Contrast: “Biddy-biidy bong-bong, biddy bong-bong, biddy bong-bong, biddy men. Bong bong, biddy bong-bong, biddy bong-gong, biddy geng, biddah-men ahwooy biddy-men. Ehyaaah!” (Rough translation of intro to ‘Ganja Smuggling’, 1981)
With: “Deh was a man ‘oose name was Hih-Hitler, ‘im jus’ go like ‘im superior, while other races ‘im say is inferior . . . Jah Jah know dat it was really true, ‘ow Hitler ‘im kill millions of Jews. 200 thousan’ Polish children ‘e did kidnap, and they did not come back. All night all day long he provoke, ‘e use some of them skin and turn to soap. Remember dis is ‘istory and it ain’t no joke” (‘SS Nazi’, forthcoming).
And: You glean an idea of the stylistic breadth of the Jamaican singer under your eyes – concerns from unadulterated doggerel to “lyrics which make man know ‘imself”.
The person in question is Eek-A-Mouse, a name which by any standards displays a fine appreciation of absurdity, especially in view of the fact that Mouse wouldn’t need a ladder to take up first floor voyeurism. Tall seems such a short, stumpy word to describe his stature.
The world’s biggest rodent laughs crazily, something he does often, displaying a breezy gap between his upper incisors. The sort of gap you could spit a waterfall through.
“I used to bet on ‘orseracing, you know?” His voice scatters around the hazily out of order service flat he’s ensconced in a couple of waves away from the gaudy throwback of Portobello Road.
“All the while an’ ting there was a ‘orse named Eek-A-Mouse that used to run inna Jamaica. When I back the ‘orse it always lose. But one day I did not bet on the ‘orse and it ‘ave won and pay out a lot of money. Me friend dem thought that I catch the ‘orse. When I tell them ‘No’, they say ‘Chaaa! You really is an Eek-A-Mouse’. It came about like that . . . Some people feel that the name is for a short person. But I’m tall, you know? Six feet six inches above sea level. Yeah, huh-huh-huh!”
The chuckling rodent stoops down to play a while with Shaka, the young daughter of Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes, owner of Volcano records and – going by sleeve credits – currently Jamaica’s most successful producer.
Shaka, dressed in a Hatton Garden gathering of jewellery and looking like a line out of Mouse’s ‘Modelling Queen’, obviously enjoys the lanky man’s company. He has a natural affinity with kids, something I notice during our several meetings. No doubt this has something to do with his own pressurised upbringing . . . which follows shortly. . .
‘Modelling Queen’, a live-in-the-dancehall version of which has just emerged on the ‘DeeJay Explosion’ album via American label Heartbeat, is just one of a litter of hits which have tripped up the roots public’s imagination.
You see, prior to the recent outbreak of fever for Volcano/Greensleeves fellowman Yellowman, the rodent was – to mix metaphors – king rat in the Isle of Springs as can be judged from his spot with the Wailers on the ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ album – one of the few gems glittering in an otherwise dull package.
The song he performs on ‘Sunsplash’ is ‘Wa Do Dem’, a bendy blend of unique scat and idiosyncratic singing welding to offbeat lyrical contempt. One of the monsterpieces of 1981 when he recorded it with the omnipresent Radix band. ‘Wa Do Dem’ was Mouse’s first major success and glued itself to the zenith of the reggae charts, both here and in JA, for a period that seemed like forever.
As the vocal imitators began to breed in a frenzy spurred on by the cloying aroma of a money spinning formula, an LP also entitled ‘Wa Do Dem’ surfaced on Greensleeves in January followed by another, ‘Skidip’, in August.
Assessed by our own Michael Roots to be one of the sparklers of the year, ‘Skidip’ scuttled to number 61 in the national charts, outselling the label’s two baaad DJs, Eastwood and Saint, in the process.
However, some of most prime rodent droppings are to be discovered on pre: ‘Assassinator’ (56 Hope Road) and ‘For Hire And Removal’ (Volcano) to pick a crafty couple at random.
You can always tell when you enter the abode of an artist who has just arrived from Jamaica. You walk through the door, shake hands, and shortly thereafter your armpits turn into swimming pools of sweat as the cranked up to lethal heating hits.
Today the perspiration point is further aggravated by the number of people breathing in on the interview. Mouse offers to conduct the proceedings in private, but what the hell, the more involved the better as far as I’m concerned.
