others. He knew that I wrote my own songs so he sent me a tape of riddim tracks. I had never done it that way but I said I’d give it a go. He did it, I played the track a couple times.
Anyway, to be honest, when I spoke to him on the phone he said, “Do you think you can write a love song to it?” I said, “Yeah… yeah, but I don’t thinks it’s a love song music.” So, I totally ignored what he said, and I wrote what was hitting me at the time. And the vibes at the time, to me, was basically struggle. It fitted the riddim, also at the time I was probably going through one or two things, so that’s where those lyrics came from. When I sent him down the tape he said, “Yeah, I like it, but it’s not what I did ask you for.” I said that to me, it was just a struggle tune, man.
Then obviously, cut a long story short, the next time he contacted me, he said, that there was another guy who’d done something with this tune and that it was the version they were going for. I asked him if he had anything more, because I’m thinking to myself that I probably messed up on this one. Anyway, in the meantime, the guy who had organized the singing competition heard that I was in contact with this producer. So he contacted me now cause he said he always wanted to contact this producer to work with him.
What was his name? The guy organizing the singing contest.
His name was Cecil Morris. In Birmingham, he used to have a couple record shops and run a couple pirate radio stations. He’s been and out the business in various capacities. Now he’s thinking I could be the link for him with these guys. I told Cecil about my non-track for them, so he said to me, “Here’s what we can do : we can drop it properly (remember, this was on cassette), do it with a band, and take it up from there.” I agreed, and it went from there.
Part II coming next week! Hold tight…
(Special thanks to John Eden for the info about Scientist sound.)