Eddy Grant has been a name in music for over 50 years, and is also a strong political voice, particularly with songs such as ‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’, considered by many as the anthem of the demise of Apartheid (it was even banned by the South African government), and of course, ‘Electric Avenue’, which became a smash hit around the world.
Written in response to the tensions over unemployment, racism and poverty across the UK, Electric Avenue is a real place, in Brixton, South London. It was the first market street to be lit by electricity, and is known for its significant Caribbean population. Although the song was released after the riots, it was Grant’s response, and the video is significant as being one of the very first by a black artist to be played on MTV.
Eddy Grant has lived in Barbados since 1982, where he operates Blue Wave Studios and his label, Ice Records. He’s joining United DJs, a new internet based radio station which will start on April 2, featuring legendary DJs from the glory days of Radio Luxembourg, Radio 1, and Capital, as well as new DJs from around the world. Lisa was honoured and touched (and quite frankly really rather fangirly) to have the chance to talk to Eddy Grant about his new venture, as well as his music and life.
EP: Hello Mr Eddy Grant! I’ve been looking forward to talking to you all week…you’re joining the likes of Tony Prince, Mike Read, and Dave Lee Travis on the new internet radio station, United DJs. When does that start?
EG: Well it actually started many years ago! I’ve known Mike, Dave and Tony for years – Mike I’ve known for nearly 50 years. And Tony was the pre-eminent disc jockey, the Royal Ruler of (Radio) Luxembourg, that’s where I got my dose of music across the airwaves, late at night before I went to sleep. And Dave, we were together in the early days when he hosted Beat Club. It’s almost a family, the 30-odd guys who constitute the team of United DJs, of which they’ve invited me to be a part. I see it not as a departure, I’ve done it before for the BBC World Service, I had a programme called ‘Rhythm and Roots’, which, like this will go, all across the world, only at that time, there was no internet functioning online radio. Today it’s kind of back to the future.
EP: It’s brilliant isn’t it! You’re going to be on Saturday nights, 10pm, UK time – do we have to listen to the show live or can we play it back?
EG: I think there’ll be the facility to play it back; not only that, but because it’s a 1-2 hour show, they’ll obviously repeat it for better times, for the United States, for example, what time it will be played will probably be early in the morning.
EP: That itself probably makes internet radio a whole lot better prospect! What can we expect to hear from you on your show? What are you going to be playing?
EG: I’ll be playing Ringbang. My show will be called ‘Eddy Grant’s Ringbang Time’. Over time I’ll be able to explain the historic elements of it, the philosophy behind Ringbang. It’s the way of the future. People don’t know what I’ve been doing outside of “Eddy Grant”. They don’t even know all the Eddy Grant records that I’ve made, let alone the records I’ve made for other people.
EG: They have no real crystalised view of the total person, so over a period of time, by listening to this programme, you’re not only hearing the occasional record, but you’re hearing a full picture – a historical picture as well – and a future looking picture. For example, today everyone’s talking about the Latin incursion into popular music. It’s so strange – I was doing it years ago, it was part of the Ringbang culture. It’s affected other genres. Like I say to my friends, all I have to do is put a Latin voice on top of this track and you’ve got the same thing that you’ve been doing for so long. All the music that they’re calling Grime today. It’s my tracks! It’s like the Rolling Stones listening to Chuck Berry – it’s wonderful! To put this in perspective, on the radio, first of all – I’ll play the music – not talk a lot of shite, just give the people the music, they’ll make up their minds about it, and over a period of time I’ll talk to them, and explain about it.
EP: I was reading about Ringbang, and there’s a nice quote from you in about 2000,
“Ringbang is the thing that makes the soul quiet”
EG: It’s true! It does make the soul quiet.
EP. It’s beautiful. Just changing the subject slightly, but I’m over here in London and we’ve had a lot of snow…
EG: …I’ve seen it!
EP: …so what’s the weather like over there in Barbados right now? I’m seriously jealous already because I know what you’re going to say…
EG: Shall I give you my weatherman opinion…looking to the east. Completely cloudless sky (EP: OH STOP IT). The sun is shining across the east, and looking to the west, I’m sure by 6 o’clock our time it’ll be an almost cloudless sky. A puff of cloud here and there. It’s going to be the most beautiful sunset so I shall run off to the west today and see it! It is an especially beautiful day.
EP: I’ve looked at photos of your studio, and oh my goodness….why would anyone want to record anywhere else – hang on – why would you RECORD when you’re there, because you’d be by the pool, or down the beach…
EG: That’s the beauty of it though. This is a magical place. People come here and behave totally differently to how they’ve behaved all their lives. Why? Only God knows. People come here to make a record, and they will go surfing in the morning, eat something, and then work all through the night. The nights are special here. It’s a well-balanced life. We’re not in town here, we’re in the cane fields.
EP: I can see it would be really good for creativity, because you’d be completely free of city distractions. So – do you miss London at all?