And more there certainly are. Apart from Shaka and Junjo, stable mate DJs the amiable ranking Trevor and the petulant Billy Boyo are among the people who’ve accompanied Mouse on his first trip to England en route to do some gigs in California.
Billy especially seems an odd character incorporating a permanently zonked 13 year old tetchy mentality in an 11 year old body. He doesn’t say much, just slouches on the couch, a blood red stare emanating from his bugged out eyes. A classic subject for child psychology is our Billy.
No wonder his last paean was to Janet Sinclair, the agony columnist of the Jamaican Gleaner! ‘One Spliff A Day’ is his theme tune. It’s definitely an underestimation, I reckon he stops counting after breakfast.
In between bursting into song, posing for photographs with unselfconsciousness, playing some stunning as yet unreleased songs – ‘SS Nazi’ – being one of many – and jumping up to do the odd skank step, the curly whiskered rodent holds forth. Since this is his first brush with the British music press, Mouse also records the proceedings (as a memento?!?). here’s an abridged report.
Your real name is Ripton Hylton and you come from Jones Town (described as “one of the first class ghettoes of the island” by Bob West from Zion Gate on the sleeve notes of ‘Bubble Yu Hip’ – the ‘Skidup’ import version)?
“Yeah. Kingston 10.”
That’s as much as I know. Tell me how you got involved in music?
“Well, from when I was a kid, I loved singig all the times, even when I was going to primary school. . . In 1974 was the first time I went to record. . . I cut two singles, ‘My Father’s Land’ and ‘Creation’. In those times I wasn’t singing in the Eek-A-Mouse style. Them was on the Eek-A-Mouse label but I sing as Ripton Hylton.
“So I jus’ say ‘Chuuuh! I got to find a style’. So I stop from 1974 until 1981 (when he was at secondary school). Then I met producer Junjo Lawes an’ ting. . . an’ I record this one called ‘Wa Do Dem’. It patois now, saying ‘what’s the matter with them?’”
‘Wa Do Dem’ had strange lyrics. Is it a true story?
“Yeah, mon! Ca’ my girl is short, four feet eleven, and every time we walk on the road people always jeer us, you know, ‘He’s too tall and she’s too short’. . . Reality, mon.”
So how did you develop that style? ‘Wa Do Dem’ is often seen as the first example of singjay.
“In London they say that I singjay. But I no singjay, nor toast nor deejay. I’m just singing and when I stop singing the lyrics I just slurring. . . The Eek-A-Mouse style now, well sometimes I go all the movie, you know? An’ I hear the Japanese man, the Chinese man, African, all kinda people, de white man dem, making a sound. So me just find a sound too . . .
“But at the same time now, I was a singer at a sound system. Beca’ in Jamaica for an artist to get famous yuh have fe hold the microphone at some sound business that going round.”
So what sounds did you work with?
“Well, uh, all kinda sound. Sound name Pappa Root, Gemini, Black Ark, Jah Life. . . Black Scorpion, Virgo, you know?. . .”
On the ‘Dee-jay Explosion’ album on your track you say something to the effect “Eek-A-Mouse inna de dance hall legal now”. And according to the sleeve notes you were arrested as you were about to take the microphone on the first night of recording. What was all that about?
“Well, dat’s just a minor happening an’ ting. A mix-up ting. I accidently break a bar (car?) glass an’ ting.”
It says it was due to a dispute between you and a producer?
“Yeah, but a cool profile now, you know? We ‘ad a small dispute but everything upfront now ca’ me an’ the producer is upfront. . .”
Which particular producer?
(Mmmm, no wonder Mouse doesn’t want to expand with the man in question next door in the bedroom.) How personal are the majority of your songs? Are they slices of your life?
“Yeah, mon. Part of my life and part of my bredren life. Ca’ I have a tune ‘For Hire And Removal’ Henry Lawes released up her. It go ‘Me momma, me momma… Jah know she grow me without a poppa. . . Me nly have one big sister and dem kill me breddah. Eeeyah! They say ‘im fight black power. . . Me live in area a no residential. Pure old car some of them marked For Hire And Removal.’
“Ca’ in a ghetto places you no see fancy cars inna Jamaica. Though in the ghetto area you some trucks marked For Hire And Removal. Beca’ every day we try to move out of poverty.”
So ‘Too Young To Understand’ (a plaintive lament concerning the young Mouse’s inability to comprehend the splitting up of his parents to be found on ‘Wa Do Dem’) is true as well?
“Yeah, when I was about six year old . . . The West Indian education system is not really up to standard, beac’ even when a man ‘im pass out of high school in Jamaica, ‘im ‘ave fe go abroad to some big university to study more. . . But differently, my father ‘im caught me gambling at that time. . . We wus gambling for ha’penny, playing Peter Pat, a three card game. An’ he caught me an’ call me in the house. Before dat ‘e ‘ad hardly come to the house cos him up and down ca’ ‘im a book man (student), very intellectual.
“But I don’t know why like ‘im don’t like me as a son, treat me hard as a youth, flog me rough. Sometime me mommy cry an’ ting. – I was afraid of him. I still love him ca’ ‘im brought me ‘pon earth, but ‘im supposed to owe me a lot of apology. . . Anyway ‘im call me in the house and say that I must spell a word name ‘Philosophy’. . . and I couldn’t spell it. So ‘in beat me up, box me in the mouth, and give me soap to eat, carbolic. . . Me mother say ‘im can’t do that, so ‘im decide to leave.
“So me mother alone she work at Kingston Public Hospital. . . the oldest hospital inna Jamaica right now, over 200 year old. An’ she cleaned mess an’ schooled me. Yeah, she work inna ward as a ward assistant. Sometimes a patient make urine or pass dem faeces and kyaan carry it out. An sometimes man mess on the floor and say ‘Wipe it up’. So, you know I just grow with the vibes that I must help her someday.”
Is that why you’ve got a sympathetic view towards women? Cos a lot of DJs (Billy Boyo, originator of some of the most misogynist lyrics around, begins to take interest) really degrade women?
“No, well women now. . . You see, why most men degrade women is just through one woman – Delilah. . . But if you hang(?) a woman that way, that mean you hang your mother that way too because she is a woman. And if she were Delilah she wouldn’t ‘ave bring you forth on the earth ca’ she feel a lot of pain.”
This is the somewhat convoluted reasoning behind why Mouse prefers to characterise females as virgin girls and modelling queens in his songs. Mind you, his concept of virginity is equally arcane. Every woman who he has not had a carnal relationship with is a virgin in Eek’s eyes regardless of whether she has 20 children and is 80 years old.
Although we don’t discuss it at the time, in retrospect this view strikes me as being an uncomfortable compromise between his obvious respect for women and the pull he must feel of the overtly sexist ideology running through most modern reggae propped up by religious interpretation. . . On the other hand, this piece of hack psychology might just be, uh, what’s the word. . . shit. On to different matters. . .
Errol Shorter (the DJ who toasted ‘Wild Inna 81 Style’ on the flip of ‘Wa Do Dem’) was killed a while back. Tell me about that?
“Yeah, Errol Shorter was a good friend of mine you know, ‘im also live in the area an’ ting. He died one morning ca’ he was where they (the police and army) claims is a wanted man called General Starky. . . But Errol was at the place sleeping. They’d been keeping a session an’ it finish. Some men decide fe go home and some decide to stay back. Well all those who stayed back died, about nine men including Errol Shorter. ‘Brains and marrow eat out’. That’s why I sing about ‘Operation Eradication’.”
‘Do You Remember’ (the current Greensleeves single) and ‘Tell Dem’ (Black and White) are a change for you, harder more social comment. Do you see that side of your act developing more in future?
“Yeah, it looks that way. Sometimes I sing a few songs pertaining to love and nature. . . ca’ you can’t leave out those two things. But me ‘ave fe sing sentiments of love and nature , beca’ some people just sing ‘I love you, I want you. I need you and come to me closely’. The whole world know about that.
“That music, ‘Do You Remember’, it show that ‘Do you remember the days of slavery’. It wasn’t black man alone who died through slavery. Though the Indian, the white man, the Chinese suffer as slaves, we the black men suffer the hardest way until today.”
With luck, not something that most reggae tours experience in this country, Mouse will return to warm up our dank shores with performances in January. Yellowman, who according to Junjo Lawes is being ripped off by pirating producers (hence the deluge of Yellow recording in the past two months), is also due at the same time.
If so it will be interesting to witness the showdown. Yellowman might still be the toast of the toasters, but in a different style altogether Mouse has a new armoury of wounding words.
“I want to say I hope to top the pop charts in due season, “ the rodent reasons. “Because I have the lyrics, the voice and the right music behind me.”