EG: I’m asked that question so often! I must miss London, it’s different to Barbados, it’s different to the Caribbean. If London had weather like this, I’d never have come back to the Caribbean. The sun has an attraction for me – all my songs are sunshine and sun based, free and breezy. I miss London because it’s London. As a woman said to me one day when I was in Holland. She had the most beautiful flowers, and I asked if I could have some. She asked where I came from. I said I’m from the Caribbean. She said well, hasn’t the Caribbean beautiful flowers? And I said, well of course! She said, well you don’t bring flowers from there to here, so you don’t take flowers from here to there. She put it so nicely. I was a little miffed that I didn’t get the flowers, but I understand.
EP: HAHA!! But it’s true, every place has their own beautiful things, and we should appreciate that beauty.
So – do you prefer performing solo, or with a band, or do you prefer doing the behind the scenes stuff, like producing?
EG: I came into the studio, and I love to record; recording by its nature is forever; but I also like to play live. As far as making records is concerned, I’d just as easily make the records for myself as for other people. But definitely when I’m playing live, I want to have the best band in the world.
EP: There’s something about playing live isn’t there, the whole atmosphere, feedback from the audience…
EG: There is nothing quite like it, and if I was allowed, I’d be doing that all my life, but then I wouldn’t be spending so much time making records. It’s trying to achieve a balance in your life. You can’t do everything the time.
EP: We’ve already said that you grew up listening to Pirate Radio – what sort of music did you listen to growing up? Your Dad was in a band too, did that influence you too?
EG: My influences have been numerous. Starting from the Caribbean, primarily Mighty Sparrow and the occasional music from Latin America which surrounded our country (Guyana), and also listening to a lot of what came out of America, the flavour of that time. The real influences though were when I came to London, and I was open to Chuck Berry and later on James Brown.
EP: You learned a lot about the music business when you were with The Equals. Do you still put that to good use now in your career? What did you learn then that you use nowadays?
EG: Everything I’ve learned – sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. I’m an extremely trusting person and I learned to let people get on with their jobs, to be creative on my behalf. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. Nobody wins everything, or else Las Vegas wouldn’t exist! Simple as that!
EP: What’s been your favourite moment of your career so far? Can you actually pinpoint one moment, or has there been a series of moments, where you go, yeah that’s it?
EG: Let me tell you – because you can actually go and see it. Playing the Mandela birthday concert.There was a moment, because when I was assigned to a spot on the stage, with that white guy from South Africa (Kurt Darren) and there was a moment there something spoke to me, all these people here know you and know this song, and all these people want to play with you, just this song. And that moment you can see my whole body relax as I walked down the stage.
EP: Wow. That was amazing.
One of the questions I’ve been asked to ask you – did you like The Clash’s cover of The Equals’ song, ‘Police on My Back‘?
EG: I did! It’s one of the few covers that I really do like. They made an attempt, and it’s obviously really popular that a lot of people don’t know that I wrote it!
EP: I grew up in Australia, and of course I know Renée Geyer’s cover of ‘Say I Love You‘, and it’s completely different to your original…
EG: If you want to hear a completely different version of that song, it’s by a guy called Willie Colón with the Fania All-Stars. It’s very very beautiful. Renée’s version, different again, my version…they’ve been really good covers, and Renée’s producer was a very big fan of mine, also produced Bonnie Rait, I got to know them many years later when they came here, it’s nice when people try to do covers of your songs, it gives a different taste.
EP: If we were to rock down to Electric Avenue today – do you think it’s changed? The issues you addressed back then with the song, do you think it’s the same or have the problems moved elsewhere? Is it a case of more things change, the more they stay the same?
EG: People have been rocking down to Electric Avenue since the 17th century! It’s a song that’s timeless, because the problems remain the same, we go to the moon – we carry our problems with us, some ways it’s good, some ways it’s terrible. The song keeps on because the people keep on.
EP: I had no idea until I was researching it – I grew up with this song, it was huge in Australia. I never realised until now that it was your reaction to the Brixton Riots.
EG: Well the song actually predated them! I’m writing my autobiography, and in that I’ll recount the conversations that led up to the song, and so much of what I wrote in different songs – because ‘Electric Avenue’ became a worldwide smasheroo, people who don’t know, think that I came along and wrote this song, and that’s been my only commitment to world politics and the world situation. But I’ve always been there ticking along.
EP: I have one last question. I ask everyone I interview this. What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview but nobody ever does?
EG: I can tell you the reason that nobody ever does – it’s because nobody lives in you, so it’s very hard to ask that question. If they did live in you they would have questions of many magnitudes.
EP: But do you have a question?
EG: I answered and I was much more creative!
EP: You did and your answer was beautiful! (both laugh) Thank you very much for speaking to us Eddy Grant and have a lovely afternoon.
EG: Have a warm evening! Bye bye.
Find out more about Eddy Grant from his official website. United DJs will launch at 7am on April 2 with The Mike Read Breakfast Show. You can keep an eye out on them via their Twitter and Facebook pages.